Tokyo: Ginza, Tsukiji Fish Market, Hama-Rikyu Gardens and Roppongi Hills

I touched my Pasnet metro pass to the scanner and the small doors in front of me opened. We were inside a Tokyo subway for the very first time in our lives.

The by now familiar Mark City shopping passageway was a standard entry point to board the orange Ginza line to go to the station of the same name. Rivers of commuters flowed ahead and parallel to us, never mixing, as we had become used to, and we were just going somewhere like everybody else.

Every single sign reading information you might need to progress during your adventure is translated in to English, and that just made me want to hug all of Japan. Directions for going up or down the stairs to avoid chaos are easy to spot, and clear signs asking to be considerate of other passengers, not to mention forbidding begging, playing music, passing out flyers etc. adorn walls. I can’t spot any litter anywhere and wherever we proceed doesn’t feel clogged or, indeed, much like it’s underground.

Two lines form at every platform section where people wait to enter through the train doors, with a space between them through which those exiting the train pass. We carefully follow suit and I discover I can touch the ceiling once we are inside. People on public transport generally don’t talk, listening to something with their headphones on, reading or dozing a little. A small screen above the door shows a tourism ad for Tokyo, with the main character, a girl clearly from the “West”, saying she was extremely excited about visiting, but also nervous, as she approaches a friendly metro staff member with a question. I’m enraptured. Especially since it turns out that the subway, as opposed to my earlier worries, is not confusing at all.

We get out at Ginza station and exit to our first rainy day in Tokyo. It’s drizzling steadily, but it’s still warm. We take a few steps amid the elegant high-rise buildings towering around us and stop by a beautiful stationery shop, since I can’t resist any place that might sell notebooks. There’s a strategically placed case outside, politely filled with clear plastic bags to put your wet umbrella in. I already feel like an elephant in a teashop and this small requirement increases my feeling of respect towards local manners. We browse shelves filled with pretty envelopes, exquisitely printed cards, bright boxes and very fancy pens.

Ginza is fashionable, but not intimidating, spacious, open, with some of the elegant charm of Daikanyama and the simultaneous atmosphere of being approachable that we’ve come to feel anywhere we went in Tokyo. A walk along its broad streets also conveniently leads to the Tsukiji fish market. When in Tokyo. Some contact with seafood has to be made.

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The Tsukiji fish market is the largest in the world. We wove our way through the outer market, stopping at multiple stalls that offered bits of smoked fish, meat and nuts we had never seen before for tasting. All sorts of seafood and products we couldn’t always identify lined our way, signs and labels in Japanese making it all the more exotic for my inexperienced eyes, of course. It was a maze of quintessentially local experiences and by noon we were ready to do the one thing we had to do: eat some sushi. There was no shortage of places to pick, and we settled on a cosy-looking restaurant where you could sit inside. Bright menus with pictures made the selection easier and in no time we were sipping green tea, miso soup and carefully nibbling on our deliciously fresh sushi. Was it different from eating sushi back home? Yes, it was, as it was prepared on site and from local products, not to mention the whole setting simply made you more aware of tastes and sensations. I’m still a total wimp when it comes to wasabi.

Sated in every sense of the word, we made our way on foot to the Hama-Rikyu Gardens – the family gardens of the Tokugawa Shogun. Passing several hands in terms of ownership, the gardens had to undergo restoration work after WWII, opening to the public again in 1946. A cultural heritage spot, its blend of traditional architecture from the Edo era, numerous graceful trees and skyscrapers in the background is fascinating. It’s quiet and we grow silent as well, drinking in the beauty around us.

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One of our busiest and fullest days in Tokyo was rounded off with a subway trip to Roppongi Hills, another talked about district, and a successful search for the Mori Tower. One elevator ride later we were looking down on Tokyo from the 52nd floor of the Skyview observation area. Fun game – get a flyer and with its help try to identify landmarks from above. We located Shibuya, and it was more than a little fantastic to walk there all the way from Roppongi once we were back down on land, after being so high up.

