If I had 100 yen for every time someone asks me where they should stay in Tokyo for their upcoming holiday, I would have enough money to stop working and blog full-time. Seeing as this is not the case, I’m writing this blog for free anyway, so that I have somewhere to direct people to when they ask me this question.
The short answer is I have no idea where you should stay in Tokyo. The long answer is I have no idea where you should stay in Tokyo because everyone has:
Different budget for accommodation
Different expectations and needs
Whether you’re a seasoned Japan traveller or this is your first time
While I’ve been to Tokyo many times for holidays, I’ve never tried different hotels and have also mostly stayed in the same area. Now that I live in Tokyo, I also live in the same area that I used to stay in when I was a traveller.
As an aside, it is much easier to advise someone as to where they should stay in Kuala Lumpur or Sydney for example, because both of those cities are mostly concentrated in one location. In Tokyo, you could stay in Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi (just off the top of my head) and they would all have a bustling city feel, just different kinds. You might also want to stay in neighbourhoods that are adjacent so that you are not constantly surrounded by cacophony, or somewhere that is equidistant to several interesting places so you have the best of multiple worlds. Or you might want to stay in Shimokitazawa because you think all Asian cities are the same and you want a different experience. Public transport in Tokyo is convenient and frequent so there is a huge amount of flexibility in terms of where you can stay, as it will be easy to go across from one place to other. However I understand that having so many options can making it paralyzing to decide.
Below are some suggestions of where you could stay in Tokyo, based on popular tourist locations. Big disclaimer, I have not tried many of these hotels. I’ve either come across these places in my research or spoken to friends who liked the hotels they stayed at. Please book at your own risk and please don’t complain to me if it doesn’t meet your expectations!
Shibuya and Harajuku
Staying in this area is great for Tokyo first-timers because you can knock-out a lot of tourist essentials in the vicinity such as the Hachiko statue, Meiji Shrine, Shibuya crossing, Takeshita-dori and Yoyogi Park. It’s also great for shopping because there are so many shopping malls here like Shibuya 109, Shibuya Hikarie and OIOI to name a few. The price range for shopping here tends to be more low to mid-range. I think Shibuya is quintessentially “Tokyo” because it is very lively. However, I personally would never stay here because I find it way too crowded and too noisy. It’s also very popular with young people, (and the fact that I am listing it as a downside is making me very aware of my age and my tendencies) say around the 18 year old mark.
Roppongi and Akasaka are close to each other but in my opinion, a world apart in terms of the vibe. Roppongi has a lot of really great restaurants and a very vibrant nightlife. Akasaka is much more low-key and has a more residential feel, at least the side of Akasaka that I am more familiar with. If you are an extroverted introvert like me, staying in Akasaka is ideal because you can walk to Roppongi for the fun, then walk back to Akasaka to go to sleep. If you are worried about not speaking any Japanese, both of these areas are quite expat heavy so businesses in these areas will be more likely to have English-speakers as well as English menus at restaurants. The downside is it’s a more expensive area and there aren’t many tourist spots to visit besides Tokyo Tower (which is nicer to look at from a distance than to be at) and the Hie Shrine. There are shopping malls like Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills but they feel very international and you could be in Hong Kong or Singapore and not really know the difference. You might find the train access a bit limited but that also depends on which parts of Akasaka and Roppongi you are staying in.
Shinjuku is like Shibuya all grown up. It’s still just as exciting but the crowd seems to be more mature. There’s a lot of great restaurants and bars in this area although what draws the overseas crowd here the most is probably Kabuki-chio and Golden Gai. Again, lots of shopping in this area like all of the Lumine departmental stores (which have both low/mid to high end prices) as well as Takashimaya. The Shinjuku National Park is beautiful and very popular, especially during sakura season. On the minus side, some parts of Shinjuku can be a bit seedy. I was leaving a party at 10 pm one weekend and had three men approach me in succession, trying to pick me up. A lot of train lines go through Shinjuku which is great but it also makes Shinjuku Station a maze to navigate. You should never arrange to meet anyone at Shinjuku Station unless you secretly don’t wish to meet them at all, because you will probably never find them.
Ginza is a really luxurious part of Tokyo. Most of the flagship luxury brands will be here (or in Omotesando) and the departmental stores are all very shiny. Some popular ones are Ginza Six, Mitsukoshi and Marronnier Gate. I don’t have much else to say about Ginza as I only ever come to this part of town when I have family visiting. The expected downside is everything will be expensive, except for Uniqlo (the flagship is also here).
In 2018, I came to Tokyo for three weeks and chose one of the serviced apartments I found on Metro Residences. It would probably have worked out to be a bit cheaper or the same price as staying in a three-star/four-star level hotel. However I chose the apartment because it would have been bigger than a standard hotel room, I could comfortably do my laundry and also cook, if I wanted to.
Is it worth staying at the robot hotel?
I have no idea. But you can visit Hen Na Hotel aka the hotel run entirely by robots in multiple locations across Tokyo and Japan without having to actually stay there. For example, the elevator to the lobby in the Akasaka branch is accessible by the public and from there you can meet and greet the robot staff. It’s an undeniably creepy experience.
Do you recommend staying at a hotel near the Disney resort?
I have never stayed near the Disney resort and unless the resort is significant element to your trip, I think it would be inconvenient. That aside, I do really recommend going to Tokyo DisneySea.
