Japan – part 2.1: Even more Tokyo

Shibuya

Shibuya is a very vibrant district with the famous crosswalk in the middle. Compared to the relatively quiet Asakusa district, we had to get used to the massive neon lights and multi-story houses. Outside the metro station, the statue of the dog Hachiko (watch the movie if you want a good cry!) is always surrounded by picture takers and street performers. People everywhere, so much fun!

We had dinner at Genki sushi in Shibuya where you sit at a counter, order items from a personal screen and then the food is delivered to you on the conveyor belt. I loved the sushi. It wasn’t fancy or expensive but still everything was so tasty and fresh. My husband who is allergic to shellfish and doesn’t like raw fish still enjoyed his sushi made with chicken and cooked salmon. We had so much food that night and it was all so good!

After a matcha tea, we were off to experience the famous crosswalk by night. There are cafes such as Starbucks overlooking the square so if you’re lucky or willing to wait, you can get a table by the window. You can also see the crosswalk quite well from inside the train station, walk towards the department store.

Meiji Shrine

The next day we went to the Shinjuku area and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings Observatories in the morning. These are two twin towers with free observation decks with an amazing view over Tokyo. Go on a clear day like we did. There is also a restaurant as well as a gift shop up there in each observatory.

View from one of the observatories. The blue spots are where people put out plastic sheets in the park to mark their spot for picnics in the sakura season

Then we went to the Yoyogi park and the Meiji shrine. The shrine area is located in a forest and it was absolutely beautiful. Very serene even though there were, as everywhere, lots of visitors. Japanese families enjoyed their time in the sun and took wedding and family photos which was fun to watch. The entry to the shrine is through a 12 meter high wooden torii gate.

In the afternoon we went to the Takeshita area which was absolutely crazy. This pedestrian street is a favorite teen hangout and was so crowded. We had so much fun when we took snapshots purikura-style (add the filters you wish, hilarious) and visited a cat café with Oriental cats. There are also several crêpe cafes on the street and they had massive tasty servings. Great afternoon!

The cat café with beautiful friendly cats (and yes, they could escape to safer grounds whenever they wanted)

Back in Shibuya, we went for dinner at the Ichiran ramen restaurant. You stand in line, order the food from a machine, get paper tickets and then take your seat at a wooden booth. There are curtains before you with the kitchen staff moving around behind them. You fill out a form with extras and then you are given the most wonderful bowl of ramen noodles. Slurp away! It was so good, almost hard to believe. Needless to say, it wasn’t our last bowl of ramen in Japan.

More shrines and the castle park

The next day, it was our final day in Tokyo and we started off by going to the Chiyoda district by train. We went to the Yasukuni shrine that had pretty parks and a zen garden with a lake. Somehow I dropped my phone and credit card wallet into the pond but everything survived the fall and the water… Lucky me… The Kitanomaru park was close by and we enjoyed watching the rowing boats on the lake in the park.

Our next area to visit was Yanaka which is an old-fashioned street with lots of cat things due to some comic book character. We had some fun cat-shaped filled cakes and looked at a lot of cat stuff. We also went to the cemetery nearby which is famous for its cherry trees. Since we were right in the sakura season, it was wonderful to watch all the flowers, and the cemetery had lots of pretty statues as well.

After a busy day, we actually returned to the Metropolitan building to see the Tokyo skyline by night. And then we had sushi, lots of it again. It’s very easy to order even though we don’t speak Japanese since there are photos of every dish with the price next to it.

And that was it for our days in Tokyo. Although we visited some of the neighborhoods, Tokyo is a gigantic city. You need to be able to maneuver the public transport system to get around. We relied on trains, and since there are several train companies, the pre-charged metro card came in handy. And yes, the rumors are true – avoid the before and after work hours since the trains are crazy busy. There are carriages for women only which are slightly less crowded.

Next, we were going to something completely different: a traditional ryokan in Hakone!

