Before I get started on my recent trip to Tokyo Japan, I want to note that while this post is full of stories and fun pictures, it is written to be an overview of my entire trip. I will have followup posts diving deeper into some of the more interesting activities which took some time to experience. I debated with myself on how to cover this visit because so much was packed into 5 days. I finally decided this is the best way to proceed and I will evaluate for future trips, so feedback is encouraged. I will note those activities within this post and again at the end so you will know what to look forward to in future posts.
Tokyo is a destination that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I have some amazing co-workers based there who shared so much about their country that I wanted to experience for myself. I originally wanted to visit Tokyo in October 2017 because there was a holiday that I wanted to observe (Sports Day) but I had to postpone due to work. An advantage to visiting in May was more daylight to explore.
Getting To Tokyo
How do you prepare for a 13 hour, 6400 mile flight to a destination where the time is 14 hours ahead of you? While I’m still not sure it is possible, I made an attempt. Part of my plan consisted of 8 hours of Netflix content downloaded just in case the inflight entertainment or Wi-Fi did not work. Another part of my plan was trying to get in sync with my new time zone before I got there. My flight was at 10:45 AM, which was 12:45 AM the next day. I saved my sleeping until I boarded the plane in hopes that when I landed at 2PM Tokyo time that I would not feel like it was midnight Texas time. My transportation to Tokyo was a Boeing 777-200.
Another way to get through 13 hours of flying is to have as much room as possible!
Business class seats cost an arm and a leg, but I was able to use some award miles earned last year to get upgraded for not much more than my economy seat.
This is a great deal on long-haul flights if you plan in advance. Below are a few photos from the cabin.
Even after staying up all night, I didn’t go right to sleep on the plane. “Dinner” was served shortly after takeoff and I started watching Borg vs McEnroe, the first of 3 movies of the flight.
This sequence was repeated for each movie:
- Start watching movie
- Nod off about halfway through movie
- Wake up and rewind to the last part of movie that I remembered
- Finish movie
- Go back to sleep for a couple of hours
The other two movies were Thor: Ragnarok and Captain American: Winter Soldier
Narita Airport to Hotel
Upon arrival, I had to decide which transportation method to use to get to my hotel. Narita Airport is just over 40 miles from Tokyo.
There are a number of options to get from the airport with pros and cons to each.
Taxis seem to be the easiest to figure out, but is the most expensive option.
The train is an affordable efficient option but can be challenging to someone who has never dealt with navigating train stations.
The bus was the “just right” option for me since the cost was comparable to train tickets and I just had to find the sign outside of the terminal for the pickup point to my destination.
This was similar to finding transportation at most airports in the US so it did not take much brain power after a long flight.
A neat thing about the transit payment systems in place is instead of paying for your taxi, train or bus by cash or credit card (credit card in taxi only), Tokyo offers a couple of options for prepaid cards for transportation, Pasmo and Suica.
This system has multiple benefits:
- To board train or pay for taxi, just swipe your card. No worries about counting foreign currency correctly or calculating a specific train fare in advance
- Less opportunities for your own credit card to be compromised
- You can also use the card at convenience stores and vending machines that are on almost every corner
- You can refill your Pasmo or Suica card at any train station or convenience store
- Any unused funds are refunded to you if you turn in the card
I previously thought only Great Britain and most of their colonies drove on the left side of the road, but I noticed during our bus ride that Japanese vehicles drive on the left too.
The bus drops you off at one of two main train stations, so I had to walk a couple of blocks to my hotel.
Once I got checked in, I saw a couple of things that were new to me. Instead of the door hooks that you usually see in hotels, there is a console on the outside of the room that tells the staff whether it is okay to enter.
I thought this was neat because you did not have to open your door to change the status, you just press the corresponding button from inside your room to turn on the appropriate light.
I then discovered a toilet that comes with directions for all of the buttons.
I was meeting a friend for dinner so I withdrew cash. A dollar is worth approximately 100
Japanese Yen, but it still feels like you are spending a larger sum of money at times.
Dinner was at a nearby restaurant called Torisuki. My brain was on autopilot and I didn’t think to take this picture until we left.
I’m probably the last person that you’ll want food recommendations from since I’m known to be one of the pickiest people on earth.
I did want to try to expand my horizons a bit on this trip even though I didn’t think to take pictures until the multi-course dinner was almost complete.
Below is tempura eggplant and shrimp.
Earlier courses were miso soup, chicken and vegetable skewers.
Drinks were sake and Japanese whisky.
Thursday – Tour Time!
Before my trip, I made a list of things that I was interested in seeing.
For my first full day in Tokyo, I made a last minute decision to hire a personal tour guide. I have never been a fan of guided group tours because they are usually scripted and you have to move on to the next thing on a strict schedule, but the benefits of having a personal guide were invaluable.
