For someone whose mind is always filled with thoughts of Korean dramas, songs and their good-looking stars, Japan does not seem like a place for me. After all, I’m not an ardent fan of Japanese anime, I don’t listen to a lot of Jpop songs, and neither do I speak or understand any Japanese words besides “arigato”. But somehow, I ended up tagging along with my friends for our much awaited graduation trip to Tokyo. 😀
We took a morning flight from Singapore to Tokyo and landed at Haneda airport (International Terminal) by late afternoon. As we were travelling on our own, we had to find our own way to our hotel at Shinjuku. The airport staff all seem to be conversant in English, and signs at the airport were also written in English and (surprisingly) Korean, so navigation and communication at the airport wasn’t too difficult. We got our Suica transport card (good to get one if you will be taking public transport quite often) from the JR East counter and bought our airport limousine bus ticket to Shinjuku (1,230 yen) from the counter nearby.
The bus comes every 20mins (approximately) so the wait is bearable. Although we got stuck in a slight jam, the journey to our Shinjuku Prince Hotel (which was the last stop) was about 1 hour. The hotel is a short 10-minute walk away from the bus stop at Shinjuku train station, so you need to do prior research in order not to get lost. As most of the train lines intersect at Shinjuku station, the area is often crowded with people, so knowing your way around is important if you don’t wish to get swept away by the masses of people.Dragging our suitcases noisily across the pavement (not like anyone bothered since the place was already so noisy), we headed in the direction of Uniqlo and an overhead bridge. Go under the bridge, head straight till you reach a busy road junction (you will find the entrance to the underground Shinjuku-nishiguchi station on your left), cross the road, turn right and walk under a large bridge and you will find the hotel on the left.
I didn’t have high expectations of our hotel since I’ve read not too glowing reviews of it online and it was cheap, but the room exceeded my expectations. It wasn’t as cramped as I had thought, the room was very clean, they provided lots of toiletries, plus free packets of green tea to drink each day, haha. Service was also very good — the cleaning lady kindly covered up our unfinished cups of green tea and left a note, and the staff would never fail to greet us along the corridor. I certainly wouldn’t mind staying here again if I do return.
After settling down, we decided to explore Shinjuku. Our hotel is near Kabuki-cho, where you will find black-suited men trying to get customers to patronise their host clubs. There is also the occasional strange sight of enormous female robots travelling around the streets operated by sexily-clad women. We chanced upon a group of chinese tourists crowding around a building snapping pictures of…a shop with a huge signboard featuring a nude female anime character. Hmmmmm, very photo-worthy indeed. There are also a lot of arcade centres around where you will find office workers, still dressed in their office attire, totally engrossed in whatever video games they are playing. Walk into any bookshop or convenience store, and you will see men standing at the magazine section reading porn magazines. For someone who hasn’t been exposed to Japanese culture a lot, this is too much strangeness that I’m seeing within one night. I guess this is what you call “culture shock”.
We decided to have ramen for dinner. We had to place our order using a vending machine. Basically, you insert the amount of money that your dish would cost, select your desired dish indicated on the buttons (which are, unfortunately, all written in Japanese), then the machine will give you a ticket containing your order, which you then pass on to the waitress. Surprisingly, the waitress was a young Indian girl who could speak English and fluent Japanese (I feel so useless now). The ramen was delicious, but the broth was extremely thick, so we ended up having a hard time struggling to finish our meal. I guess we are too used to eating the diluted ramen in Japanese restaurants back in Singapore.
Next morning, we headed for the famous Tsukiji Fish Market located just behind the Tsukiji-shijo train station. The market closes by early afternoon (around 1.30pm), so you need to visit early to avoid disappointment. As we arrived there close to noon, all the fish auctions (which start at 5am) were long over, so you don’t get to see any fishes for sale at the market. That wasn’t much of an issue for us, since we were more interested in trying out the sashimi at the restaurants there. As we walked past row after row of restaurants, it was easy to tell which are the famous ones — those with a snaking queue of course! Not wanting to queue up for hours just to eat some prized sashimi, we decided to walk in to a random restaurant for lunch. It was a very tiny restaurant where all customers sat at the counter facing the chefs, and we had to squeeze our way through the narrow walkway (inevitably knocking into other diners along the way) to get to our seats right at the end of the counter. Although it was an entirely random choice of restaurant, we found the food satisfying enough. (View the restaurant menu 1, 2)
After lunch, we headed to Harajuku, known as a hip shopping destination frequented by teenagers and cosplay fans. I didn’t get to see many cosplayers when I went there though. As compared to Shinjuku, the shops here at Takeshita-dori sell clothes that appeal more to the fashion tastes of youths and young adults like me and the prices are slightly more affordable, but not dirt cheap. Being a very stingy person who refuses to buy anything above 3000 yen, I ended up buying only two pieces of clothing. In my opinion, Harajuku reminds me of South Korea’s Hongdae where you have shops catering to young people and there’s a distinct youthful vibe in the air, but minus the graffiti and buskers.
My friend, a fan of a Johnny’s Entertainment boy group, insisted on visiting their official merchandise shop here. We ended up spending quite a long time searching for it because the instructions we had found online were outdated. For those who are interested in visiting the Johnny’s Entertainment official store, you have to exit Harajuku train station via the Omotesando exit, cross the road and head towards the Gap store, go round the corner and turn into the first alley you see on your left. The instructions that we found online all mentioned a Play House situated at the alley, but that shop has since been demolished and is now a construction site, which explains why we kept missing the alley. Despite all that effort spent on finding the shop, it turned out to be quite a disappointment though. There were only photographs for sale at the basement, and despite them being official photographs, they seemed quite poorly taken in my opinion. Fans armed with DSLRs are capable of taking much nicer pictures of their idols themselves. But alas, I’m not a fan of any of these Jpop stars (I don’t even recognise them!) so my opinion doesn’t hold water.
Towards evening, we visited Koreatown next to Shin Okubo Station. It’s like stepping into South Korea again. Walk along the main road and you will find many shops selling Korean cosmetics, kpop merchandise and also Korean restaurants. I can see that TVXQ and Jang Geun Seok are the hottest stars right now in Japan, judging from how their merchandises are so ubiquitous here. We had dinner at a Korean restaurant with posters of kpop stars and actors plastered on the walls. The restaurant was operated by Korean staff and the food tasted authentic and delicious enough.