Today is our last day in Tokyo and I’ve saved some of the best for last – a place that has always been synonymous with Tokyo to me, the Tsukiji Market.
Quick Guide to Tsukiji Market
The Tsukiji Market is the largest fish market in the world, a feat that has single-handedly propelled it to one of the top attractions for any tourist coming to Tokyo. However, it’s not really a tourist attraction at its core, it is an actual wholesale market serving as the middle ground between fishermen who brave the dangerous seas and the restaurants that aims to serve the freshest sashimi to the masses. Before I talk anything else about it, this is probably the most important thing to keep in mind about Tsukiji as a tourist – it is a a place where thousands of people descend upon every morning before dawn to do serious business. Now that’s clear, Tsukiji is also a premier tourist attraction for its sheer size and the variety of seafood you can find there. Here you can see some of the most high quality and freshest seafood in the world, literally straight from the sea, and sample almost everything you can imagine (as long as you’re wallet can back you up).
It is located on the east side of Tokyo near Ginza, not too far from Tokyo Station. From Shinjuku Station, the Toei Oedo Line provides easy direct access to Tsukijishijo Station, from which Tsukiji is a short walk away. Alternatively, you can make your way to Tsukiji Station on Tokyo Metro’s Hibiya Line for an even shorter walk to Tsukiji.
The market itself is split into two parts, an inner market and an outer market. The inner market makes up most of Tsukiji and consist mainly of a giant warehouse type structure where all the wholesale action takes place. This is also where the famous tuna auction is held too. For the uninitiated, the tuna auction is an almost daily auction where all the tuna up for sale is laid out on the ground for the buyers to inspect, before they bid for the one they want. It’s a fast paced auction that consists of unique hand signals and words, even fluent Japanese speakers will have no idea what’s going on. The auction is free to watch, but there are only 120 spots available to the public each day, which is given out on a first come first serve basis starting at 5 am. The scarce supply means that to guarantee yourself a spot, most people show up way before 5 am to line up in the dark and in temperatures that can dip below 0 in winter. Not to mention that’s also before trains start operating, so you’ll need to get there via taxi or try find accommodation nearby for that night. That was too much for us, we weren’t willing to put in so much effort and still have a risk of being turned away. I’m not going to outright recommend against doing it, but if you’re really interested in watching the tuna auction then make sure you know what’s required of you logistically and plan accordingly. Again, this auction is where serious business gets done so as a tourist make sure you follow all the rules and minimise disruptions. I do recommend you go check out this page from Japan Guide has lots of more in depth information around everything Tsukiji-related, including the tuna auction.
The outer market is what tourists will normally associate with the word market. It’s a small area next to the inner market that consists of a few blocks of narrow streets filled with shops. Of course, the main theme here is seafood, so come on an empty stomach, full wallet and get ready to eat to your hearts content. You can opt to spend your money at one of the many sushi restaurants and go for their omakase menu. The omakase here will be just as good as a top tier sushi-ya elsewhere in Tokyo, but much cheaper at around 3,000-4,000 yen for around 10 pieces of sushi. The two most famous sushi-ya in Tsukiji are Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa, which are practically neighbours. However, even the less famous ones will have a ridiculous line way before their opening time, so unless you’re willing to get there super early then be prepared for at least 1 hour wait to up to 3 hours on weekends for the popular spots. Alternatively, the rest of the market is made up of stores selling portions of seafood directly to regular customers, i.e. non-wholesale, where the lines are a lot shorter and overall a bit cheaper.
Before you go, here’s a few things to take into account when you’re planning:
- The market has been around Tsukiji for 300 years, and the building housing the wholesale market is 80 years old, so it’s finally time to upgrade. The Tokyo government building has been delaying the move for a couple of years now but I think it is *finally* been settled. The inner market is scheduled to close on 6th October 2018 and move a short distance across the bay to Toyosu and reopen on 11th October 2018 as the Toyosu Market. While the outer market will still remain in Tsukiji for the foreseeable future, it just won’t have the same authenticity without the wholesale market. I’m glad we got to see the OG before the move, and I’d suggest if you’re on the fence about going to Japan to do it now! Of course, that is assuming they go ahead with the move that’s been delayed so many times now…
- Tsukiji isn’t open every day, make sure you check the official calendar to see which days it’s closed (usually Sundays and Wednesdays, plus a few odd days here and there). Basically avoid any days in red on the calendar.
- Try to get there early if you want to see the action. Around 7 am is probably a good idea if you want to line up for a sushi restaurant, otherwise 8 am is enough to give you a few hours to walk around. The action really dies after noon, with the inner market closing around 1 pm and the outer market closing around 3 pm. If you want to watch the auction, then be prepared to get up around 3 am to line up for one of the 120 vests they give out.
- The inner market is very messy and wet, so bring appropriate clothing especially shoes. I think they won’t let you inside with thongs.
- Lastly, can’t stress this enough, be your a tourist and this is their place of business, so be respectful!
On this beautiful Saturday we arrived at Tsukiji with Jono and Mayan, the New Zealanders from our hostel room last night. They no clue what Tsukiji was but thought it sounded cool so they tagged along. Now depending on which direction you enter the outer market from, the first thing you may notice is that not everything is seafood. The very first stall we saw in the outer market actually sold wasabi, a plant-turned-condiment that’s commonly served with a variety of Japanese food, notably sushi and sashimi.
