My big travel adventure last year was to Japan. I’ve visited Japan before as a teenager and can say that I am just as fascinated by this beautiful country now as I was then. I went with my two of my closest friends and we had the trip of a lifetime! We flew into Tokyo’s Narita airport which is about a 12 hour, non-stop flight from Chicago O’Hare. Despite no sleep, we hit the ground running in Tokyo…
Our first stop after checking into the hotel was to Afuri. Afuri is a really popular ramen place that has a few locations in Tokyo. We went to the one in Shinjuku located in the basement of the train station. Shinjuku train station is huge and filled with amazing shops and restaurants. Afuri allows you to order your ramen using a vending machine type contraption. You sit at the counter and eat and they have little baskets to put your belongings in. I had the vegan ramen which was made with vegetable broth. Most Japanese ramen broth is made with pork, so if you’re vegetarian or vegan, make sure to ask for vegetable broth (if they offer it). Afuri is delicious but no frills and the ramen comes pretty quickly.
After dinner we decided to head back to our hotel. We stayed at the Park Hyatt where the movie Lost In Translation was filmed. I made sure to watch the movie right before the trip and was really excited to get a drink at the infamous New York bar. The bar has phenomenal views and a Jazz trio every night. The drinks are outrageously expensive but the bar snacks and people watching make up for the price. The crowd is mostly tourists and on the older side. My only complaint is that smoking is allowed in the bar and we ended up smelling like cigarette smoke afterward.
On our second day in Tokyo, we got up early to check out the Tsukiji Fish market. This massive market is in the eastern part of Tokyo and is known all over the world. The inside area is accessible to the public only at certain times and is where all of the sushi restaurants in Japan (including Jiro sushi in Ginza and Roppongi Hills) get their sushi from. There are many little intersecting streets around it lined with various vendors selling everything from the famous Japanese sweet egg omelettes (Tamagoyaki), mochi, spices, to tons of cooked and raw seafood. This wasn’t my favorite part of the city but it’s definitely worth visiting once. I wasn’t a fan of the fishy smells…
We stopped in the Ginza district for lunch. Ginza has tons of luxury shops, a pharmacy if you need one, and one of Japan’s most famous department stores – Mitsukoshi. If you are looking for mall food court type food, the top floor of Mitsukoshi is perfect. It’s a good place to just relax and take in the views of Ginza. The basement is reminiscent of Macy’s and has a sprawling food market.
We took taxis everywhere our first few days in Tokyo since we were too tired to navigate the trains. The trains are actually not difficult to use and the touch screens for tickets can easily be switched to English. Our hotel was helpful in providing a train map but we also had many friendly locals offer to help us. The trains are super cheap and efficient but hot on the summer and crowded. You can buy individual tickets before each ride (you don’t need to get a Japan rail pass ahead of time). You need to keep your ticket to exit the train station so hang on to it! The bullet train or Shinkansen takes off from Tokyo station and is more expensive then the regular city trains. Make sure to stop by the train ticket office at Tokyo station if you are buying a bullet train ticket – it’s much less confusing vs. using the automated machines. Taxis in Tokyo are tourist friendly but really expensive. Most restaurants and taxis take credit cards in Tokyo. You need cash for the local trains but can use your credit card to buy the bullet train tickets.
After lunch and some shopping in Ginza for chopsticks and toys we headed back to Shinjuku to get ready for the Robot Restaurant. We knew about the Robot “restaurant” from Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown. It’s actually a crazy, and at times, kitschy show with very little actual food. The food consisted of things like popcorn, edamame, and drinks that came in a flashing light bulb. Shinjuku is super colorful like Time Square in New York city. The area where the Robot Restaurant is located is adjacent to the “red light” district of Tokyo. Tokyo, in our experience, was very safe at all hours even in near the so called red light district.
Our third day in Tokyo we decided to check out the Harajuku area of Tokyo. Harajuku is known for its quirky fashion made popular by Gwen Stefani, colorful food, and also a popular cat cafe called Moka. Animal cafes are all the rage in Tokyo – you can pay to hang out with other animals too including hedge hogs and owls. The cat cafe is expensive (they charge by the minute) and there’s a protocol of shoe removal, placing your belongings in a locker, and hand washing before hand. The drinks are dispensed from a machine and include things like strawberry hot drinks and also hot chocolate. Moka cat cafe is adorable and we really enjoyed the experience. Takeshita street is filled with little shops that sell trinkets, candy, sneakers, and also giant rainbow cotton candy. Close by to this street there are tons of luxury brand name boutiques and also a small shopping mall. Harajuku is super crowded on the weekends and you can spot “trendy” locals wearing really colorful clothes. We went to the Line Friends store in Harajuku which was also somewhat mobbed (with both adults and kids). Line Friends is a really popular cartoon series and the store has giant bears and other really cute displays and toys.
