The plan today was to walk around Omotesando, buy pastries from Dominique Ansel and then head back to Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a cheap lunch with a view before catching the airport shuttle.
Omotesando is a very chic neighbourhood. Here, the wide straight streets are lined with zelkova trees and almost as many designer stores. Many fashion brands such as Prada, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Dior have their flagship stores here. Apple has a huge store here too. There are many nice cafes and restaurants here for you to sit back and relax over good foods and drinks and people watch. Do check out this area after visiting Harajuku or the Meiji Jingu Shrine even if you’re not in the market for luxury items.
Our first stop here was at Tully’s. Sarah had a fond memory of having her first cup of chai latte at Tully’s in Kyoto and was craving for it this morning. I’m not much of a coffee person but I love the Honey Latte from Tully’s. In summer this year, I got a mango-cream filled Malasada (a Portuguese doughnut) which was to die for! They didn’t sell it this time so I guessed it must be a seasonal item.
As we were walking down the street, we came across this second-hand/pre-loved goods store. The store is located in the basement. Unfortunately, it was still closed when we arrived. If I could recall it correctly, it’s open from 11.30 am onwards.
There’s a Flying Tiger Copenhagen store here in Omotesando which I highly recommend but since we were not needing anything from the store this time, we gave it a miss. You’ll definitely find something quirky but useful from this store. Nothing here costs more than 2000 yen. From Omotesando Station, take the A2 exit. It’s a 2-minute walk from here. The address is 4-3-2, Jingumae, Shibuyaku, Tokyo.
If you’ve never heard of Dominique Ansel (where have you been?!), he’s a pâtissier extraordinaire and the creator of the Cronut – a pastry that resembles a doughnut but made from a croissant dough which is then fried in oil and filled with cream (yup, sounds like a recipe for a heart-attack). I got really excited when I read (in Tokyo Weekender) that he had opened a bakery-cum-cafe in my favourite city. Read this blog to find out more about what the bakery offers. I got myself a Mr Roboto (350 yen), a Matcha Monaka (380 yen) and a cronut (550 yen). Mr Roboto is a melon pan (there’s no melon in melon pan, surprise surprise!) but unlike most melon pans you find in Japan, this one is filled with cream and not just any ordinary cream, mind you, this one is a hojicha-flavoured one! If you like roasted Japanese tea, you will definitely like this bun. The matcha monaka is a wafer filled with green tea financier. The plain wafer goes nicely with the sweet filling. I got the Hokkaido Milk Honey Ganache cronut and according to their website, they only offer one flavour each month. It is also recommended that you consume it within 2 hours of purchase. I only had it the day after and it was still delicious! There’s a lovely seating area on the groundfloor for you to enjoy your pastries while they are still fresh.
After buying the pastries (which were packed in a way that they won’t collapse in the box), we walked down to Pure Cafe (a vegan cafe) for an early lunch. We almost missed the restaurant following google maps because it’s located on the second floor of a building. I very much prefer the previous location which had a nicer view. I remember sitting at the table facing the street and felt as if I was sitting on the front-row seat of a fashion show because almost everyone who passed by was trendily dressed! The new premise is slightly bigger but the view is boring. The foods were okay though their tempeh burger played a crucial role in helping Sarah acquire the taste for it. Tempeh is a healthy source of protein which Sarah relies on as a vegan.
With little time left to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, we abandoned the initial plan and headed straight back to the hotel to collect our luggage and wait for the airport shuttle to arrive.
