GUEST ARTICLE: Pure excitement doesn’t even begin to explain our feelings as we checked in at the Sydney Airport destined for our long awaited first-time trip to Tokyo. As we were checking in we noticed that the band Def Leppard whom we had just recently seen was also Tokyo bound on our flight! Very cool!
It took us about 10 hours to fly from Sydney to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. This was our first time flying JAL (Japan Airlines) and I have to say they were pretty good. When we were collecting our luggage we couldn’t resist and went up to the lead guitarist of Def Leppard and gave him some fan encouragement accompanied with metal forks. He loved it, probably since we were the only ones who recognized them. Darn should’ve got a pick!
Going through customs and security at Narita was a breeze. You’ve gotta love Japanese efficiency! We read beforehand that the main means of transportation is by train. There are two types of cards you can get but we got the one called Suica. You put money on it and you can use it for a number of different things besides the train like convenience stores for example. You just have to look out for the Suica sign. We paid 11,000¥ (140AUD) for 2 cards which included two separate return tickets to the airport with assigned seating on the JR line, and 1500¥ credit on each card. We decided to put an extra 5000¥ on both cards just to be sure. In the end it turned out to be just the right amount of money on each card – we used it all in 6 days travelling about and buying snacks.
We were glad we took the direct line right to our hotel in Shinjuku. Tokyo is massive and even with the direct line it took us an hour and twenty minutes to reach our station. We had heard that the Shinjuku Station is one of the busiest in the world, whipping through on average 3.64 million people every day (and that was the count in 2007). Luckily it’s ‘organized’ busy. With bags in tow we only had to walk outside and around the corner before we found our hotel – the Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku easy! We tucked into our nice little hotel room for the next 6 days and called it a night, we were exhausted!
The next morning we awoke to a nice +23C and eagerly ventured outside for our first sightsee (we had heard that the weather was great in November – dry and not too cool or too hot). Straight away we were enchanted by our surroundings. There were heaps of tiny Japanese eateries, delicious smelling bakeries and tea and coffee shops. Being a Saturday everyone was out and about. This gave us a great opportunity to look at some of the very interesting Japanese fashion. It appears anything goes and it all looked pretty good even the far out “Lolita” dressers.
There were tall skyscrapers in a variety of shapes and sizes all around us in Shinjuku. Most were either colorfully painted or decked out with graphic advertisements. Every bit of space was efficiently used so every level of each building boasted either some kind of restaurant or retail shop. There were bits and pieces of English but Japanese of course was the predominant lingo.
As we were walking around Shinjuku losing ourselves in the adventure we happened upon a narrow alleyway where there was a line of cool little sit down eateries. There were numerous Japanese delicacies like BBQ yakitori sticks, noodles, gyoza and large boiling pots of pig intestine stew. We picked a place and squeezed in between a couple of old men and 4 other locals (that’s all that would fit). We tried some BBQ chicken sticks but opted out of the stew. In the end that little sit down wasn’t so cheap and we got charged 300¥ each just to sit – space costs in Japan! We actually noticed over the trip that some restaurants have cover charges like that and a time limit. I guess it makes sense when you have a population that big.
Next we went to the Kabukicho area, which is also known as their red light district. During the day it was pretty uneventful but interesting to look at all of the shop promotions out front. There were heaps of girly bars, video bars, karaoke and cheap little eateries. At nighttime this place gets really packed and there are quite a few Africans trying to entice you inside.
From there we walked not too far to take a stroll in the massive Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Being November they had an incredible chrysanthemum exhibit. The displays were immaculately done and it was obvious that a lot of love was put into them. There were large tranquil ponds, beautiful lush Japanese trees and large grassy areas filled with happy families enjoying the day. We followed a path that took us to a traditional Japanese Tea House that looked really picturesque surrounded by ponds and stone lanterns.
After the park we walked back to the train station and went to the famous Ginza area. The trains were really easy to navigate and we never waited more than 2 minutes for one. We thought it interesting that they were never very packed either. We also noticed how peaceful and immaculately clean it was everywhere. One thing we thought was kind of odd was that there weren’t that many garbage bins around but we later learned that unlike our culture it is considered rude to eat and drink while walking in public, hence the lack of bins.
We never felt unsafe anywhere and even in the thick of a large crowd we all seemed to gracefully weave around each other (that went for the bicycle riders as well). The Japanese are very polite and they love a warm hearty greeting when entering a shop or restaurant, as well as a genuine thank you and goodbye. It was good to have a little Japanese lingo tucked under our belts seeing as their English isn’t the best. But the ones that do know a bit are thrilled to speak with you.
Ginza is an incredible place with streets lined with high-end shops as far as the eye can see. We’re not talking just little shops either. There are actually skyscrapers dedicated to each store and each an architectural piece of art. For instance the Chanel building looks like a bottle of Chanel perfume! When we arrived the whole main street had been blocked off from the traffic so we had the whole street to walk down with thousands of other people. Dusk was setting in which made the plethora of colorful lights beaming off the buildings look really picturesque.
