I opted for a coach to Tokyo instead of taking the much more famous Shinkansen bullet train (saving over £70). The journey did take eight hours rather than two and a half hours, but I figured I’ve got a whole year to kill, so what’s an extra few hours here and there. The coach company was called Willer Express and it was by far the best coach journey of my life. The seats may well be the comfiest seats ever to exist. They recline so much that you are almost lying down and get a little cocoon to pull over you if you want to sleep or have privacy. If you have the luxury of not being in a hurry, I would definitely recommend the Willer Express coach.
In a fortunate turn of events, I was able to meet up again for a few days with Fiona, who I travelled with in The Philippines. We first explored Harajuku, which is famous for Harajuku fashion (a colourful and cartoonish style), although we didn’t see nearly as many Harajuku girls as we were expecting. We did have some great food though. First, pancakes at Gram Cafe. Incredible. Each portion came as giant stack of three jiggly pancakes. They tasted much more creamy, soft and moist than normal Western pancakes. For breakfast dessert, we shared a giant stick of multi-coloured candy floss. As if being 20 times over the daily recommended sugar intake wasn’t enough, we headed to the New York Bar at The Park Hyatt for a cocktail. This is the bar that features in the film Lost in Translation, and it offers some great skyline views of Tokyo.
A number of people had recommended to both myself and Fiona to go to the famous Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. It’s more of a show, rather than a restaurant, and is essentially a surreal mix of robots, flashing lights, dancers and tribal drums. It was gloriously tacky and touristy, but we absolutely loved it. In the spirit of full disclosure, it probably helped that we were a few drinks down by this point. Try as we might, we couldn’t actually find food at this place that calls itself the ‘Robot Restaurant’, so afterwards we went to a cosy little place nearby for dinner called Nico Pizza and Wine Bar. I could pretend that we did a load of research to find this hidden gem, but really we were just drawn in by the ‘All pizza 500 Yen’ sign hanging outside. After having one large pizza each, I was still feeling a bit peckish, so suggested to Fiona that we get another large pizza between us. She eagerly agreed. That’s the kind of girl that you want to be travelling with. Evidently somewhat impressed, and probably also slightly appalled, that two fairly small girls had just polished off one and a half giant pizzas each, the whole restaurant erupted into applause as we walked out. I can’t say that being clapped out of a pizza joint due to the sheer volume of food eaten is something I’ve ever aspired to, and it’s not something I’m planning on repeating on a regular basis, but…when in Tokyo. It was clearly not going to be our most classy evening ever, so we finished it off with a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits from a convenience store for dessert.
After parting ways with Fiona for a second time, I explored Akihabara and visited a Maid Cafe. This is another typical Tokyo experience and has got to be one of the most interesting places in the world for people-watching. A Maid Cafe is a cafe where a load of Japanese girls dress up as maids and treat customers as masters (all fairly innocent). There are a number of Maid Cafes in Akihabara; I went to one called @Home Cafe. The signature dish there is omelette rice, on which they write your name in tomato ketchup. As tempting as that sounded, I opted for an iced matcha latte, on which they drew a Pikachu Pokemon. A maid then invited me to put a spell on my latte with her, which involved some heart-shaped hand gestures and a little song.
Now for the people-watching at the Maid Cafe. The guy to the left of me seemed pretty cosy with the maids. Potentially a regular. He played numerous board games with them and at one point even gave them two shopping bags worth of gifts. After each conversation with a maid he would scribble furiously in his notebook. The guy to the right of me mostly played on his phone until the end, when he got two of the maids to take it in turns to take photos of each other posing on the floor. Another guy got up onto the stage with a milkmaid apron on top of a totally normal outfit. The guy behind me was from New York and offered to buy me a drink. It struck me that being offered a glass of sake at midday in a stuffy little cafe, whilst surrounded by Japanese girls dressed as maids serving Pokemon lattes, wasn’t the most romantic proposition I’d ever encountered.
One of the few criticisms I have of the Japanese is that they just aren’t that into breakfast, which feels like practically a crime after living in Australia for a year. However, around half-way through my week in Tokyo, I discovered Trueberry. They do the best smoothies and smoothie bowls ever and I went there for breakfast every day after discovering it, despite not staying even remotely close. Very un-Japanese, but what’s a girl to do when the rest of Tokyo is walking around seemingly completely unfazed by what is clearly the best meal of the day? The best smoothie I had was the Nut Green smoothie: kale, mango, pineapple, raw almond and raw cashew nut with avocado as an added extra. The turmeric ice cream with fig, mango, banana, coconut milk and cacao nibs was also amazing.
From Tokyo, I did a day trip to Lake Kawaguchi to see Mount Fuji from Chureito Pagoda. Apparently in July/August, it is often cloudy which means you sometimes can’t see Mount Fuji, so it’s best to check the weather forecast the night before and, when it looks like it will be clear the following morning, book a bus from Shinjuku station, which takes one and a half hours and drops you off on the highway. I casually strolled down the three-lane motorway for a few hundred metres, before realising there was in fact a footpath directly beside the motorway meant for pedestrians. Luckily, I arrived at Chureito Pagoda in one piece and did get to see Mount Fuji, but the clouds didn’t clear quite enough to see the top of it.
My favourite experience in Tokyo was an immersive lights exhibition called TeamLab Planets, recommended to me by a local who had worked there the previous summer. Words or photos can’t do it justice, but it essentially involved room after room of surreal of light-based experiences, such as wading through knee-deep water filled with projections of coloured fish or bouncing around a room filled with giant bouncy balls of light at least five times the size of a human. On the off-chance that you are reading this and are looking for a date idea in Tokyo, you can’t get much better than this, although I went by myself and had the best time ever so don’t let that put you off if you are travelling alone.
Japan is a great place for solo travel. I have never felt so safe travelling by myself abroad, although it was definitely fun to have a friend to share some of the Tokyo experiences with. There are vending machines everywhere in Japan. Apparently there is one vending machine per 23 people. So if you are thirsty, you are never far away from your next drink. You can even get hot food from vending machines! The Japanese are out there living in the Year 3000 already.