Category Archives: japan

Tokyo – 5 Wards in 5 Days!

Tokyo is a multi-faceted gem. Avant-garde technology resides right next to minka – traditional wooden houses with tatami mat flooring and sliding doors, modern skyscrapers butt heads with world heritage shrines and temples, smart businesswomen wearing six-inch stilettos and Gucci handbags come face to face with highly trained professional geishas in colourful kimonos and wooden clogs, while international food-chains like McDonalds and Starbucks compete with historic dishes such as sukiyaki, ramen and miso soup.

How to imbibe all these contrasting, yet strangely harmonious cultural traits while getting the most out of one’s vacation? Having spent almost fifteen hours in the air on two interconnecting flights to arrive at my destination, I couldn’t wait to see and experience as much as possible. Five days dedicated to one city seemed like a lot while I was planning my trip, especially since there was so much else to see outside of Tokyo, however once I was there, I realised that cramming everything into five days was actually going to be quite a feat.

The metropolis of Tokyo, formerly known as ‘Edo’, has a nucleus which is made up of 23 ‘wards’ or municipalities. Each of these is worth exploring and offers a multitude of attractions, yet of course, there are wards which are more popular than others. If you have limited time at your disposal, a good way of delving into Tokyo would be to dedicate one day to each particular municipality. While I was researching and planning my visit to the capital of Japan, there were five particular ‘wards’ which piqued my interest most, and which I personally consider to be unmissable.

Shinjuku

Being a major commercial, entertainment and administrative hub, Shinjuku was the first spot I visited when I arrived in Tokyo, directly after depositing the luggage at my accommodation. Needing caffeine and being an anime and manga lover, I couldn’t help but visit a number of related shopping malls, not to mention popular themed spots and stores such as an Alice in Wonderland themed coffee shop and the Sailor Moon official store.

The Sailor Moon Official Store – Shinjuku

Having drunk some coffee and gained some energy after so many hours of travel, I then proceeded to the Metropolitan Plaza near Ikebukuro Station to pick up the Sim card I had booked online while still in Malta. Because yes, you definitely need google maps and google translate to make your way through Japan, a country where less than a quarter of the population knows a word of English. After a relaxing afternoon walking around the beautifully green Shinjuku Gyoen Park, I caught the tube to Omoide Yokocho, also known as ‘Memory Lane’ – a maze of narrow alleys peppered with red lanterns and tiny open restaurants and stalls offering traditional Japanese street-food at worthwhile prices. Previously home to a post-war black market, this is where today tired locals head after a long day at work to unwind with a glass of beer and some yakitori chicken. Golden Gai, a collection of more than 200 mismatched rundown bars lining the alleyways and corners of Shinjuku, is another such spot where one can eat and drink very cheaply surrounded by locals and the occasional celebrity. The nightlife in Shinjuku is loud and friendly. One can also meander to Kabukicho, the red light district a stone’s throw away.

Memory Lane – Shinjuku

Shibuya

The second day of my stay in Tokyo saw me in Shibuya gaping at the very famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, where approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at one time coming from all directions at once. Momentarily lost in a sea of metropolitan bustle, I made my way to the well-known Takeshita street, landmark of quirky fashion and unique boutiques. Situated in the Harajuku District, it is here that Gothic Lolitas, dressed in their cute frills, lace, Victorian hats and webbed parasols, parade their particular fashion subculture, congregating on Harajuku bridge, eating crepes at one of the many candy shops or shopping for colorful wigs in appropriate costume stores, of which there are many.

Takeshita Street – Shibuya
A Lolita Store in Takeshita Street

Following all the excitement and rush of humanity prevalent in this area, I made my way to the quieter Meiji Jingu Shrine. A green oasis of majestic trees flanked by huge torii gates, this shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park offer a surprisingly large forested area within a densely populated city. The shrine, completed in 1920, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and is perfect for a relaxing stroll.

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Shibuya
Meiji Jingu Shrine

Deciding to spend a kawaii morning, our first stop in Shinjuku after picking up our tickets was the amazing Alice on Wednesday – an Alice in Wonderland themed shop tucked into a side-street but which is quiet large, spreading its magical wares on three floors of girly jewellery in the shape of roses, teacups and top-hats, rabbit mugs, ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ cookies, sweets and playing cards, and even handbags in the shape of clocks (I couldn’t help but buying one of these). My boyfriend looked like an elephant in a tea-house, but I appreciate the fact that he waited while I browsed every item minutely, surrounded by other shrieking girls, teens, older women and even toddlers. If you are an Alice in Wonderland aficionado, you can read more about it here.

