It has always been my dream to visit Japan, starting with a city that excites me at the mere mention of it and I haven’t even been there yet. Finally making my dream come true I am excitedly flying over to Tokyo for 4 days where my Japanese journey will begin.
Tokyo is very spread out, and divided into 47 neighbourhoods, each of these areas are great for different reasons so there will be many areas you will want to visit. It is ideal to research what to see and where everything is located to help plan your day by day itinerary. The subways or bus routes are fairly easy to navigate and similar to the UK tube system with colour coded lines, however if you are unsure which train to get there are many staff members with great levels of English to help you. Whilst in Japan it is worth getting yourself an IC card which works like our oyster card allowing you to top it up with funds to use on train/buses.
My first full day in Tokyo I have a half day tour with a guide, the guides are great as they will accompany you anywhere you wish to visit using local transport and showing you the best way to navigate the city. You can select the main sights you want to see and let the guide know, they will also have some suggestions for you which is great as they are local to the area. Whilst I am the type of traveller who likes to explore independently, Tokyo can be a mind field for your first time so taking help from a local is well worth it. I am in the land of my dreams and I don’t want to miss a thing or lose time by getting lost.
You can book private tours with a car to get around, but this adds a lot to your cost and you will quickly find out that Tokyo is an expensive city, so you will want to be sensible in an attempt to stretch your holiday allowance. You will learn more by taking public transport and it will cut a lot of time as the train is quicker.
You can have so many different experiences from Tokyo. The city offers history, culture, fascinating technology, great food as well as the wonderfully bizarre sights. I want to try and cram as much of this into my tour.
I start with some history and culture, the Meji Shrine. This is a Shinto shrine built and dedicated to the late emperor Meji, located in a beautiful park. You will first pass through the large gates known as Torii gates which marks the entrance to a shrine, from the gates you take a pleasant walk through the park. After a few minutes’ walk we stop at an area that has some stalls, our guide points out a wall lined with hanging messages that are written onto a wooden plaque known as an ema, you make a donation and receive your ema, just add your wish and leave it at the shrine to come true. They also sell a notebook which you keep with you and take to each temple/shrine around Japan, you will receive a hand painted stamp to mark your visit, this is a beautiful keepsake especially if you visit more than one temple. As we approach the prayer area you need to cleanse your hands and mouth. There is a purification fountain with ladles to do this, there is a method to this which thankfully my guide explains. (You need to take the ladle with your right hand and fill it with water, pour some water into your left hand, hold the ladle with the left hand and pour water onto your right hand, move the ladle back into your right hand and make a cup with the left hand so that you can pour water as if to drink. Pull your left hand to your mouth and rinse then with both hands hold the ladle and drop all the water out so that it drops onto the handle which is cleaning it for the next person).Now I am cleansed, I enter the shrine, donate money into the offering box, bow twice pray then clap twice and bow once more, this is the traditional ritual as explained by my guide.
The Meji shrine is located in an area called Harajuku, after visiting the shrine its great to have a walk around, Harajuku is also known for seeing young teens with outrageous dress sense known as cosplay or Japanese pop culture. The colourful and imaginative outfits are amazing to witness so if you are visiting the area this is a must see along with the shrine.
After witnessing the cosplay, the wonderfully bizarre has tempted me to see more. Famous characters from various computer games such as sonic the hedgehog or famous cartoons like Pokémon or any Anime and Manga originate from Japan. There is an area that is dedicated to all things related to this and that’s called Akihibara, “electronic town”. As soon as you step out of the station it is bright and lit up like Time Square in New York. The first thing I see is a huge Sega sign, it’s almost like a beacon highlighting that I am stepping into a virtual world.