I was still deciding between ‘going to Showa Memorial Park and then to Jiyugaoka’ and ‘doing the ‘triangle’ tour of Jiyugaoka, Todoroki Valley and Futako-Tamagawa’ before Sarah woke up this morning. I picked the latter because she woke up after 8 and I was afraid we might not have the time to tour the park and then head to Jiyugoaka in time for lunch. Also, the main reason why I wanted to visit Showa Memorial Park was to view the autumn foliage but since it was not even November yet, I wasn’t too sure if the colours had changed much and if it was worth going then. There’s a website that I always refer to before I visit Japan in Spring or Autumn to find out where’s the best place to view the sakuras or autumn foliage. The information provided is current as they have reporters who will go around the country checking out the status of the blooms or the leaves. Google for ‘Cherry Blossom Report _____ (year) ‘ or ‘Autumn Report _____ (year)’. You can also google for past year reports so as to get a rough estimate of the status of the sakuras/momiji before your visit or even before your plan your trip. Usually, the autumn foliage in Tokyo starts changing colours only in mid-November but the maple and gingko trees in the Showa Memorial Park start to show off earlier than the rest of the parks in Tokyo. The lush and spacious park spans over 160 hectares, which is more than 3 times the size of our botanical gardens. You can rent a bicycle to traverse the park via the extensive bike-only track network. If you’re here sometime in mid-November, do check out the park because the autumn foliage would have reached their peak when the trees in other parks are only just about to approach theirs. In other words, the autumn hues you get at Showa Memorial Park will be more vibrant than anywhere else in Tokyo. If you’re visiting Tokyo in early December and think that the autumn show would have ended by the time you arrive, fret not. Unlike the fleeting sakuras, the autumn foliage lingers. The leaves would only start to fall sometime in mid-December or earlier. Consider visiting these parks if you’re in Tokyo from early to mid-December: Rikugien, Shinjuku-gyoen, Koishikawa Korakuen, Imperial East Garden and Yoyogi Koen. Some of the parks have night illumination and will close later at 9 pm. Also do check out Ichiko Namiki (Gingko Avenue) where the uniquely-trimmed trees that lined the avenue will turn a brilliant golden colour in late November and stay that way till early December or slightly later, depending on the temperature.
Ok, back to that triangular tour that we did. The area connecting Shibuya, Jiyugaoka and Futako-tamagawa is known as the Triangle Area. I first heard of Jiyugoaka from watching an episode of Tokyo Eye 2020 on it. I googled for more information about it and found out I could buy a discount ticket for 400 yen that offered unlimited rides to the areas within that triangle. Only the silver machines at Shibuya station dispense this special ticket. If you’d like to get information and advice (including how to purchase this ticket) before you head into the Triangle Area, do approach the Shibuya Station Tourist Information Desk, which is located at B2, near the ticket machines.
I wanted to look for the information centre to get a walking map but didn’t even know where it was. So we wandered aimlessly around Jiyugoaka hoping to spot some of the landmarks and shops we had seen on websites and videos.
We chanced upon the information centre enroute to T’s restaurant for lunch. I got a copy of the walking map for 50 yen (or was it 20 yen, can’t remember). But by then, we had already lost our interest in exploring the neighbourhood and wanted to go to Todoroki Valley right after lunch. I bought the map so that I could scan and post it here but now I can’t find the hardcopy. Anyway, I managed to take a photo of it, knowing that this could happen.
After having such a delicious lunch at T’s Tan Tan the day before, Sarah and I were really excited to eat at the T’s restaurant here which has a more extensive menu. We always make it a habit to peruse the menu found on websites before we visit any eatery. The restaurant, which is vegan and does not use alcohol in their cooking, is located at the basement of Luz building.
We were served by a very friendly waitress who was from Thailand. Sarah and I ordered the set lunches.
Seeing how much we had enjoyed our lunch, the friendly waitress enthusiastically showed us the dinner menu. I was tempted to come back to the restaurant for dinner on the same day but decided to visit it next time I visit Tokyo. I can’t remember how much I spent on lunch here but I know it was definitely worth every yen I paid.
I was determined to look for the shop that sold the original mont blanc cake. According to google map, it was close to the information centre. To get to this bakery from the station, go to the main exit, turn right and walk towards the narrow street.
With the purchase of the Mont Blanc cake, my mission at Jiyugoaka was accomplished and now it was time to head to an unexpected place in busy Tokyo – Todoroki Valley. Not many people know of the existence of this green space in the midst of a concrete jungle that is Tokyo. You’ll be even more surprised to know that it is only 15 minutes away by train from Shibuya! The walking trail, about one kilometre in length, is never crowded. At the other end of the trail, you’ll find the Todoroki Fudo Temple with some shrine structures. I don’t recommend coming here right after a rain because the narrow walking path can be very slippery. I asked the station staff for directions to get to the valley. He didn’t quite understand me at first as he only seemed to know the Japanese name for the place which is ‘Todoroki Keikoku’. ‘Keikoku’ is Japanese for gorge. Just a three-minute walk from Todoroki Station will get you to the entrance of the valley (which is on top of a flight of stairs). You’ll walk past a supermarket and the entrance is not too far from it. For a better guide, refer to this website.