While there we ventured into one of their mammoth shopping malls and checked out their food court. I have to say this place really gives Harrod’s a run for its money. There were immaculate displays of some of the most decadent desserts we’ve ever seen. We tried some kind of delicious chocolate that was like heaven melting in your mouth. We particularly liked this one light layered ring cake that is quite popular in Tokyo called Baumkuchen. It’s actually a German cake but the Japanese love it and so do we! The presentation of their Japanese Gourmet section was also divine. It really seemed that everywhere you looked in Tokyo there were masses of eateries coupled with retail stores.
The next day we walked to Yoyogi Park to see the Meiji Jinju Shrine. At the entrance of the park there was a massive wooden gate where we saw locals bow in respect before passing through. The scene before us couldn’t have been more stunning. We walked along a wide pebble stone path flanked by tall leafy trees. The air that morning was a bit foggy which gave our surroundings a soft ethereal appearance. There was only a trickle of people at that time but soon we started seeing a number of cute little Japanese kids decked out in traditional garb.
How fortunate were we to find out we were witnessing the modern Japanese traditional right of passage called the Shichi-Go-San. This ritual only happens once a year and caters to little 3&7 yr old girls and 3&5 yr old boys. It entails a visit to the Shrine to ward off evil spirits and to promote a long and healthy life. It was a very happy event as you can imagine and parents were going nuts taking photos and videos. The Shrine was a really nice peaceful area with lovely Japanese buildings on exhibit. Also while we were there we got to witness a few traditional weddings. It was really interesting to see the bridal parties in full traditional wear.
Afterwards we kept walking until we got to the other side of the park and ended up in the Harajuku area. This area is well known for its very interesting street fashion. Young people sporting a variety of interesting styles like the Gothic Lolita, Cosplayers, Decora and Visual Kei come to hang out. We saw a few girls really decked out with high platform shoes, crazy colorful knee-highs, poufy skirts, big baby doll hair and makeup that must have taken hours.
A very popular back street to find all of these trendy fashions is called Takeshita. It is a long pedestrian street filled with all kinds of boutiques and of course more eateries. Not too far from there is Harajuku Street that is also a fashion haven but a bit more toned down. And then on the main street running parallel is Omotesando. It is a beautiful road lined with tall trees and high-end shops, cafes, and restaurants this place is also referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees. From there we walked on to the Shibuya area. Did I mention there was a lot of walking involved while in Tokyo?
Shibuya is another massive shopping area and also well known for its nightlife. We had a great time looking at all the different shops and of course some more interesting displays of fashion. This time we had to partake in one of their famous crepe stands (which are everywhere). They were so many flavors to choose from and all melt in your mouth – delicious mmm! Afterwards we decided to retrace our steps and we wearily headed back home – what a long day! We walked all the way back to Shinjuku – a total of about 12 kms walking in that one day.
The next morning we awoke to yet another beautiful autumn day, which was perfect for what we had in store. First on our list was a visit to a place called Rappongi Hills, which is a well-known expatriate area. Once there we headed straight to the Mori Art Museum and Tokyo City View Tower. After paying our 1500¥ entry fee (each) we headed up to the observatory on the 52nd floor. We couldn’t have picked a better day. The panoramic view of Tokyo was superb! Once we did a walk around we saw that for an extra 600¥ we could head up to the open air Sky Deck on the 54th floor. Now that I highly recommend, it certainly gave us a more up close and personal feel. The size of Tokyo is mind boggling to say the least and this is the place to see it in all its glory.
After a quick lunch in Roppongi Hills we hopped on the metro via a series of connections to the Edogawabashi Line (did I mention how incredible their metro system is?!). From there we went on a nice little walk to see the Chinzan-So Gardens at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was a lovely peaceful place with a stone path that meandered through lush gardens, little waterfalls and ponds. The highlight though was a beautiful 3-tiered wooden pagoda brought over from Hiroshima Mountains. It was built without a single nail some 600 hundred years ago and is one of three historical Pagodas found in central Tokyo.
On another sightsee we went to see one of the other pagodas and Tokyo’s oldest and most significant temple. We took a train to the Asakusa Station. We didn’t have to walk far before we saw the Kaminarimon (or Thunder Gate) which is a giant Buddhist structure displaying a massive black and red paper lantern. Beyond this was Nakanise Dori (Street). It’s a great shopping street sporting all kinds of Japanese trinkets and delicacies. This very lively street was nicely decorated with flaming orange fall leaves and packed (very packed) with happy tourists and locals.
At the end of the street were the Senso-ji Buddhist Temple, Asakusa Shrine and Five Storied Pagoda. These buildings were all beautifully done in traditional styled Japanese architecture. At the base of the temple were people smudging themselves with smoke and cleansing with water from a fountain. At the Shrine were two huge metal offering boxes. It sounded like Vegas as people constantly threw coins in.
