I was so incredibly hyped to start my trip to Japan that while I was still back at home I started watching films like Tokyo Drift, Godzilla, Lost in Tranlsation, Kill Bill … all movies featuring the great city of Tokyo to get me pumped up. From the moment I got off the plane I was fucking amazed. One of the first things I saw as I left Narita airport were ads and billboards for the new Fast and the Furious movie, hilariously named in Japan as ‘Sky Mission’. The title of this post is actually a reference to the film name Japan gave to the F&F: Tokyo Drift Movie, sorry to disappoint but sadly most of this post is not about sick drifting and JDMs.
There were to be many of these English to Japanese advertisements which seem to have quite literally been lost in translation. But anyway a few quick things that I noticed in the movies and such about Japan and Tokyo that I would soon confirm for myself:
- There are vending machines, practically everywhere, you won’t walk more than 50m without seeing one
- Those crazy parking garages which store cars as if they were books in a huge library are real and there are plenty of them
- You can order pretty much anything through a vending machine, including your meal at a restaurant (the machine produces a ticket that you give to the staff for you to make your meal)
- The subway/metro runs like clockwork, there were never any delays, apart from when there was an Earthquake one time (excusable I guess)
- The Japanese are incredibly polite and considerate, did not meet or even see in passing a rude person, restaurant and store staff are very helpful despite obvious language barriers
- The occasional earthquake: I experienced three minor tremors while I was in Japan, one time I was on the 42nd floor of a skyscraper and the whole thing shook violently for 4 or 5 seconds and I thought for sure it would come tumbling down – but instead the building just swayed for nearly 2 minutes, back and forth.
- Those space age toilets with heaps of buttons are real; and they are awesome! So my first time I used it I had no idea which button did what and so I accidentally activated the bidet for females and my gooch got a little moist. Anyway after several more encounters I figured out all the different buttons to adjust water temperature and pressure, how to turn on the seat warmer or play music and of course work the bidet properly.
This might be a long post as I go through quite a few places so feel free to skip ahead to particular districts.
Now on to Tokyo itself: I’ll leave a picture of the rail/subway map below so you can have some kind of geographic reference as I go through various districts that I explored in no particular order. Don’t be afraid if you think the map looks confusing, it is!
There is a subway station pretty much everywhere and they are run by 3 different companies; JR Rail, Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro. However they have an IC card system in place which is pretty much identical to the Oyster or Opal card system and they all work interchangeably through all modes of transport (apart from Flights and the Shinkansen bullet train), all across Japan.
So this is where I stayed for my the first half of my stay in Tokyo and its a relatively quiet part of the city lying just across the Sumida river and not too far away from centres like Ueno, Akihbara and Asakusa. One of the first things I did while waiting to check in to my hostel was go and visit the nearby Edo-Tokyo Museum (Edo is the former name of Tokyo) which showcases the city’s history before it became the huge megacity it is today. There are many dioramas of districts as they were in the 1800s as well as life size reconstructions.
The other big draw in Ryogoku is the Kokugikan Sumo stadium, and guess what: the premier Tournament of the year (there are four) is being held! Unfortunately as its such a big event I wasn’t able to secure tickets as they had all been sold weeks in advance. I was however able to wait outside with a lot of people watching the Sumo wrestlers arrive at the gates. The rest I watched on TV (the pics from inside the stadium are from wiki commons)
The main attraction here is Ueno Park which is quite large and is the home of the Tokyo National Museum and Ueno Park Zoo (also known as Tokyo Zoo) but also houses the National Science Museum and a few other Art Galleries which I did not end up visiting (not that big a fan of art).
The Tokyo National museum is more about the history of art and culture in Japan and includes things such as paintings, clothes, vases, katanas and the like.
Now when I visited the Zoo it was incredibly busy, I must have seen several groups of entire schools visit all at the same day along with many families and young children – I felt like I was a little too old for this but who gives a fuck animals are pretty cool. One of the big draws are the two Giant Pandas, a boy and a girl.
