The following morning dawned bright and sunny. Even through the tiny windows in the room I shared with my eldest son, we could see the golden sunshine lighting up the nearby building windows.
On this trip, the living arrangements were spread out across two double rooms located on the same floor. We expected there wouldn’t be adjoining rooms (unlike in Western-style hotels) so we planned to be as close to each other as we could and split the kids between us, and H.I.S was able to secure our needs as much as was possible. Following local custom of not necessarily having a morning shower, we dressed and headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. We knew we couldn’t waste any more time – the weather forecast called for a warm early winter’s day.
One thing about Tokyo hotel breakfasts is that while they do provide a decent Western spread, we always make it a point to check out the local offerings. Oftentimes seasonal fish and vegetables are incorporated into the menu, and we were pleased with what was on offer. The only hitch was when we were about to enter the restaurant and realised there was a mixup with the breakfast coupons: instead of one coupon per room, it seemed like we needed one coupon per person, which was new to us. Since we had a plan-B (use local convenience stores, or kombini), we decided to only use the breakfast coupons on days we knew we’d need the extra energy, like this first day.
The spread had a decent selection of in-house fresh bread (all delicious), western style breakfast meats and salads, an egg station, and the local section had miso soup, Ochazuke (a rice breakfast dish taken with tea or broth) with 6 types of toppings, and natto! I didn’t get to try this last year so it was awesome to be finally able to have it. As a fan of tempeh, I understand why it’s so divisive. The texture must’ve been incredibly alien to a Western palate, but if you’re familiar with tauchu it has a similar taste profile, and after mixing in the mustard and soy sauce, I completely got the appeal.
We had a full day planned: brave the rush hour trains to Meiji Jingu Shrine, walk across to Yoyogi Park, turn around and get to Harajuku and Takeshita Street for some quick eats, and then maybe walk around Omotesando’s high end shopping street before heading back to Shinjuku via subway for dinner.
Meiji Jingu and Yoyogi Park
We visited Meiji Jingu before, last year, and it was just such a peaceful and gorgeous place we felt we had to return. Extensive restoration work was being done last year and we saw that almost all the scaffolding was already taken down. We arrived early, and had the pathway almost all to ourselves, but barely half an hour later, all kinds of tour groups, school trips, and other visitors descended on the compound. We now knew to wash correctly at the provided fountain before entering the main gates, and spent some time admiring the lush late fall/early winter foliage, and the artistry of the shrine. The Torii gates themselves are impressive feats of engineering. As I saw groups of school children making offerings I guessed an exam must’ve taken place recently, and there was a solemn procession of senior citizens accompanied by white-clad priests who were engaged in a private ceremony.
Exiting the compound we walked on to the neighboring Yoyogi Park. It’s a sprawling park which is also nearby to the Yoyogi National Stadium and Athletic Park. There were families having picnics, taking photos and videos, and runners, cyclists, and dogwalkers of breeds I couldn’t name, all taking in the park in the brisk morning air. Japanese city parks are incredibly well kept and this is a prime example of that. I’ve read that Yoyogi has a significant homeless population which shelters in the park at night (you can tell where they are by the neat piles of belongings leaning on park benches and tables, and on sunny days they lie on the grass under the sun, trying to keep warm). Seeing kids, adults, and animals run around amongst the trees and grass while sitting down on a bench sipping hot corn soup out of a can is something uniquely Japanese, in my experience. The park also has fountains, ponds with ducks, and beautiful foliage. As we walked around, the kids started to get hungry, so we decided to exit and head back to the crossing.
Cat Cafe and Harajuku Treats
As we retraced our steps we noticed a sign for a cat cafe just opposite the entrance to the subway station. It looked inviting and we’d promised #2 a Japanese cat cafe experience so we walked in and after being briefed by the staff on charges and rules of engagement with the establishment, spent half an hour in a completely odorless, clean-smelling room full of the fluffiest cats we’d ever seen. The entire play area had tall windows overlooking the street crossing, and the room was artfully designed with all manner of perches and cat toys. An adjacent section separated by sliding doors hosted a sink, two drink vending machines (all drinks during our stay were free as they were included in the price of admission) and the washrooms.
You only pay for the time you use up, so after exactly 30 minutes we said goodbye to the kitties, washed up, put back the given slippers into the highly sophisticated slipper return machine, and went our way in the direction of Harajuku. We navigated through Omotesando and the little alleys toward Takeshita Street, all while being reminded that the kids were getting hungry. At one point, unsure if we could find a place to sit down and eat, we stopped at an Angel Crepe stand and had our first street snacks of the day.
Not very long after that we made our second incredible discovery of the day: Calbee+. Sure, I’d heard of the brand and seen it sold in some local shops here in Malaysia, but I’ve never actually had one. So to walk into a store dedicated to all kinds of potato chips AND have a dedicated space upstairs to consume their freshly fried cheesy potato sticks was mind-blowing.
A short walk later and we also tried a giant deep-fried mozzarella stick, which doesn’t appear in any of my photos because that thing was huge and I had to concentrate on eating it. Literally a piece of heaven for 500-700 yen. We decided to get to another station and head back toward Shinjuku for an early dinner because we’d been walking literally the entire day and had mostly junk food for lunch. That brought us to what, in my opinion, was the best burger joint in Tokyo: Freshness Burger.
We discovered it while walking from Harajuku to Shibuya last year, and I was floored by how simple yet delicious the burgers were. The ingredients were top notch, and we didn’t need any sauce with the pure 100% ground beef patty. My wife didn’t understand why I’ve been raving about it all year until she had her own burger this time around, and I think it’s safe to say we’re both addicts now. After dinner/lunch we walked around some of the window displays in Isetan and Marui (which #2 called Oi-Oi), dropped by the Shinjuku Apple Store (where I fondled many Apple Watches and the new 16″ Macbook Pro), Kinokuniya, and finally decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel, where I was finally going to try out the in-house public bath before going to bed.
That was an eye-opener, definitely, but I’ll save it for tomorrow’s post.