Despite my initial qualms, I somehow ended up caving and graciously accepted the offer on the table. I guess you can chalk it up to the fact that Japan will be hosting several important and major events in the coming years. With the international spotlight focused on this island nation, you can bet your bottom dollar there’s going to be a sizable influx of neophyte visitors to Japan in the near future. What better way to share the rich tales behind these popular cultural and historical attractions than to hear them from a well-versed local resident of Japan like myself.
What follows is a first-hand account of my four days traversing the Greater Tokyo region. In a break with my usual style, I’ll be covering my travels from a first person narrative. I typically try to relegate myself to the role of narrator and keep myself out of the picture yet there’s simply no way to wrap-up the many locations we visited into a single cohesive guide. As you peruse the text below, hopefully you, the reader, can take some inspiration from my adventures to inform your journey to Japan. While this country is truly a never-ending reservoir of enticing allures, it was fascinating to revisit places such as Asakusa’s Senso-ji armed with the knowledge I’ve garnered during my many travels.
Day One: Tokyo
Our four-day epic expedition kicked off in Tokyo which has won the distinction of being the host city for some very important athletic events. To begin, we first made our way to the wonderful Fukagawa Edo Museum in Koto ward. This facility is located to the west of the Sumida river and adjacent the Kiyosumi garden. Inside this little known museum, you’ll find a reproduction of the townscape that occupied this area of Tokyo during the Edo period (1603–1868). In the days of yesteryear, this locale was a bustling merchant town and today that vibe has been faithfully recreated at the museum. While the minute details regarding the daily life of the working class might seem rather boring, trust me when I say nothing could be further from the truth.
While similar establishments tend to feature content only in Japanese, the Fukagawa Edo Museum has gone to great lengths to ensure there are bilingual guides on site. Though some of the text is presented only in Japanese, these helpful staff will ensure that you can properly understand the context of the exhibitions without needing to possess the nerdy knowledge that I do. The entrance fee to the Fukagawa Edo Museum will run you only 400 yen per person making for an affordable addition that won’t require too much of your day. The property can be reached via Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station from which it is only a few minutes stroll away.
After getting a taste of what life as a merchant in Tokyo would have been like during the days of the Tokugawa shogunate, my travel companions and I hopped back into our tour van and made our way to TeamLab Planets. Truth be told, until this trip, I had not actually had the chance to visit any of TeamLab’s breathtaking Tokyo displays. Though I had of course long been aware of their appeal to foreign tourists, I figured that since every other influential out there was already posting about them, I could instead focus on less well known areas of Japan. Still, despite my deference, I was secretly jealous of anyone who had experienced the exhibit.
If you have somehow been living under a rock and haven’t heard of TeamLab, know that this interdisciplinary group of ultra-technologists create absolutely jaw dropping installations. According to their official site, “TeamLab aims to explore a new relationship between humans and nature, and between oneself and the world through art.” Though TeamLab’s works are indeed quite the sight to behold in their own right, the technology powering them is even more impressive. Simply put, for many of the exhibits, no two experiences will ever be alike as the rendering is a product of computer algorithms and humans interacting with the displays. If you want to see just what this looks like in practice, just check out the video of TeamLab Planets below.
Though I am sure all of the people involved on this tour could have spent the entire day at TeamLab Planets, it was soon time to make our way to the nearby site of Tokyo’s new fish market. Officially known as the Toyosu Fish Market, this current location lacks a bit of the well worn charm of its predecessor in Tsukiji. Nevertheless, the Toyosu Fish Market certainly more than makes up for it in sheer volume of content. You could easily spend the better part of a morning just wandering around the massive complex. Here you’ll find over forty food stalls as well as a number of fish wholesalers. Additionally, much like the former market in Tsukiji, you can also see the famed tuna auctions though you’ll need to get an early start to do so.
Speaking of Tsukiji, did you know that the former fish market is still alive and well? While the inner market where all the fish auctioning happens moved to the Toyosu site at the end of 2018, Tsukiji’s outer market continues to house a collection of hundreds of shops and eateries. These venues sell everything from fresh seafood to cooking wares and are a lot of fun to leisurely browse. Seeing as the Toyosu Fish Market can be a bit too sterile, I am of the mind that travelers should combine a visit to the new facility with lunch at Tsukiji as we did during our recent adventure. This way, you get the best of both worlds and don’t need to compromise on the vibe.
