Shimokitazawa, also known as Shimokita, is a Tokyo neighbourhood just a few stops from Shinjuku station, but far removed from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s more common tourist neighbourhoods. Some of the streets are too narrow even for cars! I wanted to get a taste of a more local Tokyo lifestyle and this seemed like a good place to try. Shimokita is quite bohemian, and popular with students, and still has a lot of independent stores, cafes and restaurants. It’s maybe a bit like the Hackney of Tokyo…
Where to stay
At the start of our three week trip to Japan, I spent a lot of time deciding where to stay in Tokyo – the possibilities are overwhelming. As there was time at the start and the end of our three-week trip, I decided to spend the first night in the middle of it all in Shinjuku. Arriving in the evening and I figured we would be too tired to do much, I decided taking the limo bus would be more fun than the train. At least we could see some of the city and try and get our bearings. Also, the limo bus drops you right outside some hotels on their route – very handy when you’re tired, disoriented and have luggage! If you take the train you need to find your way from the station, and probably drag your cases up lots of stairs. Or navigate the famous Shibuya crossing!
I chose the Hotel Century Southern Tower in Shinjuku, and I applauded my own genius when the we got dropped off right at the entrance. It’s a 4 star hotel, and depending on your budget you can splurge on a room with a view. We had great fun trying on the robes, and of course testing out all of the buttons on the technological wonders that are Japanese toilets.
The hotel has a nice bar, with ok food, but it was just fine for us to relax and unwind before getting some much needed sleep. We were moving to Shimokitazawa for the next few nights anyway.
What to eat
OK – where do I start! It’s pretty hard to eat bad food in Tokyo, so try your best.
Post-Prizren in Kosovo, the next stop on the journey was Montenegro. I didn’t know much about the country, but had a recommendation to stay in Kotor, so that’s where we headed. Back at Prizren bus station (looking much less scary in the daylight), turns out it would take three separate bus journeys to get to Kotor. Well, getting there is half the fun! The first leg arrived in Ulcinj, then a bus to Bar, and then finally a bus to Kotor. All of the journeys were pretty short, and most of it was long the stunning coastline of Montenegro.
We arrived at Ulcinj first, a buzzing place with a stunning old town and some decent beaches. A strong first impression of a new country! After a quick lunch we headed back to the bus station for the next leg of our journey to Bar. We had a few hours to kill, so we found a bar in Bar, naturally, and had a couple of beers with a fellow traveller also heading to Kotor. It was a beautiful day and the sun was shining, so we passed the time pleasantly before beginning the last leg of our journey.
When I visit anywhere, I always try to see if there is a local market. I love walking around seeing fresh produce, what’s in season, and what the locals are eating. Some places are better than others – the Boqueria in Barcelona has an abundance of stalls, and is great fun, but very busy. Whilst in Sofia, Bulgaria, the market was sparse!
The Mercado do Bolhão dates from 1850 and is a little bit run down and ramshackle, but this makes it charming. Like Porto itself, although much of the city is being regenerated and it’s definitely smartening up. So I wonder how long until the market is refurbished.
After visiting Macedonia and Albania, the next destination was Kosovo. Instead of visiting the capital, Pristina, after a bit of research, Prizren – known as the cultural capital – looked like a good alternative. The second largest city, it’s a young and vibrant town filled with picturesque mosques and churches, and good restaurants and nightlife. Travelling through the Balkans, I can’t help but think of the relatively recent war, and how the legacy of such a vicious conflict must affect the people here. It’s good to see that life continues, and tourists are returning, although it’s still not possible to travel from Kosovo directly into Serbia.
After spending a very pleasant day and night exploring Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, we just made the bus to Tirana after a car chase (!) and settled in for what looked like a three hour journey, give or take an hour. We had checked the map before leaving, and it looked like a pretty straightforward route. Due to the unplanned excitement when catching our bus, we had no food or water, and no local currency (the lek). Never a good move when you’re venturing into the unknown – bad travellers. How d’you lek them apples? Or lack of them…
Crossing the border into Albania, tourist fee paid with the last Macedonian denars, I stared out the window, watching the world go by. I like travelling by bus when you’re not in a hurry, and you don’t really know where you’re going. You get to see more fragments of local life. The roads were dusty and twisted and turned through the mountains. There were hand-painted signs everywhere: ‘lavazh’…’lavazh’…’lavazh’ – …carwash…carwash…carwash. Every second home, and business seemed to have a carwash, some just an awning and a hose, others more upmarket. I couldn’t understand it as I couldn’t see that many cars on the road.
Back in 2013, we planned an adventurous road trip through the Balkan Peninsula, covering seven countries in eight days, using only public transport. Adventurous or mad…you decide! We managed to visit Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia. You can read about the first leg of the journey in Macedonia below.