After the devastation of the second world war, Japan rose to be one of the economic superpowers in the world, in just 40 years. So maybe therefore the strong traditional and religious beliefs are so extremely juxtaposed with the new neon modernism, especially in Tokyo. It’s the birthplace of Japanese Zen Buddhism, that emphasizes self-restraint VS K pop, meditation and insight into the nature of things VS Robot bars and being for the benefit of others VS Shibuya crossing madness. Maybe since there are so many people crammed into relatively small spaces that there is such extreme order, politeness, respect and cleanliness. The toilets at the underground stations are spotless. The street sweeper cleans his street with tweezers. There is no drinking, eating or smoking on the streets of Tokyo, it’s considered impolite to do so.
If you are a bit apprehensive about going to Tokyo or Japan, like we were, there is no reason to be we found out. If you like order and cleanliness, you will love it. We found that there were no problems finding reasonably priced hotels, cheap meals and getting to the right destination on the trains and underground. Everything is clearly marked; we had no troubles at all in Tokyo. Language barrier is a small issue, not many Japanese speak English, but with smiles and positive attitude, no worries. If you stand for more than 60 seconds at a street or by an underground map, you will have a new friend who will not only tell you which way to go, but who will gladly follow you to your correct exit. In short, we loved Japan more than we thought we would, and we need to go back and explore more. This is our “Japan in 9 days” trip – we got to see amazing things in our short visit, and it was enough days to experience and savor a small taste of Japan. Oh, and did we mention the food? It’s just amazeballs!
Our arrival coincided with the Sakura (March-April approx.), the blooming of the cherry blossoms all over Japan. It’s a big thing, maybe the biggest thing on the Japanese calendar. They have forecasts from January predicting when the Sakura will begin.
Flight and arrival
Our flight from Oslo via Helsinki was with Finnair and codeshare with Japan Airways, convenient in the way of not having to detour somewhere to southern Europe before heading eastwards, and great new planes on all flights.
All our hotels were booked with Booking.com – we use this site on most travels, you can book without paying in advance, and also you can cancel or rebook most bookings until the same afternoon as you arrive. Convenient if you have to change plans in a hurry.
Phrases and bowing in Japan
If you feel like learning a few useful words in Japanese, I would recommend “oishii” which means delicious, you can throw that word around a lot, and everyone will light up, just say it like you mean it! “Kanpai” is of course useful, cheers is a word you should know in every language. To say thank you there is several ways “arigato” is a simple thank you, “domo” is a friendly thank you, if you combine the two to “domo arigato” you have thank you very much. “Arigato gozaimasu” is the formal thank you very much, and this is a phrase you will meet often, and can use often. In any shop, restaurant, hotel or otherwise when you have no relation to the person you are talking to, and they or you want to say thank you, of course followed with a bow. If you add “domo” to this phrase, you have a formal thank you very much. Easy. Greetings go after the time of day, “Ohayo” is hello in the morning, “konnichiwa” is hello in the afternoon and “konbanwa” is hello after sunset. Good night is a mouthful “oyasuminasai”. Most of the hello and thank you expressions are followed by a bow, and it is courteous to bow back. There is a lot of bowing in Japan, so get used to bowing a lot. You can bow standing still, and we found that bowing while walking is perfectly ok. There is a whole science to bowing, I won’t even try to explain everything, just bow like you mean it, and keep your back straight while doing it, and you’ll be ok on most occasions. It’s better to bow like a beginner, than not to bow at all.
After boarding the airport express train from Narita it was a leisurely 50 minutes to central Tokyo. We were spat out at Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest transport hub, with close to 4 million travelers average per day (!) and 53 platforms in total, it’s quite the introduction to Tokyo. After looking for the correct exit, we kind of found it, and started making our way to our hotel. It was extremely overwhelming to suddenly be in the middle of Tokyo, with the people, the neon signs, and a bunch of jetlag adding to frayed nerves. Thank god for Google maps on that first encounter with Shinjuku! We had made a booking for 3 nights at Shinjuku Granbell Hotel – it looked good, had what we thought was a nice location (it’s always hard to know with a new city) and the price was good. The hotel was located in the sex hotel district of Shinjuku, but do not be alarmed! Those hotels are for the locals that still live home with mom and dad and need some privacy on their dates with boyfriends or girlfriends. You can choose to rest for 1, 2 or 3 hours, or stay for 24 hours. They are all themed, and more like Disneyland for adults, than a seedy thing. So, no worries, it’s completely safe (like the rest of Tokyo). The hotel is also not far from a very cool area known as a Golden Gai. The Golden Gais are old districts of food and drink, tight streets and even tighter bars and small hole in the wall restaurants. That these places still exist, not having been bulldozed a long time ago, is a stroke of luck. There are still a few very good Golden Gais left in Shinjuku. The bars/restaurants have places ranging from 5 to maybe 30 guests, tight squeeze for all, be sure that you will get to know thy neighbour. Most bars accept visitors, but also expect to be denied, even though the bar is empty. Most of them have a cover charge, some are free. Just try and sit down, you may get yelled at, just try the next place. It’s epic, like being in Blade Runner if it rains. It’s a must visit when in Tokyo.
