#5: Do ‘hanami’ and #76: Go to ‘hanamatsuri’

It seems fitting that a post about Asakusa should be followed by something slightly on the more traditional side, so I’m going to talk about these two very special events a wee bit; hana matsuri and yozakura/hanami. Two things I have grown to love and will miss like nothing else when I return to New Zealand!

The importance of cherry blossoms in Japanese culture is hugely understated. Hanami, which means ‘flower viewing’, is an almost religious occasion in Japan and especially where I’m living, in Hirosaki. Hirosaki is famous for having one of the most beautiful sakura viewing spots in the country, and everyone was assuring me that the city would get really busy around Golden Week, which was when they flowered. Considering most of the time Hirosaki is a ghost town, I snorted and refused to believe them– but when we went to Hirosaki Castle for hanami– or rather, yozakura, which is evening hanami– I was stunned. People everywhere. If you could sit there, people were there. It was insane.

But nonetheless, I couldn’t argue with those guys that said Hirosaki’s hanami was one of the most beautiful you could see. The scenery was breathtaking against a clear, warm night.

Our yozakura was organized by my university’s Cross-Culture Club, and for the small price of 500 yen, we biked our way to the castle, spread out a few tarpaulin and were provided with delicious Japanese snacks and chu-hai (oh my god, I adore chu-hai!). Halfway through a lukewarm teriyaki hamburger, we decided it was dessert time somehow, and we went off to explore the many food vendors that surrounded the castle grounds. If you could eat it, you could buy it– I loved these stalls!

 Anything someone with a sweet tooth could dream of was here. Pastries, traditional Japanese sweets such as dango and daifuku, icecream, bananas covered in chocolate, little cakes with custard cream, red bean or matcha cream inside (which is what I bought!), alcohol for insanely cheap prices– and that was only the sweet stuff! Senbei, yakitori and ramen were other popular sellers by the looks of things, and no matter where you went, whatever was in front of you smelt insanely good. I ended up a custard cream bun and a chocolate covered banana, the latter half courtesy of one of my Korean friends.

a very blurry photo of us!

A night of admiring the stars and the flowers, drinking a crapload of melon and orange flavoured chu-hai amongst good company– I wish NZ would take up this festival. Sadly, the day after we went to hanami, Hirosaki decided it’d have a huge downpour for 3-4 days so all the sakura were destroyed, but at least I had my one chance and loved it.

The one consolation that came from all the sakura dying such a horrific, untimely death was that shortly after the sakura bloom, the apple blossoms bloom. Hanamatsuri is meant to be a celebration of the birthday of Buddha, to the best of my knowledge, but the execution of the celebration is a lot like hanami. When we cycled to Hirosaki’s Apple Park on a balmy 20 celsius day, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but when we arrived I was pleasantly surprised. Hirosaki and Aomori are famous for their neputa festival that happens in August (sadly after I leave), and for the hanamatsuri, some of the neputa floats were being displayed and moved around.

There was also a traditional music band, whom I think were also primarily practiced for neputa serenading us as we ate a plethora of delicious food. Gotta have the food.

the apple park, surrounded by hirosaki’s mountains.

our windfall of delicious grub.

It was such a fantastic experience– sitting on a woven mat, listening to a neputa band, the sunshining and a piece of asparagus wrapped in bacon on its way into your mouth. Gosh.

I’m going to miss Japan!

#19: Go to the Sensōji Temple in Asakusa & #74: Do my omikuji

If there’s one thing I love about Japan, it’s their classical architecture– and even in Tokyo, the world’s biggest city, beautiful buildings are either right next door or simply a train ride away. Asakusa was very close to where I was staying in Tokyo, so of course I wanted to go visit this famous landmark, the Sensōji Temple and the Kaminari-mon (the THUNDER GATESSSSS.) To get there, we took the Toei-Asakusa Metro for two stops from Asakusabashi, and the metro exit is really close to the temple.

We ended up making our way there just as the sun was setting, and I have to say, it was far more beautiful at dusk than it would’ve been during the day. The temples are rigged to be beautifully lit up and it’s simply breathtaking.

the gate!

There’s a long shopping arcade before you come up to the temple, mostly filled with traditional items (fans, chopsticks, yukata, etc.) and food, which are really interesting to take a peek into!

the temple is a popular tourist destination, so it’s usually very crowded.

traditional snacks!

kabuki masks.

There’s also a wee omikuji booth near to the temple, where you can draw your fortune. There are large wooden hexagonal boxes full of sticks sitting on the desk, and to get your fortune, you shake the box until a stick falls out the hole in one end. It’ll have a number written on it, and that’s your fortune! Unfortunately, I got a ‘half fortune’, which ’til this day, I still cannot figure out whether it’s good or bad.