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Tokyo: Chilling in Daikanyama

After the shrill excitement of Harajuku we opted for a change of pace and walked to the Daikanyama district from Shibuya. It was a pleasant morning with a slight breeze and our map took us along quieter Tokyo streets, some of them residential, some clearly business-like, here a sleepy cat silently lounging on a porch, there a beautiful Japanese house, possibly a spa of some kind, promising miracles on its territory. Trees were still blooming with flowers and there weren’t as many high-rise buildings to see as in Shibuya. The tempo was decidedly more laid-back than what we had experienced the day before, and both our guidebooks described Daikanyama as wealthy, but at the same time low-key and charming.

We explored a big street stretching out in front of us, looked at shop windows and cafes, stepped in to side streets once again and reemerged, stopped for a sit-down in a courtyard where we promptly got bitten by very efficient mosquitos, found another puppy shop five times as expensive as the one we discovered in Shibuya and stumbled on a number of shop signs I would have gladly taken home with me. Well-dressed young mothers walked down the streets with their babies in strollers and despite it being a weekday I felt like it was another Saturday.

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From Daikanyama we walked to the Meguro river and along it, enjoying the continued tranquility, apartment buildings around us, stopping at more shop windows and exploring a cosy, winding street full of cafes and local flair. There were benches along the river that some people were smoking on, or quietly eating with their backs to the street (like we did later). The high-rise didn’t swallow the low-rise and everything just seemed to work together.

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Tokyo: Out and About in Harajuku

What would a visit to Tokyo be without becoming Harajuku girls for an afternoon? No, we didn’t dress up, but since we already stood out due to our height alone, we figured we were good. Filled to the brim with the spacious green beauty of Yoyogi park we set off towards Harajuku for what we suspected would surely be a change of scene. Easy to reach on foot from the park, the district is only a few minutes away. It’s also possible to walk there from Shibuya, or take the subway to Harajuku station.

Starting with the more upscale shopping boulevard Omotesandō is generally recommended and it’s a good way to flow in to Harajuku with the rest of the throngs of people making their way there. Stepping in to side streets that catch your eye because of a shop window, a temple or a restaurant may lead to interesting discoveries and that’s how we found this wonderful place for lunch.

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Once again I can confirm that, unfortunately, I don’t speak Japanese, but the power of taking pictures ensures that there is someone to ask what this place is called and where it is, should we want to come again. We picked it because it looked inviting and soothing, plus they had an English menu lying outside. In we went!

The restaurant was dimly lit inside, adding to the cosy feeling we immediately experienced upon setting foot there. Once I looked up and saw that ceiling completely covered with red and white lanterns, I was enchanted. While we waited for our food I took a look around and snapped one gorgeous wall for some more local flavour among our memories.

Cold jasmine tea on ice without alcohol (an option our waitress thankfully pointed out to us before we accidentally ordered the other version) was incredibly refreshing after the humidity outside and all that walking. Among the many delicious-looking dishes on the pictures in the menu we settled for avocado tempura – usually deep fried vegetables, but fruit works just as well! We also split three sizable meat dumplings between us – they disappeared too quickly to take a picture.

We decided to explore the famous Takeshita street to get the Harajuku experience, and it certainly delivered. Due to the aforementioned tendency for locals, and consequently tourists, to move forward along their left, progress worked out fine despite predictable crowds. Politeness and sometimes a little patience are all that’s needed.

If Harajuku can be at least partly defined by Takeshita street, then it was certainly everything we thought it would be: colourful, occasionally psychedelic, lively, at times eccentric, bursting with the kawaii (cute, often in connection with popular culture) and spilling with enthusiastic consumerism. Sweets, shoes, sunglasses, clothes, jewelry – you name it, in abundance. Shops often descended to basement levels, making it entirely possible to disappear in one building for hours on end.

A particular interest seems to be dressing up pets. What I at first mistook for a baby clothes shop with my nearsighted gaze turned out to be Pet Paradise, full of suits, hats, shirts and toys for (mostly small) pets, leaning heavily on Disney themes. We spotted a cat and owl cafe not far away, but after the initial excitement decided to continue, as the fees were somewhat outside our budget range. It’s recommended to read up on this a little before going in. Maybe some other time I will have my Harry Potter moment in an owl cafe.

