Life’s simple, you make choices and you don’t look back.Sung Kang
Mar 19-29 2017
After our long excursion in Vietnam for the past 6 months, we headed north for the island of Japan to spend a quick 10 days in Tokyo. We were excited to get a taste of Japan as it has always been high on our list of places to visit. We considered staying longer and seeing other places besides Tokyo, but decided that due to it being peak tourist season with the sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms) blooming, the high cost of the country was inflated even more this time of year. We decided that 10 days staying in Tokyo would be perfect for now, and we could come back and explore the rest of the country at another time.
First we had to get there though, and that ended up being an adventure in itself. We left Hanoi for Hong Kong, where we were supposed to have a fairly short layover before flying on to Tokyo. Unfortunately, we both lost track of time and ended up missing our flight. It was the very first time either of us had missed a flight and we felt horrible about it. We simply took our time, enjoyed a meal, and without any departure announcements over the intercom, arrived at our gate just at they had closed the jetway door, the plane still sitting there in front of us on the tarmac. Moving on, we quickly looked on our phones and were able to book an expensive last minute flight for later in the day. After the several hour extended layover including a flight delay, we were finally off to Japan. Proof that travel isn’t always glamorous and can be stressful at times, but usually you don’t hear that side of it. Of course, lesson learned, as we had no one to blame but ourselves, I don’t think we’ll ever miss another flight again.
Touching done at Tokyo Haneda airport just after midnight, we were able to get through customs quick and hassle free. Once outside, we hailed a cab to take us to our AirBnb. It was the fanciest cab either of us had ever been in, the driver dressed up in a suit and wearing white gloves, while the doors automatically opened and closed on the roomy and elegant car. It is definitely how the wealthy choose to travel around the city, but we had no choice as the public transport was closed at that time of night, and wanted to get to our place as quickly as we could after the long day.
We arrived at our apartment located in the trendy Harajuku neighborhood. It was an excellent location for exploring the city, near multiple metro and subway lines, and between two of the most popular and lively places in Tokyo, Shinjuku and Shibuya. We loved our place, with a surprisingly good amount of room and everything that we would need for a comfortable stay. It was amongst the residential blocks of the neighborhood, so we got a nice feel for what it’s like to live in the city, as opposed to a non-personal hotel, often centered in commercial touristy areas. A few blocks away we found the local shopping streets, full of boutiques and fashion stores, and many great restaurants and cafes. It ended up being one of our favorite areas in the entire city, not flashy, corporate, and master planned like some areas, but instead felt much more organic while being built at a comfortable human scale.
Over the next week and a half we would branch out, exploring the worlds largest metropolis, little by little each day. I was able to cover a lot of ground, sharing the best areas with Maggie so she could check them out in between her breaks from work. Being early spring, the weather was quite varied during our stay. Warm and sunny some days, reaching the upper 60’s, and chilly and wet on others, barely making it out of the 40’s. It was quite a difference from the always warm and often hot weather we had in Vietnam, but we quickly got used to it and it didn’t affect our enjoyment at all. It also helped that was super easy to move around the city if we didn’t feel like walking, as the railway system is massive, with lines criss-crossing and heading in every possible direction. There are actually multiple railway systems that interconnect, so we got a transit card that works on any of them which made it super easy.
Overall, we found the city to be suspiciously clean, while extremely modern and efficient. It was a land of vending machines, full of things like hot drinks, ice cream, and cigarettes, and found at nearly every corner; hi-tech toilets, full of buttons and gizmos including butt washers built into the bowl and music that played at the touch of a button; and a ton of kawaii everywhere, a specific word representing the quality of cuteness that can be found all throughout Japanese culture, from important informational posters found in the subways, to stuffed animal characters sold in dedicated stores or won in claw machines (crane games) played by the old and young alike. Each neighborhood we visited seemed to have it’s own theme, whether it was the party and entertainment district (Shinjuku), the hipster district (Shimo-Kitazawa), high-end shopping district (Ginza), or the manga and technology district (Akibara). We found the city full of life with things to see and do no matter where we went, truly something for everyone if you knew where to look.
In order to take it all in, I headed for several of the highrise lookout points scattered around the city, including the Tokyo Metro Government Building, the Bunkyo Ward Office, and my favorite, the Roppongi Hills Tower. Looking out across the city you can see dozens of skylines, a true testament to the massive urban scale, and just how small we as individuals are. By the time I got to the famous Skytree, I was happy with the views I already had, and instead chose to simply enjoy it from the base.
Besides our neighborhood of Harajuku, we also really enjoyed hanging out in and walking the streets of Meguru and Daikanyama. Located just south of Shibuya, these two neighborhoods were both very charming and full of cool. Maggie was able to work from hip repurposed cafes, while I walked around and checked out sleek vintage shops and art studios, or relaxed and had a coffee in the many bookstores. Both neighborhoods also included a canal, providing for peaceful strolls along the water after stuffing ourselves with sushi or at an izakaya for dinner. They were very understated areas, almost European in a way, with laid back attitudes and a tranquil immaculate appearance, a nice break from the bright lights and crowds of Shinjuku, Ginza, or Shibuya.
