Shigatse (གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར། 日喀則), also named Xigatse, is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, and an important base for travelers to visit the Mount Everest Base Camp and the nearby Sakya Monastery. Lying in the middle of the Friendship Highway between Nepal and China, Shigatse is Tibet’s second largest city. We arrived at Shigatse at around 8pm. After checking in at Sakya Lhundup Palace Hotel, we went for a walk in the area to look for a place to eat. The area was not particularly lively, despite we were just 300m from the Summer Palace of Panchen Lama and 500m from Tashilhunpo Monastery (བཀྲ་ཤིས་ལྷུན་པོ་ 扎什倫布寺), the largest monastery in the city. On the upper level of a two-storey building across the street from our hotel, we saw the soft lighting and lively ambience of what looked like a decent restaurant.
We followed a passageway at the end of the building into a tranquil courtyard with colourful flags, lush green plant pots and patio tables. We headed up a stair beside a large kitchen and arrived at a large dining area known as Wordo Courtyard.
A small group of musicians were performing traditional music while staff were busy bringing out all kinds of interesting dishes to the tables.
The restaurant was decently decorated in traditional Tibetan style.
We ordered three dishes and yogi berry tea.
At Wordo Courtyard, we enjoyed a relaxing night of fine Tibetan food. After dinner, we returned to the hotel for an early rest. The next day would be another long day on the road, taking us to the highest point of our Tibetan journey, the Mount Everest Base Camp.
Before sunset, we walked out Samye Monastery to the main plaza of Samye Town. Listed as one of China’s special villages, the home of the splendid Samye Monastery aims to further develop its tourism industry. Simple guesthouses, convenient stores and eateries mushroomed around the monastery and along the main street. Despite Samye Monastery is on the itinerary of many tourists, most travelers prefer to stay at a bigger city or town such as Tsedang or even Lhasa. As a result, Samye remains a quiet community after all day-trippers left. We stayed the night at Samye Monastery Guesthouse, probably the biggest accommodation establishment in town. For dinner and breakfast, we chose Friendship Snowland Restaurant at the main street just outside Samye Monastery. The plaza and main street outside Samye Monastery turned out to be a great place for people watching: balloon vendor interacting with a local family, laundry powder vendor giving away plastic wash basins to customers, a flock of sheep passing by… our memories of sleepy Samye Town.
Outside the main gate of Samye Monastery, the plaza and main street was a great place for people watching.
After the tourists and pilgrims left, the Samye Monastery returned to tranquility.
We wandered a bit on the main street to pick a restaurant for dinner.
Locals gathered at the vendor selling all kinds of household goods. The vendor gave away plastic wash basins to customers who bought her laundry powder.
Vendor selling colourful balloons at his auto rickshaw captured much attention in front of the monastery.
Local eateries dotted along the main street, but most of them were empty as we looked for a place for dinner.
To us, Samye was pretty laid back, including its sleepy dogs.
We finally chose the guidebook-recommended Friendship Snowland Restaurant for supper.
At the restaurant, we were greeted by friendly staff and two cute puppies.
We were the only customers at the restaurant. The interior was decorated in traditional Tibetan style.
Like the monasteries, the interior of Tibetan restaurants are also filled with vivid colours.
Samye Monastery and Yungbulakang Palace are probably the most important landmark in Shannan Prefecture.
Any meal in Tibet should start with Tibetan sweet tea.
The food was surprisingly good. We enjoyed a taste of Tibetan family cuisine with three local dishes and a bowl of vegetable soup.
Outside the restaurant, a flock of sheep walked by the main street.
After dinner, we picked up a few bottles of water and followed the enclosure wall of Samye Monastery back to our hotel.
We get up at around 7am and got ourselves ready for the departure of our journey out of Lhasa. Leaving Trichang Labrang Hotel behind, we put on our backpacks and walked out to the community medical centre on Jiangsu Road to wait for our driver. We got the name and license plate from Pazu. At slightly after 8am, our driver Sangzhu (桑珠) arrived and we were all set to embark on our 6-day journey. Shannan (山南), or Lhoka (ལྷོ་ཁ།) in Tibetan, was the first destination. Bounded by Lhasa (拉薩 ལྷ་ས་) to the north, Nyingchi (林芝 ཉིང་ཁྲི་ས།) to the east, Shigatse (日喀則 གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་གྲོང) to the west and the international border of India and Bhutan to the south, Shannan is considered as the legendary birthplace of the Tibetan people. The landscape of Shannan is dominated by the middle and lower sections of the Yarlung Valley and Tibet’s most important waterbody Yarlung Tsangpo River (雅魯藏布江), as we had seen it from the sky upon our arrival at Gonggar Airport by plane.
