29 September 2008

Tokyo 11-16 April 08 - Asakusa & Ueno

Back in April this year, I brought my mum, aunt and youngest brother to Tokyo for a 6 day 5 night tour. My mum, like me has an affection for Japan (inclination towards Japanese merchandise/packaging/groceries :p). My younger and youngest brothers are both fans of Japanese manga, animation, games (too bad my younger brother was having exams then and couldn't make it for the trip). My aunt, I don't know, probably just to 'look see'.

It was my first time ever acting as a 'tour guide' without hubby, bringing along 3 family members who have never been to Japan, don't speak or understand the language and have not tried such free and easy trips before. It certainly wasn't easy as a tour guide, since I have to take care of the different needs and budget. Pace was relatively slow so that they could shop to their hearts' content but I also added a ryokan stay at Lake Kawaguchi so that they could experience a bit of unique Japan culture. Chose to stay at Shinjuku Washington again (same as the previous trip in 2007) due to its convenience and price.

Didn't take many photos for this trip (quite tiring as a tour guide), so shall just blog about some highlights.

Day 1 - Singapore to Narita Airport, Tokyo. Shinjuku.
Day 2 - Asakusa - Sensoji, Ueno - Ueno Park.
Day 3 - Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko (Fuji Five Lakes).
Day 4 - Kawaguchiko to Shinjuku. Harajuku - Takeshitadori, Omotesando.
Day 5 - Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Shinjuku
Day 6 - Shinjuku. Narita Airport, Tokyo back to Singapore

Sensoji, Asakusa
I guess all first-timers to Tokyo must visit Sensoji (Asakusa Kannon Temple), a Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. And it is almost customary to enter through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), the outer gate of the Sensoji and popular symbol of Asakusa. Upon entering Sensoji, most people would already be mesmerise by Nakamise, a shopping street of over 200 meters which leads from the outer gate to the temple's second gate, the Hozomon.
A large variety of traditional Japanese souvenirs like yukata, fans and snacks like Ningyoyaki (Japanese Red Bean Pancake人形焼, ‎にんぎょうやき), Senbei (Japanese rice cracker) are sold along Nakamise. We could spent like 1-2hrs shopping even before reaching the temple proper!

Sensoji was really crowded being an immensely popular, must-visit attraction. I think there was a 50th Anniversary (to mark completion of the main temple hall in 1958) celebration during our visit.

Omikuji. Fortune telling paper slips found at many temples. Be sincere in your prayers, randomly draw a stick and retrieve the paper slips according to the number drawn. Predictions range from daikichi ("great good luck") to daikyo ("great bad luck"). Tie the piece of paper around the provided structure, good fortune will come true or bad fortune can be averted. Brother had a go at it.
Ice-cream sandwiched between wafer biscuit. Yummy!
Agemanju - deep fried dough with red bean paste filling.

The sesame flavour was not bad.
Ramune ラムネ! (弹珠汽水, 波子汽水) A carbonated lemon-lime flavoured soft drink. This is so nostalgic! The bottle is made of glass and sealed with a marble. The marble is held in place by the pressure of the carbon dioxide in the drink. To open the bottle, a device to push the marble inward is provided with the bottle. The marble is pushed inside the neck of the bottle where it rattles around while drinking. Two little glass nodes inside the bottle allow the drinker to hook the marble in place while drinking. Source: Wikipedia.

Ueno Park, Ueno

Since Ueno is quite near Asakusa, we made a trip to Ueno Park after Sensoji to catch the remaining of the sakura bloom.

Besides sakura, lots of lovely flowers in full bloom as well.

Street busking.

And during this season, some eatery stores would be set-up near the large pond in Ueno Park, drawing some crowds.
Steam potato, steam till soft and fluffy, complemented with butter and mayonaise.
Grilled cuttlefish. Smelled and tasted really good but expensive!
One of Japanese favourite activities during the sakura blooming season - picnic gatherings among friends, family members or colleagues to eat, drink, sing, dance and admire the sakura (hanami - cherry blossom viewing). It is somewhat a culture, with people going to the parks in advance to 'reserve the best tree/view.

Tokyo 11-16 April 08 - Food

As mum and aunt don't take raw food, sushi was not a choice for our meals. Otherwise, we could have enjoyed cheap and fresh seafood at those 100/200 yen a plate sushi eatery.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of value for money meal options in Tokyo.
Our accommodation did not include breakfast. So usually, we would buy sandwiches or onigiri from convenience stores near the hotel the night before. In fact, there is a convenience store right at the ground level of Shinjuku Washington Hotel. I adore convenience stores in Japan, they carry such a wide variety of food, drinks and snack items.
As turnover is very high, all food and drink items are freshly produced and delivered. And unlike convenience food in Singapore, the ones in Japan are nicely packaged and very delicious! So breakfast wasn't a problem at all. In fact, many blue and white-collar workers buy most of their meals from convenience stores.
First night's dinner - Katsu-don. Over-the-counter eatery at Shinjuku West (Shinjukunishikuchi). To order, purchase a ticket at the vendor machine located at the entrance, and hand it to the counter staff.Meal included a salad and miso soup.

Dinner on second night - Cha Siu Ramen. Another eatery at Shinjuku West (Shinjukunishikuchi). Same order procedure via vending machine.
Quite a tiny shop but immensely popular, especially during lunchtime. We saw long queues forming in the daytime.
The soup base was thick but not overly rich. Very soothing, especially during cold weather. Ramen had a Q-Q texture. Cha Siu was succulent and very tender. I love the egg best! Egg yolk was not fully cooked and slightly runny. Forgot to take photo as it was too yummy. This shop was one of our best finds for this trip.
The Japs like to eat Gyoza with their Ramen. The gyoza was really good, pan-fried to perfection. Skin was Q-Q, not too thick; filling of ground pork, cabbage and nira chives were fresh. Really oiishi with the dipping vinegar sauce!