Most people probably will say they’ve tried wasabi and it’s unforgettable flavour, and seeing as I’m terrible with words I can’t really describe it for those who’s never tried it. It’s often described as spicy but I wouldn’t really call it that, at least not the same type of spicy as say hot sauce or chilli. It produces a vapour that stimulate your nasal passage rather than the tongue, so when you eat it you’ll feel your nose heat up rather than the burning sensation in your mouth that’s associated with “regular” spicy food, e.g. if you ate spicy curry, buffalo wings or Sichuan dishes. Just try it and you’ll know what I mean.
However, it would probably surprise most people if I told them they probably never actually had wasabi before. That is because most of the “wasabi” you get in a small package at your local sushi takeaway is a synthetic mix of horseradish and mustard (which are from the same family as wasabi) plus food colouring to make it look like real wasabi. Real wasabi is grated from the root of the wasabi plant, which are difficult to grow and thus very expensive. It also loses its strong flavour 15 minutes after grating, so it must be served fresh. Therefore, unless you’re in a relatively high class Japanese restaurant, it’s unlikely for you to be served the real deal.
The next thing we saw was also not seafood in the strict sense of the word, but it is getting closer. Katsuobushi or bonito flakes is another common addition to Japanese dishes. It is essentially dried, fermented and smoked bonito, a type of fish, shaved into thin flakes.
Most people would recognise this as the flakes served on top of takoyaki or okonomiyaki, which are both served hot. When placed on hot food, the heat waves cause the bonito flakes to move around as if it is dancing, creating a pleasing visual effect that you probably remember seeing before.
Once you get past the outer fringes of the market area, that’s when the seafood starts appearing. Feel free to try anything that catches your eye, but remember most of the retail stores aren’t selling things in small portions for tourists to try, but rather catering towards locals who come here to buy stuff for their family dinner, so it’s best to try split something amongst a few people so you don’t get too full off one dish. Other than that, I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.
Most people don’t realise that Tsukiji is not actually just a fish market, which is why I always avoid specifically calling it the Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s actually got a sizeable section in the wholesale area of the inner market dedicated to fruits and vegetables, which tourists mostly don’t get to see. Some of that flows into the outer market as well.
Nah just kidding there’s nothing actually wrong with these strawberries, but I bet not many people have seen white strawberries before in their lives. Technically known as pineberries, these were the result of cross-breading different species of strawberries. The technique to get it white is already difficult and the results are usually smaller than red strawberries, so it must require some Herculean effort to get it both white and massive! However, when done correctly these look amazing, and I’m told it’s not just white on the outside but the flesh inside is also white! Of course, its rarity means it’s also super expensive, so expect to pay around $10 each. That’s right, not a kilo or a packet, $10 for a single strawberry G_G. If they sold these individually I would’ve got one just to try it out, but selling these in packets of what looks like 10 is not something I can afford 😦
If all this browsing has made you hungry, then head towards the middle of the outer market where there’ll be plenty of stalls set up to sell individual servings of various street foods to serve hungry tourists like us.
So as you can see with the price tags, nothing here is cheap by any standards. Obviously the 8,000 yen wagyu skewers are out, but I couldn’t resist trying the mentaiko look alike and the big scallops. Once you order, they grill it over charcoal for you before rubbing it with some soy sauce.
Ignoring the cost, these were pretty awesome. I’ve never really been disappointed by grilled scallops before, while the mentaiko had a burst of flavour when you first bite into it all the eggs. I can’t really describe the taste, it was salty and fishy. Karl wasn’t ready to blow his load so early, in fact his not that fond of eating seafood, raw or otherwise, early in the morning. So as a sweet tooth he went for a mochi snack from an adjacent stand.
There were plenty of other street food stalls we saw but didn’t get a chance to try.
And then we finally came across it, the one thing I really wanted to try here – ootoro, the fattiest of fatty tuna. I was hoping it would be part of the omakase menu at Sushi Kanesaka, but it didn’t crack the rotation that day, not even chuutoro the medium fatty tuna :(. Being the most expensive part of the tuna, I just wanted to try a little bit of the best of the best, and I thought there’s no better place to do that then at Tsukiji.
Well never mind, I thought to myself, as I saw the price tag of these small cuts of ootoro on sale at Tsukiji. That piece of ootoro on top right can’t be more than 250 grams and it’s going for almost $90!!!. I was pretty much ready to give up on tasting ootoro, until I came across one particular stall that was absolutely packed with people and I could hear someone shouting loudly into the crowd. After squeezing my way to the front, I saw what all the fuss was about.
A sushi chef was cutting up portions of tuna live and selling them off to the crowd fresh off the press. It was pretty cool to watch, he would cut a piece of the tuna off before handing it off to his assistant to put it on a plastic foam plate and be glad-wrapped. By the time it’s packaged, the chef has come up with an rough estimate of the price of that piece and whether its ootoro or chuutoro (no akami scrub here). Then it would either be snatched up right away, or the assistant will write the price tag on it and put it in the freezer in front. Unfortunately it was too crowded for me to take a video, I could barely hold my ground with the legion of tuna fanatics trying to jostle their way to the front.
I really wondered how accurate he was at estimating the true market price of what he cuts up, but I figured if there’s anywhere to get a good bargain for chuutoro it’d be this place. I wasn’t prepared to jump the gun when he initially set the price as he was talking way too fast for me to hear the price and quality accurately. So I waited patiently as he sold off pieces and pieces of the tuna he was cutting up, until finally a piece that looked like ootoro and wasn’t too big made its way to the freezer. I grabbed it, examined it and confirmed with the chef it was indeed ootoro by yelling at the top of my lungs, and he offered a price of 2,500 yen for the piece of ootoro in my hands. Deal!