Asakusa

Craving the vibe of an older, historic Tokyo? Asakusa is the perfect place to imbibe and literally soak in traditional crafts shops, street food stalls, not to mention the classical bath houses or onsen, the famous Japanese hot springs where the natural water contains therapeutic properties and mineral salts said to alleviate a number of health issues. My day began with a trip to a kimono-parlor, where I was outfitted with a yukata – a light cotton summer kimono, the traditional Japanese garment. Having booked this service in advance, I was also served by a hairdresser, who teased my hair into an appropriate style, complete with colorful Japanese hairpins and flowers.

Kimono Store – Asakusa

Declining the extra services of a professional photographer (such parlors always offer this at an augmented price, as well as the use of traditional rickshaws pulled by locals), I made my way on wooden clogs towards Senso-ji Temple nearby. Tourists and even locals were very happy to take photos of me posing in front of this Buddhist temple built in the 7th century. In fact, many of them asked to take photos with me using their own phones as a keepsake, as though I was a tourist attraction myself! The yukata is a surprisingly cool garment considering its floor-length and with full long sleeves, however walking around the enormous temple soon made me hungry and propelled me towards one of the many small ramen-shops lining the street. Ramen soup, made of chicken or pork stock and combined with a variety of ingredients such as whole eggs, seaweed, kombu (kelp), shiitake mushrooms, onions and meat amongst others, is the perfect filling Japanese meal. Tasty and healthy!

Traditional Ramen Soup

Akihabara

Also called the ‘Electric Town’ and situated in Chiyoda ward, is another treasure-trove for all anime, manga, comics and video game lovers, better known as otaku. Home to Mandarake, the largest second-hand comics retailer in the world, this district offers not only shopping centres and computer goods, but also a huge number of what are known as ‘Maid Cafes’, a type of cosplay restaurant where the waitresses are dressed up as kawaii frilly servants redolent of Victorian French maids, as seen through the lens of the prevalent anime aesthetic. A number of rituals and additional food services are available at different maid cafes, which are in no way related to the sex trade, but are merely an innocent way for the itinerant tourist or fan to feel part of a cosplay experience. A number of other anime themed cafes in Akihabara include Gundam Café and the Final Fantasy Erzora café. Gaming arcades and centres are another attraction found in Akihabara. Here one can meet with other gamers, enter contests and even sample the latest gaming technology. Most notable of these arcades are the Sega building and Taito Hey, which specializes in vintage and retro game arcade machines.

Mandarake Store – Akihabara

Ginza

In love with international brands and limited-edition accessories? Then Ginza, full of upmarket boutiques, ritzy cocktail bars and sushi venues, redolent with luxury goods and high-end retailers, is surely the place for you. It is here that French companies such as Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, Italian companies like Gucci, and American bastions of fashion such as Carolina Herrera, have their flagship stores. A number of art-galleries and theatres also predominate, most notably kabuki theatres offering a selection of classical Japanese dance-dramas. Kabuki theatre is known for its historical roots, elaborate masks and make-up and cultural folk tradition dating back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868).

Although I mentioned these five districts in particular, all of Tokyo’s wards offer their own particular flavor. One could go to Ueno prefecture, known for its ornate shrines. Spend the afternoon roaming Tsukiji fish market in Chuo city, eating street-food and perusing stalls at their heart’s content. Another sightseeing gem is Tokyo Imperial Palace, found at the heart of Chiyoda ward. How many days does one need in Tokyo? I don’t think I can really answer this question. Five days were definitely not enough to explore it all. I will be back!

Me and him at Senso-ji Temple – Asakusa

Tokyo – Mad about Alice in Wonderland

Image Source: amazon.co.uk

Tokyo seems to have a soft spot for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Past the kawaii maid cafes, the manga-lovers’ stores and the typical otaku haunts, one finds a specific niche dedicated to all fans of Wonderland in Japan’s capital city.

Are you a cosplayer? A literature buff? A Walt Disney ‘pro’? Then surely, you might want to take a peek at the deliciously pastel-goth store ‘Alice on Wednesday’. Situated in Shibuya, this cute narrow 3-storey shop will surely please not only young girls but anyone who wishes to tumble down the rabbit-hole, even just to window-shop. Stoop to enter the tiny door leading to Alice’s magical world! Revel in the artistic murals and fantastic colored lights, as you traverse a tunnel-like corridor to access the premises.

The entrance of Alice on Wednesday

Ranging from fancy teacups and saucers to Wonderland-themed accessories such as rabbit pins, earrings sporting miniature hats and handbags with scenes from the eponymous Disney movie, one can also find art depicting John Tenniel’s original illustrations used in Lewis Carroll’s first publishing of ‘Alice’ in 1865.

Special teas found in Alice on Wednesday
Alice on Wednesday – Level One

Take a photo sitting on the Red Queen’s throne, and don’t forget to taste any of the themed sweets, biscuits, or teas on sale!

