There’s Nowhere Like Nikko

Nikko is cradled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, and is famous for it’s natural beauty, most likely because it’s only 2-3 hours away from Tokyo’s concrete giants. In Nikko it seems no matter which direction you turn there are ranges covered in robust carpet of trees.

Mysterious mountains and Lake Chuzenji

Mysterious mountains and Lake Chuzenji

Nikko is also known as a cultural hotspot, hosting some of Japan’s most well known temples outside of Kyoto. I visited Nikko’s famous Toshogu temple, but I won’t really be talking about it here, because I have to admit something: I’m done with crowded temples overflowing with tourists. A temple or shrine should be a quiet, sacred place and when there are too many crying babies and laughing people and line ups to go everywhere it turns me off, so I can’t say I was particularly moved by Toshogu. Chuzenji on the other hand…

Chuzenji

Chuzenji

When I first stepped on the grounds I instantly liked the atmosphere. The sun was struggling to force some grey light through the cover of clouds above, which threatened rain. Maybe that was why there were so few tourists milling around. A low, gong-like bell was rang out lazily from a tall, pagoda shaped tower. The scent of incense, to me the scent of prayer, rose up in wisps of smoke from an urn in the centre of the main square. Nikko-Monk My friend and I joined about five or six other people on a tour inside the temple, led by a monk in blue. He explained the history of the temple and the gods enshrined there (all in Japanese), and then led us to an altar and invited everyone to pray. We all stood silent with our heads bowed. A sharp strike with a his stick on a bowl-shaped gong released a low reverberating chime. The sound was almost something tangible, almost breathable. I could feel it vibrating in my ears, feel it seep into my brain where, joined by the soothing smell of incense swimming up my nose, they coaxed my mind to be still for just a moment. This was the tranquil temple experience I had been looking for.

Next we tackled the senjo go hara hiking trail. At first, when I heard about the estimated three hour walking time, I didn’t want to go (Ugh hiiiiikiiing, but I’ll sweeeaaat). But it was highly recommended, so the original plan was that were were gonna do a half-hour mini hike, up to the next bus stop. But once we stepped into the forest and started the trail we decided to see it through to the end, and here’s why:

nikko-hiking

Even the sign at the start warning about bears couldn’t keep me from traversing this wonderland, and the hike was easy, more like a nature walk. There was a river to the left of us for most of the walk. and it’s soft bubbling made pleasant hiking music. But though the walk through the forest was beautiful, it couldn’t even hope to compare to when the trees gave way, and opened up onto the marshlands.

Nikko-Plains-1

No, that’s not a painting above, though at the time I had the dreamlike sensation that I was standing in one, the beauty is so unreal.

We ended the day with a trip to the Yumoto Onsen area. Here there are hot springs so close to the source of heat that there are vents with steam coming right up out of the ground, and the water smells like sulfur. After soaking in an outdoor tub at twilight, the mountains blocky shadows in the distance against a darkening blue sky, I both felt and smelled like a boiled egg. But my skin was tingling with the onsen’s magical powers.

I can’t recommend Nikko enough to any of you looking to come out to Japan. If you get the chance, go!

Hanging out in Hongdae, Seoul

This July I added another notch to my world-traveller belt by visiting Seoul, South Korea. Now, I have to admit something: since I’ve come to Japan I’ve pretty much had zero interest in visiting South Korea. One reason is, and this is putting it mildly, there is some bad blood between Japan and Korea, and I’m

Bubble Sistersashamed to say I bought into the bias against Koreans. Another reason was the Bubble Sisters–a Korean pop group who were told they weren’t pretty enough and needed a gimmick. Since they couldn’t be pretty, their gimmick was to make themselves look as ugly as possible. They decided to accomplish this by performing in blackface.

But if there’s one thing I find hard to resist, it’s the chance to visit a new country. Plus, flights from Japan to Korea are cheaper than the price of snow in Antarctica. So with four days of vacation spread out before me I decided it was time to grab a friend and head to the land of kimchi and see what was up for myself. And I’m glad I did.