It’s relatively easy to make your way around Tokyo. The public transport is excellent, and they are used to handling big crowds. The stations, trains and buses are spotless. Move with the crowd and you will go with the flow more easily. Note the footprints on the station floor by the platform’s edge, this is where you stand when boarding the trains. Let off passengers first. There are attendants everywhere, and the toilets are cleaner than most domestic toilets we’ve ever seen. We used the underground for the most part. All lines are colour coded with letters naming the lines, the M line is red for instance. All stations are numbered on each line, all stations, upcoming and previous are clearly marked on led signs in every carriage, both in local writing and western letters. We had no trouble finding our way around stations or ending up on correct trains. Probably the easiest setup ever seen on our travels. Buy a PASMO card at Tokyo Metro and fill it with desired amount of credits to ride around. Visit the metro site for maps and other ticket options.
What to see in Tokyo?
We spent 3 nights in Tokyo. It was enough time to get a feel for the city, and to see the major sights, but you will need weeks if you want to dive deeper into Tokyo. Like with every big city in the world, it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface within a few days. So, you need to read up on sights that you like the look of, not necessarily the sights that anyone else likes. There are musts in any city, and there are places that maybe only a few will go to, but we feel that doing research is crucial to any big city visit with limited time to look around.
Tokyo Imperial Palace is top of the list on anyone’s first visit to Tokyo. Surrounded by parks and gardens, it is a quiet haven in the busy city, although quiet is not necessarily what you will get, expect throngs of people. Since it was the Sakura while we visited, it was busier than ever, thousands of people eating under the cherry trees, and thousands more walking the walls and moats taking in the awesome sights of the trees with their pink and white flowers. The area is big, some parts are closed off and only accessible to the Imperial Family itself, it’s their residence after all. We spent more than half a day walking around the different gardens, sitting down for tea looking at the moats with hundreds of rowing boats with couples looking for romance under the blooming trees. There are good guided tours, but none was available. For us a highlight was walking around the Nippon Budokan arena, built to host judo tournaments for the 1964 Olympics, for us it’s the venue for legendary “Live At The Budokan” albums from Cheap Trick and Bob Dylan, plus it hosted concerts by The Beatles (first band to play here) to ABBA on their last tour.
That same day we also visited Koishikawa Korakuen Japanese garden not far from Tokyo Dome. One of the oldest and best Japanese gardens in Tokyo, it’s well worth a visit. The garden reproduces famous landscapes in miniature and there are plenty of trails and hidden paths which lead to beautiful viewpoints over the garden. It’s a much quieter place compared to the Imperial Garden for instance, so if you have the time, make the visit.
Sensoji temple is a buddhist temple located in the north area of Asakusa (also nearest station). It’s one of Tokyo’s most popular and colourful temples. It’s also the oldest temple in Tokyo, dating from 645 AD. There is a 200 meters shopping street from the first to the second gate, selling typical Japanese souvenirs. Also there are plenty of snack bars, both in the shopping street, and out behind the temple. We found our visit a bit overwhelming, the crowds were extensive, and we had run a bit low on energy that afternoon.
Not something you do without paying a price. So, we had a quick look around, walked the grounds and took some pictures, and got out of there. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the crowds in Tokyo, and this was a case of overcrowding combined with an empty stomach – a bad combo. We found a good Izakaya (Japanese informal bar/small eatery) to have some snacks and a beer just to calm our nerves. The temple and the grounds around it were beautiful, we just did not have our best energy with us to handle the crowds.
