Back to Japan- Day 8 (Tokyo)

Good news and bad news. The good news is it’s time to hit the streets of Nakamise and Akihabara for some shopping! The bad news is that I’ve already bought everything on my list. More good news. This means I won’t be (theoretically) breaking the bank.

We met up at around 9 in the morning all set to go to Nakamise Street which lines the way up to the famous Sensoji Temple. Despite the fact that we had come here two years ago, I didn’t know much apart from the rebuilding history of the temple. This time though we learned more about how the temple came into being. Legend has it that two brothers were fishing on the Sumida river, when they pulled in a statue. Alarmed, they let the statue go, moved their boat further on and continued to fish only for the statue to appear in their nets again. The dropped the statue back in the river, moved further along and for the third time the statue appeared in the nets. Now positively alarmed, they took the statue back to their village where a village elder recognized the statue as the Goddess of Mercy and erected a temple for its worship – now the Sensoji Temple.

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Kannondo Main Hall

The bus dropped us off under the bright blue sky, a far cry from the rainy night it had been, a short walk away from the famous Kaminarimon which was under renovation. We passed under the lantern and were ready to begin our trip down Nakamise lane. Now most locals would tell you that the main street is a tourist trap filled with overpriced goods potentially made in China and that the back alleys are where you’ll get to experience the real flavour of Japan. I would agree with them, except for the fact that there are quite a few authentically Japanese gems on the main street too. For us the find of the day was a store selling Furoshiki Bags which are made from hand printed cloth made in Japan, and are DIY purses, if you would believe such a thing exists. We got to pick out not just the pattern of the purse, but the handle to go with it and then watched as they demonstrated how to put the purse together. They were amazing enough to give us the instructions as well, and promised us they’d be uploading a tutorial on their website soon (yayy for technology!) With our beautiful bags and Z’s Japanese themed ties, we were now all set for an adventure.

Two years ago, we had come here with Hondaさん and at the time I couldn’t eat noodles so we had set off exploring the back alleys of Nakamise in search of some place where we could grab a halal non-noodle bite to eat. And that’s when we stumbled upon Candy, with its sandwiches that melt in your mouth. We were on a mission to find this place again so we could pack some lunch just in case the Japanese lunch of the day turned out to be another cold soba affair. I started my search online a month or so before we left for Japan, only we couldn’t remember the name of the cafe and which back alley it was in. I searched a number of cafes on Google maps to no avail. Which is when we decided to go through Z’s set of pics from the trip and see if his foodie adventures had somehow captured the name of this accidental place. They had – in a reflection. And so, with the name we read in the reflection captured in a picture taken two years ago, I began my online search only to find a lone review on Trip Advisor but with no location in French, which confirmed that this was indeed the place we were looking for – they too had chanced upon this cafe with its divine omelette sandwiches. That’s when I decided that I would throw my question out to my language exchange community and see if anyone could help. Help came in the form of a Korean lady who I’ve never met before, who located the cafe on Google Maps which showed the location in the Korean version of the maps (but not the English) and sent me a pin to verify if this was the place we were looking for. It was! 만세!

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The unassuming Candy with its familiar green canopy

In a world dominated by corporations that are either swallowing up minnows through acquisition or killing them off entirely through markets of scale, it’s refreshing to step in to a cafe that’s unique and far removed from the familiar franchises plastered around every city in the world you visit. おばあさん from two years ago wasn’t there, but おじいさん was there, ready to make our sandwiches and Z’s shaved ice. He went about his work methodically – a system developed perhaps from years of trial and error or perhaps more symptomatically designed to cope with old age and all that comes with it, carefully noting down the order, preparing one order at a time and accepting payment once our takeaway bags were ready.  Z wanted to take pictures, but おじいさん explained that it wasn’t allowed to take pictures anymore, thanks to countless Chinese and Korean tourists who’d come and stolen the design and theme of the shop, opening their own counterfeit versions of Candy back home. I can’t imagine what it must feel like when tourists come to the cafe and tell おじいさん that they have the “same” thing back home. You could see that his pride had been hurt, because something that was put together over a lifetime was stolen in a few pictures and that also, in poor taste. Whereas Japan’s Candy uses only fresh ingredients, cafes trying to pass themselves off as the real thing tarnish his reputation by using frozen items of poor quality. I felt bad for him, but we left him smiling with pride restored when we told him we’d come back there after two years, this time with ma in tow, simply because there weren’t sandwiches like his anywhere to be had.