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Tip: taking pictures in shops is tempting, but be sure to check if there’s a sign asking not to.

Harajuku also has its own Disney store – a not unwelcome discovery! Similar to many other shops I had explored a few months before in Disneyland Paris, it was still very pretty and looked very at home among everything that made up Takeshita street. Bonus – a big HD screen covered the wall behind the cashier counter, with songs from Disney animated films playing one after the other. It felt completely natural, appropriate to the travel experience, even, to stand there for a while and sing along (not too loudly) to A Whole New World, Let It Go and I See the Light.

Dessert opportunities pop up at convenient intervals, and the extremely realistic, high-quality fake reproductions of the food certainly get the appetite going. We stopped at Angel’s Heart for crêpes – a not at all uncommon snack in Tokyo. The fakes are displayed unrolled, so you can see the display of all the fabulousness that will fill your sweet treat once its ready. Mine contained a perfect small slice of chocolate cake, whipped cream, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and sliced banana and strawberries. Obviously and judging by the people around us it was absolutely allowed to eat this on the street, so there are small exceptions to the rule.

 

 

 

 

 

Discovering Lloret de Mar

My toes dig in to the grainy sand as I look at the ever-changing blue and green of the Spanish Mediterranean after my evening swim. Azure, turquoise, transparent emerald and foamy white flow together just before the waves break on the shore. The beach stretches on to my right, the rocks of Costa Brava are clearly visible to my left – some small, some big. You can tell the sun is getting ready to set, but it will be a while before the evening turns dark. I breathe in the smell of sea salt and realize the only thing filling my mind and heart is the water in front of me. Welcome to Lloret de Mar.

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Getting There

Lloret de Mar is located some 70 km from Barcelona and 34 km from Girona. Direct flights to both destinations are available from many European cities. So far I’ve flown to Barcelona and proceeded to catch a bus to Lloret. Advance purchase of tickets online is strongly advisable! Lloret is a popular tourist destination even in these times of economic uncertainty and your nerves will thank you when you are standing in line to the bus with a ticket firmly clutched in your hand. Don’t worry if the next available departure time is an hour or two after you arrive. Barcelona Airport is large and you might walk through it quite a bit before you reach the bus terminal. Once there, time will pass quickly while observing other tourists and fantasizing about the beach in Lloret as the summer breeze toys with your hair. The bus drive takes about two hours and includes passing through the streets of Barcelona and a great view of the city harbour.

Lloret Beaches

I love discovering coastal towns. There are quite a few with “de Mar” in their names lining Costa del Maresme and Costa Brava. Lloret de Mar is definitely one of my favourites. Located on the northeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula in Catalonia, Lloret boasts five main beaches and an impressive seven kilometers of coastline. Long beach walks? You got it. Lloret Beach alone, one of the primary magnets for visitors, is 1,5 km long. A spot on the sand is always easy to find. This beach also provides a small adventure when entering and leaving the water – the shoreline slopes towards the sea and is steeper in some areas. This is good for working on those leg muscles, but can be a little tricky if you’re climbing out on a day when the waves are bigger. So take care.

If you walk further in either the direction of the castle clearly visible in one of Lloret’s cliffs or in the opposite one, you will see a number of coves and smaller beaches also fit for swimming. Some of the coves are rockier than others and it’s normal to encounter tourists pondering whether to approach or not. But these corners of Lloret make for fantastic picture-taking, and a sandy beach will definitely come your way. What’s noticeable is how clean the beaches are and the same applies to Lloret.

Speaking of That Castle…

20150806_160424-1[1]This is a local landmark and a postcard view in Lloret that few can resist. I have been to this town several times and every year I snap a picture. Construction on D’En Plaja Castle began  in 1935 and finished in the 1940s. It blends in seamlessly with the surrounding landscape, looking for all the world as if it emerged straight from the rocks it stands on. According to local information, initial controversy accompanied the project (as is often the case with new construction). Thankfully moods shifted, as the result of the work by Girona architect Isidor Bosch turned in to one of Lloret’s most irresitible attractions. The castle itself is actually a private building, which you realize thanks to a polite sign as soon as you try to find a way in. But the walk along it and beyond on the cliff path is one of the loveliest in Lloret, with breath-taking views of the local pieces of Costa Brava from above.

