Review: The Backstreet Guides Tokyo Tour of Tsukiji Fish Market, Asakusa and Akihabara
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The Backstreet Guides Tokyo Tour Review

 

This The Backstreet Guides Tokyo Tour Review and Photos post is part of a Japan trip report featuring ANA First Class, JAL Business Class, Tokyo luxury hotels and Kyoto luxury hotels, and great dining in Tokyo and Kyoto. For the prior posts, please see:

Review: British Airways First Class Lounge New York JFK Terminal 7

Review: ANA First Class 777 New York JFK to Tokyo Narita

Review: Air France Lounge New York JFK

Hotel Review: The Peninsula Tokyo

The Peninsula Tokyo Breakfast Review


Meeting Up with The Backstreet Guides

Since we'd arranged a private tour, our guide, Yoko, met us in the lobby of our hotel, The Peninsula Tokyo. If you instead opt for a small group tour, the Absolutely Tokyo walking tour on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays currently meets in the square outside Shimbashi Station, while the Tokyo Night Tour meets by JR Harajuku Station. But note that you can't just show up--small group tours are kept to a maximum of 10 participants, so it's essential that you pre-book, which does require full prepayment, as otherwise you won't be able to join the tour.

 

The Backstreet Guides Private Tours and Costs

In addition to its small group tours, which are currently priced at JPY 13,000 per person, The Backstreet Guides also offers private tours, which is what we were interested in, since we doubted our 9 year old would have the interest and stamina for a full day tour from 9 to 4:30pm, and the Tokyo Night Tour ran way past his bedtime. 

Full day tours are offered for JPY 36,000 for 8 hours, but that was too long for us, so we chose the half day private tour for JPY 25,000, for 5 hours, which was perfect for our needs. We're not the kind of visitors who try to see everything, so we chose three places to visit: Tsukiji Fish Market (which is slated to move to a new location, prior to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020); Asakusa, with its Senso-ji Temple; and Akihabara, geek central.

Note that unlike for the small group tours, for the private tours, no meal or transport costs are included, so you need to pay these for yourselves and also for your guide.

Since Tokyo weather can be changeable, I recommend bringing an umbrella (we had a rainy day for our tour), dressing in cool, breathable layers, wearing very comfortable shoes (as you'll be walking a lot) and bringing a bottle of water to stay hydrated.

 

Highlights of Our Tokyo Private Tour

Tokyo is an incredible mix of the ancient and modern. It didn't escape World War II unscathed, and many of the temples have been rebuilt, but some, such as the Shinto shrine we saw, are the original wooden structures, and of course many traditions go back centuries. Our guide, Yoko, had lived abroad in Europe with her family, spoke excellent English, and was very personable, happy to not only field our questions about what we were seeing, but also about our other observations, such as why so many people wear those face masks (spring allergies, not just because of colds), the school system, etiquette, etc.

Here were the highlights of our tour:

1. Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji is the busiest fish market in the world, with about $17 million in fish sold each day at the market, much of it tuna (maguro). Even before getting to the market, we saw a variety of foods in the outer market, from prepared foods such as tamago (omelet):

Street Vendor Making Tamago (Japanese Omelet), Tokyo

 

And pickled sakura (cherry blossoms):

Pickled Sakura (Cherry Blossoms), Tokyo

 

to things I definitely would not want to eat, such as whale meat and grasshoppers:

Whale Meat, Outside Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo 

Grasshoppers for Sale Outside Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

 

But the highlight of course is seeing the Tsukiji fish market itself, which is amazingly clean and not smelly given the sheer volume of fish sold and cut here.

Cutting Tuna at Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

 

Eels in a bucket:

Eels, Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

 

Here's a quick video I took of parts of the market. Note that many stalls categorically forbid photography. It is, after all, a working market, and you need to be quick on your feet and not get in the way of the actual market business. Personally, I would not bring really young children here.