There were no benches along the trail for us to sit on and rest our legs so we just kept walking till the end of the trail and then walked back to the station. The place looks tranquil but you will occasionally hear the traffic noise from the roads above.
We headed to Futako-tamagawa after leaving Todoroki, which was a mistake because neither of us was interested in shopping then. I wanted to go to the Tamagawa River but google maps said it would take us about 40 minutes to walk there. So we just sat in the middle of the shopping centre, watching people go by for a while before going back to Shibuya, where we would take the train back to Shinjuku. Futako-tamagawa is quite an interesting place actually but since I didn’t walk around the neighbourhood, I have nothing much to say about it. Do watch the video to learn more about this place.
When we reached Shibuya, it was still too early for dinner. I approached the tourist information desk to ask if there was any museum we could visit but was attended to by the unfriendliest Japanese service staff I had ever come across. The young lady who was manning the desk in the morning was a lot friendlier. We found out later the entrance fee to the museum was quite steep so we ditched the idea. We walked around the neighbourhood a little but it didn’t fascinate me, partly because it wasn’t my first time there and also it was just too busy for my liking.
From Shibuya, we took a train to Shinjuku Sanchome where we had to switch trains to get to Shinjuku Station. As we alighted the train at Shinjuku Sanchome, I found out that Takashimaya was only a 5-minute walk away so we decided to go to Takashimaya instead and then walk back to our hotel from there. I wanted to check out if a particular Burberry Blue Label bag a friend had asked for was available there. The night before, I got the cleansing oil from Shu Uemura at Takashimaya. The price was slightly cheaper than back home but at that time the exchange rate was $13.45 for 1000 yen. At the time of writing, the yen has dropped to $12.60! Time for another visit, perhaps? 😉
We went up to the roof garden to check if there were any vegan restaurants there. There was none. So we walked back to the hotel hoping we could find one along the way.
We settled for a cafe located in the underground pass which served simple rice dishes with tea.
Looking back, I wished we had visited the Showa Memorial Park since Sarah wasn’t interested in shopping and would have preferred to spend more time enjoying nature. If I could do this all over again, I would have visited Showa Memorial Park in the morning first and then head to Jiyugaoka for a late lunch, walk leisurely around the neighbourhood, then to Todoroki Valley and then back to Shinjuku for dinner.
Shimokitazawa, we found out from our research before this trip, is a laid-back commercial district with a bohemian vibe about it. It was quite a challenge getting here from Tokyo Station because it involved switching trains run by different companies. I also remember being confused, not knowing which direction to go after we left Shimokitazawa Station. I was expecting signs that would direct me to the more popular part of the district but there were none of those. I should have read up more but then again, I wasn’t the one who was particularly interested to come here.This place appeals to the younger and hipper crowd and I definitely do not belong to that demographic.
Sarah had a few shops that she was keen to go to and had noted down the address but even with the GPS, it was quite hard to locate them. Apparently there are many shops that sell second-hand items here and this being Japan, there’s nothing icky about the used items on sale. The clothes had been cleaned really well before they were put on sale. There was a lot of hype about this place from the websites I had read and so I had quite high expectations of it. I left the place disappointed because it didn’t live up to my expectations. Maybe I was tired and old. Definitely old, and tired after walking the entire morning. Since I don’t have much to say about Shimokitazawa, do watch this video and the one I linked in an earlier post.
We went to Ain Soph, wanting to have dinner, but the restaurant was closed at 5 pm and reopened at 6 pm for dinner. I walked into the restaurant and placed a reservation for 6pm before walking around the shopping area. Past experience taught me that making a reservation here was necessary. We had been here before on our last all-girls’ trip in March but was turned away because the restaurant was full and could only serve us 2 hours later. We couldn’t wait that long and decided to have our lunch at Chaya above Isetan, Shinjuku instead. Anyway, while waiting for the restaurant to re-open at 6 p.m., we decided to go to Laox store to get the halal shoyu ramen which Sarah liked a lot. Of all the halal food items available there, I would probably only recommend this one. The castella cake was too dry, in my opinion, because I was used to having it really moist and soft. Forget about the halal chocolates.