Alice on Wednesday – Level Two
Sitting on the Red Queen’s Throne

Memorabilia apart, Tokyo also offers a huge number of Alice in Wonderland themed restaurants and coffee shops. Some of the most popular ones are:

+ Alice in a Labyrinth in Ginza
+ Alice in a Fantasy Book in Shinjuku
+ Alice in an Old Castle in Ikebukuro
+ Alice in Magical Land in Shinjuku

We opted to dine at Alice in an Old Castle found in Ikebukuro District within Toshima Ward, since this was closest to our accommodation in Tokyo, plus had good ratings on Tripadvisor. And boy we were not disappointed!

The entrance of Alice in a n Old Castle

The restaurant is simply amazing – a real Wonderland! Decorated with glittering chandeliers, golden-framed mirrors, and plush seats, it gives one the impression of truly being in an enchanted castle. As soon as one enters the deceptively inconsequential door, one is immediately welcomed by an usher dressed either as a Mad Hatter, a rabbit, or even as Alice herself, and escorted to his/her seat. Be warned – themed restaurants like this one are very often full, so make sure to book your table in advance. If you are a tourist (as I was) you can book online.

The beautiful furnishings at Alice in an Old Castle

Human-sized soldier playing cards stand at attention in every corner. Luxurious paintings of Kings and Queens adorn the walls interspersed among red and gold damask drapings. Cosplaying waitresses clap and sing for you as they explain the beautiful menu, which is a work of art in itself. And then there’s the food!

Oh the food! Such a visual explosion of color and taste!

And do not forget to try one of the specially-themed cocktails,

Is Tokyo the real Wonderland? Hmm…

Meiji Jingu Shrine – A green Oasis in the Heart of Tokyo

One travels to Tokyo expecting urban wonders. The technological growth, the fashionable coffee shops, hot couture stores, skyscrapers reflecting the sunlight, not to mention the exciting yet claustrophobic rhythm of life in one of the largest cities in the world.

The capital of manga is of course, all of this and more. Sprawled over almost 2,200 square kilometres, Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world, being much larger than New York City and having a population of over 38 million individuals. No wonder I was overwhelmed when I got there, especially taking into account that I have lived my whole live in Malta, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea whose area barely scrapes 320 kilometres squared and which is the smallest country in the European Union.

Awed and excited, looking around me and craning my neck upwards trying to take in all the bustle of life in such a gargantuan metropolis, I admit that I almost felt like some country bumpkin visiting the city for the first time. After some days, I became more accustomed to the flow of the thousands of people moving purposely around me, the huge and efficient underground system, the myriad of stores, shops, cafes, restaurants, skyscrapers, shrines and markets. And yet, I admit I also felt somewhat crushed by it all. It was too much. I needed to breathe. I needed to go somewhere where the crowd did not swallow me. Where I did not feel vanquished and trodden down by the multitude of hoards crashing around me like waves. Somewhere where I could actually hear myself think.

My oasis of green serenity was Meiji Jingu Shrine.

The Torii Gate at the Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine

Found in Shibuya ward, the grounds of Meiji Jingu Shrine can be accessed through two main entrances, both marked by a huge welcoming Torii Gate.  The North entrance is very close to Yoyogi Station, while the South entrance is directly next to JR Harajuku Station. As I walked beneath the Torii gate, the sounds and smells of the busy city were quickly muffled and replaced by the scent of grass and the shuffling of leaves crowding the huge green forest leading up to the shrine. Torii gates represent the passage from the mundane to the spiritual, so when passing underneath one, remember to bow in respect both when entering and leaving the shrine.

Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken, Meiji Jingu Shrine, perhaps because of its central location, is one of Japan’s most popular Shinto shrines. More than 3 million individuals visit yearly, crowding the place particularly during hatsumode – the first few days of the New Year, when it is traditional for Japanese families to visit shrines in order to pray for good luck, longevity and new beginnings.

The trees line the path leading to the main shrine

While walking along the main trail leading from the entrance Torii gate to the main shrine, we saw a number of Shimenawa tied around some of the beautiful massive cypress trees lining the path. A shimenawa is a straw rope with white zigzag paper strips marking the boundary to something sacred. They are often found hanging on torii gates or tied around sacred trees and stones.

Meiji Jingu is an Imperial shrine, meaning that it was directly funded and is administered by the government. Imperial shrines are often called ‘jingu’, which literally translates as ‘Shinto shrine’. Shinto is the original religion of Japan. This shrine’s construction was completed in 1920. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the Tokyo raids of World War II, however it was quickly rebuilt. The present shrine was funded through a public fundraising effort and completed in 1958.

