There are two types of travellers: one who only likes to visit the usual tried-and-tested destinations while the other prefers to traverse off-the-beaten-track places. Well, I belong to the latter – to me, the usual mainstream destinations often mean having to jostle with big groups of loud, unruly tourists.
But, a recent visit to two cities in Japan – Tokyo and Tottori – showed me that I could actually have the best of both worlds.
Now, who does not know Tokyo? As the capital of Japan and the world’s most populous metropolis, Tokyo is a famous destination that people around the world wants to visit and perhaps even revisit.
I personally first visited Tokyo at the age of six. Since then, I have returned to Tokyo several times. The cosmopolitan city is definitely considered a mainstream destination – in my books, at least. So, how then could a return visitor still find new experiences in Tokyo? As I found out during my recent trip in October, there are still places waiting to be explored.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Deck
Most tourists flock to the famous Tokyo Tower to get a panoramic view of the city. However, if you wish to avoid the throngs of tourists, there is actually another less crowded place you can visit to get a bird’s eye view of Tokyo – and for free!
Located in Shinjuku, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, also known as Tocho for short, offers a 360° view of Tokyo 202 metres above ground. On a good day, you can even catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji. Much to my delight, there was a café right in the middle of the Observation Deck, as well as shops selling souvenir food items from different prefectures of Japan.
One useful tip for tourists – don’t forget to visit the Tourist Office located on the ground floor of the building. You can find all sorts of useful information on where to go and what to do. And, it’s not just limited to Tokyo. I managed to get information on other cities of Japan too at the Tourist Office.
To access the observation decks, take the Observatory Elevator from the ground floor of Main Building no. 1. The opening hours are from 9.30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (last admission at 10.30 p.m.). Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government website for details on the days of operations.
Tsukishima Monjya Street
Forget the busy streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya and head to Tsukishima in Chuo-ku ward. Tsukishima is a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, situated just across the channel from the well-known Tsukiji Fish Market.
When I travel, I like to visit places that have a strong local flavour, frequented by mostly locals and not tourists. Much to my delight, Tsukishima Monjya Street is one such place. The whole street is lined with shops and restaurants selling local specialties. But, what Tsukishima is famous for is monjyayaki, a Japanese-style pancake favoured by the locals.
There are as many as 70 restaurants serving monjyayaki along the street. Often compared to okonomiyaki, monjyayaki uses main ingredients such as flour batter and cabbage, and varied ingredients such as squid, octopus, cod roe, cheese and many others. We actually have to cook our own monjyayaki! At our table, there was a hot plate for us to cook on. But fret not if you are not sure – the restaurant staff can also help you to cook.
To get to Tsukishima, you can take the subway to Tsukishima Station, which is served by the Oedo and Yurakucho Subway Lines. It takes about 25 minutes from Shinjuku Station.
Now, if you are feeling extra adventurous and want to get out of the city centre in Tokyo, take a train ride out to Chofu, a city still within the Tokyo Metropolis but further out in the western suburb of Tokyo.
One of the main draws of Chofu is Jindaiji Temple, which was founded during the Nara period in 733 A.D. It is the second oldest temple in Tokyo, after Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. With its meticulously manicured landscape, stone paths and well-kept architecture, it is little wonder that Jindaiji Temple is one of Tokyo’s most beautiful temples.
Along the approach to Jindaiji Temple, we came across a themed shop based on the Gegege no Kitaro manga series, created by late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki who lived most of his life in Chofu city. According to our Japanese guide, Gegege no Kitaro is an extremely popular manga series in Japan, although less well-known outside of Japan.
The influence of Gegege no Kitaro extends beyond the themed shop. I also found statues of characters from the manga series scattered along the Tenjin-dori shopping street in Chofu. Keep a lookout for them and see how many you can spot if you visit Chofu!
To get to Chofu city, you can take the train to Chofu Station along the Keio Line, which starts at Shinjuku. It takes about 15 minutes on a limited express train from Shinjuku to Chofu.
When I mentioned to friends that I was going to visit Tottori, their first reaction was “Totto what?” Truth be told, not many Singaporeans have heard of Tottori, a prefecture that is located in western Japan and about an hour’s plane ride from Tokyo.
So, from the most populous city, I flew to the least populous prefecture in Japan.
It was my second visit to Tottori, in fact. Unknown to many, there are actually a lot of things to do (and eat!) in Tottori. For those who have heard of Tottori, they probably know it’s famous for its sand dunes. But, Tottori has more to offer than just that.
Gegege no Kitaro and Mizuki Shigeru Road
We thought we saw the last of manga Gegege no Kitaro in Chofu, Tokyo, but boy are we wrong. We landed in Tottori prefecture to be greeted by characters from the manga series, to our utmost delight.
The manga author Shigeru Mizuki was actually born in Sakaiminato city near Yonago in Tottori. There is even a whole airport themed around Gegege no Kitaro. We arrived at Yonago Kitaro Airport to find a Gegege no Kitaro character sitting on the conveyor belt of the baggage carousel. Kawaii!