You don’t have to be a fan of any of these trends, but it is a spectacular sight! Akihibara have many maid cafes, if you want to have a quirky lunch surrounded by an anime/manga character then this is where you will want to eat, the food will also have a twist to reflect the theme. A famous maid café is the Kawaii monster café in Harajuku, if you don’t get to try this one its fine as there are many similar options in Akihibara. The reason for my visit to Akihibara today is to have lunch in a hedgehog café. I don’t mean a café with people dressed like hedgehogs or lots of hedgehog themed foods, I mean sipping a coffee while stroking and holding a real-life hedgehog! If you are an animal lover, there are several café’s like this around Tokyo, you can try the cat café, rabbit café I even found the owl café. You pay for a half an hour session with a hedgehog, this allows you to pet them and feed them as much as you want in that time, they don’t particularly clock watch especially if it isn’t too busy so you can end up spending a little longer than your allocated time. Akihibara isn’t the only area that have these cafes, you will also find them in another major neighbourhood called Roppongi, this is a good place to visit in the evenings as it is also a great spot for nightlife. With the half day tour over, I am a lot more confident in using my IC card and getting around the city.
Whilst in Akihibara, especially if you have a day free try another bizarre experience,Mario kart go karting. The main office is located here and they offer several routes taking you on a Go Kart tour of some of the districts in Tokyo. You can choose from a long route or short route, there is an extra charge to hire an action cam if you want to film your whole experience. This is just one of the many quirky experiences you can have in Japan.
Prior to my arrival in Tokyo, I took some very good advise from a Japan expert who told me to make sure I attend a sumo tournament. Tickets are incredibly difficult to obtain due to the popularity, you need to be on the computer as soon as the tickets release for sale. You will find several ticket types; box seats are Japanese style floor seats but if this isn’t for you there are chair seats. Whilst I was excited for the wrestling as I know this is a big event for the Japanese, I became more excited as I spoke to a few locals who were shocked that I managed to get tickets, they explained how big today’s event would be as one of the Sumo heroes would be competing.
The Sumo is located in an area called Ryogoku, there is directions to the stadium from the train station. The neighbourhood is heavily themed around Sumo, in fact if you don’t get to witness a tournament then there are Sumo stables that offer tours to watch the fighters training and learn more about their daily training routine. It is a very short walk from the station, you will know that you are in the right place as the crowds are filling the streets trying to get a last-minute ticket or get a glimpse of their wrestling heroes entering the stadium. When you have your ticket, it will act as a day pass, the tournament is open all day from morning till around 6pm. You wouldn’t really want to attend for the whole day, the morning usually has an opening ceremony and then a few smaller fights throughout the day. You will find the best time to attend is from 4-6pm, the last couple of hours will be the top division fights and the atmosphere is out of this world. You don’t have to be a fan; the lively crowd will automatically draw you in. The fights are short so you will see quite a few bouts. The last half an hour there is a closing ceremony which you can stay for, although you may want to leave a little before so that you are not stuck in a crowd. When you exit the stadium, you will again see a crowd forming outside in the hope of seeing the wrestlers leaving. Loved by their fans you will find the wrestlers taking some time to greet their loyal supporters. The recommendation to attend the wrestling is definitely great advice, try and add this in to your trip.
A lot of people will tell you how expensive the city is, but amazingly there is a lot of sights to visit with free entry. Most of the shrines are free to enter, some historical sites may charge a very small amount. I have decided to start early in the morning and continue with some history. Imperial Palace, this is free to enter and you can walk around all the picturesque gardens or the Edo ruins and old guard houses. The nearest stations are Otemachi or Tokyo central station, both within walking distance. If you get to the gardens early you will see that it has become a major running track for many of the fitness goers. I found this really fascinating as I saw runners from as young as fifteen to as old as 80 participating, if running isn’t for you cycling is the other popular way to get around the palace gardens.
One of the famous tours to do in Tokyo is the Tsukiji fish market. For this ideally to be worthwhile you need to be up at early hours of the morning, great if you are suffering with jetlag as you will be up early hours more than likely. I stupidly didn’t check the best time to go beforehand so when I mentioned to my guide that I would like to visit she advised that if you don’t go first thing and see the action you can only visit the outer market so you miss part of the experience. Visiting just the outer market is fine to do as there are many restaurants serving their catch of the day, it will be some of the best sushi you will ever eat, for this you won’t need to be there too early although most of the shops close by 3pm. This is sadly one of the experiences I missed out on, this has made me realise how big Tokyo is and how much time is required to see everything.