I will have a separate post about my tour with Eriko, where we visited a Fish Market, a sake bar, video arcades, anime stores, a Shinto Shrine and attend a Buddhist Temple Service. A few pictures are below.
Baseball – Tokyo Style
Last year I had a short layover in Tokyo’s airport. I got to watch about half an inning from the Nippon Baseball League on TV in the terminal and quickly noticed the atmosphere was very different.
When I planned this trip, I wanted to see if I could catch a live baseball game. A coworker and friend of mine connected me with a season ticket holder to attend a game for one of the more popular teams. The matchup and atmosphere was similar to a Yankees Red Sox game.
I plan to cover this game in its own post, but I have included a few images below.
The game began at 6 and moved quickly so there was still time for some night sightseeing.
I walked around the Ginza District near my hotel to check out some of the brightly lit buildings.
I did not know more than a handful of Japanese words before arriving, and was not familiar with any writing, but with this sign I got a quick lesson and now can recognize “24 Hours”.
I haven’t seen this brand in years. It has been known as FedEx Office in the United States after a merger, but the Japanese operations were later sold off to a different company.
After getting back to my hotel, I thought I would check out some TV before bed. I tried over half of the buttons on this remote with no luck in getting the thing turned on, so no television for me.
Two days later I discovered that my first guess was correct (the round red one) but the remote needed to be held close to and straight at the TV to work. There is no way to describe many of the differences, but television is Japan is entertaining even if you don’t know what is being said.
Friday Morning – Shibuya District
Friday was an adventure filled day. It began with my first solo subway ride.
If you live in a city with a couple of train routes this may not seem like a big deal. Tokyo has not only multiple train routes, but multiple companies operating on those routes (More info in a future post).
My previous transit was either by taxi ($$$), bus or with a person familiar with the subway. With subway map in hand, I was on my way!
Friday’s mission: To get from my hotel in Ginza to the Shibuya District by 9:45 AM. Calculated travel time was 40 minutes, but since this was my first solo trip I left at 8:30 to allow for rookie mistakes. With one minor hiccup at Shibuya Station (finding my way out of the station), I made it just after 9:30.
Depart from Ginza Station G-09
Arrive at Shibuya Station G-01
I think picture taking on the subway is against the rules, but it was not too crowded so I risked a quick shot.
So the reason for having to be on a schedule so early in the morning was for a lesson about samurai armor, which included a photoshoot. I will cover this in much more detail in a dedicated post, but here are a few pics from the shoot.
After a fun lesson and photo shoot with Takemura, I took a different route back to my train station since this was an area of town that I had not explored.
Below are a few photos along my walk, ending at the famous Shibuya Crossing, which I would have seen early had I not gotten mixed up when I left Shibuya Station earlier in the morning.
Traffic stops in all directions, allowing pedestrians to cross in multiple directions at the same time.
When I exited my train station on the way back to my hotel, I noticed I was at Nissan Crossing.
Here you can see future Nissan concepts.
I still had time before my evening plans so I spent an hour exploring nearby Minato District to see more interesting architecture, a small shrine and Tokyo Tower.
Modeled after the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the goal of this structure was for communications and TV broadcasting.
Friday Night – Ramen and Robots in Shinjuku!
The evening was spent in Shinjuku District with coworkers, for dinner and a show I’ve been wanting to see for over a year!
Tokyo is a safe city, but there were definitely no worries tonight about safety because Godzilla was watching over me!
Hotel Gracery is just one location around Tokyo where you can find similar statues, artwork, or other tributes related to Godzilla. I did not know this at the time, but this Godzilla comes to life a few times a day complete with breathing smoke!
Two things led to our restaurant choice before the show. The first was my hotel concierge strongly recommended not to add dinner to our show ticket (Foreshadowing – they were correct). The other factor was my colleagues learned that I never eaten ramen. Ichiran was the recommendation from the many options in Shinjuku District.
A neat thing about most Ramen restaurants is that you usually place your order through a kiosk.
You select your meal through a kiosk (ours looked like an ATM with pictures of each item), and deposit your money.
A ticket is dispensed and this ticket is provided to the staff after you sit down.
It was too busy at the kiosk to photograph this, but below is an add-on menu that was very familiar to the screen ordering, just without pictures.
My first ramen meal tasted amazing! As much as I wanted to use chopsticks like everyone else, I looked like a toddler trying to feed myself for the first time. One of my colleagues rescued me by asking for traditional silverware. We would have been late for the show without this save.
Next, it was around the block to pick up our tickets for the show.
I did zero research on this before I went. I just saw robots and I was in! The show actually turned out to be much more. It was part theater, part concert, part dance performance. One thing I’m glad about is my hotel concierge saving us from having dinner here. Even though it is called Robot Restaurant, the meals were equivalent to menu at a local dollar theater or minor league baseball game. We did grab snacks before the show started.