I shall reserve my review on Ain Soph on another post as I know not many of you are vegans. After dinner, I asked Sarah to google for a Seria store nearby. I’m surprised that many people who have visited Japan do not know what Seria offers! Oklah, I admit not everyone is as cheapskate as I am. Seria is a 100 yen shop like Daiso, but classier. 🙂 I very much prefer this to Daiso. They are not as ubiquitous as Daiso though so find out where they are first before you go. I had been lucky and often chanced upon one whenever I visited Japan. This time round though, we had to google for its location. We found one on the 4th level of Shinjuku Marui Honkan. Look out for the logo OIOI on the building facade. It’s hard to miss. Shinjuku Marui Honkan is located on top of Shinjuku-Sanchome subway station. You can also walk here from Shinjuku Station (east exit). There are quite a number of items that are worth buying, especially the mason and cute pudding jars. If you are a baker, I would recommend you to get the freeze dried strawberry here because this is not that easy to find anywhere else.
At 100 yen for every item (around $1.30 currently), it’s cheaper than what we pay for back home. There’s surely something for everyone here unless you’re like my daughter who’s quite against consumerism at the moment.
With those purchases, my day was complete and I just wanted to go back to the hotel though the night was still quite young. Besides, we had walked more than 12 km today again.
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).
We had planned to do a number of things today. First on the list was to go to the Veg Fest at Yoyogi Park. I suggested we walked to the event instead of taking the train since the weather was lovely and I needed some exercise. It was a pleasant walk through the park to get to the event square where the festival was being held. Along the way, we met hordes of tourists and Japanese families decked out in their best clothes making their way to the Meiji Shrine There were some chrysanthemums on display along the path to the shrine which had intrigued the Western tourists more than the Asian ones, I noticed. We stopped by the souvenir shop at the park just to browse since we were early and the event would only start at 10 a.m. There’s quite a number of interesting items here and wished I had bought something to give away or to keep for myself.
Detailed information on the Veg. Fest was in Japanese so locating the event in that vast park posed a real challenge. After walking for almost an hour, we finally found it. Thank God we didn’t give up looking for it or it would have been a wasted trip. It was not held at the park but on the grounds opposite the park (where the fountain was). I had purposely skipped breakfast so that I could try a variety of foods they would have offered at this event. We got a burger, some Japanese wagashi, a bento box, sushi, cookies and cakes – all vegan and all yummy!
If I’m not wrong, this 2-day event is held only once a year (sometime in October or November) in Tokyo and also other cities like Kyoto and Nagoya. We were lucky that we happened to be here when this was held.
We crossed the road to get back to the park because I couldn’t wait to eat the foods we had bought. There were many benches at the park and we picked one quickly. There were many joggers at the park that morning . After finishing the bento meal, we made our way to the UN University where the farmer’s market was held. The farmer’s market at the UN University is now held every weekend, from 10 am to 4 pm. Besides dozens of stalls selling farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, there are also a few food trucks selling coffee, snacks and curry dishes. Do check it out if you happen to be in Tokyo during the weekends and buy produce direct from the farmers who grow them. You can either get off at Shibuya (exit 11) or Omotesando station (exit B2) to get to this market.
Sarah had made an appointment to dye her hair at Assort Salon in Aoyama. As we were walking to the salon from the university, we chanced upon a rather interesting and cozy nook. There were stalls selling mostly foods and drinks. Sarah got a chai soya latte from a vegan foodstand.
While the princess got her tresses tended to, I walked around Aoyama. There’s a huge Franc Franc store located along the main road (address is 3–1–3 Minami-Aoyama) and for those of you who have missed the store since its departure from our sunny island, this is a must-visit. It’s a 4-minute walk from Gaienmae station. There’s a cosy cafe on the 2nd floor of this store should you need to take a break from all that walking.
After walking for half an hour or so, I decided to go back to the salon, thinking that the treatment was going to be over soon. I couldn’t believe she was not even halfway through! Since she had asked for blue streaks in her hair, they had to bleach it first and then dyed it blue. The whole process took 4 hours! With a lot of time to kill, I asked if I could do a hair treatment since it looked and felt like it needed some pampering. I opted for the ‘Relaxation Head Spa, 45-minute’ treatment. It was stated on the menu that it would cost 6000 yen but I found out later that the cost did not include the cost for washing and blow-drying. Those two would add another 3000 yen.:( The head and shoulder massage I got was heavenly though. So good that at some point I think I fell asleep!
We left the salon 30 000 yen poorer. Service was good but not sure if it was worth spending that much amount of money. Anyway, money has been spent and lesson learnt, so move on.
