Thankfully I had no headache for day 2’s early rise, so took the opportunity to go for a walk whilst it was quiet. Even after one day I was definitely feeling more confident, so took the little back alleys around the local area. I have said it before and I will say it again, I love exploring in the early morning when the local people are going about their morning business. All those I passed were very friendly, despite the language barrier (including this lovely lady who was happy to pose for a photo).
I started back at the local temple (for the third time lol) and although it was nice to be able to take some photos without crowds of people, I was surprised by just how many people there were around at 6.30am! From the temple I found the lovely little Sumida Park along the river. Locals taking their dogs for a walk, old people doing their morning Taichi under the cherry blossom and of course social media influencers having their photos taken lol. Sadly, the sky was not blue but it was beautiful and peaceful amidst the Tokyo chaos.
From the peace of the park, I stumbled across a big super store called Don Quijote. Apparently, it’s well known for selling pretty much everything, including lots of flavours of Kit Kats. Now I will admit I went down a bit of a Kit Kat buying rabbit hole!
Now I do like a Kit Kat, the regular one, as well as the couple of different flavours that we have in New Zealand, but Japan takes Kit Kats to a whole other level. Apparently there have been over 300 seasonal and regional flavours of Kit Kats in Japan. The reason for it’s success is its like to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katus” which means “you will surely win” so they are often given as symbols of good luck. I was not entirely sure why I was buying them on day 2 of the trip as I would have to carry them for almost two weeks, but I was unsure if/when I would see the same flavours again – so I snapped up a box of Sake and the seasonal Sakura (cherry blossom) flavour of Strawberry cheesecake.
One of my favourite things about this early morning walk was the paintings on the shop shutters. Many were painted with Japanese designs and it was something you would not see later in the day when the shops were open.
After breakfast I met up with Suzanne and Ania (let’s just call them “the Irish” even though that is not entirely true) and we set out for a day of independent exploration in Tokyo. Our first stop being the Harajuku area which is known for its narrow shopping streets and Japanese “Harajuku” fashion.
Before braving Takeshita Street (the main shopping street) we headed to the beautiful Yoyogi Park to visit the Meiji Jungu, a Shinto shrine. Established in 1920, the shrine honours the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who are recognised for leading Japan through a rapid period of modernisation in the 19th century. After they passed away (in 1912 and 1914 respectively), the Japanese people wished to commemorate their “virtues”. With donations of trees from all over Japan, and hours of voluntary work, the manmade forest was created and the original shrine as built. As is already becoming a common story, the original building was destroyed in WWII bombing raids and was rebuilt in 1958. Thankfully the forest survives and is still thriving.
We took a beautiful walk through the forest, passed towering arches or Torii gates (in fact the biggest wooden Torii gate of its kind) and passed their stock of sacred sake (offered every year by Sake brewers to the enshrined deities) and into the Shrine itself. We were lucky enough to time our visit with a beautiful wedding ceremony in all their traditional finery through the grounds.
From the peace and quiet of the forest, we dove headfirst in to crowds of the shopping street, stopping briefly for a coffee and yummy Sakura themed cake (Japan does cakes well!) before making our way to the infamous Takeshita Street. It seemed everyone and their dog were also walking down this narrow 400 metre long street (including the Kardashian’s from reality TV fam), lined with cutesy clothes and shoe shops and cult food shops. There were long queues for things like Crepes and “Strawberry Fetish” (think “toffee strawberry” rather than “toffee apple”). The street was packed, but apparently it was not so bad! Sometimes, there are so many people it can come to a complete standstill!
As we walked further down the main road, the crowds and quirky shops turned into design stores and fancy buildings. We were looking for what was supposed to be a lovely garden and it was either closed or we completely missed it (or possibly both). Of course by now we were ready for a rest and some food and of course we could not find anywhere. And so we kept on walking and ended up back at Shibuya Crossing (where I had visited the afternoon before). It was here we finally ended up in what looked like a noddle restaurant, but it was actually a pasta place – I had lost the will to live at this point so was grateful for anything.
It seems that most restaurants/bars are not at street level, they are either down a narrow flight of stairs (as this restaurant was) or upstairs on various levels. It is hard to judge from the narrow street level door and signage if it is a “suitable” place so it is a bit of a gamble! Thankfully the Japanese Pasta place was great.
Energised from food I headed out solo to go to the KitKat shop (yes, I was on a mission to find more KitKats). Unfortunately turns out it was not a shop but a small stall in a department store that had lots of other sweet shops in it, but I got what I wanted which was another random selection of individual flavours such as Passionfruit, Ruby, white chocolate, Cassis etc.
Having made that detour, I had to change trains at Ueno Park station on the way back to Asakusa – and decided that it was worth a visit. The large park was once part of the Keneiji Temple, but after the temple was destroyed during the Boshin Civil War in 1868, the temple grounds were converted into a western style park. Today the park houses many museums, a zoo and is a famous spot in the city for cherry blossoms with more than 1000 trees lining the main pathway. Despite being past their prime, the trees were still lovely, particularly as it got dark and they were lit by lanterns hanging amongst the trees. The park was busy with tourists and locals alike, picnicing under the trees and eating food from the near by stalls and I was glad to have made the stop.
I could not resist another walk around my neighbour temple to get some more beautiful nighttime photos and by the time I made it back to the hotel, I had walked over 18km and my feet felt it! But before I could go to bed, I had to rearrange my bags and pack for 2 days in my day bag. As efficient as the train service is, there are two reasons why you don’t want to travel with large bags if you can avoid it.
Firstly, the trains often only stop for a short amount of time and transfers between trains can involve a fair amount of walking and stairs so it can be difficult if you, and others around are trying to manhandle large cases on and off the train (believe me, I saw people trying to do it and was grateful not to be one of them). Secondly, if you can manhandle your bag on to the train, there is very little storage for large bags. If it does not fit in the overhead rack, you may end up having to share your leg room with your bag!
Because of this, many hotels offer a luggage forwarding service that means to leave your bag, and it is delivered to you in a day or two, at you next main destination. For us, this meant that when we left Tokyo the next morning, we would not see out main luggage until we arrived in Kanazawa, in 3 days time. As long as you can plan in advance like we did, it definitely made our Japan Rail experience more enjoyable.
There was really so much more to see in Tokyo and 2 days is nowhere near enough, but, it was time to explore other parts of the country.