Finally the countdown to our trip had ended and we were ready to head off to Heathrow after a last minute dash to finish my packing. Having spent quite a few months in China a few years ago I was excited and curious to see the similarities and differences between the countries, particularly how Tokyo compared to Beijing. I was daydreaming of Nintendo, neon signs and mad crowds as we hopped into the car.
I was also looking forward to sampling the ever-growing list of food I had compiled on my list after researching online. One of my initial concerns about Japan as a destination was food. While not exactly a fussy eater, I have a weird phobia of seafood and fish in general and before I realised the sheer variety available I had visions of living off of junk food and bland pasta dishes. Thankfully this wasn’t to be the case and I loved all the food I was to try over the next two weeks.
The drive to the airport was fairly quick and uneventful, and after dropping the car off we were whizzed to Terminal 5. Chris and I can both find our way around T5 with our eyes closed due to frequently flying out of there with BA for work, so even I was restrained with shopping there and only bought a few books to keep me entertained for the train journeys. We both headed to Pret to grab sandwiches to take on the plane with us.
The flight was fine, no upgrades unfortunately, and the map showed we spent at least three quarters of the journey navigating across Russia – it’s crazy to think all those hours we were just crossing a single country. We weighed up time versus money for this trip, comparing the Qatar airfare at around £500 to the BA direct airfare at £820, and even though the connection was actually fairly quick we took the fastest option.
I struggled a lot with the overnight flight in Economy, I just can’t sleep in those seats! I tossed and turned all over the place but couldn’t get comfortable, so resigned myself to the fact I would be a zombie the following day. It was a difficult time as it was, we were due to arrive in Japan at 9am (6pm UK time) and then had to stay up until a reasonable hour there – so basically an all nighter on the first day, and I’m someone who needs their sleep!
The plane food was actually better than I expected which softened the blow ever so slightly (although I try to be monogamous to British Airways, I generally don’t rate their food). The English breakfast had flavour with the eggs not tasting like soggy cardboard and the sausage resembling actual meat! Impressive indeed. I spent the remainder of the time watching the “Great British Bake Off”, my personal TV show of choice whilst on an aeroplane. I managed to blitz through half the series in the air, and had the pleasure of witnessing the controversial “Baked Alaska” episode at 40,000 feet. For anyone who cares, I am in the Team Iain camp.
I landed feeling how I imagine someone on a comedown might feel, and drifted through security in a somewhat dazzled state of mind. So when Chris seemed to take forever to emerge behind me from the security desk, I presumed he must have overtaken me and headed to the luggage conveyor belt. Amongst the sea of faces I didn’t clock anyone familiar, and being in Tokyo there was some fairly speedy wi-fi, so I sent him an iMessage.
It turned out he had been whisked away to a room somewhere for “further questions”; he must have one of those faces! I decided to collect our bags in the meantime and before long the powers that be had decided he was no longer a risk and he appeared beside me. We attempted to locate the NEX ticket machines, but in my tired state the queue up counter seemed like the logical easier option.
Our train was along after a short wait at the platform, during which we noticed how meticulously clean the area was. You could have eaten a meal off those floors! The train to Shinjuku was around an hour and a half, and I sat at the window peering out at all the sites on the way. Chris was “resting his eyes” and enjoying the legroom. It was interesting to see all the different Japanese houses and men working in the fields with little triangular cone hats on.
We pulled into Shinjuku, a crazy whirlwind of platforms, people and noise. I had read on Tripadvisor the most logical way to our hotel, Sunroute Plaza, and tried to remember the route in my head. We found the escalator was running in the opposite direction only, so decided to suck it up and haul our suitcases up the stairs. I guess it balanced out the fact we had been sat down for over twelve hours straight.
We emerged out into the chaos that was Shinjuku on a Saturday afternoon. It was a simple walk to the hotel, however we had to navigate around groups of frenzied shoppers, tourists with their heads in the sky and the occasional little kid who would knock into one of the suitcases and cause it to go veering off path. We had arrived in Shinjuku and it was exactly what I’d imagined! I couldn’t wait for the evening to see it in its neon-filled glory.
