Start Cooking!

When you’re greeted by a giant chef perched atop the building on the corner and a row of enormous teacups down the side of another, you know you’re in for a culinary treat in Kappabashi-dori. It’s not an edible indulgence this time but a shopping experience with a difference.

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Kappabashi-dori, aka Kitchen Street, is at the centre of a district in central Tokyo where you can buy all sorts of kitchen accessories. From where the kitchen shops begin it’s impossible to see the end, with block after block of shop fronts decorated with bunting advertising their wares.

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Some shops are large, with a variety of stock while others are tiny spaces packed to the rafters with just one type of implement.

Whether it’s chairs, chopsticks or chefs’ clothing you’re searching for, Kappabashi-dori is the place to go.

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Do You Speak English?

One of the difficulties when travelling overseas is understanding the language of another country. As an English speaker with some high school German and French in my travel toolkit, it’s been relatively easy to get by in some parts of Europe but deciphering the language in Japan was another matter entirely. My travel companion in Tokyo was my sister, who has been both a student and teacher of Japanese for many years and also lived in Japan. It was great for me – I had my own personal tour guide, but the effort of constant concentration was, at times, very tiring for her. So when we came across opportunities for free English-speaking guided tours at two major sites in Tokyo we were happy to take advantage of them.

Although Meiji Jingū, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, is located in one of the busiest areas of central Tokyo its position at the centre of 247 acres of forest guarantees a peaceful visit. As we approached the torii gate at the entrance we noticed two older gentlemen sitting at a desk with a sign offering free tours in English. We soon found out they were members of an English speaking club and taking visitors on tours of the shrine gave them opportunities to practise their language skills.

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Our guide was Yoshio san, a retired primary school teacher. “I work part time for a tour company,” he told us, “so I need to have good English.” Yoshio san’s knowledge of the shrine and his enthusiasm for its history was infectious. We were soon engaged in lessons on purification, making offerings and writing prayers on an ema, a small wooden plate purchased at one of the many stalls outside the shrine.

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Yoshio san explained the wall of barrels of wine, donated by the wineries of Bourgogne in France; among the aspects of western culture Emperor Meiji adopted was the habit of enjoying a glass of wine with his meal. He pointed out the corner of the main path leading to the shrine. It’s an 88° angle because the number nine is considered to be bad luck. After 30 minutes of fascinating conversation, Yoshio san left us watching while one of many traditional Shinto wedding parties prepared for photographs.

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Our second free English tour was at Sensoji Temple in the bustling tourist area of Asakusa. This time we were approached by a group of Uni students who belonged to a University English club. “Would you come on our free tour? We like to practise our English with tourists,” asked the leader of the group, Ryo san. Together we walked along Nakamise, a centuries-old shopping street filled with vendors selling souvenirs and traditional food, through Hozomon, the temple gate and in to the temple complex.

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Built in 645AD, Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest and most popular Buddhist temple. Ryo san and his friends walked with us around the gardens, waited patiently while we took photos and told us about their university studies. Inside the temple we were guided to the main hall where we waited our turn to say a quick prayer to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, to whom the temple is dedicated.

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After the friendly students left us, we wandered again through the hall and around the gardens. We came across two young girls, beautifully dressed in traditional kimono. My sister resumed her role of tour guide, approached them and said in Japanese, “You look very beautiful. May we take your photo?” We were taken aback when they answered her question with a question of their own. “Do you speak English?” they asked.

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It turned out they were tourists too, visiting from Taiwan and enjoying an afternoon of elegant dress-ups! They had us fooled!

Shop Till You Drop!

One of the fascinating places we visited with Haruko on our walk through Jiyugaoka was this department store.

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Unlike our department stores where the whole shop is owned by one company and there are many sections, in this building each little shop was independently owned.

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Four floors of shops, from haberdasheries to groceries, bakeries to dress shops, tempted us time and again. The glamour of the ballroom dancing shop was enticing…

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…but the bakery wasn’t so appealing, mainly because we weren’t sure what they were selling!

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We resisted temptation for ourselves, but did find some lovely gifts for our friends and family – unique pieces from a special place far removed from the souvenir shops of Asakusa.

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Autumn in the Mountains

In late September the days in Tokyo were very warm and very humid. But as we travelled into the mountains the scenery became more autumnal. At Mt Fuji’s Fifth Station the seasonal beauty of the deciduous trees framed the mountain views perfectly.

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A Day Trip to Mt Fuji

Weekly Photo Challenge – Orange

Calling All Travellers

“Calling All Airbnb Travellers in Tokyo” was an email subject line guaranteed to catch my attention the night we arrived in Japan. After a nine hour flight and 90 minutes of train travel we had just checked into our tiny yet beautifully appointed Airbnb apartment in Funabori. Our host Masakatsu had given us a warm welcome and some much needed dinner. Our vacation had begun.