If you get a bad fortune, or one that you don’t like so much, you hang it on this little rack next to the omikuji booth to negate it!

#10: Experience a capsule hotel & #71: Make backpacker friends

All my bucket list posts so far have been during my stay in Tokyo, but my base when I was staying there was one of the highlights of my travel in Japan so far, and I’d like to write a little about it here! I’ve traveled a great deal myself but I’ve never had an authentic backpacker experience– sure, I’ve stayed in a couple in New Zealand, but I’ve never been a foreigner dumped in a strange city with a load of people don’t know. Well, I tried it, and I loved it!

Being a student on a very tight budget, staying somewhere central, cheap and nice was at the top of my list when I was considering accomodation in Tokyo. Naturally, in the world’s biggest city, you’d think, ‘pick two of those. That’s what you get.’ I was actually quite apprehensive when I finally stumbled sleepily towards my accommodation after around two days of travel, but I was extremely surprised!

I stayed at Khaosan Tokyo Ninja, located in Bakurocho, Tokyo, in one of their ‘deluxe cabin beds’ which was really just a glorified capsule. Points for me, ’cause I could just cross another thing off my list!

Whoops, excuse the blurry photo.

Anyway, my wee cabin was my home for two weeks at around $35NZD a night, which was extremely decent for somewhere close to two railways, literally a two minute walk away. The place was always warm, close to a supermarket and yeah, it’s kinda cramped when you’re living in a box for two weeks, but that’s an experience in itself. The only bad thing I really have to say about Khaosan was that the beds were next to impossible to sleep in– they’re made out of plywood, so whenever the person in the top bunk shifts in their sleep, an almighty CREAK resounds throughout the room.  When there’s 20 of these in a room, too, you can hear what everyone is doing. So sleep was elusive, but fun was aplenty!

All in all, I would recommend this place as somewhere to stay, but probably for the younger at heart. If you want a good night sleep, please get one of the dorm rooms, not the cabin room, unless you’re a particularly heavy sleeper.

it even looks like a ninja.

don't forget to take off your many shoes!

the receptionists were so kind-- they really made the stay so much less stressful!

a bleary view into my capsule. it had two powerpoints, ooo.

the lounge, complete with vending machines. handier than you'd think.

khaosan's kitchen, all the free tea and coffee you can drink.

When I blearily stumbled into the lounge/basement of Khaosan after arriving in Tokyo, running on next to no sleep thanks to a delightfully turbulent flight over the Pacific Ocean and a bad reaction to plane food, I wasn’t allowed into my cabin because check-in started at 3PM and I had made a bright and early entry at 11AM. ‘Well, that’s it.’ I think to myself, tripping over one of the many raised steps I would fail to notice in this country. ‘Hopefully I’ll just pass out in the corner and no-one’ll draw a moustache on my face.’

But despite the churnings of a beef and potato breakfast in my stomach (what were you thinking, Qantas??), there was still a spark of excited oh-my-god-I’m-in-another-country-let’s-do-all-the-things about me, and after finally aligning myself to sit down properly, I noticed some other backpackers chatting in the lounge. Naturally, the best thing to do, heavily jet-lagged, would be to introduce myself.

The people I introduced myself to then were the people I spent the rest of my two weeks together with in Tokyo, and I would never take a moment of it back.

Despite coming from New Zealand, Okinawa, America, Spain, Brazil, England, France… we got on like a house on fire, and I still miss these guys like crazy. Every morning we would convene in Khaosan’s lounge, surrounded by maps and guides deciding what today’s adventure would be. Sightseeing in Tokyo wouldn’t have been as fun without them! For example;

rather unphotogenic picture of me, but mayumi and i making sushi for khaosan's dumpling party.

in front of tokyo big sight in odaiba!

sensoji in asakusaaaaa.

i think we've got chile, japan, australia and new zealand here!

finally, a photo jonathan took of arisa, mayumi and myself. love these girls. :')

And that’s why I was pretty sad to say goodbye to Tokyo!

#75: Drop in at a Pokémon Center!

Even though some of us are getting to an age where we’re feeling ashamed to admit it, we all loved Pokémon at some euphoric part of our childhood or another. There were the figures you could trade in the playground at primary (I had a Hitmonlee, a Vaporeon and a Jolteon– two of which I still have today!), there were the Gameboy games, which at that time were a status symbol– if you had a Gameboy, you knew you were pretty awesome. Unfortunately my father refused to let me play video games until I was a little older, so I had to merely watch, but even watching someone else play made you feel awesome. There were the books, there was the TV show that you rushed home to watch as if your life depended on it.

