After waking up far, far too early, I made the Imperial Palace my first stop of the day. I’d expected just to be able to walk around the surrounding parkland, but when I got to the gate I discovered you could have a free guided tour. The tour is in Japanese, but there’s a free audio guide app which gives the tour in different languages. You can’t go inside the palace buildings, but without going on the tour you wouldn’t be able to see the exterior of most of the buildings either, so it is worth doing. The tour commentary was quite short and snappy, explaining the functions of the various buildings and providing some interesting context. I was surprised by how simple the design of the main palace was; it was rebuilt after the earlier building was destroyed during WWII, in a style that was purposely understated rather than decadent and regal. The Palace grounds are also lovely and tranquil, a complete contrast to other areas of the city where the lights, music and crowds never seem to stop.
After the palace I made my way to the ‘Character Town’ shopping arcade in Tokyo Station, which features shops dedicated to Miffy, the Moomins, Sailor Moon, Rilakumma, Pokemon, Sanrio and loads more cult characters and cartoons. It took me ages to find; Tokyo Station stretches for miles and there are so many different lines and underground passageways. It’s essentially the evil lovechild of Bank/Monument and Chatelet in Paris; the sort of place that weary commuters could easily get so lost in that they become feral and start sleeping in photo booths and burning copies of the metro map for warmth. I’d say that Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station and Ikebukero Station are the worst stations I’ve been to so far here; you just have to keep walking in the direction of the traffic and hope that everyone else is going in the same direction as you.
As well as way finding, I also struggled to find anything to eat in Tokyo Station; like everywhere in Tokyo it’s so hard to find anything vegetarian if you haven’t:
- An idea of a suitable restaurant that you’ve researched in advance
- Wifi connection to locate said restaurant.
Then there are things that *look* vegetarian, such as cheese filled gyoza, that turn out to be pork with some cheese added in for a bonus. Snacks and fast food have been my best friend, which brings me onto the lunch I found on my way to my next location, a branch of a fast food chain recommended in my guidebook, called Mos Burger. I had a soya pattie with spicy sauce and a nice slice of plastic cheese, served with fries and my favourite Japanese drink, Melon Fanta (Coca-Cola Peach is coming in a close second). It was really tasty, and cheap. It was also the first restaurant I’ve ever been to that provides free mouthwash and paper cups by the sinks, so you can go back to work after lunch smelling minty fresh.
My afternoon plan was to continue with the history lesson I’d had at the Palace, and I had planned to visit the Tokyo Edo Museum to get a feel for daily life during the period. Unfortunately I realised on arriving at the station that the museum was closed for refurbishment, so I headed instead to nearby Ryogoku, a lovely, quiet area dotted with shrines, and a small museum also dedicated to the Edo era. The Fukagawa Edo Museum is a detailed recreation of a long-destroyed city neighbourhood, complete with fully equipped houses and businesses. You can explore the museum by yourself, or with the assistance of the lovely volunteer guides, who are incredibly knowledgable and really bring each of the buildings to life with explanations of who would have lived there and how life would have been in that period. The attention to detail is fascinating; fire was a huge concern and the houses have small shrines above the stove to protect them from causing a house fire. There is also a recreation of a fireman’s watch tower, from where a watchmen would sound a gong if he saw a fire, to alert residents to how near or far away it was. In some houses residents had bundles of clothing and belongings ready to carry out in case of evacuation, so great was the risk.
The area that the museum is based on was home to sailors and fishermen; many of them were single, and there are recreations of the sort of snack stalls where they would have bought their evening meals (without women cook for them they had to rely on takeaways…). There are so many lovely touches about this place; one particular favourite was a model cat up sat on one of the rooftops, who miaowed whenever anyone entered the museum. It’s a bit off the well-beaten tourist track, but I’d really recommend this place to anyone who wants to understand how Tokyo might have looked during the Edo era. It’s also a bargain to enter, costing only 400yen for an adult.
The next stop on my itinerary was one that is far more common on the must-see list of visitors to Tokyo – the huge, noisy, beautiful and chaotic Senso-ji temple. It’s in Asakusa, which is a busy, bustling entertainment district, full of animal cafes, tourist shops, karaoke bars and massage parlours. Leading up to the temple itself are rows and rows of stalls selling traditional Japanese sweets and pastries, souvenirs, kimonos, swords and wigs – everything from high-end crafts to absolute tourist tat. There are also lots of places where you can rent kimono from, and many people visiting the temple were in traditional dress. The temple buildings are very pretty, and it’s definitely worth exploring, but don’t expect the tranquility and contemplative atmosphere of other shrines.
From Senso-ji I made my was to a neighbourhood called Kappabashi, aka Kitchenware Town. It’s an area where every shop sells kitchenware products, mostly for catering purposes. It’s most famous as a place to buy plastic food – almost every restaurant in Tokyo, regardless of the genre, will have model plastic food outside to show what’s on the menu. I also spotted the fake food used in museum settings (for instance faux-vegetables and noodles in the Fukagawa Edo Museum), and it’s far more realistic than the faux-food found in museums or shops at home. The triangular things you can see in the photo below are filled crepes – a very popular snack over here. It’s not just plastic food though. You can also find chef’s uniforms, table linen, knives, crockery, cake decorating equipment and pretty much everything else you might need in a home or commercial kitchen.
Exploring kitchenware town had made me rather hungry and I decided it was time for dinner, which yet again turned into a fruitless hour or so of searching and staring at menus, desperately trying to decide whether anything was vegetarian or not. Eventually I stumbled across somewhere I’d read about online that wasn’t far from my hotel – Ginza’s 300yen bar. It’s a basement bar where you buy tickets on entering, each of which costs 300yen and can be exchanged for one drink or one food item from the menu. The food was surprisingly good, small portions but tasty and freshly made. The bar menu is huge, and there are some quirky spirits available (I had lychee flavoured liquer with a sprite mixer). Although the food and drink were pretty good, I was very conscious that I was the only female customer in there, and the atmosphere made me a little uncomfortable, so I didn’t stay long. I’d definitely recommend going with a group though, and I think it’s a bit of an expat hangout. I just prefer to eat my pizza without being chatted up.