Japan 2014 — Day 9: Tokyo — Tokyo Skytree, Asakusa

Once we’d reached Tokyo, our days became a lot more relaxed. This was due to the rel­at­ive prox­im­ity of everything in Tokyo, the absence of any pre­b­ooked events, and unex­pec­tedly, the buck­ets of rain com­ing down that was most unchar­ac­ter­ist­ic for almost-winter in Japan. Thankfully, the rain had held off dur­ing those day trips we made to Takayama and Gujo. In Tokyo though, there’s plenty to do indoors and Sky Tree Town was on the agenda.

Sky Tree Town was a mere 20 minutes away and didn’t open until 10 AM, so we had break­fast around our hotel before­hand. I had bought an apple cus­tard pie the night before from Coco Francs at Shiodome. We had bought it cold from a bakery, so we ate it cold (the tag said to keep it below 10 degrees, which we did), but the innards had all sunken to the bot­tom, so it wasn’t all that tasty. Maybe we shouldn’t have left it overnight? Anyway, D and I really like our apple pastries, but they dis­ap­point.

D had a crav­ing for a crab cro­quette bur­ger at McDonald’s. We were a bit early, so they were still serving their break­fast menu. Not to worry, though, ’cause it meant we finally we got to try this chocol­ate pie. It was so deli­ciously hot and chocol­atey, I could’ve gone for seconds!

Once the lunch menu kicked in, D ordered his crab cro­quette bur­ger. I wasn’t going to have much more for break­fast as I wanted to save my stom­ach for the snack­ing I anti­cip­ated doing at Sky Tree Town. But that was to change — D had ordered his bur­ger with cheese, but they had giv­en him a cheese-less bur­ger. He didn’t think much of it — there’s only so much you can con­vey in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage — until 10 minutes later when he’d eaten half his bur­ger, the girl at the cash register brought him a second bur­ger and apo­lo­gised for the lack of cheese. D puts down his ini­tial bur­ger, expect­ing them to take it back, but they don’t so he’s left with two and I end up eat­ing more break­fast than I anti­cip­ated. The crab cro­quette, though, was really quite yum!

It’s a rather miser­able day in Tokyo. We watch from the win­dow in McDonald’s as the rain comes down. From the same win­dow, I spot­ted a couple of blue buses with ‘Sky Tree Town’ painted on them, sug­gest­ing that there’d be a shuttle bus of some sort between Ueno Station (to our left) to Sky Tree Town (to our right). So after break­fast, we walked to Ueno Station and made use of their free wifi to find out that it’s cheap­er to catch the bus than the sub­way. We hadn’t come across this tip in our read­ing into Sky Tree Town, so win! The bus stop is just out­side the Ueno Station exit to Ueno Park. The bus comes every 20 minutes, and we’d arrived just in time.

The bus takes you to the entrance of Tokyo Skytree, so we have a look at the exhib­its. There’s a long mur­al of the Tokyo area around the tower drawn in a style that bor­rows tra­di­tion­al Japanese paint­ing styles with more mod­ern tech­niques of illus­tra­tion and anim­a­tion.

The archi­tects have also left the base of the tower in full view behind glass — the base of the tower is tri­an­gu­lar before gradu­ally becom­ing cir­cu­lar towards the top. Text on the glass also explains the fea­tures of the tower, such as the mech­an­isms that respond to light­ning strikes (giv­en that it is, after all, the tallest tower in the world, and the second tallest struc­ture in the world).

You can go up the tower to get some mag­ni­fi­cent views of Tokyo. But we decide not to — it’s rain­ing and vis­ib­il­ity would’ve been ter­rible.

One level above, in the foy­er to the tick­et area, we see dif­fer­ent artist­ic inter­pret­a­tions of Tokyo Skytree.