We hit the road out of Lhasa before 8:30am.
Under the morning sun, the highland barley fields and distant mountains signified we had entered the southern countryside of Lhasa.
On Provincial Highway 101, we stopped by a lookout by the Yarlung Tsangpo River (雅魯藏布江).
As the longest river in Tibet, Yarlung Tsangpo River originates from the Angsi Glacier in western Tibet. From the lookout, the Yarlung Tsangpo River continues to run downstream into India and Bangladesh known as the Brahmaputra River. From the lookout, we could see the desert environment of large sand dunes along Yarlung Tsangpo River.
We continued to drive along the south side of Yarlung Tsangpo River until reaching Tsetang (澤當), the capital of Shannan region and the fourth largest city in Tibet. Sangzhu stopped the vehicle at the regional security office to register our travel plan.
Near Tsetang (澤當), Sangzhu drove us to the nearby Yungbulakang Palace (雍布拉康 ཡུམ་བུ་བླ་སྒང།) to check out the supposedly the oldest structure in Tibet, and the legendary palace of Nyatri Tsenpo, the first king of Tibet in the second century BC. Later in the 7th century AD, it became the summer palace of Songtsen Gampo and Wencheng Princess, and turned into a Gelug monastery in the 17th century.
Erected atop a high ridge, the legendary Yungbulakang Palace was heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution. The palace then went through extensive reconstruction in 1983.
As we saw the long flight of stairs up to Yungbulakang Palace, we began to discuss how long it might take to reach the palace from the parking lot. We soon realized that the palace was closed to the public due to a $1.5m restoration work. That left us no choice but to turn back to the car.
Our visit to Yungbulakang turned out to be a brief photo stop. We soon returned to the Tsetang (澤當) for lunch. Sangzhu took us to Abba Home Tibetan Restaurant, one of the Lonely Planet recommended local restaurant.
Featuring traditional seating, the interiors of Abba Home Tibetan Restaurant was cosy and welcoming. Almost all customers were locals.
We ordered three dishes, including the local yak beef, and invited Sangzhu to join us.
For touring in Shannan, many jeep tours would stay at Tsedang for the night. Sangzhu suggested to stay in a smaller town further down the journey so we could save an hour’s drive at the next day. We decided that we would stay at Samye (桑耶鎮), the village where we would visit Samye Monastery, the first monastery in Tibet and probably the most important attraction in Shannan. After lunch, we were on our way to Samye at the north side of Yarlung Tsangpo River. On the way, we stopped by another beautiful lookout filled with vivid prayer flags.
From the lookout, we could once again admire the arid landscape of the Yarlung River Valley.
It was refreshing to take in the open scenery of the surrounding sand dunes and mountains.
The wind was really strong and we couldn’t stop for long at the lookout. After a few photos, we continued the journey towards Samye (桑耶鎮).
Traveling to Lhasa is not complete without paying a visit to some of the city’s many tea houses and Tibetan restaurants. After returning to Lhasa from Ganden Monastery, we spent the rest of the afternoon at Guangming Gangqiong Sweet Tea House (光明港瓊甜茶館), one of Lhasa’s most well known sweet tea houses in Lhasa. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg defined “third place” as the place other than “home” and “workplace” where people spend most of their time hanging around to socializing. As a home away from home, a Tibetan sweet tea house is the venue where locals gather everyday for community news, causal chats, and a sip of traditional sweet tea. Located at Danjielin Road (丹傑林路) just a stone throw away from Jokhang Monastery (大昭寺), Guangming Gangqiong Sweet Tea House (光明港瓊甜茶館) is a popular mingling place for locals and foreign tourists. Once we stepped in the door, we were immediately overwhelmed by the animated atmosphere. It took us a while to find three empty seats at a communal table in the largest tea hall. From a shelf at the far corner we picked up three empty glasses. On the table, we each put a one yuan bill under the empty glass. Soon, a staff came by our table, took the money and filled our glasses with Tibetan sweet tea. From the serving counter at the back of the tea house, we ordered three bowls of beef noodles. As we chatted about the upcoming travel itinerary, sipped our tea and devoured our belated lunch, our eyes were rolling from left to right taking in scenes of lively interactions of local customers.
The vibrant Danjielin Road has many souvenir shops and restaurants, including Guangming Gangqiong Sweet Tea House (光明港瓊甜茶館).
