Japan had been very high on my travel bucket list for quite some time – it was one of the few countries I really wanted to dive into before I had a family, and it was one of the last places on Earth that I expected to feel really out of my comfort zone.
I’ve been to South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa, and the more I travel, the more cultural differences become normalized. The various languages, customs, and landscapes I have encountered no longer feel foreign, but rather familiar and comforting – the more I travel, the smaller the world and our differences become.
But Japan was in a whole different league, with customs and quirks that are mind bogglingly unique – endless vending machines, animal cafes, perfectly tidy and manicured scenery, bullet trains, elaborate toilets, blue traffic lights, kawaii culture, and some of the most orderly and considerate human beings on the planet. I wanted to dive into the chaos of the unknown, feel overwhelmed, discombobulated, and delighted by a new culture. A feeling I was genuinely missing. I envisioned snuggling animals in a cafe, eating tiny Hello Kitty snacks, getting lost in the chaos, and gorging on sushi and big bowls of ramen. And what better way to dive right in to Japanese culture than 10 days in the country with one of my best friends and favorite travel buddy, Amie!Amie and I left for Japan around the same time, which meant that I arrived a lot sooner, as the journey from Amsterdam was a direct 10hr flight, and Amie had about double the travel time from the US. I left Amsterdam at 2.30pm on Friday, and arrived in Tokyo on Saturday at 9am after a ‘meh’ night sleep on a red eye flight. While at the airport, I took out about €500 in cash (ATM’s are hard to come by in Japan!), picked up a metro card, and purchased a Japan Rail pass. I then hopped on the metro and headed towards our hotel in Shinjuku.We had booked our first four nights in Tokyo at the Sakura Cross Hotel Shinjuku East. We loved the idea of a self catering hotel, where we could spread out and sleep in. The rooms at Sakura Cross had a sleek, minimal Japanese design, and our room had a ultra plush bed with a cozy seating area. The hotel was in easy walking distance to the metro, and most of the highlights in Shinjuku.At that point, I realllllly debated crawling into bed and snoozing until Amie arrived. I was mega jet lagged, and our hotel room bed looked like a huge, fluffy marshmallow. I also looked like crap after a long night of airplane travel!BUT I refused to give into the little voice that begged me to crawl under the duvet, and instead ventured out of the hotel in search of some lunch. By myself. In TOKYO!Which lead me to Kintarō, a small hole in the wall Japanese restaurant not too far from our hotel. At first, I walked in expecting to be seated, but after some awkward back and fourth and hand gestures, I was guided by some strangers to put 500 yen into a vending machine outside. I then selected a number that corresponded to the meal I wanted (I use the word ‘wanted’ lightly because I had no clue what the heck I was ordering!) It was like picking out a McDonald’s value meal. Except there were no burgers, I was at a vending machine, and everything was in Japanese (!!!)The machine shot out a little ticket, which I took inside and gave to the waitress. All things considered, it was a convenient system that saved me from the uncomfortable language barrier. I have no idea what I ordered, but what appeared looked to be a salad, pickles, rice, soup, and some kind of sweet egg dish. I was in culture-shock paradise!Stomach full and Tokyo adventure #1 complete, I then decided to roam around solo for the next few hours. I had seen Book of Mormon in London the week before, so I jammed out to the play’s soundtrack as I strolled through the famous alleyways of Golden Gai (which are much more vibrant in the evening!)And poked in and out of shops that just felt so strange and foreign!Shinjuku is a rainbow of color and delight, with pink cross walks, Hello Kitty road barricades, and pastel sky scrappers.Even the strawberries were petite and pink!
There were game arcades on almost every corner, glowing and singing foreign, hypnotic songs.And some seriously adorable sounding desserts – hot cup pancake?! OMG I die! My favorite find of the day was Sarutahiko Coffee, where I ordered a flower strawberry latte and upon the first sip my. life. was. shattered. Go here, get this drink. It will change you! I found Sarutahiko Coffee while scouting out Hyke Barneys in Shinjuku, which was a recommended shopping spot in the neighbourhood. I loved popping in and out of concept stores all around Shinjuku Station – there were loads of trendy shops and some stellar coffee spots to explore.Coffee in hand and not much else to do, I decided to roam on over to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Where, despite doubts that I would be too early, I found some gorgeous, blooming cherry blossoms! I paid a small fee to enter the park, and followed the flow of the crowd, only to find some of the most brilliant inner city scenery!Cherry blossom fever is real, and I definitely got swept up in the excitement and took seven-thousand photos.I can only imaging what the city looked like in full bloom the following weeks!
As the sun went down, visitors to the park became scarce, and then there was an announcement that the gates would be locked soon! So I headed for the closest exit, snapping a few final photos as I moseyed out (while trying to recall if we also close the parks at night in Amsterdam?! Is that a thing??)In parallel to my park adventures, I had begun texting with Amie who had finally landed in Tokyo!! It would take her about an hour to get to the hotel, so I walked back at a leisurely pace, shopping a bit as I went. But to be honest, as nighttime fell, I started to feel quite tired and also a little overwhelmed by it all! THIS is the Tokyo I came to find!!I met Amie at the hotel, stoked my adventure pal had finally arrived! She did a quick freshen up, and then we headed back over to Golden Gai for our first ramen of the trip! We’d been told that Ramen Nagi had some of the best ramen in the city, so we weren’t shocked to find a line at the restaurant’s door that wrapped down an alleyway and around the corner. If we wanted to eat dinner at Ramen Nagi, we would have to wait.However, this is what we were in Japan to do – stand in a smelly alleyway surrounded by hood cats and leaky pipes so we could eventually slurp down steaming bowls of famous ramen!! Plus, we had a ton to catch up on, so we hopped in line and chatted up a storm, and within an hour, we were caught up on all of the basics, and walking up Nagi’s narrow, red-lit stairs . . . where we were greeted by ANOTHER ticket meal machine!
Thankfully, at this point I was a pro, and had a ton of cash, so we both ordered the Super Golden Ramen which had (amongst a thousand other delicious things!) pork belly, seasoned egg, and amazingly creamy noodles.
Our noodles arrived in no time, and although we didn’t yet have a point of comparison, we knew we were eating something divine. Man, my stomach is screaming for a bowl of rich, Japanese ramen right now! On the way out, we stopped for some glamour shots on the restaurant’s infamous red stairs.And then headed back to our hotel for our first night’s sleep in those puffy white cloud duvets!
Can’t wait to tell you all about day two in Tokyo! Until next time :)