The first thing that hits you when you get off the plane is how efficient Japan is. After 20+ hours travelling I was ready for a battle with sleep deprivation and a language barrier to get through security and get to my hotel. But it was all surprisingly a little too easy.
Once you have done the old immigration and customs thing (where everyone is fluent in English) there are English signs to direct you to the rail station. This is by far the easiest, quickest and cheapest way to reach central Tokyo. There are also buses that will take you to the centre but due to traffic, these take a lot longer.
The long queue for tickets was gone in a flash and we were served. The man was super helpful, told us what train to catch and seats we had been allocated (I hate that feeling in a foreign country where you don’t know which platform to go to) He also gave us the foreigners deal with two return tickets coming to 8000 yen with only a quick look at our passports needed. The train is no deal of the century, but all transport is on the pricey side and once you see it you’ll know why. With one cleaner for each carriage, seats that change direction depending on what way the train is going so you are always facing forward, and seats that recline and have the legroom of a first class plane journey, it is not what I had expected.
On the hour and a half journey into Tokyo we didn’t see too much, it was 9pm at night. But when you got close to the centre you know. The neon lights started to appear and the competition to get the flashiest sign with the most colour to attract all your attention also began.
We got off the train at Shinjuku and after a short walk we were at our hotel. We had been warned about the room sizes prior to departure but nothing had quite prepared us for the size of this room. At 5’11” I am petite in only a giant’s book so the smallness was a struggle. My best advice is to bring a travellers backpack so you can unpack into piles onto the floor and fold the rucksack away without the constant need to open the suitcase on the bed. Either that or spend more than the $160 a night on a room that we did.
We headed back out for some quick food as the jetlag was really starting to kick in. We headed in the direction of the nearest McDonalds as the safest bet for cheap, quick food but never made it.
The window displays of plastic food, the colourful signs, the quaintly decorated restaurants consumed our attention and before we could even reach McDonald’s we had been drawn into a Ramen restaurant with the promise of cheap food that was presented on the menu outside.
We walked downstairs in the uniquely decorated hallway to be welcomed by what can only be described as the most overly enthusiastic man screaming “Hello, Welcome!” at the top of his lungs. He helped us pick from the menu and then show us how to use the vending machine to place our order. Vending machines can be found everywhere in Tokyo, they litter the streets selling hot and cold drinks, snacks and are used in a lot of Ramen restaurants as the form of ordering. I had barely had time to sit back down before he comes over with the sake and beer we had ordered quickly followed by gyoza dumplings. The man also helped us make the sauce for the dumplings from the array of condiments on the table.
Then the Ramen came. The bowl of hearty goodness. In Japan, it is considered a compliment to the chef to make noise as you eat and as we sat there and tucked into the delicious broth we witnessed this with the slurps coming from the table over the way.
The following morning we got up and were ready to explore. We got the metro across town to the Abkihabara area. Here is heaven to everything geek. There are numerous anime shops, comic book stores and is home to a 6 story arcade video game complex. We saw a few people dressed up in cosplay, really anything goes here. We also paid a visit to @home cafe, a maid cafe where men get referred to as master and women as princess. I have to say this has to go down as possibly the most bizarre experience of my life. You get allocated a maid who serves you, she literally waits on you hand and foot, serves you your food and makes you do funny chants and hand gestures in Japanese, I hadn’t a clue what I was saying but it was fun!
Part way through the meal all the maids took to the stage and performed a little dance and singing routine, it was all very surreal.
The food is also on another level of crazy, pink curry served in the shape of hello kitty, or ice cream with pink chocolate bunnies. The drinks don’t escape either, sodas that have so many colourants they have most grown men bouncing off the walls or a coffee with a bunny drawn in chocolate sauce on top. This place is definitely one to visit but don’t go with an ego, you have to fully embrace the experience!
In the evening we went for a proper explore around Shinjuku. The more you walk around this area the more it feels like a never ending Times Square. As the red light district of Tokyo there are many gentleman’s clubs located in this area. This being said it is done in such a way that could be described as verging on classy. We were completely stuck for choice of restaurants. But finally decided on an Italian called Ka Brio which I have to say was super good. Great for any picky eaters this place serves up typical pizza and pasta dishes of great quality. I’d also recommend trying the sparkling red wine, absolutely delicious.
The following morning we took a half day tour of the city. We booked the trip through Sundance tours who took us to the Menji Shrine first, followed by the Imperial Palace gardens and then onto the Sensoji Temple. The Menji Shrine is a Shinto shrine which is the native religion of Japan.
It is worth bringing a notepad with you because at places of interest there are commemorative stamps that have a picture and the date of your visit. You can build up quite a collection.
We then went into the perfectly manicured gardens at the Imperial Palace. To visit the Palace itself you need special tickets that tend to involve a long queue.
We then visited the Buddhist Sensoji Temple. They don’t have any visitor stamps in the Buddhist temples but if you purchase one of their books they will hand write well wishes and prayers in for you, it is an art to watch.
If you can, try and catch a geisha performance, a slow dance with music.
In the afternoon we explored the area of the city called Ginza. The pavement littered with designer brand shops, this place is great for window shopping but with prices about 50% higher than back home you’d be crazy to buy anything here.
We headed out for dinner and drinks to the Robot Restaurant located in Shinjuku. With giant robots on the doors and loud music playing into the street, this place is hard to miss. The drinks are pretty reasonable considering you are a captive audience. And the show was absolutely incredible! I read before visiting that it was how you’d imagine an acid trip if you’d never taken drugs and that describes the whole experience perfectly. The only thing I would say give a miss would be the food. Quality is mediocre and it is served straight before the show so is a distraction at the beginning.
