It’s Thursday morning, 9am. I’m sitting at the breakfast table, considering when next to blog while savouring some scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee. I get married in two days time and go on honeymoon the following day, so you see I’ve rather a lot I should be doing.
However I feel I’ve procrastinated enough over my second blog on Tokyo. Having arrived home nearly two weeks ago from that trip I thought I’d better get writing before it becomes another blurry, distant memory.
I think I’ll open by admitting I’m not much of a city lover. Noise, bright lights, hoardes of people seemingly always in a hurry, the dirty air, worship of consumerism. It’s like a concentrated rat race. There are some cities that, despite the last three sentences, I do love though. Vienna (my personal favourite), Edinburgh, Barcelona, York and Brussels spring to mind. London, on the other hand, I just don’t like it. So I was interested to see how Tokyo would fare, that iconic far-off city, the most populous metropolitan area in the world.
The sun most definitely had his hat on and there was hardly a cloud in the sky, which is quite something for a person that has grown up in the cool Scottish climate. The air was near saturated with humidity, skin struggling to breathe, the mercury was edging over 35C and the hot air was positively still.
I had arranged for a photographer, Aron Kremer of Genki Art Photography, to meet my fiancée and I in the lobby of our hotel at 9.45am. I found Aron with a simple Google search some months before travelling. It turned out that Aron is an American that has lived in Tokyo for 30 years and has his own photography business. I thought that was perfect because there would be someone that knew the city and no language barrier.
It might seem a bit narcissistic, but the thinking behind it was I wanted to arrange for some good quality photographs of us on our Japanese adventure in the weeks prior to our marriage. Images to look back on and treasure for years to come.
Think about it. The only other way to get a photograph of you together as a couple is to ask a random stranger. Whilst most people will be happy to oblige and not run off with your camera or smartphone, there is always the risk that they will. Even if they don’t you’re still at the mercy of whether or not they have the faintest idea how to compose a photograph.
Stepping outside the lobby of our hotel the beads of sweat formed on my forehead and forearms inside the space of a minute. We made our way to Shinjuku Gyoen Park by air conditioned taxi, at Aron’s suggestion.
Shinjuku Gyoen Park
Aron had suggested Shinjuku Gyoen Park, which was just a short walk from our hotel, and is probably the most beautiful park in Tokyo. We had a free reign of choosing where we wanted the shots taken, including the option of multiple points in the city, but we decided to stick with Shinjuku Gyoen Park and the immediate surrounding area.
Shinjuku Gyoen Park costs 200 JPY per person to enter. It’s definitely worth it. It’s a tranquil oasis in the heart of a buzzing city, a place where it’s possible to experience complete calm. There is an abundance of lush green, a Japanese Garden, an English Garden (which, bizarrely features a palm tree. Nothing says English Garden like a palm tree, eh?) and a few places to stop while walking round it to get a refreshing cold drink. The noise of the insects is also strikingly loud – as anyone who has ever visited Tokyo will attest.
We spent a couple of hours strolling around the park and really enjoyed it. Meanwhile Aron would ask us to stand or pose at certain places that he felt would offer the best shots. He became a bit of an informal tour guide for us, imparting some local knowledge. We felt quite comfortable and at ease with him. He told us about how the gambling at the amusements work, about how our hotel was actually close to the porn district (though he was quick to point out it’s actually a pretty safe area). He introduced us to Ramune (a lemon-lime Japanese soft drink usually only available in parks, sold in glass bottles and sealed using an actual marble) and we are glad he did! We’d never have bought it without his recommendation and it was a wonderfully refreshing drink. If you’re thinking 7UP, think similar but a bit more delicate and definitely more refreshing.
Following the park he suggested we head back towards Shinjuku for for a couple of city background shots.
A few hours after the shoot all the images taken were edited and available via dropbox online and he’d dropped a CD of the images into the reception at our hotel for us.
The cost for the two hour shoot was 17,000 JPY. When the time required to edit the photos is taken into consideration, I feel that’s actually pretty decent value for money.
The heat and humidity that day was very uncomfortable but it was an enjoyable and memorable experience, ensuring that we got those high quality photographs of our time in Tokyo to treasure.
Following the photo shoot we wandered into a little Spanish tapas bar for a couple of refreshments before dinner. No trip to Tokyo would be complete without visiting what I – and most other people – would call ‘unconventional’ restaurants. We visited two of them and thoroughly enjoyed them. It’s really difficult to get across just how unique, quirky and fun these places were.They really need to be experienced, but I’ll do my best.
