We all have it. That place we all dream of going to. Its image tacked on our walls or saved as a seductive screensaver. It is on top of our vacation list, our places-to-see-before-we-die list… we’d sneak it in every list we have if we could. We have never been there, but somehow we’re convinced that simply walking along its streets, tasting its thousands of flavors, or watching everything unfold before us in one of its street corners will be the most divine experience we can have. For me, this place was Japan.
I don’t know when my love affair with this country started. Perhaps it was all those years of watching Voltes-V, Astro-Boy, Shaider or BioMan as a child. Or watching those afternoon documentaries on RPN-9 in the 1980s on Japanese life and culture that appeared either stuck in the past or way ahead of the times. Or finally discovering the sublime Hayao Miyazaki anime? Or maybe it was when I met my husband, whose shared fascination for everything Japanese fed my own wanderlust. Japan was both baffling and beautiful and I knew I had to see it for myself.
We also knew that if my husband, P, and I were going to go to Japan, we had to see Tokyo for its sheer size and penchant for the futuristic. We had to see traditional Japan, which is best seen in Kyoto. And we had to see both against a backdrop of beautiful cherry blossoms. After getting our visas in January, we booked our tickets for end of March to early April, sakura season.
Tokyo, Day 1: Bright lights, big city, big appetite
When you’ve spent more than two months plotting your itinerary around your dream vacation, reading and ooh-ing and aah-ing at every guidebook, coming up with 19 pages of things to do and see in a span of 10 days, and being in a constant state of joy (or delusion) just from merely all that planning, the minute you see land from the plane—doesn’t matter if they look like generic rice fields and highways—you get this surge of gratitude. To the universe, to God, to the pilot, to your seatmate whose hand you’ve crushed from the thrill of being there. If you were in a musical, you would have broken into song and dance at this point. The unexpected cold wind that greeted us once the doors were opened refrained me from doing so.
A week or so before we arrived, weather reports in Japan (yes, I was monitoring their weather every day in anticipation of the blooms. Not that I was that obsessed) indicated that the temperature was getting warmer and the cherry blossoms had started to open ahead of schedule. Thank you, universe. Then on the day we arrived, it started raining and the temperature dropped. Outside the airport, while we waited for the limousine bus to Shibuya, where our friend C who lived and worked in Tokyo was supposed to pick us up, the wind chill was a shock to a girl from the tropics. And my knitted top and short-sleeved tweed over it wasn’t enough to keep me warm. But I wasn’t going to let the cold, wet weather or unfortunate choice of clothes dampen my excitement. We were finally in Japan!
The bus ride from the airport took more than an hour and a half to get to the drop-off point that was Cerulean Tokyu Tower at Shibuya. On the last half hour of that bus ride, Tokyo was slowly revealing itself. Long stretches of highway led to city roads. Factories to office buildings. There were trains overhead. Glimpses of empty neighborhood streets. Maybe because it was raining or we were passing by quiet neighborhoods or everyone was still at work that afternoon, but it was a quiet Tokyo that we first saw—and which, surprisingly, we would still see every now and then in the next few days.
Once we were dropped off at the Cerulean’s basement driveway, everyone else from the bus disappeared into the waiting cabs, while P and I tried to make sense of how we were going to get out of the hotel’s basement driveway to meet our friend. Then C appeared. It was such a relief to see a familiar face—particularly one that knew his way around the largest and most populated metropolitan city in the world.
After reaching C’s place in Setagaya-ku, just outside Shibuya, and having changed into warmer clothes (or basically adding two more layers of spring clothing), our friend asked us what we wanted to do. Suddenly sheepish, I reluctantly gave him my encyclopedic itinerary. Like many over-zealous tourists, I was ambitious. On our first day—no, first evening in Tokyo, I wanted to check out the Shibuya Crossing, some of the streets nearby, Takeshita Dori and Omotesando in Harajuku, and get an overview of the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices or the NS Building in Shinjuku. God bless our friend, he didn’t laugh or throw my itinerary to my face—which would have hurt a bit since it wasn’t all that flimsy. Instead, he said, “Okay. I know.”
He decided to take us to his favorite yakitori place in Tokyo for our first Japanese dinner. No, it wasn’t in my list—though it was in Shinjuku. The restaurant, frequented mostly by locals, was in the backstreets of Shinjuku-sanchōme and it wasn’t in any of my guide books. I was intrigued. And though I loved my itinerary dearly and spent weeks working on it, faced with such an alternative, you have to say yes.
