Tokyo delights: temples, food, shrines and more food

Here’s a short recount of our Tokyo adventures. 3 days, 4 buddhist temples, 3 Shinto shrines and loads and loads of different foods. 

Food paradise at every corner

When we arrived in Higashi Nakano, a quaint district two train stops from the bustling Shinjuku station, we first left our luggage in the apartment we had rented, and then went off for food. It was already 3pm and we still hadn’t eaten.

We had noticed plenty of izakaya (little typical restaurants) near the train station, so headed back there and found a small and clean place serving mostly gyozas (dumplings) and noodle soups. The food was really good – although quite salty – and pretty cheap, we paid less then 15 EUR for the two of us with drinks.

We spent our first evening in Tokyo walking around Shinjuku, mostly in the electronic village full of the latest high tech, and Kabukicho, also known as Tokyo’s red light district. The view was frankly benign and you can take your kids without them ever realizing what kind of district they are in. I was also told it is yakuza territory and we were later invited to be careful wandering about that area. On the night we arrived, it looked very safe and clean.

We joined some friends from Brussels who had arrived earlier in Tokyo and had dinner together. Dinner was ok but nothing special. What was odd was the fact that there was no waiter to take our orders. We had to make orders and pay for our food via a machine, and with the receipt we could go to the one person in the restaurant who would seat us and bring our food later on. Not quite my favorite restaurant experience!

The next days we tried different kinds of food: vegetarian, sushi (which I was told is a Tokyo specialty), street food, bentos, macha (green tea) ice cream, and more. We were even treated to a fantastic traditional Japanese 5-course meal in a fancy restaurant (Tokyo Dome Hotel) by the Japan Shiatsu College who had invited my husband for an official visit.

While we do like Japanese food, we were quite surprised to find so few vegetable and fruits, both in the food they eat at the restaurant and in the streets. They have almost no local farmer markets and buy all their vegetable and fruit in the supermarkets, which are pretty expensive. We couldn’t find one single shop or restaurant serving organic food! Quite different from the image I had of Japanese food as being healthy.

Japanese people actually suffer from quite a few ailments linked to bad eating habits, and have the highest stomach cancer rate in the world. Gone are the days of healthy food: the rice is now white instead of being whole grain, and greens are an oddity – unless you count pickles 🙂

Temple and shrine galore

We spent some time in typical areas of Tokyo. Our favourite places are Ueno park where you can picnic under the cherry blossoms and peddle on a small lake and Harajuku where cosplayers and extravagant Japanese youngsters meet.

But our favourite activity in Tokyo is and remains temple gazing. 

We love traditional wooden Asian architecture, especially temple architecture. By chance, in the two Shinto shrines we visited, Yushima Denmangu near Ueno park, and the more famous Meiji Jingu, we observed traditional Shinto weddings. It was quite fascinating and not just for us, also for the Japanese people around us. I guess it’s not your everyday kind of sight.

Yushima was lovely and ancient, and we were lucky a nice Japanese man gave us some explanation about the temple. It’s dedicated to the God of Science, which explains why hords of students come here to pray for good results at their examinations. Which explains why the prayer boards were literally « croulé sous » wooden prayer planks!

Meiji Jingu is located inside a beautiful park, which was planted almost 100 years ago with 100,000 trees donated by Japanese people. And that’s a short time span to create a forest. It is a majestic shrine, rebuilt recently I would say as all looked quite new. There were several weddings and a shinto ceremony going on, we couldn’t really understand what it was about.

If I would choose only one place to visit it would be the Sensoji buddhist complex in Asakusa and all the area around it, especially the traditional house and zen garden which are really worth the 300 yen entrance fee. Bustling with life, full of devout – and less devout – crowds, and almost empty as soon as you walk away from the main alleys, with temples, pagodas, traditional houses, zen gardens, museums, all within walking distance.

I visited alone as my husband was on another official visit, and would love to go back with him when we return to Tokyo later during our trip. 

On our first official visit, our guests took us to a small Buddhist temple called Denzu-In. It’s a fully wooden temple, very nicely built, with a big old bell. A cemetery lies behind the temple, which really shows it’s for the locals and we payed a visit to the tomb of Namikoshi Tokujiro, the founder of the Namikoshi Shiatsu style.

In the cemetery, we asked what the wooden planks with signs behind the tombs meant. We were told they represent the names of the people who died, but not their names while they were alive, their names once they are dead. I need to learn more about this…

Tokyo and Japan more generally are full of surprises and there are many things we don’t understand. We’re not completely lost in translation as we – especially my husband – read Kanji (traditional Chinese characters), but we’re pretty close to being lost in translation. Luckily we have a couple of friends who live here and they kindly helped us out with some of the stranger habits we spotted.

And unlike what we were told, Japanese people (at least in Tokyo) do speak some English, not every one, but enough for us to find our way when we are lost. And all the staff in the train stations, especially the Japan Rail staff with which we are travelling, are very helpful, friendly and patient. I think I’ll write a blog post to bust a couple of myths about Japan 🙂

Tell me: what’s your favorite spot or place in Tokyo?

PS: for the best internet in town, I recommend Starbucks outside the Shinjuku train station. I’m not a big fan of Starbucks, but their internet is super fast – faster than in Brussels for sure!

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