It was already dark when we stepped out of the salon. There were a few vegan/vegetarian restaurants nearby and we settled for Brown Rice by Neal’s Yard Remedies in Omotesando because it was closest to where we were. We almost missed the path that would lead us to the restaurant. As you can tell from the picture below, the front of the restaurant is not visible from the street. The cafe specialises in healthy whole foods with most recipes based on Japanese cooking. Everything on the menu is vegetarian (and mostly vegan). Next to the cafe is Neal’s Yard Remedies, a natural cosmetics shop. After I paid for the meal, the cashier handed me a coupon which entitled me to a free ‘something’ from the cosmetics shop. I wasn’t sure what I was entitled to as she rattled on in Japanese while handing me the coupon but from the gestures she made, I guessed it could either be a free hand massage or free hand cream. I didn’t bother to go to the shop to claim my free gift/treatment. I was afraid that I would feel obliged to get something I didn’t need.
I wasn’t hungry since I had already eaten a lot earlier so I ordered one set dish for Sarah.
There was another item on the list that we did not manage to do today and that was to visit Shimokitazawa. We totally underestimated the time that Sarah would take to do her hair. By the time she was done, it was already past 5 p.m. So after dinner, we went back to the hotel and called it a day. We had walked more than 12 km and thought that was enough for the day.
This was the second all-girls’ trip to Tokyo this year for Sarah and me. I wanted to take the less trodden paths and visit less-touristy neighbourhoods this time since all our past trips to Tokyo, together with the boys, had always included visits to the popular ones – Shinjuku, Shibuya, Marounouchi, Ginza and Odaiba.
We took the morning flight and arrived in Tokyo (Haneda Airport) slightly before 4 p.m. I had booked a room at Shinjuku Washington Hotel because the airport shuttle stops right in front of it. You might want to take this (availability of airport shuttle) into consideration when choosing your accommodation. Experience had taught me that taking the train to the hotel with luggage in tow was the least favourable option. Trust me on this, okay. The airport limousine bus service costs 1230 yen per adult and the child ticket costs half of that. Please check out the bus schedule on the website and plan your trip accordingly. The ticket counter is not too far ahead once you exit the customs. It was estimated that the journey from Haneda airport to Shinjuku Washington hotel would take about 1 hour but due to the peak hour traffic, it took double the time to reach our destination. A friend once asked if it was better to take a flight to Haneda or Narita. It depends on where in Tokyo you’re staying.
The economy double room cost about S$200 a night and that’s reasonable considering its location in the heart of the city. Shinjuku is a popular and also Tokyo’s largest neighbourhood. The economy double room was extremely small with barely enough space for us to move and open the luggage. I guessed this wasn’t a big deal as we were going to spend most of our time outside exploring the city anyway. There are rooms of bigger sizes but I went cheap this time. The hotel is huge and is popular with tourists on group tours. The hotel lobby was crowded all day during those times I was there. If you don’t like a busy hotel, this is definitely not the place to stay. The walls are thin and you’ll hear people talking along the corridor, loud and clear. I could even hear my next-door neighbour’s phone conversation clearly without having to press my ears against the wall. It was as if he was in the room with us!
What the hotel lacks, it makes it up in many other ways. The staff are friendly and helpful and many of them are proficient in English. Having the airport shuttle stopping right in front of the hotel is a huge plus point. The hotel is also linked to Shinjuku Station via an underpass. It’s a long, long, long walk to the station though. But still, you’ll get protected from the weather. It was raining when we arrived so I was grateful for that. There is a convenience store (Lawson) and a few restaurants in the basement where you can get a decent meal (e.g. a big bowl of soba with kakiage) for less than 700 yen. One of the restaurants uses a vending machine for orders. You buy a ‘meal ticket’ and then hand it over to the staff manning the kitchen. You hold one to one of the tickets bearing your order number and the staff will call out that number when your meal is ready. To buy a ‘meal ticket’, you have to insert sufficient amount of money into the machine first and then select the meal you want. Save money on breakfast by getting foods from the convenience store also known as ‘konbini’. You can watch videos of what are some of the breakfast items available from Lawson, Family Mart and 7-Eleven.(Please use your own discretion – not all foods I post are suitable for your diet.) My favourite is the onigiri – cheap and good. If you don’t already know what an onigiri is, it is a rice ball that comes in either a triangular or round form, seasoned with salt and wrapped in seaweed. Most of the onigiris you can find in the supermarket have fillings ranging from seaweed to cod roe. Just one of these and I’m good to go! 🙂 To my Muslim friends, you can check out what’s halal on this website.
