Let's Go To Tokyo: Day One

by Bamboo Dong,

One of the best parts about my job is that I've been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit over the years. Mostly it's within the U.S., which is fantastic enough as is, but every now and again, it's Japan. When I was asked, "Hey, can you go to Japan in three weeks for Anime Japan?" I was thrilled.

The last time I was in Japan was back in 2007, but some things never change. Shibuya Crossing is still an awe-inspiring confluence of human energy, and Tommy Lee Jones is somehow eternally the face of Boss coffee. But in those eight years, I've changed quite a bit, and the things that inspire me when I travel now aren't the same things that grabbed my attention eight years ago. Back then, I couldn't get enough of Akihabara's cacophony and heaps of otaku treasure; these days, Harajuku is more my style, with its nooks and crannies that all smell like food, and the hip storefronts that borrow their influences from every corner of the world.

I mention all of this because I think travel, much like food, is a very personal thing. The things that tickle one person's fancy may not tickle another's. Zac and Hope went to Tokyo just last year and documented their visit then, but their experience was likely different than mine will be.

And that's why we're at it again. Another trip to Tokyo, another lap around some familiar (and not-so-familiar) haunts, and another diary of experiences. I'll be writing about my daily jaunts leading up to Anime Japan, which takes place this weekend at Tokyo Big Sight.

Day Zero

I'm spending the first few nights of my trip at the Tokyo Prince Hotel, which is mere steps away from Tokyo Tower. My hotel room actually faces the tower, and it's really one of the greatest sights to wake up to in the morning, or turning down for bed. Since I checked in fairly early in the evening, it was the perfect time to pop over to the tower and take a look at its freshly-renovated lobby and 360° views of the city. The weather was not so perfect; it was cloudy and raining, but it made for some dramatic photos.

Full disclosure: when I heard I was going to Japan, my first thought was, "Hey, I wonder if my friends Evan and Lanny are going." They're the folks behind PacSet Tours, whom we've featured on the site before, and in addition to being really great people, they know Tokyo like the back of their hand. So I was pleased to learn that they were leading a tour at the same time I'd be there, because it not only gives me the chance to have some guidance while I'm here, but it's always fun to travel with outgoing people and making new friends. Because of this happy coincidence, a few of days of this week (days 0 and 1 included) will mirror their itinerary.

The actual view from Tokyo Tower varies quite a bit depending on the weather. On clear days, you can see Mt. Fuji in the daytime. On rainy nights, the visibility isn't so great, but it's still worth the 900 yen price of admission if you already happen to be in the area. If you want to go higher than the middle observation deck, it costs extra money, so I'd save it for a clear day.

Obligatory observation deck photo

There's even a small mini-shrine on the observation deck, which I don't think was there back in 2007. You can buy Tokyo Tower-shaped amulets, as well as Tokyo Tower-shaped ema prayer boards.

And speaking of subtle changes, now you can purchase adorable Tokyo Tower plushes in the gift shop, whereas previously, much of the huggable merch revolved around its sibling mascots, who still retain their questionable shape.

Not for sale: a bedazzled Tokyo Tower

Of course, if you're a One Piece fan, now's the perfect time to make that trek, thanks to the Tokyo One Piece Tower theme park that just opened last week. Even if you don't want to pay the price of admission to get into the One Piece area, there's still a giant gift shop filled with life-size stands to pose next to, and mountains of goodies.

The outside entrance to the main lobby
Who can resist this fluffy pile of Choppers?

Afterwards, I had the chance to grab some grub a few blocks away, and ended up with a bowl of soba, a croquette, and a tempura-fried prawn for under 600 yen. For me, half of travel is about putting as much food into my mouth as possible, and I'm happy to see that Tokyo's casual dining establishments are still super affordable.

Sidebar: if you've been on the fence about whether to visit Japan, now's a fantastic time to go, just based on the currency exchange rate alone. Even with the exchange fee at Narita, I swapped my US dollars at 1 USD = 118 yen, which is fantastic for those who have plans to do a lot of shopping.

Non-alcoholic Hatsune Miku "Happy Chanmery" muscat-flavored faux-champagne bought at Famima for around 200 yen. If you've ever had muscat gummy candies, this is the liquid and carbonated version. Not recommended.

Day One

Despite my best efforts to stay up late the previous night, my jetlag forced me up at dawn. Fortunately, this part of town (Google pin) is pretty great for wandering.

I was pleased to discover that right outside the hotel was two kawazu-zakura trees. Apparently that varietal is native to Shizuoka Prefecture further south, particularly the Izu Peninsula, whose Kawazu city hosts the annual Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival. The varietal is known for blooming earlier, and lasting longer. So while my trip will likely end before I get to see the cherry blossom trees in full bloom across Tokyo, I was happy to at least see some manner of sakura.