We rendez vous’d with the rest of the group near the five storey pagoda just in time for the headcount and were all set to go to Ameyoko. The day had become rather hot and せんせい wisely decided to change the itinerary so we’d skip Ameyoko and go straight to Fuji TV instead.

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The beautiful Sensoji Temple and the even more beautiful 5 storey pagoda

Last trip, we had the option of visiting Fuji TV but had gone to Aqua City instead so I was interesting in seeing what we’d missed. On our way there I learnt that the Fuji TV building had not only an observatory which afforded great views of the Odaiba area, but also had a rooftop garden and a “Wonder Street” where we could to explore the studios and sets where some of our favourite TV shows are made.

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Time for fun at Fuji TV

We decided to skip Wonder Street and headed straight to the top. The view was more stunning that I had expected, thanks to the beautifully clear blue skies. We managed to just make out Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree in busy skyline behind the Rainbow Bridge, but Mt. Fuji was lost to view. We even managed to get a bird’s eye view of the mini Statue of Liberty that we’d seen last time and I could even point out to ma from the 25th floor, the futuristic boat we’d taken 2 years ago designed by Leiji Matsumoto the famous manga author.

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Rainbow Bridge

While Z disappeared with せんせい on a quest to complete all the stamps at Fuji TV (something so Japanese!), ma and I took time out to relax in the rooftop garden where a beautiful breeze was blowing, defying the bright sun on the streets below. The rooftop gardens also gave me a chance to appreciate the beautiful building from below, and if I hadn’t been eager to avoid a social faux pas, I would have lay down and traced the beautiful edges and angles that shaped the sky overhead. There’s something about great architecture that tames the OCD within.

We took a quick trip to the souvenir store filled with goodies from Chibi Marukochan and One Piece among others, and I was convinced that the reason why Japan has a very high household debt ratio is because everything in the country is too かわいい not to buy. With that thought we said goodbye to Laugh, the blue Snoopy-like mascot of Fuji TV and headed straight to lunch.

Now lunch was going to be Yakiniku, and our last soba experience had taught me not to be too optimistic, so ma and I shared a sandwich on the bus and saved one in case lunch turned out to be not to our liking. Our fears were completely unfounded, thankfully and I ended up having, what would turn out to be, my favourite meal the whole trip. When we entered the restaurant and climbed up the stairs, I noticed a 한식 menu and was thoroughly confused, wondering if we had come to a Japanese restaurant or a Korean one. It turned out to be a Korean bbq halal Wagyu beef. I’m not really a big fan of beef truth be told, but this lunch just blew me away. I have never had such fine cuts of beef in what can only be described as the perfect marinade. For the sake of the tummy I sacrificed the kimchi and kept announcing every piece as my last, but it was too good to put down without a fight. I ate way more than I’m accustomed to, probably more than I should have, but there’s only so much you can fight your tastebuds before you give in.

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The most epic Yakiniku ever

With that absolutely delicious and filling lunch, we were now ready to hit the streets of Akihabara. With so many places to go…Laox, Mandarake, Anime Centre, Animate, Don Quijote, the Gundam Cafe, to name a few, you’re never really sure where to start but luckily for me, since I’d already done my shopping and exhausted my budget, I had the luxury of simply strolling around to take in the vibrant facades and loud signage without wondering where to go next.

