My original plan for today had been to go out to Hakone, to see Mt Fuji and do the tourist loop, which includes rinding on a cable car and a faux pirate ship, both of which were hugely appealing to me. However, I realised the night before that I was running out of time to do all the other awesome things I wanted to in Tokyo, so after much deliberation I decided to stay in the city (and in doing so, save some money).
I’d packed up a picnic the night before, and the weather was rather lovely, so I thought a stroll around the Meiji shrine and Yoyogi Park would be an ideal way to spend the morning. Meiji is also right by Harajuku, and I wanted to explore the epicentre of kawaii culture in the daytime. I was struck by the tranquility of Meiji, especially given how close it is to noisy, non-stop Harajuku. Set in huge grounds, the walkways are shaded by trees and the whole area is absolutely pristine. It really felt like stepping back through time. My first stop was to the the Meiji-jingu inner gardens, a beautifully landscaped space, with a pond full of Koi carp, pagodas, an old tea house and a well, considered to have lucky properties. It costs 500yen to get in, and it was so quiet that it really felt like a secret garden. There’s also a gorgeous rubber stamp design to collect if you’re collecting stamps on your visit. You find stamps and ink pads like this all around Tokyo at popular tourist spots and even in some tube stations. They’re always beautifully, intricately designed, and if I’d known about the phenomena beforehand I would have brought a little notebook just for the purpose of collecting stamps.
After exploring the garden I headed to the main shrine area, and was fortunate enough to see two Shinto wedding ceremonies taking place, the brides in beautiful white kimono with huge white headdresses, known as tsunokakushi. The shrine itself is devoted to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and it must be one of the most beautiful and peaceful spots places I’ve had the privilege to visit.
After exploring the shrine I managed to get quite badly lost, having exited the park from a different path than that which I came in from. I walked around the back streets for quite a while before eventually finding my bearings and making my way back to where I’d started. By this point I was absolutely starving, so I made my way into Yoyogi Park to have the picnic which had been taunting my empty tummy all morning. There are lots of picnic tables near the entrance to the park, and I even got some free entertainment from some girls in matching outfits who were filming a slightly bizarre music video.
The excitement about my picnic was unfortunately short lived. The little boiled egg turned out to be (very) soft boiled (i.e. practically uncooked), and the packet of rice crackers I’d bought as a snack turned out to have small dried fish amongst them (luckily I spotted before I tucked in). It was all very disappointing, other than the edamame beans (which I could eat all day, every day) and the chocolate almonds, which fortunately no food manufacturer had decided to add freeze dried fish or some other weird and unnecessary bit of animal to.
After the disappointment of my picnic, Harajuku was the perfect antidote; it’s the kind of place that’s so lively and colourful that it would be hard to be uncheered by its charms (unless you’re one of those minimalists who likes a nice muted palette with no unnecessary frills or glitz. In that case maybe leave it off your itinerary). I started my Harajuku jaunt on the famous Takeshita-Dori street, an assault on the senses that reminded me a little of Camden Market, with a similarly young clientele and stores spilling out onto the street. It’s the place to go for the most outrageous and ‘out-there’ clothing and accessories, and I think my teenage self (a huge fan of anything pink, fluffy or sparkly) would have died and gone to fashion heaven. Even the food stalls on Takeshita-Dori are cutesy; you can buy enormous sticks of rainbow candy floss and crepes with every combination of sickly-sweet fillings, and the sugary smell fills the air. I bought a huge pair of dangly earrings shaped like lollipops, which I’ll probably never wear but which totally encapsulated the Harajuku style, and would have made 15 year old me squeal with excitement. I carried on from Takeshita-Dori onto Cat Street, which has more of a trendy vibe, with vintage shops and upmarket fashion labels, rather than the rioteous colour and kitsch that you see elsewhere in Harajuku.
I really wanted to visit another onsen, and the night before I’d found one online that looked really nice, and was reasonably priced. After all the walking I’d done that morning I decided to make it my next stop. The onsen is in Shinjuku, and it’s tucked away down a back street. It’s a modern building and the vibe is much more like an upmarket spa than the amusement park-esque stylings of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, which I’d visited earlier in the week. The onsen, called Thermae-Yu, was really quiet and un-touristy. It had a great range of pools including some lovely outdoor ones, and a steam room with mud for a face mask and salt for scrubbing off dead skin. Every little thing you could have needed was provided, from razors to exfoliating cloths, toothbrushes to hair ties. The yukata and towels were even provided in a handy bag to carry them around in. Like the previous onsen I’d visited this one also worked on a barcode system, so everything was accumulated on your account to pay at the end of your visit. I went to the spa area which had rooms full of crystals you could lie on, and loads of comfy pods and loungers to relax in. I wasn’t sold on lying on the crystals, partly because they were so uncomfortable and partly because I have no patience for lying about and doing nothing, and the novelty wore off after approximately 3 minutes.
Feeling suitably refreshed, I decided to head north to the Sunshine City complex in Ikebukuro, for what was without a doubt the oddest experience of the week. I’d read online about an indoor amusement park called Namco NamjaTown, that had immersive games and really cool theming. Finding it was the first challenge. The Sunshine City complex is absolutely huge, and I found that I’d be following a sign for a while and then the signs would stop, and I’d have no idea if I was still going in the right direction. I eventually made it and paid the entrance fee. I expected the amusement park to be heaving with people like the streets outside the complex were, but it was absolutely dead with just a few teenagers coming to play games after school. The staff were also mostly teenagers, and not many of them spoke English, however they were absolutely the friendliest and most helpful bunch of people, and they tried their hardest to explain the games to me.
It’s hard to explain what the games are like; they aren’t rides and they’re not really arcade machines either. Instead they are kind of like interactive challenges with weird and wacky themes. Some of them had English translations and instructions, but most of them didn’t, so it was quite tricky to understand. One of them, ‘Mononoke Hunters’, involved walking around the amusement park with a special monster catching device, that used NFC technology to recognise where the monsters were hiding. It was quite hilariously bizarre, but I did enjoy it. Another attraction involved looking after a large plastic bluebird, which you had to put into various themed bird boxes (a chapel, a toilet, a wine bar etc) in order for it to ‘grow up’. I’d probably recommend that unless you speak Japanese, you just pay the small entry fee and then pay for tokens for each attraction. I paid for the evening passport which meant I could (in theory) use all of the attractions, but as some of them required a good understanding of Japanese I didn’t really get good value for money. The theming in the park was brilliant though, and there are little food stalls selling gyoza (no veggie options) and sweet treats such as ice cream and crepes.
Just before I left I went to the bathroom, which was an attraction in itself. One of the cubicles is ‘haunted’, and it was so hilariously odd that I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh. Only in Tokyo.