This is all I have to say for now regarding accommodation in Tokyo. If I come across any further useful information or form newer/different opinions as I continue living here, I will update this post. Happy hunting!
It always surprises people when I tell them I have no yakiniku recommendations for Tokyo, or Japan in general, because I’ve hardly ever had yakiniku in my life. Case in point, it’s been seven months since I moved to Tokyo and I’ve only had it twice. I don’t eat much red meat usually and for some reason, the company I’m usually with aren’t very partial to it either.
I first heard of Yakiniku Daichi after coming across Daichi Toriyama’s account on Instagram, which features some very aesthetically pleasing cuts of meat. Since becoming familiar with the brand, I realised that I’ve actually passed it countless of times because it is fairly close to where I live. The recent contingent of family and family friends coming to visit Tokyo seemed like a good time as any to finally give Yakiniku Daichi a try.
My previous experience eating barbecue-oriented food in Australia (whether KBBQ or Aussie or otherwise) has always been about surrounding yourself with as much meat as possible before surrendering to a food-induced self-loathing kind of coma. It’s usually pretty tasty at the time, but I always end up regretting it afterwards. Daichi was nothing like this as portions seemed to be just enough to give you a taste of the different cuts. Almost all of it was unseasoned, allowing natural flavours to shine through. Although if you needed it, there was salt and soy sauce at the ready. Below are some of the menu highlights:
ウニ肉, uniniku is fresh uni wrapped inside a slice of seared wagyu beef. This is hands down the best thing I ate at Yakiniku Daichi and one of the most memorable meat dishes I’ve had in Tokyo so far. My recommendation is to not bite it in half to falsely prolong the experience, just put the whole thing in (or as Jeff would say, one-bite). By doing this, you preserve every last drop of uni that will inevitably burst through, coating the beef in a creamy, salty sauce explosion. The slice of beef itself is flavoursome enough but when combined with sea urchin, this surf and turf taken to an all new level. Meat cravings might be rare but when I have one, I know this is what I’ll be thinking about.
ユッケ, yukke is beef tartare with an organic egg yolk. I like how the beef is diced here, not too much that it loses texture and becomes mushy, not too little that the chunks are chewy.
ザブスキ, zabusuki is sukiyaki-flavoured chuck flap and it disproves my previous point as this is meat that has been marinated. But I actually found it pretty interesting, not least because you got to smother it in raw egg yolk.
肉ＴＫＧ, niku tamago kake gohan looks like food for the gods and based on everyone’s opinion that night, confirms that it probably is. There is seriously something about fresh egg yolks in Japan that elevate any dish.
Also worth mentioning is the kimchi and namool side dishes as well as the 豆苗塩昆布 (toumyou shio kombu) pea sprouts with salted kombu, we ordered three to four plates of it!
I made our booking a bit over two weeks in advance. It’s a fairly small place so booking ahead is probably recommended, to avoid disappointment. But the fact that you can book in weeks as opposed to months and that it’s not invite-only, makes it a really appealing option for travellers. The meat is definitely very high quality, and honestly, I would go back just for the uniniku. They have an English menu (in the shop and online) and the staff not only spoke a bit of English, but were very accommodating. Last and probably most importantly, they have mouthwash and other hygiene apparatus that help mitigate that ‘I just came from yakiniku’ smell, should you be kicking on elsewhere afterwards like I did.
Yakiniku Daichi Roppongi
4 Chome-12-11 Roppongi, Minato City, Tokyo 106-0032
Goop has arrived in Tokyo! It’s the brand’s first foray into Asia. The main section is the lifestyle store where the brand stocks everything from rose quartz face rollers to athleisure to charcoal bath soaks. Whatever your take is on Gwyneth Paltrow’s controversial brand, you can’t deny that Goop has the aesthetic right for the Japanese market. Being much more food-oriented, I was more interested in checking out the café located right behind the pop-up shop.
We both opted for the cobb salad and my colleague had an iced tea as well. It took almost 15 minutes for the food to be ready, bearing in mind there was only one other person ahead of us in the queue to pick up food. It was a beautiful day out and there were lots to observe as there was a Hawaiian festival on and other food stalls in the vicinity, so I didn’t really notice the time. But unless they pick up the pace, this café isn’t really ideal for an express work lunch.
The packaging is awesome. I love how it’s portable enough as a cup but you can easily open it up into a bowl or plate shape so it’s easier to mix. The salad itself, which had mixed leaves, smoked chicken cubes, a boiled egg, avocado, tomatoes, was delicious. My only two complaints are that the egg was cooked through, which made the yolk a bit chalky, something that I haven’t tasted since arriving in Japan. The other thing to note is that the portion was really small, I got hungry again within an hour. However, the atmosphere of eating at the park is really wonderful, especially on a stunning day like that day!
The store is worth checking out, especially if you have been following Gwyneth’s business for quite some time. I noticed at the store that they were advertising pilates, yoga and other fitness classes so that could be a draw for some people. The café, I wouldn’t go back for just because I don’t think it’s value for money.
Goop Tokyo Limited Pop-up
Tokyo Midtown (Midtown Garden) 99-7-1
Akasaka, Minato City, Tokyo 107-0052
I’ve been to Madosh Café a few times since
I moved to Tokyo, but the very first time it caught my eye was two years ago,
because of its huge avocado signage out the front. I have been to both its
Shimokitzawa branch as well as the Jingumae branch and I like them both for
their second-hand, grunge vibe with avocado-themed furniture.