Hongdae

Boutique in Hongdae

Boutique in Hongdae

I. Love. Hongdae. It’s just the place for the artsy type like me. The playground of indie entertainers, Hongdae is colorful, musical and fun. The main streets are loud with the sound of traffic and glittering with lights and signs from big commercial stores, but make your way into the side streets and it becomes more intimate. The atmosphere that of a perpetual festival. You can hardly turn a street corner without running into a crowd surrounding a crooner and his guitar, or a breaker and his funky fresh beats. There are also a lot of independent boutiques selling clothes and accessories, and about about 20 shops selling smart phone cases for some reason. And prices are low. I got a pretty swanky case for about $7 CDN. Plus there are vendors selling Korean food on every street corner.

Cafe in Hongdae

Cafe in Hongdae

And don’t get me started on the cafes. If you have a sweet tooth, welcome to your heaven. Hongdae is where I had what I’ve dubbed the best French toast of my life. It was fluffy and sugary and had slivered almonds on top. I think the secret ingredient was love. That or MSG. Anyway, the cafes are chic and beautiful. It was so hard to choose just one to stop into, which resulted in me eating about once an hour. Walking along the street it was all, “Oh! Look at that one it’s got big glass windows. No wait let’s go there look at the lamps outside I want to sit on the patio. Woah! That one looks like it was transplanted from Paris!” I wanted to grab a laptop, sit and eat French toast and write for hours. Best of all, there’s always space. One of the downsides of living in Tokyo is that although there are a lot of interesting bars, cafes and restaurants to visit, they’re often crowded or even full. Not so in Hongdae.

Nightlife

Walking back to our hotel one night, my friend and I ran into some young Koreans all dressed up like they had somewhere to go. One girl topped off her perfect blond bob with a black cap with leather studs. Another guy was in skinny jeans and red high-tops. They were the perfect example of Korean fashion. They actually called out to us in English! My friend is a schmoozer, and he asked where they were going. The answer? Ho Bar, a popular bar/club chain. I saw at least 10 of them sprinkled around the city. Long story short we stayed out with them until 3am dancing and doing shots. This branch was about five minutes from our hotel. Hongdae is the place to stay if you want to be in the centre of the club scene. Later on, as we were stumbling home through the deserted streets, who should we encounter but the two most dedicated street performers in Asia, singing and playing guitar into the early hours of the morning. And they were really good! It was like a private street concert.

Korean Food

Ginseng Chicken

Ginseng Chicken

The first thing I ate in Korea was their famous ginseng chicken. This is a bowl of soup, and sitting in the middle is a whole chicken, stuffed with rice, and there are big pieces of ginseng root in there. The flavour is pretty mild. I liked it because of the sense of accomplishment I got from eating a whole chicken. It was a small chicken, but still. Really makes me feel like I’ve become a success in life, that I’m able to do that.

Speaking of chicken, Korean fried chicken (KFC– that acronym’s up for grabs right?) is just as addictive as everyone said it would be. My friend and I found this place down within one of Hongdae’s side streets that had about twenty different kinds: spicy, saucy, seasoned, honey garlic you name it, I wanted to eat it. But remember, we had been eating all day so we could only manage one order. We got some chicken covered in red sauce number 5. It was a spicy taste sensation. It was so delicious that even though we couldn’t finish it all, and we took it back to the hotel and ate it the next morning, cold, it was still good.

Hongdae-BBQBut the highlight for me was Korean BBQ. We ended up going to two different places in one night. The first place was so-so, but the second place was really great. At a Korean BBQ place, first you grill up the meat, and then wrap it up in lettuce like some kind of healthy-alternative fajita, but it’s sooo delicious. At the second place the man who worked there was flirting with me and I got some extra lettuce out of him, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it Bubble Sisters. I’d recommend the beef and pork belly.