Then got my ass out of there real quick and we found a building next right beside the market which had even more stalls inside, but crucial also had an open area on the rooftop for people to enjoy their purchases. Seriously, there’s gonna be no space on the ground for you to eat peacefully. Unfortunately, here is where our problem started. We forgot to ask them to cut the piece up into pieces, so we were looking at a sizeable chunk of ootoro with no way to split it up between us. I’m not proud of what happened next, but we basically went full savage and used our hands to pry it apart…Of course we didn’t get chopsticks either, so we had to eat it with our hands too…
That’s when we realised why it was cheaper than the other ootoro floating around. See all the white parts on that piece of ootoro? I thought since fattier tuna is lighter in colour, the white part was like extreme godlike fatty tuna, but nope. The white parts are actually really chewy and barely edible, not like bones but like the ligament or some shit. Basically only the pink parts are what I consider the “meat”, and when we did taste the “meat” it was actually very delicious. However, given that significant chunk was the whitey parts, plus having to eat with our hands, made it a very awkward experience. We basically had to hold the white part with our hands and try rip the pink meat off with our mouths. I really hope nobody was watching us.
If you compare the piece we bought and the really expensive ones above, you can easily see that the pieces going for 6,000 to 7,000 yen plus were about the same size, but were almost flawless in terms of texture. They were basically all pink flesh with no whitey bits. Clearly, the old man chef knew what he was talking about when he offered us 2,500 yen for this piece. Therefore, learn from my mistakes – pick a piece without the white parts and get them to slice it up for you, and if you want to taste true ootoro glory, get ready to pay.
Speaking of the old man chef, when we first saw him he looked kinda familiar. During out few days around Tokyo we’ve seen a few stores of a chain sushi restaurant called Sushi Zanmai, some are sushi trains while some you order a la carte. But every one of them prominently displayed the following ad that featured what I can only assume to be their founder:
See the resemblance? When I got home I zoomed in on the picture I took of him cutting up the tuna, and you can make out the Sushi Zanmai logo on his white chef jacket. I’m 99% sure that is actually him, the founder of Sushi Zanmai (which originated in Tsukiji), albeit a little older with more grey hair but still getting his hands dirty at the stall that started it all (there’s a proper Sushi Zanmai restaurant here in the outer market too if you want to try it, but like all other sushi restaurants here there’s a long line). I can respect that. So all in all it wasn’t too bad, got to see a minor celebrity and participated in a lite version of the tuna auction, kinda ^^’.
Plus he scammed us good with that shitty piece of ootoro 😥. Real recognises Real.
However, I vowed that I was going to get my hands (and mouth) on a good piece of ootoro one way or another, no matter the cost, while I’m in Japan. So let’s see how that goes.
By now it’s about 11 am, and the wholesale area in the inner market opens up to the public after 10 am so we went to check it out. Most of the activity has died down by 10 am, so a lot of the sellers have either already packed up or are winding up their operations for the day. To get a sense of how much tradition is in this place, one needs to look no further than the fact taht they have their own unique form of transportation here.
The wholesale area feels quite different to the outer market, it’s fairly quiet, no giant crowds (but that could be the timing) and most stalls definitely look like they’re just trying to sell to restaurants, i.e. none of the colourful packaging or sales pitch to attract tourists.
Another thing you notice with the lack of tourist is that the sellers assume anyone who’s seriously considering buying in here knows their shit. So there are barely any signage around telling us what exactly they’re selling apart from the price tag, which makes for a lot of guesswork…
However, one thing I definitely recognised is the big fat chunks of meat that is undeniably tuna.
I’ve eaten tuna all my life in various forms, okay mostly canned tuna because tuna sashimi isn’t actually that popular outside of Japan. But I had never occurred to me just how humongous the actual tuna fish is. I just assumed they’d be the same size as the regular fish I eat, small enough to fit on a plate like what you’d get at a Chinese restaurant. Of course there are species of tuna that are about the size you’d expect of a regular fish, but the commercially fished ones are easily the size of a regular person and the the biggest, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, can grow to more than 4 metres and weigh more than 600kg (wtf?). Just look at these people cut up the tuna…
To give some perspective, this is a picture taken inside the tuna auction, all credits to Japan Guide.
If you get the chance to watch someone cut up a tuna from scratch, I’d highly recommend it because truly a work of art, like a carpenter at his craft. They use some ridiculously long and sharp knives and if you’re lucky and polite they might even let you hold it to pose for a photo! I only got a chance to see someone cut up a chunk of tuna meat, and that was already pretty cool.
I still wasn’t quite satisfied at this point, especially after that less than ideal piece of ootoro, so we headed back out to the outer market and scouted around for more food. This time we went inside the building where we at our ootoro on the rooftop and checked out what was sold inside. Mostly the same stuff so I didn’t take more pictures, but they did a unique meat that I haven’t seen yet.
Can you guess what this is? I was only able to tell by recognising the kanji. This is kujira or whale meat. You know, the ones Japan hunts for uhh scientific research purposes, wink wink nudge nudge.
Okay I do believe generally it is wrong to hunt whales as they are endangered, but at the same time I think people shouldn’t pretend they’re “better” or claim moral high ground to judge other people’s culture. So for example I love dogs, but if Chinese/Koreans want to eat dog because that’s been part of their culture for hundreds of years then I think that’s fine, as long as they’re farming them humanely and not hunting down people’s pets. Westerners eat meat and slaughter cows and chickens all the time, it’s really not any different. So by similar logic, I give the Norwegians a pass on hunting whale since that’s also been part of their culture and history. Japan does also have a history of whaling dating back centuries, BUT the fact is that very little of the population actually consumes whale meat nowadays, so I think their constant excuses about to needing to kill whales for “scientific research” is complete bullshit. Honestly, I think it’s just a bunch of old conservative Japanese politicians who are incredibly stubborn and want to uphold their tradition for the sake of it. To be fair I see their point of view though, who are all these white guys who has no understanding of their culture to tell them what they can and can’t do, and what part of their culture is right or wrong? Especially Australia which is has been locked in a battle with Japan for years when it comes to whaling, let’s be honest we have no culture, we’re barely 250 years old as a country. However, if the Japanese whaling boats cross over into Australian waters then that’s another story!