Japan – part 3: Ryokan in Hakone


A winter weekend in Berlin

Featured

Although Berlin is only a few hours away from our home in Malmö, I realized I hadn’t been there since… well, since the year after the wall came down. And I wasn’t very old at the time so my memories of Berlin were kind of non-existent. Add the fact that Berlin is a perfect weekend destination, and we decided to spend the first weekend of December 2018 there. It turned out to be a great mini-vacation with lots of Christmas markets, glühwein, sightseeing and of course curry wurst.

Hackescher Markt

After a short flight on the Friday afternoon, we arrived at Schönefelt airport. We picked up 48 hour Berlin city tour cards from the tourist agency at the airport and then walked to the train station to get to Berlin-Mitte. The city tour card included all public transportation for 48 hours, including to and from the airport. Very convenient as Berlin is a pretty spread out city.

For our stay, we had decided on the Monbijou hotel in the Hackescher Markt station area which was easy to get to by train. The hotel was perfect for us – cozy, clean and close to everything.

By this time, we were hungry and longing for dinner so we just dumped our bags and went for our first curry wurst, the quintessential food of Berlin. Luckily (or well planned), one of the top currywurst restaurants was just around the corner from the hotel: Curry 61. We had a generous serving with french fries, mayo and their special sauce and a beer of course. Their wall art is worth the visit itself.

Since it was the beginning of the holiday season, the Christmas markets were in full swing. They all have pretty much the same setup: small shops with handicrafts, food and snacks. Some of the markets have an iceskating rink as well. Our first night in Berlin, we went to two markets: one near the Rathaus and one on Alexanderplatz. Our favorite was definitely the market near the Rathaus and St Mary’s church since it was smaller and cozier. We had glühwein to keep us warm in the rain, and also found some chili candied almonds that I actually went back for on Sunday before going home. So good.

Sightseeing tour

The next day (Saturday) was dedicated to sightseeing in Berlin. We had a quick breakfast in a coffee shop in the Hackescher markt station (love the German pastries!). Then we were off to our first stop of the day: the Bundestag building. We had booked free tickets to a specifik time slot and everything was right on time. After a check-in and security check, the guards will escort the group into the Bundestag building and then up to the dome. There you can walk around in and up the dome for as long as you please. Beautifully constructed dome and interesting to see the bundestag room below.

Inside the dome of the Bundestag

After an hour or so in the dome, we walked to the Holocaust memorial (the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europa) located very close to Brandenburger Tor. It truly is a place for remembrance and contemplation, so go there when you’re in Berlin and just wander around the stone pillars.

We then went to the Brandenburger Tor square to have a coffee and then go on a free tour. There are probably several tours to choose from but we had booked with Sandeman. It was very popular this sunny Saturday. Somehow we ended up in the group with the most popular tour guide so the group just kept expanding. He did the tour very well though, and we saw lots of things along the way. If you have a few hours to spare, a guided tour is a good way to get most of the sights done. You can always go back to places that interest you the most.

When the tour ended on Bebelplatz, we kept walking north towards the Berlin wall memorial. We had lunch at this retro, artsy café close to the golden synagogue, a very good borstj soup for me with – you guessed it – beer. The café was so retro it didn’t even have wifi… quite a rarity these days.

We arrived at the Berlin Wall memorial (Gedänkstätte Berliner Mauer) in the afternoon and walked around the indoor and outdoor exhibits. It is very well presented with different buildings showing different aspects of and life situations in the East German era. Definitely take your time and walk along the wall on both sides of the street. There are memorials and ruins as well as the exhibits.

We then took a tram/train combo to the Tiergarten park and made our way by foot to the Victory column. You can see this golden landmark from all over Berlin and it sits right in the middle of a giant roundabout. Don’t try to cross the street, instead use the underground walkways. We bought tickets and climbed up the tower. From the observation deck, 51 meters up, you can see most of Berlin. Since it got dark while we were there, all the lights around the city was twinkling which was very pretty.

