Tokyo Part 2: A Blossom, a Boat and a Bike

My adventure to Ueno began with an overheard mention of the zoo over breakfast at the hostel. With nothing planned for the day, I joined my new friends Tom and Eloise for a trip to Ueno Park and it’s adjoining “zoological gardens” i.e. just your average zoo.

Ueno Park is one of the biggest parks in Tokyo. It’s a culture lovers paradise, heavy on the museum and temple front. Not super keen to see either, we decided to just wander around the park for a while, and discover what else it had to offer. Upon entering the park we were greeted with a nice surprise – cherry blossoms! Or were they plum blossoms? To be honest, we weren’t sure but these were the first blossoms of any kind that any of us had seen, and by the looks of the crowd, the first everyone else had seen too. We took a few commemorative photos and strolled down a lovely little passageway lined with the trees on either side. I can only imagine how gorgeous this area must look when all the trees are in full bloom.

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IMG_9906After wandering down the path and enjoying the excitement of spring, we spotted a large pond – with boats for hire! Our options were paddleboats in the shape of swans or old-school rowboats. Deciding the opportunity looked too fun to pass up, we opted for the more challenging option, a good old rowboat.

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Well, challenging was certainly right. Being a keen canoe enthusiast, it was only fitting that Eloise took the reigns (or in this case, oars) to commence our voyage around the pond. She did a stellar job, navigating us around the perimeter at a very, very safe and relaxing pace. Next up, it was my turn to captain the vessel. Terrified of capsizing, it took Eloise and I longer than I care to admit to change places within the boat, but after that ordeal was over, I actually didn’t do too bad! We only spun around in a circle for about ten minutes or so… and only once did I row us into a flock of seagulls (which proceeded to attack us). Perhaps sea-borne orienteering is my calling in life? I’ll have to remember to join the Navy when I get home.

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After our spontaneous water activities, we headed to Ueno Zoo. On the way, we stumbled across this cool shrine. With too many shrines in Tokyo for me to count, I unfortunately can’t even tell you what this one is called (I’m a shitty traveller, I know). But it looked pretty nice, so here’s some photos anyway.

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You can buy small wooden plaques to write prayers on and then hang them near the shrine.

After a peek around the shrine, we finally made it to the zoo. Turns out Ueno Zoo is the oldest zoo in Japan, built all the way back in 1892. Whilst it’s not a particularly large or entertaining zoo, we did get to see some interesting faunal friends. Like these guys:

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and this dude:

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After a few hours, zoo fatigue started to set in. We made our way back to the hostel and chilled out for the rest of the afternoon.  That night happened to be the last shift for Wataru, a staff member at the hostel. To celebrate, the rest of the hostel staff threw him a Takoyaki party and we were all invited! Takoyaki are small, octopus-filled balls made out of a batter, which are fried on a specially designed hot plate in the center of a table. They are then topped with fish flakes and nori, a slathering of special sauce and a generous dollop of Japanese mayo. This sort of tabletop cooking is very common in Japan and it makes for a very fun and social addition to parties.

Making takoyaki! (Sorry for the dodgy iPhone photo)
Making takoyaki! (Sorry for the dodgy iPhone photo)

So that night we made and ate tonnes of takoyaki, and drank enough sake and sochu to break down language barriers. While most of the party made its way to karaoke, I called it a night at the sensible time of 11pm.

The following day, I decided to explore Asakusa, the local area in which I was staying. It’s a fairly well known neighborhood due to it’s long history which is still visible in the architecture of many buildings, as well as the numerous temples dotted around the place. The whole area has a very peaceful vibe to it. Pot plants line the front of most houses, adding a bright, homely touch and giving the area a somewhat suburban feel, a feeling that’s difficult to find in a city as urbanized at Tokyo. An extremely popular mode of transport within Asakusa is bicycle, so I did as the locals do and rented a sweet set of wheels. For only 200 yen ($2) I had a bike all to myself for the whole day! It was at this point that I realised I probably hadn’t ridden a bike since around 2005, and whilst they say that you’ll never forget how to ride one, let me tell you, it happens.

