Japan (1): Tokyo

Transport: British Airways 
Hotels: APA Kodenmacho-Ekimae & Mystays Nippori
Currency: Japanese Yen (¥)

At the beginning of March, I went on the trip of a lifetime with my friend Ginny; 12 days in amazing, diverse Japan! During this trip, I spent time in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone and Tokyo (again). This post is all about the two stints we did in Tokyo, including some general tips and tricks for a Westerner visiting Japan.

This is going to be a long one, so exercise your eyeballs and grab a snack before you start!

The Tokyo Itinerary

DAY ONE 

We arrived into Narita airport, one of three airports in and around Tokyo. After picking up our JR Passes (see ‘Tips’ below), we got the Narita Skyliner express train to Ueno (40 minutes), where we transferred to the metro. A Skyliner and 72 hour metro combo ticket cost ¥3,500, which was well worth it considering how indispensible the metro was to our plans.

The first hotel we stayed in was the APA Hotel Kodenmacho-Ekimae. APA is a big chain of hotels in Japan and seemed to cater towards business people. This branch was in a great location for metro access and had loads of supermarkets and shops around, which proved really useful for money exchange and midnight snacks. The room was small but served our needs perfectly – I would recommend a short stay here if you are looking for somewhere fairly cheap and well connected.

As we were pretty jet lagged, we spent the afternoon getting acclimatised to the area. We decided to go for dinner but the lack of English on the menus (naturally) made it a little difficult to know where to go. We ended up being lured into a grill restaurant by a chef and proceeded to have a very stressful entry into traditional Japanese cuisine. They did actually have an English menu, but between the boiled chicken skin, salted fish guts, beef hormone, gizzard and cod eggs, we didn’t really know where to begin.

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Our chefs for the evening

I only eat halal meat (or where that’s not available, I am a pescetarian) and while I had anticipated that I wouldn’t be eating any meat for the next twelve days, I had not fully realised that my dietary requirements were going to cause me quite a significant issue. I ended up ordering edamame beans, cod eggs on cabbage and rice balls, which while not advertised as such, were filled with chicken (probably). I sadly didn’t realise until I had eaten the majority of it… whoops! But if you eat everything, a ‘yakitori’ restaurant should be perfect for you – there are plenty of grilled meat skewers to keep you happy if you’re not in the market for something more unusual. 

DAY TWO 

On our first proper day in Tokyo, we headed for Tsujiki Fish Market (closest metro station is Tsujiki). This market is really famous in Tokyo, especially for its early morning tuna auctions. In order to get  place to watch this tuna auction, you need to arrive at 3am … needless to say we didn’t do that, although we did hear that it was a fantastic experience! The market has everything from fresh fish and seafood to taxidermy, homeware, fruits and vegetables. It is also well known for its breakfast sushi.

Some of the things we tried were sweetcorn fritters, deep fried tuna, rice balls and custard mochi –

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After the fish market, we made the short walk towards Hamarikyu Gardens; an oasis of calm in the bustling city. The closest metro station is Shimbashi and the entrance fee is ¥400. This garden was built during the Edo period for duck hunting, but later transformed into a strolling garden. The different uses of the garden throughout history are still referenced and, as each season in Japan is said to be very beautiful, this is a great place to visit at any time of year.

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From here, you can get the waterbus to Asakusa or do a round trip to see the city from the Sumida River. A round trip costs ¥1350 and takes around 80 minutes. 

Once you are in Asakusa, you should make your way to one of Tokyo’s most famous landmarks, the Senso-ji Temple (free entry). This Buddhist temple was built in 645 AD, which makes it Tokyo’s oldest temple. Once you walk through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), you will basically be swept up in the flow of people visiting this temple. Some people are tourists, some are worshippers and some are both. If you are looking to avoid the crowds, you are best off visiting early in the morning on a weekday!

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Asakusa also has an amazing market where you can buy key rings, fans, kimonos, street food and other souvenirs.

The final activity of the day was a visit to the National Museum of Nature and Science  in Tokyo (closest metro station is Ueno and the entrance fee is ¥620). This is a good museum to spend an afternoon in, but unfortunately, very few of the information signs were in English. I’m the kind of person who likes to read about everything I’m looking at, so it would perhaps have been better if the museum had audio guides in different languages for tourists. Without this, perhaps it wasn’t worth the entrance fee.