From there we walked to the Ueno area. This took us through a homewares area where we happened upon a fantastic knife shop where they sold some beautifully designed Kappabashi knives. I kick myself now for not getting one of those babies, the quality looked superb.
Not long after we arrived at the very scenic Ueno Park. This was a great place to stroll around. There were Museums, a Zoo and the Toshogu Shrine. Pathways were flanked by leafy trees and we heard that during the cherry blossom season this place is magic. We could only imagine! There was another marvel at this park called Shinobazu Pond. This was definitely the biggest ‘pond’ we’d ever seen – it covered an area of about 2kms and was blanketed in giant lilies.
Our final destination for the day was to the Akihabara Area, it’s also known as Electric Town. Now this place was ‘different’ but interesting to say the least. Massive skyscrapers adorned with colorful Japanese cartoon advertisements were everywhere! There were heaps of these cartoon shops (most on the sexual side…uh..yeah). We went into a few shops and saw some ‘different’ cartoon photos and videos that I certainly don’t remember seeing as a kid ; )
Along the streets there are girls dressed in cutesy little maid uniforms trying to get you to go into one of their restaurants where you can be dutifully served and treated like a king – too funny! Being lunchtime we decided to give it a go to see what all the hype was about. It wasn’t a cheap experience and one we’ll certainly never forget.
The restaurant we visited was called Maid Dreamin and the décor was hilarious. It literally felt like we had just stepped into a full-blown daggy kiddie wonderland bathed in pastel hell. Areas with cheap plastic furniture (kindergarten style) were sectioned off to give the impression you were in the ocean or woods…etc. Our overly enthusiastic maid was called Miu Kiti. With constantly swinging pigtails adorned with giant pink bows she eagerly sat us down in our pink plastic booth and presented us with a magical welcoming ceremony. In high happy voices we mimicked her bad English to the count of three where she proceeded to blow on a battery operated candle to turn it on – yay! Magic!
We ordered a spaghetti since it was really the only thing on the menu that looked edible. While we waited Miu Kiti proceeded to excitedly jump around trying to chat with us. Unfortunately her English was about as good as our Japanese so that presented a problem. We had visits from all of the other maids, but with that language barrier it didn’t really happen – darn!
When our atrocious meal came in giant heart shaped bowls Miu Kiti did another ceremony where she poured our bland marinara sauce over the pasta in a heart shape (awww) and then showed us some “derishious magic!” We followed suit again and enthusiastically we all made a heart with our hands and pretended to shoot a beam of love into our pasta – yay “derishious magic!” Magic?? I tell ya what was magic – the disappearance of our money – yay not so derishious! And to top it off we couldn’t even take a pic for the memory, darn. Lunch for two cost us a depressing US$70. Maid cafes are best avoided! (Unless of course you’re into derishious magic)
We had one last stop to end our trip and that was to Daiba, which is situated on an island in Tokyo Harbor. At Daiba there is (you guessed it) yet another mall called Decks filled with more shopping and eateries. We thought it fitting for our last meal to be one of Japan’s staple foods called Soba Noodles accompanied with some Asahi beers. The noodles are made out of buckwheat and have a wonderful texture. You can have them hot or cold so we decided to try both and liked them both ways.
After re-fueling ourselves we headed back out. Just down the street from us we happened upon a very peculiar place. It’s called the Nyad Da Café. It is a place dedicated to pedigree cats. We had to pay about 1200¥ each and were given tags and a limited amount of time to stay inside this “cat café”. We were also given a pamphlet on how not to handle a cat – too funny! Being cat lovers we loved this place! There were about 30 different breeds represented. The inside of this place was fairly big and had all the playful fun amenities any cat would want. All of the cats were pretty friendly and you could pet and play with them to your hearts content or until they turned their backs and ignored you. You could even order a drink – it really was a cafe too. We really enjoyed this place although I wish I had brought an antihistamine.
It was dark by this time so we decided to head back home to Shinjuku but not before stopping at our very last sightsee on our whirlwind Tokyo tour – the Tokyo Metropolitan Building at the Tocho-mae Station. Entry was free and we got a fantastic nighttime view of Tokyo from 202 meters up.
We did heaps of walking on this trip but you kinda have to in order to get the real feel of Tokyo. Every area we went to we thoroughly enjoyed, yes even “derishious magic” area. It was all just so different and interesting! We loved the cleanliness and order of Tokyo. We never felt like we were immersed in a sea of chaos. The people were not only extremely polite but also really friendly and I think they have some pretty great fashion sense. The beauty we saw in so many places will forever be in our memories.
I grew up hearing about Japan as a super-expensive place that will leave you broke in days. Things price wise have settled down a lot in Japan and after being to many of the big cities of the world I can say that Tokyo is now one of the cheaper places to visit. Most everything is reasonably priced (except maid cafes!) and if you keep to the cheap, good quality eateries you can eat like a king without breaking your budget.
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!