I am not dainty. By any means. Just ask Peter, he will be the first to tell you that when he hears a loud bang in a store he always assumes it’s me. And it probably is. But, while in Japan I still wanted to do one of the top things to do in Tokyo, participate in a very graceful Japanese Tea Ceremony where they serve traditional Matcha tea, a fine powdered green tea. I will make a sincere effort to not drop anything.
Once we arrived to Happo-en, we headed to the main lobby, a place mostly dedicated to weddings. And that’s when the apprehension set in. I really wanted to participate in a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony held in an enchanting Tokyo garden and this looked like a hotel lobby. A very nice hotel lobby, but still a lobby.
I could have done this at a hotel that didn’t require a twenty-five minute subway ride and fifteen minute walk in 95 degree weather.
At our scheduled reservation time a host came to guide us to the tea room and all I could think was please don’t be leading us to a conference room with swivel chairs. Instead she guided us outside, into the lush, perfectly manicured gardens that are reserved for guests only.
Through the stone pathways, abundant koi pond and peaceful waterfall lies the wooden Muan tea house. A women dressed in a brilliant kimono waited for us in the doorway of the quaint six seat building. No swivel chairs. Phew.
We took our seats and Japanese sweets were placed on the table in front of us. We were instructed not to eat them just yet.
That was just plain mean.
After a very long two minutes we were allowed to indulge in the seasonal sweets. Finally. While devouring, she announced that the Japanese tea ceremony will begin and she prepared the Matcha tea in a precise manner which included scooping the Matcha powder into the cup and stirring with a wooden whisk.
Once the Matcha was finished, the cup was placed in front of me with the picture facing towards me. I was instructed to hold the bottom of the cup with my left hand and to cup my right hand around one side.
Before drinking, you must turn the cup two quarter turns clockwise, so the picture is face out. Take one sip to taste the tea. Then finish the tea with three to four more sips leaving a drop at the bottom. Very technical. Another thing that I am not. The last drop must be slurped up using the same technique I used while learning the art of coffee cupping. I’m getting good at this slurping thing.
After you have slurped, turn the cup two quarter turns clockwise so the picture is facing you. Take two fingers from your right hand and wipe the rim. Then bend your head and upper body towards the table as you admire the design on your cups.
There were only Japanese words on mine which meant rabbit, while Peter’s had a tree indicating big, strong and living long. I really like bunnies, but would have opted for the living long, strong and big. Lucky him.
You may also turn the cup upside down to look at the bottom which will usually have the name of the maker. When we were done admiring our cups, we turned them once more so the picture is facing outwards and then the ceremony has concluded.
We paid the tea ceremony expert 2100 yen ($21.15 usd) each, in cash, the only accepted currency.
I left these gardens grateful for another bucket list worthy experience under my belt and for the new understanding that I am not a fan of Matcha tea.
Why couldn’t it taste more like coffee?
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. . . Check it Off Your Bucket List . . .
Tokyo is the capital city of Japan, an archipelago in East Asia. The country is located east of the Korean peninsula (its closest neighbors are Korea, Russia and China) and Tokyo is centrally located within the country along the Pacific Ocean. The 845 square mile metropolis has a population of over 13 million and is divided into 23 central city wards; the main ones being Shinjuku, Shibuya, Chuo, Shiyoda, Minato and Shinagawa. These wards are further split into districts and neighborhoods. The Happo-en Garden is in the Shirokanedai district.
There are two main airports that service Tokyo, Narita International and Haneda International. If you are flying into Tokyo from the United States your choice will mainly come down to price and distance to the city center. Narita International sees the most foreign visitors (and will most likely be cheaper), but is located further from the city center, about 37 miles (60km) east of central Tokyo. Taking a taxi from here to Tokyo would be quite expensive (well over $100 USD), the better option would be taking the JR Narita Express (N’EX; www.jreast.co.jp/e/nex), which takes about an hour and costs roughly $27 USD. Haneda has fewer international flights, but is located in Tokyo and closer to the city center. It easily connects to central Tokyo by the monorail (www.tokyo-monorail.co.jp; around $5) that runs every 3 to 5 minutes. You can also take a limousine bus for roughly $9 (www.limousinebus.co.jp) or taxis are available at the arrivals terminal. Happo-en is easily accessible using the subway and getting off at the Shirokandedai station.
Japanese is the official language and very few people speak English, with the exception of the younger generation.
Japanese Yen (¥). Many restaurants and stores will not accept credit cards, so make sure to bring a substantial amount of cash, either Japanese Yen or US dollars to be exchanged upon arrival.
Plug Type A/B; 100v, 50Hz. Note that most Tokyo outlets are American style two-prong, though if you have a three-prong American appliance you will need an adapter. I used the Insten Universal Adapter with no problem.