After dinner, Sarah and I walked to Shinjuku Station via the underpass. Initially I wanted to walk on the streets and familiarise myself with the surrounding area but since it was raining, the underpass was a better choice. There are signs in English along the underpass and you can find convenience stores and some others as it gets closer to the station. As it was close to closing time, the supermarket marked down some of their food items. Sarah got a pack of daigaku imo (candied sweet potatoes) for only 300 yen.
Oh, and I discovered only in the morning after that we had a nice view from the small window of our room. 🙂
I woke up early to prepare snacks for the long drive back to Christchurch. I took a peek out of the window. The scene outside was simply enchanting – the snowfall had got heavier overnight and some had remained on the ground and on the roofs. The Remarkables, not far away, were totally covered in snow. August is the best time to experience snow here but you can expect it to continue falling throughout Spring in September and maybe early October.
We were reluctant to leave Queenstown for so many reasons – it was snowing, the hotel was fantastic (I’ll give it a 9/10), we hadn’t had the chance to visit the fjords down south and I hadn’t done a complete tour of the centre.
It was going to be a long drive to Christchurch. The unfavourable weather would add more time to the journey. Not only would we expect snow, but strong winds and heavy rain were also forecasted. We left the hotel at 9.30 am and had planned to reach Lake Tekapo (a halfway point) for lunch before 2 pm. As we turned out of the hotel driveway to join the main road, what I saw lying ahead was both captivating and intimidating. I prayed for a safe journey. The driver, though, was not the least perturbed. Sensing my anxiety, he kept assuring us that we would be fine and then he chuckled at my unfounded fear, “Worry-wart lah you!”
As we passed by the airport, the sight of a cherry blossom tree standing on snow-covered ground distracted me for a while. I grinned at the irony of it all. I was expecting snow and cherry blossoms in Japan early this year but got little of both and then when I least expected it, I got them here. God has a great sense of humour.
As we left the towns and gained elevation, the landscapes got more dramatic. It was snowing up on Lindis Pass. Be very careful on this highway. A car had overturned on the other lane. I suspected the driver might have driven too fast while turning a sharp bend.
We reached Lake Tekapo just in time for lunch at Kohan. They stopped taking orders at 2 pm and we were lucky that they let us dine in even though we reached there just 2 minutes before they closed. It was snowing here too.
GPS calculated that we would take 4 hours plus to get to Christchurch, an hour longer that we had expected, because of the impending inclement weather and expected slower speed of driving. The wind was blowing strongly and then rain came pouring down after half an hour of leaving Tekapo.
Since we were only going to stay just for the night and leaving early for the morning flight back home, I had booked a motel, Arthur’s Court, near the airport. It was comfortable and convenient for sure but I wouldn’t stay here for more than a night. The pillows and robes had stains on them! 😦
All in all, we have had an amazing trip. Would I come back again? Definitely! NZ exceeded my expectations. But if I were to do this trip all over again, I would have done the following:
Fly to Auckland and then take a flight to Queenstown. Or stay for a day in Auckland then fly to Queenstown.
Hubby took the kids to do ziplining with Ziptrek Ecotours. The company offers a few tours and hubby opted for the MOA one which is about 2 hours long. Browse the tours offered here. Ziptrek Ecotours gets my thumbs-up because it’s a company with strong environmental ethics. Hubby shared with me later that the guides would educate the guests on environmental matters whenever they had the opportunity to do so.
Hubby and kids took the gondola up to the peak. They were looking forward to getting a magnificent view of the town below but unfortunately the clouds were low (so no nice pictures to show you here).
I was watching the news before leaving the hotel and found out that a polar blast was coming our way and we could expect snow later that evening and the day after. It had already started to rain outside and the wind was blowing strongly and I wondered if the tour that hubby had booked for would be cancelled. It wasn’t. They were still able to zipline despite the trees swaying. I asked the kids later if it was scary. They said it wasn’t because each line was short (watch Sarah’s vlog on Queenstown). The only complaint they had was that it was freezing up there but luckily there’s a cafe at the upper station where they could grab a hot drink to warm themselves up.
The boys decided to do the Luge after ziplining while Sarah took the gondola down to the town centre to meet me.