The Purification Trough

The first thing one encounters while walking towards the main area is a large and beautifully ornate purification trough. Such a trough is always found near the entrance to any Shinto shrine, in order for visitors to purify their bodies and spirits before entering. One is supposed to use the water to clean first one hand, then the other, as well as rinsing one’s mouth, before approaching the main shrine. Be sure not to drink the water. It should be used only for rinsing. Spit out any excess liquid in the appropriate grooves beneath the trough.

Entering the Shrine

The shrine buildings are primarily made out of Japanese cypress and copper plates for the roofs. The main hall or honden, and the offering hall or haiden, are two separate buildings adjacent to each other. When we visited there was a private ceremony taking place at the honden, so it was cordoned off, however we could still make our offerings and pray for good fortune at the haiden. To make an offering at a Shinto shrine or temple – put some coins into the offering box, bow twice from the waist, clap your hands twice, put your hands together and pray. Make a wish for yourself and/or others. Bow once again. Out of respect, photos are usually not permitted close to the main shrine buildings. Remember to be respectful since this is an active place of worship.

The homotsuden or Treasure House of Meiji Shrine can be found at its northern end. Here one can admire a number of seasonal and permanent historic displays. Unfortunately, it was closed during our visit (end of June 2019) due to restructuring taking place in preparation of the Olympic Games 2020. A museum annex building to the east of the main shrine also displays a number of other exhibits. This one, fortunately, was accessible during my visit. The outer precinct of the shrine grounds also contain a memorial picture gallery, a national stadium, a martial arts hall, and a number of other sports facilities.

Visitors of Meiji Jingu Shrine can purchase omomori (lucky charms/amulets) and ema at the stalls directly opposite the main hall. Ema are small wooden plaques depicting either the crest of the shrine or the specific year’s eto (zodiac). These are usually inscribed with well wishes or prayers and tied to a sacred tree near the main shrine. You can also keep them and take them home as a souvenir. Some of them are quite beautiful!

A small tip – do not try to take photos of the priest or priestess manning the stalls – they will not be pleased.

The traditional wooden tea-house

Together with the adjacent Yoyogi Park, the evergreen forest making up Meiji Jingu’s grounds covers around 172 acres of Tokyo. Although the shrine itself was interesting and enriching to visit, I must admit that my favorite part of the grounds were definitely the Inner gardens. The landscaped trees, lakes and winding woodland paths were simply breath-taking. An idyllic retreat from the outside world. After paying the small fee of 500 yen, we found ourselves walking towards a quaint wooden tea-house built in the traditional Japanese style. We admired a display of giant bonsai trees, then continued down the narrow path surrounded by greenery. One of the highlights of the Inner garden is surely the Iris garden, which was in full bloom at the end of June. Glorious purple and white irises claimed the landscape, together with a number of small bridges arching over the South Pond, as we paused to sit and admire the nature around us from one of the wooden benches interspersing the garden.

The Iris Garden

The South Pond, a large clear body of water filled with turtles and large colorful koi fish, provided the perfect backdrop. Surrounded by magnificent Japanese maples amongst other trees and plants, we also strolled through the Azalea garden, as well as Nan-Chi Pond – a dream of loveliness filled with large floating white water-lilies.

Nan-chi Pond

Slowly, we made our way towards the famous Liyamasa’s Well, which is situated at the mouth of the stream that runs to the South Pond. This well is said to be a power spot and to give positive and lucky energies to whoever visits it.

It was a real pleasure to linger in Meiji Jingu Shrine’s gardens, however we had other plans for the rest of the day, so we knew we could not spend it all there. This is why we had gone as soon as the shrine had opened, that is, at 9am, which is actually the best time to visit since there are less tourists and it is more quite and serene.

The Ueno Tosho-Gu Shrine – An Underrated Treasure

The Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine, located in Ueno Park within Teito Ward in Tokyo, can be said to be a perfect example of Shinto architecture pertaining to the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The shrine was originally built in 1627 and renovated in 1651, remaining mostly intact from that time. Remarkably, it survived through the Battle of Ueno (1868), the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and the Tokyo firebombing (1945).

Entering Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine

All Shinto shrines enshrining Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the last Shogunal government (1600 – 1868), are generally called ‘Tosho-gu’, literally translating to ‘the God of the Eastern Sun’. These are found throughout Japan. The Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine in particular also enshrines two other Tokugawa shoguns as well.

The Path of the Stone-Lanterns

As one approaches this Shrine, the path is lined on both sides with impressive stone lanterns. Each lantern is 2-meters high. These were all built between 1628 and 1651. As one walks on, after encountering the stone lanterns at the gate, one also finds intricate copper lanterns nearer to the shrine building itself. There are 50 copper lanterns in all. These are not used for illumination, but are used solely for purification and sacred fires required during religious ceremonies. The copper lanterns were all offerings made by the various Daimyos – feudal lords who were the vassals of the shogun and who had an obligation to honor the memory of the first Tokugawa shogun. Each lantern is engraved at its base with the family name of the Daimyo who donated it.

