While sometimes it may seem that we are obsessed with food, eating isn’t the only thing we do when traveling. We swear. Yes, Part I of this blog series was all about food, but we actually did a lot of non-food related sightseeing in Tokyo as well. In between meals, our favorite way to explore a city is to simply walk around and see where the day takes us. Many travelers we meet spend all day zipping around in taxis, trying to see everything. That’s not our style. Sometimes we take off in the morning with a specific destination in mind, but more often than not we just head out with a map in our pocket and wing it.
Our first few hours in Tokyo began as a quest towards the Sensō-ji Temple Complex, which we heard is the temple to visit if you time in Tokyo is short. It was a nice temple, but surrounded by hordes of tourists and neighbored by a small amusement park. It definitely was not the highlight of our trek through the Asakusa neighborhood.
Along the way to Sensō-ji we caught our first glimpse of the brand new Tokyo Skytree. This building is all the rage in Japan at the moment; you can’t possibly walk one block without seeing a corny Skytree souvenir stand. The Skytree opened in May 2012 and is now the tallest structure in the country and the second tallest in the world. People sign up months in advance to go the top. We of course had not planned that far in advance, but had a photo shoot along the Sumida River.
When we had finished admiring the Skytree, we didn’t really know what to do next. So we just picked a direction and started walking. Fortunately, our choice was a good one, and we stumbled upon a fascinating shopping district. We are not talking about a cutesy outdoor mall with clothing boutiques. You see, we have come to realize that most cities in the world have entire streets, sometimes even whole neighborhoods dedicated to selling a specific grouping of products or services. We don’t know how so many competitors manage to survive in such a small geographic space, but somehow they do. Often we find ourselves walking down the street saying something along the lines of, “Oh, this must be the diapers and toilet paper section of Hanoi” or “Here is the power tools block in Istanbul” or “Man, this wedding invitation street runs half way across Prague.” Well, this particular shopping area of Tokyo was solely dedicated to selling kitchen gadgets and restaurant supplies.
We spent hours exploring this part of town. We know it sounds strange and you are probably thinking, “They went all the way to Tokyo to visit a Williams-Sonoma?” After reading-up on it when we got back to our hostel, we learned this area of town is called Kappabashi, and Kappabashi is a crazy place. In this neighborhood, you will find entire shops that sell only plastic food for restaurant window displays. Others manufacture and sell hundreds of the most incredible chef’s knifes we’ve ever seen. There are stores that sell only antique items, while their neighbor specializes in the most cutting edge culinary equipment.
Amazed and over stimulated from our thorough exploration of Kappabashi, we journeyed off to find some…yes, you guessed it…food. Lucky for us, we happened upon a parade that led us straight to a festival where tasty street food was being served. After a few minutes on this street, we noticed that all of the men were wearing waist length robes, many of which exposed areas where the sun doesn’t shine. We still aren’t sure what the festival was all about, but snapped a short video of it that you can watch here or by clicking on the image below.
On our second day in Tokyo, we took a tip from our hostel and hopped on the subway towards the Imperial Palace. We were forewarned that many tourists do not find the palace interesting since you cannot enter the gates, but we went anyway. Determined to get a good view over the palace walls, we began to circumnavigate it in hopes of finding a good vantage point, but after 30 minutes it just didn’t seem possible. That’s when we pulled out a wild card and went with a move that has worked well for us in the past. Other budget travelers will want to write this one down as many places (the Skytree for instance) charge a pretty penny for a nice view. We hate paying for views. We located a tall hotel that bordered the palace, walked confidently into the lobby, found the elevator and pushed the button for “club level.” Once at the top, we put on our best smiles and talked our way into the club member lounge on the top floor of the Imperial Palace Hotel. There we found the view we were looking for!
Next, we hopped on a subway and got off at a random stop called Shibuya. This is where we found the stereotypical Tokyo that we were looking for: crowded streets, flashing lights, crazy fashion, and surprises around every corner. Respect and honor may mean a lot in Japan, but they still have their seedy parts of town.
Our visit to Tokyo was full of unexpected twists, and our departure was no different. A typhoon rolled into town on our last night there, which not only made for a soaking and umbrella-breaking journey to dinner that night, but also a deviation from our original flight plan. We can’t say that we were upset about the detour (the airlines can’t control the weather after all), but after 24 hours of travel and one unplanned night in a sketchy hotel in Guangzhou, we were happy to arrive in Hanoi.