Once we had chowed down on some amazingly fresh sushi at Tsukiji, my companions and I headed off to Tokyo’s traditional downtown area of Asakusa. Here, we were slated to get dressed in yukata (a type of casual summer kimono) and stroll around Senso-ji, the area’s famous temple. Honestly, of all the things that we were scheduled to do, this was the one thing that I was dreading the most. After all, at least in my mind, nothing screams “tourist” more than visiting Asakusa in a yukata. Along with sites like Kyoto’s iconic bamboo grove in Arashiyama, Senso-ji is basically one of those “must do” things for first time visitors to Japan. As an off the beaten path addict, I was sure that this would not be as enjoyable as other places on the itinerary like Kumagaya.
Strangely though, our adventures in Asakusa were not as agonizing as I had anticipated. This was largely due to the fact that I was uncharacteristically not alone on this trip. Honestly speaking, it was a real breath of fresh air to look at the smiles on the faces of my accomplices as they visited the area for the first time. While I adamantly maintain that repeat visitors to Japan should focus more on off the beaten path destinations, the grins of my travel companions reminded me of the magic these mainstream spots have on the initial visit. So, my obsessive penchant for hidden gems aside, I am now more of the mind that, yes, people should definitely experience these touristy happenings during their first visit to Japan.
By the way, know that even I discovered a thing or two during our stint in Asakusa. Armed with all of the lore I’ve gathered on the road, it was revealing to view Senso-ji up close again in a new light. For example, now that I am so well versed in the syncretic union of Buddhism and Shinto, I was able to spot features that I had overlooked in the past. Though I had actually visited Asakusa countless times over the years, these findings had somehow escaped even me. For the other grizzled travel veterans out there, consider revisiting familiar spots like this and see how the experience changes for you as well.
Before calling it a day, my travel companions and our tour chaperons gathered together to feast on one of Tokyo’s local specialities, monjayaki. Often called just “monja” by Tokyoites, this dish is similar to okonomiyaki but is concocted from various liquid ingredients. This causes the final product to be more runny than its okonomiyaki cousin from western Japan. Made mostly from finely chopped ingredients that are then mixed into a batter, monjayaki has the consistency of melted cheese when cooked. Typically, diners will eat this Tokyo favorite directly from the grill in front of them with a small spatula. Be sure to give monjayaki a try next time you’re in town!
Day Two: Kanagawa
On day two, we boarded our van and headed down to the Tokyo Metropolis’s southern sister of Kanagawa. When it comes to nominating the most well-rounded prefecture that I’ve visited thus far, I believe this area of Japan takes the title. Though many other contenders come close, Kanagawa’s proximity to Tokyo really puts it at the forefront of the list. From the bustling city of Yokohama to the historic area of Kamakura, there’s a wide array of things to see and do in Kanagawa. Simply stated, no matter what experience you’re hankering for, you’ll find something within this prefecture’s borders to satisfy your yearnings. From hot springs to history, there is little you can’t find down in Kanagawa.
Our first stop for the day was none other than Kamakura’s famous Daibutsu of Koto-in (pictured above). Known also as “The Great Buddha of Kamakura,” this monumental outdoor statue is cast in bronze and was created in the likeness of the Amida Buddha. Allegedly dating from the mid-1200’s, this mammoth effigy has certainly done well surviving the elements over the years. The Daibutsu was originally housed within a large wooden hall but this covering was washed away in 1498 by a giant tsunami. Since then, the bronze bust has stood outdoors in the open for all to see. Entry to the grounds will run you a few hundred yen but if you pay a bit more, you can actually venture inside the Daibutsu too.