That being said, I was still really curious about what whale tasted like so I got some to try.
I wasn’t sure whether the chunks of whale meat on display was actually edible as sashimi, so I got a small packet that looks like it’s meant for immediate consumption, I think it’s whale sashimi but marinaded in some sauce. The sauce was really good but I think it masked the taste of the whale so I can’t tell how good it was 😅, or maybe whale doesn’t actually have much flavour, hence the need for the sauce. Anyway, I don’t see the fuss and since there’s plenty of chicken and cows out there, I think we should just leave the whales alone.
Given my failure with the ootoro, I couldn’t resist getting something to at least make up for it. So I also grabbed another box of tuna nigiri that had both akami and chuutoro. It. Was. Worth.
By now it’s basically peak lunch time and the outer market has become even more flooded with tourists, so it’s a good thing we’re pretty much ready to leave.
Truth to be told, there wasn’t much left to do in Tokyo by the time I was planning this day, so it’s a good thing it’s our last full day in Tokyo. I planned a fairly chill afternoon back in the west side, visiting the famous Meiji Jingu. You might see this place as Meiji Shrine, using the English translation of the word jingu. The Meiji Shrine is located in a right next to Yoyogi Park and together makes up a giant forested area that’s kinda like an escape from the chaos of metropolitan Tokyo right in its heart. The whole area is so big that there are 7-8 metro/train stations surrounding it, so you’ll have plenty of option for which entrance you want to take. I’d recommend either entering from the east side using Harajuku Station if you’re on the Yamanote Line or Meiji-jingumae Station if using Tokyo Metro, or from the north side getting off at Yoyogi Station, also on the Yamanote Line.
We got off at Yoyogi Station and walked to the northern entrance to Meiji Shrine. Like any shrine in Japan, you know you’re on the right track once you see a torii gate.
The shrine grounds are very quiet and peaceful, so it’s an excellent place to come for a stroll especially if you need a break from the intensity of the big city. It’s hard to comprehend that a place like Shinjuku/Shibuya, literally the polar opposite of peace and quiet, is a mere 20 minute walk from the north/south end of the shrine grounds.
Who is Emperor Meiji
Now for a quick history lesson. Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken, constructed a few years after their passing. If you know anything about Japan’s history then you have probably heard of Emperor Meiji. His most important contribution to Japan was bringing about a period known as Meiji Restoration. The Meiji Restoration is the story of how Japan went from a mostly agrarian economy controlled by warriors in armour and swords to the number 1 Asian power within just a few decades. During this period, Emperor Meiji restored power back to the emperor, bringing an end to the feudal era of Japan where shoguns (kinda like warlords) ruled and emperors were a mere figurehead (although technically real political power went to a small group of nobles and former samurai). He also spearheaded the modernisation of the Japanese economy and society, opening Japan to the western world and enthusiastically adopted western ideals and technologies, such as western clothing, steam engine trains, and of course, ditching the samurai sword for modern weapons like guns and cannons. Japan industrialised rapidly and built up a formidable army & navy that won several conflicts against traditional western powerhouses like Russia, thus establishing Japan as a regional power in Asia on par with other European powers and gaining enough respect to be invited in the “Divide & Conquer Asia” party. Although he actually died quite young and before he could see the fruits of most of his efforts, these achievements credited to Emperor Meiji have made him one of the most revered and influential person in Japanese history.
Meiji Shrine itself is also one of Japan’s most popular shrines. On the first day of New Year (which is only 2 days away!) Japanese people traditionally visit a shrine to pray, and apparently more than 3 million people comes to Meiji Shrine, more than any other shrine in the country. I have already planned our shrine visit for New Year, that won’t be happening for us here, but Something else you can often spot at Meiji Shrine is traditional Shinto weddings. I really wanted to see one in action so I did lots of research – there’s a special Shinto calendar which specifies how auspicious each day is and Shinto weddings will almost always only take place on the really good days. The calendar itself is completely in Japanese, but basically the days in red are the best, or you can try match the characters:
- The best day is 大安 followed by 先勝, you’re chance of catching some action is the highest on these days
- The worst day is 仏滅 followed by 赤口, pretty much don’t bother on these days, if the couple is committed enough to do a Shinto wedding, you can be pretty sure they aren’t gonna choose these unlucky days
Once you reach the main complex of shrines, you’ll be welcomed by another torii gate.
At the centre is the main Meiji Shrine itself, which unfortunately is under renovation in time for it’s 100th anniversary in 2020 and is expected to continue to late 2019. So we could only admire from afar
Luckily there are a few more things to check out here. The grounds can be a bit confusing to navigate, so use the map on the official website if you need it. If you head up northwest from the main shrine building, you’ll reach a large open area that looks like a popular picnic spot.
Up here there are two sites of interest. One is the Shiseikan Dojo or Martial Arts Training Hall. You can’t actually go inside as it’s used for practice by actual martial arts practitioners, but today they were practising archery so we could catch a glimpse from the outside.
The other is the Treasure House, which is a museum displaying personal belongings of Emperor Meiji. However, this is also currently under renovation for the 100th anniversary. In short, there’s probably no point in the foreseeable future to come up here haha.
We traced our steps back to the main shrine building and this time instead went further south through a fancy gate rather than a torii gate.
