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Gavin Explores – Tokyo

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In May 2018 my partner and I did a bit of a whistle stop tour of 4 cities in Japan and Korea. Tokyo was the first stop and we fell in love with it.

Getting There

Our flights were a very reasonable £500 return (Heathrow – Tokyo) with Finnair, which meant a short swap in Helsinki, but I cherish any opportunity to see some Moomin teddy bears. Although we were very pleased with the price of our flights, I am aware through friends that flights are available for cheaper, and in some cases much cheaper. Finding a cheap flight is often hard when you are restricted to annual leave and want to maximise time in your final destination, but that my friends, is another post that will appear in the future.

Tokyo is huge. It a while to get your head around just how huge. But in square miles, it’s twice as big as London, with more people in it than all of Canada. To understand Tokyo, you need to think of it as a group of cities, with different identities and styles. We spent a lot of our time around Shinjuku with trips to the other parts of the city.

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Tokyo is filled with beautiful flowers.

Accommodation

We stayed visited Tokyo twice and had two very different places to stay. Initially we stayed in a small but lovely Airbnb in the Shinjuku district (about 20 minutes walk from central Shinjuku). The flat was tiny but perfectly functioning, I’m assuming that space is not a luxury many can afford in Tokyo. Also, the Airbnb came with a pebble wifi, which we carried around with us and gave us wifi throughout Tokyo. I cannot understate how useful this was for us both; being able to translate, google search and use maps on the go was a life saver.

We were back in Tokyo at the end of our trip for our returning flight to England, this time we stayed in the Akasaka region (the business area). Here we stayed in the Hotel Risveglio, small rooms but lovely place in a good central location.

Accommodation is expensive in Tokyo, the airbnb was around £80 a night, and the hotel came in a little over that at about £90. Out of the two places we stayed, I think the Airbnb was better for us, the location was perfect and we felt more at home. Hotels make me feel uneasy sometimes, but obviously that is a personal preference. Just shop around, as there are bargains to be snagged.

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Tokyo Tower

Getting Around

Metro

Once we gotten our heads around how to get their IC travel cards (the Japanese version of an Oyster Card) it was relatively easy to navigate. There are two options, we went for the Pasmo Card. In Narita airport we had a chat with someone who advised us on which train, and we just went on our merry way with our Pasmo Cards. You can top up your your IC/Pasmo card, you can top them up in the stations, and the journeys are charged for your distance, similar to the TFL system. But generally, in the week we were there I think we only spent about £30 on travel.

Tokyo is HUGE, and the metro system looks super intimidating, as does the London Underground to many first time visitors, but as with the Tube, all you need to do is to prepare, and to take your time. Each metro station is given code with a letter (representing the line it’s on) and a number (consequential from where the line starts/ends) and also a colour (the colour of the line). This becomes a great way to understand where to get off/on if you are struggling to understand some of the names. For example, our nearest station was Shinjuku Sanchome, which was on the Maranouchi Line M09, the Shinjuku Line S02 and the Fukutoshin Line F13 (as a side note, the name Maranouchi is so pleasing to say). This is just a nice side note that I found to be very helpful.

Another useful thing in the metro stations is the exits map in each station. The Metro stations are very big, we often found ourselves walking 500m to the line we wanted, all within one station. So if you have a particular place you want to go to, it’s very useful to check the exit maps and make sure you leave in the right direction. It took us a while to get this and would often be going back on ourselves above ground and battling busy streets.

Walking

We were extremely luck to have the pebble Wi-Fi. Having Google Maps on the go I think is one of the reasons that Tokyo had so little stress for us. We Found ourselves walking through a lot of the different areas of the city, as the weather was nice and we wanted to take it all in. If you don’t have a pebble Wi-Fi, there is generally access to internet in lots of different areas and hot spots, or get hold of a physical map or guide book. An important thing to note is that the Japanese wait for the green man to appear at crossings, even when the roads are empty. No idea why, if it’s a respect for the rules thing, or jaywalking is illegal but we often had to stop ourselves crossing an empty road when the pedestrian lights were on red.

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At many of the shrines you can select a fortune, bad fortunes are discarded and tied to stands.