After being awed by the towering figure of the Daibutsu, we headed over to another one of Kamakura’s many prominent attractions. Known as Hokoku-ji, this temple is home to a stunning bamboo grove that can easily rival that of Arashiyama’s. In fact, I am of the mind that tourists can satisfy all the experiences that they seek in Kyoto right here in Kamakura. For example, you can check “visit a bamboo grove” off of the list at Hokoku-ji without needing to battle the crowds in the former capital. What’s more, there’s also a site called Sasuke Inari Shrine back over by Kamakura’s Daibutsu that has a row of vermilion torii gates (albeit smaller) similar to those at Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Getting back to Hokoku-ji, know that this temple bears some age-old history and dates back to the year 1334. Officially belonging to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, this complex was originally founded to commemorate the grandfather of the first Ashikaga shogun. If you look carefully, you’ll find a cave-like tomb known as a yagura out back in the bamboo grove that is dedicated to this important ancestor. Additionally, near Hokuku-ji’s bell tower, there’s also a monument commemorating the thousands of warriors who were killed in the 1333 battle of Kamakura that marked an end to the previous shogunate’s rule over Japan.
Entry to Hokoku-ji will run you a couple hundred yen but if you splurge and spend a bit more, you can also snag yourself a cup of matcha to sip on at a picturesque tea house outback in the bamboo grove. Especially after a long day of exploring Kamakura’s many attractions, it’s a good way to unwind. Note that Hokoku-ji is located a bit further away from Kamakura’s central area. You can reach the temple via a bus or alternatively opt to just hoof it. The walk from Kamakura’s main shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, will take you approximately fifteen to twenty minutes on foot.
After taking in the sights at Hokoku-ji, it was time for lunch so we headed over to the restaurant Hachinoki for some traditional Buddhist cuisine. This facility proudly serves what is known in Japanese as Shojin Ryori and has been lauded by the prestigious Michelin Guide as a place of excellence. Founded originally in 1964, this joint has been serving guests with food made from the finest local ingredients for over fifty years now. While the price per meal is expectedly not what I would call cheap, here you pay for what you get. In all my travels, I’ve had a lot of Shojin Ryori and nothing compares to this fare!
By the way, if you are not familiar with Shojin Ryori, know that this is a creative take on the traditional meals prepared by Buddhist monks. Since the faithful believe in the idea of reincarnation, it would be sacrilege to eat the flesh of a living being that could be a former friend or ancestor. To avoid this, all Buddhist cuisine is therefore vegan by definition and seeing as Kamakura has a high concentration of temples, there are many venues catering to patrons who don’t consume meat. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, this is all the more reason to consider visiting Kamakura!
When we had thoroughly gorged ourselves on the traditional menu of Buddhist monks, it was time to head over to Kamakura’s eminently important temple of Engaku-ji. Here, we were scheduled to experience a bona fide Zazen meditation session followed by a Tameshigiri demonstration. Both Zen Buddhist and swordsmanship were integral to the samurai culture that took hold here during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) so it was informative to have the chance to experience history firsthand. While our tour group was indeed short on time, it was fascinating to see my comrades reactions to these important aspects of Japanese culture.
By the way, if you’re interested in having a similar experience, be sure to check out the SAMURAI Project. Normally, affairs related to Zen Buddhism and Tameshigiri are reserved only for long term adherents. Additionally, the language barrier often precludes non-Japanese speakers from participating. Luckily though, the SAMURAI Project has done an outstanding job curating a number of authentic offerings in a way that are easily accessible as a tourist. If you’re interested in getting further acquainted with the core tenets of samurai culture, then I cannot more highly recommend that you reach out.
After wrapping things up at Engaku-ji, we left Kamakura and made our way over to Kanagawa Prefecture’s capital of Yokohama. Truth be known, this city is one of my all-time favorite chill spots. Whenever I need a stress break from traveling across Japan, I will often head down to Yokohama for the weekend to simply relax. Located just along the coast of Tokyo Bay, this city is practically made for leisurely wanderings. Moreover, Yokohama also has a more laid back vibe that starkly contrasts to Tokyo’s bustling ambiance. Though these two metropolises sit only thirty minutes apart by train, the difference between their atmospheres is shockingly apparent.
Our group’s first destination in Yokohama was Shiseido’s S/Park facility. Much like our visit to Asakusa, this itinerary stop was not originally a location I was looking forward to taking in. After all, I’m a bit of an unfashionable slob who doesn’t care much about his appearance. Why the hell would I be interested in a makeup manufacturer’s facility? Ah, so much for first impressions. How deceiving they can be! Of all the sites we visited on this four day journey, nothing had as large of a gap between my expectations and my actual experience at this futuristic facility in Yokohama. It’s a great example of how just about anything can be interesting if properly presented.