I didn’t get to go on top of one of Shinjuku’s many skyscrapers as planned to behold the enormity of the city, but merely getting off the train in Shinjuku Station during rush hour on our first night in Tokyo gave me a pretty clear picture—up close. With around 3.5 million people passing through the station every single day, the quiet, empty Tokyo I saw a few hours ago had turned into a mass of people wrapped in thick coats and all walking faster than you are, determined to reach the trains they needed to get to or make their way to one of the station’s over 200 exits. If not for our friend, who was a foot taller than everyone else, quickly making his way through crowd, we would have likely just gone along with the surge of people and found ourselves in some random exit, holding on the arm of some random salaryman.
When you manage to get out of the station, Shinjuku seems to welcome with the frenetic blinking of a thousand neon signs from its buildings. Our friend also seemed to have adapted to the fast gait of the Japanese and we had to keep up, so having time to ogle at our new surroundings wasn’t going to happen just yet. Upon reaching the backstreets of Shinjuku-sanchōme, C introduced us to the yakitori place he considers to have the best grilled skewers of every chicken part known man, Shimada Mura. And boy, was it good. We had almost every part of the bird—the kawa (chicken skin), tebasaki (chicken wings), hatsu (hearts), reba (chicken livers), sunazuri (gizzard), and hasima (pieces of white meat alternating with leeks). The meat was so fresh they also served torisashi or raw chicken in sashimi style. It wasn’t in my list of Japanese food to eat, but as I wrote in my Japan story for Yummy magazine, an affinity for the unfamiliar (not to mention a strong constitution) is always welcome in any adventure.
The evening didn’t end with the grilled goodness of yakitori and the yet-to-be-acquired taste of torisashi. Afterward, we walked over to the Golden Gai, the famed nightspot of alleys lined with tiny, shanty-like bars that can seat four to 10. Ten being crowded. We stopped at La Jetée, one of the few establishments in the area that was friendly to foreigners. What it lacked in size, it more than made up with its quirky, artsy vibe brought on by the vintage movie posters, interesting liquor bottles, cat figurines and the friendly owner’s love for films.
Our last stop before calling it a night was a sign-less ramen place near C’s apartment. It served really good tonkotsu ramen that there was often a line outside for a much-coveted seat in the small ramen-ya. This white and milky pork-based noodle soup was topped with slices of roasted pork, green onions, and nori. The noodles were firm, the stock rich and salty good, and the pork was just perfectly tender. It was the most amazing ramen we’ve had. Though P and I didn’t get to do what I planned for our first evening in Japan, we still got a generous serving of its capital through its wonderful food.
Take note! Traveling to Tokyo from Narita Airport takes between an hour to 1 ½ hours. You can (1) take a train, which is the fastest and cheapest way to get to Tokyo using the Keisei line, JR Narita Express N’EX and the Airport Narita service (range from ¥1000 to ¥3000), but you have to change trains somewhere; if you’re not confident about navigating your way around a new train station the minute you arrive, think about (2) taking the limousine bus. It’s really just an ordinary bus that picks up passengers from the airport and drops them off at a number of hotels in Tokyo. It’s the less stressful alternative if you’re staying in or even near one of the hotel drop-off points. You can buy a ticket at the Limousine Bus Ticket Counter in the airport when you arrive (¥3000 for the regular one-way fare and ¥3100 with a bundled One Day Tokyo Metro Pass; we got the latter and it saved us a couple of hundred yen of ticket fares for a day), but be sure to check the departure times. (You can also check its schedule and your destination area in its site). (3) The last option is to take a cab. As Tokyo is 66 km from Narita, a cab ride can set you back ¥25,000.
La Jetée 1-1-8 Kabukichō, Shinjuku-ku, with admission fee
Sign-less ramen-ya Setagaya-ku, Tokyo (take Den-en-toshi line to Sangen-jaya Station, North Exit B)
Tokyo, Day 2: Sushi, sakura and Shibuya
Tokyo, Day 3: Drunk on anime, art and a killer view
Tokyo, Day 4: Akihabara, geek heaven
Tokyo to Kyoto, Day 5: In slumber and snow (and a bullet train in between)
Kyoto, Day 6: “The Japan of your imagination” (plus, lots of tourists)
Kyoto, Day 7: In its kitchen, alleys, and castle (and another temple)
Kyoto to Tokyo, Day 8: A few days before going home
Tokyo, Day 9: The day we didn’t go to Ghibli Museum
Tokyo to Manila, Day 10: Easy Saturday morning