The path south will lead you past what might be mistaken for rows and rows of lanterns or drums, each with a unique design.
In fact, these are sake barrels known as kazaridaru, a common decoration outside Shinto shrines. Sake has traditionally played a role in the Shinto religion as an offering to the gods, so sake manufacturers often donate these decorative barrels to Shinto shrines to pray for good business. And in case you’re wondering, these barrels are empty.
A little further and you’ll find the entrance to the Meiji Jingu Inner Gardens, a large Japanese style garden often visited by the Emperor himself in the past. Unfortunately, this garden requires an entrance fee, which is fairly steep at 400 yen. Not knowing if it’s any good inside during winter, I decided to give it a pass but Karl was not deterred. We had about 2 hours to kill before our next stop, so for the first time in Japan we split up and wandered off on our own.
I first circled back to the main shrine because I was still bummed I didn’t see a Shinto wedding take place, even though I picked the most auspicious day in red :(. For my last ditch effort I thought I caught a lucky break finding a crowd entering a building next to the shrine. Wasn’t really sure if I was allowed in but there seems to be nobody checking who goes in so I took my chances.
Yeah nah pretty sure this isn’t a wedding. Just saw a bunch of people taking their shoes off to pray at these statues encased in glass. So I’m guessing it might be some special artefacts brought out for public viewing?
At the exit there was a long line of people queuing with a small book in hand. At the front there seems to be a couple of Shinto priests who’d take the small book and write some message in it, so I think it’s some kind of prayer, or maybe an autobiography session? (unlikely)
Well that’s it I guess no wedding for me, at least this looked like an event open to public so I didn’t break any rules by going inside. Then I resumed my journey south and eventually entered the neighbouring Yoyogi Park. This park is very similar to the type of parks we see in Sydney, consisting mostly of large open areas for people to read a book or throw a baseball around.
But the best part about this park is that everyone takes their doggos out for a walk here!
I had plenty of time to kill so I kinda just wandered all over the place looking for interesting stuff. Not sure exactly which corner of the park this was in but I found a group of youngsters practising their dance moves under a bridge. I’m not familiar with this stuff but I assume they’re imitating J-pop groups
Since there’s a bridge here, I figured what the heck might as well cross it and see where it takes me. Lucky for me on the other side I found a basketball court where I could watch some pick up games. Normally if I find a court while travelling I’m keen to play, doesn’t matter if they’re scrubs or I get dunked on. But it’s winter here so I had like long pants and heavy hiking shoes so it wasn’t very convenient, plus it looks like they already had plenty of people.
There were two distinct group of ballers on the court, the kids of expats, mostly white or black, that easily stood out as the better players who mostly spoke English to each other, and the regular Japanese kids who were pretty much just there to pass the ball around. Not being racist but the team with the 2 black guys were winning pretty handily, they were just so much more athletic than everyone else, even though the other team had the white kid as their PG who was pretty good (one with the ball in the picture).
And just like that 2 hours or so went by and it’s time to meet up with Karl again. The reason we had to meet up at this specific time is because we had something booked. Remember our first day in Harajuku when we saw a few animal cafes like the owl cafe and Bengal cat cafe? Well I said those weren’t that worth it and we couldn’t go to a regular cat cafe anyway because Karl is allergic to cats, which was okay since I had a cat at home anyway.
Still, I felt like it would be a shame not to visit an animal cafe if we came all the way to Japan. During my research I did find another type of animal cafe that would be perfect for us, no allergic reactions and something different, cat cafes are just too mainstream these days :P. What I found was Harry’s Hedgehog Cafe at Harajuku, and as the name implies, it’s full of hedgehogs that you can interact with! Hedgehogs are definitely something I have never held in my hand before, so I was keen to check it out. Harry’s Hedgehog Cafe was a very well known stop for anyone looking to play with some cute hedgehogs in Tokyo, but here’s the secret – it’s not even the best one! It seems like almost all the tourists go there, but then as I delved deeper I found out they also run another animal cafe just down the road near Omotesando called Harry Harajuku Terrace. Here not only are there hedgehogs, there are also chinchillas and otters! The entrance price is almost exactly the same as the hedgehog-only cafe, so you’re getting 3x the value if you come here instead!
That’s why when we visited Harajuku on our first day in Tokyo, we made a stop at the Harajuku Tourist Information Center located just outside the main entrance to Takeshita-dori.
Here you can book a session at Harry Harajuku Terrace in advance so you don’t need to line up or worry about the place being full. Even better, normally it’s about 1,400 yen for a 30 minute session (free drink included) but if you book it at the information centre, you get an extra 10 minutes for FREE! This is also why I put the Meiji Shrine on today, since it’s pretty much right next to Harajuku. Hopefully now you can appreciate the genius that is my itinerary planning :D.
So I was totally for our 40 minute session with the hedgehogs, chinchillas and otters, but the place proved to be tricky to find. Even though I included the map above, since it’s a terrace you have to find a small ladder between two buildings that will take you up to the rooftop. Lucky for us there was a woman out on the street drumming up business, so she showed us the way. Inside is a fairly small area divided into 3 sections (one for each animal) that can get a bit cramped if there are a lot of people.
We started with the hedgehogs, of which there are about a dozen spread across a few enclosures. Some were sleeping and there were helpful signs telling us not to disturb them. I know a lot of people have reservations about animal cafes, especially when it’s for somewhat exotic animals like hedgehogs, because they don’t think the animals are treated well and it’s too stressful for them to be handled by so many people every day. For what it’s worth, from what I can see in this cafe the animals seem to be well taken care of and the staff seems to show genuine concern about their well being. That being said, I don’t really know what goes under the hood so I can only comment at a superficial level, and I did see a little girl blatantly ignoring the signs and try to wake a sleeping hedgehog up but the staff was too busy to notice.