So, what makes the Shiseido S/Park facility so amazing? Well, basically, this complex was created as a space where R&D could mingle with consumers to promote better innovation. The entire building is designed around this concept with the first and second floors dedicated to open communication zones where researchers and visitors can interact. In an effort to entice guests to visit the facility, there are a number of attractions as well as a museum highlighting the complex science behind beauty. Even as a dude who is the antithesis of the word “dapper,” this place was intriguing. If you’re in the neighborhood, put your biases aside for a second and give this venue a try!
Following our time at Shiseido S/Park, we were excitedly planning to watch the sunset over Yokohama’s iconic skyline from Osanbashi pier. Alas, Mother Nature was having none of that and violently vetoed our plans. As soon as we stepped outside, all hell broke loose in what I can only describe as the storm of the year. All around us lightning rained down from the sky and cell phones everywhere declared ominous warnings of potential flooding. In all honesty, it was quite the show to behold and the downpour shamed some fully fledged typhoons. Admittedly, I’ve always been a lover of storms like this (I blame my father here) but I am sure that my traveling party of companions were rattled.
To escape Mother Nature’s fury, we made our way over to Yokohama’s famous Landmark Tower to see the city from above. Until the opening of Abeno Harukas in Osaka, this tower once stood as the tallest building in Japan and to this day, still boasts the fastest elevator in the nation. From the observatory on Landmark Tower’s 69th floor, you can observe all of Yokohama as well as Mt. Fuji on clear days. Known as Sky Garden, this lookout offers a 360-degree view of the spire’s surroundings. Seeing the observatory is open until around 9:00 or 10:00 PM, it’s an exceptional location to view Yokohama at night. Additionally, while I am most certainly biased, know that it is also a phenomenal place to watch a storm roll through too. Note that access to this impressive view will cost you 1,000 yen.
After taking in the views from Landmark Tower’s Sky Garden, we next made our way over to Yokohama’s neighborhood of Noge for dinner despite the fact that the storm was still raging on outside. Now, Noge is an area that I’ve covered in depth before but for the purposes of this article, just know that it is one side of Sakuragicho Station that escaped redevelopment in the 1980’s. While the side featuring Landmark Tower was transformed into Minato Mirai, the boozy backstreets of Noge were left largely untouched. As such, many of the watering holes and jazz clubs that sprung up to serve American GI’s during the post-war years continue to exist as they have for decades.
Over the years, I’ve been to Noge many times but tragically, all my memories of this place are rather fuzzy for reasons that should be pretty obvious. Heaven on earth for the inebriates out there, you simply don’t just have one drink in Noge. Here, you go hard or go home. Still, with delicious soul food, cold drinks, and good company, one can’t really ask for much more. Next time you’re in Yokohama, I suggest you skip the posh restaurants over on the Minato Mirai side of the station and instead make your way over to the grungy but oh so welcoming alleyways of Noge. Trust me when I say it’s an experience, even if you don’t end up remembering much of it.
Day Three: Saitama
Once I had dragged my still hungover corpse out of bed got a couple of Starbucks coffees in me, the group and I made our way north of Tokyo to Saitama Prefecture. Our first destination was my beloved area of Kawagoe. Though I have covered this former merchant town to death by now, I just can’t get enough of its historic vibe. Often hailed as “Little Edo,” this region is home to a number of fire resistant warehouses that are all hundreds of years old. Because of this, Kawagoe is a good visual representation of what Tokyo would have looked like during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate. Honestly, it’s a real shame that more westerners aren’t aware of it!
Alas, due to the long drive up from Yokohama, we were pretty short on time. In an attempt to ensure my travel partners truly appreciated Kawagoe, I took up the reigns and guided our group around the area. We began by visiting a section of the city known as Kashiya Yokocho which was a major producer of sweets for Tokyo in the days of yore. Thereafter, we made a beeline for Kawagoe’s central “kurazukuri” warehouse district where we gawked at the many historic buildings before ending our forays at the recently renovated Toki-no-Kane bell tower. During the Edo period (1603–1868), this structure was the only way that the merchants of Kawagoe could keep track of the time. Today, the Toki-no-Kane remains an icon of the area.