With dark came the need for more Christmas markets, so we took a bus to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church. Around the two church buildings (one bombed ruin, one modern), there were lots of Christmas market booths at the Breitscheidplatz. We bought some glühwein and wandered around for a while. On a sad note, on the steps of the church there were flowers and candles to remember the victims of the 2016 truck attack that took place in the market. We could only imagine the horror that must have been that night in the very crowded marketplace.

The Breitscheidplatz Christmas market around the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church

After a while, we walked along the brightly decorated Kürfurstendamm street and then took the metro to Gendarmenmarkt.

The Christmas market on Gendarmenmarkt square is perhaps one of the most famous markets in Berlin. There was a line to get in since they charged an entry fee (1 € I think), but we bought glühwein and the line moved quickly. Inside the market area, there was a big stage where they had concerts, a Russian choir when we were there. We finally (because by then we needed food and not just glühwein!) had dinner at one of the market restaurants. I had a traditional plate of kale, mushrooms, sausage and sour cream, all washed down with a beer. And then we walked around some more and bought some gifts.

And then it was back to the hotel with a walk through a lit up museum island (museum insel). Lots of walking that day and lots of glühwein…

East side gallery

The next morning was grey and gloomy, but we were quickly on our way to the East side gallery in the Friedrichshain area. This open-air gallery is located near the river Spree and consists of a 1,3 kilometer stretch of the Berlin Wall, covered in murals by different artists. The murals were painted in 1990 and are in good shape. We walked along the wall along with a lot of other people and took pictures along the way.

When we had reached the end of the wall, we took the train back to central Berlin and went to the Topography of Terror Documentation Center. It’s located right by a remaining sector of the wall but focuses on the horrors and evils that took place during the Nazi era. The building stands where the SS had its main office which was destroyed after the war. The center houses an exhibit which contains a lot of information and photos.

Our final hours in Berlin were spent on Checkpoint Charlie, which is a reconstructed checkpoint where you can pay to get your photos taken with fake guards. We didn’t. And then we just had to go back to the first Christmas market by the Rathaus (city hall) to buy more chili almonds and also skate on the ice rink around the Neptun fountain. When dusk set in, we were back on the train to the airport.

To sum it up, we had a great weekend in Berlin. The city is so full of history that everywhere you go, there is something new to read and learn. We ate excellent curry wurst a couple of times and will remember the glühwein fondly. Also, Berlin is a perfect weekend city since the public transport system makes it easy to get around.

If you have any questions about Berlin, let me know!

Japan – part 2: Tokyo

This is part 2 of our two week trip to Japan in April. Part 1 covered the basics of traveling there and the foodie highlights. At the end of the post there is a map showing most of the places we went to. Tokyo is huge, so plan your days carefully.

Experiencing Tokyo – the first three days

We arrived at Narita airport mid-morning and picked up our Japan rail passes from the airport station to save some time later in the week. Since we were going to be in Tokyo for a while, we bought rail passes with a later starting date and booked the Shinkansen fast trains accordingly. While waiting in line for the train pass, we got our first taste of Japanese cuisine from a well-stocked 7/11-store when we bought some seaweed covered rice balls, a snack staple later on our trip.

So many fillings to choose from, so easy to eat on the go.

Then we bought our rechargeable Tokyo public transportation card and off we went into Tokyo. Our first stop was the neighborhood Asakusa for two nights. We stayed in a tiny but clean AirBnB very close to the temple area, perfect for our short stay of three nights in Asakusa.

Asakusa – temple area

The cherry blossoms were in bloom as we walked around the big temple area in Asakusa. Lots of people everywhere and very camera friendly. People (mostly tourists) were walking around in kimonos. Our first snack was a taiyaki, a fish-shaped pancake with a red bean or sweet potato filling.  Later on, we also had steamed meat buns for lunch and then some green tea Kitkats. Those Kitkats actually became an obsession during the trip, as well as other unique Japanese flavors we could find in the many, many convenience and grocery stores we went into.