Even though I’ve always had some apprehension about visiting Korea, I was pleasantly surprised by Hongdae, a place full of art and fashion, friendly people and fantastic food. I would visit again in a heartbeat.

 

Okinawa: Japan’s Offbeat Islands

Okinawa

One place I’ve been itching to visit since I came here is Okinawa, which is a chain of islands to the south of Japan’s mainland. Descriptions of a place with a chill island vibe, chatty people, and palm trees waving under clear blue skies on picturesque beaches had me anxious to explore. If you ask someone Japanese about Okinawa they’ll say something like, “It’s nothing like the rest of Japan.”

And I have to agree. Naha, Okinawa’s capital, is home to military bases, America town and the famous Churaumi Aquarium. But even here the tempo and style is more like somewhere in south-east Asia, the opposite of Tokyo’s break-neck pace.

Kokusai Street

Walking along the famous shopping district, Kokusai street I wandered into many stores, lured by the slow, relaxing twang of Okinawa shamisen music. Inside I found island-y things, like fifty different colors of flip flops, or traditional Okinawan souvenirs such as pineapple and mango cakes, or the benimo (sweet potato) tarts Okinawa is known for.

The people are pretty friendly and likely to try to start up a conversation. It’s true, they’re also trying to get you into their restaurant or to buy something, but it’s still nice. And though Kokusai is a well-known tourist spot, it’s still not as crowded as Tokyo, and there’s something to be said for being able to walk without getting body checked by someone every five minutes.

Okinawa-Goya-Chanpuru

Goya Chanpuru

But the highlight of Kokousai street was the food. Okinawa is famous for goya—a really bitter gourd type thing that’s actually pretty gross on its own, but mixed up with pork, egg and tofu in goya chanpuru it somehow becomes amazing. The benimo tarts I mentioned before are crusty and buttery on the outside, and pure, purple goodness on the inside. Soki soba is one of the reasons I wanted to visit in the first place.  It’s noodles in broth with this big slab of the juiciest, most flavourful pork I’ve ever had. Tacos and taco rice are also really popular in Naha, likely due to the American influence.

Bouldering on the Beach

Okinawa-Beach-Forest

I went with a group of friends, and the five of us ended up at a beach way off the beaten path. The taxi pulled up, (quick note, taxis are much cheaper than Tokyo, especially if split five ways) dropped us off at the beginning of a gravely road leading into some dense trees and we were on our own. The trees shut out all noise, surrounding us in a world of green. There was something magical about it. Squint and an old, dirty bathroom could become an ancient ruin caressed by encroaching leaves. The air smelled like earth and plants and the ocean.

Okinawa-Beach-1It was only about a ten minute walk through this wonderland before the trees opened up and the beach spread out in front of us. It was deserted: there was literally no one else in sight. This wasn’t the usual sand and surf beach for swimming though. We’re all into bouldering, and my friend found this place because of the big rocks that thrust out of the sand, perfect for climbing. Even the coast was a jagged, broken line of rock bordering the ocean. It should have been ugly, but was somehow majestic, a reminder of the wonders nature can create. Plus it was kind of fun to hop and stumble over the rocks while trying to get to a pier a few yards away. The surface sometimes opened up into little pools, where tiny, electric blue fish darted around.

A walk down the beach finally turned up some other people, a few who were sitting on the steps to…an abandoned beach shack! I went all around, trying every door and window to get inside but it was no good. Everything was locked up tight. It’s probably for the best. I might have run into some surfer ghost, eternally waiting on his reggae punch.

Okinawan History

Okinawa-Shuri-CastleShuri castle is easy enough to get to. Just take the monorail and walk a while. This castle is unlike the other castles in Japan, in fact it looks more Chinese with its snaking wall surrounding the interior. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and is most famous for being used by the Ryukyu royals. The Ryukyus are the indigenous people of Okinawa. The style of the castle shows distinct Chinese influence, from the shape of the roofs, to the red colour and swirling dragon motifs done in gold. It seems the Ryukyus have had a close relationship with China, and the theory is that the first immigrants to Okinawa descended from China.