Asakusa streets with SkyTree in the background.
Asakusa streets with SkyTree in the background.

I feel as though the bike should have came with flashing lights and a massive banner trailing from the rear reading “WARNING: WHITE GIRL ON A BICYCLE.” I just could not get my balance on the stupid thing! After nearly crashing into cars, people and other bikes in the busy areas I walked the bike down an empty side street where I could practice without almost killing anyone. It took me a good half hour to remember how to ride a bike – but oh my god, its so fun! Like seriously if you’re sitting at home right now, get out your dusty old bike and just take it for a spin around the block. You will be surprised at the goofy grin that appears on your face that you won’t be able to get rid of.

I rode around the streets of Asakusa, getting terribly lost and loving every minute of it. It’s a bit unnerving, riding a bike in Tokyo. There are no bike paths, and there doesn’t seem to be any rules about where you’re supposed to ride. People ride on both sides of the road, on the footpath, through traffic lights – anything goes! But somehow, just like Shibuya Crossing, it all works perfectly.

I eventually hunted down the Sensoji Temple, the biggest temple in Tokyo.

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I wandered around the temple area, filled with organised tour groups and couples snapping selfies and then headed down a long passageway lined with food stalls and souvenir shops on either side. Of course everything was insanely overpriced and the place itself was suffocatingly crowded, so I was out of there pretty quick and back on the bike.

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I found my way to Sumida River, which runs all the way through Tokyo and has a gorgeous view from all of the many bridges that cross it. I rode my bike up one side of the river and down the other, making the most of an amazing spring day.

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Learning to embrace the awkward solo traveller selfie.
Learning to embrace the awkward solo traveller selfie.

By late afternoon, I had total numb bum from sitting on the bike seat. (Why don’t they just make super cushiony comfy ones like seriously why????) So I returned the bike for a night of chilling out at the hostel complete with some yummy yakisoba and green tea. Am I turning Japanese yet?

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Tokyo Part 1: Shibuya and the Jukus

Ahhhh Tokyo, we meet again. It’s been over three years since the last time I battled my way through Tokyo’s crowds and I can definitely say it’s been good to be back. After spending seven hours on the ever so comfortable floor of Sapporo airport, waiting for the weather to clear up so my flight could finally take off, I arrived at Narita and was soon wrestling my giant backpack into the overheard racks of a crowded Tokyo train. The claustrophobic hustle and bustle of the city immediately set in as a harsh contrast to the beautiful and spacious outdoors that I had become so accustomed to in Niseko. With a whole nine days to explore this incredible place, I had a nice early night at my cozy hostel, ready for the following jam-packed day. First stop – Shinjuku! or should I say Shinjuku Station, which is basically a town in itself. Officially the busiest transport hub in the world, this place serves approximately 1,260,000,000 commuters annually. That’s about 3.5 million people every day! CRAZY. In addition to the swarms of people you have to dodge in order to make it out of here alive, you must also navigate your way to one of over 200 different exits out of the station. Luckily I spotted a sign pointing me to my destination, so getting out wasn’t too difficult, but it did take twenty minutes to get from the platform to the exit. I headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices to be whizzed up to the 45th floor (for free!) to take in the view.

That little white peak to the left is Mt Fuji!
Looking to the South. That little white peak to the left is Mt Fuji!
Looking to the North
Looking to the North.

From the Government building I walked through the quieter side of Shinjuku filled with parks and offices, to the absolutely insane side of Shinjuku filled with gazillions of people, stores, and restaurants. I found Shinjuku a little overwhelming to be honest. I didn’t enjoy the crowds and I really didn’t enjoy waiting in line for a coffee and a snack at a bakery for over half an hour. It might have just been the hunger talking though, because after I had a full tummy and a little rest, I had fun wandering through the department stores, looking at things I can’t afford and generally just taking in Shinjuku’s crazy vibe.