Lunch on fifth day - Spicy Cha Siu Ramen. Random basement eatery at Ikebukuro. Same ramen but paled in comparison to the shop at Shinjuku.

Dinner on fifth night. Restaurant at Shinjuku East (Shinjukuhigashikuchi). Brother ordered a katsu-don set.
Mum and aunt ordered a Age-tofu and Karaage set.
As for me, surprised to see the a Jap version of Korean Bibimbap, so ordered to see what the difference between Korean and Jap Bibimbap. I guess the hot stone bowl was missing, along with Korean spicy sauce. But still delicious.
Lunch on last day - Tempura-don. Restaurant at Shinjuku West (Shinjukunishikuchi). We had a lot of meals at Shinjuku West, probably due to its proximity to our hotel. This eatery specialises in tempura and another of our best finds, other than the Ramen shop.
The tempura batter was very light and 'locked' the freshness of the ingredients (white fish, prawn, purple sweet potato, brinjal, lady finger, mushroom). Even though deep-fried, the meal wasn't oily at all! In addition, a fragrant light soy-based sauce was drizzled over the fluffy rice. Oiishi!
All these meals were in the range of 800 - 10000 yen (S$10 - $14), usually came with miso soup, pickles, rice and free flow of Japanese tea. Pretty reasonable, considering the quality and quantity. Even if one were to be sick of Jap food, there is still a wide selection of different cuisines. Otherwise, fast food or convenience stores - there is no lack of food and drinks.

Tokyo 11-16 April 08 - Ooike Hotel, Fujikawaguchiko

Specially arranged a night's stay at Lake Kawaguchi, Fuji Five Lakes area, for my mum, aunt and brother to experience a Japanese Ryokan stay with onsen.

During my very first trip to Tokyo with hubby in 2003 (my honeymoon!), we also visited Kawaguchiko, in order to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji, the pride of Japanese people. Read from a magazine before that the Japanese people consider soaking onsen while admiring the breathtaking scenery of Fuji-san a very sacred experience. And indeed, I was struck in awe when I first saw the majestic Fuji-san.

There is a direct bus from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko Station, operated by Keio Highway Bus, a one-way journey takes about 2hrs and cost 1700yen.

I was highly anticipating to see Mount Fuji again. Alas, the weather was not in our favour and the entire area was shrouded with mist and Mount Fuji wasn't at all visible :( Unlucky.

Our ryokan at Kawaguchiko - Hotel Ooike 大池ホテル, located some distance away from the lake area.Lobby area. Had made my reservation through the ryokan's website which is in Japanese language only. Was pleasantly surprised that the reception staff spoke a little English. Usually, upon checking in, the ryokan would enquire about our prefered dinner and breakfast timings and make arrangement according.
Lounge area.
This was our 10-mat tatami guest room. Quite small, but enough for 4 of us. All amenities like toiletries, slippers, yukata were prepared.
Spared no time to change into yukata to go for a soak in the natural hotspring before dinner. I guess for mum, aunt and brother, it was certainly an experience unlike no other, especially the bare-it-all concept of Japanese onsen. There are 2 public baths, separated into male and female. For couples or family who wish to bath together, there's a private onsen for rent.
Changing area.
Indoor public bath.

Dinner time! Initially was planning for a Kaiseki dinner, but realised that my mum and aunt don't take raw fish. It would be a waste not eating the sashimi, hence decided to go for another dinner plan - 90min All-You-Can-Eat Shabu Shabu しゃぶしゃぶ食べ放題プラン.
Basically, we could eat as much beef, pork and vegetable (different varieties with mushroom and tofu) in 90 mins as we wanted. All the ingredients were really fresh. Mum and aunt don't take beef so ended up, only my brother and I ate the beef so we ordered more pork then beef. In fact, mum loved the vegetable and mushroom more than the meat.
There was also chawanmushi, pickles and a pinkish cube of what tasted like tofu.
Miso soup with mushroom and beancurd.
Dessert - almond tofu jelly with blueberry sauce. I love it! After a hearty dinner, time for shopping! It seemed customary for guests to bring away with them some omiyage (souvenirs). Ryokans would usually have a small shop carrying specialty merchandise of the locale like soaps made of volcanic materials supposedly rich in minerals, food like jams, onsen buns, cookies shaped in Fuji-san etc.

By the time we went back to our room, warm futon beddings were already prepared. Before bedtime, I went for a quick soak at the onsen again.Breakfast was buffet style (what the Japs called Viking style). My favourite breakfast item - fluffy Jap rice wrapped with seaweed.

Still sometime before check out, so quickly went for a soak at the outdoor onsen which I didn't go the night before. It was slightly drizzy and still misty, unlikely to see Mount Fuji again. Temperature was quite low due to the rain, kinda of cold dashing to the outdoor onsen area in nothing but a small piece of towel.
Potable natural spring water from Mount Fuji. Refreshing!

Changing area. What I like about ryokans, they always have a few ranges of bath and beauty products for guests to use and trial.

After a round of soak and pampering, we checked out and the hotel staff sent us to Kawaguchiko Station where we waited for the Keio Highway bus back to Shinjuku. We could also take JR train back to Shinjuku but it cost more and need to change line.
While we waited for the bus, we walked around and managed to catch a partial glimpse of Mount Fuji! Although it was just partial view, it was still beautiful. At least we didn't go away disappointed.