Trying to squeeze in as many districts as I can in my short time, I head to Shibuya. This is a busy district with lots of shopping, great restaurants but the highlight is the crossing. When you arrive at the station there is a viewing platform looking down onto the famous crossing, it is one of the busiest intersections in the world. Japan is very organised with road crossings, there is no jay walking or people making a quick dash across the street. This is why the crossing is so fascinating, when the light turns red, all the lights turn red at the same time allowing a mass of people crossing from all different directions. From the viewing deck it is great fun and a good place to get your picture or video. You will definitely not be the only one taking a picture, you will see a line of mobile phones beside you capturing the moment, you will even find some walking in the middle of it and filming their crossing. There is also a Starbucks which has seating upstairs viewing onto the crossing, great place to have a coffee, people watch or watch the intersection every few minutes.
I have been recommended a few other top things I must do whilst I am here so I make my way over to another huge district in Tokyo called Shinjuku. The station is one of the busiest stations with quite a few exits so you may need to ask for some help getting around. Shinjuku is a great and busy centre for shopping, restaurants or a great spot for nightlife. I decide to stop for lunch in a restaurant called Ninja. They have a chain located around Tokyo and Kyoto there is even a branch in New York. Designed to look like an Izakaya (traditional Japanese dining) there is a great selection of food, but the highlight is to dine in the style of a traditional samurai. This is great for all ages, children would enjoy this especially as there is entertainment whilst you eat. You enter through a curtained entrance; your hostess is a small robot welcoming you (I am sure this has no relation to the Ninja history but it is great fun) then you are guided through a secret door and led down a low-lit corridor to your own private room and sat at the traditional style Japanese table. When you make the restaurant reservation you would have selected your set courses beforehand. It is very quiet and you are assigned one ninja who will be your main waiter throughout. The food presentation is themed around the samurais and all have a mystical effect to it, the desert is the show stopper, it looks like a real bonsai tree and you are given wooden tree clippers to cut the piece of tree you want to eat, the whole tree is edible and incredibly delicious. All of this is followed up with a magic show performed by the master samurai which is very impressive and quite comical. The experience at Ninja seems hard to top but believe me in Tokyo there are many things that can top this.
Staying in Shinjuku I have booked a show that is the talk of the town, The Robot show at the robot restaurant. The walk to the restaurant is about ten minutes from the rail station and located in an area of Shinjuku called Kabukicho. This is a neon lit lively street similar to Akihibara, with lots of restaurants and bars, there is a real buzzy feel to it. It is also known as Tokyo’s red-light district, but don’t let this put you off as there are some great spots to visit, just keep in mind that you may find next to your chosen restaurant or bar an adult only show. Kabukicho can be easily missed, so when you ask for directions, most people will tell you to look out for the Gracery hotel which is a major landmark for finding your way around Shinjuku, it is also known as the Godzilla hotel because of the huge statue peering from the 8thfloor. As I approach the area I see a poster advertising the Robot show, eventually you will see the entrance with brightly lit writing and music. You can buy your tickets on the spot but it can get booked up very quick, I strongly recommend pre-booking. The show offers 4 times daily starting at 3pm and lasting two hours. They offer food during the show but I would recommend having a proper meal elsewhere don’t expect a full sit-down dinner, there are snacks and drinks both alcoholic or non-alcoholic that you can purchase before the performance.