On the menu is basically everything
avocado, with the option of adding extra avocado to your avocado. They have a lunch
combo option which comes with access to their soup and snacks section (really
fun, and soup is good) as well as a glass of avopuccino which is more like an
avocado milkshake. There’s also a station with a huge variety of fruit and nut
flavourings which you can use to jazz up your avopuccino. From the menu, I
really like both the yukke bowl as well as the negitoro bowl. They’re both raw
tuna based so it really depends on the kind of texture you prefer I suppose. I
came once with a friend who had the curry which she thought was good, but that
the avocado kind of just sat in the sauce without really adding anything to the
Between the Jingumae and Shimokitazawa
outlet, I probably prefer the latter, just because meandering the streets of
secondhand stores seems more of a thing to do after eating your weight in
豊洲ネギトロアボカ丼 “Negitoro avocado donburi”
Minced tuna with shallots and avocado rice bowl
マグロユッケアボカ丼 “Maguro yukke donburi”
Spicy Korean style raw tuna avocado rice bowl
Crystal Base Building 2F 2 Chome-32-3
Kitazawa, Setagaya City, Tokyo 155-0031
5 Chome-28-7, Jingumae, Shibuya City, Tokyo
All photos in this post were taken by Juan Carlos Ortiz Pozos. You can see more of his work here and on his Facebook / Instagram
The Japanese role playing video games I have played, only ever allow three members to your party. But while we are located in Japan, we are four and far from your typical band of adventurers. A chef, a swimmer, a portraitist and I walk into a bar. Except this isn’t a bar, it’s the mouth of an entrance, or an exit, to Taimeike-Sanno station. The meeting point, to be gathered (some of us begrudgingly), before the sight of the sun and onward to the challenge that Chef has determined for us.
I had summited Takaosan less than a month ago, for my birthday with Meg, choosing a path more travelled. Chef has different plans this time, Trail 6, and a much further distance to include Kobotoke-Shiroyama and a descent down past Lake Sagami and into Sagamiko-machi.
As the most conditioned, and the most familiar with the route and the Japanese landscape in general, Chef leads. There is a similarity in the way he commandeers in the kitchens and in the chefs’ office, to the way he does amongst the grass and the trees. We’ve participated in countless of meetings together, discussed desserts, cuisine and bantered over the lives we’ve led in our respective parts of Asia. Yet it is here, out in rice country that he seems most like his true self. His is a sure-footed disposition, interchanging with the glide of a manta ray in the deep blue when needed.
Conversation is flux and the antithesis of superfluous. With Swimmer, we discuss everything from marketing strategies to the value of our mortality. That as we age, we hold the things – the people, we love a little tighter each day. It’s funny that my mother recently sent me a very similar message on WhatsApp, the crux being that youth is simply an invincibility cloak. But, it isn’t real, it simply masks what is already there, and death comes for us all regardless of age. One of my favourite words that I learnt on a previous trip to Japan is 感動する, to be deeply moved. The use I was taught is that it is sometimes said to describe the breathtaking beauty of nature. But in-spite of natures most luxurious offerings that day, nothing was more 感動する than the cursory love-filled glance I saw from one to another that morning.
Interspersed amongst words is silence, but nature continues to speak. You need only look up to be found in a landscape that was not there previously. The ascent gives the illusion of tall trunks seeming bent. From gravel to sand and dust, to mud that sticks to the bottom of your shoe. It is a world of juxtapositions, of the grittiness beneath the earth to the melody of green that coats the tips of trees. I tripped but stopped myself from tumbling, pressing against a forest blend of crumbled dry leaves, that meet the smoothness of my gloved palm and the knees of my black-turned-grey Lululemon tights.
Your RPG party should be a well-balanced. A mix of offense, defense and a certain je ne sais quoi, although this depends on the player’s style. The third can be a healer, it can be a black mage, someone of a magical persuasion whose abilities are passive but stand to alter the fabric of the game itself. On this quest, that person is undoubtedly Portraitist. He will race ahead as much as he will saunter behind. He will join the party as much as he will stand alone. There he waits and then he captures. It is through elegant photography, that he has immortalised moments of our journey, transient scenes on the mountains that will never, ever be repeated again. And as we sit and look back today, it is his imagery that teleports us back to that moment in time. Quite simply, magic.
Ahead of me, Chef is blasting music from his Sony Walkman, with genres covering Betty Davis Eyes to Best Song Ever by One Direction. The diversity is a metaphor for our dynamic and our party. Chef and Portraitist are both Spanish. Chef, Swimmer and I work for the same organisation. Swimmer and Portraitist are married. Portraitist and I both take photos. We are each part of a Venn diagram with a sliver of a centre that exists between us. Perhaps the only common denominator between the four of us are that we are all foreigners in Japan. The second one, that we have all lived in multiple countries.
From between trees, you spy the glistening crystals on the surface of Lake Sagami, a destination. Like glimpses of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu, this make us giddy and drunk on nature’s milk, with the close promises of paradise. It isn’t long before we find ourselves across the bridge, the 吊り橋, with the warmth of the sun on our backpacks, the riches in our midst and only.
