Sunday, 30 October 2016
I chanced upon Tokyo Eye on youtube two years ago and have been watching the programme (now called Tokyo Eye 2020) for my travel research since then. Watching it in the gym while on the treadmill or elliptical trainer makes exercising less of a chore. I have learnt a lot about Tokyo from watching this programme and would urge you to watch them before your visit to this vibrant city to get some tips.
I learnt about the offer of a free walking tour guided by a local volunteer from one of the episodes. Refer to the Tokyo Free Guide website on how you can engage the service of a free guide. This service is gaining popularity so do register your interest early. I wrote to request for a free local guide about three weeks before my trip but only heard from them about a week after I made my request. The email from the organisation told me that a guide had been appointed and that I would receive an email from her soon and to which I should reply within 2 days. I was expecting the guide’s email to arrive soon after and kept checking my inbox for her mail but it didn’t appear. I thought that was unusual and suspected that her email might have landed in my junk box. And true enough, I found her email there. You can read the testimonials of the guides on Tokyo Free Guide website. You are expected to pay the transport incurred by the guide during the course of the tour and also their meals. My guide, Akemi, asked me via emails what I would like to see and experience and she planned the trip according to my request and gave some suggestions too. I was really excited to meet her and could tell from her emails that she was a nice lady.
I had requested for Akemi to take us around Yanaka, an old neighbourhood that has survived the second world war and the great Kanto earthquake. It’s a great place to explore if you are on a quest for traditional Japan in Tokyo. You might want to reserve all your souvenir shopping here. I had read a lot about this neighbourhood from several websites and watched videos that people had posted on youtube but still I wanted a local to show me around.
Akemi met me at the hotel lobby and after an exchange of “hajimemashite”, she guided us to Shinjuku station (not using the underpass this time). The ride to Nippori station took less than half an hour and did not require any switches between lines. Along the way, we chatted and got to know more about each other. I found out she visited Yanaka the weekend before we arrived to recce and I assumed to plan a better tour for us. I was moved by her thoughtfulness and especially the fact that she wasn’t paid to do this. She was especially mindful of Sarah’s vegan diet and took note of the foods in Yanaka that she could eat.
At Nippori station, we exited from the north gate and then proceeded to the west exit. This video serves as a good guide to get you out of the station and to Yanaka. Yanaka looked exactly like the pictures I had seen of it on the internet. The neighbourhood had a rustic charm about it. If you are expecting the area to be repleted with retro shops, you won’t be disappointed. We made a beeline for Yanaka Ginza but along the way, Akemi would point out shops that were of interest to us. She knew we both loved wagashi (Japanese confectionery).
The top of the stairs that leads to the street is a good spot for watching the sunset. We stopped by a lady peddling her goods (mostly homemade) on the walking street. She offered us some green tea and this wasn’t any kind of green tea but one with many health benefits. It claimed to reduce the risk of getting diabetes. I got a pack of green tea powder from her and a mushipan (steamed cake) with beans for Sarah.
Descending into the proper shopping street, Akemi ushered us to this rather cramped shop selling a slew of sweet and savoury Japanese snacks. The shop has been around for at least 40 years and the current owner has taken over the business from his father.
This shop selling cattail doughnut was featured on the youtube video I had watched on Yanaka. The shop also sells soft-serve ice-cream in a cup to which they’ll stick a wafer printed with a cat face and one doughnut at the opposite end of the wafer so that the whole dessert resembles a cat. I saw an elderly Japanese man relishing this dessert in front of the store and couldn’t decide which was cuter. 🙂
I got a custard-filled chocolate doughnut and asked Akemi to pick a doughnut for herself too. This was when I almost committed a faux pas. I took a bite of the doughnut and wanted to continue walking while eating it but noticed that Akemi had stood at a spot next to the shop while eating hers. I then remembered that eating while walking was a no-no in the Japanese culture.
The Kanekichien Tea Shop not only sells a wide range of tea but also canisters, pottery and other wares. I would definitely visit this shop again and spend more time here next time, preferably on a weekday. The shop was really busy this Sunday morning and I didn’t get the chance to learn about the various kinds of tea offered and try them.
Most of the sixty odd shops here deal in foodstuffs but you can also find shops that sell non-perishables like housewares, souvenirs and toiletries.
At the end of the street, Akemi suggested we make a left turn. Soon after the turn, we came across this quaint puppet shop. Not only does it sell puppets, but it also hosts hourly puppet shows and can custom-make puppets for you.
We came across many other interesting shops and cafes further down the street. One of the shops we visited has been selling chiyogami (colourful washi) for many many years ( a century, at least!). The store, Isetatsu, is packed with a wide range of products made with chiyogami.
The next store we went into specialises in Japanese confectionery, mainly manju and mochi. Akemi pointed out how cheap the sweets were – 120 yen for 8 small balls of mochi! I got a pack of mitarashi mochi which were like reversed dango – the sweet sauce (with a hint of soy) was the filling instead of the coating of the rice cakes. I still wonder how they managed to fill in the mochi with the sweet sauce. The shop also offers complimentary tea.
Yanaka is also well-known for its abundance of stray cats. I only came across one but doubt it was a stray one. I mean, look at its size! For cat lovers, watch this video to learn more about the stray cats of Yanaka!
There are more than just shops in Yanaka. If you’re keen on visiting temples and shrines, do read this blogspot. The Yanaka cemetery is actually a popular spot but only in spring when the sakuras are in bloom. We gave it a miss but passed by it on our way to the bus stop. Akemi told us there were a few historical figures who were buried there.
We took a bus to Ueno station and from there to Tokyo station for lunch. I had already informed Akemi before our trip that we would like to have lunch at T’s Tan Tan, a vegan restaurant. T’s Tan Tan has 2 other outlets in Tokyo. This one in Tokyo Station specialises in ramen. The restaurant is inside the station itself so if you’re coming from outside the station, you actually have to buy a ticket to get to this restaurant. Whether you’re a vegan or not, I highly recommend this restaurant. Just writing this makes me crave for their ramen! As expected, there was a queue outside the restaurant. It was lunchtime anyway.
I got myself a spicy ramen and some gyoza. The ramen was so delicious I could have another bowl! However, I was in the company of a Japanese lady and got to exercise some restraint. 🙂
We ate in silence, not being sure if it was proper to have a conversation over meals. I observed Akemi and did what she did including where to place the chopsticks. She asked for the beverage to be served only after the meal and I did the same. She told me, after she had finished her noodles, that the vegan ramen was surprisingly delicious and would take her husband there since he loved eating ramen.
We visited the depachika (basement) food hall in Daimary before parting our ways. I told Akemi that my favourite place in any cities in Japan was the depachika. This wasn’t my first time here but I told Akemi I would like to learn more about the wagashi and bento boxes on sale there so that I know if they were fit for my consumption. Only after we said our goodbyes did I realise that I had not taken a photo with her! Anyway, I think I’ll probably meet her again someday in the near future. Akemi had been a really lovely and helpful guide and wished I could give her something to show my appreciation but the guides are not allowed to accept any gifts (as stated in the website).