Shinjuku? More like Shin-koo-koo. AM I RIGHT?
Shinjuku? More like Shin-koo-koo. AM I RIGHT?

A short subway ride from Shinjuku lies Shibuya, a major shopping and entertainment district and home of the famous Shibuya Crossing. With huge TV screens and blinding neon lights everywhere you look, J-Pop blaring from all over the place, and people moving in every direction possible, its easy to see why Shibuya Crossing has become one of the most famous icons of Japan. The sheer energy of the place is everything you’d expect from Tokyo and it’s estimated that in peak periods, up to 2500 pedestrians cross the intersection at once. Despite the masses of people heading toward each other from four different directions, in true Tokyo style, there’s no collisions, no fuss and no punches thrown. It just flows. I’ll let this video demonstrate.

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Classic solo traveller selfie. Taken from Starbucks looking down at Shibuya Crossing.

Aside from the crossing there is plenty to see and do in Shibuya. I spent hours wandering the busy streets, checking out the abundance of shops from Uniqlo to Chanel and everything in between. Even though Shibuya is probably just as busy as Shinjuku, I somehow found it less stressful and slightly easier to get around.

Shibuya streets
Shibuya streets.

I had a particularly exciting time visiting the Disney store, getting a sneak peak into one of next week’s adventures. I also treated myself to a MASSIVE and DELICIOUS feast of ramen and gyouza at a vending machine restaurant. This was actually really cool. So out the front of the restaurant is a big vending machine looking thing with a menu on it and a button for each item on the menu. You decide what you’d like to eat, press the button, insert your money into the machine and you receive your change and a ticket. You then walk into the restaurant which is set out kind of like a Sushi Train, with all the action happening in the middle and the customers sitting around the outside at one long round bench. You hand one of the staff your ticket and they proceed to make you meal! Pretty cool really! I suppose the benefits are that all the cash handling is done by a machine, so the till is never out. And if you’re a foreigner it’s great because you don’t have to attempt to speak awful broken Japanese to anyone!

Was so hungry I had to eat before taking the photo. Only about $9 for all this amazing food!
Was so hungry I had to eat before taking the photo. Only about $9 for all this amazing food!

Oh, I should mention one more thing that happened in Shibuya. I split my jeans about 10 minutes after I got there and had to spend the rest of the night with my jacket tied around my waist. Looked real cute and not like a tourist at all…

After a busy day I headed back to the hostel for the night for some much needed R&R.

Shibuya Crossing by night.
Shibuya Crossing by night.

The following day it was time for the second “Juku” – Harajuku! Made famous by Gwen Stefani and her love for Harajuku girls, this place is the epicentre for youth fashion and subculture in Japan. When people talk about Harajuku, they are usually talking about Takeshita-dori, the crowded alleyway directly across from Harajuku Station. This street is home to plenty of food outlets such as a McDonald’s, three different crepe stands, kebab shops, sweets cafes and a plethora of boutiques stocking both cute and crazy clothing. It also serves as a catwalk for fashion forward, dress-up-playing teens.

"Harajuku Girls"
“Harajuku Girls”
In front of the famous Takeshita Street.
In front of the famous Takeshita Street.

Whilst Takeshita is worth a look around, my favourite part of Harajuku is the backstreets. If you walk all the way to the end of Takeshita, cross the road at the traffic lights and continue straight until you reach a T-section, you end up at a sunny little alley filled with second hand clothes stores. These stores source vintage clothes, accessories and knick-knacks from all over the world. Most things are surprisingly cheap, and even if you’re not looking to buy, rummaging through the racks of each store is a feast for the eyes if you’re at all into fashion or art.

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After a stroll down Harajuku’s backstreets I decided to check out the Meiji Shrine. I’m not really a huge fan of temples and shrines but seeing as I’m in Japan I thought I’d give it a go.

The Torii (gate) at the entrance to the shrine.
The Torii (gate) at the entrance to the Shrine.

The Shrine was constructed over six years from 1915 to 1921. It was then destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1958.