While Shuri Castle and the Shikina-en garden nearby were beautiful, the must enlightening part of this whole trip was visiting the Peace Memorial Park, which is a museum and monument to those who died in World War II. This one was harder to get to. It took an hour and a half long bus ride, but it was worth it. The curators held no punches, being frank about the devastation caused to Okinawans by both Americans and Japanese. I will never forget one room, where there were rows upon rows of books with accounts from civilians in the war. During the war, people often hid out in caves, listening to the sounds of constant bombing from American planes, the clatter of bullets from American guns and the rumbling of American tanks. At times Japanese soldiers stumbled upon a cave and, finding civilians already inside, kicked them out into the line of fire so they could hide instead. If they were kind enough to allow the civilian’s to hide with them, the situation was terse.

One woman recounted hiding with soldiers, who were irritated by the cries of another woman’s baby. Fearing the baby would give them away, a soldier told her to leave. The woman went outside for a while, and then came back without the child. No one dared to ask her any questions.

Another account was of people running during an attack. One girl saw a woman running frantically with a baby bouncing on her back. The baby had no head, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.

Okinawa has seen very dark times in its history, but it continues to bounce back and thrive, and has become one of Japan’s most sought out vacation spots for its luxury resorts, clear oceans perfect for scuba diving, world-class food and island philosophy. I hope to visit another one of Okinawa’s islands sometime soon.

Golden Week 2012: Kickin’ it in Kyoto

I know, I know, it’s been  like a month since I went to Kyoto and I’m now posting this, but here’s the thing…I think I did Kyoto wrong. Yeah, I visited temples, petted the deer in Nara, drank from a magic waterfall that’s supposed to give me luck in love (and I think it worked ;) ), but maybe I built Kyoto up too much in my head. Maybe it was the constant gloominess and rain while I was there, or maybe I was just all templed out, but though I had some novel experiences, Kyoto wasn’t *ALL* I expected. I think I need to go back…when it’s sunny. I will not give up on you Kyoto!

However there was one outstanding stand out: I got to see a Maiko Show. I couldn’t understand a thing but I was still enthralled, enchanted enticed and other words that start with “E”. At first there was some kind of Romeo and Juliet-ish star-crossed lovers’ story, then individual and group Maiko dances. I am a fan of the arts and this show was very artistic. Yep.  I loved the dancing, the shamisen music, the singing, the costumes, all of it. I couldn’t take any pictures though. I really, really, wanted to just sneak and do it anyway but I had this horrible vision of the noise or flash stopping the whole show. Imagine: everyone goes silent — the actresses, the narrator, the audience, and turns to look at me in pure disgust while I’m holding up my iPhone. I wouldn’t even be able to play the gaijin card ‘cause there were signs in English everywhere that said no video or photography…or else you will be subjected to a humiliation so thorough it will drive you mad. You will never be the same. At least I think that’s what they said, I can’t remember exactly.

I did of course have lots of fun taking pictures elsewhere, as always. Would you like to see?

Kinkakji, the "golden temple"

The View from Kiyomizu temple

Giant Buddhas at Todaiji Temple in Nara

Capsule Ryokan

Above is my little capsule at the hostel I stayed it. I really liked it. See, I am the opposite of claustrophobic, so I loved having my own little screened off space including my own T.V. that had Fox network. I watched House. You heard me, I went to Kyoto to watch House.

Gearing up for Golden Week

So last year I ended up farting around for Golden Week for some reason. I think I went out a couple nights, and made a half-assed trip to Ueno zoo because it was free on children’s day.  I went to see the pandas, but I didn’t get to see the pandas because the wait was something ridiculous like four hours. So I had to make due with the other, less pandarific animals like monkeys and tigers and that, the ones I coulda seen in a box of animal crackers

I digress.