Shrine emas hung near the Dedication area

Next to the main shrine building, one comes across the usual shrine/temple emas. These votive picture wooden tablets are vessels on which people write their wishes and are found in every Shinto shrine and temple. Dedicating an ema is easy:

  1. Purchase the ema from the shrine souvenir store (at a small fee)
  2. Write your wish, name and address on the back (pens are usually provided)
  3. Hang your ema near the dedication area

If your wish is strong enough, the kami (the god) will surely hear it.

The five-storied Pagoda

As one walks to the Shrine, one also can freely admire the towering 36-meter high five-storied pagoda, which is situated on what are today the grounds of Ueno Zoo. Tosho-gu Shrine itself was originally part of a larger Buddhist temple complex. In 1868, many of the Buddhist Temple buildings were destroyed in a fire. Since historically, Shinto and Buddhist religious beliefs were often mixed, it was not unusual for a Shinto Shrine to be situated within a Buddhist Temple complex and vice-versa. Once the Buddhist Temple complex was mostly destroyed however, the Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine was more clearly divided from the rest of Ueno Park.

In front of the karaman

Undoubtedly, the karaman is the most statuesque building in the shrine. With its golden curved gable and huge gate, it is designated as an Important Cultural Property and dominates the foreground. The pillars of the gate sport two carved dragons. Legend states that each night, the dragons leave the shrine and go to the nearby Shinabazu Pond to drink. The carvings on the gate and wall of the karaman are said to depict over 200 species of plants and animals, and are all hand-carved.

The main building of the shrine is the honden, that is the Main Hall. This contains the haiden, that is, the Worship Hall, as well as the heiden, or Offertory Hall. This building too is an Important Cultural Property.

The main hall, or honden

There is a 500 yen admission fee to go beyond the karamon and get closer to the honden, as well as an extra 700 yen admission fee to enter the famous peony gardens. These are open from January to mid-February and from mid-April to mid-May. Unfortunately, we visited in June, so access was not possible.

Although not as popular as the Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine, Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine is definitely a gem not to be missed.

Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine is located on the west side of Ueno Park. It is an 8-minute walk from th Park exit of JR Ueno Station, a 7-minute walk from Keisei Ueno Station, 9 minutes from Ueno Subway Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya and Ginza lines, and 12 minutes from Nezu Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda line.

Feeling like Royalty at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Interested in Japanese culture, heritage, and history? If the answer to any of these is yes, visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward is a must. The Palace is situated almost at the center of Tokyo, defining the heart of the city.

Being the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, the Imperial Palace is situated in a large park and contains a number of buildings, such as the main palace, the private residence of the Imperial family, a number of museums and administration offices, and an archive, among others. This is because the current modern palace, also called Kyuden, was designed to host court functions and receptions, as well as being the residence of the Emperor and Empress.

We grabbed the metro at Korakuen Station (our accommodation was in Bunkyo City) and took the Marunouchi Line to arrive at Otemachi Station, only a six-minute walk from the Imperial Palace.

In front of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge

Walking along one of the 12 moats surrounding the Palace, we were pleasantly surprised by the magnificent view of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge whose name literally means ‘Main Gate Stone Bridge’. Its twin stone arches, perfectly reflected in the crystalline palace moat, create an atmosphere of idyllic serenity, not to mention the perfect photographic background when viewed from Kyuden Plaza just in front of the Palace Main Gates. One of Tokyo’s most iconic sites, this bridge is also called Magane-bashi or ‘the eyeglass bridge’ or ‘the spectacles bridge’, due to its distinct look. Unfortunately, Seimon Ishibashi Bridge is not accessible to the public, therefore one can take as many photos as one wants, but no one can actually cross it. Pictures of the stunning double bridge soaring over the canal, leading into the fortified walls with the Imperial Palace in the background more than make up for not being able to walk on it though.

After taking a million photos, we were approaching the public facilities right next to the main gate, when we saw a tour guide and a number of people waiting nearby and realised that most of the Imperial Palace could only be visited with a tour guide! We hadn’t been aware of that at all, but we were very lucky as the walking tour in question was about to start, and it was free. There were a few open places too so we could just register and be part of the group there and then without even booking! How fortunate is that?!

So, beware. Unless you visit with a guided tour, most of the Palace and grounds, except for the Imperial Household Agency (a governmental agency building) and the East Gardens, are not open to the public. Fortunately, such free 1.5 hour walking tours as the one we encountered by pure chance are available from Tuesday to Saturday. These free guided tours are organised by the Imperial Household Agency and are available in a number of languages (there are different tour guides). English, Chinese and Spanish are among the languages catered for. Tours start at 10am and 13.00 in winter, and at 10am only in summer. Although we were lucky enough to find two available places in the tour while we were there, it is always better to book beforehand. To book this tour, and for more information, you can access the Imperial Household Agency website.

