Chasing the Rising Sun
Tackling any city in a few days is a monumental task. Tackling a city like Tokyo in a few days is nothing short of impossible. More than double the square mileage of New York City, the capital of Japan is a whole different animal. Size aside, the city has ample attractions and restaurants to keep you occupied for however long you are visiting.
When I made my arrangements for Japan in the latter part of 2018, I knew that I would have just six days split between Tokyo and Kyoto. As with each of my trips, I try to maintain two habits to combat this time crunch: prepare at least a rough agenda of the places I want to visit, and maximize my time as much as humanly possible. This regimented approach likely veers from most peoples' idea of a vacation, but it allows me to experience the city while also capturing the moments through a lens.
Maximizing time typically entails forcing myself out of bed to catch the sunrise, as the early hours provide some of the best opportunities for photos because of the golden light and lack of crowds. Prior to heading to bed I checked the weather app and to see the what time the sun would rise in the morning.
I had no idea this was even possible. The weather was showing that the following day was the only sunny day in Tokyo over the course of the week, so I reluctantly set my alarm for 4:30. I left the curtains open in the room in an attempt to do everything I could to help myself get up in the morning. I somehow managed to wake up slightly before my alarm to a deep blue and purple sky blanketing the city.
In doing some research prior to my trip, I read that the Sensō-ji Temple is best to visit in the early morning, prior to the crowds arriving. This was enough to put this spot on the top of my list for the day, so I took a cab from the hotel across the city and got dropped off on a nearby street. I had to walk a distance to begin passing through the ornate red gates and between the closed shops on Nakamise Dori, a traditional Japanese shopping street dating back to the 17th century. After getting some photos of the adjacent pagodas, I made it to the the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple and the oldest in Tokyo.
The details of the temple and the surrounding monuments were so much more spectacular in person, and the sunlight was providing a look of warmth when pairing with the deep reds of the temple on what was otherwise a very brisk morning. One of my favorite parts about my visit was watching a number of morning joggers stop in their tracks directly in front of the temple, walk up the stairs slowly to pay a tribute and pray to the deity. The runners would then bow, walk slowly back down the stairs, and then continue with their jog. Aside from a few crows making their presence known, it was incredibly quiet. Everything was exactly how you imagine it was built to be. The early morning visit was the right decision.
I had planned my visit to the Sensō-ji Temple for the same day as a visit to the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world. It was an easy 20 minute walk to get to the base of the tower from the temple. While the Skytree does have an observatory, it was much earlier than the opening time, and I had already gotten my height fix from my visit to the Tokyo City View observation deck the day before. I was more interested in getting some shots of the structure to show its imposing figure over the surrounding streets. The neighboring areas were completely silent, and hardly any cars were on the road at this hour. What struck me as impressive was the fact that every person would wait for the crosswalks to turn green, even when the streets were void of any activity. Naturally, my jaywalking instincts kicked in, which were received with looks of confusion, shock, and concern. If you are ever looking to stand out as a foreigner and also completely freak out the people of Japan, cross the street before the walk signs provide permission. While I cannot speak to the observation deck experience, the structure is an iconic component of the Tokyo skyline, and well worth a visit.
Breakfast at Ivy Place
Having been up for 3 hours, I needed to find a place for breakfast. After doing some searching, I landed on a restaurant named Ivy Place in the Shibuya area of Tokyo that would be open by the time I could metro across the city. After a 15 minute walk from the metro station, I found the restaurant tucked away behind some other stores. Appropriately named, the dining location was surrounded by lush greenery, which made the outdoor seating an easy choice for me when I was seated. It was about 55 degrees at this point in the morning, but the sun was keeping the outdoor patio area relatively warm. The restaurant had some standard breakfast offerings including omelets, fried eggs, pancakes, and granola. I went with the buttermilk pancakes with fresh strawberries, strawberry sauce, and whipped cream, the authentic and healthy option. The pancakes cost 1000 yen, or $9 USD, and while the presentation was great, the pancakes were pretty dry. The restaurant does get busy on the weekends, so if you ever pay Ivy Place a visit, it is worth getting there on the earlier side.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
I finished breakfast around 9:15, and made my way back to the metro station to head to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. I had to change lines at one of the stations according to Google Maps, but the app instructed me to "stay on train as line changes to local." I was just thinking to myself how amazing it is that Google could provide such detailed instructions on how to navigate the metro. Sitting there in ignorance, I heard the chime for the closing doors, and moments later the train started moving back from where I had come from. I must have been overdue for a metro mix-up, as I found myself restarting the route once more when I was able to get off at the origin station. On attempt number two I was able to make the correct line transfer, and ultimately arrived at the station near the National Garden. When inserting my ticket into the exit queue the gates shut and alarms started sounding. The man from the booth started yelling. I apparently underpaid the fare and had to settle the difference. Scrambling for coins in my pocket I finally got out.
It was 60 degrees when I made it to Shinjuku Gyoen. The area was a beautiful collection of different themed gardens including traditional Japanese, English landscape, and French formal. Being a Sunday morning, many families were out enjoying the sunny day on the sweeping green spaces, picnicking, playing, and some individuals were even sporting their traditional Japanese garb as they passed through the gardens. There is a small entrance fee for Shinjuku Gyoen (200 yen), but on a nice day like this one, it's a great escape from the busy tempo of the city.
Dinner at Butagumi
I returned to the hotel in the afternoon to rest ahead of my dinner reservation at Butagumi. I think the term "hole in the wall" would be disrespecting restaurant, but the premise is similar. The dining areas are set in an old, wooden Japanese home that is located on a very narrow backstreet off a busier road. It was so unassuming that the cab driver seemed confused when we started down the tapering alleyways.
The name of the game at Butagumi is Tonkatsu, which is high-end fried pork. The menu is essentially a Cheesecake Factory menu of pork. You can choose from a number of options of sirloin, tenderloin, or pork belly, which will then be served with Miso soup, shredded cabbage, rice, and a Kagua Rouge ale to pair with the pork if you so choose. The tenderloin was hot, and tender, which went well with the crunchy breading. The "gourmet level" fried pork lived up to my expectations, and the visit to this hidden restaurant felt like a bargain when the check came to 2000 yen ($28 USD).
Food aside, one of the highlights of the dinner was small, personal dining area. There were a total of four tables in the upstairs area which, as you would expect, were very well attended to. The waitresses spoke very little English, but managed to communicate just fine, and were extremely amicable. Throughout the course of the meal I started noticing that the only songs playing were by Billy Joel. "Piano Man" comes on as I receive my check.
Here I was sitting in a small wooden house in an alley in Tokyo eating fried pork with Miso soup surrounded by people speaking Japanese. And yet, home didn't feel all that far away.
The power of that harmonica.