I felt a little bad for some of these animals though, I’m no expert but a few seemed quite stressed – the tiger was pacing back and forth endlessly as was the polar bear continuously circling his small enclosure. After all the zoo itself is quite loud and you can hear all the children/school kids from quite far away.
There’s also a pretty good market called the Ameya-Yokocho market (also known as the Ameyoko market) that sits underneath the railway between Ueno and Okachimachi. You can find lots of cheap clothes, shoes, souvenirs and the like.
This district has a historic center that houses the Sensoji temple, and it also happens that I have arrived during one of the biggest festivals of the year that occurs every 3rd weekend of May; Sanja Matsuri. The entrance is marked by the Kaminarimon gate, a huge structure at the start of Nakamise Dori, a street lined with many shops selling traditional goods and souvenirs such as paper pans, chopsticks, katanas, etc.
Now because it is a festival, the area around the shrine is surrounded by lots of festivals stalls selling food and drinks. Another tradition of this festival is that there are these three huge and heavy portable shrines called mikoshi which are carried by more than a dozen people at a time throughout Asakusa for blessings and whatnot.
Oshiage (Tokyo Skytree City)
The Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan and the second tallest building in the world after the Burj Khalifa, you can see this building from almost any point in the city granted you have a clear view. It also lights up at night and does a cool sparkle all along its tower and then LED rings around its observation deck.
While I chose not to go up as the line for the observation deck was in excess of 2 hours, I explored the base of the tower which is named skytree city, which is more like a huge shopping mall (just like how Westfield in the Sydney CBD has Centrepoint tower on top). Lots of nice restaurants and shops but a little out of my budget as this place is pretty upscale.
Akihabara ‘Electric Town’ is a big district that is full of neon light shopfront all selling some kind of electronics goods, anime/comics, manga cafes and arcades. It is basically the Ultra Modern Tokyo we know all rolled into a a few square blocks. Also present are the famous maid cafes where you can often find cosplayers dressed up in French maid costumes along with other various anime characters, standing outside greeting many customers.
Now if you don’t know about this maid cafe phenomenon its worth a little research, but the basic idea is you pay for a special service that is not sexual in nature but more of like how a maid treats a master of the house, at some places it is not uncommon for them to feed you.
If you’re not really into otaku culture like mange, anime and all that stuff this district will probably be a quick 15 min stroll through and just marvel at the spectacle of it all – there’s a 7 storey hentai store which you can’t miss even if you tried, don’t say I didn’t warn you! Most other fetishy things are also in plain sight and some floors of buildings are restricted to male or females depending on whats being sold. The area is also home to e-sports, theres a few net cafes that host tournaments and the like.
Everyone knows this place as the home of the world’s biggest fish market, after all Japan is probably the world’s biggest consumer of seafood. Visit here while you can because it will be having a new home soon on Odaiba, the man-made island in Tokyo Bay (more on that later).
The fish market itself it really busy and it doesn’t help there are heaps of tourists bustling about; word of note its best to stick to the outer market as the actual inner wholesale market is best for people actually wanting to buy wholesale and go about their business. Quite a few people also talk about rising early to go see the morning Tuna auctions at like 5am but seriously who has the time for that?
Anyway I came here a few times for big breakfast/lunch (I tend to sleep in late so they tend to be the same meal) and tried a few different sushi places around the joint and I have to say its pretty hard to have bad sushi in a place like this where everything is so fresh.
Shinjuku is so well developed and big that it is probably a city in itself within the megacity that is Tokyo, it houses the most busy train station in the world as it is a huge hub with links going in every direction both above and below ground. The area surrounding the station is blanketed by the shadows of huge skyscrapers and big department store buildings.
The west of shinjuku is the business district and is very quiet on weekends although the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building still sees quite a lot of thoroughfare due to its free observation deck where you have pretty much 360 degree views of Tokyo. You don’t get a real sense of the feel for how big Tokyo is when you are getting around on the subway and such so to see it all from above really puts size in perspective.
I didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time here in depth so there are still plenty of areas for me to explore in the future like Kabukicho and the Golden Gai. One thing I will definitely see though is the new Godzilla head they are putting up on the top of the Shinjuku Toho building – Godzilla has just been granted Japanese citizenship! More on that here.
