It was by all means an unusual trip. I was in-between the jobs and though it would be nice to spend a week in my favourite country before diving deep into my new role — ironically, just like I did before taking my previous job. Back then in 2018 we went on a two-week trip which I already covered in a series of posts on this blog.
In fact, we decided quite spontaneously to go on that trip: on some day in February I was just browsing ticket prices to whatever places — the activity I enjoyed doing pre-pandemic. I noticed that round-trip prices to Tokyo were lower than usually. That was certainly affected by the beginning of the pandemic and its spread in Asia, but back then people in Europe (us included) were not taking it seriously. I mean, nothing like that ever happened in our lives, and it was impossible to foresee how the whole thing will turn out. So, we bought the tickets just two weeks before going on this 10-day trip. We didn’t know yet it was meant to be our last trip overseas for a long period of time.
In the beginning of March 2020, we were flying back to Tokyo. It was tempting to buy another JR Pass, but that time we did not have enough time for a trip through the country. So, Tokyo was our primary destination and we were planning to leave it only once during the trip — to visit Fujiyoshida, a town close to Mt. Fuji, but I’ll come to that in one of the following posts.
As always, the flight was quite long and exhausting. I didn’t sleep at all and we arrived to Tokyo early in the morning. For the first couple of nights we booked a hotel where we’ve already stayed before. It’s located in the familiar to us Ningyocho area. In 2013, when I spent six months in Tokyo, we used to live close by and know almost all the shops and restaurants in the area.
It was raining in Tokyo, so we decided to take a direct shuttle bus from the Narita airport which took us to Suitengumae station. We had to walk from there for about 10 minutes, but that was quite straightforward, since we know the area and didn’t even need any map.
Despite the fact that our planned check-in time was much later, the room was already free, and we were allowed to use it. That was such a big help! We were exhausted, and I was desperate to take a shower.
According to our initial plan we were going to spend the day doing some shopping at Akihabara and then meeting friends there at a yaki-niku (Japanese BBQ) place. However, we were so tired, that we just went out to have lunch in Kaisen Misakiko, a sushi kaiten nearby our hotel, then returned to the room, had a nap, and went to Akihabara only late in the evening to meet with the friends. It was a very pleasant evening.
Next morning we managed to get up early. We planned so much for the day!
First thing, we went to Kappabashi, the area in Tokyo we also know very well, since we spent there our three months in 2015. We took the subway to Iriya station and enjoyed walking the familiar streets from there.
It was such a nice and sunny March morning! We saw some early cherry blossoms.
On the way, we passed by the old house where we used to live, to check if it’s still standing. The whole area almost hasn’t changed since our last visit in 2018!
Shopping at Kappabashi
We went there not just because of feeling nostalgic. Kappabashi-dori is famous for its shops supplying restaurants with all possible items from kitchen utensils to furniture and food-making machines. Although the target customers are restaurant owners, it does not mean you can’t shop there as an ordinary shopper.
In fact, many tourists come to visit that street to buy some souvenirs and to visit the so called sampuru (from English ‘sample’) shops, selling food samples made of plastic. These are often used at restaurants in their shop display windows to demonstrate the menu. Such sample items often look soooo realistic, that it’s even hard to tell that it’s only plastic. Huge pieces can be costly, but some shops offer small items as souvenirs like a tiny sushi or even a kit to make your own food sample.
We were planning to buy some stuff for our home, like beautiful ramen bowls and some miscellaneous ceramic items. We always wanted to do this kind of shopping there, but were always constrained by the luggage allowance. This time we made sure to leave some extra space for our dinnerware.
Besides, I wanted to visit the shop called ‘Union’, which sells everything possible for coffee from dripper filters to syphones, cold brew towers and even roasting devices — everything from popular Japanese brands like Hario or Kalita. They sell roasted coffee as well. It’s a paradise for a coffee lover like me, and of course I didn’t leave it empty-handed.
As for the ceramics, the challenge was to find a shop. I didn’t look for any recommendations in advance, so instead we just quickly went through the whole street and noted some potential stores. The one we liked most, Maeda, was located almost in the end of the street. Their showroom wasn’t fancy, but the products they were selling were amazing. There we managed to find everything which was on our list, and the shop staff wrapped everything with care and provided us with a tax free document.
We could have spent more time at Kappabashi, however, our agenda for the day was full. We made a quick stop at Sensing Touch of Earth, a cozy coffee shop which we like despite it’s weird name. I ordered a matcha latte to-go, and we continued walking back towards the subway station.
We returned to the hotel and left the stuff we bought at Kappabashi and immediately went back to the subway. This time we were heading to Chiyoda, the administrative center of Tokyo. You may remember the story (which I told you in this post) of how we missed the chance to visit the Imperial Gardens. During that trip we were determined to fix that.
Furthermore, this time I even applied online to get us spots on an official free guided tour through the Imperial Palace grounds. Usually such an application is not necessary, but very helpful. It assures that you will take part in the excursion if you show up at the scheduled time. Visitors without such registrations would be served on a first-come basis.
This time, however, we wouldn’t get in without our registration. Because of the pandemic, many public places like museums, galleries and observation decks decided to close indefinitely. The Imperial Palace excursion takes place outdoors and it was not cancelled, however, the number of participants was limited only to those who were pre-registered. So, we were in!
You may wonder, what is actually this tour about? The Imperial Palace has been the residential place of the Japanese Emperor family since 1868. In the Imperial Palace Complex consisting of several buildings the ruling family undertakes its official duties. Different ceremonies and public activities also take place there.
The excursion is a guided walking tour. There are guides speaking different languages. On that day there were an English speaking and a French speaking guides. The only French couple who joined on that day got a very exclusive tour. We joined the English speaking group of course.
The duration of the walk is about one hour (you will cover about 2.2 km). Taking photographs is allowed, however, you should keep the group’s pace. There are special people following the group who make sure that nobody stays behind.
In general, it was an interesting experience. We’ve learned that all imperial buildings were actually quite modest (no aqua discotheque or anything).
Lazy afternoon in the Imperial Gardens
After the excursion we were a bit hungry. We didn’t have time for lunch before the excursion, and after it was already quite late. There was no point in having a complete meal since in a couple of hours we were meeting up with my former colleagues with whom we were going to have a dinner at an izakaya (a Japanese bar serving drinks and small foods). So, we grabbed some snacks from a convenience store and headed towards the Eastern Imperial Gardens.
There we just sat on the ground in the middle of a park enjoying the sun. It was so warm, we even were able to remove the jackets! We had our snacks, and Sergio told me he would like to take a nap — right there in the park. So, I took my camera and went to explore.
Meeting with my colleagues
In the evening, we went to the institute where we both used to work to meet with my former team. I was as always very glad to see them. There were of course many new members, staff and interns — all are nice people, with whom we spent a pleasant evening in an izakaya. One thing which never happened to us before: the izakaya was completely empty and we were the only customers.
Night blossoms at Chidorigafuchi
After the party was over, Fumiki offered us to show the early blooming trees in the park near Cidorigafuchi. In the spirit of hanami, we bought some drinks in a convenience store and headed to the park. We were impressed by the large magnolia trees in full bloom.
At midnight, returning to our hotel, we realised we were hungry again. I guess our jet lag was playing tricks on us. We decided to make a quick stop at a Yoshinoya next to our hotel, and discovered some new healthy items on the menu. The meal I ordered was very delicious!
Photos taken in March 2020