Back in my old life in London, I was fortunate enough to work with a client whom I was particularly fond of. When I bid a slightly tearful farewell to my company and jetted off to Kuala Lumpur, he kindly sent me an email promising that we were welcome to look him up in his native Tokyo should we ever come here. I’m not sure he expected me to take him up on it, but being a broke backpacker will do funny things to your sense of social propriety.
I’d expected perhaps a catch up over a bowl of ramen noodles, so we were delighted and surprised when we were promised a proper introduction to Tokyo. At 9am sharp, we were suited and booted in our best clothes (which, for me, consisted of a £5 pair of jeans, a t-shirt purchased from a Chiang Mai market and a pair of Toms which hadn’t quite shaken their fishy smell after the bus journey from hell) outside our 28-bed-dorm hostel, when our (extremely plush) taxi and tour guide turned up. It’s always good sign when your driver is dressed more smartly than you.
We were taken to the best spot in Tokyo to experience hanami (cherry blossom viewing) – Chidorigafuchi – a beautiful former moat of the Edo Castle. Now it plays host to scores of blossoms along the banks with only a few rowing boats to spoil the serenity. Along with scores of other sakura tourists, we strolled beneath the beautiful blooms enjoying their fleeting beauty and soft scent. Thankfully it was a weekday morning – apparently weekends are very busy here!
Next, we were taken to the Sky Tower. Although we had decided on a cheaper option for catching our view of Tokyo’s skyline it was still cool to see the building. Best of all, we were walking through the car park when I saw a giant woolley thing in a people-carrier. It was an alpaca! ALL days out should feature an alpaca in a car.
Next was lunch. As long as I live, I don’t think we will eat better food. We started with tofu (I don’t think I disgraced myself totally with the chopsticks), followed by sashimi presented so beautifully I didn’t want to start and ruin the plate.
Then followed shabu shabu – a beautiful copper urn of boiling water where you dunked delicious kobe beef for a moment until it was gently cooked. The dark pink beef was marbled with fat, and sliced so thinly it actually began to melt a little on the plate. I would never have expected such thin pieces of poached meat to have so much flavour, but it was rich and delicious – a must-try dish for any visit to Japan!
We finished with a noodle broth made from the shabu shabu urn, some delicate Japanese tea and a refreshing plum jelly dessert (Craig let the side down somewhat by having chocolate cake but given that this was equally delicious I can’t blame him too much).
Fuller than we’d ever been, and incredibly sad that the best meal we’d ever eat was over, we waddled back to the car and were taken to Tokyo’s oldest temple – the Sensō-ji shrine. The entrance to the temple is striking – a huge gate with a massive paper lantern swinging in the centre. Apparently it is painted to represent a thunderstorm.
We explored the temple grounds, which includes a five-story pagoda and an adjacent Shinto shrine – dedicated to the ancient Japanese practice of worshipping spirits which preceded Buddhism. Many Japanese today practice both shinto and Buddhism simultaneously.
We also got to see what are known as ema – little wooden plaques with prayers and wishes written on to them. In days gone by, worshippers would sacrifice horses to the temple in the hope that their prayers would be answered. Since horses are a little hard to come by in modern Tokyo, the practice has evolved to little wooden plaques bearing the image of a horse. We felt very lucky to be with a Japanese host who could explain these things to us.
Alas, our day with our lovely tour guide was drawing to a close and so we said a fond farewell as he dropped us in the Akibara district for a bit more arcade action. As well as arcades, Akibara is also home to other quirky Japanese activities, such as manga and maid cafes.
We spent a happy half hour browsing in a store which seemed to specialise in cosplay, which stands for costume play and is essentially a blend of role-play and fancy dress. Manga is a big influence, although some of the other costumes were a little… strange.
Next was a manga shop. Manga is possibly one of the most quintessential Japanese exports, and has stories set out in illustrated comic book format. It has a huge following in Japan and around the world – the store we stumbled into had thousands of publications! Different titles are aimed at different ages, and there is even, um, adult manga known as hentai which I strongly advise against googling at work. Or ever, if you are in any way related to me.
We were making our way over to the arcades when we got distracted by a kawaii (cute) girl holding an even more adorable rabbit. We’d loved the Catmosphere cat cafe in Chiang Mai, but apparently here rabbit cafes are a thing! We splashed out on half an hour at the cafe and spent it bothering bunnies before finally making it to the arcades. We’d been shown round Tokyo in luxurious comfort, eaten delicious food, cuddled bunnies AND seen an alpaca (still excited about the alpaca). Best. Day. Ever.
If you want to have the best day ever in Tokyo
- Lots of restaurants do Shabu Shabu in Tokyo. We ate at Zakuro, but there is a list of other recommendations here.
- The Sensō-ji shrine is free to visit. The nearest station is Asakusa (approx 600m).
- The Rabbit Cafe can be found here. We paid ¥1,100 each (about £6.50) for half an hour. That includes unlimited drinks although we were too busy playing with the rabbits to have more than one. Vegetable treats and camera fees cost extra (smart phones are fine).