 

And a photo of all of us, kindly taken by Yoko, our guide, before we left the market:

At Tsukuji Fish Market, Tokyo 

 

2. Asakusa: Sensoji Temple and Shinto Shrine

The outer entrance to Sensoji Temple was busy, and even on our grey and rainy day made more colorful by these visitors in colorful Japanese kimono:

Entrance to Sensoji

 

Just through the entrance we came to Nakamise Dori, lined with its many souvenir and omiyage shops. It's a Japanese tradition to bring omiyage (souvenirs, often mochi or cookies specific to that place) to one's colleagues after a trip, and these shops were happy to oblige. 

Nakamise Dori, Asakusa, Tokyo

 

Although machine-made Taiyaki are more common, one vendor was making handmade ones, filled with the characteristic anko (red bean paste):

Handmade Taiyaki Outside Sensoji Temple

 

These images, on the left, depicted the founding of Sensoji, which is said to have been built in 628, as a temple to house the small golden statue of the Buddhist deity Kannon, found by fisherman brothers Hamanari and Takenari.

Brothers Finding Golden Statue of Kannon, Which Sensoji Was Built for

 

Near Sensoji itself stands the dragon fountain, with burning incense. The Japanese believe that wafting the incense smoke over an ailing body part will help it feel better. Our son had chilly hands, so the warm incense smoke did indeed help warm them up.

 

Afterwards, we went to the nearby, more modest looking Shinto Shrine (Shinto places of worship are shrines, Buddhist ones are temples). It managed to avoid the WWII fire that burned down the original Sensoji, so it's the original wooden structure.

The first image is of the water used to purify oneself before praying at the shrine:

Shinto Shrine Near Sensoji Temple

Shinto Shrine, Asakusa

 

 

3. Lunch at a Traditional Restaurant

Yoko picked the perfect traditional Japanese restaurant for lunch. We had to remove our shoes before entering the restaurant, which was entirely laid out as tatami mat rooms. We each chose a type of chirashi (fish over rice) and it was very good, especially for the price, although I still give a slight edge to my local sushi place in NYC, Tsushima.

Tuna Chirashi Set

Chirashi

 

We enjoyed chatting with our guide, Yoko, over this lunch break:

Enjoying Our Lunch Break with Our Backstreets Guide Yoko

 

4. Akihabara

I'd been to Akihabara over 20 years ago, and knew it wasn't really my cup of tea, but since my husband and our son had never been, I thought "Electric City" with all its tech stores would be an interesting brief stop for them. 

Akihabara, Tokyo


We went into the giant Sega store, with its floors of different arcade games, and also saw a floor of costumes, including these wigs, to use for Cosplayers.

Wigs for Cosplayers

 

I personally didn't care for all the "Maid Cafes," often advertised by young women in maid costumes with super high pitched voices, which strook me as incredibly demeaning to the young women working these roles. But clearly there's a market for them.


The Verdict

We enjoyed our private tour with Yoko, and the 5 hour half day tour was the perfect amount of time for us as a family. There was a good balance in terms of sights, and I was happy that we spent as much time as we did at the Tsukiji Market, since it was unique and also will be moving at some point, so we are unlikely to see it again at its present location. We were also very grateful to have Yoko's guidance in navigating the subway system, which I found more challenging than similar systems in Europe. While we'd have loved to have better weather instead of rain, that was just our luck, and the tour itself was exactly what we were looking for.

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Disclosure: We paid for our own tour with The Backstreet Guides

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Comments
Picture?type=large Peggy L. commented 05 Apr 2017
Thanks so much for this! I'm bookmarking it as a reminder of the places we saw, because I'd forgotten the name Asakusa and didn't even get the name of the temple because we were on our own. I was disappointed at not seeing Mt. Fuji, so I wasn't thrilled that we were killing so much time looking for the souvenirs my husband wanted. The hotel recommended Asakuza so we took a cab there and to another town. We did see the Temple of course and watched people at the dragon fountain. It seems there are certain tourist spots in cities that people are brought to in order to support the local economy. One such place was H. Stern in Rio, where I found myself a beautiful bauble!
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 06 Apr 2017
Glad you enjoyed the photos and post! Sorry you didn't have a chance to see Mt. Fuji, though that is a long day trip and so weather dependent. Tsukiji is definitely a busy commercial fish market and not there for the tourists, so that could be an interesting and very authentic experience if you ever return to Tokyo, although it is likely to be in a new location.
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