Sumo wrestling is a big part of Japanese culture and is actually Japan’s national sport. If you have a ‘Japan Bucket List’ of any description, then watching a bit of sumo is likely to be on there.
Of course, the ideal scenario would be to get tickets for a tournament. There are three main tournaments in Tokyo every year, held in January, May and September. But what if you happen to visit Japan outside of these three months?
My answer is – visit a sumo stable.
Sumo stables are where the wrestlers live and train together, and you can go along and watch their morning practice. It’s not really touted as a tourist attraction as such but we went along to one and were able to watch the wrestlers through the window.
We went to the Arashio-beya which is around a minutes walk from the A2 exit of Hamacho Station on the Toei Subway Shinjuku Line. Practice takes place between 7.30am and 10am. Their website does have a Japanese script and a phone number to call so you can check in advance if the practice is on the next day, which I did but unfortunately I couldn’t understand the response despite following the script! I can’t remember if we asked our hotel to call on our behalf or just showed up but it all worked out ok.
You’re unlikely to stay and watch the full length of training as it can feel a little crowded by the window standing among the wrestler’s bicycles and other gawping tourists, but it’s definitely worth stopping by for the experience.
No Japan bucket list would be complete without a stay in a ryokan, so here is my guide to a Japanese ryokan experience.
What is a ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. You may have seen them on tv or in books, they’re the ones with paper screens, low tables and futons instead of beds.
How do I choose which ryokan?
Ryokan aren’t cheap and the ones that are cheap are most probably not that authentic. We started by looking on Tripadvisor at some of the best ryokan in Kyoto but found many were fully booked for the time of year we were looking at (April – Cherry Blossom season). One of the most famous and historic ryokans is the Hiiragiya which was slightly out of our budget, so in the end we opted for Hiiragiya Bekkan (annex) an authentic but more wallet-friendly option.
Other things to note when choosing your ryokan, is whether it includes a private bathroom or any meals, as of course this will affect the price. Our room at the Hiiragiya Bekkan included a private toilet and sink but shared bathing facilities (more on that later) and it also included a kaiseki meal (Japanese haute cuisine) in the evening and breakfast the following day.
The initial experience
When we arrived at Hiiragiya Bekkan we were greeted by friendly and enthusiastic staff and as is custom in Japan, we were asked to remove our shoes at the door and wear the slippers provided.
We were shown to our room which overlooked a pretty Japanese garden and then we had to remove our slippers. I can’t quite remember how many different pairs of slippers we had, but if you’ve been to Japan you’ll know how much they love their slippers!
We were shortly served three different types of tea – matcha, sakura and Japanese. The Japanese tea was nice but the matcha and sakura are a bit of an acquired taste.
After tea we changed into the yukata (cotton robes) provided and spent some time relaxing and soaking up our surroundings!
Upon arrival at the ryokan we chose a time we would like to have dinner and promptly at this time we received a knock on the door from our maid (for lack of a better word) bringing us the first course of our meal.
Some ryokan have communal dining areas, but the other thing that attracted us to the Hiiragiya Bekkan was being able to dine in the privacy of our own room.
Dinner at the ryokan was a seasonal menu and brought to us course by course. I didn’t really know what much of it was so I took a photo of the menu. It started off ok and I enjoyed the first few courses but I’m so glad we had this meal as part of a ryokan experience rather than at a kaiseki restaurant as I really struggled with a few of the courses. Sadly the bamboo shoots and the deep-fried bean curd with sea urchin weren’t to my taste.
In Japan, bathtime is a bit of a ritual. So after dinner we were ushered off to the communal bathrooms. Similarly to pre-booking a dinner time slot, we also had a bathroom time slot too. A friendly old man had prepared our steaming hot bath for us and then gave us our privacy and left us to it. Basically in Japan, bathing etiquette dictates that you perch on a little stool and then soap and rinse yourself with a handheld shower before getting into the tub. The tubs are then for soaking once you are squeaky clean. Our tub was wooden and square, which was different but we had already had previous experience with onsen (hot springs) bathing which I will write about another time.
After our hot, relaxing baths we toddled off back to our room where our maid (who may or may not have been a ninja) had switched our room around from a dining room with low table to a bedroom with futons! The futons themselves were fairly comfortable, however the Japanese pillows, which I believe are filled with buckwheat, weren’t the most comfortable pillows I’ve ever slept on, but they certainly weren’t the worst!