Also that really big building with two spires you can see in one of my photos, that’s where I was when an earthquake struck as I mentioned before – imagine that huge block of concrete and steel swaying: Japanese engineering what can I say.
So two things here, the west of Harajuku station is Yoyogi park and the Meiji Shrine. To the east is the famed Takeshita Dori (Dori means street) where you will see many cosplayers and all sorts of wacky fashion.
The walk to the Meiji shrine is a long gravel road heavily shaded by an evergreen forest with trees donated from all different parts of Japan; you might be able to see that forest in the photos from Shinjuku. It is a shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and to commemorate his role in the Meiji Restoration, a very nice a quiet place for a walk. There are often shinto weddings held here and I happened to see one in progress – it didn’t seem to be a huge affair with only about 2 dozen people in attendance with the other hundreds or so tourists being onlookers.
Yoyogi Park isn’t all too special being just a large green space where people can go to run about or have a picnic on the weekends, there are places for sports like soccer fields, baseball pitches and the like, though some areas seem to be already under redevelopment in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 summer olympics.
Going back to the East of Harajuku you have the center of Japan’s youth culture and fashion – there will be quite a few people walking around in maid outfits and other outrageous costumes that they would consider to be their everyday wear. Worth a look just to see all this craziness.
Most of the shops along Takeshita street are variety stores selling niche and unique fashion items as well as ‘Japan’ things by which I mean the kind of items that you will only find in Japan, kind of like how when you see Green Tea/Matcha Kit Kats and go ‘oh Japan why’. But then you eat it and its glorious. There is also a mega Daiso store which all sorts of cheap goods.
Now everyone knows the name of this place from the stupidly busy Shibuya Crossing that sees stampedes of people going in all different directions. So famous it is there are people walking across this intersection with a GoPro – all I can say is wow. /facepalm
If you’re not familiar with it heres a clip from Tokyo Drift for your viewing pleasure.
Traffic lights go red in all directions and then pedestrians swarm the intersection or a good minute or so, its pretty cool to watch from one of the restaurants/cafes in the tall buildings that sit around the crossing but its also not bad to see all the lights and billboards not unlike Times Square NY.
Lots of people walk the crossing for the sake of it but most of the people here are for the nightlife in the surrounding area. Its all dotted with bars, cafes, nights clubs, restaurants, malls and the like – you will often see one building with all 7 or so stories being each different bars.
Its quite easy to get lost as all the buildings seem indistinguishable once you’re in the maze of busy streets so try to keep yourself oriented around the train station or the Shibuya crossing – it’s pretty much gravity. Be careful not to wander around Love Hotel hill; as the name suggests you may be solicited for unwanted ‘services’. The conversation pretty much goes like this:
“You want massage?” No
“You want sexy massage?” No.
“Beautiful Japanese Girls!” NO.
“TWO Beautiful Japanese Girls!” What?
“Japanese Boy then?!” …
Cue next pimp ad infinitum.
Roppongi is another popular nightlife district and like Shibuya there are lots of department stores, particularly centred around Roppongi Hills. It is a new-ish urban development that aims to be a city in itself, the huge complex centres around Mori Tower and has all sorts of amenities such as office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, movie theatres, a museum, a hotel, a major TV studio, an outdoor amphitheatre.. the works pretty much.
When I wasn’t there for the nightlife and such I came to go to the observation deck on the 52nd floor. Already having been up high to see Tokyo from above I wasn’t too fussed about going to see another one but what roped me in was the Star Wars Visions exhibition that was being held there as well – I couldn’t resist. The deck plays host to all sorts of concept art, props from the movies and all sorts of SW paraphernalia, nothing better to get me hyped for SW7 coming this Christmas.
Whereas Shibuya’s nightlife catered mostly to locals, Roppongi was more for expats and foreigners alike. You will find many more english menus and backpacker friendly bars as well as more tourists in general. Other than that its the same deal, lots of bars and nightclubs – I recommend Feria, the club takes up all 5 floors of the building with different genres on each floor; House & Main room stuff on the first floor, R&B 2nd, 3 & 4 has an outdoor lounge and deep house kinda stuff, 5 for Hip hop – everybody wins.