As the other three speak Spanish, goading a soaring eagle into eating a duck in the lake, I am reminded of the people who have turned back, and those who have gone much further than us. That adventure isn’t simply a process and it certainly isn’t a destination. It’s a feeling, or a state of mind, one that allows us to coat these experiences so that in our minds, they are evergreen.
Ten months ago, the invitation to trail running and the gates to Japan’s natural landscape opened up to me for the first time. For a while, I thought the keys were lost to me but on this day and amongst the most peculiar of companions, I found them lying in my hands, as they were this whole time. Playing RPG games, working in a collaborative corporate environment and pursuing a combat sport, these cause you to constantly wonder what kind of role you play in each scenario, your value add. I think about all of my abilities and characteristics and maybe for me, it’s having an indomitable spirit that has taken me from Malaysia to Australia, to Sweden and now to Japan. After each battle in the game is won, the iconic victory fanfare will play. Until the next one.
January 1st this year, my mom called me asking why I hadn’t wished her or my stepdad Happy New Year. It seems like a no brainer but I guess I didn’t and have never really thought of the (western) New Year as a significant day. I’m pretty sure the only people I actively wished Happy New Year, were the ones that wished me first.
In my mind, Chinese New Year was far, far more important. I wrote about how this was an adult life revelation for me, after spending my younger, formative years pining for a Disney-esque Christmas. Every year that I am not back, the feelings associated – missing my family, craving the cuisine, pining for pop-pops and longing for lou sang, grow stronger. February 5th 2019, chor yat, the first day of the new year, I attempted to complete my own self-started tradition of calling as many immediate family members as possible, to wish them all the best for the new year. I spent my morning coffee run doing my first wave of Chinese New Year phone calls to my parents. In the afternoon, I called my grandparents, my dad’s brother and whoever else was available.
It was challenging juggling these calls, not because it was starting to look a bit odd to my colleagues who passed me in the hallway, almost perpetually on my phone. No, it was because I was making these calls, amidst what felt like a painfully normal day at work. In Sydney, if nothing else, the city was hungry to appease Chinese tourists with fat pockets. So even if the decor felt false, the promotions absurdly opulent and with a smattering of whitesplaining, it was well, better than nothing.
In the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year here in Tokyo, I grasped desperately to a proposal that had completely fallen off the bandwagon at work. The gist of it was how we could commemorate Chinese New Year, particularly for our guests who identified as Chinese. Alongside a Taiwanese colleague of mine, I tried my best to activate our other colleagues, to explain the importance of this occasion. Even if it was simply facilitating a meeting so they could hear our side of the story.
Explaining what Chinese New Year means to me and to my Malaysian-Chinese community is something I struggle with the most. For example, does everybody know that Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese is different or is this common knowledge? Do people know that I am both Malaysian and Chinese and how this came to be? How do I tell them that Malaysians and Singaporeans should be catered to for this project, but at the same time, we needed to keep English as one of the main languages because of bananas like me, who don’t necessarily speak or read Chinese?
Later on chor yat, I sat with two of my Japanese colleagues for lunch. I almost cried when one of them wished me Happy Chinese New Year, because it was the first one I had received on the day, that wasn’t communicated through a phone. He encouraged me to go to Yokohama, the closest Chinatown to Tokyo. It takes about an hour by train and if it wasn’t for his suggestion, I probably wouldn’t have been bothered to make the trip after a long day at work. Arriving at the station, most of the streets were pitch black as winter brings the arrival of nightfall much earlier. Nervous that I had made the trip for nothing, my fears fell away as soon as we passed through the first paifang, or Chinese-styled archway. Not unlike the one at the ends of Dixon Street in Sydney or the one which bears ‘Jalan Petaling’ back home in Kuala Lumpur, it felt like I was being welcomed home. We saw a lion dance troupe perform outside of a restaurant, and heard them speak Japanese at the end of the show. We ate 食べ放題 , tabehoudai, for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where some of the food was familiar, others more distinctly Mainland Chinese (and of its sub-ethnicities possibly) while a couple were just plain bizarre. I’m happy to have gone, happy to have made do with what comfort Yokohama was able to give me.
Through a series of unanswered calls and, regrettably, the ‘busyness of life’, the only person that remained on my list of people to call, was my maternal grandmother, my Ah Ma. Yesterday, after a whirlwind week for the both of us, the dust finally settled and I was in the bath and ready to call her. If I had a tail, it was most definitely between my legs. As per usual, Ah Ma had nothing but nice things to say. To tell me to eat more since work is close to where I live and I was ‘walking more’. To say that ever Chinese New Year that I’m not home is a lonely one, this year being more pronounced because our Indonesian family didn’t come as well. To cheekily hint to me to hint to my mom about bringing her to Tokyo so she can see me.
What I’ve realised from living abroad is that saying Chinese New Year is like *insert tradition* never qualifies the significance of it. The western world’s New Year, Christmas or お正月, oshougatsu, none of these are like the others because every culture stands on its own, unique in its own way. Perhaps by explaining through the common denominator, cherished time with loved ones, is the only real way to get cut through. For me, the crux of Chinese New Year is and always will be my family and wherever they may be. Even more specifically, it’s my Ah Ma. Kung Hei Fatt Choy, Sun Tai Kin Hong . Wishing everyone a super Year of the Pig with wealth but more importantly, health and an abundance of time with your family.
