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.
Everyone who has visited Tokyo would probably admit that he/she was spoiled by the abundance of dining options while staying in the Japanese capital. For us, it was actually quite challenging to pin down a place to eat near our hotel in Shibuya, because there were simply too many options (6,866 restaurants in Shibuya alone listed on the tourist website Tripadvisor). We began our trip research about two weeks prior departure. We checked guidebooks, searched travel websites and read online blogs, and came up with a short list of places to visit and eat. The name Kaikaya By The Sea (開花屋), a popular seafood restaurant at Shibuya, came up multiple times during our research. Tempted by their highly recommended seafood, we made a table reservation at Kaikaya for our first evening. After our visit to Ueno and St Mary’s Cathedral, we made it back to Shibuya right on time to Kaikaya By The Sea at 18:30.
Kaikaya By The Sea is located west of Central Shibuya, in a small street west of the shopping centre of Shibuya Mark City. The “fishy” mural under the shop awning introduces a sense of seaside relaxation to the small urban alleyway of Shibuya.
The restaurant vestibule is decorated with lots of visitor photos.
The setting was causal and relax with interesting sea and food related decorations throughout the interior.
The door handle reminded me of a bowl of seafood soup.
From his years of surfing, the owner of Kaikaya By The Sea maintains close connections with fishermen working by the sea. Fish is brought in fresh directly from Sagami Bay (相模湾).
The menu at Kaikaya is quite creative and diverse, from local Japanese sashimi to fusion seafood dishes, and so as the visitors from local customers to foreign tourists.
Kaikaya By The Sea is cozy and full of personal touches of the owner.
An English leaflet introduces a few of their feature dishes. We ended up trying the Tuna Spareribs recommended by the staff.
Our first dish was a plate of very fresh assorted sashimi.
The second dish was broiled live tiger prawns prepared in Hong Kong style. Again, freshness was the key and we could clearly taste the sweetness of the prawn meat.
Then came the in-house specialty tuna spareribs. They are actually baked marinaded tuna jaw. The dish was quite a pleasant surprise to us as we didn’t know what to expect.
Six pieces of fatty tuna (maguro toro) sushi, pickled ginger and fresh wasabi root. A leaf shaped grinder was given for us to DIY the wasabi paste. The toro was so soft as if melted right after we put it into our mouth.
Fresh octopus with rock salt and fresh lemon allowed us to taste the freshness and tenderness of the octopus.
Despite we had already eaten a lot, we couldn’t resist and asked for the dessert menu.
Outside the kitchen of Kaikaya By The Sea.
It was already dark by the time we finished our delicious seafood dinner.
We took a causal stroll in the area and found our way back to Central Shibuya.
We then walked through the shopping centre of Shibuya Mark City and Shibuya Hikarie to return to our hotel and called it a day.
After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we took the Ginza Line Metro to Asakusa (浅草) to purchase the limited express train tickets for our upcoming Nikko day trip in two days’ time. Then we decided to begin the day with some leisure time at Ueno Park and its museums after our red-eye flight. With lush greenery, old trees, historical shrines and several museums, Ueno Park is a good place for a pleasant stroll. From online research, we came across a beautiful restaurant called Innsyoutei (韻松亭). Housed in a century-old timber building in the heart of Ueno Park, Innsyoutei serves a causal version of Kyoto kaiseki cuisine made with seasonal ingredients. We decided to check it out before our museum hopping.
The original timber house of Innsyoutei was built in 1875. A little over a decade ago, the building underwent a major renovation. This rustic tea house has long been a landmark in Ueno Park, where visitors would stop for light refreshments. The renovation maintained the original building layout, but replaced much of the timber structure with materials savaged from other old buildings in Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture.
The traditional restaurant complex is full of the beauty of Zen.
Innosyoutei (韻松亭) literally means “rhythm of the pine pavilion”. This poetic restaurant remains popular with park visitors, especially during hanami (花見) season when the timber house is surrounded by clusters of cherry blossoms.