Surrounding the base of Tokyo Skytree is the Tokyo Solamachi, a large shop­ping mall with almost every shop you could pos­sibly want to vis­it. On the base­ment floor, as ever, is the food. This spe­cialty super­mar­ket (above, left), is one of a hand­ful of places where I bought an obscene amount of tea. But that’s for anoth­er day. We did also buy fancy lem­on­ade in a glass bottle. We’d inten­ded to drink it at the tables in the food sec­tion, so we were a bit amused when they wrapped in bubble wrap.

Christmas seems to be closely asso­ci­ated with dreams in Japan — a large num­ber of shop­ping centres used dreams as their theme. I didn’t see too many Christmas fest­iv­it­ies going on in Tokyo Solamachi, but they did dec­or­ate a tree with pretty drop lights. Notice also how the detail­ing on the area between the two floors is remin­is­cent of the exter­i­or struc­ture of Skytree, and trees in gen­er­al.

I love that Japan has char­ac­ter stores. And Rilakkuma is one of my favour­ite char­ac­ters. He has a ded­ic­ated store at Tokyo Solamachi, with the cutest mer­chand­ise of him dressed as a sta­tion mas­ter and as a shinkansen!

On every floor of Tokyo Solamachi you can see out­side, which is unchar­ac­ter­ist­ic of a shop­ping mall, and view the streets down below.

There’s a shop selling candy jew­ellery. The charms are made of real candy that has been coated in res­in. Another shop sells the most beau­ti­ful hair pins. Unfortunately, my hair is too long for the hair pin I wanted to buy, and the longer ones weren’t beau­ti­ful enough to tempt me to spend ¥3000.

This is the first of two Calbee+ stores we’ll vis­it. Here, we try the hot poterico salad chips, which we’d tried from the super­mar­ket the pre­vi­ous week. Here, we saw our chips made to order, from the deep-fry­ing through to season­ing and the pre­cise weigh­ing of the chips that go into each order. They are super tasty hot and fresh, and a far cry from the pre­pack­aged ver­sion.

There’s store ded­ic­ated to wax food rep­licas. I’d pre­vi­ously bought one of their kits in Gujo to make curry rice, and sur­pris­ingly the kit costs exactly the same in Tokyo Solamachi. This store does have some inter­est­ing items on sale though, like the jagaimo (oh look at that but­ter!), and the three plates of stew show­ing the car­rots in vari­ous human poses (for ¥80,000).

Here’s a view of the out­door bus stops from a wifi corner in Tokyo Solamachi.

Tokyo Banana is a pop­u­lar a souven­ir sweet from Tokyo. Now, the short expiry date (7 days) meant it wasn’t going to be a souven­ir, but more for my own per­son­al curi­os­ity as to the hype around it. This is the Tokyo Banana Tree, a lim­ited edi­tion avail­able only at Tokyo Skytree. Unlike the ori­gin­al (white col­oured sponge with banana cream filling), this edi­tion has leo­pard print sponge with chocol­ate banana cream filling. The sponge was very fluffy (a res­ult of steam­ing the sponge after bak­ing it), although I couldn’t taste the chocol­ate in the filling. It’s cer­tainly very pretty, and hence souven­ir worthy, even if it tastes rather ordin­ary.

A lady stand­ing out­side a Japanese sweets store gives us a black ses­ame sweet to try. It’s inter­est­ing in that it looks like a mochi from the out­side, but it’s really a bis­cuit encas­ing black ses­ame paste. In hind­sight, this would’ve made a good souven­ir for fam­ily mem­bers who are into Japanese sweets.

Outside a store that spe­cial­ises in all kinds of salt, we see these coconut meringue crisps. I don’t know how salt has to do with these crisps, but they taste all right.

Inside the store, they sell salt for all occa­sions. Salt for use on tem­pura, on eggs, on rice. You name it, and they’d prob­ably sell it. We were quite taken with the sea­weed salt, though. We sprinkle it on shoe string fries. Yum!

