Tokyo Day 3: Palace, Arcades, Cats, Soba

On my last day in Tokyo, I explored Chiyoda, Akihabara, and Ueno. After a morning run and coffee, I took the subway to the Imperial Palace and wandered around the East Gardens. I was there early, maybe around 8:30, still getting over jetlag and waking up before sunrise, and the gardens were quiet and beautiful in a barren way. Expansive lawns had faded to yellow, the prefectural tree garden was bare of leaves, and only certain plants and trees flowered. As I walked to and from the gardens, hoards of runners passed by outside, presumably running some sort of 5k or marathon.

For a 180, I next visited Akihabara. While Harajuku is a famous hub of Japan’s kawaii, or cute, culture, Akihabara is famous for the otaku, or geek culture. Buildings house multi-floor arcades, and music from games like Zelda and Mario plays on the streets. I visited Super Potato and Hey Hirose, two different arcades in the center of Akihabara, to get a feel for what it’s like. Super Potato has more retro games and exudes an after school hangout vibe whereas Hey Hirose was a hardcore gamer hub. Teenagers and men hunched over games with their cigarettes and coins at the ready. Music and cartoon shooting and sound effects blared.

On the streets, teenage girls advertise maid cafes, another famous part of modern Japanese culture. At maid cafes, girls wear costumes and serve people cute cafe food. I haven’t been, but from what I understand it ranges from cute and fun to suggestive to beyond. Instead of a maid cafe, I visited Cat Cafe Mocha. Six hundred yen gets you half an hour to play with cats in a shop overlooking the main street in Akihabara.

For lunch, I stopped at Star Kebab Akiba Terrace. I loved kebab while I lived in Bologna, and I was excited to eat some again back in Tokyo.

From Akihabara Station, I went to Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum. Admission to this huge museum is fairly cheap, and knowing that time was limited and I’d hopefully be back, I decided to just focus on the Japanese gallery. Though I don’t usually like to have a strict itinerary when I travel, I do think having a plan at large museums like this, the Prado, Uffizi, or Louvre is good. I’ve found if I don’t have an idea of what to focus on, I get overwhelmed and don’t see much of anything.

Beginning on the second floor, I walked through the National Treasures galleries, learning about aspects of traditional culture from kabuki to tea ceremony, kimonos to samurai. I hurried through the first floor, but stopped at some exhibits on Ainu culture and modern art.

After the museum, I grabbed a coffee at Ueshima, a Japanese chain but preferable to Starbucks, and went for a walk through Ueno Park. I’d first learned about Ueno Park when my sister Emma and I studied Japanese one summer through Mango. One of the phrases we learned was to ask where Ueno Park and Ueno Hotel were, so I was happy to have found the park in real life. Street performers gathered crowds, and people enjoyed the sun and warmth.

I ended up at Toshogu Shrine, the quietest and my favorite of the shrines I visited in Tokyo. Late in the afternoon it was particularly pretty, and people queued up to pray. Also at the temple is a flame that’s been burning from the atomic bombs, and a memorial stands there for peace.

From Ueno, I returned to my Airbnb in Asakusa for a wagashi class my host Take invited me to. Wagashi, Japaense tea sweets, are eaten alongside matcha to counteract the bitter taste of the tea. The workshop was really fun as we mixed ingredients, made our cakes, and sipped tea. Participants came from Tokyo, other areas of Japan, and other countries, and we enjoyed talking about Tokyo and our experiences there.

After the wagashi class, Take also offered a soba class. Made from buckwheat, soba is a classic Japanese food that offers many health benefits. Take told us that the smell of the buckwheat flour is good for mental health, and drinking the soba water after is good for your skin. We rolled out the dough and used a giant blade to cut thin noodles. Take cooked them up, and we ate them with soba sauce, then drinking soup with the remaining sauce and soba water. If you’re in Tokyo and looking to learn about Japanese cooking, I definitely recommend one of these workshops. This was conducted in Japanese, but Take also speaks English and can translate when need be.

Overall, I loved Tokyo, and it now ranks among one of my favorite cities. I particularly enjoyed its varied neighborhoods, each offering something different and boasting unique character. The city is huge, so it offers the amenities of a major world city, but it’s also extremely clean and navigable. Plus, day trips from Tokyo to Yokohama and Kamakura are pleasant, and Tokyo Disneyland and Mt. Fuji are also nearby.

For video from my trip, head over to my friend May’s vlog.

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