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DAY THREE 

The next morning, we made our way to Harajuku and the famous Kawaii Monster Café (closest metro station is Meijijingu-mae). This is an expensive restaurant but it is well worth going to for an insight into the whacky side of Tokyo! The cover charge per person was ¥500 and upon entrance, you get to choose one of four sections to sit in. We chose the ‘mushroom disco’ which has to be seen to be believed.

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Every hour, there is a performance by the four ‘monsters’ on the carousel. This is inexplicably weird, but this video I found on YouTube might be more helpful than any description I attempt. If you’re really lucky, you will get pulled on to the carousel to dance with the monsters like Ginny did! For an extra charge of ¥500, you can have a photo taken with the monsters up on their podium. This is clearly a total tourist trap, but it’s a trap I would happily fall into again and again.

After lunch, we went to the Meijijingu Shrine (free entrance). There is a long walk through some beautiful gardens before you reach it but, all in all, this was a very different experience to the Senso-ji Temple. The gardens are very quiet and peaceful and the shrine itself was far less busy than other religious sites we visited. We also saw two traditional Japanese weddings taking place, which was an amazing experience!

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Wedding Party

That afternoon, after some shopping in Harajuku, we walked to the Nezu Museum and Gardens (closest metro station is Omotesando). This was the most expensive museum we visited during our trip (¥1300) and mainly featured pottery, textiles, Buddhist art and items from the Daishi tea ceremony. However, the artefacts in the museum were far exceeded by the beauty of the gardens at the back of the building.

That evening, we had the first dinner that I would call a success during those first few days in Japan. We went to an area called Roppongi, which we were told was going to be a bit more tourist friendly than other places. We stumbled across a place called Soba Roppon, which specialises in tempura and soba noodles.

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Tempura (prawn and mixed) and soba noodles

The menu was small but diverse, the pricing was very reasonable and the food was delicious. Best of all, there were both vegetarian and pescetarian options!

DAY FOUR 

This was a partial day when we came back from Hakone (via Kyoto), so we didn’t really get a chance to do much. We did, however, visit the famous Shibuya crossing. This felt like the side of Tokyo I had been expecting to see all along and it was completely amazing, especially at night!

We also ticked another item off our list by trying some conveyor belt sushi –

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The speedy dining experience was perfect for our weary bodies that evening and it was really cool too see the sushi chefs at work right in front of you.

As this was the start of our second stint in Tokyo, we had transferred to a new hotel called the Hotel MyStays Nippori. I would say that this was less well located than the APA hotel I mentioned earlier, but the business like vibe was pretty much the same.

DAY FIVE 

As we hadn’t had a nice breakfast or brunch out up until this point, we decided to head to Ginza West Ayaoma Gardens (closest metro station is Nogizaka) to try their famous (massive) pancakes. These seem to be a combination of Japanese hotcakes and American style pancakes and take about 30 minutes to cook due to their thickness. One pancake (which is more than enough) and a hot drink cost ¥1350, which is approximately £10.

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We arrived at Ginza West at 11am when it opened and there was already quite a queue for tables! As a result, I would suggest arriving early, as it could be quite a long wait until you eat if you do plan on getting the pancake.

After brunch, we headed for Asakusa to attend the woodblock printing lesson we had booked with David Bull of Mokuhankan. Woodblock printing is a very popular art form in Japan and it was popularised in the West by the artist Hokusai. Mokuhankan is easy to find from Senso-ji Temple and the lesson took around 1-1.5 hours. It was definitely a hands on workshop – David was very good at explaining how to print and gave us plenty of opportunities to practice before we made our final piece. Our creations were based on the famous Japanese fairytale of a boy born from a peach. You can read more about this here.

The woodblock workshop cost ¥2,130 (inc. tax) and as you got to take your artwork home with you, it gave you something tangible to attach to your memories. I would highly recommend this if you are looking for a lesson or activity to do in Tokyo.

We finished the day by going to a theatre show in Roppongi called the Kaguwa Oiran-Za. We chose the Oiran-Za after much deliberation between this show and the famous Robot Show. Ultimately, we decided to go for the Oiran-Za because the Robot Show had mixed reviews, and at ¥9000, was very expensive for something that could have been low quality.