When to Go:
Tokyo is a city that experiences the four seasons and is becoming a year-round destination, though the locals will tell you that spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit. In the spring (March to May) is when daytime temperatures are comfortable (60s to 70s). The end of March through mid April is the peak time to see the brilliant cherry blossoms that invade the green space begging for a picnic under the blooms. Autumn (September to November) is another great time to visit (especially October) when the fiery fall colors create a picturesque scene of foliage. Though rare in Tokyo, beware that September is the primary month for typhoons with may bring strong weather patterns that affect flights. The summer (June to August) is the busiest foreign tourist season, so expect long lines at museums and even more densely packed streets. It is hot and humid with daily high temperatures in the 80s. With the muggy heat and higher room rates, I recommend avoiding this time of year. If you don’t mind the chilly weather, winters (December to February) is another travel option since there is very little rain. The day temperatures range from the 40s to low 50s.
How to Visit/Planning:
With 23 wards and countless neighborhoods, planning a trip to Tokyo can be quite intimidating. So the big question to ask yourself is whether to book a tour or try to navigate the city on your own. The answer very well may be both. Tokyo is so vast that it can seem intimidating to maneuver without a tour group, but it can be done. The best way to do so is to design your itinerary based on the cities wards, listing the attractions and metro stop for each. It is also possible to hire a personal tour guide for a half or full day. We hired Tomomi from Tokyo Tours (www.tokyotourswithtomomi.weebly.com) for a full day. She not only expertly showed us through the Tsukiji Fish Market, but also taught us how to make sushi in her home, escorted us to the sumo wrestling stable and dressed us in kimonos. For the best experience, I would recommend doing Tokyo on your own with a couple of half or full day tours thrown in. You can use the contact form at the Happo-en website to make arrangements for the tea ceremony or have your hotel concierge call to make reservations for you.
With the proficient public transport system, it’s easy to get around Tokyo. There are trains, buses and taxis, but the subway system is most commonly used and can take you just about anywhere in the city. The subway can seem daunting at first, but it is fairly easy to use and much cheaper than pricey taxis. Plus, there’s plenty of English signage to show you your way. It’s best to plan your journey in advance, take the subway to the station nearest your destination and then either walk or catch a taxi to your final stop. Each station has several different exits, so make sure to not only know the name of the metro stop, but also the exit. At most ticket stations you can get a rechargeable Suica or Pasmo card for a 500 yen (a little over $4) refundable deposit, then you load them up with money. Each of these cards used to be for separate lines, but are now pretty much interchangeable, so it really doesn’t matter which one you get. They don’t give you a discount on your subway rides, but allow you to breeze through the turnstiles with just a tap of the card. Plus you will not have to bother with doing any math as the correct amount will automatically be deducted from the card. There is also an array of unlimited day passes available, which would only make sense on days when you’ll be hopping on and off the subways all day. Tokyo Metro (www.tokyometro.jp) sells a 24-hour unlimited ride for around $6.
Where to Stay:
With over 20 wards in Tokyo, choosing a hotel location can be mind-boggling. But, if you want to be where the action is Shinjuku or Shibuya may be the best district to stay for your first visit; both are conveniently located with easy access to shopping, restaurants, nightlife and public transport. Plus, they look like the Tokyo you typically see on television with bustling streets, towering skyscrapers and flashy neon lights. In Shinjuku the JR Kyushu Hotel Blossom (from $213) is just a 3-minute walk from the south exit of Shinjuku station. For a more budget friendly gem try Tokyu Stay (from $115) that has locations throughout the city including Shinjuku and Shibuya. If you want to venture to other wards, The Tokyo Station Hotel (from $260; Ginza ward) is conveniently located in the heart of the city and right above the Tokyo JR station. For a unique cultural experience stay at a ryokan, an old-school Japanese inn typically with tatami-matted rooms, low tables and communal baths. Ryokan Sawanoya (www.sawanoya.com; from $85; Taito ward) will give you this traditional feeling or opt for the updated Andon Ryokan (from $71; Taito ward). If you want to avoid the bustle of the city, head off the beaten path to the original boutique hotel, Claska (from $135; Meguro ward).
Where to Eat:
Being that Tokyo has over 200 restaurants with at least one Michelin star, you should make it a mission to eat at one. Splurge at the 3-starred Ishikawa (www.kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp/) with their ¥19,000 (about $162 USD) set menu or get the signature shoyu soba, soy-broth ramen for under $11 at Tsuta (Toshima-ku, Sugamo 1-14-1), the first ramen shop to be awarded a coveted star. For your sushi fix, get up early (people start lining up at 3:00am for the 5:00am opening) to wait in line at the famed Sushi Dai (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Tsukiji Fish Market 6th Bldg.). For a very local experience head over to the Shinjuku’s Piss Alley (www.shinjuku-omoide.com), more commonly known as Memory Lane (Japanese: Omoide Yokochō), and eat at one of the many yakitori stalls, Kabuto (Shinjuku 1-2-11, tel +03 3342 7671) is amongst one of the favorites. If you are an adventurous eater try Izakaya Asadachi (Shinjuku 1-2-14), famous for serving things like pigs testicles, grilled salamander and frog sashimi.