One of the “Top 10 wackiest places to eat in Tokyo.” We found it by wandering past it, rather than through research. We actually visited here having returned from Hakone, but it didn’t fit in with that blog. It’s a bit like a cross between Disney’s Aladdin and rock music. You know, Arabian Rock. It’s situated close to Shinjuku station and entered via a stair case.
The first little room you enter is really small and dimly lit, except for a little gold lamp in the wall that you’re instructed to rub vigorously in order to gain entry.
Rubbing the lamp – quickly – causes a door to fly open and your hostess to appear in a puff of smoke. You’re then taken through, quite literally, an Aladdin’s cave to your table. There are plenty of little private dining areas and mock Egyptian type articles everywhere.
I won’t spoil the experience by saying too much, but the waiting staff double as actors/performers – depending on your choice of menu – and are summoned to your table when you want something by pressing a little button on an egg shaped thing. Speaking of eggs, there is a cover charge of 300 JPY per table. For that price you get a “golden egg” each. Essentially, a boiled egg painted gold.
The food itself was really good, though I’d be lying if I said we remembered what we had. As were the cocktails. They do a spectacular range of cocktails and the look on my fianceés face when they brought her an illuminated purple one was priceless. Yes, illuminated. One of the ice cubes had a tiny purple LED in it, which reflected light off the floating shimmering decorations on the top of the drink.
The best part of all was the desserts though, which were as amusing as they were more-ish. A mango cart being pulled by two unicorns? A chocolate pyramid with palm trees and ice cream? You have to love Japanese quirkiness.
If Arabian Rocks isn’t different enough for you, why not try eating in a Ninja restaurant? Another one of the “Top 10 wackiest places to eat in Tokyo”. To get to your table you have to go through “Ninja training”. I don’t want to give too much away and my words really couldn’t do the experience any justice anyway, but the entrance is great fun. The most unusual, unique and fun way I’ve ever been shown to a table in a restaurant.
By the time my fiancée and I arrived at our table we were grinning from ear to ear.
Like Arabian Rock the Ninja waiting staff also double as actors. I personally loved the enthusiasm and vigour with which they all shouted “irashai mase!” every time a new customer entered the premises. It was really loud!
There are a variety of menus that can be booked in advance by visiting the restaurants website here. Booking a table is highly recommended – but please note you only get the table for two hours, and they will politely ask you to leave after that time even if you’re still drinking. An online booking form and an email confirmation are all that is required for a table, and it can be booked in English.
We opted for the “tasting course” at a cost of 5,700 JPY per person. This got us seven small courses, which included one main dish.
One of the highlights was watching our waitress prepare and cook our pork soup at our table right in front our eyes using nothing other than a large bowl and big stone that had been pre-heated to 300C, while explaining everything that she was doing in English. Absolutely fantastic!
All of the courses were freshly prepared to a high standard and there was nothing put down before us we didn’t finish.
At the end of the meal came the best part. A ninja came over and performed ninja magic tricks at our table, our own private little show. The tricks, involving cards and coins, were absolutely fantastic. He was a very talented magician! I watched in disbelief as he placed a deck of cards in my fiancées hands, clicked his fingers and when they were opened again they’d changed to a piece of clear plastic! Truly memorable.
Afterwards, as we were shown out the restaurant our waitress shouted us as we began walking away and unveiled a banner in English (pictured). It was a nice touch and a great way to end a fantastic dining experience.
JJ Travel Tip: In Japan tipping at restaurants, or elsewhere, is not the done thing. If you try to tip they will try to give you it back because they don’t want it. Service charge is either included in the meal price or added to the bill before it’s given to you. If it’s the latter the menu will stipulate the amount, but it’s usually around 8%. Having asked for your bill you take it to the till, which is usually by the entrance, to pay on your way out. The waiting staff will not come to your table to collect payment and bring you any change.
Tokyo – Like or Dislike?
I actually enjoyed Tokyo. It is so different to Western cities, very clean with an apparently complete lack of ‘undesirables’ on the streets. The pollution was noticeable and everywhere was busy but much of it was so charming, different and the people very welcoming/polite that it was really enjoyable.
I couldn’t live there, but for a short break – definitely recommended.