New Years in Tokyo (Oshogatsu)

As some of you know, I spent the first few days of this year in Tokyo and while woefully late, here are some pics from the trip.

It was a short few days, but I managed to get some traditional osechi ryori, went to Meiju Shrine from Hatsumoode, wandered around Kabukicho and even got to see the emperor give his new years address.

I got a room at Fraser Place Tokyo that was a little out of the way in far north Shinjuku because the place I normally stay at was booked. I’ve stayed at some of their other locations before and they typically have large modern rooms that are more like an apartment than a hotel, often including a full kitchen.

At first, the room looked promising, being on the top floor and having a fantastic east facing view. The loft style layout was large and almost all white with a bathroom in the center of the room enclosed in floor to ceiling 1-way mirrors. This gave the huge tub and shower the same view that you had from the room, looking out on the city. The problem was, the heating system couldn’t keep up with the cold air coming off the windows and I was freezing the whole time I was there. I even complained about it but they either couldn’t, or weren’t willing to do anything about it, so I was left wearing my winter coat indoors.

Knowing that almost everything would be closed on New Years day, I rushed out to find some food for the next day as soon as I dropped off the bags in the hotel room. My plan was to hit up the depachika (department store basement) at Isetan and secure a jubako of osechi ryori and some other snacks to last the day. There isn’t really an equivalent to a depachicka here in the US, but if you imagine a huge gourmet supermarket and pair it with the best bakeries, delis, chocolatiers, and specialty food stores all crammed into the basement of a department store, you’ll start to get an idea of what it’s like.

Of course everyone else seemed to have the same idea and it was nearing closing time, so the place was more packed than a rush hour train. I managed to bag 2 chirashizushi, a couple onigiris, a mont blanc, a strawberry shortcake, and a huge box of osechi ryori. The best part was that since it was the end of the day, some of the vendors (including the $160 Osechi Jubako) was 20% off!

I go into more specifics about Osechi Ryori here, but traditionally it’s prepared ahead of time and served out of a 3 tier jubako (lacquered wooden box). These days, many people don’t have time to make their own, so families are increasingly turning to pre-made sets that you can purchase from restaurants, supermarkets and department stores. After surveying the vendors that still had Osechi sets available, I ended up going with this one that came wrapped in a furoshiki and and a convincingly shiny cardboard jubako.

On New Years day, before tucking into their special meals, millions of Japanese go to shrines around the country to do Hatsumode (pronounced hatsu-moh-deh). It’s a way to get the new year off to a good start by going to your local shrine, offering up some money and praying for good things in the coming year. Meiji Jingu is particularly well known for this and every year about 3 million people visit the shrine during the first few days of the year. For the very serious (and late night revelers), many shrines are open right at midnight, so you can be among the first to ring in the new year with a prayer.


Typically the way any visit to a shrine works is you first clean you hands and mouth with water (pictured above top) as you enter the grounds. Then you go up to the alter, toss a 100 yen into the box, bow twice, clap your hands twice while praying, then bow once to finish it off. Since this was Hatsumode and the crowds were insane, you couldn’t go all the way up to the shrine. Instead, they set out a huge tarp on the stairs to toss your money at (pictured above bottom).

One of the best parts of Hatsumode is that it takes on a festival like atmosphere and there are stalls selling souvenirs, charms, and most importantly FOOD:-) I picked up some freshly made takoyaki which are little spherical pancakes with veggies and a piece of octopus inside. It’s crisp on the outside and soft and custardy on the inside, topped with shaved bonito, sweet sauce, and aonori (green nori).

After going to the shrine in Shibuya, I walked over to Harajuku. You’re probably most familiar with this neighborhood from Gwen Stefani’s song Harajuku Girls (which I hate by the way), but it’s an über-trendy shopping district nestled in between Shibuya and Aoyama where you see crazy Japanese kids dressed like milkmaids and cosplay freaks that look like they jumped out of the pages of a manga (Japanese comic book).