This is the fifth annual highlights recap that I have published on this blog. Blogging has never been all that consistent for me, much to my own dismay and embarrassment. But the one post that I try to plan ahead and spend weeks thinking about prior to publishing, is this one. If you’re still reading after all these years, thank you for being part of this journey.
My end of 2017 and start of 2018 was meant to be a beachy Christmas in the Maldives, followed by a short New Years stint in Singapore and family time in Malaysia. What actually happened was I became half-deaf and lost my ability to balance, in the middle of the Maldives leg and ended up spending the remainder of my holidays (plus an additional week) in Singapore seeing an ENT specialist to cure a viral infection that had made its way into my inner ear. You can read about the full ordeal here and about how I leaned into Muay Thai for strength. I left this experience shaken but with much more pronounced gratitude for my youth and my health, plus an even stronger respect for the ties you build through martial arts. It was also enriching to spend so much time in a neighbouring country to Malaysia, one that I hadn’t visited since I was 14.
Birthday and climbing Mount Kosciuszko
My birthday has always been very low key, as they get tend to get swallowed up by the festive period – Christmas, New Year’s, Chinese New Year. But a tradition I’m truly appreciative of is the Cherry Gang birthday meal. This year it was at Moxhe in Bronte. The weekend itself I spent in Thredbo, climbing Mount Kosciuszko, the highest point of Australia. Flic and I very hastily booked everything two days before and despite having almost no plan, we somehow made it to the top.
Tokyo (again, again, again)
I’ve completely lost count of how many times I’ve been to Japan, and in particular, Tokyo. This trip was the longest I’ve spent in Tokyo, with the aim of studying Japanese during the day and training Muay Thai/kickboxing in the evening. It was also the most significant, because of the friendships I was able to make at school and at the gym, plus it became the impetus for me to really figure out how I was going to relocate to my favourite city in the world. It was truly an experience of a life time, I promised many blog posts but this is one, on my first time trail running, is the only one that actually made it live. A bit of a shame to be honest, but I am glad I prioritised it as it was the most important story to tell. And probably the best piece I have written this year.
Aside from the aforementioned sickness in Maldives in Singapore, this year was also a tricky year for my health. I had a really not fun digestive related issue which probably stemmed from my predisposition (weak stomach) and the fact that I wasn’t eating as well this year as I could have been. I’m a lot better now but it is something that I still have to manage and still be conscious of what I eat. Thankful so far that despite moving to a new country and all of the associated changes, particularly diet, it’s actually been rather positive.
Travel this year was not overtly ostentatious but it is always a privilege to be able to do so. Tokyo and Singapore aside, I was lucky to have time to go back to Malaysia, did a short stint in Thailand and most recently, spent Christmas in Hong Kong. I am grateful for the regional travel I was able to do in Australia, which included the above-mentioned Thredbo but also a beautiful trip to Bowral and my first time in Jervis Bay and Kangaroo Valley. It hasn’t even been three months in Japan but I’ve already ticked off one regional trip to Hida-Takayama, and I thoroughly look forward to many more local destinations to come.
Work and opportunities
Going into my second year with the same organisation, I was a lot more comfortable in my role and became more confident in my ability to take on additional tasks. With that said, a lot of organisational changes came through towards the end of the year, with both the director and manager who hired me, moving on to a different role and to a different country, respectively. I applied for an internal role at a different arm of our business in Australia and didn’t get it. I was disappointed at the time, but putting myself out there led to more opportunities than I would have ever thought possible. This year I travelled to Hunter Valley about four times, worked on campaigns involving LGBT acceptance and a Tesla partnership, received two secondment opportunities (and subsequently excellent mentorship and the camaraderie of my new team), met my long-distance work husband and said goodbye to my work wife. Most notably, I am now living in Tokyo, working my heart out for the largest part of our Japanese business. I don’t think I could be happier with where I am right now, career-wise.
Muay Thai, JWK family and NEXT Base
Muay Thai has gone from a hobby I enjoy to one that I am passionate about, to now just being a way of life for me. To say I love Muay Thai, is almost like saying I love breathing. It is simply so ingrained in every aspect of my life, in the way that I think, in the way I perceive the world, that I can’t possibly disentangle what it is from who I am, anymore. This year, I went to nine different martial arts gyms, across four different countries.
FaMA – Singapore
Ara Muay Thai – Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
Vault Boxing – Chippendale, Sydney
Soot Raaeng Geert – Alexandria, Sydney
Hayato Gym – Gakugeidaigaku, Tokyo
Muay Fit – Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
Salypaethy Gym – Marrickville, Sydney
Jin Wu Koon – Chippendale, Sydney
NEXT Base – Akasaka, Tokyo
Of them, a huge, huge call out must go to the JWK family who got me through all of the challenging parts of 2018, there is not a day that goes by that I do not miss my trainers and training partners there. I’m currently still adjusting but very much enjoying the pace and routine that I am building here in Tokyo. My mother loves saying that things happen for a reason, and while I don’t normally subscribe to this train of thought, I can’t help but admit that every bump on my Muay Thai journey this year, happened so I could be where I am right now.
