Sunday, April 23, 2017

Exploring more of Shibuya, Tokyo (Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku and more)

Yoyogi Park
Yoyogi Park is one of Tokyo’s largest parks, and is located in Shibuya and next to the Harajuku Station.  The park has tons of trees, lawns, and ponds.  It was very peaceful when we went here in the morning.  We saw plenty of locals doing exercise and jogging.  In the autumn, the park is known for its ginko tree forest where all the leaves turn gold.  In the springtime during cherry blossom season (sakura), there are nice places to view cherry trees. 
We purposely did not want to travel during sakura because it is peak travel season and places would be too crowded for our liking.  On our visit to Yoyogi Park during the winter season, the trees were pretty barren without leaves.  Yet the views of the trees were still very beautiful.  We enjoyed a quiet and peaceful walk through the park.

Meiji Shrine
Our next stop was Meiji Shrine, a shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji. The shrine was completed in 1920, destroyed during World War II, and then rebuilt again afterwards.  The main complex is about a 10-minute walk from the entrance near Harajuku Station.  There is no admission fee to enter the forest and shrine, although there are few gardens that can be explored on the grounds that require admission to enter.      

To enter the shrine grounds, guests walk under massive tori gates.  These gates are really humongous and very impressive to look at.  
This transforms the environment from a bustling city into a quiet forest.  There are about 120,000 trees in the 170-acre forest.  While there were plenty of crowds visiting, we still felt relaxed being surrounded by the tall trees. 

The walking paths have small stone pebbles.  
Along the way we walked by hundreds of barrels of sake donated to the shrine.   
We arrived at the shrine just in time to witness a traditional Japanese wedding. 

The Harajuku neighborhood is full of trendy fashion, unique boutique shopping, cafes, and plenty of restaurants.  We walked through some interesting shops on our way to get food.  For lunch we were craving Japanese style tonkatsu, a type of Japanese food made of breaded and deep fried pork cutlet.  It is usually served with white rice, shredded cabbage and miso soup.  We found Tonkatsu Maisen on Yelp, and it was highly rated.  Located in Harajuku and a 15-minute walk from the Harajuku Station.   

At Tonkatsu Maisen, they serve different cuts of pork loin and fillets of varying levels of fat.  The fatter portions of pork were more expensive.  I had the kurobuta pork (recommended by our waiter) and it was melt in your mouth delicious.  
Although the pork was deep fried, it did not taste greasy at all.  The pork was perfectly breaded and crispy on the outside while remaining juicy and tender inside.  
The thick tonkatsu sauce was rich and flavorful.   My wife had the hamburger steak, which was very moist and flavorful.  The food portions were perfect. Our son loved sharing food with us.  Come early because the line gets long quickly. 

Tokyu Honten Department Store
After our first full day of walking around Japan, we discovered that our son’s shoes were now too tight for his feet.  He is growing so fast and seemed like his feet grew bigger overnight.  With Shibuya and Harajuku being one of the most trendy fashion districts in Japan, we thought it would be easy to find a place that sold shoes for children.  Boy, were we wrong.  We went to visit several different malls, department stores, and brand name stores (Nike, Adidas, etc) but found that they did not carry children’s shoes.

After doing some Google searches, I found out about the Tokyu Honten Department Store.  Luckily, this mall was a short walk from our Airbnb.  This huge 8-floor (plus roof floor and basement floor) department store had everything you could possibly want in a store, from restaurants to bookstores to pet grooming.  
We were excited to see that the 6th floor was completely dedicated to babies and children!  We browsed different toy stores, clothing shops, and shoe stores.  We were able to find our son a nice pair of proper fitting comfortable shoes (albeit a little pricey).    

On our way home, we had dinner at Paku Mori, a tasty curry restaurant.  Although the sign for the restaurant is on the street, it can be easy to miss because it looks just like a random advertisement.  The actually restaurant is one floor down a flight of stairs. 
I had the delicious chicken karaage curry.  The chicken pieces were crispy on the outside and moist on the inside.  
My wife enjoyed her vegetable curry.  It was full of flavor and very tasty.  

After another full day of walking, we were exhausted and ready to sleep.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Shibuya, Asakusa, and Sumida (Tokyo) with family

Our family had a great time exploring Shibuya, Asakusa and Sumida in Tokyo, Japan. My sister’s family (of 3) and my father joined us on our recent vacation to Japan.  Since we were a larger party of 7, we decided to book our stays with Airbnb.  We chose a host who offered 2 apartment buildings in the same complex near the Shibuya Station.  

We had our Airbnb costs covered by using Barclaycard Arrival+ miles

Since Shibuya was one of our favorite places to visit the last time we were in Tokyo, we thought it would be great to stay in the area again.  Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most busy districts, offering delicious restaurants, excellent shopping, fun nightlife, with close access to sightseeing and historic sites. 

For our first night, we enjoyed delicious miso ramen with pork and eggs at Oreryu Shio Ramen. 

Many restaurants and ramen shops in Japan have a vending machine system that is very efficient.  Before entering the restaurant, you pick the item(s) that you want and then pay for it.  The machine prints out a ticket that you hand to your waiter.  You can customize the texture of your noodles from soft, medium to hard.  Also you can customize the flavor of your soup from spicy to creamy.  Tipping is not customary in Japan so the prices you see are the prices you pay.  I love this system where restaurant servers are not incentivized to treat customers better based on tips, but instead treat every single customer with upmost respect. 

We started the first morning in Shibuya by walking around to explore the Shibuya crossing.  

It is the busiest intersection in all of Japan.  When the lights turn red, pedestrians from all over cross this area at the same time.  It’s quite an amazing sight, day or night. 

No trip to Japan would be complete without enjoying fresh sushi and sashimi.  One local favorite restaurant is Midori Sushi, where the seafood is extremely fresh, tasty, and reasonably priced.  

Come here early to grab a number and then walk around the Mark City mall while you wait for your number to be called. 

We enjoyed our time at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa so much the last time we came, that we wanted to share the experience with our family.  This Buddhist temple is Tokyo’s oldest (completed in 645) and one of the most colorful.  Sensoji Temple is a short walk from the Asakusa Station.

You pass under the Kaminarimon Gate on the way to the temple, with two statues of deities guarding each side of a giant red lantern.  The characters on the lantern say “Kaminarimon” or “thundergate.” 

Nakamise street runs over 200 meters and is the main pathway that leads to the temple.  

This shopping street offers many souvenir shops and food stands.

The main gate to the temple is huge.  On the backside of the gate is a pair of two giant straw sandals made by local citizens.  Outside of the Sensoji temple, you can buy amulets, fortunes, scrolls and incense to burn.

 Inside the temple, the ceiling has intricate artwork.  Don’t forget to look up.  

We were able to watch a dragon parade too!

On the way to our next stop, we made a quick stop at Mister Donut.  Here you will find delicious mochi donuts and coffee.  The mochi donuts were very soft and chewy. 

We can never get enough of aquariums and the Sumida Aquarium does not disappoint.  

They have various unique and wonderful sea creatures from the local waters. The best part of the Sumida aquarium was the penguin enclosure where we got up close and personal with them.  
The Sumida aquarium is located just right outside the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest structure in Japan.  While we didn't pay to go up to the observation deck, we got to admire the structure from the outside.     

We ended the day with dinner at Roku ramen, a small little shop a few feet away from our Airbnb.  This was another "vending machine" restaurant.

Japanese ramen is full of flavor and always hits the spot.  We had no problems enjoying ramen 2 days in a row.  All the walking during the day really tired us out and it was easy to fall asleep.

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