The Imperial Palace’s Main Gate – Pic Source: alamy.com

The guided tours normally start in front of the Palace’s Main Gate. It is a very good tour and the guide was very nice, providing an explanation of the history and background of the castle, and even showing us photos of the current Imperial family. At the start of the tour, we were given a badge and asked to fill a form, then we were taken to a large pavilion where there was a baggage-checkpoint. There were also lockers where, for a small price, one could leave one’s belongings in order not to be encumbered with them during the tour. I really recommend leaving your stuff in one of the lockers as the tour is quite a walk! There were literally hundreds of other people waiting in the pavilion, where the guides gave out some instructions in different languages and sorted us into groups depending on the language we preferred our tour to be in.

In this photo released by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, center left, and Empress Michiko, center right, smile at Prince Hisahito, fifth from right. Also pictured are from left, Crown Princess Masako, Crown Prince Naruhito, Princess Mako, behind Akihito, Princess Aiko, Princess Kako, Prince Akishino, Prince Hisahito and Princess Kiko.

The tour guide recounted how the present Imperial Palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle, residence of the Shogun during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). The total area comprising of grounds and castle, spans 1.15 square kilometres. In 1873 a fire consumed the old Shogun residence, and the current Imperial Palace was constructed on the same site in 1888.

The Imperial Palace grounds are divided into 6 wings, however we were not able to visit them all, not even with the guide. Of course, the Emperor’s residential area (found in Fukiage Garden) and the Emperor’s work office were out of bounds.

We started the tour by walking through the Main Gate and into the beautiful Ni-no-maru gardens at the lower level of the Palace.Then, we discovered another bridge, this one made of metal, spanning the moat right behind Seimon Ishibashi Bridge and having the same twin arches structure. This was the Nijubashi Bridge, which is accessible to the public. In fact we had to cross it, since it leads directly to the main Imperial Palace buildings.

Crossing Nijubashi Bridge

The first building we encountered during our guided tour was the picturesque Fishimi Yagura – a turret and look-out in which weapons used to be stored, and from which archers could defend the palace against invading armies. The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower (1659) is a three-story square-shaped fort which had become the symbol of Edo Castle after the castle’s main tower was rebuilt following the great fire of 1657.

The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower

We also spotted Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower, which is the last remaining corner watchtower pertaining to the original Edo Castle.

The Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower

We walked on to the Chowaden Reception Hall, which is the largest structure in the Palace, and which is the place where the Japanese Imperial family appear to give blessings to the public every new year, and on the Emperor’s birthday. It is also where official state functions and ceremonies are held. During the tour we were also taken to a number of other Halls, such as the Seiden State Function Hall and the Homeiden Banquet Hall.

Following the tour, one can freely roam through Kogyo-gaien National Park, which is situated at the southern tip of the Palace grounds. Personally, if you plan on visiting Tokyo’s Imperial Palace (and I really suggest you do), I would recommend allocating at least two or three hours for the experience, since the tour itself can take from 1.5 to 2 hours, and you’d definitely need at least another half an hour to walk around and enjoy the surroundings.

Tokyo – Discovering Shibuya

The metropolis of Tokyo, formerly known as ‘Edo’, has a nucleus which is made up of 23 ‘wards’ or municipalities. Each of these is worth exploring and offers a multitude of attractions, yet of course, there are wards which are more popular than others.

Shibuya Ward, is surely one of the most popular wards in Tokyo, especially with people of a younger age (teens and tweens).

Being a major commercial, entertainment and administrative hub, Shibuya was the first spot I visited when I arrived in Tokyo, directly after depositing the luggage at our accommodation. Since our accommodation was directly next to Ikebukuro Station, it was easy to grab the Fukutoshin Line and navigate through three stops until we arrived directly at Shibuya Station. The journey took less than 15 minutes.

Although we had gone through a tiring journey, having just spent more than 17 hours travelling and waiting at the airport (2.5 hours from Malta to Vienna Airport, 4 hours of layover and then 11 more hours from Vienna to Tokyo Haneda Airport), we were so hyped and excited that we couldn’t not start our first day in Tokyo with a bang, which is why we headed to Shibuya.

At Takeshita Street in Harajuku

We first proceeded to Harajuku to pick up the Sim card we had booked online while still in Malta. Because yes, you definitely need google maps and google translate to make your way through Japan, a country where less than a quarter of the population knows a word of English. We had also booked a shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Kyoto (online as well) from the same company, so we picked the tickets up as well.