Notable dining experiences
My favourites in Sydney had a fair number of repeat visits from me. Saint Peter, Bennelong and Mr Wong are the first to come to mind. A lot of discovery also happened this year, like having Ethiopian food for the 2nd time in my life. While I didn’t end up blogging about some of these (although I may in the near future), you can view some of my pinned Stories on them on my Instagram. Some highlights: Sugalabo for probably the most educational and thought provoking meal this year. Inua for being in a similar vein, not every single course catered to my palate but every, single, course taught me something new. Kikubari in Malaysia for offering something against the grain. And sushi e for capturing the deliciousness and the hospitality of any old sushi bar in Tokyo, with all of the homeliness and none of the wankery. My most recent fine dining experience at Kadowaki with Shen has been a controversial topic on Instagram and it’s something that will eventually hit the blog later. But to think of it positively, it’s definitely proof that food is only one part of the dining experience. The company you are with is another, and on this particular occasion, I’m extremely glad for it.
Have you ever arrived somewhere, only to realise that you have some place else to be? A doctors appointment, a friend’s birthday drinks or a child you were meant to pick up from school half an hour ago (oops). For the last two years in Sydney, this was my everyday. Every day, I’d wake up in the same bed that I always have, and for the first few seconds, not realise where I am. I’d place my feet on carpeted floor, look out through the window that sees my corner of the city of Sydney in all of its high rise glory, and stare at the morning sky. At night I went to bed oftentimes satisfied with the day, but I could never shake the feeling that there was something missing.
Bagai pungguk merindukan bulan
Seseorang yang membayangkan atau menginginkan sesuatu yang tidak mungkin dicapai
Seseorang yang jatuh cinta pada orang lain yang tidak mungkin akan membalas cintanya
I’m not there right now but when I close my eyes, I can still see the mixed paints of vermillion and fuschia of the day, and the depth to which sometimes a single glowing orb would hang from in the night. I’m not there right now because I’m where I never thought I would be, indefinitely, in Tokyo.
I’ve always loved Japan and I’ve always loved Tokyo. But it wasn’t until I had my first foray into a local’s life, that I dared to wonder if this might be an actual possibility. As a tourist, you exist in the same physical space as a local, but you’re on a different plane, like ghosts. There is little interaction and zero immersion. I met a wonderful variety of people on that trip and saw the city as more than just an expression of Japanese culture. For a city that had such a strong sense of self, of its own identity, it still has room for you.
After that trip, I returned home a different person. And in my head, I tried many ways to make it work. My family will tell you that I became obsessed with the idea, planning the swiftest route to get there. Not many people know that I actually received job offer in 2017 that I ended up declining because it didn’t align with what I wanted to achieve, both personally and professionally. It was a tedious and painful exercise, but one that made me realise that swift didn’t necessarily mean best. And that as much as I wanted to move to be in Tokyo, I didn’t want to lose who I am or who I will be.
Fast forward to April 2018, when I made my yearly pilgrimage, this time completely alone and with the aim of studying Japanese and training Muay Thai. Many people thought I was crazy to spend three whole weeks in a single city, and to be sacrificing my annual leave towards activities that were not typically considered ‘relaxing’ or ‘holiday appropriate’. Once again my mind was blown, at the infinite possibilities that this city had. School doesn’t feel like school when you are doing something you love and working towards a life goal of Japanese fluency. The gym I eventually committed to became like family to me. And despite the rigid schedule, I still had plenty of free time to explore, from city to mountain and beyond. The three weeks flew by and I left feeling like I had barely scratched the surface of Tokyo.
Each time I leave Tokyo, a part of me stays with it. Returning to Australia once again, I truly felt like this time, I had left too much of myself behind. I went back to the drawing board, charting my path again, now with a worst case scenario to simply just move there with or without a job, and figure out the rest. Chasing your dreams is never easy, but this for me, was the hardest part. The part that had to put aside ego, job security and career progression, and all of the comforts that I had been so privileged to receive in my nine years in Australia, in favour of a big question mark.
At the same time, a tiny, microscopic, opportunity came up within my current organisation. Sparing the details, a staggering number of e-mails and presentations was involved, plus managing a 150% workload for several months, all of this without knowing if there would be an end in sight or not. I was able to stay sane throughout this process, thanks to a combination of Muay Thai, running and ongoing support from friends and family. Running, which I previously hated, actually became my greatest aide. I managed to run about 20 km consistently every week, not really caring about average pace, but focusing on consistency. I would start long before the sun was up, and it became my own space where I could visualise the life I wanted in Japan. The glimmer of hope to live in Tokyo on my own terms was there, and no matter how ever so slightly it glittered, I pursued it relentlessly. Somehow I made it, but I don’t think I would have been able to if I did not pick up running.
I arrived in Tokyo for the second time in 2018, on October 13th. It was shorts weather then, but we’ve since rocketed into winter and I haven’t been this cold since I lived in Stockholm. I’ve gone from living out of suitcase in a hotel for month, to having a small but cosy apartment. I was sick for almost three weeks, with what was likely the worst cold and fever I have had in the last ten years. Thanks to Japanese bureaucracy, it took me one and a half months to open a bank account and in the process, I actually managed to open an account with the wrong bank. Many people warned me that the work would be harder, the long hours also a given. And they were right. I still order the wrong thing at restaurants and can barely operate my appliances at home. I’m alone here, for the most part. Yet, each an every mistake and inconvenience would have been many times worse, had I not had the support of my small network of friends here, and colleagues who have been ever ready to help. Yet, I love my job. Yet, each moment that I am here, I am completely fulfilled like I have never been before.