Once you have your ticket, you will be led upstairs into the main bar and waiting area until the show is ready to seat you in the main theatre. Whilst you wait they have a very talented robot playing a guitar (it’s a man dressed as a robot), like I said this is going to be exciting but bizarre. The reviews about the show online are very mixed with this being a tourist trap and prices inside the venue are expensive. That perhaps is the case but it is always great to see these things for yourself, some ticket purchases include a drink and as for food a box of popcorn won’t break your bank balance. Once the robot finishes playing the guitar, they announce for you all to head downstairs and sit on your allocated seat ready for the show. There is another opportunity to buy drinks or snacks as vendors stand in the centre and entice you with their latest cocktail offers and snacks. I opted for a colourful cocktail served in a lightbulb style glass that flashes different colours (yes, I am a typical tourist falling for the cheesy drink glass). This is a pricey drink, but, I get to keep the glass as a souvenir so it’s a win win for everyone.
I take a look around at the other attendees and notice that the majority are adults, however there are two children with their parents so this is a family show. The vendors wheel away their snacks, the lights go out and then we see a lot of large floats enter the room playing loud drums. All performers dressed like robots or an anime style character. I am already very impressed with the drumming, they have the whole crowd drawn in immediately and clapping in time with the beat. The various performance follows with dancing, acting, light shows and music, there is a story line with each performance which admittedly isn’t the easiest to follow but you will forgive this when you watch all the incredible and lively performances. The robot restaurant is definitely a tourist trap, but it is the best tourist trap I have ever been to, I think everyone should see this. The show has a great reputation already amongst tourists, as I leave they have music and a couple of wax models of the characters outside enticing people to the venue, there is a queue of people getting a picture with the robots.
Tokyo is coming to an end and I have barely scratched the surface of places to see, I could happily spend a week in this city, I still feel as if I have missed out on so much. Believe me Japan has a lot to offer so as much as I want to stay in Tokyo, I know that the rest of the country will blow my mind.
To round off my time in Tokyo, I have booked an evening Izakaya tour. An Izakaya is a Japanese style pub which offers a casual evening of drinks and probably some of the best food you will ever try in Japan. With the reputation of being an expensive country, you will find that the Izakayas (there are many to choose from) are extremely reasonable in price, you can eat very well. The English is slightly less spoken and menus will be in Japanese, but, the menus all have pictures and some even have replica plastic displays of their dishes. The detail in the plastic displays are brilliant, if you want to know if there is seafood in the dish for example, you will see this very clearly in the display. Drinks are equally well priced, an Izakaya is great fun as you find a lot of the local Tokyoites heading for a quick bite and some drinks after work. It has the buzzy feel of a Friday night after work in London. The Izakaya are all over the city, so have a look at the menu that takes your fancy and head on in. I chose to dine in Ginza, another famous district known for designer shopping but also has great nightlife and lots of Izakayas to choose.
The tour is great fun as you will be met by your guide at about 7 in the evening, in my case my guide is an American who has lived in Tokyo for 5 years. This made the evening even better to have someone who ordered for me and got me to sample his top recommendations. Living in Japan gave my guide some great knowledge of the culture and places to go, it was great to learn more about what to do the next time I come to Tokyo. We had some Japanese beer and some incredible fast food, noodles, meats and lots of vegetarian options. With great food and fantastic company, I don’t want this evening to end, seeing Tokyo through a local eye helps to see it in such a different way.
After feeling full and semi drunk, Mike (my guide) suggests I do the other famous thing in Japan on a night out, Karaoke! Big echo is the place to be for this and they have a chain of these throughout the city. You book slots and rent a private room for hour or two hours which includes a few rounds of drink. There is a screen and a huge catalogue of all the latest hits for you to belt out your performance. This is not something I would usually do as I generally save my singing performances for my car journeys or in my shower, after a couple more drinks I turn into Lady Gaga and sing my heart out to the room. After my time is up we have a walk around Ginza which is all lit up at night, we find another bar for one last drink and to reflect on my time in Tokyo, the culture the food the history and the bizarre, I don’t want to leave this fascinating city. The Izakaya evening is a fantastic way to end your time and I highly recommend adding this into your stay.
My evening has come to an end, it is time to bid farewell and good night to a city I have fallen completely in love with.
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