This is a post containing some unpopular gems in Tokyo (that are totally OFF ‘the beaten track’), plus highlights of a short trip to Kagoshima (ie things you should do too!).
Last November, I made my second visit to Japan – my first time being in 2000 when I was fortunate enough to spend five weeks as part of a cultural exchange programme, when I was still at school!
This time I only had one week, split between Tokyo & Kagoshima. The trip was organised by the JNTO (Japanese National Tourism Organisation) and I could select a preferred region/city to visit. I chose Kagoshima as that was where I’d been before and I wanted to see it with my new, grown-up eyes. And a digital camera. Haha.
I had hopes of meeting up with my old foster family, but luck had it that they were out of town that week.
*skip to bottom of post for a video round-up!
GETTING INTO TOKYO
Flying from London Heathrow to Tokyo took under 12 hours direct, with ANA (Japan’s largest airline). I slept most of the way as it was a red-eye. I was amused by the in-flight menu which was presented as a laminated card with pictures of four meal options to choose from, including rice porridge (which I love).
It was on this flight that I discovered my love for menbei – a kind of rice cracker made with spiced cod roe (a specialty of the Fukuoka region). They were served as snacks throughout the flight. I ate a lot of them.
Sadly, I spent my first couple of days in Tokyo feeling extremely unwell from the worst sore throat I’d ever had in my life.
My hosts bought me pretty much the entire pharmacy. I tried one of those white face masks for the first time and I must say – IT WORKS. It made breathing so much easier at night!
When I was well enough to get out for a bit, we went to experience riding a streetcar/tram on the Toden Arakawa Line, which took us into the quieter, older parts of Tokyo, away from the popular tourist spots.
This tram was unlike any tram I’d seen or ridden before. It was SO CLEAN! And the conductor’s uniform was too cute and perfect. At every crossing there was a ‘ding ding’ of a bell. It was almost like we were in a toy-town. Japan tends to make me feel that way.
This was.. I think.. the most scenic tram route I’d ever taken. Perhaps I also enjoyed the novelty of passing through the small, suburban streets and neighbourhoods along the way.
ARAKAWA AMUSEMENT PARK
We got off at Yuenchi-mae station to have a stroll around Arakawa Amusement Park. It’s said to be one of the oldest in Tokyo!
It had a really retro feel to it. In today’s world it would seem more like a fun-fair. It reminded me of my childhood. The rides were carnival-style (small and simple) and there was a mini-zoo as well (including a lot of monkeys!). More suited for families/kids and frequented by locals, mostly. I liked it.
JOYFUL-MINOWA SHOPPING ARCADE
Made another stop at Minowabashi to have a quick stroll at Joyful-Minowa Shopping Street (still in Arakawa ward). This is another remnant of old Tokyo and is made up of pedestrian alleys lined with stalls and shops selling food, flowers, and other market-things. I watched and smelt pickles being made there!
We also sampled a couple of snacks, such as yakitori and other grilled food. Unfortunately, it still felt like knives when I tried to swallow them >.<
Definitely a place to check out if you’re looking for a taste of local life and something outside of the usual tourist routes.
OFF TO KAGOSHIMA!
I was really excited about this part of the trip. Partially because by now my sore throat had finally alleviated (thanks to a clinic visit in Tokyo which got me some much-needed antibiotics)!
We flew to Kagoshima via Tokyo Haneda Airport. I was glad it was a short flight of under two hours because I got the worst seat on the plane. I mean literally THE WORST. I was in the middle seat of the middle section, in the last row.
Windows stopped existing from 3-4 rows ahead of me. It was kinda sad and dark.
Did you know that Kagoshima Prefecture is one of the top producers of tea in Japan? So naturally, on arrival at Kagoshima Airport, we were served some green tea as a token of welcome.
We then boarded a bus that took us to the city. This took about 45 minutes and as you can see in the photo above – it was packed. I couldn’t help laughing at the pull-down seats in the aisle. Apparently it’s like this in China, too.
We went straight to lunch at a cosy, traditional restaurant called MOZE, where I ordered a set menu consisting of a a number of local dishes, including the famous Kuronbuta pork (from black pigs). I remember the food in Kagoshima being immensely good during my first visit, and this meal didn’t disappoint!
Next on the itinerary was a visit to Sengan-en, a beautiful Japanese garden that’s also UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tickets are ¥1000 (about USD10 per adult) and can be purchased at the entrance.
We were able to see Sakurajima, the city’s iconic volcanic island, from the garden. It was too bad about the gloomy weather, but at least it didn’t rain!
There was an annual chrysanthemum flower growing competition going on when we were there – it was funny to see who was obviously not good at growing these plants, haha.
Sengan-en is a must-do for anyone visiting Kagoshima. You can easily spend a good couple of hours here. There’s a hill to be climbed that supposedly leads to a good viewpoint, but that was something I didn’t do because.. I got lazy.
I spent time wandering around the picture-perfect gardens and took some photos with our lovely hosts instead.
We ended the afternoon with some sweet potato ice cream, and also shochu ice cream. I was excited about the sweet potato (probably because it was purple), but turns out I much preferred the shochu flavour.