Lunch times! We eat at Gyutan Rikyu, which spe­cial­ises in beef tongue. We’d had it many years ago at C’s 21st birth­day party and found its bitey, bouncy tex­ture irres­ist­ible every since.

D and I order essen­tially the same meal, only mine has high­er qual­ity cuts of beef tongue (uh, I don’t know how that works) and few­er pieces. The dif­fer­ence in the two cuts is min­im­al — the high­er qual­ity cut is tad more boun­ci­er on the teeth, but not sig­ni­fic­antly, so I’d have been just as sat­is­fied with D’s meal. The beef tongue here was deli­cious, and I would love it eat it all the time!

The meal also came with bar­ley rice and bar­ley tail soup, as well as sides of a salad with slith­ers of sil­ver­side beef, mar­in­ated cubes of beef, and tor­oro (a food made with grat­ing yams). The tor­oro is eaten mixed with soy sauce, but D and I found it so slimy to be unpal­at­able.

On the same floor as Gyutan Rikyu is a res­taur­ant with a very pretty mur­al painted out­side.

A floor down is a food museum that shows how cer­tain food products that are cent­ral to the Japanese diet or cul­ture (such as soy sauce, mir­in, and drinks) looked when they were first pro­duced as com­pared to how they look now. One of the more inter­est­ing ones to me was Mitsuya Cider (a cit­rusy soft drink with a dis­tinctly non-Western taste) (above, left).

Attached to the food museum is a res­tu­ar­ant that serves ‘ori­gin­al recipes based on canned foods, like ‘thick bacon with boiled rice, topped with demi-glace sauce’. The ‘thick bacon’ looks very much like cubes of Spam.

By now, the rain has not stopped all day. We’re tired from look­ing around Tokyo Solamachi, so we settle into a Tully’s Coffee to recharge (and eat Tokyo Banana Tree cake). Getting to Tully’s Coffee involved going out­side, and boy, was it cold and windy! D orders a cafe mocha and I order an uji matcha latte. I’ll admit I’m not that keen on green tea drinks at cof­fee shops, and that D’s drink always tastes bet­ter. But I was in Japan, and it tastes quite pleas­ant with sug­ar.

After our cof­fee break, we head back out­side. The sun has set so we see the Christmas illu­min­a­tions. It’s still rain­ing heav­ily, but the pretty stair­case entices us to go upstairs.

And I’m glad we did — Tokyo Skytree at night! The light­ing on the tower can change accord­ing to sea­sons, but this blue is its ‘nor­mal’ col­our.

There are stalls set up around the space selling Christmas themed foods, but the heavy rain is a strong deterrent. The out­door area is rather deser­ted.

We catch the Skytree Shuttle back towards Ueno, but on the spur of the moment, get off at Asakusa. We’d been to Asakusa and seen Sensoji temple and the streets around it dur­ing our last trip. We were just here to vis­it the 24/​7 ROX depart­ment store and the 24 hour super­mar­ket under­neath.

It’s still pour­ing buck­ets. Even so, we decide to walk back because catch­ing a sub­way one stop is really silly. On the way, we come across a piece of land that’s on sale. There’s always some­thing inter­est­ing to see on Japanese streets, so we refrain from catch­ing the sub­way for short dis­tances like 1 stop.

After we drop our shop­ping off at the hotel, we head to Yoshinoya for some pork bowl. We both ordered a sukiyaki type meal with pork and bam­boo shoots in a hot pot, rice, a raw egg, and pickles.

D and I were so con­fused as to what to do with the raw egg. Looking at the oth­er people in the res­taur­ant did not help, as they’d almost fin­ished their meal. So, do you A) whisk the egg and pour it over your rice (like tamago kake gohan), or B) pour the egg whole into the hot pot so as to semi-cook it, or C) whisk the egg and dip the hot meat into it? D and I had no idea! So D ends up doing A, I end up doing B, and then half way through our meal, a salary man comes in and shows us the way it’s done — C! Ah, the staff must’ve been killing them­selves laugh­ing.