Eating & Drinking

I don’t eat fish, I wish I did, but I really really don’t like it. This made me anxious with going to Japan as I know they have a fish heavy diet. I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of food and the fact it wasn’t entirely fish based. Chopstick skills are necessary for Japan, which I would *think* is self explanatory, but if you are thinking of going and have never picked up some chopsticks, give it a go. Also, if you eat in a smaller Japanese ‘fast food’ style restaurant, you will have to become accustomed to ordering food on a computer or iPad and have it brought out to you.

The Japanese do amazing snacks. The most delicious snacks. You should definitely embrace the snacks. Also if you go to a 7/11 or one of the small convenience stores you will find rice snacks in all flavours. These are amazing, great and cheap way to fill up throughout the day. I would often go for the chicken or sticky rice, Andrew went for one of the fish varieties and I tried the picked pear and it was delicious. So go eat a pickled pear in rice.

In terms of drinking, the Golden Gai has an area just off from Shinjuku where you will find older more traditional bars. The bars are small, but very efficient. It’s a good place to go for an evening drink.

Restaurants

Many of the places we did eat were either independent small restaurants that will not have any online presence, or alternatively were entirely in Japanese so we have no idea what the name was. There were a few places which I would recommend though.

Aaliya (Shinjuku) – A small but wonderful restaurant that introduced us to Japanese French Toast. Japanese bread is slightly different to the bread we are used to, it’s much softer and dare I say, somewhat *moist*. Aaliya opens at 10, and serves the most delicious breakfast.

Bill’s – This is an Australian chain in Japan which serves fantastic food, and if you go to the Harujuku restaurant, it has an amazing view from the decking outside. I had the absolute worst case of food envy when Andrew had the pancakes for breakfast and in a moment of dietary consciousness I opted for the delicious-but-definitely-not-pancake-delicious fritters.

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My food envy in Bill’s nearly killed me.

Yurakucho Restaurants – In the railway arches between Shimbashi station and Yarukucho are a series of small but brilliant restaurants for you to peruse. This spot seems very popular with both tourists and Tokyoans and we have several delicious meals around here and it just became one of our favourite spots to get dinner. There is such a good vibe around here, so if you don’t check it out for food, definitely go for a walk around if you want to go shopping in nearby Ginza.

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Yarukucho

Things To Do

I mean where do you even begin with Tokyo? There is so much to do and I won’t even pretend to know a comprehensive list of activities however I know we managed to fit quite a lot into the time we were there.

Tsukiji Fish Market – This famous fish market is a great experience, but if you want to see the fish auction you need to be up early doors, like stupidly early doors. In one place I read you should be there pretty much from the night before. Either way, we got there in the morning at about 9am and walked around all the fish stalls. We missed out on any of the goings on in the inner market, but walking around the outer market and seeing a lot of the fish prepared was really fascinating.

Games Arcades - I mean these are quintessential Japan to me. Dotted all over Tokyo, but especially around the larger touristy areas, you can find games arcades covering many floors with a number of different styles of games. If you aren’t fan of playing games, they are worth checking out for the people watching. The dancing consoles are on another level, and my mind was blown watching a guy bash out a keyboard inspired musical game where his hands moved faster than my eyes could track. Everyone should be made to play the drumming game though. It’s so much damn fun.

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Watching people bash out a dance routine on these is a must

Tokyo Tower – The second tallest tower in Tokyo, but arguably the more famous of the two, Tokyo Tower is between Roppongi and the river. Clearly built to mug off the Eiffel Tower (it’s 13m taller), you can get a great (if not a bit OTT) experience when going up to the very top deck as you are guided through a number of levels with a great wealth of information about the construction. You get some real breathtaking views from the top and I would really recommend the full shebang.

Hamarikyu Gardens – These wonderful gardens are located near the river in South Eastern Tokyo. Like most parks you have to pay to get in, but once you’re in you can spend a good few hours walking around these beautiful solemn gardens and taking in the peace and quiet. We were here on a particularly muggy day and it was a nice way to get away from the stress and heat of the city.

Imperial Palace – One of the most famous areas on Tokyo is the Imperial Palace and the huge surrounding gardens. Visitors are not allowed access to the Palace, but everyone is allowed into the gardens. Beautifully manicured and great to mooch around. Incidentally, I proposed here, so it means a lot to me.

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The Imperial Gardens.