For my generation,  Pokémon was in its prime, and for many of us, the love still hasn’t died. Just last year I played through Pokémon Platinum and loved it– just as I remembered. The nostalgia. Pokémon will always be cool.

So, I’d heard a bit about Pokémon Centers in Japan and thought that it would be definitely worth a look, especially since it was very close to a train stop and therefore very accessible.

If you’re planning to go there, make sure you have an updated map, as the Center has recently moved from its previous location to Hamamatsucho! I almost didn’t catch this. In fact, even knowing the real location, I walked around seemingly blind for about 30 minutes in Hamamatsucho, unable to find a building that looked like the magnificent Pokémon Centers I had seen on TV as a kid growing up. SO.

Once you leave the station, cross the pedestrian crossing right in front of the station and turn right. Keep walking for about a minute and you’ll come across a huge glass shopping center– if you take the huge escalator up to the first floor, the Center will be there waiting for you.

The shop was everything I could’ve dreamed about and more– they even played the Pokémon Center MUSIC from the games. Over and over again. The staff were extremely nice as well, and the guy serving me at the checkout even asked me what my favourite Pokémon were. This was a tough question to answer, purely because no-one should ever have to choose just one, and partly because the names in English and Japanese are not the same! ):

If you’re a Pokémon fan, this store will be your heaven. If there’s something you want, they’ll have a Pokémon version of it. You can buy Pokémon lunchboxes, drink bottles, hats, red-bean (anko) cakes in the shapes of Pikachu, figurines, watches, t-shirts. You can even buy Pokémon shaped macaroni and I was sorely tempted to do so, but this gigantic wall of soft toys caught my eye and, well. Girls are suckers for soft toys.

Of course, being the extremely diligent university student I am (hah!), I have no idea who these Pokémon are as they’re from the two new games, Black and White, and I’ve yet to have any time to play it. They look adorable, though I do start to question the character designers when one of the new Pokémon is an ice-cream… but anyhow! I picked my swag out carefully, which was difficult considering there was very little ‘old’ merchandise to choose from.

I bought a pixelated (adorable) Pikachu folder for ¥210, a Hilda phone strap for ¥350, which is now hanging off my very basic Softbank phone, and a soft Mudkip plush for ¥700ish. It even came in this awesome glittery bag, which just added to the huge amount of excitement. To be 9 again!

 If you want to venture here yourself, definitely check out the Center’s homepage!

#73: Visit a cat café

With the best of intentions, I set off the other morning with a few people from my hostel, cheerfully headed to the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Blinded by our hubris, we were originally planning to change trains to get from Asukusabashi to Tokyo Station– but when our first train came along and we saw it proudly stated it was going to ‘Tokyo’, we were like, yup. Cool.

10 stops later, we were on the other side of Tokyo and hadn’t come anywhere near Tokyo Station. Curses. Lesson learnt: if the train says it’s going somewhere, check the map. Because it’s probably just trying to trick you into a one-hour long sightseeing loop, courtesy of JR.

Anyway, on the other side of a city of 24 million, we got off at Ikebukuro Station and decided to go to the cat café there instead– kinda like the Imperial Palace, but fuzzier. I’ve read a lot about these places online and I was dying to see what they were like (being an avid cat fan myself), so off we went!

The one we chose to go to was called Nekorobi, and I had a fantastic time there. You can find their English website here, which explains their rules pretty thoroughly. There’s also a map there, but I found it didn’t really help us that much, as we still had to ask a group of Japanese ladies where it was (and they were kind enough to walk us there!). From Ikebukuro Station, it’s about an 8-10 minute walk. Basically, go straight when you leave through the East Exit, then walk until you get to a main road with a train track above it, and it should be a block or so to your right. The entrance is kinda hidden too, but there’s a big Nekorobi sign and it should point you into an elevator lobby where the café is on the third floor!

MEOW.

Firstly, you have to open and shut the little gate before you open the main door, otherwise you’ll probably have some rogue cats on your hands. Shoes go in the little book-case like thing next to it, and there are bags provided to put your shoes in if it’s raining outside.

cute wee doors!

Next, you’ll be greeted by a staff member and instructed to both clean your hands and then sanitize them in the bathroom. You can also store your bags in lockers, free of charge, which is kinda nice! The price to be in the café was ¥1000 for an hour, but it was fairly reasonable for what it was. For this amount, you get unlimited hot or cold drinks from the vending machine;

blendy. haven't tried it yet, but ridiculously named.

Even the signage is catified!

You also get unlimited complimentary cookies, use of the café’s Wii and flatscreen (which we played a couple of Japanese women at Mario Kart and got our asses kicked on), and of course, the loving company of the furry employees.