DAY TRIP TO SAKURAJIMA
Another must-do in Kagoshima, we took the ferry 15 minutes across to Sakurajima. On a clear day it’s usually puffing away beautifully against the blue sky, but we were unfortunate – it was cold and gloomy.
I loved the welcome art on the floor of the visitor centre. Apparently, this is created every single day and has gone on for many years.
Just beyond the visitor centre was a 100m hot spring (onsen) foot bath. Kagoshima is well known for its abundant hot springs and there are quite a number of these foot baths scattered around the region.
I don’t know how I had the amazing foresight to wear a dress – it made my foot bath experience so much more convenient, haha. I don’t remember doing this when I visited in 2000.
Our stay on Sakurajima was brief. We stopped by a random temple and I think that was it. I was disappointed at not having seen a giant/mutant radish, which the island is meant to be famed for.
IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO
In the afternoon, we took a special (themed) train journey to Ibusuki, which is farther down south. The train is half black, half white, divided along its length and only has two carriages.
It was the cutest train I’d ever been on in my life.
It was a magical experience, like a fairytale! The wooden interiors included bookshelves and most seats came with a a table top or space for you to have lunch, for example. There are even sofas and a play area for children. There were swivel seats next to big windows on the side of the train, providing passengers with a great view of the sea.
We bought a special black sesame pudding sold on the train and it was delicious. We especially enjoyed taking pictures wearing train conductor hats handed out by one of the staff – what a fun idea! The journey from Kagoshima to Ibusuki was about one hour.
Seats are limited and advance reservation is advised. Tickets are about USD10 per way.
How do I look? 🙂
IBUSUKI NATURAL SAND STEAMED BATH
Getting buried under hot black sand is the thing to do in Ibusuki!
We went to one called Sayuri, about 15 minutes by car from Ibusuki train station. It had the baths next to the sea, which normally is very scenic but when we arrived it was raining, hence we had to do it in a covered area (under some tents!).
We were given yukatas to change into – you’re not supposed to wear anything else under it. I think this is because you go straight to the onsen for a dip after your hot sand experience is over. As you may already know, it is customary in Japan to enter hot springs completely nude.
After picking our ‘plots’, we were each given a towel to wrap around our necks. It reminded me of a cemetery..
Once laid down, warm black sand was piled onto our bodies using a shovel (haha) until we were completely covered from the neck down. I was surprised at how heavy the sand felt. There is a 15 minute limit for how long you can stay buried. When the time was up, we simply wiggled out and shook off any remaining sand – it was kind of hilarious.
Completing the experience in the indoor onsen was amazing. I felt warm and refreshed after it. Warm enough to have an ice cream at the reception area even though it was still raining!
Our last stop in Ibusuki was to Nishi-Oyama Station, the southernmost train station in Japan.
The grey weather kind of ruined the scene, especially after I learnt that during the warmer months, the surrounding fields would be flush with yellow flowers!
Still, it was beautiful. It’s only a tiny station with a view of Kaimondake volcano in the background.
Apparently, it brings good fortune to send a postcard via the bright yellow postbox outside, so we bought some colourful postcards from the shop nearby and did just that. I sent one to my mom and kept the extra postcards for myself, as they were pretty.
KAGOSHIMA FISH MARKET TOUR
The following day was tough – we had to get up super early. If you know me, you’ll also know that I hate early mornings with a passion. Luckily, this time was worth it!
We were meeting at 6.45am for the Kagoshima Fish Market Tour, which is run by group of local hotels/ryokans.
If you happen to be staying at one of these hotels, your ticket will cost ¥1000. Otherwise, its ¥1500.
Tours run every Saturday from March to October and last one hour.
It was a lot more fun than I anticipated, despite it raining hard when we arrived. It was windy and really cold, but I felt like it was fitting weather for a fish market tour. Perhaps I like a dramatic setting.
Rain boots can be borrowed.. along with hats that look like fish and other sea-things! I was pleased to be a yellow fish that morning.
An English-speaking guide took us through the market to observe the fish landing and lively auctions that began with the repetitive sound of a loud bell. Buyers would be mulling around boxes of fish, trying to decide, I think.
At one point, I witnessed a large number of hammerhead sharks being thrown into pile – which was really a bizarre scene to me. They had apparently swum into the net that morning by accident. Fortunately, they won’t go to waste – they’ll be resold or eaten eventually.
There were only two restaurants by the market. We picked one, without any particular preference other than it was less crowded.
I had a typical Japanese breakfast of rice with grilled mackerel and a bowl of miso soup with clams. It was fantastic. What a great morning. I highly recommend the fish market tour if you’re in Kagoshima.
WHERE TO STAY IN KAGOSHIMA
Nestled on a hill with spectacular views of Sakurajima, Hotel Shiroyama is undoubtedly the best place to stay in Kagoshima City.
I remember my foster parents driving me up here one evening, 17 years ago, just so we would enjoy a stroll around fountain with the city lights twinkling beneath us. Something I’ll never forget.
During the night, they put in a musical fountain show complete with cheesy music and dancing lights. I watched from my window and loved it!
Other plus points include a beautiful open-air onsen looking out at Sakurajima and a generous and diverse breakfast spread 😉
Watch the video below for a recap of my entire trip!