For two years, I was the owl who sat on a branch, longing for the unattainable moon. I was Jay Gatsby, as he stretched out his arms towards the dark water at a single green light that no one else saw, but me.
If my life was a movie, then maybe this would be the happy ending and the credits can start rolling now. But it’s not a movie and this is not the end. I’m going to turn up to work tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and the day after that. I’ll train as much as I can at the gym and look forward to plans for the weekend. Life in Tokyo is honestly not too different to the life I led in Sydney. But the string that gripped itself so tightly around my heart, no longer tugs. My mind is quiet. And I wake up each morning knowing that this is exactly where I am meant to be.
Journeying into Hida-Takayama takes one deep into the woods of your last Studio Ghibli film. When I’m stressed, I typically drift off into mindless scenery viewed from the vantage point of a moving train. But on this day, I visited my day dream in real life. It’s a no-brainer as to why these parallels run. I’m reminded of my youth, of Chinese New Years spent returning to Ipoh, my mother’s hometown. Somewhere lost in the Japanese countryside, I felt my true life slip away and my Miyazaki life begin.
To get to Hida-Takayama from Tokyo, there are several ways. The path I chose began at Tokyo station, catching a shinkansen (bullet train) to Toyama, which was roughly two and a half hours. From there, a local train will take you from Toyama to Hida-Takayama, roughly an additional hour and a half. It was as comfortable as the first and afforded me views of rice fields and the cloudless weather of the day. For better or worse, everything in Japan feels like a ritual, perhaps because of the methodical way the Japanese operate. Purchasing these train tickets was a mission that hinged on both my ability to speak Japanese and my confidence in my ability to speak Japanese. At the beginning of my trip, I arrived at Tokyo station an hour early, also confident in my ability to get lost.
Hida-Takayama is known as the second Kyoto of Japan. Its most popular attraction, Sanmachi Suji, are three historic streets, lined with traditional merchant shops, preserving the way Japanese used to live in Hida-Takayama. Traditional sweets made from starch syrup, roasted soy bean powder and matcha are the backbone of many gift shops. Beef, the Hida-Takayama specialty, is also available in the form of gyu-nigiri served atop a senbei disc, hot skewers featuring meat from different parts of a cow and niku-man, a steaming hot bun with meat fillings. There is a specialty store that sells only cat-themed memorabilia, and a gift shop with a giant Hello Kitty dressed like sarubobo, baby monkey, the official mascot of Hida-Takayama. On the Sunday that we returned to Sanmachi, we saw several Japanese donning kimonos, snacking on various kushiage. They framed the scene softly, much in the same way that a gentle breeze that blows, does.
A 10 minute bus ride, or, a 40 or so long walk away is Hida no Sato, a kind of outdoor museum, exhibiting traditional homes and the old way of life of the Hida region. Journey by foot and expect the unexpected, like a museum of teddy bears (with a private room for chakra examination) and a Mahikari temple so majestic, it looked like it was floating loftily on clouds, from the distance we saw it. A personal standout for me at Hida no Sato was the hearth within one of the houses, that had a fire roaring steadily, next to an old man making shoes from straw. A trail up to the mountains looked longingly at us, we waved back, promising to come back on our next adventure.
Guesthouse & cafe SOY in Hida-Takayama, where I stayed, is one of the most charming bed and breakfast type places, so much that I sincerely felt like the pleasure is all mine for having done so. Owned and operated by Tai and his parents, there are just three rooms available, two Japanese style rooms and one Western style. The price ranges from 8,000 yen to 13,000 yen per person, per night. This is extremely affordable considering the personalised service, the level of comfort that the abode (yes it does feel like you are living in Tai and family’s personal quarters) provides, and the 雰囲気, atmosphere contained within its walls.
The house itself is over a hundred years old, but had recently been renovated by Tai. By night, it feels like you are in the embrace of a log cabin, as the living room’s fireplace flickers with life like a beating heart. Arriving late after dinner, Tai’s parents greet me like a friend they’ve known their whole life. They don’t stop at polite, they’re also politely curious and want to know about where I’ve come from, even if it’s as uninteresting as Tokyo or as unoriginal as Australia.
Tea is poured by お母さん and she later also offers a bowl of fruit, with a knife, should you wish to further slice the already cut pieces of apple and pear. By day, the house radiates with modest tranquility. I hate to say “unpretentious” but there’s a certain ease about the place which encourages you to just, be. The living room is light-filled, opening your eyes to the tasteful decor, down to the minor details. A calligraphy piece looks over the main dining table while a lingering Tama-chan, a stray-turned-adopted cat, reminds you who the real master of the household really is.
Your breakfast options are Japanese-style or Continental style, and you sit amongst the other guests, who now also feel like an extension of your own family. Both sets have a charm of their own, Japanese has miso soup and a decent cut of an oily fish that nourishes deeply. Opt for Continental and you face a basket of bread to eat with house-made jam, alongside chicken, consommé and fresh salad. The third iteration of SOY comes to life here, as the main sitting area also doubles as a cafe. Should a stay not be within the means of your itinerary, dining at the cafe is your second best option for experiencing SOY hospitality.