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The riot of colours that is Akihabara

Z opted to head to the Gundam Cafe, while ma and I walked from Mansei bridge down Chuo Dori, looking at a little bit of everything. While I couldn’t convince ma to set foot in a game centre to try a single UFO catcher, I did manage to convince her to use a capsule machine to try and get Aegi a fruit shaped cat hat, which of course she’ll never wear, but just the thought of that melon hat on her is enough for a few good laughs. We stopped in a couple of manga stores looking for a copy of 君の名は in English, but it’s apparently too soon for a full release of all the volumes so I’ll just have to be patient. There were plenty of cat cafes, and even more maid cafes with a variety of themes including a samurai maid cafe. If there’s one thing I don’t get it’s the whole maid cafe thing, and watching those young girls handing out fliers and trying to attract customers in their get-ups made me think that there are ways to exploit women, and then there are ways to exploit women.

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Anyone played Project Diva 2nd before?

After roaming around stores with epic Gundam sales and exercising much self-restraint, we stumbled upon an art gallery which was selling the most colourful and intricate 3D cityscapes. While ma and I debated on what size to get and which Tokyo scene – dawn, dusk or night – we struck up a conversation with the salesperson who, fascinated to learn that we came from Dubai, proceeded to show us the cityscape of Dubai as well! We decided to stick to Tokyo and as if the artwork wasn’t beautiful enough, she topped it off with some well-timed flattery making ma feel years younger and the final cherry on her sales pitch was the offer to change frames free of charge if we wanted to choose another colour. We were sold ^^

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At the art gallery with its multi million yen 3D landscape

We made another stop to see if we could get ma some Japanese cosmetics, but not knowing any brands other than Shiseido and the fact that all labels were in Japanese, we were more than a little lost. Thankfully the salesperson tucked away between crowded shelves (crowded more with labels than products) on the second floor was very helpful and we managed to pick up some products in smaller sizes so ma could test them out first on her sensitive skin before committing to a larger, more expensive purchase.

We finally stopped for a quick restroom break at Bic where we picked up some household goodies (no, no models), marvelled at how convenient Japan made everything and then marvelled some more when we found out that Bic Camera actually accepts BitCoin as a form of payment. Talk about riding the tech wave. With that our short but sweet Akihabara adventure came to an end and we ready to move from the happening place for youngsters to the posh and newly opened Ginza Six.

Coming from the land of posh malls, we had nothing we wanted to see in particular (except the Noh theatre, which we couldn’t go to this time around) and nothing really that would fit our budget, so instead of wandering aimlessly around the mall, we armed ourselves with umbrellas and went straight up to the rooftop garden to enjoy the rain in lush green lawns floating in the air and light rain drops dancing on fountains resting on the ground. I cannot understand how anyone can underestimate the healing power of a garden in the middle of a busy metropolis. It’s high time rooftop gardens caught on around the world.

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Rooftop garden in the rain

After some much needed recharging, we ducked back inside- ma finding a place to relax at Starbucks while I roamed around the Tsutaya bookstore, filled with its oversized books that need the help of staff to open and peruse, and went straight to Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary tribute book filled with the most amazing pictures of Hello Kitty I’ve never seen including the Kiss version of Hello Kitty  When did THAT happen?

We didn’t have much to do, so we headed back outside, this time to the rain soaked terrace now surrounded by soft lights at dusk. It was going to be night soon, which meant it was now officially dinner time. I would have much rather just sat out there on the terrace, taking in the musty smell of earth that comes with rain, even in a concrete jungle.

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Enjoying the dusk and last moments of rain

Dinner was a short walk away, at Annam, an Indian restaurant which meant we got to enjoy the beautiful views of Ginza at night, with its posh buildings now all lit up in a tasteful rainbow of neon colours under the purpling sky. I always wonder if you notice these things when you live and work in a city for a long time. Does everything lose it shine slowly over time, or is it just that you stop noticing, your nose too deep in the daily grind to look up? I wonder if what I saw in Ginza is what the people there see on a daily basis. I wonder what things I miss back home, or take for granted, that a passing tourist would jot down as something memorable.