After trying to cram all of Kawagoe into a brief hour, my troupe and I had worked up quite the appetite. To appease our tummies, we made our way to Ogakiku, a top tier eel restaurant claiming well over two-hundred years of history. Now, many foreign visitors are a little bit uneasy when it comes to eating these aquatic critters but here I’ll employ my regular retort and say eat the f@$#ing meibutsu (meaning “local speciality” in Japanese). If, after sampling the delicacies and find you are not fond of the taste, fine, by all means refrain but at least give it a shot while you’re here.
With our bellies full of delicious grilled eel, we next ventured over to the 250 year-old Kameya facility to learn how to make some traditional “wagashi” Japanese sweets. Now, as a bachelor for life, I am unquestionably awkward when it comes to anything related to preparing food. As such, I typically opt to only be an observer when it comes to experiences like this. I mean, I already know that anything I produce will look like a kindergarten handiwork so why even bother. Still, despite my clumsiness, even I was able to mold the sweet bean paste into something resembling a flower. Assuming that you have someone on hand to help translate, I’d encourage you to give making your own treats a try in Kawagoe.
With goodies that somewhat resembled seasonal blossoms in hand, the group and I got back into our van and hit the road. Our next destination was the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum. Located over in the capital of Saitama Prefecture, this facility is part of an entire village of bonsai nurseries. The museum curates a number of magnificent bonsai trees that have been painstakingly cared for over the years. In fact, many of the trees on display are close to 1,000 years old. To put that in perspective, when the first generation of caretakers were looking after these trees, Europe was just kicking off the first series of Crusades to take back the Holy Land. Talk about being ancient!
In case you’re wondering, there’s a good reason why a village is totally dedicated to bonsai all the way up here in Saitama Prefecture. Put succinctly, this community actually dates back to the Edo period (1603–1868) and was previously located in present day Tokyo. Due to the carnage wrought by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the gardeners decided to find an alternative location and ultimately settled on Omiya due to its clean water, available land, and favorable soil. Since 1925, this bonsai collective has thrived here and continues to produce masterful works of ornamental art.
By the way, if you’re one of those “hands on” type people who loves to have local experiences, I have good news for you. Nearby the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, you can actually try fashioning your own trees at Bonsai Restaurant Omiya. Part cafe, part workshop, this space invites guests to get their hands dirty as they design their own bonsai. For a small fee, you can get all the instructions and base materials you need to create your own little work of art. The crew who run this shop do so out of an act of love for bonsai so consider popping in if you’re nearby. The staff can speak some English and would love to have you!
To conclude day three, we got back in our trusty vehicle and drove up to Kumagaya where we were scheduled to dine and drink with some key representatives from the prefectural government. Technically speaking, this town is also part of Saitama but due to the fact that it’s located at the prefecture’s northernmost extremes, I am going to treat it as its own area. Hopefully, this is actually less confusing that trying to cram everything into one category.
Day Four: Kumagaya
Up until the final day, all of the areas we covered on this journey were locations that I had visited in the past. Thankfully though, Kumagaya was a region just waiting to offer me a new adventure. Though I’ll admit that I am still learning about this part of Saitama, I can already see that Kumagaya has some potential for tourism if it plays its cards right. Conveniently home to one of Japan’s major rugby stadiums, Kumagaya could easily develop a cult following with like-minded fans of the sport. As it stands right now though, much work remains to be done before this region is ready for an influx of overseas visitors. That said though, the base ingredients for a good narrative are already rooted well in place.
So, what does Kumagaya have to offer? Well, for starters, you should know that the city was one of sixty-nine post towns along the Nakasendo trade route. This major highway connected Edo (modern day Tokyo) with Kyoto and Osaka in the west. Following the end of Japan’s medieval periods, Kumagaya thereafter reinvented itself as a major producer of silk and barley. Tragically, much of Kumagaya’s history was lost to the world when the Americans bombed the city flat just hours before Japan’s official surrender had been announced.
Anyway, to kick off our tour of Kumagaya, we headed over to the Menuma Shodenzan Kangi-in temple complex (or Shodenzan for short). Often hailed as the “Nikko of Saitama,” this impressive structure is just as bit as ostentatious as the famed Nikko Toshogu Shrine. The temple stands as a testament to the economic wealth of the area. This prosperity was largely a consequential product of Kumagaya’s favorable location by the Tone River as well as its status as a Nakasendo post town. Unlike with the Nikko Toshogu Shrine to which Shodenzan is often compared, Kumagaya’s attraction was funded entirely by the local population and not the shogunate’s rich coffers.
