Shinkansen to Tokyo
After spending the weekend in Shimanto City made our way to Tokyo for a 48 hour stay. My travel buddies Susan and Steph joined me for whatwould be a LONG train ride, the first 5 hours of gorgeous rivers, forests and ocean views were on a standard train before we were able to transfer to the Shinkansen, more commonly known as the bullet train. Riding the bullet train is quite a novelty, it feels like you are in an airplane gliding over the ground with port holes slightly larger and more comfortable seats too. Accelerating in and out of each station gives a little sense of wonder but the craziest part is trying to find a seat.
We had unreserved seats and swayed back and forth walking down the aisle. As the train came to the next turn I had to brace myself on the seats nearby in this 320 km/h (200 mph) journey. Napping and writing the time away we finally arrived in Tokyo, grabbed a subway card for ¥500 ($5) and charged it with about ¥2000 ($20). We were told that should be enough for a day or two and we ended up only needed to add a few more dollars.
The subway itself is slightly confusing; its owned by multiple different companies and depending on where and how you buy the ticket you may not be allowed to ride certain trains. Suicide doors in almost every station keep people away from the tracks and everyone lines up allowing passengers to disembark before they get on. Its safe, clean and on time but the lack of cooperation between subway lines was frustrating and the best thing to do for directions is find a good app. Android’s Tokyo Subway Navigation worked wonders for me and I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Tokyo!
Next stop was Asakusa where we would spend a few nights at the Asakusa Khaosan Ryokan Hostel. Susan, Steph and I joined our buddy Blaine and split a 4 “bed” private room. The beds were actually just mattresses on the floor but were immensely comfortable and at roughly ¥160 a night split 4 ways it was one of the cheapest options in Tokyo.
Asakusa is a quaint part of Tokyo with many restaurants and a bustling market. The market goes from the main road to the Sensoji Temple with many shops along the way. These stalls sell everything from touristy knick knack souvenirs to delicious snacks and even samurai swords! Be sure to check out the kooky mask selection and taste the local treats before venturing to the incense filled temple for a cleansing of your mind and body! As Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensoji is worth checking out.
Asakusa is also a great place to eat some Japanese delicacies! Look for the hole in the wall restaurants instead of the big empty chains with lots of choices. Many Japanese restaurants specialize in one dish and serve it with such exquisite tastes that they don’t need to offer many options. We found one such place that only cooked Tonkatsu (Donkasu in Korea). This Japanese pork cutlet is similar to a German wiener schnitzel but you have the choice of filling it with a dozen extras. We ordered one stuffed like gyoza (dumplings), another filled with miso paste (soy bean) and a 3rd that was just the filet. All 3 were full of flavor but my favorite was the gyoza while the girls loved the miso.
It is Japan so lets not forget about sushi! To pick a sushi restaurant I recommend going where the crowd is. Most of them have the same menu so our motto was “eat where the locals do!” We ordered tray after tray of the delicious raw fish and could have kept going all night. The best part may have been how much we over estimated the cost! We ate and drank to our hearts content for just ¥2000 ($20) each.
Don’t forget about the riverside view of some of Japan’s iconic skyscrapers! Just across the river is Asahi Brewery, a few other buildigns and the Tokyo Sky Tree. The Tokyo Sky Tree is only a short subway or slightly longer walk away and the world’s 2nd tallest building! At ¥2000-¥3000 ($20-$30) its pricey to go the top but still makes for scenic photography. I opted to take a free ride up to an observatory in Shinjuku instead.
Our first evening in Tokyo Blaine and I decided to check out the nightlife in Golden Gai, a lively area off the Shinjuku subway stop filled with nearly 200 bars. Each one is a hole in the wall and provides its own eccentricities. Throughout the evening we popped in and out of nearly 50 of these establishments looking for just the right mix of a good crowd, prices and enough English! Walking up a narrow stairwell we came across an empty bar just as skinny as the stairwell, inside we heard an English conversation between the funky bartender and a couple we found out to be Astonian models. Most bars ¥200-¥800 ($2-$8) cover charge but this one waved it for us!
After a few drinks we decided to move on and continued the pattern throughout the night. We met an assortment of people from all around the world, conversing with Israelis, Europeans, all kinds of Asians and even a deaf guy before finally ending the evening at a wonderful bar called Red. If you happen to find this 2nd story bar you’re sure to have a great time. They’ve got a small couch upstairs and waved the cover charge, inside we found a handful of English speaking Japanese patrons and some great drinks!
Shinjuku is wonderful during the day too. Getting off at the station Blaine and I headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which has 2 free observation decks! At the top of each tower you can see buildings for miles, on a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji!
Akihabara is also known as “anime town” and unfortunately I didn’t get to go. Its on my list for when I head back to these Oriental Islands. We would have stopped by but every hostel employee & traveler we spoke to said it was pretty dead during the week. Definitely check this out on the weekend and let me know how it is! We did manage to stop there for some shopping in the Akihabara Electronics Market. Each floor of this 8 story mall is clearly labeled and has just about everything that uses electricity for sale. Whether its battery operated or plugged into the wall you can find it in Akihabara; heck you can even find some clothes and makeup if you look hard enough. The prices were pretty good and I bought an awesome pair of headphones but didn’t want to shlep any big items back with me. With a food court on the top floor this is a good stop to spend a half day or replace anything you forgot at home.
Shopping in Shibuya
My female counterparts shopped their hearts out everywhere they went but the best locations were near Shibuya and had a blast. Store after store was filled with mannequins dressed in everything from the luxurious to the awkwardly extreme. The prices were just as variable too. As a non-shopping tourist check out the massive 8-lane crosswalk here in Shibuya; its been featured in movies and TV shows and ha become a sort of Tokyo Times Square.
Wherever you are in Japan make sure you check out the many flavors of Kit Kats! They can be found just about anywhere but the largest selection we found was at the airport. Everything from green tea, strawberry cheesecake, red bean and dark chocolate are all delicious!
Getting to Tokyo’s airport
Taking the subway to the airport is easy, if you fly in/out of Haneda and arrive at a good time. There are express trains that can get you to the airport in as little as 35 minutes (depending on where in Tokyo you are staying) but beware that the subway generally closes before midnight. Cabs are expensive so plan accordingly!
If you are going to Narita plan an hour and a half or more to get you there. The subway doesn’t start running again until about 5 or 6am so try to book your flight with enough room to get to the airport or you may find yourself spending your last evening in the airport rather than living it up in Tokyo!