Once entered the vestibule, we were immediately greeted by the fragrance of the incense.
We took off our shoes at the vestibule, and were led to the dining hall on the upper level.
The wooden stair is accompanied by a beautiful railing made of bamboo.
Covered with tatami floor mat, the dining hall was well lit with natural light coming from the large windows at both ends of the room. Sitting on zabuton (floor cushions), guests gathered at low tables on the tatami to enjoy their Hana-kago-zen (flower basket meal).
Outside the large window, we could see lush green everywhere.
It was not hard to imagine the beauty of the space during cherry blossoms when the lush green would be replaced with clusters of pink flowers.
We sat down at a low table and ordered our lunch sets with much anticipation.
The appetizers soon arrived. We were immediately impressed by the presentation and the taste of food.
We ordered two different set meals of seasonal fish and vegetables. The food was beautifully arranged and presented like two flower baskets with eye-catching colours. The dishes were made of various vegetables skillfully prepared to bring out the distinct flavors and textures of the ingredients.
Tofu, eggplant, beans, and mushroom might sound simple. Yet when they were individually prepared with different flavours of sweetness, sourness and saltiness, and were tasted in a certain order of sequence, the experience would become much more complex and sophisticated. Sometimes, we might not be able to tell what the actual ingredient was just by the look, and would get a pleasant surprise after the first bite. Every of our bite became an opportunity for a pleasant surprise, and was full of anticipation.
A cup of creamy yogurt-like custard beautifully served.
The meal finished with the traditional delight, a mochi (rice cake) kind of dessert wrapped in a leaf.
We unwrapped the leaf with high anticipation and were rewarded with a perfect gift to end the wonderful meal.
THE BEAUTY OF CHAOS, Street Markets, Old eateries, Heritage Buildings and Calligraphy Signage of Sham Shui Po (深水埗), Kowloon (九龍), Hong Kong
Hong Kong has its charm as a vibrant metropolis and financial hub in the Far East, but it also has its issues of insanely expensive housing and tremendous gap between the rich and poor. New immigrants, elderly and young people living in bunkers about the size of coffins (known as “coffin homes”) have made the headlines in recent years while at the same time government’s land sales and housing prices have skyrocketed to record levels. Because of its concentration of inexpensive tiny bunkers and decades-old apartments, Sham Shui Po (深水埗), an old neighborhood in West Kowloon, has often been associated with issues of poverty and urban decay.
With its vibrant street markets selling everything from cheap electronics, second hand appliances, clothing, toys, and a wide range of DIY parts, from buttons and fabrics, to cables and motors, Sham Shui Po seems like one huge flea market. Beyond the chaotic appearance, however, visitors may find a special nostalgic charm in this neighborhood, with traces of the beautiful old Hong Kong that have been mercilessly replaced by cold and glassy highrises, luxurious malls, and uninspiring chain-stores throughout the city. A walk in Sham Shui Po is a diverse journey full of chaotic street markets, affordable and unpretentious food, lovely heritage buildings and much more.
Compared with many upscale residential neighbourhoods and the city’s commercial heart, the streets of the relatively less affluent Sham Shui Po are much more human and pedestrian oriented.
Sham Shui Po still has a variety of traditional businesses from Old Hong Kong, such as a high concentration of pawnshops.
Some old apartment flats in the area have been converted to subdivided rental bunkers. The worst type is called “coffin homes” due to their tiny size similar to real coffins.
Every view in Sham Shui Po seems layered, chaotic and complicated.
Quite a number of streets in Sham Shui Po are famous for street markets. Catering for different clientele, each market zone is more or less designated for a distinct type of merchandises.
Looking from above, the streets of Sham Shui Po seem like an abstract painting composed of rows of colour swatches.
While the streets are vibrant and chaotic, the rooftop level seems like a totally different world.
Ki Lung Street (基隆街) is popular with customers looking for DIY supplies for clothing, including fabrics, buttons, ribbons, trims, zippers, you name it.