It’s really not my scene, but I always get some good laughs while there, and there is a great Japanese crepe shop along the main strip, so I stopped by. One of the highlights of this visit? Prominent banners places all over the place that declared “No Smorking”. Yes, my people are notoriously bad at “ingurish” and it’s especially funny evident in their signs and packaging.

The imperial palace, located right in the middle of Tokyo is usually closed to the general public, but twice a year it opens up the inner grounds to the public when the emperor makes a public address. The crowds were obscene (and honestly, there are other dignitaries I would have rather seen in person), but it was a fun, and given that I was almost a head taller than most of the people there I got a fantastic view.

Well, almost anyway:-)

I hope you found this little tidbit interesting. I know this is a food blog, so I always worry about straying too far off topic. Leave a comment and let me know if you think I should post more about my travels.

  • http://www.veggiebelly.blogspot.com/ veggiebelly

    I love seeing travel photos, so thanks for sharing this! Very cool that you got to hear the emperors address! The takoyaki looks delish!

  • http://www.veggiebelly.blogspot.com veggiebelly

    I love seeing travel photos, so thanks for sharing this! Very cool that you got to hear the emperors address! The takoyaki looks delish!

  • http://onlinepastrychef.wordpress.com/ Jenni

    Thanks for sharing your pictures and your story. Sorry you guys froze in the otherwise AWESOME hotel room:)

    We actually did have something kind of like a depachika in the basement of the Belk’s Department Store at Southpark Mall in Charlotte, NC. Way back–probably 20 years ago or so. It doesn’t sound like it had as comprehensive a selection as what you found, but it was a great little gourmet shop that was probably just a bit ahead of its time. My friend, Nadine, and I used to go there and buy a small loaf of parmesan bread to eat at the movies. I had almost forgotten that place, so thanks for the memories!

    • marc

      Wow that’s cool, I remember Macy’s used to have food in the “cellar” waaay back in the day.

  • http://onlinepastrychef.wordpress.com/ Jenni

    Thanks for sharing your pictures and your story. Sorry you guys froze in the otherwise AWESOME hotel room:)

    We actually did have something kind of like a depachika in the basement of the Belk’s Department Store at Southpark Mall in Charlotte, NC. Way back–probably 20 years ago or so. It doesn’t sound like it had as comprehensive a selection as what you found, but it was a great little gourmet shop that was probably just a bit ahead of its time. My friend, Nadine, and I used to go there and buy a small loaf of parmesan bread to eat at the movies. I had almost forgotten that place, so thanks for the memories!

    • marc

      Wow that’s cool, I remember Macy’s used to have food in the “cellar” waaay back in the day.

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com/ Elra

    Indeed, very interesting. So many people, I don’t weather I’ll be survive in the crowd. You are certainly very lucky got a glimpse of the royal family.

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com Elra

    Indeed, very interesting. So many people, I don’t weather I’ll be survive in the crowd. You are certainly very lucky got a glimpse of the royal family.

  • http://www.tan-kitchen.com/ Tan

    Your Bento so lovely take. Thank you for sharing your trip. Hope that you had a nice time. :)

  • http://www.tan-kitchen.com Tan

    Your Bento so lovely take. Thank you for sharing your trip. Hope that you had a nice time. :)

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com/ Daily Spud

    Travel and the food experiences along the way are worthy inclusions in your blog Marc, an interesting little peek at another culture.

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com Daily Spud

    Travel and the food experiences along the way are worthy inclusions in your blog Marc, an interesting little peek at another culture.

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com/ Peter G

    I quite like the travel element Marx. It’s very informative and you have some great pics of Tokyo.

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com Peter G

    I quite like the travel element Marx. It’s very informative and you have some great pics of Tokyo.

  • http://www.sugarbar.org/ diva

    takoyaki!! sugoi!! :) love the photos marc. i am very envious. i would love to have been there to soak up the festive atmosphere. x

  • http://www.sugarbar.org diva

    takoyaki!! sugoi!! :) love the photos marc. i am very envious. i would love to have been there to soak up the festive atmosphere. x

  • Emily

    This is amazingggg! Travel and food go together like fish and chips, so do post more :)

  • Emily

    This is amazingggg! Travel and food go together like fish and chips, so do post more :)

  • http://helene-lacuisine.blogspot.com/ Hélène

    That must have been a great trip.