In the morning
The morning routine was almost like a reverse of the night before. We awoke early and went for our shower/bath and while we were soaking ourselves, our room was being whipped up from a bedroom back into a dining room, ready for breakfast.
Breakfast included an assortment of Japanese nibbles, the fish was delicious, however I struggled to stomach the rest of it. As I’m not much of a breakfast person anyway (yeah yeah I know it’s the most important meal of the day!) and by this point in our trip I just fancied something quite boring like toast. I know. I am a terrible travel blogger for saying that.
We checked out fairly early as we were due to travel on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo and upon check out we were presented with a gift – a neat box with chopsticks inside! Very sweet and thoughtful!
Advance booking is recommended as the ryokans are quite small and have limited availability.
In order to not have to worry about lugging our big suitcases with us for our one night stay in the ryokan we used a luggage forwarding service, quite a common thing to do in Japan and something that can be arranged at your hotel. We used this service a couple of times during our trip, so we had our luggage sent from our Kyoto hotel (where we stayed before our ryokan visit) to the hotel we would be staying at after departing the ryokan. Very efficient and helpful!
Follow ryokan etiquette regarding the removal of shoes, showering before bathing etc. And be sure not to place anything in the sacred alcove (pictured below with the wall hanging and flower arrangement).
Japan is one of my all time favourite destinations so I thought I would share some of the kooky, awesome and surprising things I learnt while I was there.
1. Not everything is high-tech
So you know about the high-tech toilets right? The ones with seat warmers and sounds? Yet how come in most public restrooms they have these fancy toilets yet there are no hand dryers and quite often not even any soap?!
2. Kawaii is everywhere
Kawaii (cute) is not something just for school girls and small children, I saw grown business men (or salary men as the Japanese call them) with kawaii Pikachu phone charms.
3. Japanese people are incredibly helpful
Although English is not as widely spoken there as it is in other parts of Asia, people will still go out of their way to help you.
On our first visit to Tokyo, we were stood in a train station, slightly baffled, trying to make our way to Harajuku. A random commuter approached us, not speaking a word of English (and us not speaking much more than a couple of words of Japanese). He then proceeds to point at our map and point at the map on the wall. After alot of pointing from us and the man, we thanked him (arigato) and went on our way. We made it to Harajuku fine. I also remember having lunch one day and flicking through my Lonely Planet guidebook, when out of nowhere a young woman came up to us at our table and asked if we needed help finding anything.
On our second visit to Tokyo, a kind old lady showed us the way to our hotel, again not speaking any English, but happy to help us without us even asking.
4. Japanese people are also polite and kind
Being a tourist in a foreign city it’s easy to be wary of any strangers who approach you because more often than not, they want something. To be fair, this happens at home too. So anyway, when we were greeted by a man suddenly at Ueno Zoo who offered to take our photo and then asked us alot of questions, my guard was up. He then gave me a little leather shoe phone charm and went on his way. He didn’t want money. It was a gift. He had made it himself. I was wrong to jump to a conclusion but can you blame me? I spent the rest of the trip gushing about how nice everyone in Japan is.
5. The television is as weird as you imagine
We saw a show where they got a bunch of people to make a human table and then a girl proceeded to dance on top of this human table. We also watched a programme of people being surprised with cute animals to play with!
6. They play cutesy jingles in train stations
For some reason, most of the train stations we hopped on and off at played cheeping bird noises from a speaker. I don’t know why but I kind of miss it. They also play cutesy jingles when the train is in and doors are closing. Not something I’ve ever experienced anywhere else.
Yes they are everywhere. Most of them sell drinks but you can buy all sorts of other stuff from them. Gachapons are also quite common and mainly sell toys, although apparently there is one somewhere in Tokyo that sells wigs for dogs!
9. Gerbils are zoo animals here
I used to keep pet gerbils in the days before I had my cat. They’re not super common pets in the UK in the way that cats and dogs are but they are still pretty popular. So it came as a surprise to me to find that in Japan, gerbils are actually zoo animals!
10. Robots are for real
Imagine my excitement on my first evening in Tokyo, I headed to the Tokyo Dome entertainment complex for a bite to eat to find this robot just wandering about!