This year I refuse to be so lame. I’ve planned and booked a stupendous Golden Week Extravaganza to Hiroshima and Kyoto — two of the places I’ve really wanted to go since moving here.  I’ll finally get to knock number two off my list of the 7 things I wanted to do in Japan.

Geisha in Kyoto

See the Maiko-san!

And from Hiroshima I plan to go to Miyajjima, and see the big red floating Torii.

 

Miyajima Floating Torii

This Guy

And I want to do a whole bunch of other stuff too, but I don’t know what yet. Any suggestions???

 

Whoa…I Wanna See That! (Another Top 7)

Before I  moved to Tokyo, I made a top 7 list of the most important things I wanted to experience in Japan. I’ve managed to do a few, like checking out Harajuku fashion on a Sunday, eating kaiten sushi and cherry blossom viewing in April, (which I almost missed because of a frantic trip back home after the 3/11 earthquake.)

But…I have a problem: since coming to Japan people keep recommending places to go, or I keep reading about people’s trips on other blogs, and now I have a ridonculous list of places I really want to see! Damn you Japan, for having so many beautiful landmarks. How am I supposed to visit them all? I guess I should just make another Top 7 list and try to hit those first. Places like:

Okinawa

Supposedly the Hawaii of Japan, Okinawa has tropical temperatures, blue skies and bluer water. I hear there’s a laid back “Okinawa culture” that can only come from spending all your free time lying on beaches like this.

Okinawa Beach

Aaaah...relaxing.

Sounds like paradise right? As if that wasn’t enough, the universe nudged me once again in Okinawa’s direction one day when I went to an Okinawa-themed izakaya in Ueno, where I ate this deliciousness.

Soki Soba

Get in Ma Belleh!

That’s Soki Soba… I think. Anyway it’s like udon, but with big slabs of tender, tender pork in it, and it’s sooo good. If it was that drool-inducing in some izakaya in Tokyo, it should be twice as splendiferous straight from the source right?

The Izu Peninsula

Izu

The poor man’s Okinawa… just kidding. Izu has a few things Okinawa doesn’t, like being closer to where I live and therefore costing much less money to visit. OK, maybe it is the poor man’s Okinawa. Ah! I know: one thing Izu has the Okinawa doesn’t is a great view of the honorable Fuji-san. And, I admit it, I still haven’t worked up the courage to visit an onsen (hot spring) yet, but there a few good ones in Izu so that might just be the push I need.

Miyajima

Miyajima Floating Torii

Cool.

According to the ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy, my personality primarily reflects the element of water, so maybe that’s why I love anything water-ish. Miyajima is the home of  Itsukushima shrine — a shrine that is built close to the sea and looks like it’s floating when the tide comes in. Perhaps it’s not the most reasonable place for a building in a country with such volatile nature (earthquakes and tsunamis and all that), but it makes for a beautifully fantastical image.

However, what I really want to see is the “floating” torii. I’m not sure why the image of this gigantic red gate in the water touches me the way it does, but to me it is the quintessential “Japan” image. There’s something majestic, wise and strong about that gate…even though it’s just a gate. Anyway, I really want to see it in person, and bask in its gatey-ness.

Haikyo

“Haikyo” refers to ruins — more specifically ruin crawling. This one’s a pretty new addition, inspired by blogs like Gakuranman and Micheal John Grist. I’ve always had a love of ruins. They should be depressing, but I just find them beautiful. I love the sense of calm, peace and finality to be found in ruins. Who knows maybe the sight of dead, dilapidated buildings with nature slowly but surely creeping back in helps me come to terms with the futility of life, helps me remember that this is just the matrix. One day I will become a ruin too, and no matter how much you gain in this earthly life, you can’t take even a speck of it with you, so it’s best to live life according to your passion, and try instead to leave something behind.

Anyway, here are a few inspiring samples of Haikyo exploration.

