Our first day in Japan! After a tiring 11 hour flight that delivered us to our hotel late the night before, we were up bright and early for a trip to the Tokyo Fish Market. We'd booked a Toyosu Market and Tsukiji Food Tour private tour for just the two of us and our tour guide, Taka, had agreed to meet us early, then showed up even earlier! Which worked well for us since we were jet lagged and still 9 hours ahead of Tokyo time. As a result we'd woken up early on our own.
It was great starting the tour at 5:30am and since it was 2:30 pm back in California we were ready to go. If you want to see the fish market auctions going on you have to arrive early since the auction takes place between 5:30 to 6:30 am. Unlike the old Tsukiji fish market we'd seen 10 years before, the new market only allows you to view the auction through windowed observation areas overlooking the auction floor. To tell you the truth, it provided a better view of the auction than what we'd seen 10 years ago. Be sure to check out the video of the auction in action in the "Tokyo Day 1" photo album.
After the fish auction our tour guide, Taka, took us on a tour of the other market areas and restaurants that are part of the same complex. There's much more buying and selling of wholesale produce in that area than we had realized. Many of the wholesale areas are viewable from a raised, glass enclosed viewing area that lets you observe the comings and goings of people, forklifts and even bicycles.
There's also a number of very good restaurants in the area and we ended up eating at a very good sushi restaurant. And of course the sushi was super fresh! Our tour guide also "gently" pointed out the proper way to eat sushi by demonstrating dipping just a small portion of his sushi into his soy sauce, wasabi mixture. He didn't make any comment until I asked him about it, asking if that was in fact the proper way to eat sushi. He pointed out that the Nigiri Sushi already had some wasabi on the rice, as much as the preparer intended. And if you dipped your serving completely into your own soy sauce you tended to overwhelm the more subtle taste of the fish.
Our tour guide continued to provide us with a great introduction to Tokyo and Japan, including how to use a Suica card, one of the most important skills you can learn in Japan if you're traveling by bus or train on your own. The Suica, and other similar cards, are reloadable prepaid fares that work on almost any bus or train in Japan, not just Tokyo. He warned us that bus systems in different cities may work differently. For example, sometimes you swipe your Suica card before you board, sometimes as you exit, and sometimes both as you enter and exit. If unsure, just watch other people boarding and exiting, they're almost all using a rechargeable card of one type or another.
Our tour guide also provided an overview of where to visit in Tokyo. He took us on the bus to various parts of the city including Imperial Palace and the nearby Tokyo Train Station - a huge train hub near the Imperial Palace.
Our tour guide also helped us book seat reservations for our JR passes for later in our trip. The JR pass is an unlimited ride ticket for various trains in the different Japan Rail systems for a fixed period of time, including most of the bullet trains. The bullet trains contain a mixture of reserved seat and non-reserved seat rail cars. Most of the cars have reserved seating. In our case we'd purchased one week JR passes that we intended to use between the two cruises we'd booked. That week happened to be Japan's "Golden Week" and the JR Pass website warns you about booking seats early during that time period. Note though - that if it's just the two of you and you can travel early, before 9 am, or later after 6 pm, you'll probably be okay traveling in the unreserved train cars. We didn't learn that until later though, after we'd started using the JR passes and ran into an pre-med student from India traveling through Japan with a rail pass.
After our half day tour, and not yet exhausted, we continued our tour of Tokyo using our newly discovered Suica cards. The first stop was at Shinobazu no Ike Pond, a very scenic area in Tokyo with nearby museums, shrines and a zoo. We walked around the pond and visited the nearby Ueno Toshogu Shrine.
Next we went to Nakamise-dori Street, a "bustling shopping street connecting the main gate of Sensoji Temple & the main hall. [*] We had been here 10 years before but I barely recognized it. The shops were updated and an entirely new area had been added parallel to the street. Saddest of all, a shop which used to sell "Ice Cream Burger" had corrected the sign to read "Ice Cream Sandwich."
A side note on temples vs. shrines: the temples are Budhhist and the shrines are Shinto. You can also still see the blog entry for our visit to Tokyo 10 years ago and from there a link to the photo album with the "Ice Cream Burger" sign.
A glutton for punishment, we had booked an evening food tour in Shinjuku. Our first challenge was trying to find an exit from the Shinjuku Train Station. With 3.5 million passengers daily, Shinjuku station holds the Guiness World Record for busiest train station [*] We had stayed in a hotel near this station 10 years ago, but it seemed much larger and even more confusing than I remembered.
Luckily we had allowed extra time to meet our tour guide at a spot not too far from the station. Sandra was an excellent tour guide providing knowledgeable history of various areas, as well as updates of what had changed since we were in Tokyo 10 years ago. The food was more than adequate. Most tours would have provided three "tastes" but this tour provided what were closer to three meals. We hated leaving so much of the third meal behind, but we were still able to eat enough of it to enjoy how flavorful it was.