Our first dinner was a tonkatsu meal in the Hamakatsu restaurant an easy train ride away. By the taste of that fried pork chop and its condiments, we knew we were in for an excellent trip foodwise. The Asahi beer was perfect to go with the meal.

Matsugaya, Ueno park and Ginza

The next day, we continued our walk around the Asakusa temples and then went into the Matsugaya area. There are tons of specialized stores there on different streets, for example the kitchenware stores. I almost bought a Hello Kitty rice ball shaper, so cute!

Then we stocked up on supplies for a picknick lunch and went to Ueno park. When the cherry trees are in bloom, there’s a constant family party in the park. After our picnic, we perused the food stalls and had some grilled sakura flavored marshmallows, more steamed buns and beer. It was a great day in the sunny weather.

When night fell, we went into the Ginza area for some shopping and then had our first bowl of ramen from a small noodle shop. We chose our meals from a number of plastic displays, got a ticket from a machine and then the noodle bowl was made to order. So tasty!

For dessert, we went to one of those uniquely Japanese places – a maid café in Chiyoda. This was one of the larger, more family-friendly chains (Maidreamin) but it was still kind of weird to see young Japanese girls dance around us in their maid costumes. We had some ice-cream and cake which were decorated at the table with cute drawings of bunnies and cats. Then it was back to Asakusa for us by metro, and we took a stroll around the well-lit temple area as well.

Tsukiji fishmarket and Nakajima tea house

We had kind of an early start and went to the Tsukiji fishmarket after a quick breakfast at a pancake place. Although most of the fish market has since relocated, we went when the wholesale interior part of the market was still up and running. We came after the big morning rush but were still able to see the fish mongers run around with carts of ice and so many kinds of fish and seafood. There were some kinds of fish that I have absolutely no idea what it was, along with some huge tunas. Although it was too early for sushi for us, we bought some condiments at one of the many shops next to the fish market.

Since it was still mid-morning, we walked to the Hamarikyu park. In the park, there is a lake with the teahouse Nakajima-no-ochaya next to it. We entered (shoes off of course!) and enjoyed a traditional cup of tea on the veranda. It consisted of a cup of matcha tea and a traditional pretty sweet, along with precise instructions for how to drink and eat. Such a great moment to remember! The matcha’s bitterness matched the sweet pastry perfectly and the surroundings were just beautiful.

The weather was excellent so we kept walking and went into the Hibiya park. There were temples, rock gardens, lakes and cherry blossoms so a great place to visit. After a tonkatsu lunch, we picked up our luggage and took the metro to our next area of stay, Shibuya.

And this concludes the first part of the Tokyo posts. We did so much in Tokyo in our five days there that there will be a second part, based in Shibuya.

Next: Two weeks in Japan – part 2.1: Even more Tokyo

Two delicious weeks in Japan – part 1: The basics and the best

In April 2017, we travelled around Japan for two great weeks. We timed the trip perfectly with the cherry blossoming. It was an amazing trip both food wise and for all the sights and impressions. Here’s our two week itinerary, divided into parts.

Part 1 – The basics and the best

Let’s start with the basics:
  • Where did we go?
    Tokyo > Hakone > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Hiroshima > Fukuoka
  • When did we go?
    The first weeks of April, perfect for the cherry blossoming (sakura)
  • How did we travel?
    In Tokyo: local trains, otherwise mostly fast trains (shinkansen) and a domestic flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo
  • Would we go again?
    Tomorrow if I could! 
The itinerary
  • Day 1-5                          Tokyo
  • Day 6-7                          Hakone
  • Day 8-10                        Kyoto (day trip to Nara and Osaka)
  • Day 11-12                      Hiroshima (day trip to Miyajima island)        
  • Day 13                           Fukuoka

Some of the best foodie experiences (but too many to choose from really!)

Travel companions

 

Next: Part 2 – Experiencing Tokyo from Asakusa