Right next door to the hotel is Zōjō-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple open to the public during operating hours. Parts of it have been around for centuries, serving as the Tokugawa's family temple, though much of it was demolished in World War II. Apparently six Tokugawa shoguns are buried there.

The Ankokuden, which is a smaller structure next to the main hall.

Because of time, I had to leave before I had a chance to explore the entire grounds, which consists of several structures, including the Main Hall. It's something I'll definitely try and go back to do.

O-mikuji fortunes
Unborn Children Garden

Speaking of temples and shrines in the middles of cities, my next destination was Meiji Jingū, just steps from the Harajuku train station. I won't go into too much detail about the shrine itself; you can find that here. But for those who love being outside and who find solace in nature, it's an easy place to get lost in your thoughts, especially if you take the extra time to seek out some of the other things the grounds have to offer.

The outside world is shielded remarkably well, though some vantage points provide more visual context for the shrine's surroundings; in the distance here is Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in Shinjuku:

The grounds are also home to a beautiful garden, which is well worth the 500 yen admission price. Even though the gate is on the main pathway to the shrine, far fewer wander in. Personally, I could've stayed there for hours, just exploring the pathways, loitering on the benches, and taking it all in. If the Meiji Shrine walkway feels like a slice of nature in busy city, the garden is like a portal to another world entirely.

It includes a reconstruction of a teahouse (the original burned down in the war) built by Emperor Meiji for his wife in 1900. A little further down is the Otsuri-Dai "fishing spot." It was also built for the Empress, who loved to fish there. Nowadays it's stocked with enormous, dog-sized koi.

The place is also home to an extensive iris garden, though unfortunately, the timing wasn't right for my visit. I imagine that when they are fully grown and in bloom, the gardens have more visitors.

Afterwards, our group migrated to Harajuku, known for its quirky fashion, colorful boutiques, and plethora of crepe stands.

For those who like to get lost in urban jungles, Harajuku is the perfect place to wander around all afternoon, especially in recent years now that eateries and fun shops have made their way into every alleyway and side street. I hesitate to use a word so banal as "hipster," but Harajuku is home to plenty of such establishments, with their V60 pour-overs, their Silver Lake-esque neo-Americana decor, and young urban clientele. If you're like me and you love that kind of thing, then there's no better way to do Harajuku than to turn down every alley you come across, and letting your "what's that?" lead the way. Harajuku, in one word, is "eccentric" in the best possible way, and it's immensely rewarding to leave the crowds behind on the main drags and Takeshita Street.

Takeshita eye candy:

Creperies, and a bonus place that had Haikyu!! crepes.

Some adverts for various anime collaboration cafes and anime goods:

Some of the other places that caught my eye:

By the way, there is a LINE store in Harajuku, which blew my mind a little bit. I use LINE frequently, but the idea of buying merchandise for a messaging app doesn't quite parse with me. Inside, you can find all manners of characters goods, including actual stickers of LINE stickers. Also, giant plush standees of your favorite LINE characters.

The downstairs area housed their collaborations, including Swarovski-encrusted Cony figurines for a staggering $3200. But if that's your thing, like I said, the current exchange rate is pretty fantastic.

It's Tokyo Fashion Week this week, too, so a lot of shops are doing collaboration events and special campaigns.

A look inside the toy store Kiddy Land, which feels like a good place to blow all of your yen in one spot.

I made a poor life decision after this and was lured into a Lotteria by a woman holding a sign for their tsukemen burger. The burger (I got the single "patty") is a collaboration with Tokyo's Taishoken ramen shop, and the idea is that, similar to tsukemen, you dip it into a broth. The advertisements look incredible. The actual burger... is something. I was surprised that it had so much mayo in it, which didn't help its already tenuous case. It resembled tsukemen only in that there was a dipping broth and it had something that vaguely looked like noodles, but bore no texture or taste to any proper ramen I've ever had.

After this, we headed to Shibuya through Cat Street, which doesn't have any cats, but is filled with a ton of cool shops, eclectic restaurants (I was aching to step into Smokehouse, an expat-run pit barbecue place that brews its own beer), indie coffee roasters, and other places offering the East-West mashup that makes Harajuku so neat.

Shibuya Crossing, right outside the Shibuya Station's Hachiko entrance, is always a must. Between the two dudes holding "Free Hugs" signs and the two kimono-clad girls holding selfie sticks, I was happy just to be there.

This sign says, "All foreign people speak English." I'm not entirely sure what the context is.

A couple blocks away, near the Tower Records store. There's an official Yotsuba& Danboard store inside.