A common school of thought regarding Spirited Away, one of Ghibli’s most films, is that the film is a metaphor for visiting the underworld. There’s nothing quite as foreshadowing here in Hida-Takayama or at SOY. But being taken away from the life that you know is a consistent theme, as is having been stripped back so that you are just your essence. On the train back to the city, I could feel my flesh return, like a numbing sensation ebbing away, as my Tokyo clothes put themselves on. Thoughts of work, personal stresses, my next visit to my Muay Thai gym, flooded back like old friends. Clothing the soul is a necessity, but it’s nice to let it dance, once in awhile.
Mr Wong is yet another Sydney institute that needs no introduction. The golden child of the Merivale empire, it sits in a back alley near Bridge St, where it famously pumps out modern Cantonese fare with enough of an international slant to be universally appealing. The beautiful decor makes it as much a place to be seen as it is, a place to dine. If you’re lucky, you might spy an A-lister celebrity at the next table over, chowing down on a dumpling or two.
Hiramasa kingfish (gifted)
I’m here on a Sunday afternoon with the usual suspects and their significant others. It’s a meal that required two weeks of notice before the stars can finally align. First off the bat is the hiramasa kingfish. It’s wonderfully fresh and plump, with an understated seasoning of sweet wasabi, soy and ginger dressing. Truly a strong reminder that good kingfish should never be subservient to salmon, its often more popular sashimi cousin.
Wild mushroom dumpling $12 for 3 pieces
You really can’t do Mr Wong without sampling some of their dumplings. While they’re comparatively pricey little parcels, the error is in thinking they could even be compared. The workmanship that goes into these, coupled with the quality of the ingredients, makes these dumplings unlike any other in Sydney, (that’s right, it’s a different league to your go-to family yum cha joint). I’ve had the wild mushroom dumplings many times in the past and the filling is always so meaty and flavoursome, even a carnivore would overlook its vegetarian status.
Sea scallops (gifted)
Another raw starter made its way to our table, in the form of these scallops, with pickled daikon, green tomato and white soy. It was interesting how it has a very similar vibe to the kingfish, but utilised different types of savoury and sour condiments. We were surprised at how plentiful this portion is, with enough for seconds, and even thirds for some of us.
Lobster & scallop dumpling $15 for 3 pieces
The march of the dumplings continue with decadence, this time with two heroes from under the sea. A bit of a riff off the usual har gow (prawn dumpling), these are a definite notch up with a much more pronounced fresh seafood crunch in each bite that isn’t gummy, which some har gow can be. Being the hopeless glutton I am, what I like most is that they are a generous size that is so much more filling than skin.
Pork xiao long bao $12 for 4 pieces
I didn’t have this but as informed by the rest, the filling is much tastier than the famed Din Tai Fung however, the skin isn’t as thin.
Deep fried eggs (Price forgotten)
Our foray into mains territory is off to a tremendously good start with this xxx. Where is the support group for people who can’t get enough of fried eggs? I definitely do not mean the cooked so hard the chicken that would have been resurrected at the injustice, only to die again (a la my boarding school’s cuisine), but ones that are fried at such high temperatures, with full wok dexterity, to deliver something that can be so fluffy and so cripsy all at the same time.
This deep fried behemoth is soaked in XO sauce, spanner crab and is then also gifted with the presence of yau char kwai (or yoo tiao, depending on what kind of Chinese you are). So many elements at play, yet they play so nicely together, creating a flavour and texture explosion. Loong tells me he is fast about to remove this item from the menu, only because no one is ordering it. Guys, order it.
Stir fried snow peas and broccoli $22
We never pass up a good opportunity for vegetables. Besides, they’re nice to nibble on while you’re taking a break from the heavier dishes on the table. These stir fried greens that are coated in garlic and rice wine, absolutely hit the spot for us and made us feel better for a deep fried life choices.
Steam fish fillets with black bean, chili & Shaoxing $38
It was hard to hide my disappointment when we weren’t able to get a whole fish for the table, but fillets may be the next best thing. These were tender and the good kind of flaky. Portion-wise they are a little small but this goes mostly unnoticed because of how much we had ordered.
Egg noodle lo mein with truffle and enoki (gifted)
I’ve spent so much time editing this blog post (and it is so delayed) but my jaw still drops every time I scroll past this photo. The truffle phenomenon seems to get more and more obnoxious every winter, but this dish brings it back home and adequately captures the spirit of the season. Simplicity firstly, to allow the sophisticated aroma of the truffle to shine through. Innovation next, because Australia is nothing without its diverse East meets West cuisines. I also rather liked how dispersed the enoki mushrooms were, almost as to play hide-and-seek amongst the noodles so you never know if you’ll get an al dente bite or a slightly earthy and stringier one. I’d love more mushrooms to be included into this!
We ordered the beef as a bit of an afterthought, unsure what else to pick, and thinking we needed a token red meat dish. The end pieces are bit tough, but inch in closer towards the middle for better fat to meat ratios. I’m not particularly enamoured with this dish but I’m not usually one for red meat anyway. Even priced at that amount, it’s still a huge serve, one that takes true strength in our teams to finish.
It’s hard to not want to buy in to Merivale businesses when they all look so damn good. But the beauty in Mr Wong is that it’s not just skin-deep, the cuisine is genuinely great. Even amidst the cacophony, the flagrant bacchical nature of the patrons that occupy the spaces around you, one only needs to nibble thoughtfully at one of its artfully made dumplings, before the room is reduced to quiet humming, and it is just you and the food.