I had planned to take a stroll around the town centre but since it was raining, I took refuge at a cafe along the marine parade. The cafe was called Patagonia’s Ice Creamery & Chocolaterie. I ordered a hot chocolate and a slice of brownie (at $1 off, because I ordered a drink) and headed to the upstairs lounge. It is a lovely area with a huge window and you’ll get an unobstructed view of the lake. I am very fussy when it comes to hot chocolate but the one I had was perfect. I made a mental note to compliment the staff later. The delicious drink coupled with a spectacular view of the lake brought a much needed warmth to my overall well-being.
Sarah met me outside Patagonia cafe before we headed down to Vudu Cafe. We both have been following this vegan Japanese dude on youtube (Peaceful Cuisines) and just a week before we arrived, he was here too and Sarah saw what he had at this cafe. The cafe was almost full though it was already after 2 pm. We had initially planned to have lunch here but the hot chocolate I had earlier kept me full and Sarah didn’t feel like having lunch either. Besides, we had a heavy buffet breakfast at Hilton (which was complimentary, btw). The buffet spread at Hilton was a standard one but they provided something that I had not seen at any other hotels – a fruit juicer for the customers to use. I was grateful for this as I didn’t like packed fruit juices and I liked being able to concoct my own fresh fruit juice.
We walked around the town in the cold rain and came across Rehab. Rehab offers healthy salads, breakfast bowls (think acai), raw desserts and the likes of it. Sarah got a vegan cheesecake to take away. If you wonder what goes into a vegan cheesecake since it’s non-dairy, it is raw ground cashew nuts. I’ve tried making it once and it turned out surprisingly delicious though it tasted nothing like the usual tangy cheesecake.
As we carried on walking, I spotted a few cherry blossom trees from across the Four Square supermarket. Never mind that it was raining; I just had to get close to them. I wondered if I would ever tire of it.
We popped into the supermarket to seek shelter from the rain which had got heavier. I got a few bars of Whittakers’ artisinal chocolate range to bring home to share with my sisters and their families. They have interesting flavours like ‘Plum and Roasted Almonds’, ‘Oolong Tea’, ‘Pear and Manukah’ , ‘Apple and Vanilla White Chocolate’ and some others. They make good souvenirs, in my opinion, because they are not only unique (in taste) but come in attractive packaging. You can get them at most supermarkets in NZ.
In the evening, as forecasted, it snowed. It wasn’t the first time we had seen snow but still it got us all excited. We braved the cold and stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy a phenomena we don’t get back home.
That’s how I would describe the route, via State Highway 8, we took to get to our next destination – Queenstown. The most memorable sight along that stretch of highway was that of Lake Pukaki. The turquoise hues of the glacial lake and the craggy alpine landforms that bordered the lake made a picture that you would remember for a long time (or not, depending on when dementia will kick in). As you gazed at the scene before you, you’d forget the world for a while, even when a tour bus came and threatened to unload a horde of noisy tourists. This area was the setting for ‘Lake-town’ in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
We couldn’t possibly drive by without stopping to take pictures or just take in this sight. You’ll reach this point after driving for about half an hour from Tekapo. There are directions to this pitstop and here you’ll find a visitor centre that sells a small range of NZ-made products, one of them being salmon sashimi that comes from the nearby farm. It claimed to the best salmon sashimi you would have ever tasted and boy, did it live up to its claim! Don’t leave this place without trying some!
Another spectacular part of the route is the Lindis Pass which links the Mackenzie Basin with Central Otago. At an altitude of 971 m above sea level, it snows for many months of the year. We were lucky to be able to see the contrasting faces of the mountains during this trip. The picture below shows how the tussock-covered mountains look in fair weather.
Before we reached Hilton, where we had booked for the stay in Queenstown, we dropped by the Remarkables Park Town Centre, an outdoor mall, to grab some more groceries. I got some salmon fillet at the supermarket and the boys got some snacks. The salmon, which I baked after marinating it in soya sauce and thai chili sauce, was AMAZING! Never had I had salmon that succulent. The boys heaped praises and I gave some of my share to them.
The Hilton at Kawarau Village sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. I had booked the 2-bedroom apartment with lake view. The apartment turned out better than I had expected (sorry the photos are rubbish!). I loved it so much that I’d rather stay in than explore the town! 😛
The view from the balcony was nothing short of stunning, be it on a clear or snowy day.