To kick things off, a hostess came out and provided a few safety measures. This reminded me of pre-flight announcements on an airplane: Watch your hands if you’re seated in the front row, no standing during the show, turn off Wi-Fi because it may interfere with the robots, no flash on cameras or video.
The lights dimmed and curtains opened. Out came three large moving stages that resembled Mardi Gras floats with drummers in wild colored costumes and headgear. One of the stages was decorated like a robot samurai warrior.
It was difficult to capture everything that was going on with a camera because it was so fast paced, but exciting in person. Here are a few clips from our show.
I’m happy that my coworkers were willing to take one for the team to join me for an attraction that locals do not usually attend.
In the end, we all had fun and learned along the way. I wanted to see robots and we all realized during the show that we got introduced to a modern form of kabuki theater.
In addition to the colorful props throughout the show, this also explained the stage crew that were on the floor moving props during the show and controlling the robots.
In kabuki, props are moved around frequently during performances, but you’re supposed to “ignore” the stage crew which is usually dressed in all black. In this show the robot controllers were costumed.
Shinjuku District Bars
After the show we walked through the Shinjuku District a bit, walking through Golden Gai, a street mall of a few dozen tiny bars. Most fit less than 10 people.
Each bar had a different theme. Some themes were local in nature while others had international themes.
This whisky was good but we only had one round.
This bar did not have pricing on their menu, so we figured they would be pricey. We figured correctly.
Another interesting thing that was pointed out to me was about “cover charges”. If a bar has a cover charge, it is not an entrance fee, but a mandatory snack or appetizer like assorted nuts or party mix.
After settling our one-round tab, we decided to relocate from Golden Gai to find an area with more room so we took a quick stroll to a different area of Shinjuku.
This was one of the more interesting buildings that I saw along our walk. I did not see a sign noting the number of puzzle pieces.
We walked by Kirin City, a bar and restaurant operated by Kirin Brewing. Kirin is one of the leading beer brands in Japan, so this would be the similar to a Budweiser or Miller bar and restaurant in the USA.
I ordered a frozen draft. Notice the glass is labeled the same as it is listed on the menu. The foam is the frozen part. The appearance reminds me of a ice cream float.
For most of my trip, I was with wonderful people who I either knew prior to my trip or met when I arrived. This was very helpful in understanding Tokyo, and culture.
Saturday was not really planned in advance as a solo day but in leaving open time (to allow for weather delays for outdoor activities or any scheduling changes with my friends) it kind of turned out that way.
This ended up providing another benefit. I could stay in a place longer and just take everything in without worry of having to move on.
Return to the Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market was part of my tour on Thursday morning. My only reason for returning today was to grab some tamagoyaki for breakfast.
Tamagoyaki is an omelette-like dish made with layers of egg, sugar or soy, and a stock that may contain kelp depending on the recipe.
This is prepared in a rectangular dish in small batches and then cut into smaller portions. Some versions that I saw also have vegetables or other added ingredients.
After I ate, I was able to catch a batch being prepared from beginning to end.
While grabbing breakfast, I also noticed that the market was much more crowded than Thursday.
Even though there were plenty of people on Thursday, I should have expected a larger weekend crowd. So instead of eating and moving on, I decided to wander around the market again.
I also took another stroll down a few of the side streets of the outer market.
I could not figure out if these guys in the water were for show or for sale.
I finally pulled myself away from the fish market and wandered around Ginza district for a bit. This area also had a different atmosphere on the weekend. The sidewalks are full of pedestrians every day, but in this popular shopping district, some streets were even blocked to vehicle traffic on Saturdays to allow for more pedestrian traffic. Tables with umbrellas were set up in the center median to eat or cool off.
Imperial Palace Grounds
The Imperial Palace was supposed to be part of my tour on Thursday, but heavy rain near the end of the tour changed part of our planned itinerary indoors. Today I wanted to visit the areas open to civilians. While the living quarters are not visible, the buildings below are remnants of Edo Castle, which dates to the 1600s.
I did not know this was something that took place at the Imperial Palace grounds or I would have been in better position to catch the changing of the guard.
I walked to the East Garden which is next to the Imperial Palace and open to the public on most days (Be sure to check schedule to make sure it it open). Admission is free. Within the garden grounds, you will also see preserved defense structures dating to the 17th century. These facilities were used to protect the former Edo Castle.
There was so much more to see at the East Garden, but they closed at 5PM. The admission ticket was an additional security measure to make sure that everyone left.
Thankfully I learned about this a couple nights earlier because I probably would have questioned my hotel charging cover.
Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!