Nicknamed Street of Beads, Yu Chau Street (汝州街) is another street in the area famous for DIY clothing accessories.
Known as the miniature of Sham Shui Po, Pei Ho Street (北河街) is a market street famed for its fine clothing in really affordable prices.
Another well known market street is Apliu Street (鴨寮街), a large flea market specialized in electronic parts and second-hand electronics.
There are many stalls at Apliu Street (鴨寮街) specialized in electronic repair.
Other than shopping, food lovers also have their reasons to visit Sham Shui Po for some of its more small, traditional and down-to-earth eateries that are disappearing fast in other areas of the city. Sun Heung Yeung (新香園 (堅記)) on Kweilin Street (桂林街) is one of the most popular Hong Kong style cafe in Sham Shui Po, famous for its beef and egg sandwiches.
Established in 1957, another renounced eatery in Sham Shui Po is Wai Kee Noodle Cafe (維記咖啡粉麵 ) on Fuk Wing Street (福榮街).
Wai Kee Noodle Cafe (維記咖啡粉麵 ) is famous for their beef and pork liver noddles (豬潤牛肉麵) and Coconut Jam French Toast (咖央西多士).
Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong (公和荳品廠) or Kung Wo Soybean Product Factory is another major attraction for food lovers.
With over a century of experience, Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong (公和荳品廠) sell all kinds of bean curd or tofu products.
Even the interior of Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong (公和荳品廠) is full of nostalgic ambience.
Apart from shopping and eating, Sham Shui Po is also a great place to admire Hong Kong’s old architecture. The government proposes a series of urban renewal.
Sham Shui Po still has a considerable amount of tong lau (唐樓) or old tenement buildings with a covered colonnade on street level. The ground floor was usually occupied by a small shop, such as a pawnshop or food vendor. This type of architecture once dominated much of Hong Kong before 1960’s.
The 5-storey Nam Cheong Pawn Shop at 117-125 Nam Cheong Street was built in the 1920’s. Even the iconic cantilevered pawnshop signage have becoming rarer nowadays.
58 Pei Ho Street is probably one of the most famous heritage buildings in the area. Built in 1920’s and served as a pawnshop until the 1970’s, it was then converted into a shop selling dried seafood until present days.
The curved balcony of 58 Pei Ho Street is quite unique. The amazing feature window a level above the street is such a lovely design gesture back in the old days when there was less vehicular traffic.
Old Chinese calligraphy signage can be seen all over the streets of Sham Shui Po. Before graphics design being computerized, most Chinese signage came from the hands of a professional calligrapher. Each neighborhood allowed a few calligraphers to earn a living, and each calligrapher had his/her own style. It’s the individual human touch that makes these calligraphy signage unique, especially in the age of computerization and standardization.
Built in the 1940s, Hang Jing Pawnshop is no longer in business. The colonnaded area is now used as an outdoor workshop of a nearby shop. On the columns, beautiful calligraphy of the former pawnshop is still visible.
On the concrete wall of Hang Jing Pawnshop, the old calligraphy set in the plaster represents a bygone era
After we came back from Fushimi Inari Taisha, we thought it would be a good idea to find a place for lunch in Downtown Kyoto. There was still a few hours before our 18:30 flight.
We opted for a revisit of Nishiki Market (錦市場), the five block long market street known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”.
For the past few days we didn’t really have a decent meal of sashimi. We ended up sitting down at a sashimi restaurant Nishiki Daimaru Yoshi (錦大丸). The restaurant was hidden behind its fishmonger shop.
At this popular restaurant, we were the first customers sitting down at the long counter in front of the food preparation area.
There was only set lunch available. We wouldn’t mind as long as the sashimi was fresh. The set included sashimi, tempura and grilled fish.
The washroom at the restaurant was small but full of character.
After lunch, we went outside of the Nishiki Market and arrived at the back side of Daimaru Department Store. There was a small vendor selling farmer’s produce. We couldn’t resist but bought a few items to bring back to Hong Kong.
Then we headed back into Nishiki Market for another stroll.