Have you been to Japan? What surprised you?
Why not follow my Japantastic Japan board on Pinterest for inspiration?
Those who have never visited Japan may be under the illusion that Japanese cuisine is all about sushi and raw fish (sashimi) but there’s so much more to be had and for those afraid of trying new things you may be pleasantly surprised.
So let me whet your appetite and take you on a culinary tour of Tokyo and beyond – presenting my top 10 foods to try in Japan …
Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish and is cheap, tasty and filling. It consists of thick noodles swimming in broth and then garnished with an assortment of toppings such as vegetables and/or meat. We had ramen a couple of times during our stay – a perfect dish for any budget-conscious traveller.
Okonomiyaki is a cross between a pancake and an omelette and consists of flour, eggs, cabbage and your choice of toppings, such as pork, shrimp, mayonnaise and fish flakes. The name ‘okonomiyaki’ pretty much means ‘grilled as you like’ so there are many variants to be tried and some okonomiyaki restaurants are even grill-it-yourself where you are given a bowl of raw ingredients to cook on a hotplate! We dined at an okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto called Nishiki Warai, where the tables have hot plates on them but the dishes are brought ready cooked to your table and are just placed on your hotplate for warming. Yum!
3. Conveyor belt sushi
Of course, it’s not all sushi but you can’t have a list of Japanese foods without including sushi on there somewhere! We dined at two different branches of Musashi Sushi while we were in Kyoto and we were pleasantly surprised. If you’ve ever been to a branch of Yo Sushi in the UK then you will love Musashi Sushi – it’s much cheaper! Every dish is less than £1 GBP (around 130-140 yen) so you’re alot more inclined to be adventurous with your food choices. I tried unagi (eel) as well, just because of that Friends episode. It wasn’t too bad actually!
Sushi doesn’t just come on conveyor belts here! A popular Japanese lunch is a bento box – a box containing a selection of lunchtime goodies such as rice, pickled vegetables, fish or meat. These can be purchased as take-out boxes from convenience stores or train stations, served as a bento box tray in a restaurant, or even made at home. Some Japanese homemakers even go that extra mile by making Kyaraben (character bento) where the food is arranged to look like characters, animals, people etc. Very kawaii!
5. Katsu Curry
Chicken Katsu curry or Tonkatsu (pork) curry were my husband’s absolute favourite dishes during our trip to Japan, so of course my list had to have them. The curry consists of meat that is dipped into egg and then rolled in panko breadcrumbs before being fried. There are many varieties but pork is the most common. We ended up eating twice at the Curry House CoCo Ichibanya, once in Tokyo and then again in Kyoto because it was cheap and my hubby enjoyed it that much!
Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course meal which is beautifully created and often very expensive. Now, I’m not normally one for fine dining but we got to experience a Kaiseki meal during our stay at a ryokan in Kyoto as it was included in the price of the room. Our dinner was served to us in our private room, course by course (of which there were about 8). It was fantastic to experience something so traditional and lavish but I will confess that I didn’t like everything I was given, so I was glad that I was trying Kaiseki as part of the whole ryokan experience as opposed to going specifically to a Kaiseki restaurant. Stay tuned for a future post about my ryokan experience!
7. Ice Cream
So you can have ice cream anywhere, sure, but can you have Purple Sweet Potato ice cream anywhere? No! And you know what, it’s actually quite nice! We went into a little shop in Asakusa and ordered a couple of what we thought were berry ice creams. After we ordered as I was gazing around I noticed that everything else in the shop was potato-based. Oh dear. But fortunately I was pleasantly surprised by the taste – not too dissimilar to vanilla. We also tried sakura and green tea flavours too – delish!
8. Kit Kats, Pockys and Tokyo Banana
I mentioned all the crazy Japanese Kit Kat flavours before, but let’s not also forget the assortment of Pocky (biscuit sticks covered in flavoured coatings) you can buy. Rainbow Pocky has 7 different flavours including orange, strawberry and chocolate. I also saw some Tokyo Banana cakes at the airport and thought the packaging looked fun – hey who doesn’t love a giraffe print banana?!
9. Harajuku crepes
If you’re in Harajuku then be sure to take a walk down Takeshita Dori and stop at one of the little crepe kiosks. There are loads of flavours to choose from – savoury as well as sweet. Both times I have eaten Harajuku crepes I’ve opted for sweet. The sweet crepes are filled with ice cream, fruits and lots of sugary yumminess – and some crepes even have whole slices of cheesecake inside!