A music-pumping advertising truck promoting the new JAM Project album.

I had to swing by LABI, a giant electronics store similar to Yodabashi Camera, because I needed a 2-prong to 3-prong AC adapter. It was on the ground floor that I stumbled onto a pretty cute SoftBank ad.

Backstory first. Everyone knows the story of Hachiko by now, whether through anime, the story itself, or that movie with Richard Gere. And of course, everyone's seen the statue (I'm hoping to swing by Tokyo University to see the new Hachiko statue, but I'm not sure I'll have the time):

Other establishments also pay homage to Hachiko, or rather, the Hachiko statue, including this statue of mobile provider SoftBank's mascot. Tower Records has a Hachiko as well, tilting away from someone yelling, "Hachi!"

The famous dog also has his own wall relief mural right outside the train station.

A train station ad for the live-action Strobe Edge movie, which opened March 14.

From here, a couple friends and I made our way to Ikebukuro to go to the Swallowtail Butler Cafe, which you need to make reservations for in advance. The front entrance is pretty easy to miss. From the street, it's just a blue sign and a clandestine staircase, which makes you feel like you're about to do something elicit. Our group was woefully underdressed, which we realized the second we were ushered into the dining room by our butler. Everyone else was dressed to go out, with the aesthetic being a little more Harajuku than Shibuya.

You're not allowed to take photos inside or use your mobile phone, although I snuck a picture of the handsome doorman. I assume he noticed, because he elegantly adjusted his tie when I did so. When you walk in, one butler takes your coats and any bags that you're carrying (they insist; you cannot say no. After all, you are their delicate mistress, and you must be treated accordingly. We happily obliged, including the lone guy in our small group.), while another takes your purses. Ever cordial, they bowed to my friend's husband and promised he'd be treated with the lavish care he deserved.

A visual reference for what the butlers looked like. These cards are sold at the Swallowtail gift shop across the street, and it seems as though there are new cards every month. I'm pretty sure I wasn't allowed to take pictures of this display either, but this will just have to be our secret.

Most of the butlers are not the 20-somethings bishonen you might expect. Some were. One in particular, judging from his art card was quite the looker (think Sebastian from Black Butler), and I can only assume that the dedicated customers of Swallowtail know his work schedule by heart. A good many were older, bespectacled, and with longer hair—think Walter from Hellsing, but with a Ristorante Paradiso demeanor.

Our butler led us to our seats and carefully hid our bulkier belongings under the table. My purse was placed on the seat next to me, but gingerly hidden under a napkin. Meanwhile, an older butler came by and dropped off an ornate key, presumably to the not-so-fancy backroom locker that held our other stuff. Charmingly, you are not allowed to do anything on your own. If you try and stand up, they will rush to pull your seat out and help you up. If you reach for your bag, they will rush to your side and help you lift it. If you try and pour your own tea, they will gently chide you for not allowing them to do it for you. For anything else you might need, there's a bell to summon them. I watched as a girl at the table next to us giggle and pick up the bell. She and her friend tittered bashfully as a butler came and pulled out her chair, and escorted her to the ladies' room.

The entire thing is designed to be an experience, and you have 80 minutes from start to finish to enjoy it. Pleasant classical music plays in the background, while a fake fireplace flickers along one wall. Between the crystal chandeliers, the plush velvet curtains, and the mantle spilling with roses, it's pulled straight out of a female fantasy.

As for the food... well, we didn't get any. Unbeknownst to us at the time of reservation, they had a special prix fixe menu for March, which was a take-it-or-leave-it 4,600 yen meal that included your choice of tea or wine, which every member of the table was required to order. Since we were expecting to order just cakes and other desserts from previous menus, we didn't have enough cash on hand.

Our friend and her brother who were seated separately did end up ordering the meal, which they said was "a lot of food." Part of your meal includes a souvenir handkerchief embroidered with the cafe's logo.

Still, you have to admire the butler's dedication to their craft. Even after we politely excused ourselves and cancelled our reservation, they insisted on helping us gather our things (there's no chance for a quick exit at Swallowtail!) and holding our chairs for us. Our butler promised us that he'd wait patiently for us to return, whether it's "next year, next next year, or next next next year. I'll always be here." We swooned.

The gift shop across the street, complete with handsome butlers.

To ease my disappointment, we wandered the streets of Sunshine City until our companions finished their meals. Yowamushi Pedal is super popular right now, especially amongst the fujoshi crowd, and it's collaborating with everything and everyone, from wig shops, to cell phone stores, to giant fried fritters.

I'll be back later today with tales from Akihabara, including the otaku-beloved Kanda Shrine.

Day Two / Day Three/ Day Four

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