This wee guy was called Kantaro, and was highly unimpressed with the general proceedings.

Purin and Kinako.

This guy actually fell asleep just patting the wee grey cat. I don't blame him-- that white mat is heated! Such luxury.

It was a really relaxed atmosphere in the room, apart from one poor wee guy who was extremely unhappy about having a bath and getting brushed afterwards– tortured meows permeated the room every now and then as the two staff members struggled to get his knots out.

REOWWWRRRRRRRRR.

On the whole, though, I was surprised how friendly and well-behaved the cats there were. My cat back at home isn’t even a lap cat, so it was kinda cool how these cats would just rock up to you and go to sleep.

Anko is also unimpressed.

This cat, Doraemon, is gorgeous-- but seriously, I also want that pillow. It's amazing.

Sugar, taking a nap.

There are also some cats you’re not supposed to touch– if they’re sleeping inside a cage, it means they’re taking a rest from being around humans, and this cute wee sign on the cage says not to play with them.

Oyasumi chuu desu!

A master of the real-estate market.

On the whole, I loved my time here and would recommend it to anyone staying in Tokyo for a wee while! It’s the kind of experience you won’t be able to get many other places, so take the opportunity if you can.

And that's it, folks!

After that, we had some food, shopped for a bit and went our separate ways. I was totally floored by how huge Ikebukuro was, though!

This store was just floors and floors of pink and Hello Kitty.

The above was actually a Bic Camera outlet store on one of the main roads in Ikebukuro. The deals in there were staggering– on the 5th floor, you could get PS3/360 games for about ¥400 each, a hair-curler/straightener (new) for ¥1460 and a rice cooker for ¥500. Crazy!

Ikebukuro Station is something it itself to behold, as well. There’s a number of shops inside it, as well as a humongous food court which was both decently priced and amazing to look around. If there’s one thing Japan is good at, it’s food presentation! Mayumi and I bought  a box of 5 slices of assorted tarts from this shop for ¥1050, which was awesome!

There were some strong contenders for my spare change, though…

#11: Go up the Tokyo Tower & #72: Visit the Meiji Shrine

It’s now my sixth day in Tokyo, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The sheer amount of people is still overwhelming for me at times, but at least I can catch a train now and not get lost! I hunger for some things like New Zealand dairy products (you can buy ‘fake’ camembert here, but it’s a joke) and yogurt… but unfortunately, it’s going to be some time before I see a Mainland or Waimate cheese again! I’ve been steadily chipping away at my bucket list, though, in the company of some awesome backpackers from the hostel I’m staying in.

The whole affair has gone fairly smoothly so far, and I have very few disasters to report– apart from getting lost at 10pm on my way home from Shibuya, which involved a fairly tearful and disjointed explanation to a policeman in a kouban (policebox). In the end I managed to get back by following the train, so if you get lost in Tokyo- retrace your steps, or go back to the train station and start again! I have asked so many Tokyoites for directions since I’ve come here and they’re insanely kind/helpful. You will never be left wanting. (:

I wasn’t particularly excited for Tokyo Tower, simply because I’m from NZ and we have our own Skytower in Auckland, which I reckon is higher– there are glass floors that almost made me pee myself they’re so high up. Tokyo Tower was a nice experience and it was good getting to see the Tokyo skyline, so I do recommend it if you have time!

It cost ¥810 to go the first observation deck which is 150m above ground, and then it costs another ¥500-600 to go to the second deck, which is 250m up. I didn’t go that far because 1.) it didn’t seem that much further and 2.) the wait was 7o minutes to go up there! I think it was so busy for us because we went at the best time (sunset!) but we weren’t prepared to spend that much more for so little value. And waiting.

The best time to go was definitely around 5-6pm (winter is just ending here in Japan), so you get to see beautiful views of the sunset of Mt. Fuji, as in the above photo! To get there, it’s an easy walk from Akanebashi Station, which is one of the Metro stops, and there is a delicious crepe shop at the foot of the tower which I highly recommend! Personally, I got a chocolate/banana/cream/icecream crepe, which was kinda the best thing I’d eaten all day!

The lights on the first observation deck get turned on as it turns dark-- they look beautiful!

A rather small looking window through the floor of the first observation deck... wasn't that scary!

More Tokyo skyline!

This cute wee tower was a tribute to one of the broadcast facilities that is based on Tokyo Tower.

Tokyo Tower at night.

We were lucky enough to see the tower in daylight and at night-time, which was awesome! Lit up, the tower looks insanely beautiful. After stopping by a jidouhanbaiki (vending-machine) and buying a hot bottle of tea, we headed back.