10. Novelty/themed food
The Japanese love anything novelty and anything themed, much like myself. Whether it’s one of Tokyo’s many themed restaurants, like the Alice in Wonderland restaurants or even some seasonal novelty fast food, you’re sure to find something random. Even at Ueno Zoo my lunch had a panda face in it, although in hindsight I probably chose the children’s menu. During our stay, McDonalds were selling burgers with pink buns (because it was cherry blossom season) which my husband tried and didn’t rate very much. Lotteria were offering fries with chocolate dip which I tried and I actually quite liked – fries? good! chocolate? good! And I think if we ever make it to Japan for a third time I’d like to try some more novelty nibbles.
Have you ever been to Japan? What Japanese food would you recommend?
When we were planning our trip to Japan there was one place in particular I was desperate to dine at and that was the Alice in Wonderland restaurant. I am a big fan of Alice in Wonderland, and the Disney animation was always my favourite film as a child and is still one of my all-time favourites now, so I couldn’t miss this opportunity – especially as Japan is well-known for its theme restaurants.
When I was researching into it I found that there were a few Alice restaurants in Tokyo, but we chose to go to the one in Ginza which was called Alice in a Labyrinth. As we flew to Japan on my birthday, we decided that the restaurant would be the perfect place to celebrate a belated birthday meal… or my very merry unbirthday if you prefer!
My Alice in a Labyrinth Rules:
1. Make a reservation. The restaurant is small. Ask your hotel concierge if they wouldn’t mind making dinner reservations for you, thus avoiding any disappointment of being turned away when you get there.
2. Allow extra time to get there.You don’t want to be late for this very important date! This place is difficult to find. We caught the train to Ginza and were planning on walking to it from the train station but after going round in circles, we hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take us there (we even had a printed map). I think the driver struggled a bit to find it too!
3. Look up! The restaurant is on the 5th floor of a rather generic looking building. We were all puzzled when the taxi driver pulled up until I spotted the distinctly Alice logo when I looked up.
The restaurant is decorated beautifully in a wonderland design, complete with storybook corridors leading into the main restaurant which even had a giant teacup booth for larger parties. The lighting is low and despite the colour and quirkiness, the atmosphere was quite intimate.
After being shown to our table, our waitress who was dressed up as Alice presented us with the menu. It wasn’t just any old menu though, this was presented to us in a diorama type box. She did explain it to us but sadly we didn’t understand what she was saying due to us knowing very very little Japanese, still it looked pretty cute.
The menus themselves were tucked away at the back of the box and were pretty much like normal printed menus, although the cocktail menu was pop-up, so I’m not really sure what the box was all about but I liked it all the same.
Of course I had a cocktail! We also learnt that the little bell on our table was to be used for if we needed the attention of the waitress, a rather novel idea!
We were brought over some bread and butter to nibble on while we waited for our main meals. I loved the little touches like the butter being in playing card suit shaped bowls and the little ‘eat me’ card that was sat on the plate.
For my main meal I ordered the Cheshire Cat pizza and my husband ordered some sort of beef dish although neither of us can remember what it was called. The food was tasty but I was a little disappointed that the dishes didn’t have much of a wonderland touch to them. They also weren’t very big – and that’s coming from someone who isn’t a big eater anyway!
The desserts, on the other hand, were much more impressive – both in size and presentation. Not sure what the dishes were called but my husband’s dessert involved something chocolatey, fresh fruit, a flaming alcoholic concoction and a cute biscuit shaped like Alice’s silhouette. My dessert was ice cream (my favourite dessert is ALWAYS ice cream!) and by coincidence, like my dinner, this too was Cheshire Cat related – complete with a dusting of kitty footprints in cocoa powder and a cat face made from pastry, cream and fruit.
I loved all the decor within the restaurant and how you felt like you were walking into a storybook. Even the toilet doors had a nod to the King and Queen (of Hearts) on them!
I enjoyed my evening at Alice in a Labyrinth, mainly for the whimsy of it all. If you’re a hardcore foodie then you probably won’t be satisfied, but if you love everything Alice then you won’t be disappointed!
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