We passed by a smaller tea hall where the ceiling was decorated with synthetic plants.
Other than Tibetan sweet tea, we also ordered beef noodles from the serving counter at the far side of the room.
Other than drinks and food, tea house is a popular venue for gossips and card games.
There were a few staff constantly walking around the tea house to refill for customers.
Also on Danjielin Road, the Tibetan Family Kitchen (更潘藏家廚房) is a pleasant place to get a taste of Tibetan family cuisine. Located on the second level of a residential block, it wasn’t easy to find the entrance to Tibetan Family Kitchen. From Danjielin Road, we found our way through a retail arcade into a tranquil skywell where a flight of staircase led up to the upper level. Stepping into the Tibetan Family Kitchen felt like walking into some local’s home. Beyond the entrance, the first thing we saw was the busy kitchen. We sat down at the communal table in one of the two dining rooms. On the communal table, two kids were doing homework at one side, while we sat at the other side going through the dinner menu. We chatted with the friendly hostess of the family restaurant, and ordered two dishes, a bowl of soup and rice. The food was excellent, and so as the interior decorations of Tibetan Family Restaurant. Surrounded by the walls of comments by visitors from around the globe, every single details of the interior design expressed a strong sense of Tibetan culture.
The Tibetan Family Kitchen is located on the second level of a mixed use building.
We followed a flight of stair up to the second level to reach Tibetan Family Kitchen.
Entering the family restaurant was like going into somebody’s home.
There are two dining rooms in Tibetan Family Kitchen.
Many walls in Tibetan Family Kitchen were filled with visitor comments.
All furniture and decorations in the family restaurant express a strong sense of Tibetan culture…
…including this traditional lantern.
We shared the table with two kids of the owner’s family.
Having dinner at Tibetan Family Kitchen really felt like being a guest in a local Tibetan home. Even the food was quite homey with nothing fancy but delicious and comforting.
We both felt asleep on the train back to Tokyo. The normally popular tourist district of Asakusa (浅草) was largely deserted by the time we walked out Asakusa Station at around 9pm. We didn’t want to return to our hotel yet. We decided to wander around Asakusa, from the world famous Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) to the inner streets of dining, shopping and entertainment district of Rokku. Most shops were closed except for some restaurants and street eateries.
The buildings and streetscape around Tobu Asakusa Station reveal the former glory of Asakusa when the district was a foremost area in Tokyo.
Tokyo Skytree and Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall stood out in the skyline beyond.
Kengo Kuma’s Asakusa Culture and Tourist Centre (淺草文化中心) took on a different appearance under the perfect illumination.
Surrounded by scaffolding, the Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) found a moment of peace with the absence of tourists.
The 200m Nakamise (仲見世) Shopping Street closed for the night. Security guards were checking the shopping streets to ensure no visitor stayed behind.
From Nakamise (仲見世), we entered a side street (雷門柳小路) into the grid network of small streets of restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Orange Street (オレンジ通り), a street famous for its orange paint lies at the centre of the dining and entertainment area of Asakusa.
The Rokku area of Asakusa was once the biggest entertainment district in Japan before WWII. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Asakusa lies outside the city wall and was a red light and theatre district. During the prewar years of the 20th century, theatres and cinemas dominated the Rokku area. Much of Asakusa was destroyed during the war. Today, the entertainment district of Asakusa was only a shadow of its past.
Some restaurants in the area still maintains the atmosphere of the prewar days.
In contrast to the spirituality and history of Sensoji Temple just a few blocks away, the Rox Dome is a popular indoor batting stadium.
The atmospheric Dempoin Dori (傳法院通) offers a glimpse of the former theatre and entertainment district.
Not many pedestrians were around at Dempoin Dori. However some of the restaurants were still open. The traditional shopfronts reminded visitors the appearance of the lively high street during the prewar years.
Despite its decline in the postwar years, Asakusa remains an interesting place to stroll around and get a feel of Tokyo’s history and its vibrant dining scenes.
Today, the Rokku area is still a focus of dining and entertainment experience, with outdoor eateries here and there near the junction of Don Quijote Department Store.
Most shops were closed for the night, but the street-side eateries were still quite lively when we were there.
The junction in front of Don Quijote Department Store was brightly lit up by neon lights of theatres and shops.
Apart from the street eateries and traditional shops, there are also covered arcades in the area providing another alternative shopping experience.