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Night time in Ginza

When we got to dinner, our guide, as had somehow become the custom since day one, sat alone at a table to eat. By this time, we’d had enough. Aside from the fact that it’s considered highly rude and disrespectful in Arab and Asian tradition to have someone sit alone at a meal, the great loss of not being able to learn more about Japan from our guide and the equally great lost opportunity of not being able to share our cultures with him was too great a travesty to let pass. And so, with the help of オサマさん and much coaxing and cooperation from the restaurant staff, we finally got him to sit with us at the same table for dinner.

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Time for dinner

It turned out to be a fun and informative session over a butter chicken and naan dinner, as we traded stories about Japan and back home, the best time to visit, our mother tongues and what the difference is between おちゃ, chai, karak chai and masala chai. It turned out that our guide’s mum shared my love for Korean dramas and was a big fan of period dramas and movies. 역시 With that we were ready to head back home. The short walk through Ginza showed that even in fancy Ginza, the shops closed early so with nothing to distract us, we went straight back to the hotel, and started getting ready for the much awaited day trip to Nikko.

Missed Day 7 in Fuji?

Stay tuned for Day 9 Part 1 in Nikko!

 

Journey to Japan- Day 5 Part 2

And so we left on a Gundam-high to look for.. you guessed it… the Gundam cafe which is actually really close to Yodobashi. There’s no way you’ll miss it because there is a Gundam right outside the cafe, not life-size, but big enough to catch your eye.

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Gundam Cafe

The cafe is rather cozy, filled with all things Gundam. The best part of our trip to the cafe – drinks named after Gundam 00 characters on the menu (I was torn, as usual, between ordering the Allelujah Haptism and the Lockon Stratos) and… we got to try strawberry shortcake with its very own edible Gundam sketch. The cafe even has a small souvenir store next to it from where you can buy…models (yes, again!), T-shirts, notebooks and a whole bunch of other Gundam paraphernalia.

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Gundam Strawberry Cheescake – because that’s how bring peace about

We left the cafe and continued to stroll on the same street which turned out to be Chabara, where we found a long line of food carts.

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Chabara

When I say food carts, I mean cute little modern red and white versions of food carts selling all kinds of food. Not sure if anything would be halal, we decided to skip food sampling and instead went looking for Mandarake– an anime/manga store, building rather, filled with anime, manga, figures, collectibles and what not. Manadarake too is not far from Yodobashi and the black building is pretty easy to pick out.

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Because buildings should be colourful

We made our way to the manga floor, only to be told that there were only about 4 manga in English on the entire floor. We headed next to the figures/collectibles floor which if you’re a collector is like a mini haven.

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Anyone up for translating… everything in this store…pretty please ^^

When we finally got back to our rendezvous location (Yodobashi, under the big yellow fish), not everyone had arrived since they got caught in the long line at the tax-free counter at Yodobashi. With everyone’s shopping finally tax-free, we headed to dinner at Al Muna where we had felafel and kebabs and seekhs of chicken. Feeling full, we were surprised to learn that there was yet another dish being dispatched to our table. We didn’t even hesitate when we asked the waiter to give our plate to another table where it was more likely to be polished off. Dinner was followed, of course, by tea and off we went to the hotel.

Our exploring for the day, though, didn’t stop at the hotel. We had slept in last night and decided that despite how tired we were, we were well-rested enough to cross the street to go to Bic Camera, which was thankfully open till 10pm. Now I had assumed, and incorrectly yet again, that Bic Camera was purely an electronics store (clearly I learned nothing from my morning experience at Yodobashi). Bic Camera is like a scaled down and more organized version of Yodobashi – all 8 floors of it which meant it was easier to navigate and less overwhelming than Yodobashi had been. Of course, it also meant more models and particularly metal models (like the Metallic Earth models that I collect).

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Today we fight…the urge to buy everything

My self-control for the day had already been exhausted and I ended up treating myself to metal models of some of the monuments we had visited and some Nano paper models. I was sorely tempted to pick up some Nanoblock too but resisted the urge, especially after my crazy debit card kept giving an error at the cashier     -___-.