The plan for Sunday was to visit Yoyogi Park. This is one of the largest parks in Tokyo and housed the Olympic Village during the 1964 Olympics.
In addition to relaxation and exercise, a common reason people gather here is people watching. On Sunday afternoons near the Harajuku entrance you can frequently find groups of classic rock fans in 1950s fashion dancing to Elvis or other rock groups. You may also see other fun subcultures of young people, such as fans of anime wearing full costumes for their favorite character. In talking to my tour guide from Thursday, Eriko summarized these activities as a break from a very structured week, similar to a work hard, play hard philosophy.
Heavy rain was forecast for the early afternoon, so we gambled on showing up late morning. We did not see any subculture events, but we did see some other things, some good and others not good.
Since we arrived at the park early, we did pass a group of homeless who were still asleep under tarp covered boxes.
A few minutes later we walked past a festival. After a few minutes we discovered that it was a Thai heritage festival. We watched the performances for a bit.
Next to one of the largest parks is one of the largest Shinto Shrines in Tokyo, Meiji Shrine. Below is one of the torii, marking the entrance.
I learned a small bit about shrines and temples, and would like to share that in a separate post soon, but below are a few additional photos from Meiji Shrine.
We were also lucky enough to witness the recessional of a Shinto wedding!
After leaving Meiji Shrine, the next destination was Takeshito Dori (Dori = Street). The stores along this street target teenagers with the latest fashion trends, but also has trendy restaurants.
I don’t know what got into me, but walking down Takeshito Dori I decided that I wanted to try takoyaki (fried squid) and I was advised that this was the best restaurant to try.
After filling up with squid, it was time to check out Takeshita Street.
We headed to Harajuku Station just as the expected rainfall hit. This was a good opportunity to visit the hub of Tokyo’s public transit.
Built in 1914, this brick building is only part of the station. Downstairs there are a few shopping centers targeting the hundreds of thousands of daily passengers, one area is as big as any mall I’ve seen.
There are so many options, that some stores are grouped together on “streets”. Take home meal options on Kitchen Street. Anime and TV toy stores Character Street. Choose from the many sit-down noodle restaurants on Ramen Street.
There are also many other stores selling clothing, groceries, household items and sweets.
The five days that I spent in Tokyo were really exciting and I was not happy that it was already time to leave.
Getting to the airport was a series of bad jokes for me. The first was in getting to the airport. The night before checkout, I reserved a charter bus from the hotel that left for the airport at 7:30AM for what was to be an hour long bus ride. In the five minutes it took for me to check out of my hotel at 6:45 AM, my maps app kept increasing the time estimate to the airport from to 1:15, 1:30, then 1:45. I decided to skip the charter bus and take an express train to the airport. This provided a more consistent arrival time, but I would have to deal with my luggage through the train station.
At the train station, even though I thought I had somewhat mastered finding the correct train line, I did make a minor mistake and was heading the wrong direction to my train. I noticed the error after walking over 400 meters the wrong way (there are distance markers in the station), but made it to my train just as it was boarding.
In the rush to board the train, I misread my ticket and boarded car 5 looking for seat 9 instead of car 9 seat 5. Since seating was reserved, I almost told a sleeping person they were in the wrong seat before I realized my error. Fortunately there were open seats in my incorrect train car.
The last bad joke was in restocking my coworkers with our favorite cookies from Japan – Ishiya Shiroi Koibito Cookies. We discovered these years ago when they were brought to us by a coworker as a gift and everyone become addicted to them. It is now tradition for anyone going to or visiting from Tokyo “restocks” our team. A year ago I had a short layover in Tokyo and they were only available at one store near gate 82 of Terminal 2, which was the opposite direction of my gate. I had just enough time so I made the walk and grabbed two of the largest cases. As I made my way to my gate, I noticed the gift shop right next to my gate had a same selection of Ishiya cookies. I guess the bright side is that I got to circulate the blood in my legs a bit more before sitting down for an 11 hour flight.
Once I made it on my plane (another 777-200), things became peaceful again.
A weird thing about returning home from on a direct flight from Tokyo to Texas is after your 11 hour flight, you actually arrive 2 hours before you left on the same day.
I passed my flight time with three more movies (Darkest Hour, Justice League, Downsizing), lunch, dinner, breakfast with five hours of sleep scattered in between.
I was also able to get a few pictures from the plane before landing in Texas, bringing an amazing experience to a close.
My time in Tokyo flew by. Even though I know I barely scratched the surfaced of what this wonderful city has to offer, I have many memories that will last a lifetime. I can’t wait to visit again!
Have you been to Tokyo? What did you see that I did not see?
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Future Posts On Tokyo
- Getting Around In Tokyo
- My Tour With Eriko
- Japanese Baseball
- Samurai Armor
- Temples & Shrines