Gukanjima by Gakuranman

...not even if you were the last man on Earth

The Maya Hotel by Gakuranman

Stairway to Heaven?

Keishin Hospital by Micheal John Grist
I’ll go anywhere but here, because *clearly* there are zombies waiting inside. Exhibit A: the “Slow Down People” graffiti (zombies are notoriously slow).  In fact my theory is that MJG is a zombie as well, as he seems to have escaped this place “alive” and unharmed.

The Top of Mt Fuji

The climb up Mt. Fuji is a tough one, but if you time it right, and make it to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise, I hear the view makes the eight-hour (!) climb worth it. Honestly, I’m not very athletic and I’m not sure I’m going to make this one, but it does sound pretty amazing to be able to gaze down on creation from the top of a mountain like you were God him/her/itself.

Mt Fuji

Actually it looks kind of cold up there

Hokokuji Temple, Kamakura

Bamboo ForestWhen I was a kid, I used to go for walks in this big forest in my neighborhood, to be alone and release the worries of my childish life, like why all my friends had better sneakers than me, and how the boy I liked didn’t like me back. However it didn’t take long for housing developers to notice the forest too, and soon they chopped it all down to make way for more suburban sprawl, and my refuge was gone.

I want to go to Hokokuji temple to run through its famous bamboo groves, and relive even just for a little while carefree afternoons of my childhood.

 

 

Nikko

Temple in Nikko

I’ve had a few people recommend Nikko, before I even moved to Japan. And, probably due to my love of water that I mentioned before, what I’m all about in Nikko are the waterfalls!

Nikko Waterfall

A pretty waterfall

Nikko Waterfall 2

And another one

Kegon falls is the most famous, probably for all the trees surrounding it. People keep suggesting that the best time to visit Nikko is in the fall, because of the beauty of the changing leaves, so that would mean I need to get out there right… about…now.

So those are my goals for the next year or so. How about you? What are some of your must-see spots in Japan?

 

 

 

Things About Japan that were as Good as I Expected

My. Fuji

Don’t you love it when something is exactly as wonderful as you thought it would be? It just doesn’t happen enough in life, but I’m a lucky girl because here in Japan there are a few things that have thankfully turned out to be exactly as I’d hoped.

Japan FashionEveryone is Stylin’

On any given street in Tokyo at any given time there is a fashion show. Women and men are perfectly coordinated — even to do something as simple as go shopping for more fashionable things to wear. Yeah, it makes me feel frumpy sometimes when I can’t be bothered to do more than throw on my jeans and sneakers, but for the most part it’s inspiring! I love art and fashion, and it’s like Tokyo is a big fashion gallery.

Japan is Sightseeing Heaven

To say Japan is a beautiful country is a big understatement. I seriously doubt I’ll get to see all the places I want to see here, even if I stay for years. There are just so many! The traditional beauty of Kyoto and the Gion district, famous Miyajima shrine in Hiroshima, the beaches of Okinawa, the Islands of Izu, the forests of Nikko, the temples of Kamakura, plus dozens more places that are off the beaten track.

The Best Customer Service in the World

It’s almost shocking how far people will go out of their way to help you out. For example at the grocery store, I asked a stock guy for baking soda, and he told me it was on the first floor. I went upstairs and I had some trouble finding it, then out of nowhere he comes to my rescue with the baking soda in his hand. And people often apologize to me for not speaking English! Plus if you’re lost and ask for directions, people will usually either take you where you want to go or find/draw you a map.

The Food is really different…but really good!

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Since coming to Japan some of my favourite Japanese foods are Okonomiyaki, Udon, Japanese curry, and Japanese Shumai. I was a little worried about the food here because seafood is so common, and I wasn’t so much about the seafood back in the day, but everyone who had been to Japan told me the food was amazing, and I’m so glad they were right. Aside from seafood the most popular meat is pork, and I have no problem with that ;) . Japanese fried chicken is also totemo oiishi (very delicious).