We decided to call it a day pretty much at store closing time and headed back to the hotel to get ready for another long day – especially to get those white socks ready for the tea ceremony. ^^

Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 1

Journey to Japan- Day 5 Part 1

And so began the Tokyo leg of our trip with breakfast… and shopping. Our first stop was the Isetan Department Store. After seeing the posh stores in the main business district near our restaurant deserted last night at dinner time, I was not sure how much rush to expect but it was pretty much as busy as any mall in Dubai, despite it being a weekday morning. The store is filled with all things branded, but since I’m not really a shopping person, I decided to find myself something that screamed Japan and nothing says Japan quite like ceramics. I headed off to the ceramics section where one of the stores actually had a ceramic painter who was painting right in front of us.

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Ceramics Painter

I was tempted to buy something in the traditional white and blue but nothing really caught my eye so I wandered around aimlessly until our sensei suggested visiting the Okinawa exhibition on the 5th floor. To the Japanese themselves, Okinawa is rather foreign, with its own unique flavour owing to the fact that they were very late in being colonized. This means that not only are their handicrafts rather unique, but also their language has its own unique style. I found the Okinawa exhibition absolutely fascinating – a riot of colours, not the traditional image of Japan at all. Their ceramics were also very different and that’s where I finally settled on a handmade plate.

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I can’t quite explain the feeling I get when I look at it…like this feeling of being underwater…

There was lots of coral jewellery which I absolutely loved. There were also traditional musical instruments from Okinawa, mainly the sanshin, and lots of snakeskin products, from purses to packs of just snakeskin and there was even a huge snakeskin on display which you could touch… I did…then ran away to the first floor to look for a fan. I’m pretty picky when it comes to buying things for other people so suffice it to say I couldn’t find what I was looking for and instead spent my time more wisely in the basement… in the basement filled with food. By food I mean all sorts of cute bento boxes, heaps and heaps of colourful salads and of course… Japanese sweets ❤ If all that food had been halal, you’d probably have had to drag me out of there by force.

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Sorry I don’t have more pictures. I was paralyzed by the sight of so much colourful food.

By mid-day, we were ready to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office to get some views of the city. It’s open on weekdays from 10am to 3pm and entrance is free. I wasn’t too eager to go at first, but the thought of a possible glimpse of Mt. Fuji versus shopping convinced me otherwise. It was only after I got there that I learned that the heavy city smog and normally dense cloud cover meant spotting Mt. Fuji is more of a rarity than I had expected. Nonetheless, being 202m up in the air meant views were good and made for a great panorama of the sprawling city. They ran out of brochures in English, so I got myself a brochure in Korean so I could figure out what the main landmarks were ^^

Back downstairs, we headed to the tourist information centre where we picked up some brochures on where we were set to go next. If you’re not keen on reading about the places, they have great visuals highlighting what each area is famous for ^^.

Lunch was a Turkish affair at Bosphorus Hasan which was followed by perhaps the highlight of everyone’s day (or trip)… the famous Akihabara.

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Heading to lunch behind…way behind… our guide

Our first stop was Yodobashi, which I had expected would be an electronics haven. I was very much mistaken… Yodobashi is not only an electronics haven but also, and perhaps more importantly for me, a model haven.

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Yodobashi – Hobby Heaven #1

The 7th and 8th floors are filled with all kinds of models- cars, trains, Gundams, puzzles… you name it- they have it. It was completely overwhelming- the sheer scale of it and the number of models. I was sorely tempted to put the entire floor in my basket, but decided to exercise self-constraint or risk going bankrupt on my first night in Tokyo. As such I treated myself to a puzzle which I had spent months searching for back home and my brother found himself a Gundam model… not a Gundam model but THE Gundam model, I should say since it’s the model from our favourite Gundam show.

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Sakura Puzzle ❤

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Okay so Setsuna’s Gundam is pretty epic… but I kinda love Allelujah’s more

And so we left on a Gundam-high to look for.. you guessed it… the Gundam cafe which is actually really close to Yodobashi.

Stay Tuned for Day 5 Part 2