Next on our list on day three was the famous intersection known as Shibuya crossing. What’s so interesting about an intersection? Well, this one is a little special. It’s thought to be the busiest intersection in the world with thousands of people crossing in all directions. A good place to watch from above is the Starbucks right above Shibuya crossing. It’s definitely an experience to walk across this massive intersection and watch the multitude of people scurrying across. You can take in the sights and sounds including the giant billboards and music playing all around. Tokyo has a dense population that is somewhat spread out. There are about 9 million people who live in this city, making it one of the largest in the world.
Experience walking through Shibuya crossing by watching the short clip below.
On day four, we got up early to visit Yoyogi Park. Yoyogi Park is a little reminiscent of Central Park in New York city or the Tiergarten in Berlin. It’s lined with trees and very peaceful and shady. Inside the park is the Meiji Shrine, a sprawling Shinto shrine named after Emperor Meiji. There are several very large wooden Torii gates surrounding the park entrances as well as one in the main shrine area. While we were visiting the shrine we were privy to a traditional Shinto wedding. This is a very popular place for weddings and also gets very busy with visitors on New Year’s day. You will also pass by rows of decorative sake barrels displayed near the shrine. These barrels don’t contain sake but represent a gift to the Shinto Gods from the sake brewers. Sake is used in traditional Shinto festivals.
After visiting Meiji shrine we stopped at a Japanese drug store to explore what they had there. Japanese drug stores are so fascinating and loaded with cosmetics and skin care. They are known for their high quality hair products as well. We were also somewhat obsessed with a convenience store called Lawson. Lawson actually has some great food, beverages, and snacks if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to spend a lot on a meal. It’s also the best place to get cash from an ATM! Later in the evening we headed to the Michelin starred tempura restaurant Motoyoshi. It’s not the easiest place to find but the space is simple yet beautiful and the place settings were just adorable. Chef Motoyoshi is such a nice guy – he even walked us out to our taxi.
On our fifth and final day in Tokyo we visited the neighborhood known as Asakusa. Asakusa contains one of Tokyo’s most famous temples called Sensoji. The gate to Sensoji is huge and very colorful and known as the “Thunder Gate”. Within this beautiful temple area are dozens of souvenir shops located on Nakamise street. This area is very touristy and crowded but fun to explore if you’re looking for some trinkets to take home. It has an old world feel compared to the rest of Tokyo. Nearby Asakusa is Kappabashi street which sells kitchenwares including Japanese knives, chopsticks, ceramics, pots, pans… pretty much everything you need to cook! I found a beautiful ceramic sake set which was much less expensive then the ones at the department store. We also stopped by a huge store called Don Quijote in Asakusa. Don Quijote has a million things including candy, snacks, shampoo, cosmetics, and a lot more for cheaper. I went there to buy Japanese Kit Kats for family and friends. In Japan, Kit Kats come in lots of different local flavors depending on the region. Some of the flavors include green tea, wasabi, strawberry, and sweet potato to name just a few. You can get these at the official Kit Kat store with cooler packaging but they cost much less if you buy them at Don Quijote. Don Quijote also sells all types of matcha (green tea) products at a much lower price compared to other stores. Be sure to bring your passport when you shop in Japan to get a tax free exemption.
We then headed to Roppongi Hills to see the Mori museum and tower. The museum houses mostly architecture and some modern art pieces. The view from Mori tower is spectacular! Since it was typhoon season we had a lot of clouds and wind that day but the view was still breathtaking. We were told that on a clear day you can see Mt. Fuji from the tower. The museum has a lovely cafe with full meals, snacks, and drinks. We stopped for some tea and dessert there. Roppongi Hills has lots of luxury shops and also American chain stores likes Zara.
Later on that night we visited another spot we learned about from Anthony Bourdain’s shows called Golden Gai. Golden Gai is near the Shinjuku area and consists of about half a dozen alleys which are filled with tiny bars and restaurants. We visited the infamous yet tiny Bar Albatross which seats about 5 people downstairs. This tiny bar is packed with various kitschy items as well as crystal chandeliers. There’s a small cover charge and it’s cash only so make sure you visit the ATM before you go. The drinks were actually quite tasty and made by a lone bartender. They play old school American rock and roll like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the people watching is amazing. This area is not really a place where locals seem to frequent and was mainly filled with drunk tourists. It’s definitely entertaining to pass through later in the night for at least one drink! Things don’t get going at Golden Gai until about 10pm.
The next day, we packed up our things and took the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto. Tokyo is for sure one of my favorite cities – I’ve been lucky enough to visit it twice. The people are friendly and always willing to help. The culture is rich, unique, and will always be fascinating to me because it’s so different from my own. My next travel blog post on beautiful Kyoto is coming soon! Feel free to email me or ask questions in the comments section if you are planning a trip to Japan anytime soon.