Approaching the hotel we spied a selection of vending machines at the ready, Chris had to do it and grab something for the sheer novelty of it, and we headed inside. At the check-in desk we lucked out, as our room was ready early, which meant we could check in at around 11am instead of chucking the bags somewhere and returning at 2pm. We popped up to the room to get changed quickly, before heading back out to explore. The room was perfectly adequate, no real frills but the Japanese techno-toilets were enough of a frill for us!
Our view was of a multitude of buildings and a crossing below. Not the best but I did find myself peering out to people watch from time to time. The room was small as we expected, but for the price we paid in such a central part of Tokyo it was a very good deal.
Heading out to explore Tokyo for the first time, we decided to stay fairly local and found ourselves in Takashimaya on the quest to find somewhere to eat. I had compiled more or less my own guidebook, which told me there was a Katsukura in the shopping mall. (Although, shamefully, I had started to memorise most of my notes by heart anyway, being the obsessive travel planner that I am).
There was a short queue and before long we were greeted and shown to a table by the window. Katsukura was quite a funky place and we enjoyed grinding the paste ourselves whilst watching the chefs at work in the kitchen. We had an abundance of bowls on the table, and I even managed to get Chris to try the tofu, even though he pulled a face like he had just sucked on a lemon.
The tonkatsu was tasty and I was glad our first meal had been a Japanese one; my only complaint would be that I wish we’d opted for the version without the fat, as there wasn’t a lot of meat to go around. (It didn’t help that we shared the order because I wasn’t feeling too hungry, but of course once the food came, much to Chris’ dismay I was suddenly starving!).
After our feed we explored the mall a bit more, and loaded up on yen at an ATM by Tokyu Hands. It didn’t look like it was going to accept foreign cards but I think it just hadn’t woken up yet, as after some whirring and buzzing we got our money. It seemed only right that we venture in to explore Tokyu Hands as I had heard it was a bigger and better version of Loft. I enjoyed browsing the top floor but overall it didn’t thrill me.
Trying to get our bearings, we started strolling around the streets without much of a plan, stopping into 7eleven for some snacks for the room. We walked past Seria which I had heard described as a “sophisticated yen store”, although nothing took my fancy there, and I was to find out I preferred Daiso better. My eyes were suffering a bit and I needed to have a bit of a rest so we stopped off back at the room where Chris allowed me a one hour power nap. One hour, seriously? I woke up begrudgingly to him poking me in the side like a kid who needed some attention.
By now it was dark outside, so we dandered around taking in the neon overload around us. We decided to have dinner in Memory Lane, at a stall that had a rickety English menu and two cheery ladies cooking out front. It smelt like a mixture of a summer BBQ mixed with an Asian takeaway. We ordered a bunch of yakitori skewers including chicken meatballs, bacon wrapped leeks and grilled green chillis. The food was really good, and one of the cheapest meals of our entire trip. The restaurant was smaller than our bathroom at home, with a narrow bench sitting no more than seven people, and for everyone leaving and entering the restaurant, you had to shuffle about to fit everyone in which was quite funny, especially as we were the only westerners in there.
Tummies filled we set out to explore the streets now that Saturday night was in full swing. We walked into Kabuchiko, which was a frenzied mix of music blasting and lights blinking. The robot restaurant was beside us, this was a real “Only in Japan” moment! We didn’t plan to venture in, but I’m sure it would have been entertaining! I was thrilled to spot a Don Quijote as I’d heard good things about the various bits to buy in there. It was rammed with teenagers buying wacky fancy dress outfits though so we decided to give it a miss for now.
It was getting later and we were really feeling it now, so we strolled back towards the hotel getting briefly distracted by an enormous arcade called “Game Station”. Back in the day I was a big fan of Nintendo, owning the DS with probably more than fifty games, so when I found a real life Mario Kart game with foot pedals, a steering wheel and vibrating chair we had to pause for a few games! Chris beat me at first but I soon got my mojo back and whipped him into shape. Our arcades at home are about as fun as spending the night in a festival toilet compared to this.
On our walk back we spied a few shops and restaurants I had read about and were finally starting to get our bearings in the area. Once in the room I couldn’t help but squeeze in another episode of The Great British Bake Off on my iPad, before drifting off to sleep after being awake for a very impressive 32 hours straight.