This area is pretty much a huge upscale shopping precinct with mostly luxury brands all along the main street but you also have mid level chains as well as the 11 storey flagship Uniqlo store. Good place to eat during the day, they have plenty of nice but also cheap restaurants on all the side streets to pig out once you’re tired from shopping.
Most of the stuff here is way out of my price range as 80% of all the shops are western luxury brands such as Armani and the like. The main road (pictured) is pedestrianised on weekends during the day as shopping does get quite busy – you will often see big groups of chinese tourists go in and buy a huge suitcase, drag it round with them as they proceed to fill it up with all sorts of luxury goods from all around Ginza. Also here is the Apple Store and Sony showroom if you want to check out tech stuff but the prices are pretty much the same as back home.
This man made island sits in Tokyo Bay and is pretty much a huge entertainment precinct. However it is more of a family kind of excursion and this place gets pretty quiet at night as most families go home around 9pm. It is worth it though to come and see a few cool things like the Giant Gundam, the Statue of Liberty, the Toyota Mega Showroom and such.
The picture below is shot from one of the malls on the waterfront looking towards Tokyo. Access to the island is from the Rainbow bridge you can see in the picture, it lights up different colours at night hence the name. Most people arrive via the driverless train ‘Yurikamome’ kind of like a mono-rail but has rubber wheels. Either that or the Subway and the ferry links up the Sumida river.
Odaiba is also one of the few places you can go to the beach in Tokyo, when I went there were many families enjoying the sun and also a Dragon boat race competition going on. Overall a great place to enjoy the outdoors, there’s a nice running track that I went to on a weekday that wraps around the island. I saw a few construction lots already in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 olympic games.
There are four huge malls in Odaiba, and they all have their own attractions like you can see in the pictures:
- Diver City has the Giant Gundam at the front and a little amphitheatre where there is live music on the weekends
- Aqua city has a ramen theme park and a Cinema, also nice views looking towards Tokyo. The Fuji TV HQ is in the background and does a lights show at night
- Decks has Legoland and a Madame Tussauds Wax museum
- Palette Town has a Venice-themed mall and houses the Toyota Mega Showroom and the History Garage
Aqua city and Decks I think I am a little too old for but the Toyota Mega Showroom and History Garage at Palette town I enjoyed immensely. The history garage you can see all sorts of vintage cars as well as racing cars including the DMC DeLorean from the ‘Back to the Future’ films. At the mega showroom is every current make of Toyota which you can sit in and play around – my favourite is the 86 GT, of which there are modded ones with racing kits you can also have a feel for.
At the Mega Showroom you can also test drive their cars (registration needed in advance) and I got to try out the 86 and it drives like a fucking dream. You also get to see all their concept cars and try out some of their simulations and if you post a good enough time trial like I did you win a goodie bag!
I did miss a few things here and there like the Miraikan Emerging Science Musem (the one that has Asimo, the soccer playing robot) which I hear is pretty cool and different from most science museums. I also didn’t have time to visit the Oedo onsen Monogotari which is pretty much an onsen theme park as well as the big Ferris Wheel (meh) and Leisureland, a huge 24 hour game/arcade center. Lots to do for a return visit and I am sure Odaiba itself will look a lot different by the time the Olympics come around.
3500 something words wow.
If you managed to read all of that – congratulations we’re at the end of the post! Hope you found it insightful and now have a feel for whats going on in the megacity that is Tokyo. Despite having visited quite a few places in the city there is still lots to do that I haven’t even mentioned here. So by all means you can use this post as a guide but don’t rely on it too much, there are places for everyone in Tokyo that cater to all different tastes no matter whether you prefer eating, clubbing, cultural sites, outdoor activities, whatever really.
Hope you enjoyed the read, sayonara muchachos.
Fun fact: sayonara is Japanese for ‘goodbye’ (I always thought it was a spanish sounding word).
Another fun fact: don’t ever use sayonara in Japan to say goodbye, you will look like a fool not dissimilar to those who use ‘Hasta la vista’ seriously to say farewell in Spanish.