In Town

Lloret has a special quality. Even if it becomes familiar to you, after visiting it several times, you still want to go there and take the pictures you’ve already taken. The sea never looks the same. The light plays differently. The wind stirring up the water makes you feel giddily happy and there must be a better angle to catch the way the sunlight sparkles on the waves.

The beach, of course, makes up the main past-time and it’s glorious to live with just a few summer outfits for a while. Your only accessories are sunglasses and a sunhat (and sunscreen). Everything is a walk away. Days melt in to each other and it starts feeling like this will go on forever.

But there is one day to remember: Tuesday, when Lloret’s weekly market takes place from 9:00 to 13:30. Tip – start in the morning, as it’s not as hot, and walk to the very end. The last section overflows with fruit and vegetables from Fruites Peris and it’s absolutely possible to walk away with several bags for less than 4 euros. Biting in to a juicy peach afterwards is a special kind of moment. Everything seems to taste better with sea air surrounding you.

Shopping in Lloret is an enjoyable experience, especially in the Carrer de Venècia. Avoid the shops with no signs and salesmen shouting “Looky, looky” in various languages. Closer to the middle of the street is where the interesting ones start. If you want to look at the local souvenir fare, there are several similar, but not completely the same, shops recognizable by their long spaces and sparkling trays of pretty costume jewelry. For clothes check out the Rosy boutique. For shoes my absolute favourite is Vives Shoes. This is the place to go to if you are missing a pair of shoes for your vacation…or just want to look at shoes. Wearable heels, a satisfying selection of sandals and flip-flops, low sneakers, colourful flats. Affordable, but not cheaply made, these shoes will be good to your feet.

Carrer de Venècia changes to Carrer de la Vila, and right at the end of it is one the most inviting bakeries in Lloret de Mar – Pastisseria Can Carbó. The airy space makes for pleasant scrutinizing and subsequent choosing of a fresh treat. Lloret generally has the snacks everybody loves conveniently sold every few feet, just when you start thinking about it. Any gelateria is worth a stop. I was asked in one of them if I wanted chocolate sauce in my cone – hell yeah! Best stracciatella and pistachio ice cream combo ever.

20150806_153443-1[1]Right opposite the bakery is another local landmark –  Sant Romà’s Parish Church. The more recent modernist meets the older Byzantine in this building originally built in the 16th century.  Immediately visible thanks to its colourful roof, it’s an arresting combination of different architectural styles. The shaded square in front of it is a nice spot to relax between walking. Just to the right of the church is the Carrer de Sant Pere, a street with slightly quirkier and partly more upscale shops. Drop by Mata Hari if you’re looking for funny souvenirs to bring back.

Some More Words on Food

My favourite place to eat is the Pizzeria Safari on Av. Joan Llaverias. I first spotted this restaurant years ago and stopped to look at the clear and inviting menu. No one bothered me as I did so – an extremely important and often overlooked detail in attracting guests. Then I stepped in and a friendly waiter immediately appeared. An awning above the nicely spaced tables provides both shade and lets in air. The multilingual menu includes not only pizza, but a solid mix of Spanish, Italian and other European cuisine. The conclusion is simple: everything tastes delicious, always. The portions are just right, the atmosphere is family-like and comfortable. And it’s good to the vacation budget. But what really sets this place apart is the service – a mix of discreet and attentive, as well as recognizing guests who come there year after year. I found myself wishing very hard that the restaurant would continue to do well in the coming years. It’s a part of Lloret de Mar for me.

Jardins de Santa Clotilde

This is a very special place in Lloret that takes you to another small world as soon as you step in it. Located a short bus ride away from the town center, the gardens were designed in 1919. A romantic story frames its history – Clotilde was the wife of the owner, the Marquis of Roviralta. She died young and the gardens are named after her. It’s a place of beauty, as well as an example of stylish and harmonious landscaping that, once again, fits in the local backdrop.

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After all of the above I walk to my favourite beach, pick a spot and again let the view of the sea fill me up. Welcome to Lloret de Mar.