After strolling for an hour or so, we headed back to Asakusa Station and took the metro back to Shibuya. Passing by the narrow alleyways near the station, the Tokyo Skytree across Sumida River could be clearly seen at the street end, revealing a new chapter of shopping and entertainment just a stone throw away from Asakusa.
Small alleyways of tiny izayaka (居酒屋) and eateries situated a block or two away from train stations, yokocho can be found in many districts in Tokyo. From 6pm to sunrise, yokochos offer a relaxing venue for drinks and snacks after work. We knew it would be chaotic, cramped, noisy, and messy, but we loved to have a yokocho (橫丁) experience during our Tokyo stay. We picked Ebisu Yokocho, a popular indoor alleyway just a block away from Ebisu Station. Since 1998, Ebisu Yokocho has successfully converted the declining Yamashita shopping centre into a popular venue for food and drinks. Just like other yokocho, eateries in Ebisu Yokocho serve different Japanese cuisine, from sashimi to yakitori. As soon as we entered the covered alleyway, we were overwhelmed by the smell of cigarette, sake and grilled meat in the air. Entering from the relatively dark and empty street, the warm and crowded yokocho felt like a completely different world. We were lucky to find a table available at one of the eateries. The food wasn’t as cheap as we thought, but the experience of enjoying beer and small dishes of Japanese food in a crowded alleyway was pretty interesting.
The main street entrance of Ebisu Yokocho is just a block away from Ebisu Station (恵比寿駅).
It was about 20:00 when we arrived at Ebisu Yokocho. It was still early in the night but the place was already quite packed.
Most visitors were locals, but there were also some foreign tourists enjoying the local cuisine and sake. There is however no English menu at the eateries and most staff don’t speak English.
Most yokochos in Tokyo are outdoor. Ebisu Yokocho on the other hand was established in the former Yamashita Shopping Centre.
Many visitors seemed to be groups of colleagues having a break after work.
The yokocho was cramped and noisy, but the atmosphere was energetic and fun.
There are two other entrances from side streets into Ebisu Yokocho.
Slot window and a wall mural illustrating the floor plan of Ebisu Yokocho.
Colourful neon signage of the eateries.
A man walked by the colourful side entrance of Ebisu Yokocho.
After Ebisu, our next stop was Higashi-yama Restaurant in Nakameguro (中目黒). In a quiet residential street in Higashi-yama 15 minutes walk from Nakameguro Station, Higashi-yama Restaurant was well hidden from the street. We came across this restaurant from our online research. We were attracted by the minimalist food presentation and the atmospheric interior setting. We reserved a table for lunch through their website two weeks prior to our departure. After the traditional Kaiseki experience at Ueno Park the day before, we were hoping that Higashi-yama would offer us a contemporary interpretation of Japanese cuisine. “A detached house located in Higashi-yama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, away from the clamor of the city, and be a place where people meet and discuss what matters most to them, a place where new communication is born.” According to the description on their website, the story of this tranquil spot in Tokyo’s Higashi-yama where people come and chat and enjoy modern Japanese food all began in 1998. Our experience of Higashi-yama began at a narrow stairway off the street.
A flight of steps led us away from a residential street up to a hidden courtyard.
Well hidden from the street, the entrance courtyard offers a serene buffer between the street and the restaurant. The courtyard served well to decant our souls of hastiness and calm down our hearts (as we were almost late for the booking).
The interior of the restaurant is simple and unpretentious, with traditional Japanese dark timber millwork in a bright and simple setting.
A tall shelf displaying wine and sake anchors one corner of the interior.
Wood is such an important material in Japanese culture, from table, chopsticks to chopstick holders.
The appetizer consisted of eight ingredients fresh to the season.
Both the taste and the beautiful presentation of the food matched with the overall ambience of the restaurant.
One of the main dish we ordered was the grilled snapper.
The other main we chose was the tempura seasonal ingredients.
After the tasty appetizers and main dishes, we were led by the staff downstairs via a beautiful and modern stair.
The water feature by the stairwell seems like a contemporary interpretation of a chōzubachi water basin in front of a zen tea house.
We were led to a comfortable sitting area for dessert.
Mocha pudding and mango ice-cream came went well with hot Japanese tea.
An interesting copper sculpture was mounted on the wall over our head.
Opposite to our sitting area, a staff was preparing tea and chatting with another customer by a high counter.
After dessert, we paid the bill and were led to exit the building through a copper door directly back to the street. Overall, Higashi-yama Restaurant offered us a fine experience, with good food to satisfy our taste-buds and a zen and minimalist environment to sooth our souls.