We passed by a vendor selling all kinds of traditional sweets and snacks. We picked up some regional roasted peanuts.
There were quite a few shops selling Tsukemono (漬物, Japanese pickled snacks). Many items were seasonal.
Then we passed by the chestnut shop where we bought some delicious local chestnuts before.
At the end of Nishiki Market, we arrived at the entrance of Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine, a Shinto shrine conveniently located at the heart of the downtown.
Another shop worth noting in the area was Tamaru Inbo (田丸印房), a Hanko shop, a store selling traditional stamps and seals made of wooden or stone blocks. With over a century of professional reputation, Tamaru Inbo was a great place to check out Japanese hanko.
From Shijo Dori, we walked east to the Kamo River (鴨川). We decided to walk south along the river for a final stroll along the peaceful river.
The weather was perfect for a relaxing stroll.
Like us, many preferred to take the route along the river instead of the city streets.
We passed by many restaurants facing the river. Hopefully next time we would be able to enjoy a meal at one of the many waterfront dining patios during the summer months.
We left the riverbank when we reached Gojo Dori Street. We decided to get a good cup of coffee before leaving for the airport.
We landed on a cafe called Efish just south of Gojo Dori, at Kiya-machi Dori, a small neighborhood street sandwiched between the Kamo River and Takase River (高瀬川). Unlike several blocks up north where Kiya-machi Dori represented the vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene of the city, here the narrow street became a laid-back neighborhood alley.
Efish is great for its relaxing atmosphere by the river. Other than refreshing food and drinks, Efish also showcased cool design housewares inside the cafe.
On our way from Efish to Kyoto Station, we walked past Umeyu Rakuen (サウナの梅湯), a retro 80-year old bathhouse. In 2015, 25 year-old Yusuke Minato, a long-time devotee to traditional bathhouses, took over the declining bathhouse and transformed it into a hip venue to promote traditional bathing, as well as occasional gigs and flea market. We didn’t have time for a soak and would have to save it till next time.
After another few minutes of walk we could see Kyoto Tower from a distance. A big crow on the treetop over our head was making loud noises, as if yelling out our parting wishes with the ancient capital.
Minutes later we reached the futuristic Kyoto Station once again. We took the escalators down to the basement to pick up our backpacks at the lockers and hop on a Haruka Express for the Kansai Airport. As the train leaving the station, we were already planning for a return trip sometime in the near future. Kyoto was and always will be the perfect venue for us to dwell in the power of heritage, nature, and spirituality whenever we were overwhelmed by the dull and routine work lives.
This concludes the record of our 5-day Kyoto trip in December 2016.
Our posts on 2016 Kyoto and Nara:
OUR FIRST KYOTO STORY, Japan
DAY 1: ARRIVAL AT HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: RYOANJI TEMPLE (龍安寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NINNAJI TEMPLE (仁和寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KINKAKUJI TEMPLE (金閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KITANO TENMANGU SHRINE (北野天満宮), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NIGHT AT KIYOMIZU-DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: MORNING STROLL IN SOUTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA to KENNINJI, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: ○△□ and Chouontei Garden and Ceiling of Twin Dragons, KENNINJI TEMPLE (建仁寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: SFERA BUILDING (スフェラ・ビル), SHIRKAWA GION (祇園白川), KAMO RIVER (鴨川) & DOWNTOWN, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: YAKITORI HITOMI (炭焼創彩鳥家 人見), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: MORNING IN NORTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (北東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: NANZENJI (南禅寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: PHILOSOPHER’S PATH (哲学の道), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: HONENIN (法然院), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: GINKAKUJI (銀閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: CRAB AND SAKE, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 4: HORYUJI (法隆寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: TODAIJI TEMPLE (東大寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KASUGA TAISHA (春日大社), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KOFUKUJI (興福寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: NAKAGAWA MASASHICHI SHOTEN (中川政七商店 遊中川), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: RAMEN & CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 1, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 2, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 5: FAREWELL KYOTO, Kyoto, Japan