The following day we took a trip to Kamakura, again with Sundance tours. Kamakura is a town about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo and is located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The first stop on the tour was a Buddhist temple where there is the Big Buddha. We then carried onto another temple where there is a bamboo garden. Finally you visit a Shinto shrine where you take part in a tea ceremony which is a delicate Japanese art form that takes years of training to perfect.
That evening, once we had arrived back in Tokyo we headed to a restaurant called Luxis. Located in the upmarket Ebisu district the Italian restaurant certainly has an expensive feel to it. One of its giant walls is made up of a huge fish tank with most seats offering a good view of it. The food is alright but is definitely overpriced due to the setting.
After dinner we headed across to Shinagawa to the Prince hotel. Located on the 39th floor the bar serves up tasty drinks along with great views of the city. Tokyo has many rooftop bars to choose from. I can’t compare this one to all the others but we certainly enjoyed the views here.
In the morning we travelled a couple of stops on the train to Shibuya. We found the most amazing backstreet area with tiny cafes that almost feel like you are walking into someone’s house. We had breakfast at The Brooklyn Pancake House and the pancakes were to die for! The pastrami sandwich wasn’t too shabby either.
We then headed an area called Harajuku, made famous by Gwen Stafani’s Harajuku girls. Women who get dressed up in uniquely fashioned outfits and parade around the streets. The main street Takeshita Street also sells pretty much all the souvenirs you could ever possibly need and much much more.
In the afternoon we explored Shibuya’s offerings. There are plenty of bar’s to visit but alcohol in Tokyo is pretty pricey.
Also at Shibuya is the famous crossing, where hundreds of people patiently wait to cross the road at one of the busiest squares outside Shibuya train station. A great place to watch this is at the Starbucks overlooking the crossing. It is the busiest Starbucks in the world, and it is not hard to see why. You can watch the crowds from above, when that light turns green it is like a swarm of ants that has been sent to attack! The staff can be picky about you taking too many photos when up there, large groups going up there just to get photos is not really permitted. I saw a few people fall fowl of this rule. Our tactic was to purchase a cold drink (so they stayed nice longer) then have enough patience for a window seat to become free. Once you have the seat you can pretty much take photos till your heart is content.
After watching the sunset we headed for more food! Again, we hit up a back street Ramen place. We favoured these as prices were cheap and they felt less touristy than the ones on the main roads. We really wished we liked fish. Sushi bars are everywhere, apparently delicious and with space age revolving counters. We had our apprehensions before travelling to Japan about the food, in particularly about the fish, but we were pleasantly surprised not to have struggled at all!
As we headed back to our hotel in Shinjuku, we called off at an area called the Golden Gai. A small grid of tiny bars that sit about 3-5 people inside. The area looks dodgy, and I’m sure if it was in any other city it would be but this is Tokyo, one of the safest cities on the world (they even leave their bikes unchained outside all day, and go back, and they are still there)! One thing to be wary of is the cover charges in some of the bars. The bars write on the doors if there is no cover charges, these are the ones to go in, some can charge up to $20 just to sit down inside.
On our last full day in Tokyo we headed across to Odaiba, the port area of the city. Located here is Joypolis, a three story indoor amusement park. Inside is a rollercoaster along with multiple simulator rides. When entering you have the option to buy an all day pass or they also offer a pay as you ride option. All the rides have some form of game intertwined with it. The rollercoaster has buttons on your harness which you have to tap along with the music, in kind of a similar concept as a dance mat. The mechanical skate board half pipe is a competition to see who can get the most spins in. And the 360 degree spinning toboggan is just a race to be the fastest! Even the toilets have been made into a game, aim on the target and score points! On the subject of toilets, every single bathroom I visited had heated toilet seats and buttons to press to play music so nobody can hear you! I wish every toilet was like Japanese toilets!
We had a great day out here!
Within the same building there is a selection of eateries ranging from Sushi to French. Most of the restaurants have an outdoor eating balcony which have incredible views.
fter an exhilarating day we headed down the road to an onsen to relax. An onsen is a hot spring bathing facility popular in Japan. Open 22 hours a day it is a popular place to go and relax no matter what time.
When entering you get given a Yukata, a traditional robe similar to a Kimono, there are loads of styles to choose from. You then get changed in same sex changing rooms only leaving underwear on under your robe. Once out of the changing rooms you enter a communal lantern lit hall which is full of stalls where you can buy food, souvenirs and play funny Japanese carnival games such as ‘Sukuu-Bei’ and ‘Throw a ninja star’. Outside there is a foot bath and a pool where fish exfoliate your feet. There are also gender specific bathing areas. To enter these you have to be totally naked (don’t worry about any body hang ups you may have though, nobody looks). Once inside there are different temperature baths, indoor baths, outdoor baths and saunas. They supply towels, and all the toiletries you can think of. Whilst you are here you can also indulge in a private massage or treatments.
One big note though, if you have tattoos this place is not for you. There are signs everywhere and you get asked on arrival if you have any tattoos. If they do find you do have them you get asked to leave without a refund.
On our last morning, we headed to Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to take a trip to its 45th floor viewing deck.
The observation deck offers great views of Tokyo city. You can see the Tokyo tower, the Skytree and on a clear day, Mount Fuji. We could just about see it on the day we went up, it was a bit foggy!
For lunch we finally managed to find a Kobe beef BBQ restaurant that had both an English menu and reasonable prices.
The beef was absolutely gorgeous. Definitely a meal to hunt out!
All in all, we had an absolute blast in Japan. Definitely a place we want to go back to! Great food and hospitality made the trip extremely enjoyable. The mix between traditional and modern experiences provides a great contrast. LOVE THIS CITY!