- Head to the Ryoguku neighborhood and attend a asageiko, wrestlers practice at a sumo stable. Many stables that allow visitors will require appointments by phone at least a day in advance and some request a Japanese speaker accompany you. Though you can attempt a visit on your own, it’s much easier with a guide who speaks Japanese; Tokyo Tours with Tomomi escorted me to practice at Hakkaku–beya (1-16-1 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo). When navigating on your own you can try the following stables:
- Oshiogawa-beya | tel. +81 (03) 3643-8156 |2-17-7 Kiba, Koto-ku, Tokyo | Subway: Tozai Line to Kiba Station
- Wakamatsu Stable| tel. +81 (03) 5608-3223|3-5-4 Honjo, Sumida-ku, Tokyo| Subway: Toei Asakusa Line to Honjo-Azumabashi Station
- Futagoyama Stable| tel. +81 (03) 3673-7339|8-16-1 Kita Koiwa, Edogawa-ku, Tokyo| Train: Keisi Main Line to Keisei Koiwa Station
- Musashigawa Stable| tel. +81 (03) 3805-6343|4-27-1 Higashi Nippori, Arakawa-ku, Tokyo| Train: Train JR Yamanote Line to Uguisudani Station
- Oshima Stable| 3-5-3 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo | Subway: Sobu Line to Ryogoku Station
- If you want a quick (& free) peek go to Arashio-beya where you can see the action from the windows out front. 2-47-2, Hama-cho Nihonbashi Chuo-ku Tokyo | tel. 81-(03) 3666-7646)
- Drink at Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, a neighborhood in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo that squeezes in over 200 miniature bars into a network of six narrow alleys, made only for pedestrians. There’s plenty to choose from, but some aren’t as welcoming to tourists as others. You can try Bar Plastic Model that is a bright white bar that has Rubik’s Cubes and a vinyl record player. Or Albatross that has seating on three floors and a rooftop terrace that boasts a view of the cities lights. If you are a movie buff than pop into La Jetee, a place that is dedicated to film.
- Eat at one of the many themed restaurants. The place that I noshed on beef in the shape of a brain was Alcatraz ER (2-13-5 Dogenzaka | Harvest Bldg 2F, Shibuya; +81 3-3770-7100). If 90s video games is more your thing, head over to 8bit Café grab a Nintendo console and spend the night mastering Donkey Kong (3-8-9 Shinjuku | 5F, Q building, Shinjuku; +81 3-3358-0407). Or opt for The Robot Restaurant (B2F Shinjuku Robot Bldg, 1-7-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku) in Shinjuku that takes dinner and a show to another level. There will be loud music, dancing and robots fighting, plus a little sushi to dine on if you should choose. To get a taste of anime @Home Café (cafe-athome.com) offers the quintessential ‘maid café’ experience. Be charmed by waitresses dressed as French maids as you are served food and drinks that are meant to look simply adorable.
- Baseball isn’t just one of America’s favorite pastime, the Japanese are passionate about it too, so hit up a baseball game (www.japanball.com). They just do things a bit differently at the games, like waving umbrellas for home runs, snacking on edamame and having cheerleaders. Though the Yomiui Giants at the Tokyo Dome draw larger crowds, you can also see the Tokyo Swallows play at the outdoor Jingu Stadium.
- Tokyo is vast which makes planning an itinerary a bit of a challenge. It’s easiest to not think of it as one big city, but instead consider each ward its own city.
- In Japan it is required by law to carry your passport with you at all times. Though you probably won’t have an issue, the police can stop you at any time and you must be able to show your document.
- You must mind your manners in Japan, things like blowing your nose in public is considered rude.
- Some of the places will require removing your shoes to enter, you’ll know which ones by the line of shoes sitting at the front door.
- Download an English – Japanese dictionary, this is a country where English is limited. Many signs will be in English, but many people do not speak it.
- Good service is the norm is Japan. Tipping at restaurants is not expected, and may not even be accepted, as they believe that you pay for good service in the initial cost.
- Many of the futuristic Japanese toilets will take some practice to master. They feature a dozen different buttons that will spray jets of water and blasts of air. Practice makes perfect!
- Be courteous and walk to the left. If someone is heading straight for you, step to the left, not the right.
- If you are using the subway as your primary mode of transportation, than comfortable walking shoes are a must. The closest metro station may be several blocks from your final destination.
- As mentioned before, it is a Japanese custom to remove your shoes inside many locations, so bring a pair that easily slips on and off.
- Japan is a modest nation where the women dress conservatively. You may feel uncomfortable if the only things you pack are bootie shorts and skimpy tanks.
- Carry a small hand towel since paper towels or hand dryers in restrooms are rarely provided.
- When traveling by train, it’s wise to pack light, as storage places are limited.
- If you are traveling in the summer it can get excruciatingly humid, pack mosquito repellent and a water bottle to keep you hydrated.
- Don’t worry if you forget to pack something, Tokyo has a little bit of everything and more.