Our accommodation, in a three storey building on a quiet side-street, suited our needs perfectly. The kitchen was compact and well-equipped and the living room, charmingly arranged for Tea Ceremony, fitted two futons perfectly. One of the benefits of booking with Airbnb is that travellers stay in real homes in local neighbourhoods. Our traditional Japanese apartment was in a typical Tokyo suburb, with a vending machine on every corner, a 7/11 store on the main street and a train station within walking distance.

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The email I received on our first night was from Wakana Ando, who works for Airbnb in Tokyo. It was a first for the online accommodation booking site – an invitation to meet up with other Airbnb travellers and an Airbnb hostess to explore Jiyugaoka, a suburb of Tokyo on the opposite side of the city from Funabori. We would never have thought of going there on our own and replied immediately; the opportunity to meet some kindred spirits and visit a different part of the city was too good to ignore.

Our hour long train journey across the city took us to the end of the Shibuya line and then on a local express train to Jiyugaoka Station where we met the rest of the group. Our 75 year old hostess, Haruko, has been an Airbnb hostess since it first started in Tokyo and has welcomed many people into her home. Her name means Spring Child and there was a spring in her step as she led us on a meandering walk away from the main streets to her favourite places in Jiyugaoka. We wandered along the indoor alleys of a local department store. We rang the bell at the small Buddhist temple after being instructed in the proper way to cleanse before praying. At La Vita, we admired the canals and posed on the little bridge. We peered through the gate of a traditional tea house set in a beautifully formed garden and we stopped to marvel at the enormous apples at a roadside fruit and vegetable stall, all the while listening to Haruko’s stories about her neighbourhood.

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As we wandered, we introduced ourselves to the other members of the group. We met Katrina from Miami, who, like us had only just arrived in Tokyo, but unlike the rest of us was planning to stay and work for several months. Fellow Australians, John and Susan, were using their Airbnb apartment as a home base for three weeks while exploring Tokyo on bicycles. Our lunch destination was La Boheme, an Italian restaurant serving tasty Italian food in Japanese style. Wakana had asked us to choose from the menu prior to the day so our delicious meals were ready when we arrived. As we sat together around the table more stories emerged, from the Canadian couple who had taken six months off to explore Asia and the American photographer hoping to build a new career with his photos.

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airbnbAfter lunch, we continued our gentle stroll until we arrived back to the train station, where Wakana and Haruko bid us farewell. We didn’t go straight back to central Tokyo though. Instead we ventured out again down the narrow streets of Jiyugaoka, this time on our own, to continue exploring. We had journeyed to the other side of Tokyo and we were going to make the most of it, thanks to that intriguing subject line from Wakana.

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A Night at the Theatre

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You don’t have to understand Japanese to enjoy a night at the theatre in Tokyo. A traditional Kabuki performance at Kabuki-za in the Ginza runs for around four hours but if that’s too long you can just buy single act tickets on the day. Make sure you read the instructions on the website as timing is critical and if you’re not there on time for your act you’ll miss out.

We arrived at the theatre quite early and, following the directions given by the doorman, made our way to the single act ticket office on the fourth floor. Tickets purchased, we found a nearby Indian restaurant for a delicious dinner and then returned to the theatre in plenty of time for our performance.

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In true Japanese style the procedure for entering the theatre was organised with precision. We had to line up single file in seating order before quietly entering the gallery on level three. From our elevated position we had a great view of the stage and could see the musicians tuning up their traditional instruments on each side. We had been given a brochure about the performance we were about to see which included a synopsis of the story. Even this prior knowledge, however, was not enough for us to follow what was happening. It didn’t take us long to realise we didn’t have a clue what was going on, so we just sat back and enjoyed the amazing display of drums, music, acrobats and actors.

All female roles in a Kabuki performance are played by male actors but the elaborate costumes, masks and make up meant it was impossible to tell. Photographs are not allowed inside the theatre so beautiful posters displayed in the foyer and outside the theatre show the most famous actors in their extravagant costumes.

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The single act we saw lasted for 45 minutes. It was perfect for sampling the drama and spectacle of Kabuki – no Japanese language skills necessary!

* To get to the theatre, we travelled on the subway to Higashi Ginza Station. Exit 3 leads directly to the basement level of the theatre and escalators go to the theatre entrance at street level.

* A single act ticket cost ¥1000. Tickets must be purchased on the day of the performance and paid for in cash.

Tokyo Imperial Palace ~ Weekly Photo Challenge ~ Symmetry

The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. Although the buildings aren’t open to the public, visitors can view them from Kokyo Gaien, a large plaza at the front of the palace. A large moat with massive stone walls is crossed by several bridges including Meganebashi – Eyeglass Bridge.

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There’s plenty of symmetry to be seen in the ornamental fences, lamp posts and entrance gates.

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Even the guard on gate duty is symmetrical!

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Weekly Photo Challenge – Symmetry