Gothic Lolita shops in Harajuku

Momentarily lost in a sea of metropolitan bustle, we made our way through the well-known Takeshita Street, landmark of quirky fashion and unique boutiques. Situated in the Harajuku District within Shibuya, it is here that Gothic Lolitas, dressed in their cute frills, lace, Victorian hats and webbed parasols, parade their particular fashion subculture, congregating on Harajuku bridge, eating crepes at one of the many candy shops or shopping for colorful wigs in appropriate costume stores, of which there are many.

Entering Alice on Wednesday

We couldn’t help but stop and stare at each and every store, but I admit I was actually too overwhelmed to buy anything at first. That is, until we arrived at the amazing Alice on Wednesday – an Alice in Wonderland themed store tucked into a side-street. It is quiet large, spreading its magical wares on three floors of girly jewelery in the shape of roses, teacups and top-hats, rabbit mugs, ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ cookies, sweets and playing cards, and even handbags in the shape of clocks (I couldn’t help but buying one of these). One is immediately immersed into Wonderland as s/he navigates through a very tiny door to enter the store. A grinning Cheshire cat greets you at the entrance as you walk through a mirror-filled corridor. My poor six-foot boyfriend looked like an elephant in a tea-house, but I appreciated the fact that he waited while I browsed every item minutely, surrounded by other shrieking girls, teens, older women and even toddlers staining at their mothers’ restraining arms.

Beautiful items for sale at Alice on Wednesday
On the Queen’s Throne! (I prefer Alice to the foolish Queen of Hearts, but there you go)

Following our adventures in ‘Wonderland’, we made our way down the colorful streets to the official Sailor Moon store. Found in the Laforet building, this shop is quiet small and holds mostly knick knacks and items which are out of production and therefore not for sale. I admit that I was very disappointed. It was fun to window shop but there was nothing worth buying. I DID purchase a lot of Sailor Moon memorabilia later on from Mandarake (a large comic book store found in Akihabara Ward) as well as at the Universal Studios in Osaka, but that took place later on during our stay in Japan.

The Sailor Moon Store in the Laforet Building

Of course, we couldn’t visit Shibuya and NOT take a look at the very famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, where approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at one time coming from all directions at once. Although the spot is interesting, it IS very hectic, so we clicked madly on our cameras for five minutes and then continued on our way.

The Shibuya Crossing

Following all the excitement and rush of humanity prevalent at the crossing, we made our way to the quieter Meiji Jingu Shrine. A green oasis of majestic trees flanked by huge torii gates, this shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park offer a surprisingly large forested area within a densely populated city. The shrine, completed in 1920, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and is perfect for a relaxing stroll. It was our first encounter with a Shinto Shrine, and it was truly an experience.

The grounds at Meiji Jingu Shrine

The grounds of Meiji Jingu Shrine can be accessed through two main entrances, both marked by a huge welcoming Torii Gate.  The North entrance is very close to Yoyogi Station, while the South entrance is directly next to JR Harajuku Station. As I walked beneath the Torii gate, the sounds and smells of the busy city were quickly muffled and replaced by the scent of grass and the shuffling of leaves crowding the huge green forest leading up to the shrine. The idyllic serenity and quiet prevalent at the shrine totally clashed with the previous chaos of Shibuya’s urban landscape, and served to highlight the two faces of Tokyo – modern metropolis and spiritual center.

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Tokyo’s Spiritual Core

P.S Don’t think that just because I did not buy anything at the Sailor Moon store, it is not worth visiting! It was still amazing and if you are a fan, you should definitely pop in!

Out of Production Sailor Moon memorabilia

7 Free Mobile Phone Applications which are vital when exploring Japan

Visiting a different country although great fun and a satisfying adventure, is not as easy as you might think, particularly if you are in the habit of booking your flights and planning your stay and your itinerary on your own, without any help from outside sources. There is so much to keep in mind! Not only does one have to book accomodations, tickets to events and festivals, etc in advance, but most importantly, one has to navigate, find actual locations and places, communicate with the locals and to a certain extent, even understand their culture and way of life, in order to fully enjoy the experience.

This is particularly true when crossing from one continent to another. Travelling from Europe to Asia was an adventure I would do over and over again, yet I must admit that the level of preparation for it was on a different level to my usual travels. Thankfully, I knew I would always have my mobile phone with me, which helped a great deal in that there were a number of programmes and applications which I could download on my mobile and always keep handy while in Japan.

Picture Source: wired.com

These few free apps made exploring so much easier! Personally I did not have internet access on my mobile phone (unless I connected with some free wifi I found randomly), so all the mobile apps I downloaded were designed to work offline. My boyfriend however had bought a sim card for his phone, which provided him with free internet access at all times. In this article I will therefore be mentioning both the apps I had on my own phone, and the apps he had on his, which need internet access to work. I would recommend that if you are travelling solo, you do get either a sim card or portable pocket wifi, as this is of great help while navigating and commuting in real time. If you are part of a group, it is enough if one of your party does.