Shrines and Temples – Throughout Japan there are thousands of shrines and temples, and Tokyo is no exception. We visited a few different shrines, but the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa was by far the biggest and best for us. It got very busy, so I would recommend going early if you want to check it out. Take some time to walk around Asakusa as it has some wonderful windy streets and a great covered market. We also took a walk through the woods to the Meiji Shrine just out from Harujuku. This shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji who is celebrated for embracing Western culture and technology and making Japan the country it is today. The wooded area surrounding the the Shrine makes for a lovely long walk and is a good antidote for the busy city.

Harujuku – We took a morning to head over to Harujuku, which is a really interesting part of the city. Traditionally this is where you will see people dressed up in Cosplay and all that gubbings, but I suspect this is an evening occurrence so it was quite quiet while we were there. It’s also a really interesting area to walk around, it’s very ‘alternative’ and definitely stands out from the other parts of Tokyo we saw. Lots of Harley Davidsons, lots of surfery shops. Worth going for a mooch.

Kabuki-Za Theatre – The traditional art of Japanese Theatre is called Kabuki. Imagine the white-face Japanese samurai you will no doubt have seen images of. Essentially at this theatre we watched an hour long Kabuki show, which was very interesting, but entirely in Japanese. If you get there early enough you can get a seat, we had to stand which was fine, but we were up in the nose bleeds and some of the shows last for up to 3 hours, so make sure if you are standing that you get a shorter show.

Shibuya Crossing – This is the famous X crossing in Tokyo where hundreds of people flood the roads the moment the green man appears. If you can get a spot in the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing you can do some amazing people watching. Shibuya is a busy and active area with a lot of tourists and it seems a lot of the Japanese younguns hang out at night, it’s definitely worth exploring. At night there are a lot of club touts and people trying to get you to go to their whatever business and at the weekend there were a lot of drunk people, which is to be expected, but it’s the most ‘Tokyo’ part of the city. Quintessential Tokyo.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – We were tired when we arrived to Tokyo, and this plaza was a nice place to sit and chill. It’s about 5 minutes walk from Shinjuku and is a lovely place to check out. There isn’t an awful lot to do there, but I like that when you’re in a busy city. You can go up to the observation deck of the government building for free (I found it was quite rare to find free things), and if you time it right you can get up there for a beautiful sunset. Try to give it enough time though, there can be a bit of wait to get up there.

Mount Fuji – We took a day trip out to Hakone to see Mount Fuji. We were out early doors and back in the evening because we had a flight to catch in the evening, but it is possible if you have time to spend two days out there. We arranged our day pass and tickets through a tour guide travelled to Hakone first thing. It’s obviously a very touristy trip, but because we got out early we seemed to avoid a lot of the morning rush. In Hakone you can a long round trip to take in the sights which includes a bus, a boat, a series of cable cars, a funicular and probably something else, a tram maybe? it was all pretty fun. All of this takes you on a big loop of the area. I can see how it would be nice to do it leisurely over two days, but it’s not essential. I think we also did it backwards too, as we seemed to be going against the flow. We were lucky that we managed to see Mount Fuji. Apparently visibility is often very bad. People have been a lot closer than we were and not managed to see it, so don’t count on seeing it when you get to Hakone, but the trip itself is worth making.

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Hakone Shrine

Shopping - While we were over here, I bought myself a new Nikon Camera and a lens. Both were second hand (but in a brand-new-second-hand sort of way) and work great, and the total came to about 1/3 of what you would pay in England. If you are spending over a certain amount (I think 10,000 yen), make sure to take your passport as you can ask to get tax free, which obviously reduces the price, but make sure to ask about this in store. For camera shops, I would recommend Bic Camera or Map Camera (where I bought my camera). The electronic department stores are fascinating. When you’re tired, go try out the massage chairs. There are people in them that are flat out asleep. Snoring, people were actually snoring. But you can legit go and have 10 minutes rest in them, and get a massage. Ginza has a lot of big fancy shops, which if it is your thing (not really mine) then it’s worth checking out.

Before we went to Tokyo, many people told me how much I would love it. I wasn’t so sure, as I live in a big busy city and want relaxation from my holidays. I was wrong. Andrew and myself fell in love with Tokyo. The people, the sites, the tastes.

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