Since I started this blog, I have been wondering how I should go about writing about travel. There are many travel blogs out there, and many are very dry and dull to read. People end up writing lists of museums and opening hours, all information that people can get from travel guides and websites. And while many people might enjoy reading and writing such posts, it is not for me.
Thinking back on some of my favorite trips, I realized that one of the things I enjoy most when traveling, is seeing and experiencing new and unique people, places and things. Those are the experiences I want to share with you, my readers. And since that is the case, why not start with one of the most unique places that I have ever been, Tokyo.
I once said to a friend, that visiting Tokyo is the closest one could come to visiting another planet. In sci-fi, other planets are depicted as having a culture that is so different that it is hard for visitors to understand. Such sci-fi planets are technologically advanced, lit up and have much to be discovered. Tokyo is the same way. Japan’s long history as an Island nation, with periods of isolation, conquest and subjugation, has led to the development of a culture that is like non other.
One of the most surprising things about the people of Tokyo was that they were simultaneously cold and welcoming. You might think this impossible, but not in Tokyo. Japan is a homogenous society that is traditionally, not particularly welcoming to foreigners. In fact, when you go out at night, it is not uncommon to find bars, restaurants and even some shops, that have signs that read, “Japanese only”.
At the same time, almost every interaction that I had with locals, was extremely pleasant. Most people in Tokyo do not speak English, so whenever I got lost and needed to ask directions, it was always a complicated process of using google translate, google maps and body language. You might think that most people would not want to go through this whole process to help a stranger, but I can’t remember ever being ignored or turned down when I asked a local for help. In fact, on a few separate occasions, rather than try and explain the directions, people left what they were doing and walked with me to show the way. So while foreigners might not always be the most welcomed people in Tokyo, the locals are helpful and still make sure you have a good impression of their wonderful city.
Of course no post about the unique culture and people of Tokyo would be complete without mentioning the neighbourhood known as Harajuku. Harajuku is where social norms are turned upside down and people dressed as anime characters and giant babies in diapers are common and those of us wearing “regular clothes” feel out of places. It is a uniquely Tokyo experience that is best explained through pictures.
The landscape of Tokyo varies greatly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. In Shinjuku you will find yourself surrounded by flashing lights and tall sky scrapers, while in Chiyoda and Taito you can find yourself in the lush gardens of the imperial place, or green Ueno Park.
My favorite place in Tokyo was the Meiji Shrine. This shrine was build in honour of the Emperor Meiji who enacted reforms to bring Japan into the modern world. The shrine is built according to traditional Shinto tradition, a religion unique to Japan. When I was there, I was lucky enough to witness a bride and groom preparing for a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony.
There were many “things” that I loved in Japan. From the skyline covered in strobe lights, to the toilets that have more buttons than an Iphone, Tokyo is full of these peculiar “things” that make it stand out in my memory.
But one of the great loves of my life is food. Yes, I am a foodie and one of my favorite “things” to discover when traveling, is the unique cuisines of wherever I am. It is not an understatement when I claim that Tokyo is a “foodie paradise”. I tired many wonderful dishes, every one of them, full of amazing flavours and pleasant textures. Dishes that are luxuries or hard to find for people living in America, are common and accessible in Tokyo and I made sure to take full advantage of this fact. Some of my favorite dishes were…
Uni sushi: Uni (sea urchin) is normally a luxury in the west. Of all seafood products, none’s taste reminds me of the sea as much as uni.
Katsudon: Many people think of Japanese cuisine as light and mild, but not this dish. This is a breaded, fried, pork cutlet, smothered in an onion and egg sauce, served over rice. Every bite is a wonderful explosion of flavour.
Pork and Miso Ramen: This was my favorite dish. In fact, I ate it on 4 out of the 5 days that I was in Tokyo. I know that when most westerners hear “ramen”, they think of those little instant noodle packs that college students survive on. Ramen in Tokyo is something utterly different. It is a dish that consists of fresh noodles, in a thick, flavourful broth, served with perfectly cooked pork and sometimes with a seven minute egg and meatballs. It is a real “stick to your bones and warm the soul” kind of dish. A true must eat for any food lover that visits Japan. And I think most locals would agree. The place that I ate at, had a long line of people waiting to get in. Each person was let in one at a time. They were served their ramen, then spent 5 to 10 minutes loudly slurping up their noodles and then they immediately vacate their seat for the next customer in line.
Tokyo is one of a kind and a must visit location for any traveler. It is one of the few places that I have been that I have strong desire to go back again. There is no other place on the planet like it, so go with an open mind and an open stomach, and you will not be disappointed.