Image Source: en.compathy.net

Currency

First of all, it is important to be able to understand the currency of the country one is travelling to. The official currency of Japan is the Japanese Yen. Even before actually boarding my flight, I had already started to appreciate the difference in value and denomination of this currency. When I exchanged my European euros to Japanese yen at the bank, I was pleased to see the cashier give me so many banknotes, then I realized that this was because ten euros are the approximate equivalent of 121 Japanese yen! So, two fifty euro bank notes transformed into a 10,000 bank note, a 1,000 bank note and some coins when it came to Japanese yen! (So basically, 100 GBP are equivalent to 13,563 Japanese Yen, and so on) This was quite confusing even when purchasing pre-booked train seats online from Japanese websites calmly from home and converting my payments through online calculators, so I knew it would be far worse in real time while hurriedly buying stuff from local street vendors and shop-keepers in Japan!

Offline App Used

Exchange Rates – Easy to use, quick, efficient with no frills, this exchange rate calculator helped me monitor and understand all my monetary transactions. You can find it in Playstore and, as are the rest of the apps mentioned in this blogpost, it is totally free to download on your mobile phone. You just set your two currencies – that is, choose from a list which currency you are searching for (in this case, Japanese Yen) versus your own usual currency (ex. Euro) and the converter app will immediately open up showing these two currencies, ready to use, each time you need it. There is also a very useful feature where you can choose the banknotes of any currency and the app will show you the different available denominations together with pictures.

Online App Used

Image Source: xe.com

XE Currency Converter and Money Transfers – if you have need of real time currency fluctuations, you can download this popular app, which also offers the possibility of making an account and sending/receiving money overseas.

Language Translation

Our first stop in Japan was the capital city of Tokyo. To be honest, although I was aware that not everyone in Japan spoke and understood English, I still thought that the majority of people did. Or at least that city people did. Boy, was I wrong. I think not even half the population of Tokyo has a good grasp of the English language. Not enough to make themselves understood or to understand you when it comes to the simplest of things. And why should they? English might be one of the most predominant spoken languages in Europe, but in Asia, this is certainly not the case.

Offline Apps Used

Minna – This basic, yet comprehensive Japanese – English – Japanese dictionary offers a wide variety of everyday words and their various possible meanings and uses in colloquial language. Although it is free, some of the most ‘sophisticated’ words are to be purchased at ‘premium’ level, however one can get by very well with the free version. There is also a ‘voice’ option where you can listen to the translated word with the original tone and stress on the words.

Image Source: appgrooves.com

Learn Japanese – This is not a singular word dictionary but a collection of very common phrases and questions which might come in useful. Grouped by theme, such as  ‘Greetings’, ’Numbers’, ‘Transportation’, ‘Eating Out’, etc, this application went a long way in providing some much needed context as well as handing certain phrases on a platter, ready-made into sentences, instead of just listing singular words which would then need to be strung together to ask a simple sentence.

Online App Used

Google Translate – I must admit that Google translate is so much better than the two apps mentioned previously! You just insert the phrase or question you need to ask a local, and voila, there they have it! Just show them your mobile screen and google translate does all the work for you.

Navigation

This is actually the most vital and important part of your planning and concerns your everyday sightseeing routine. If you do not have a way to check the streets, locations, not to mention train connections, bus numbers and circuits, etc, you will definitely get lost in no time at all. And since, as already mentioned, most Japanese people don’t know English very well (nor any other common European language such as German or Italian), unless you know Japanese, you will not be able to ask for directions.

Offline App Used

Maps Me – I admit I never knew Maps Me existed before this trip, but now that I do, my travel-life will never be the same again. Simply download the app, download the map of the country you will be travelling to, and add your destinations to plan a route from your current location (make sure that your location data is switched on within your mobile phone). Maps Me provides the most viable routes on foot, by car and using trains. However if you are offline, the route given for going on foot is more accurate, since road and train changes may occur in real time. Maps Me periodically updates your maps whenever you have an internet source available.

Online App Used

Google Maps – By far the best option both for finding your way around on foot, as well as providing real time information in relation to underground metro stations, trains, and bus routes, as well as relevant departure times.

Image Source: medium.com

These mobile apps will of course be of no use if you do not have a good working mobile phone or tablet. Since you will be using this device a lot and carrying it everywhere with you, I would suggest having a fully-charged portable power bank at your disposal in case you need to re-charge your phone and have no other available power outlet.

Are there any other free apps you’d recommend and which helped you through your travel-hurdles? Let me know by posting a comment!

Image Source: 123rf.com

Disclaimer: This blogpost is not an advertisement. No companies representing mobile applications, websites, or trademarks influenced my mentioning of these products or services. I wrote about the apps I personally used and would recommend while travelling based on my own actual experience.