Still, the hedgehogs are really cute!
They don’t bite or scratch and contrary to how it looks, the spikes on their back don’t hurt at all. Still, they recommend you wear gloves, which are provided, if you want to handle them.
Then it’s time to move on to the chinchillas. I have seen them before, but the only time I can vividly remember was seeing them in cages in a dodgy market in Kunming that sold animals, so it’s good to see them running around for once! A lot of people probably have no idea what they are, think of a cross between a rabbit and a rat. The rat part might not sound very appealing – they are a type of rodent – but trust me these guys are extremely cute!
They seem to only have 2 settings, either sleeping or on full ADHD mode. They don’t seem to like to be handled that much and they’re extremely quick, so you’ll see a lot of kids chasing them around in the enclosure. Hope they don’t get too stressed out…
And finally, the otters. It’s a bit disappointing that you can’t actually play with the otters here, only watch from outside the enclosure, but that’s probably good for their sake. Unfortunately, during our time their they were also asleep, but since we can’t play with them it isn’t a big loss.
Instead we saw some girls pay extra to hand feed the hedgehogs, so we joined in as spectators. The lucky hedgehogs were placed in a trough and the girls were handed some worms and tweezers to feed them. Compared to the dried pellets the other hedgehogs get, these worms are probably a feast in comparison!
I definitely recommend at least one animal cafe experience while you’re in Japan, if you can look past the slightly questionable ethics (it’s basically no different to a petting zoo). Cat cafe is the staple and probably a good fit if you don’t have a cat at home, or if you’re just a super cat person. But don’t forget all the other wacky cafes out there! I explained previously how owl cafe isn’t worth the money, but there are other options like snake or reptile cafes too so do your research. If hedgehogs and chinchillas are your thing, then I’d highly recommend Harry Harajuku Terrace too. It is a bit expensive, but their offerings are fairly unique and you get more variety than other hedgehog-only cafes. The extra 10 minute we got from booking in advance didn’t erally matter in the end, since they didn’t really enforce any time limit so you could easily stay for longer, but 30-40 minutes is probably the right amount of time to spend here anyway. Don’t forget to get your free drink from the vending machines before you go!
Looking at all these animals has made us a bit hungry so it’s time to eat (not hedgehogs or chinchillas). A few days earlier we made an attempt to visit a restaurant I found online in Shibuya called Torikatsu, but it was closed. Being our last day in Tokyo we figured what the heck let’s try again. As the name implies, Torikatsu specialises in katsu, basically deep fried cutlets usually associated with pork (tonkatsu), but there they also have chicken (torikatsu), beef (gyukatsu), oyster (kaki-furai), squid (ika-furai), mackarel (aji-furai), crab (kani-fuari) and even eggplant (ewww). So basically a huge range of deep fried stuff, all at a very affordable price of 4 pieces for 1,000 yen. It’s not a super famous restaurant, nor does it have a Michelin Star, but it’s one of those hidden joints only known to locals. In fact it was tucked away in a building in an alleyway, and it took us a while last time to make sure it was indeed closed rather than we just couldn’t find it. Here’s a good review I found online with some pictures.
Unfortunately, our luck was no better this time either. Based on a sign in Japanese they had on the door, it seems like they are away for holiday but with no obvious return day. Instead, we just settled for a random fried chicken shop right outside the alleyway. We didn’t realise at the time, but Gaburi Chicken is actually a large national chain of izakaya style restaurants that based on alcohol and their unique style of fried chicken.
In particular, they specialise in a kind of Japanese cocktail known as highball, which is a mix of soda water and whiskey. For fried chicken their style is called honetsukidori karaage, which I don’t really know how to translate haha. All I know is it was pretty damn tasty, albeit a little expensive. The menu contains different parts of the chicken and you can pick a set that combines a few different parts for about 1,200 yen. But don’t forget since this is an izakaya, there’ll be a service charge slapped on in the end.
I didn’t take that many pictures, but this other blog review did a much better job if you’re serious about checking this place out.
We planned to meet up with TVK and Lewis again later, but it was still fairly early in the night. To kill some time we headed over to Shin-Okubo Station just north of Shinjuku to check out the area known as the Koreatown of Tokyo. The main road as you exit the station is known as Okubo-dori, or Okubo Road, and it is filled with Korean restaurants and shops selling Kpop merchandise. There’s also a few street food stalls selling Korean staples.
We checked out a few merch shops but didn’t try out any of the restaurants or street food, since I have plenty of opportunities to eat authentic Korean food back in Sydney anyway. There’s really not that much to do at Koreantown if you’re not here for a full meal, so unless you’re absolutely craving some Korean food then you can probably give this place a pass.
Our hostel is actually very close to Koreantown, so we stopped by to take a short break. That’s when I realised I still had some sashimi I bought from Tsukiji in the morning sitting in my bag. I’m not reaaaally sure if you can keep sashimi out and about for a day…but I wasn’t gonna let some good seafood go to waste. I don’t even know what fish this is lol.
On our way there we also saw an interesting establishment – a baseball batting cage. Baseball is all the rage here and Japan is probably the only country aside from America or Cuba that takes baseball seriously (and not because Cubans just want to play baseball so they can defect to America lel). I mean in my opinion it’s barely a sport and it’s boring as hell to watch, but whatever. Batting cages are fairly common and popular here, they are similar to golf ranges but instead of swinging at a golf ball there’s a machine that pitches baseballs at you while you swing. I did kinda want to try it, seems like good stress relief, but I was scared of getting destroyed by the ball 😦 even though I’m sure you can tell them to adjust the speed of the pitches.