  • http://helene-lacuisine.blogspot.com/ Hélène

    That must have been a great trip.

  • http://www.figandcherry.com/ Christie @ fig&cherry

    Looks wonderful Marc. Such beautiful weather too! I’m a big fan of takoyaki – and that version looks particularly good.

  • nicolas

    Hey! I was there at the imperial palace the same day as you :)
    I’m 2 meter tall so I know what you mean :)

    • marc

      I think I saw you there;-)

  • http://www.figandcherry.com Christie @ fig&cherry

    Looks wonderful Marc. Such beautiful weather too! I’m a big fan of takoyaki – and that version looks particularly good.

  • nicolas

    Hey! I was there at the imperial palace the same day as you :)
    I’m 2 meter tall so I know what you mean :)

    • marc

      I think I saw you there;-)

  • http://www.folkmann.ca/ jfolkmann

    I went a few years ago to the palace around new years. Quite an experience, I remember having to keep moving back to let others get a peak.

  • http://www.folkmann.ca jfolkmann

    I went a few years ago to the palace around new years. Quite an experience, I remember having to keep moving back to let others get a peak.

  • http://indonesia-eats.blogspot.com/ indonesia-eats

    The first photo makes me miss Asian countries.

    Love the shots all

  • http://indonesia-eats.blogspot.com indonesia-eats

    The first photo makes me miss Asian countries.

    Love the shots all

  • http://aromasysabores-heidileon.blogspot.com/ heidileon

    Yes, you should keep posting your travel stories (I do it on my blog) I think is the best way for someone to know first hand recommendations. I’ve never being in Tokyo butmy bf and I have plans to go this summer and your recomendations are so welcome!.

    regards,

    Heidi

  • http://aromasysabores-heidileon.blogspot.com/ heidileon

    Yes, you should keep posting your travel stories (I do it on my blog) I think is the best way for someone to know first hand recommendations. I’ve never being in Tokyo butmy bf and I have plans to go this summer and your recomendations are so welcome!.

    regards,

    Heidi

  • http://www.practicallydone.com/ helen

    I’d love to hear more. I think you have a unique insider/outsider perspective.

  • http://www.practicallydone.com helen

    I’d love to hear more. I think you have a unique insider/outsider perspective.

  • http://www.kalofagas.blogspot.com/ Peter

    Marc, thanks for the postcard, the sea of people…awesome! As for Lost in Translation…us Greeks are pros at screwing up translations.

    “Chicken Gordon Blu” appears on menus often.

  • http://www.kalofagas.blogspot.com Peter

    Marc, thanks for the postcard, the sea of people…awesome! As for Lost in Translation…us Greeks are pros at screwing up translations.

    “Chicken Gordon Blu” appears on menus often.

  • Jane George

    Please don’t hesitate to add photos and descriptions of your travels, they really are interesting, I am a great computer chair traveler.

  • Jane George

    Please don’t hesitate to add photos and descriptions of your travels, they really are interesting, I am a great computer chair traveler.

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  • joe

    I am so going to japan!!! It looks so beautiful and I would love to learn more about the food and culture:-)

  • joe

    I am so going to japan!!! It looks so beautiful and I would love to learn more about the food and culture:-)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/HarusamiSoul2Soul Harusami Is

    Love the photos! And about the freezing hotel… reminds me of visiting relatives in Niigata in 1980-81, they had one of the biggest snowfalls in 20 years. I slept in their traditional style living room on a futon. I could not believe how freezing cold it was! I had to sleep covered head to toe with the futon and all my clothing on top of me….shivering all night long. It was the 3rd day when my Uncle came into the room, saw how freezing it was and slapped himself in the head. Apparently the snow drifts had cut off the air supply to the room heater, so that’s why I’d been sleeping in a freezer for 3 nights. I was sure happy when they got that fixed!

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