For my fellow travellers and expats, was there anything about the country you lived in or visited that turned out to be everything you wanted and more?

Fishing in Shinjuku? Who Knew?

It was peaceful, sitting there on the bench with soft shamisen music playing as I watched the pink bait at the end of my fishing line dangling in the water, but that bubble of serenity was about to be popped. Fish after fish swam right by my bait, but finally one was foolish enough to nibble, and as his fishy mouth swallowed up the bait, I yanked on the line, and he began wriggling and struggling, sending water splashing as he fought his fate, but soon the fish was scooped up into a net, where he spent his last living moments.

“Sugoi! (Amazing),” cried the people sitting behind me in our big fishing boat, as I stood with the fish in the net. I had a moment to admire my catch before the waiter took it away to fry it up.

At Zauo restaurant in Shinjuku, the first hint that this is not the usual dining experience is when you’re seated on a bench in what is essentially a giant fishing boat, surrounded by a moat filled with fish.

Fishing at Zauo Shinjuku

As close as you'll get to being out on the open sea in downtown Tokyo

For a few hundred yen, the staff will bring you a fishing pole and bait, and you can fish for what you eat. In fact, if you catch a fish you get a discount. However there are no throwbacks: you catch it you eat it.

Fishing at Zauo Shark

Even if you manage to pull this bad boy

I’ll admit it, fishing for my own fish, and watching it struggle and die was kind of strange…bordering on disturbing. If you’re a squeamish or sensitive person, I wouldn’t recommend it. Still, I figured I wanted to eat fish, and someone’s gotta kill it right? And this way the fish is guaranteed fresh.

Fishing at Zauo caught a fish

Forget catch of the day, it's the catch of the *second*

So if you’re looking to do something unusual, (possibly a bit disturbing) yet entertaining for dinner try fishing at Zauo. The location I visited was on the ground floor of the Washington hotel in Shinjuku, but there are more locations throughout Japan.

This post is part of the November 2011 J-Festa: Dining in Japan.

Tokyo Where to Go: Tokyo Dome City

The Tokyo area (let alone Japan) has so many must-see attractions, amusements and places to eat I worry that even if I stay here for years I won’t see them all. But last week I went out with a friend and  added another notch to my traveler’s bedpost: Tokyo Dome City.

I love this place. From the moment I stepped out of Korakuen station and saw a giant roller-coaster snaking its way among the Tokyo skyscrapers, I knew this was a fun place to be full of exciting things to do. The main attraction is (of course) the Tokyo Dome Stadium. Maybe it’s the white, egg-shaped dome, that reminds me so much of Toronto’s own stadium affectionately known as the Sky Dome, that makes me like the place so much.

Or maybe it’s the amusement park next to it. There is a little girl inside of me that will never grow up — a follower of the church of Peter Pan. And that girl loves the sight of a roller-coaster or carousel or Ferris wheel. And a roller-coaster that twists among the buildings, literally passing through a hole in the nearby LaQua shopping centre — how fantastical is that? With God as my witness, I will ride that roller-coaster!

Unfortunately the rides at the amusement park weren’t the focus of my trip that day, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a blast! It started out doing one of my favourtie things — eating good food — at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

 

It’s not exactly Japanese food: If you haven’t guessed from the name, this is a Forrest Gump themed restaurant. There’s a recreation of the famous bench outside, Forest Gump’s white suit is inside a display case, and they’ve got the movie playing on screens around the restaurant. When you sit down you’ll notice there’s a sign on the table that says “Run Forest Run,” to let waiters know to give you some space, but if you want their attention you just flip the sign up to say “Stop Forest Stop”. Genius right?

It’s a bit expensive, but what do you expect of a theme restaurant within an amusement park? Lunch (baked salmon and rice with shrimp) cost about 1200 yen, but it was a set that came with soup and a drink.