The Oiran-Za was definitely the right choice – it had a mixture of dance, action, drama, romance and comedy. Depending on the package you chose, you could have anything from snacks to a full on meal while you watched. We chose the snack package, which included crisps, nuts and unlimited drinks (plus the show, of course) for ¥5,500 each.

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DAY SIX 

Since visiting Tsujiki Fish Market on day two, Ginny and I had been obsessed with the homeware stall we had seen. We decided to head back to the market and get some souvenirs, which is something I would definitely recommend if you are looking to buy plates, teapots, bowls etc. because they will be much more beautiful and much cheaper than those found in department stores around Tokyo. I bought a serving plate, two bowls and a teapot for just under ¥2,000 and the store even packaged everything up for safe transportation home.

From here, we made our way to the main shopping district of Ginza. The metro station came out into a department store, so we headed into the food court area to grab some lunch. Ginza is famous for its designer and high end shops, so you should expect everything here to be quite pricey. We had already done all of the shopping we wanted to do, so we didn’t stay in Ginza too long but it was still a nice place to grab lunch and look around.

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City Bakery in Ginza – try the buns wrapped in cookie!

After exploring Ginza, we made our way to Tokyo’s Imperial Palace (closest metro station is Manrouchi). The actual palace is never open as the royal family still live there, but you can explore the grounds and the Eastern Gardens.

I had read online that the garden of the Imperial Palace was a little overrated and I have to say that I agree; we saw far more beautiful gardens at the Nezu Museum. However, if you do have time to spend walking around, it is a nice place in which to do so. The parts of the palace we could see, the moat and the bridges were all stunning. These gardens are not open on Monday or Friday, but they are free to enter on every other day of the week.

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As it was our last day in Japan, we headed back to Nippori to pack, before heading out for an evening of karaoke. As some of you may know, ‘karaoke’ was invented in Japan in the 1970’s and the word translates to ’empty orchestra’ in English. This is something the Japanese take really seriously, but rather than wailing your heart out to Celine Dion in a dingy bar, you can hire a private room for your group and wail in the comfort of your own booth.

Our hotel was about a 5 minute walk from one of the big karaoke chains in Japan, Big Echo. We opted for half an hour of karaoke, which cost ¥500 per person. You select songs on an iPad (there were loads in English) and use the microphones and tambourines to your heart’s content. You can even order food and drink to your karaoke session to make it a real party! This was a brilliant way to spend the evening and it brought our Japan experience to a delightfully hysterical close.

TIPS:

  • If you plan on travelling around Japan, you need to get a Japan Rail Pass in order to avoid spending all of your money on transport. You need to get this before you arrive in Japan and it is only available to tourists. I got my pass on this website and collected it upon arrival in Narita Airport at the JR Counter near the train station.
  • Get the daily metro pass too! These are available for 24, 48 or 72 hour periods.
  • You need to have a 2 pronged travel adaptor – some websites will say that a 3 pronged adaptor is just as readily used… this is wrong!
  • You don’t need to tip your servers, in fact, some of them may find this offensive.
  • While Tokyo has a great metro system and the main sites are well signposted, you are still likely to need google maps to find your way around. Most metro stations and bus stops have wifi which you can use to load maps, however, so you don’t need to worry about using up all of your data.
  • Always visit main tourist attractions (such as Tsujiki market) on a weekday morning – any other time is so busy that you won’t get to see anything properly.
  • Hello is ‘Konnichiwa’. Good morning is ‘Ohaiyu’. Thank you is Arigato. Everyone will bow at you and you will end up mirroring this after about an hour – it’s delightful.
  • If you plan on seeing a show, make sure you reserve in advance. This can be a little tricky due to the language barrier, but the concierge at our hotel reception were kind enough to help us out.

So, would I recommend a trip Tokyo? A thousand times yes. The people are lovely, there is so much to see and we had a brilliant time! However, if you’re not into busy cities, this is definitely not the place for you.

Tune in next time for my Kyoto itinerary! I promise the next one will be shorter.

Thanks for reading,

~ Plane Emoji

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