The service at Hilton was top-notch. The staff is made up of an international group of well-trained people. The only complaint I had about this hotel was that the floor heating in the bathroom was not working. Because they could not fix the problem immediately, they offered us a bottle of champagne as an apology. Unfortunately, we do not take alcohol.
We drove to the town centre in the evening after our early dinner in the room. Hilton provides a shuttle service to the town centre but you have to make reservations so that you don’t have to fight for seats. The town centre was bustling. Parking is expensive here and can be hard to find during the day so you might want to consider leaving your car at the hotel and take the shuttle service. If you prefer to live in the centre of the town, there are several hotels you can choose from. We didn’t spend much time walking around the town centre. We were tired and it was getting too cold – the temperature had dipped below 5 degrees. On top of that, we were not too keen on shopping. We bumped into Brian Richmond and his family here. Hubby noticed him first and waved at him and he waved back though he had no idea who we were. 🙂
The main attraction in Queenstown is Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables, a mountain range and ski field. The mountain range is visible from the city. During the winter months, The Remarkables is a popular spot for skiing and other winter activities. We weren’t keen on doing snow-related activities, at least not on this trip as we only had 2 days here. If you aren’t keen on those too, there are many other activities to do here – bungy jumping, jet boating, skydiving and etc. Queenstown is not only for adrenaline junkies; there are ‘gentle’ activities you can do such as cruises, a walk or hike, museum visits and etc. There’s something for everyone to do here.
The whole good experience here was probably marred by this. The water from the taps took a long time to warm up. I don’t know if this problem was peculiar to the suite or this resort or the whole of this area. Even after warming up, it would turn cold, really,really cold, soon after. Taking a shower and doing any kinds of washing were quite a pain.
To counter the problem of having to use icy cold water from the tap every time I needed to wash my hands (constantly when I prepared meals for the family), I heated (not boiled) a pot of water and used it as and when. Even after it had cooled down, it was still warmer than the water that was coming out of the tap.
Apart from preparing breakfast for the family, I was looking forward to watching those morning shows that cover news, weather reports, interviews and entertainment this morning. I think they are called breakfast television? I find them both informative and entertaining. Just surf the channels and you’ll most likely come across one between 6 am and 9 am or between 7 am and 10 am. Or you could google the TV guide and find out the time and channel. It’s a good way to pass the time while you’re waiting for the rest of the party to wake up. 🙂
After breakfast, we drove up to Mt. John Observatory. It is only 6 km away from the resort. We were blessed with good weather this morning. Please note that there’s a road access fee of $5 to drive up to the summit and the road is closed at 5 pm. If you’re up for a challenge, you can walk up to the summit. The mountain walkway is a 3-hour loop track up the summit and then down around the mountain. Get a more detailed description of the walkway here.
You can join a tour with Earth and Sky to view the stars at night. Depending on your luck, you might even get to see the Aurora Australis from here!
Have breakfast or lunch at the Astro Cafe located on the summit. Lonely Planet has voted it as the best place on the planet for a cafe and it’s not hard to see why! Last order is at 3 pm but you can still have cakes and drinks after that. I had a chai latte with soy milk. Next time I would ask for it to be less sweet.
We had lunch at Kohan, a legit Japanese restaurant, near the lakeshore. The chefs were all Japanese and so were the service staff. Check out the menu and the price list at the link I’ve provided. Everything we had here (mainly the vegetarian and seafood items) was ‘Oiishi’! I was surprised to see so many Japanese tourists when we arrived at Lake Tekapo. Curious, I asked the friendly Japanese staff at the souvenir store what had attracted so many of her countrymen here. According to her, many had come to look at the stars. The region has one of the best star gazing sites in the world and in fact, the Aoraki-Mackenzie dark sky reserve is the biggest in the world and the first ‘gold-rated’ reserve.
The souvenir store, Aotea, is next door to Kohan and carries a huge range of merchandise. The toilets, in between the Japanese restaurant and the souvenir store, were very clean and almost to Japanese standards except that there wasn’t any bidet, much to my disappointment.
Hubby took the kids out in the evening to look at the stars. The sky was clearer than the night before and the kids came back telling me they had never seen stars like they had seen that night. According to hubby, he could point out to them the Southern Cross. I wished I had gone out with them but I was too tired from the lack of quality sleep the night before.
Sarah has made a lovely video of Lake Tekapo, which is now probably one of her favourite places on earth.