It was a little unintentional that I ended up at the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, but I’m glad that I went! Originally I went to Harajuku on the Sunday to take photos of cosplayers/visual kei fashion aficionados on the Jingu bridge, but there didn’t seem to be anyone there but these awesome guys:

Cute.

 Intrigued, myself and Mayumi (a backpacker I’m sightseeing with!) went over and hugged them– well, I got a hug from the lady second from the right, but Mayumi insisted on hugging every one of them. When I asked the lady who hugged me なんでこれをしていますか? (why are you doing this?), she replied that they wanted to put smiles on people’s faces– gorgeous! I wish there were more people that kind-hearted in the world. Anyway, there were no cosplayers there, so searching for something to do, we looked to the end of Jingu bridge– and there sat Meiji shrine! So, off we went.

Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his Empress, and the architecture is simply gorgeous. We went on a very fine day, so it definitely helped! To get to Meiji Shrine, you can catch the Yamanote Line to Harajuku, then turn right as you leave the station. Keep going straight and eventually you’ll see the Jingu bridge, and the shrine is at the end of that!

WEDDING ARRANGEMENTS. I assume they'd be super expensive, though.

The wall of sake casks on the way to the main shrine. Complimented by...

... a wall of French wine casks on the other side!

The entrance to the main shrine.

The main Meiji shrine.

Prayers hung up inside in the shrine!

Some of the gate architecture in the shrine.

Phew! The Meiji Shrine is free to enter, though if you want to go into the garden there, it costs ¥500. We didn’t because it was only a garden (sorry!) and there’s still a lot I have to do in Tokyo, but it looked beautiful from the outside!

#34: Do the Shibuya scramble crossing

Well, I made it to Japan. After 1 1/2 days of traveling, a thrilling 10 hour wait in Sydney airport, having my toothpaste thrown out in Australia and my toothbrush in Japan, I finally made it, tired and horribly unprepared for dental hygiene. When I say tired on arrival… I can’t even begin to describe how shattered I was when I finally made it to Narita Airport! There was turbulence on my night flight from Sydney to Tokyo, which in itself was terrible because I couldn’t sleep, but also because I hate flying and turbulence makes me flip my proverbial waste– that, and I happened to find myself in the midst of a 70 strong Japanese high-school convoy that seemed to be returning to Tokyo from Sydney for a school trip.

I didn’t have much sleep the day before either, having realised I didn’t have a travel document wallet and coming to the obvious and sensible conclusion that I had enough time to sew one together before I left NZ. I did, but in hindsight, that should’ve been sleeping time and not sewing time. Stylish, though.

Okay, so, anyway. Japan. Bucket list. Things! This is my fourth day in Japan so I’ve been incredibly slack, but Tokyo so far has been a huge blur of awesome people, trains and my feet hurting like nothing I’ve ever quite experienced before. At least I’ve knocked a few things of the Japan Bucket List that I can write about now– and my previous fear of the Tokyo trains is now allayed. I am a Tokyo Train MASTER. I can even get on one and not get lost!

The Shibuya Scramble. Something to behold, for sure. I had been told how busy this intersection was, but I had never really considered how it would actually feel to have about 2,000 people walking towards you with the bent intent of getting to the other side in just a few seconds. Coming from a tiny Kiwi city, I didn’t know quite what I had gotten myself into as I repeatedly bumped into EVERYTHING in my path, but it was an experience I was glad to have. I went through it the first time with a couple of friends at about 11am, and it was fairly tame, but I returned today at rush hour and… I have no words. I have never in my life seen so many people in the same place, heading straight for me.

The scramble is just outside Shibuya Station at the Hachiko exit, and you can watch it from the Starbucks there– but beware, the line is often out the door and seats watching the scramble are prime real estate. It’s the it place. You can also get a good view of the scramble from some places inside Shibuya station, which is easier than standing around watching it– if I’ve learnt anything about Tokyo, it’s that no-one stops.

My first visit to Shibuya was a fantastic one, to be honest, and after traveling around Tokyo for a few days, Shibuya is the place I love the most. There is so many things to do and diverse shops, that it’s hard to get bored there– I imagine I will be visiting it a lot more before I leave for Aomori. A couple of my Kiwi friends and I met up at Hachiko, wandered for a bit, had curry, sang karaoke, wandered some more, did purikura, went to Shinjuku, and it was just an awesome day on the whole!

Also present was another Kiwi friend off to Keio University! I wish Ryan & Siobhan the best for their travels to Osaka/Kansai University, and the definite awesomeness & adventure that will follow them. In the meantime– more things to cross off the bucket list!

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