One of my most unforgettable moments at Tottori was actually my visit to Mizuki Shigeru Road, named after the late author. The road is a shopping street in Sakaiminato where you will find 153 statues of characters from the manga series. At the centre of Mizuki Shigeru Road is a museum which showcases the life and manga works of Mizuki Shigeru. Even for a non-manga fan like me, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the visit.
The shops not only sells Kitaro souvenirs; there are also Kitaro-themed beverages and food. One of the most prominent characters is Medama-Oyaji, an eyeball figure which is the father of the manga protagonist Kitaro. We bought a dessert made into an eyeball and had a lot of fun taking photos with it.
Food glorious food
Singaporeans love to eat, and we probably live to eat too. I was practically in seventh (food) heaven at Tottori. Being located along the coast means Tottori has access to the freshest seafood at affordable prices.
Upon my arrival at Tottori from Tokyo, I headed to Nakaura Fish Market in Sakaiminato city in Tottori. I tucked into a most delectable meal of Kani-toro Don (crab rice bowl). The set meal comes with generous helpings of sweet crab meat on locally grown rice, along with crab miso soup and side dishes of crab innards, squid and Japanese yam. The best part of it all? The sumptuous meal, which would have cost a bomb in Singapore, costs only 1,300 yen (about S$15)!
Seafood is not the only thing that Tottori is known for. Tottori has a rich history of producing wagyu, or Japanese beef, since the Edo period. One of the signature produce of Tottori is the Daisen beef, which comes from the Japanese Black, or Kuroge Washu, cattle. Sounds familiar? Yup, the much sought-after Kobe beef also comes from the same breed of cattle. The only difference is Kobe beef orginates from the Tajima strain of Japenese Black cattle while Daisen beef is from the Tottori strain.
Some people have complained about the marbling in Kobe beef being too dense. Well, these people would probably like Daisen beef more then. The marbling is less dense in Daisen beef, but there is no compromise in terms of flavour.
The Daisen beef I had at local restaurant Daisen Kuroushi Kyoshotei in Yonago city was utterly tender, buttery and flavourful. We went for the “Daisen Kuroushi”wagyu set, which costs 6,800 yen (about S$81). There are 10 courses in the set, including torched beef sushi, yaki-shabu, yaki-suki and a platter of three rare cuts – misuji (top blade), kurimi (shoulder clod) and ichibo (culotte). For the same amount of wagyu, I probably would have to fork out hundreds of dollars in Singapore.
If you love soft serve ice cream, don’t forget to try the squid ink soft serve in Tottori. Yes, it sounds weird but the squid ink soft serve doesn’t taste weird, trust me. It isn’t savoury but tastes like vanilla soft serve to me. I found this at the Yuransen port where I took a cruise to see the beautiful Uradome archipelago.
Want to get reborn? Then make the perilous climb up the 900-metre-high Mount Mitoku, or Mitokusan.
Mitokusan is located in Misasa-cho in Tottori. The mountain is considered a sacred area since the Heian period and has halls and temples dedicated to Kannon. A temple was first found on Mitokusan in 706 A.D. as training ground for ascetic monks.
Numerous ascetic monks have climbed the mountain. Today, many visitors also make the climb and all do so in a bid to catch a glimpse of the Nageiredo, a shrine that has been built into a depression near the top of the mountain. To date, no one knew how the temple was built.
I am not going to lie — the climb to the top is difficult. Those who have mobility problems would not be able to make the climb and people have been known to get lost in the mountain. Thus, it is advisable to climb under the guidance of a local guide and never alone.
On the day of our climb, we were told that the ground could be slippery and wet due to a typhoon the day earlier. The monks climb the mountain in warazouri (traditional straw slippers) and I decided to make the climb wearing the same type of straw slippers. Gloves are also a must.
The ascent to Nageiredo is very steep and almost a vertical climb 80 per cent of the way. There is no proper pathway to the top of the deeply forested mountain. We had to hold on to tangled tree roots and step on rocks, akin to climbing ladders. At certain junctures, we had to climb by holding on to metal chains. I had to contemplate and cautiously make each and every single step I made.
Wearing the straw slippers turned out to be the best decision – they gripped really well and I did not slip a single time! The gloves too helped to keep my hands from being scratched as I hung onto to the rough tree roots for support. I really felt like giving up halfway but I couldn’t as there was no turning back.
After climbing for what seemed like eternity, we finally reached the top. We walked through a small cave and emerged to see the mysterious Nageiredo. Our guide told us that walking through the cave symbolises being reborn.
Looking back, the two-hour trek is probably one of the most challenging ones I have ever done, but at the end of it all, it is also one of my most rewarding travel experiences.
How to get to Tokyo and Tottori:
All Nippon Airways, also commonly known as ANA, operates direct flights from Singapore to Tokyo. It also flies to Tottori via Tokyo.