If you’re interested in putting your baseball skills to the test, then the Shinjuku Batting Centre is very conveniently located.
We had about another 1.5 hours to kill so I decided to walk over to Golden Gai, a collection of alleyways on the east side of Shinjuku filled with tiny bars. Spared from the development that has engulfed the rest of metropolitan Tokyo, Golden Gai gives you a glimpse of what Japan looked like in the old days.
There are over 200 bars crammed into 6 alleyways in this small block, and each bar will probably struggle to fit in any more than a dozen people. Like izakaya, most of these bars will have a cover charge to prevent bar hopping, which is definitely not a thing in Japan. Some will also say no foreigners, again usually not to be racist but more to make space for their regulars, especially given how little seats there are to begin with. Don’t worry, there’s always going to be another bar down the alleyway that’ll have space :). It didn’t really appeal to me so we didn’t stay too long, but if you’re into tasting fancy alcohol or cocktails and being all sophisticated etc. then this is probably a cool place to visit.
Then one of the weirdest things happened. We were back at the main entrance to the Golden Gai area when I heard someone call out my name. A tall dude emerged from the crowd and it took my a few seconds to recognise him as this place isn’t very well lit and also since I haven’t seen this guy in like…8 years? What a small world to bump into Rico, who was 2 grades above me at my high school, which means the last time I saw him would have been 2 years before I graduated, so 2009. Woah. I’m honestly surprised he still remembered me enough to spot me out of a crowd in the middle of Tokyo! He is here with a friend (also from my high school) who was feeling sick so he came out on his own and ended up joining a free walking tour, which ended in Golden Gai. We ended up walking around Shinjuku and exchanging stories of our travels in Japan before he headed off to join his friend.
After that we crossed over to the west side of Shinjuku, just under the train tracks, to check out the Golden Gai’s little cousin, Omoide Yokocho or Memory Lane. Here we met up with TVK, who’s gotten separated from Lewis.
Omoide Yokocho consist of two narrow alleyways lined with small izakaya. It looks quite similar to Golden Gai except it is more focused on food rather than fancy cocktails.
Just like the bars in Golden Gai, all the popular izakaya here are super tiny and can barely squish in 10 people sitting at the counter around the open kitchen. Almost half of the patrons here are tourists, guess white people are really desperate for that hipster/indie experience -_-.
Finding space for 3 people in these places are next to impossible on a Saturday night, so we had to opt for one of the less cramped but also less popular places. I guess they don’t feel as much as the “real deal” when it comes to these post-war era alleyways. It is called Memory Lane after all. Doesn’t matter, the company is more important for places like these anyway, as we ordered some beer and snacks and chatted away.
Between Golden Gai and Omoide Yokocho, if you had to choose one I’d definitely prefer Omoide Yokocho. The nostalgia vibe is strong here (even though I’m too young for that) and I think if you get the chance definitely try to chime into one of the tiny izakaya and watch the chef grill some yakitori right in front of you. Although if you come during dinner time, forget about that if you’re in a group of more than 2 people, it’s very, very popular.
Rico joined us again not too long after, as his friend still wasn’t feeling well so he retired for the night, but Rico was still keen to kick on. We rendezvoused with Lewis, who was heading to kareoke with his friends that all came for the anime convention. Thus we were faced with a tough decision, join Lewis’ friends for all night kareoke and drinks (yeah pretty sure they actually booked it for an all-nighter) or go check out a Tokyo nightclub ourselves. For Rico the criteria was clear – which option had more girls LOL. I didn’t really care since I wasn’t thaaaat keen on kareoke or nightclub, but I’m not gonna argue with Rico’s logic. In the end we went with the nightclub option, since Lewis clarified there is only 1 pretty girl and rest were all guys (not surprised given they came all the way to Japan for an anime convention lul) and certain people *ahem* lost all interest in kareoke.
And of course, before going out clubbing it’s always more value to get some pre-drinks in.
We made our way over to the nightclub Womb in Shibuya, which is one of the most popular nightclubs in Tokyo. Tokyo has a vibrant nightlife so there’s always plenty of nightclubs for a night out, but it seems like Womb has been fairly well known in the the techno and house scene, having attracted acts from around the world. Not that I would know who the hell these people are though, to me they just spin around a disc and hope everyone on the dance floor is too drunk or high to know what’s going on.
It wasn’t the easiest place to find however, from Shibuya Station you need to go west into the Dogenzaka district, then navigate a series of narrow alleyways. This is also the love hotel district so make sure you uhh don’t enter the wrong building.
Once inside you’ll have to pay a 3,500 yen at the door to get in, at least for guys I’m not sure if it’s waived for girls. It’s a pretty common system for nightclubs to be free for girls, to encourage better guy-to-girl ratios, might be kinda sexist but nobody wants to be in a club full of dudes either. Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a clubbing person, it’s dark and excessively noisy, I’m not really interested in the music they play and let’s be honest, you don’t actually DO anything most of the time. Maybe that’s why people feel the need to be high or drunk, because it’s just too boring otherwise, whereas I’m a firm believer that you can have plenty of fun without the aid of excessive alcohol or drugs (I do think a little bit helps, like makes you more relaxed and sociable), plus the added benefit of being able to remember what you did the next day. You know how parents these days complain that every kid is on their computer or phone rather than going outside and play in the park? By the same token, I think it would be a sad reflection on society if people become too dependent on these substances that have no obvious health benefit just so they can have fun (or worse because they just want to be a part of what mainstream society thinks is “cool”), and I’m being generous here as if anything most of those are detrimental to your health. anymore. Don’t get me started on the economic damage on my wallet! Of course that’s only my opinion, although it might be the right opinion you have to accept that it may not be the only opinion, otherwise you’ll be making your own life unnecessarily miserable.
