We’ve only been in Japan for a few days and already we think this country might be one of the best in the world to visit. It’s likely this is in part due to coming from 2 months in Indonesia, but still, it’s an amazing place. We’ve already seen some remarkably beautiful sights, eaten some incredible food, and been whisked around wherever we want quickly and efficiently. Everything is clean and organized. If you need something – a toilet, a ticket, a map, a cold drink or coffee – it’s going to be somewhere close. No matter where we end up we’ve been greeted warmly. It doesn’t matter that very little English is spoken here, locals will happily chat away in Japanese while they help you out. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as welcome and comfortable in a completely new country as I have here! We’ve much left to see but at least can safely say Tokyo has leaped into the top tier of our favorite cities.
We had booked an airbnb near the Shinjuku area of Tokyo for our first few nights in Japan. Our scheduled late arrival became further delayed due to weather, but even though it was past midnight we were able to take the rail most of the way there (the metro shuts down around this time) and our lovely host Reiko waited up for us. She has a cute little apartment just upstairs from a subway stop and made us feel most welcome, cooking us breakfast in the mornings and telling us about some of the places we wanted to visit. Hotels can be quite expensive in Tokyo – our airbnb ended up being a good choice!
Staying near a subway stop in Tokyo is wise because this city is enormous – each district feels like a big city itself. Fortunately it’s not very hard to stay near a stop because this massive metropolis is very well connected. The only tricky bit is the rails are run by several different independent companies, so transfers can be a little challenging – you need to know in advance which operator you are switching to and what the total cost will be so you can properly enter all of the necessary info into the ticket machines. Here Google Maps proved quite useful – not only does it know the location and timing of all of the stops, it told us which agencies we would travel with and what fare to purchase to get there.
Our first morning we hit the ground running by visiting the Meiji-Jingū shrine and nearby gardens, followed by a walk through the Harajuku neighborhood. The shrine was unfortunately in the middle of some restoration so a lot was covered up, but we still saw some gorgeous wooden architecture. The gardens nearby were great with a beautiful pond and a serene old well. You have to keep in mind when envisioning these sites is it’s not only the central highlight that makes the experience, but also the attention to detail that goes into everything surrounding it. Immaculate grounds, exquisite signage, and quiet surroundings encourages visitors to be respectful (not that the locals would be anything but) and makes the experience very pleasant – and very Japanese.
We followed our morning up with an amazing lunch at a tiny restaurant called Yanmo that specializes in grilled fish dishes. It was a little hard to find but we were so glad we did! Elaine had amberjack and I got miso-marinated mackerel. This was our first real Japanese meal and we were not disappointed – it was inexpensive (by city standards), elegant, and delicious. Probably the best mackerel I’ve ever had. Subsequent meals during our couple days in Tokyo from sushi to teppanyaki confirmed what we already knew: we are in for a treat pretty much every time we sit down for a meal in Japan!
Next we went to Shibuya, a famously busy street intersection and rail station. Here we endeavored to find a sim card for Elaine’s phone. This was more complicated than we expected. Unlike pretty much any other country in the world, it’s rather unusual for tourists to pick up temporary sim cards here. I’m not sure why. More common is to get a mobile wifi device (that connects to the same cell networks), which is actually kinda nice because we can connect our tablet and laptop as well. So we rented one of these gizmos – to be returned when we wrap up our tour of Japan back in Tokyo – and then checked out Shibuya station which has a few notable sights. There is the statue of Hachikō the Akida; Myth of Tomorrow, a huge, haunting mural depicting the bomb exploding over Hiroshima; and an incredible basement food market with dozens of high-end stalls. Our day then wrapped up at a stand-up sushi bar for dinner followed by a visit to a tiny place specializing in Japanese whiskey. Delicious!
Our objective the second day was to see the Tsukiji Fish Market in the morning. This is the location of the famed daily tuna auction (seeing this particular event is limited and on a first-come first-serve basis very early in the morning, which we elected not to do). We headed over and grabbed breakfast at one of the many fresh fish stalls in the area surrounding the outer market, and then wandered around until 10am which is when tourists are permitted into the inner wholesale building. Until then, smiling uniformed attendants pleasantly redirect you away from this huge open-air waterfront warehouse. When 10am arrived these same attendants guided us into an orderly queue (very Japanese) and then fed us into the market area, dispersing us into groups so we wouldn’t be too disruptive in any one spot. This market building is not designed for sightseeing at all – it’s busy, wet, and forklifts are constantly zipping around – so they make you wait until the vendors are wrapping up before letting you in.
This market is remarkable in many ways. First, it’s very quiet – a feature common to many busy areas in Tokyo. The most prevalent sound is the constant squelch of styrofoam which is absolutely everywhere. Second, it’s very clean. Despite there being thousands of live fish, butchered fish, and fish somewhere in between, there’s very little mess, no smell, and not a single fly in the whole place (I have no idea how this is possible!). Third and foremost, it’s simply an awesome huge space with any type of seafood you can imagine. There are whirring saws cutting huge blocks of ice, vendors delicately slicing massive chunks of tuna with knives as long as swords, and a constant stream of ice-packed crates headed out to their destinations across Japan. Despite not being allowed in while the market is at full swing – which must be amazing – we really enjoyed visiting this unique place. We were asked not to take photos, and we (mostly) followed this instruction which was really hard to do (we failed a couple times).
The afternoon brought us to the 300-year old garden of Rikugien, the people-watching street of Takeshita-dōri, and dinner at a Japanese teppanyaki grill. First, Rikugien is a peaceful garden in the north of Tokyo that is quite photogenic even though we visited in between the more beautiful seasons of spring and autumn. With proper preparation (sunscreen and bug spray, because it turns out mosquitoes like to hang out in these water-filled gardens too) it would be a really nice place to spend a whole day. For us we wandered around for a couple hours mixing Zen moments with adrenaline-tinged anxiety fueled by a dozen simultaneous bug bites. Truly though, it’s a beautiful place!
Takeshita-dōri is a busy little street that is the place to go show off your wild trendy Japanese outfit. Think anime-ninja-princess. We prepared ourselves by visiting an excellent neighborhood brewery and then walked around for a little while trying not to stare too much. (It was a lot more entertaining than I expected.) From there we headed towards a nearby ramen bar but instead found ourselves in front of an intriguing little teppanyaki grill filled with locals. We joined in and chowed down on okonomiyaki (thick savory pancake things): mine had a mix of seafood and Elaine’s was noodles and bacon. Yum! The best part is you sit right in front of the large flat grill to watch your food being prepared – and it also keeps the dish piping hot as you work your way through.
By this point we were wondering if we were crazy to leave Tokyo while we were enjoying it so much. There was much of the city left to see! But we planned on staying a couple nights at the end of our trip as well and we were excited to tour around Japan by their amazing rail system. So after a hearty cold-noodle breakfast prepared by our host Reiko we packed up and headed for the train station.