No trip to Tokyo is complete without a walk through the vibrant, colourful neighbourhood of Harajuku. It is the neighbourhood most people have heard of, or they have at least heard of ‘harajuku girls’; the outrageously dressed girls pushing the boundaries of fashion in their stockings, platform shoes, brightly coloured wigs and piercings. The neighbourhood is teeming with crazy dessert concoctions, overwhelmingly pink clothing stores and interesting characters.
My visit to Harajuku meant my first solo subway ride! Once getting my hands on an English subway map and deciphering the automated ticket machines, this was really quite easy. All the lines are colour coded and it is very easy to see (on the map) where to go. It gets a little harder once in the actual subway because there are a number of entrances and exits to each station, Shibuya has over 100! These exits can be a kilometre apart so it’s easy to lose your bearings.
- If I can could only give you one tip for Tokyo, it would be to get a subway map. It is your key to travelling around Tokyo. The trains that service Tokyo are not owned by one company but use the same tracks and platforms so it is essential to know which train you have a ticket for. There are manned windows throughout all the subway stations. Much of the staff won’t speak english so don’t expect detailed instructions but they can provide you with a map.
- All instructions, maps, signs and machines in the subways have english translations and if you look lost, someone is bound to offer to help you. Or you can stop someone and ask if they speak english, most will be happy to help.
Cherry blossom season in Japan can last only a few weeks, so I was very lucky to catch a glimpse of these famous trees on my journey to Harajuku. This was my first sighting of blossoms in Tokyo and they were beautiful!
I also had my first Shibuya experience enroute to Harajuku. This area is well known as having the busiest street crossing in the world. Directly above the station is a large intersection surrounded by buildings reminiscent of Times Square – covered in neon, advertisements, brand names etc. Waiting on either side of the intersection to cross was a crowd of hundreds, possibly even a thousand people!
Pictures do not do it justice. The crowds of people were mindboggling. This was my first taste of the crazy Tokyo that I was expecting. The whole place is sensory overload.
The area of Shibuya seemed to mostly be a shopping district. From here it was a twenty minute walk through the bustling streets to the Harajuku area.
- If you want to get a glimpse of the famous harajuku girls, head to Harajuku bridge on a Sunday for the best chance.
The entrance to Meiji Shrine is next to Harajuku bridge and one of my favourite sights in Tokyo. The shrine feels like it is within a secluded forest rather than the middle of a busy city because it is surrounded by dense trees and bamboo. There is a large surrounding area to explore. I found this shrine much more enjoyable than the Senso-ji temple because there were less tourists and there are no shops or markets nearby. At the shrine itself we were lucky to hear the deep, booming drums which (we think) are the call to prayer for the priests, who soon entered the shrine to worship. It is not possible to enter the actual shrine because it is an active worship place, rather there is a viewing area into the shrine.
- There are shrines and temples all over Japan. The two main religions in Japan are shintoism and buddhism. Shrines are shinto places of worship and temples are buddhist. Shinto shrines are where you will see the ‘torii’ gates; large archways that mark the entrance to the shrine.
Just a minutes walk away from the shrine is Takeshita-dori. This area could not be more different from the shrine and it is a perfect example of traditional and modern Japan existing side by side.
Takeshita-dori is hard to describe but I will do my best. It is overwhelming. It is a relatively narrow street but there is a lot happening. There are decorations marking the entrance to the street and the first thing you see is pink everywhere. Pink signs, pink shop fronts, pink lights, pink clothes. The street is lined with tiny shops selling everything from jewellery; delicate bracelets and earings with sake bottles dangling from them, to clothes; white tutu skirts and gold sparkly socks, to costumes; star wars and pokemon costumes, to arcades with flashing light and sounds.
All of this, combined with crowds of people spilling out of every doorway makes it hard to take in. It is a journey just to cross from one side of the street to another because of the waves of people (and the street is only two metres wide!).
Of course it had to be a sushi train for lunch, which was amazing! Everything is ordered via touchscreen, complete with photos of every dish which is very helpful if the menu is not in english. Minutes later the food comes zooming out on the conveyor belt. Dishes started at 180Y (about $2) and the variety for that price was amazing. I tried multiple nigiri sushi including squid, mackerel, otaro (the fattiest part of tuna considered the most flavourful), crab, fish roe and scallops. Delish!
- The main sushi you can find in Japan is nigiri sushi. This is not wrapped in seaweed but rather the ‘topping’ is laid across a bed of rice. Toppings are simple, usually a single piece of fish or other seafood. The sushi most popular in Australia is called ‘maki zushi’ and is not very common in Japan. Maki zushi in Japan is far larger than in Australia and is not made to be eaten on-the-go.
- The cheapest way to eat sushi, and indeed one of the cheapest ways to eat in Japan, is at sushi train restaurants. In Japan, cheap is not synonymous with dodgy. Food quality is high no matter where you eat. These restaurants sell more than sushi, they also sell sashimi, soups, salads, fried chicken, chips and sometimes even steak or other meat dishes.
- The difference between sashimi and sushi is rice. Sashimi is plain raw fish often served on shiso and radish, whereas sushi can be raw fish but the fish is a topping for rice.
Venture just a few side streets over and the whole scene changes. The people thin out, the shops become less colourful and more crafty and stylish. Ometo-Sando is nearby, a street famous for luxury shopping and trendy boutiques. This is a great spot for people watching. Keep an eye out for well dressed pooches!
I again ended my busy day with some food and socialisation in the form of a takoyaki party at the hostel. Takoyaki are octopus balls. Tako means octopus and this is chopped up and mixed into a batter. Yaki means to fry or grill. They are fried on a special hot plate and the batter is flicked and rolled until the edges cook enough to form balls. They can really be filled with anything and we tried some filled with octopus, cut up hot dog, vegetables and cheese. All for FREE.