But as I am on holidays and Tokyo nightlife is pretty well known, I’m happy to get ripped off this one time to see what the fuss is about. Inside there are 3 levels, each level has a dance floor and a DJ with the top floor having a VIP area overlooking the main dance floor on level 2, which had a giant mirror ball hanging over the roof.
The first floor seemed to play more chilled music while the second floor had a mix of house and techno music. I hope I’m using those genres right by the way, generally I’d just lump them all together and call it noise. The demographics is about 50/50 foreigners and Japanese I think, still heavily skewed towards guys by about 3 or 4 to 1. There’s also a bar behind the main dance floor selling overpriced drinks, but that’s where the benefit of being a fairly light to medium weight Asian comes in.
As I’m not an expert when it comes to nightclubs, I think it would be unfair for me to comment on the experience. If you’re not a clubbing person you’re not gonna go anyway, and if you are one then my opinions probably won’t be very helpful. So here’s some footage I took inside that should hopefully give an objective depiction of what your time there would look like on a Saturday night. Warning: the volume might be a bit high.
I still think I had a pretty good time, it was a good experience with good company, so it’s not a bad idea if you want to give it a go when you’re in Tokyo. Just be prepared to budget a decent amount of money, since the drinks can really add up in there. The only thing I’d say is, don’t come here if you’re prone to seizures.
If you’re researching for a nightclub to go to in Tokyo, from what I found it seems like Womb is fairly staple on most website’s top clubs in Tokyo lists, for example this one. However, one other consistent name I saw was ageHa, which by the descriptions online sounds a lot more epic than Womb.
The club boasts four different dance floors, three VIP sections, three large bars, an outdoor pool, a garden area and a food court. The main floor is a large arena encircled by octagon shaped speakers that pump out an enormous amount of sound. Many of the world’s most famous DJs have held concerts here with over 3,000 party goers in attendance.
The food court itself is amazing with a variety of foods on sale including kebabs, beef bowls, ramen and more.
I’m not gonna lie, that food court sucked me in pretty hard LOL. But to have one plus a pool as well means it must be an enormous place, which explains its relatively poor location. It’s on the waterfront in a district called Shin-Kiba, east of Tokyo Station which I already consider “east Tokyo”. They do however offer a free shuttle bus to Shibuya, so they sound pretty serious about providing a good nightclub experience.
We stayed at Womb until about 4 am, before calling it a night and made our way back to Shinjuku by taxi, as trains were done for the night by then (that’s another cost to factor in). Shinjuku looks like a whole different place at 4 am, the parties are mostly all over and while the lights are perpetually on, most of the establishments here are winding down, preparing to clean out the day’s rubbish and head home for some sleep before doing this all over again the next day.
After all that physical activity everyone else wanted something to eat and they decided on Ichiran Ramen. I wasn’t too hungry (I could eat, always) so I wasn’t keen on eating Ichiran again, instead I called it a night and headed back to the hostel.
Okay gluttony got the best of me in the end. As I walked home it surprised me there are still some restaurants open and one of the is Matsuya, a 24 hour restaurant specialising in gyudon or beef & rice bowls. We’ve previously tried their main competitor Yoshinoya, which I wrote about here. I just had to give it a go to see if they’re any different.
I ordered almost the exact equivalent of what I ordered at Yoshinoya, and to gotta say they are basically identical. So you’re really not gonna find much difference in their signature gyudon dishes, but rather according to this article Yoshinoya is more popular with men while Sukiya is more popular with women, while Matsuya tries to differentiate itself through more unique dishes on its menu.
You’d think I’d be absolutely drained by now (and you’re right) but on my way home I just found something that I’ve always heard about and seen a couple times thus far in Tokyo but never had the chance to explore properly – the infamous Don Quijote. Kinda pronounced like “donkey hou te”, it is a massive discount chain store in Japan, and I mean massive as in both the number of chains across Japan (over 160 + 3 in Hawaii and 1 in Singapore) but also the size of each store. Forget the nicely laid out and organised Woolworths back home, each Don Quijote store is like the result of a random dungeon generator from old school RPG games. Navigating the maze and locating what you wanna buy is is almost always a stab in the dark unless you ask a store clerk, but the best part about visiting a Don Quijote is just discovering the sheer variety of stuff you can actually buy. But Don Quijote has no equivalent in the Western world not because it’s messy AF, but because it sells literally everything. It’s like a supermarket, a party supply shop, a electronics store and a dollar shop all rolled into one and that still doesn’t do it justice. That’s why it has become so popular with tourists and the premier place to find your souvenirs to bring back home. Plus most of them stay open until 3 to 5 am, if not 24 hours!
I knew that words will not do this place justice, so I recorded a walkthrough of our local Don Quijote so you guys can see what it looks like inside!
Here is a non-exhaustive list of all the stuff I saw inside:
- Cosmetics and beauty products
- Fresh produce
- Laundry products
- Kitchen supplies
- Personal hygiene products
- Clothes and shoes, including costumes and onesies
- Workout supplements
- Electronics and household appliances
- Gaming consoles
- …and even an adult section
Good luck finding a store at home that can take care of all that under one roof. Not even sure if Walmart in American has this covered…
Although I will be back for one more night before we fly home. This was effectively our last night in Tokyo and we got a noon Shinkansen to catch tomorrow…but I’m glad we made it a memorable night instead of just hitting the sacks early.
Next destination: Kyoto.