Between 13th and 23rd May 2017, I travelled across Japan with a small group of friends on a trip organised by Trailfinders. I have wanted to go for more than a decade and my expectations were sky high, and I am happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t sure what lenses to take with me, so I took both my Leica Q and the Nikon Df with 20mm, 35mm and 85mm fast primes. I ending up using the Leica Q (28mm) and the Nikon Df with the 85mm fitted almost exclusively, both slung across my chest in readiness. You can see the gallery here. This was our itinerary:
Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo
We flew from London to Tokyo on British Airways. Given the time difference we arrived with time to spare on our first day, which gave us the opportunity to explore the area around the excellent Park Hotel in Shiodome, our base in the metropolis. Shiodome is close to the Ginza District, the upmarket shopping area of Tokyo, so had a short walk around the area and a lunchtime beer at the Ginza Lion Beer Hall with an accompaniment of delicious hoho-niku (tuna cheeks). We noticed the displays of plastic food (sampuru) outside the beer hall, which seem to be ubiquitous in Japan. None of us had slept well on the flight and our rooms had not been ready on arrival, so we headed back to the hotel to clean up and rest. On the way back we came across Hakuhninkan Toy Park, which introduced us to the mad world of Japanese toys and collectables. That evening we ate at Tsukada Nojo which was most notable for moromi-miso; a chunky condiment made from miso served with raw vegetables, of which we could not get enough.
Day 2 – Tokyo
- On our first full day in Tokyo we were accompanied by our guide Akiko, who was very knowledgable and helpful. We headed for the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū), in Shibuya, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife. Entering through an enormous Torii gate (made from a 1,500 year old tree) we passed into a large forested area which covers 175 acres and consists of around 120,000 trees of 365 different species from all over Japan. It is both tranquil and beautiful. There is also a huge decorative display of sake barrels (kazaridaru) in the grounds, which relates to the offering of sake every year to the deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine. As we walked though the three Torii gates, Akiko told us that we should not walk through the centre line of the gate. This is called the Sei-Chu and is the area designated for the enshrined gods to pass through.
- Being British and in need of a restorative cup of tea we stopped at a Cat Cafe located near the entrance to the Shrine. Japan holds the record for the most cat cafés in the world, with as many as 39 in Tokyo. I took a bit of a risk entering the place – I am asthmatic and allergic to cats, which is not a great combination, but observed the rather bizarre spectacle without consequences.
- Next was Takeshita Street or Takeshita-dōri, a shopping street in Harajuku, which was packed with fashion concious teenagers, followed by Omotesandō, an upmarket tree-lined avenue, once the official approach to Meiji-jingū. These days it is a fashionable and architecturally notable shopping strip.
- After a spot of excellent sushi we moved on to Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world. We approached it though the spectacular Thunder Gate, and a walk down the wonderful Nakamise Shopping Street. I found a gorgeous picture of the Thunder Gate in one of the stalls, which I was keen to buy, but the price tag was far out of reach as it was an original. Prints will, the vendor, told me be available in about 30 years. Not far from the temple we came across a small park with the most spectacular collection of koi we had ever seen.
- We moved on to Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town and visited the Kamata knife shop. I enjoy cooking, and love Japanese steel, so I purchased a very beautiful chef’s knife made by Ryusen.
- We returned to the hotel via a cruise of the Sumida river and ate in the hotel, quite worn out.
Day 3 – Tokyo
- The Tsukuji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and is located within walking distance of Shiodome, between the Sumida River and Ginza. Visiting it involves making a choice of either arriving at 3 AM to queue to see the tuna market open at 5 AM, or arriving by 10 AM to see market wind down. We chose the latter. The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood (many of which look like nothing on earth) and the place is a whirr of activity – most notably the ‘Turret Trucks’, which are extremely hazardous to the unwary. Whilst we missed the tuna market, we did see tuna being carved with extremely long knives, variously called called oroshi-hōchō, maguro-bōchō, or hanchō-hōchō.
- We took the tube to Shibuya Crossing, considered a must see for many visitors, and located outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station. This exit is named after a famous dog, whose statue has become a popular meeting place. Shibuya Crossing effectively is a crossing point at the meeting of five roads in one of the busiest parts of the most populous city in the world, and the spectacle of up to 1,000 people crossing the road concurrently is quite astonishing.
- I was keen to visit a guitar shop in Japan, particularly as Fender Japan are noted for being quite innovative. G’Club, Shibuya did not disappoint and I purchased a low cost, light weight Japan-only Fender Telecaster that plays extremely well.
- That evening we took in Akihabar (or Electic Town), which is famous for its many electronics shops, its otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many anime/managa shops before exploring East Shinjuku/Kabukichu, in all its neon splendour. It is a red light district and supposed to be somewhat edgy, but we were so mesmerised by the neon lights, if there was any menace there it passed us by. We were not tempted to enter any of the establishments that beckoned us.