Allegedly, Shodenzan’s roots date all the way back to the year 1179 when a local lord mandated the building of a sanctum for Kangiten, the Buddhist deity of unity and success. Generations later in 1760, this original template was further expanded upon to create a masterpiece that could easily rival that of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s place of enshrinement. The incredibly lavish Shodenzan is known to be one of three great temples dedicated to Kangiten. Inside the main hall, a priestly staff and a statue of the deity serve as the principle images of worship but these are generally not on display to the public. Instead, the detailed decoration on the Shodenzan’s exterior stands as the main draw these days.
Unfortunately, getting to Shodenzan is a bit difficult as a tourist. While our group had a set of wheels for adventuring around you might not be so lucky. If you need to make the trek via public transportation, know that you’re going to need to navigate some buses. From Kumagaya Station, you’re going to want to look for any of the buses bound for Ota Station, Menuma Shoden-mae, or Nishi-Koizumi Station. Any of these routes can get you to Shodenzan so be sure to be on the lookout for the Menuma Shoden-mae bus stop. The entire journey runs about twenty-five minutes but I’ve read that there’s little to no English guidance once you board.
Following an all too short jaunt to Shodenzan, the group and I made our way back towards Kumagaya’s center. Our destination was a small Japanese garden called Seikeien. Here, we were scheduled to have an authentic tea ceremony experience which sadly ended up being seriously truncated due to time constraints. Personally, I have had the chance to observe or partake in similar experiences time and again but I did feel disappointed for my fellow travel companions who were not so fortunate. Ah well, at least we got to check out Seikeien’s grounds which by the way are the source of the Hoshikawa river that flows through the heart of Kumagaya.
Once our time at Seikeien came to an end, the troupe and I made our way over to the udon noodle shop Yorimichiya for lunch. Unfortunately, upon arrival, I learned that instead of being served the local specialty, we’d actually have to make it by hand. This activity excited the other content creators yet left me rather worried as I seriously can’t even make a piece of toast. Still, despite my ineptitude in the kitchen, even I was able to follow the master’s instructions and make something that was surprisingly edible. Though bumbling buffoons like myself should properly avoid preparing their own food, those more skilled would do well to consider preparing their own udon from scratch when in Kumagaya.
Our bellies now full with yummy, handmade noodles, it was time for the final spot on our itinerary. Our destination was the neighboring city of Gyoda. Here, we were scheduled to check out some amazing rice field artwork. For years, the locals have banded together to create spectacular patterns on the many rice fields surrounding the towering Kodai Hasu-no-Sato building. Unsurprisingly, given what’s on the calendar for Japan in 2019, the theme this year is the Rugby Japan National Team as can be seen above. Note that the rice field art is best viewed from the Kodai Hasu-no-Sato building’s observatory. Entry will run you 400 yen. Alternatively, those with drones would also do well to fly them over the fields (just be sure to check in with the authorities first though).
All in all, I found the Kumagaya area to offer much potential as a destination however the existing infrastructure for inbound tourism would benefit from some attention. That said, the city is located right on the Joetsu Shinkansen route which makes it convenient as a stopover en route to somewhere else. Seeing as most overseas travelers make use of handy JR rail passess, hopping on and off the trains does not incur further fares. Additionally, Kumagaya would also do well to focus on targeting rugby fans seeing as it’s the home of a major stadium. That said, the downtown areas could use a few more pubs that cater to the needs of eager fans.
Some Special Thanks
First of all, if you made it this far, you deserve a medal or something because this was a very long account of my recent travels! Frankly speaking, I had a lot of fun playing the role of tourist in what is essentially my home base of Greater Tokyo. Before ending this epic rant though, I want to take a second to offer a special thanks to everyone who made this tour possible. With that said, none of this would have been possible without the help of all of the various individuals who came together to make it happen. This project quite literally involved a bus load of people and each and every one of them has my heartfelt appreciation for all the preparation that they did.
Until next time travelers…