The food was actually pretty good, especially the garlic bread appetizer. If you like shrimp, this is a where to go.

We had to walk off all that food, so we took off for a leisurely stroll around Koishikawa Korakuen Garden. The word that comes to mind when I think of this beautiful garden is “wonderland”. It’s an oasis of calm and green right in the middle of the city. The trees shut out the noise and it’s so easy to lose yourself inside the secret world the garden creates. It made me want to play make believe, pretend I was a princess in a fantasy world.

I was really moved, and inspired by the by the fusion of art and nature, and I got camera happy. Would you like to see?

And I wasn’t the only one. We saw one couple dressed in kimono taking pictures with the pond and cranes as their backdrop.

I had a fantastic time at Tokyo Dome City, and I would go back in a heartbeat, especially to check out the Spa LaQua — a spa/hot spring inside the LaQua centre. The hot spring water is brought up from underneath the building. Sounds like a great way to relax after a fun-filled day exploring the thrills of Tokyo Dome City.

My Secret Tokyo Paradise

Shimokitazawa

Everyone needs a place they can escape to when that ruthless steamroller called life has left you flattened on the sidewalk. For me, this place isn’t a peaceful temple with a quietly gurgling fountain, or a park with a path lined with bamboo trees.An Alley in Shimokitazawa

One of my favourite places to unwind in Tokyo is loud, flashy and busy, yet intimate too. It’s a trendy neighbourhood you’ve probably never heard of unless you live here. It doesn’t have the claims to fame of Shibuya, Shinkuku or Harujuku, but what it lacks in notoriety it makes up for in sheer charm. The area consists of one bustling main street that splits off into numerous skinny alleys that beg to be explored. There’s a vibrant, artistic and bohemian energy about the place that never fails to bring me back to life. It’s chilling on the cute designs decorating the doors of closed shops.

Door Design in Shimokitazawa

It’s glowing at you from the neon signs and the lanterns that line the streets.  It’s dancing in your ears as the laughter of impeccably dressed Japanese youth lounging on a bar patio. It’s tickling your nose as the smell of Japanese curry, Italian pasta and Thai soup.

I’m talking about Shimokitazawa, where you can always find a talented young musician on a street corner looking for, and often finding, an appreciative audience. That is, before they move on to live performances at one of the many clubs in the area. If you’re looking for up-and-coming J-talent, this is where you need to be.

Club 251

Cute accessories store in Shimokitazwa Tokyo

If it’s fashion that sets your heart racing, Shimokitazawa has — hands down — two of the cutest accessories stores I’ve ever seen. And there are quite a few second-hand clothing stores where you can get really stylish stuff for less than half of what you would normally pay. Trust me when I say you’ll lose hours browsing these places.

 

 

Or if you like games, there are blaring, colourful arcades that beckon you inside with their beeps, clicks and dings, promising fame and glory if you can beat the latest high score. Or you can try your luck at winning a prize in one of the game centres. I’ve seen everything from stuffed animals to cookware to perfume in these machines. I haven’t had much luck, in fact there’s an adorable teddy bear I’ve so far spent 2000 yen (about $20) trying to win with no success, but don’t let that stop you. After all, the chase is half the fun! And there are of course the obligatory pachinko parlours sprinkled around the place, for those who want to trust their fortunes to lady luck.

One day, Rilakkuma, you and I will be together.

The restaurants and bars in Shimokitazawa are some of the most exciting and beautifully designed I’ve ever seen, and judging by the crowds inside the food is just as enticing. Whatever you’re craving you’ll probably find it here. There’s traditional Japanese, Thai, Italian, and even a jerk chicken stall tucked away in a corner, with smooth reggae beats playing as customers sit at outdoor tables while a blue disco ball flashes over them.

In fact, disco balls seem to be a theme here, but you won’t hear me complaining because somehow, in Shimokitazawa, it works.

 

 

This post is part of the July 2011 J-Festa “Places in Japan”, over at Japingu.