Next day we made our way to The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. It has two free observation decks at 202 meters above sea level, giving excellent views of the Tokyo skyline and all the way to Mount Fuji. Be there early to avoid queues, they open 09:30 a.m., so we suggest to be there at 09:00 a.m. latest. After our lofty visit, we took the train to Yoyogi Koen station and walked to Fuglen coffee shop to get some caffeine at the hippest Norwegian place outside of Norway. After getting your caffeine hit, walk the backstreets towards the busiest intersection (if you count the pedestrians and tourists taking photos while crossing) in the world. The Shibuya crossing has featured in movies, in every travel program from Tokyo, and well deservedly. It’s a spectacle to see and be there. Our best advice is to enter the Starbucks on the north side 1st floor, and get a seat by the window, and just do some people watching for a while. The ebb and flow of the crowds crossing are epic, and there is always some idiot trying to get that last photo while the crossing is empty, but he/she always ends up nearly getting run over by a car or a Mario Cart.
Its not a too long stroll from Shibuya to Harajuku. If you do the walk, then you should do the Cat Street, running between the two parts of the city. It’s hipster’s paradise, with lots of shops, cafes and smaller places that sell whatever you don’t need. From Shibuya you walk the Meiji-dori avenue north, and you will encounter the start of the street on the right, you will see the golden egg. Keep walking up the street, it will split up into smaller parallel streets, with lots of cool small shops. And it you keep heading up the hill, you will eventually be in Harajuku. Harajuku refers to the area around the Harajuku station, which is between Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Yamanote line. It’s the centre of all that is extreme in the Japanese youth culture, fashion and styles. It offers bonkers shopping, the people watching is epic. If you can find a place to sit and gawk at all the craziness walking by, this is the place to do it. It’s the sort of place you must experience. The Harajuku girls have been the topic of songs, movies and cartoons. This is cosplay central, and Tokyo’s centre of kawaii, the culture of cuteness in Japan. The whole area was mayhem when we visited, on a Saturday afternoon. Thousands of youth cramming the streets, the underground station was so full that no one seemed to be able to move, not getting in and not getting out. Everyone seemed to accept this, and just kept standing, making it a hive of pink and purple hair and the odd mohawk. We basically gave up, and opted to walk to the nearest station north of there, together with hundreds of other people, who got the same idea. One of the most bonkers “only in Japan” moments on our trip.
Where to eat?
This is a hard question. We prefer to just “find a place” that looks good and sit down and see what happens. Tokyo is of course known for good food, especially sushi. So, you will find plenty of places with decent food, if you want the gourmet Michelin star experience, you need to book years in advance, or be prepared to stand in line for hours. We ate at local hole in the wall like the Sugoi Niboshi Ramen Nagi in Goldengai Bekkan. Small place with just a bar counter with chefs behind it. Remember to look for the vending machine at the door in most small eateries in Tokyo, it’s where you make your order and pay, and then present your receipt to the chef behind the counter, and he will make up your order.
Do NOT sit down and expect service at the counter, we did, and was told to head out the door (we thought) but they just (we think) said that we needed to order on the machine by the door. Delish ramen noodles in heavenly broth followed. We also found a good tempura (deep fried in batter stuff) place, since Shinjuku is known for good tempura places. This place was recommended in several places, and we had a blast at tempura Tsunahachi Shinjuku So Honten, it’s worth the wait. Again, we were placed on a bar counter with a stern looking chef behind it, watching over a large cauldron of hot oil. We ordered a tasting of all they had, and we got everything from fresh eel to lotus root. Dining with locals on the chair next to you is always cool, Ørjan ended up befriending a slightly drunk local, both spoke in their native tongues, and had a great time. “Vikingu” was the only thing we understood of the flow of Japanese from the man, lots of “kanpai” and “oishii” made the conversation flow back and forth. Those moments are what we live for, great food, drinks and speaking across language barriers over the love of life. We also tried Korean bbq, there was a street just behind our hotel packed with small bbq joints. You sit at a small table, get the grill between you on the table, and basically grill whatever you order. Everything from small intestine and uterus to kobe beef and wagyu. We have a general rule, if the place if full of locals, GO! If its empty or full of what looks like tourists, avoid!
Thank you Tokyo! It was an awesome experience to walk the streets of Tokyo and experience a culture that is SO different from anything we have in Europe. The kawaii culture is something else, and like most things in modern Tokyo, everything is taken to the max! We will come back one day, bacause we need to explore more, see more and immerse ourselves more in a unique culture, until next time Tokyo!