Wall of decorative Sake barrels donated to the Shrine.
Wall of decorative sake barrels donated to the Shrine.

Not sure what purpose these sake barrels serve, but they look great.

Kiyomasa's Well. Frequented by Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken during their lifetimes.
Kiyomasa’s Well. Frequented by Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken during their lifetimes.
Meiji Shrine.
Meiji Shrine.

Whilst I personally didn’t find this particular attraction very exhilarating, the Meiji Shrine and surrounding gardens are worth a visit, and are a welcome escape from the crazy city scenes that Tokyo is so famous for.

Stay tuned for adventures with new friends in Ueno and Asakusa!

The Season that Was…

It literally feels like yesterday that I waved goodbye to my family at Gold Coast airport, cried my way through security and boarded my bargain business class flight to Japan. November and December brought the excitement of the beginning of winter, dangerously fun season opening parties and my first white Christmas. January greeted us with 30 days of non-stop snow and peak season for the flood of tourists. The second half of February brought the mid-season blues, which saw me dying to just get on a plane and come home to the hot Brisbane sun. Then came sunny March which had me saying goodbye to a different friend every day and wishing the season would never end. Now that I’m sitting in Sapporo airport waiting for my flight to Tokyo, I honestly can’t believe that my first snow season is suddenly over.

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A beautiful blue-bird day at the top of triple-hooded!

Niseko 13/14 – where do I even begin? Four months of the glorious Mt. Yotei, too much gyouza, snowballs to the face, a few too many nights Full Strong, a lot of slipping over on ice, poorly articulated Japanese, a fascination with cheap fireworks, working two jobs, one toilet between 20 girls, a somewhat disgusting amount of scavenged pizza, fabulously performed karaoke, a few tree-to-head collisions, Seicomart’s famous egg sandwiches, one stolen jacket, countless laughs, endless fresh powder, and some incredible new friends.

POW POW POW!
POW POW POW!

Let’s face it, I probably didn’t get as much skiing in as I should have whilst living in the home of the world’s best powder snow, but hey that’s what happens when you wake up after a night out on the second day of the season with a fractured ankle and no recollection of how it happened. Oops. Besides my somewhat low number of days riding, I’ve still managed to experience some unbelievable skiing, including fresh tracks from the peak in knee deep pow, super fun untouched tree lines, blue-bird powder days and that one time I skiied into a shrub and got so stuck that I had to unclip and roll down the slope. Another Oops.

Andrea, Lisa, Me

Me, Kate, Jack, Tim

As a victim of the notoriously low ski resort minimum wage, I ended up working two jobs during the season. Luckily, I was able to score a job which allowed me to nurture my coffee addiction at the Rhythm coffee cart. I met tonnes of cool people working there, had heaps of fun doing something I honestly enjoy, and drank way too many coffees… and maybe ate a few too many of Minachan’s banana chocolate muffins as well. Ohhhh so oishii desu. But the job that brought me to this amazing part of the world was Niseko Pizza. Like any job, its had it’s fair share of ups and downs. Like trying to explain in broken Japanese to a very impatient man who speaks zero English that; “No we do not have a table for 16 available right now, it will be a two hour wait.” Or serving already super drunk groups of annoying Aussie guys who would like to order “six asayshees please mate.” And let’s not forget The Great Cheese Platter Incident of 2014. Language barriers, stupid customers and angry chefs aside, there’s no doubt that some of the funniest times I’ve had this season have been while slaving away for eight hundred yen per hour with the awesome Niseko Pizza crew.

Proud wearer of the idiot helmet.
Proud wearer of the idiot helmet.

“It’s not the place, it’s the people” is a gross cliche I’ve read far too often on travel blogs, but honestly it couldn’t be more accurate. Cheeseblockers, thanks a million for four months of priceless, amazing, hilarious memories. Coming to Niseko has proven to be the best decision I’ve ever made and its all because of you bunch of lunatics. I have so much love for you all and can’t wait until our paths cross again.

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Sayoonara beautiful Niseko! From here, it’s Tokyo time!

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