Konichiwa! It feels like only yesterday we were planning on our amazing Japan holiday with Iron Chef Shellie a.k.a. Mazzie! It’s hard to believe it, but we’ve been back on Aussie soil for 5 weeks now!
Our trip was so much fun and we all had a blast, that I can’t wait to go back again to Japan. Right this second. Every day, I’m constantly being tempted by the cheap air fares to return to the land of amazing food and culture. Having heard of the earthquake that has just hit Tokyo, I can only pray and hope that nothing disastrous will happen in the coming weeks.
So to keep Japan fresh in our minds (and I know a lot of you are either heading over there or planning your holidays there soon), we thought we would quickly share with you our experiences so that you too, may have an extremely good time and take some of these tips with you :).
[One of the many Train Bento Box we sampled on our train rides in Japan]
Let’s start with our flight into Narita. The first half of the journey via Jetstar was pretty uneventful and it was a typical flight (the most frustrating part was the flight crew checking in on The Boy and his in-flight meal which somehow didn’t get through even after we clarified with the online call centre, and ground crew). However, things got a little scary when we were descending into Narita and the in-flight announcement came on to say we were making an emergency landing. I think everyone on the plane just looked around and each other and sh*t ourselves. It took about 1-2 minutes for the stewardess to make an announcement about the mistake (but it felt much longer) and apologise as the wrong landing announcement was triggered. If we weren’t so relief that we weren’t going to die, I think everyone would have been much angrier!
That being said, we were very lucky and very thankful to arrive in Japan, safe and sound (and in one piece!). As we left Terminal 3 (it’s a long walk to Terminal 2 where the JR Trains and JR Pass Ticket exchange office* is located).**
We finally got in to our hotel in Shinjuku, tired, hangry and hangry. Luckily, from our vantage on our 31st floor in our Hilton room, sharp eye Shellie spotted a Denny’s across the road. A quick google search and it showed up as being a 24 hour diner. We decided that it was a better option than a $25 Spaghetti Bolognese room service. Boy were we right! Denny’s was delicious and Shellie and I enjoyed a delicious bowl of udon and tuna rice each. The Boy had an interesting Hamburg steak which wasn’t too bad either.
Fuji Shibazakura Festival
We woke up early to battle the throngs of salary man and school kids to get on the JR train onwards to the Shibazakura Festival (Pink Moss Flower Festival) to view Mt Fuji from a far, one of the 5 lakes that surround Mt Fuji, in which you can visit.
We also discovered Train Bento Boxes (SO AMAZING), and yes it deserves to be capitalised. Every train station has a kiosk that sells different bento options. A VARIETY! Oh how our lives changed from that very moment.
We only got to see Mt Fuji completely once as we made a stop at the Mt Fuji station when it randomly peeked from behind the clouds to say hello to us. Apart from that, it was hidden for the rest of the day. I guess we were pretty lucky to have seen it in full once, as it is usually quite hard to catch a glimpse of.
When we got to Shibazakura, only 30% of the flowers were in full bloom, and clouds were covering the top of Mt Fuji most of the time.
However, we didn’t let that stop us. There was a food fair going on at the same time as well, and we may or may not have gone a little crazy with all the vending machines around us allowing us to order food.
We had to try the Sakura flavoured soft serve (slightly musky and quite floral) as well as the many street food on offer at the festival.
As we had time to kill, we decided to plonk ourselves on an idyllic spot at the Gardens and eat sweets. So many sweets. I don’t even like sweets, and I had so many desserts in Japan (wth). We sampled the Mont Blanc, Sakura Eclair and Sakura Short Cake (Japan has a thing for short cakes).
As we didn’t want to risk missing our main train back to Kawaguchiko (and Otsuki station), we took an earlier connecting bus back to the town. Whilst we were there, we took a leisurely walk up to the local shrine and viewed Lake Kawaguchi from high.
Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley/Yakitori Alley/Memory Lane)
Once we were back into the madness of Shinjuku, we headed for Omoide Yokocho, better known as Piss Alley (yep!). A haunt for locals and tourists alike to have a drink and snack on delicious yakitori.
It was like a beautiful smoky walk down a bbq lane. Each shop only sat around 8-10 people. You order your drinks and food and hoped for the best. Obviously, we followed the crowd and picked one of the busiest shops to dine-in. Quick note for anyone travelling to Japan. If you are in search of good food, be prepared to queue and wait in line. We lined up for everything in Japan. You pretty much know you’re in for a good thing if you’re standing in line waiting :).
The way to dine at a yakitori is to order a drink (usually alcoholic) and order a set amount of skewers per person. From there, you are unlimited in how many skewers you keep pointing at to try. Pretty much all the shop keepers speak a level of English, and if all else fails, point and smile and say, “Domo, Arigato” (“Please, thank you”). Manners are big in Japan. If you act like a douchebag, you won’t get anywhere. Be polite, speak a little of the language, apologise, bow and smile. It’s so easy.
One of the best skewers we had were the pork belly skewers (of course!). Neither Mazzie nor The Boy were game enough to eat any offal parts with me (boring!) apart from the pig liver which The Boy enjoys. One of the best things I ate that wasn’t presented on a skewer were these big giant juicy clams. They were the size of my hands! So juicy, so fresh and so sweet.
The second time (our last night in Japan), we wandered down Piss Alley again, but as it was right during the public holiday break (Golden Week), not many shops were opened. Indeed, the first shop we visited was closed. We ended up at this other place, which wasn’t too bad, and I got to order as much offal as I wanted, whilst Mazzie and The Boy shared as much chicken, and beef as they wanted.
One other thing about dining in Japan. Be prepared to be surrounded by smokers. Everywhere. The rule around not smoking in dining establishments hasn’t seem to have made it here in this country, and is my biggest bug bear with them. If you’re dining out to eat, chances are, you will be sitting next to someone who is chain smoking to their death next to you.
So here’s our first and second day summed up for you! Hope you are able to take away some tips from this. We’ll be following this post up with a recap of our visit to Tsukiji Market. Until then, “Sayonara”.
* The JR Pass Ticket Exchange Office (of which you must have already bought tickets in your local home country prior to arriving in Japan), will only arrange reservation seats/tickets for your first two days of travel. We booked the rest of our tickets at Shinjuku station. The best tip we got from our research was to pre-plan and book every single train ride (that allows you to make seat reservations) and print out the schedule as you are making your booking at the ticket counter. Include dates and departure times. We used http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ website to plan our trips ahead.
**You will need to pre-purchase your JR Pass prior to your trip to Japan, which you then exchange at the Ticket Exchange Office for an official pass. We bought ours from a reputable source JTB Travel.