Saturday, March 2, 2013

Tokyo 2013 Trip Highlights: Day 2 Part1 - Meiji Shrine, Jangara Ramen, Harajuku, Tokyu Plaza, Kiddyland

This morning we started off with breakfast at the Excelsior Caffe in Shinjuku Station at the south exit. It is a coffee shop chain that has the same parent as Doutor.  It was both non-smoking and smoking, but it the non-smoking section was clear enough that it was a good experience. They had some pretty tasty scrambled egg breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and good coffee so it was a nice way to start the day.
Excelsior Cafe South Exit Ikebukuro
I don't know which train line Tokyoites use the most, but for me it has always been the Yamanote Line.  Years ago when MP3.COM still existed for free and paid downloads, I grabbed a song called "Yamanote" by Blade Ohlsson.  It was a catchy little song all about riding this iconic train line with the green striped cars.  It also turns out that there have been plenty of other fan songs about the line too.  This train line is very useful for a tourist as it passes through most areas of Tokyo that tourists want to visit.  Areas like the Skytree, Asakusa, Odaiba, and Roppongi require taking the metro, but otherwise you can get there on this train line even if it isn't the most direct way.

After breakfast we took the Yamanote Line down past Shinjuku to Harajuku Station, a very short hop.  Early in the morning there isn't a great deal open yet in the various neighbourhoods until 10 AM or 11 AM.  Malls open earlier along with the train stations.  The early AM is excellent for starting your day off at a museum, park, or temple.  Our first stop was Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.  It is located in a large park area and is a very pleasant walk to arrive at.  Exit from the south end of Harajuku Station and walk north from the parking lot.
Meiji Shrine Tori Gate
Saki Barrel Offerings to the Shrine
We did a simple water purification ritual at the entrance to the shrine and made a few wishes at the temple after donating some coins in the offertory box.  You can buy all types charms and such here too.  One of the interesting things at this shrine are the large numbers of Ema plaques (wish plaques) that are placed for good luck or requests for a certain type of intervention from the shrine spirits.  I'm not a Shinto expert, but this religion believes that all things have a spirit and that some spirits are more powerful than others.  Shrines tend to be built on areas that are "powerful" and the people come to the shrine to both worship and relate to the Kami (the spirits / demi-gods / gods).  I like the concept myself and in Japanese pop culture the concept has been taken to even further to electronic devices and other material goods (not far off considering how samurai blades are treated historically).  A magical girl anime series that embodies this concept is Kamichu if you are interested.  Anyhow, be respectful, when visiting.
Main Shrine
Inner Shrine
Ema Plaques
The morning was cool and rainy and we did take a break at the bathrooms here.  Traveller's rule is to use the potty whenever you can as you never know when the next one is going to be available.  This gives me the opportunity to talk about bathrooms in Japan.  You can find their high tech, heated toilet set toilets everywhere, but you won't find hot water or hand soap which are relegated to restaurants, office buildings, and malls. SOL in the train stations, so bring hand sanitizer or those portable travel soap dispensers with the little sheets of hand soap.

After our shrine visit we went to Harajuku and decided to have an early lunch to beat the rush (lunchtime is always busy in Tokyo).  I was looking for an outlet of Jangara Ramen, a somewhat famous ramen chain.  I was following a map by another blogger and their mapping skills were somewhat off as we wandered a bit and then found it after we gave up - i.e. lets just try that place we just passed - hey wait a minute, that's it! The tonkotsu ramen here was tasty and they had booth seating for our group on the second floor - very nice atmosphere, pleasant staff, and an English menu even.  They were happy to see customers from Canada.  Nice pork broth, not thin or thick, but a nice in the middle for texture and lots of flavour.  It was an excellent first ramen to have in Japan.  Japan is famous for its ramen noodles, an invention originally from China, but one that has been adapted into an all new dish here.  It is considered a "fast food" but much healthier and you will see that ramen shops are fairly common.  Often there is only counter seating and you are supposed to eat your noodles quickly so that other customers can get a seat as the shops are not large.  You often order from a vending machine that is also the menu and pay in advance.  This can be fun if you don't read Japanese, but Jangara does not use a machine so no problem!
Jangara Ramen Front. Second floor is the windows above the silver band.
Tonkotsu Ramen. Yum.



After a nice lunch we headed east down Jingumei, the main street in front of the restaurant toward Kiddyland.  On the way there we made a major stop right at the intersection on top of Meijijingumae Station.  I had read about Tokyu Plaza, this new building / mini-mall with an awesome park space on top going up in Omotesando, and here it was!  We gave this place a good visit and there were all types of interesting shops inside including a mini-Tokyu Hands which is like a giant craft store on steroids and cute.  The rooftop had a nicely setup Starbucks and the park patio fully met expectations as a wonderfully crafted space.  Why do the Starbucks over here in Tokyo look nicer and have a better selection of food, desserts, and beverages than at home - we must be second class chumps back here in North America (or the competition on Tokyo makes them up there game).
Tokyu Plaza
Tokyu Plaza Mirrored Entrance

Tokyu Hands Be
Starbucks with a delicious looking latte / frappuccino.  The pastries / dessert cabinets were double size in this store with many delightful looking treats.  Starbucks is also non-smoking.
Tokyu Plaza Park Deck
Kiddyland is six floors of toys and stationary.  You have Peanuts, Hello Kitty, Totoro, Pokemon, and a million other toys and brand names.  A well organized and stocked store where you are bound to find something you want.  Everything from stuffed animals, character pens and other goods, to games and figures are here.  They just went through a remodeling in 2012 so the store was immaculate.  I visited this last trip and had a great return trip with my companions.  Just across the street, a little further down is Omotesando Hills, a mall with some great architecture.  I never got to visit it last time and this time, it was closed for a couple of days, so I guess I'll be making a third trip to Tokyo!
Kiddyland Harajuku
Great Interiors
Some Dragon Quest Goods
Ghibli Stuff
Even if you're not into toys, do not underestimate the amount of other merchandise or collectables that could appeal to you in this store.  Obviously if you have kids, they are going to spend a great deal of time and money here!

Post continues in the next installment. Click here.

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