We had to check out some of the uniquely Japanese things during our stay too, including visits to a train cafe and a hedgehog cafe. The train cafe, called Little TGV, is sort of an offshoot of the famous maid cafes of Tokyo, except instead of girls dressed in maid outfits and calling you “master”, they are dressed up as conductors and ask if you want to board the train. The cafe included seats made from train benches, tv’s playing clips of trains on their travels, and an electric model train in the corner. The walls were also covered with train photos and memorabilia, so it was a good opportunity to learn the difference between the SLs and JRs that one travels on to get around the city.
At the hedgehog cafe we got to hang out with and play with the the adorable creatures, feeding them worms and letting them climb on and snuggle up against us. We also got to hold and pet some bunnys and a hyper little chinchilla during out stay. Tokyo has many animal cafes, including cat cafes, which can now be found in a lot of cities around the world, and an owl cafe. We chose not to partake in the owl cafe, as cool as it sounds, as we felt it can’t be the most enjoyable place for a nocturnal creature used to the freedom of flying. We were happy enough getting the chance to chill with some cool hedgehogs and rabbits.
For nightlife, we pulled an all nighter in the famous Golden Gai during our second weekend in Tokyo. The area consists of six tiny alleys, too narrow for even a small car, that are lined by nearly two hundred tiny bars. The buildings are ramshackle, and the alleys dimly lit, providing a glimpse into the old Tokyo that has miraculously survived. Similar structures in the city fell during the great earthquake of 1923 or were burned down during wartime air raids, and even then, those that did survive were redeveloped into the massive concrete and glass structures that are found all across the city today. We visted two of the water holes while we were there, each only a few feet wide, enjoying the company of the bar tender and patrons in each. And while it sounds seedy, it was completely safe, as is all of Tokyo, and the people were all extremely friendly and sociable.
Then of course there was the Hanami, which is a specific term for flower viewing in Japanese. We headed to and visted several of the cities large parks, including Shinjuku Gyoen, Yoyogi, Kitanomaru, and Ueno. When we first arrived the Japanese cherry blossoms, called sakura, were just beginning to bloom, but towards the end of our stay we saw some beautiful examples, especially in Shinjuku Gyoen. The blooms only last for a week or two, and the people here take it very seriously. There are large parties and festivities in the parks, as people sit on plastic sheets and drink under the trees all day long, surrounded by throngs of people snapping pictures and taking selfies next to the beautiful pink and white flowers. We left just before peak bloom, but it was still a site to behold and we were so happy that we still got to see a lot of them.
An added bonus visiting the parks was seeing the Yasukuni Shrine next to Kitanomaru, and the Meiji Shrine next to Yoyogi. Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine founded in 1869, commemorating those who died in service to the Empire of Japan. The shrine lists the names, origins, birthdates, and places of death of 2,466,532 men, women and children, including various pet animals. Meiji, which is also a Shinto shrine, was completed in 1921, bombed during WWII, and rebuilt in 1958. It is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Both shrines are an excellent example of traditional shinto architecture, known as the nagare-zukuri style, displaying asymmetrical gabled roofs that project outwards above the main entrances to form a portico. Meiji was particularly impressive using primarily cypress and copper in the design, and included the country’s largest torii, a traditional Japanese gate, at the sites entrance.
No visit to anywhere is complete without experiencing all the regional foods. From ramen to udon, and sushi to yakitori, we had it all. Our favorites, which surprisngly doesn’t include the sushi, although still good, was the okonomiyaki and yakiniku. We found a great little place in Harajuku that served okonomiyaki, a savory pancake that we cooked ourselves on an iron hotplate. The batter is made of flour, grated nagaimo yam, water, eggs and shredded cabbage. Ingredients such as green onion, meat, shrimp, vegetables, konjac, and/or cheese are added. After pan frying both sides, we finished it off by adding a healthy amount of otafuku sauce, mayonnaise, and seaweed flakes. I would compare it almost to a combination of omelete and pizza. For the yakiniku, we visited an all you call eat place in Akibara. It is essentially a do it yourself barbecue, grilling a variety of raw meats on a gridiron grill at your table. We also had an assortment of Korean side dishs like kimchi and bibimbap served alongside. Needless to say it was all delicious and we left happy and stuffed.
Lastly, a chance to work some of the food off, our stay in Tokyo included our first ever international concert, Punkspring 2017. We got to see NOFX, Bad Religion, Less Than Jake, The Offspring, and others perform at the festival. Maggie and I always go and see NOFX, one of my favorite bands, when they are playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, including New Year’s 2014. When I told her they were playing in Japan, along with Bad Religion, another one of our favorite bands, we decided to order tickets and plan to go. It was an all day event, and we had a blast watching not only some of our favorites but also some Japanese punk bands perform. And while the audience wasn’t as loud and rambunctious between songs and performances as we’re normally used to in the States, during the songs themselves, the crowd went wild, with large circles for moshing and tons of crowd surfing all set long.
Tokyo was a lot of fun, and it lived up to it’s reputation. From the stunning modern architecture everywhere we looked, to the fast and efficient train network to get us places. A place full of quirky themed restaurants and cafes, and the meticulously clean streets full of cuteness and energy. In 10 days we only scratched the surface, but it was an amazing time and we are excited to eventually return again, checking out the rest of Japan along the way.