Tokyo: Cherry Blossoms, Microbars, Amazing Food, Views, & Wanderings

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Back in January when I burned some American Airlines miles for a round-trip First Class award ticket to Japan, I had no idea of what to expect from the place.

The trip was my first time there (and in Asia!). I was nervous about getting around, the language barrier, navigating the huge metro system, and figuring out the basics, like ordering food and buying train tickets.

From landing at Narita, to getting to the Hilton Tokyo, to taking the bullet train to Osaka, and everything in between, it could not have been easier.

In fact, over the week I spent in Japan, I quickly fell in absolute love. The cities, the Japanese, and the country’s infrastructure… simply incredible.

Exploring Tokyo

The first day, I was jet-lagged AF and woke up around 5am, wired.

I got up around 6am, got ready and enjoyed the free hotel breakfast. Then we headed out into the city of Tokyo!

Before I begin, I wanna give a shout-out to a guide called Uncharted Tokyo.

It’s a Creative Commons file I randomly stumbled across and includes neighborhood guides, how to buy train tickets, tips on how to get around, etc. There’s a wealth of info packed into the 74 pages – I highly recommend downloading a copy for future reference (perhaps in your Evernote archives).

Here are my highlights.

Cherry blossoms

The first focus was on the cherry blossoms in the city parks. We arrived on April 8th, and got out and about on April 9th – the absolute tail end of peak viewing.

Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo's National Park

Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo’s Gyoen National Garden

In fact, the blossoms were falling down so hard, it looked like pink and white rain! The ground was blanketed with them.

I am so grateful we got to enjoy the peaceful beauty of these delicate blooms.

Gorgeous

Gorgeous

It was honestly like a fairytale to see this, and a dream come true. They only appear for 2 weeks or so each year, and timing it is a crapshoot. I’m glad it worked out.

Yoyogi Park / Meiji Shrine

Yoyogi Park borders Harajuku and Shibuya, so depending on what you want to do before or after, that might guide your route.

We started at the top and worked our way down.

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Entrance to Yoyogi Park

Somewhere in there, we visited Meiji Shrine, which was incredible.

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

It’s a vast park, and has lots of pathways and things to visit. I loved the fresh air and seeing all the different shades of green. It’s also a lovely way to get between neighborhoods on nature trails instead of concrete.

Harajuku

Yup, it was as crazy/awesome as I thought it would be.

Actually, the craziest thing was Takeshita Street – the epicenter of the Harajuku style.

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Takeshita Street

There were lots of fun shops, and lots of young people. This would be an excellent neighborhood to scout souvenirs.

Outside of this busy strip, there were pockets of calm. And the niche shops begin to appear.

We found lots of cute boutiques and restaurants on the side streets.

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Avocado Only – well OK!

Including a place called “Avocado Only.” The food was delicious and the avocado smoothies were out-of-this-world fantastic. I might’ve licked the cup lol. 😉

Animal cafes

If you want to hang out with animals, you have your pick of cats, owls, and hedgehogs in Tokyo. What an eclectic mix.

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The hedgehogs were so cute!

We went to Harry and played with hedgehogs. There was a wait, but you can make reservations to skip the line.

It was worth seeing these little guys. Just watch out for hedgehog poop! Oh, and ask for a worm. They’ll eat it out of your hand.

Wanderings

As is so often the case, the best way to get to know a city is to have a loose plan in mind… and then wander.

I love seeing how the streets connect, observing the locals, taking time to stroll slowly and just… be. Wherever I happen to find myself.

I never dreamed I’d feel so much peace in Tokyo. But between the bustling neighborhoods, the side streets are a good opportunity to I dunno, take your time, get some fresh air, and hear the birds singing? For real.

Some of the best moments began with, “Let’s go this way…” or “Wanna pop in here real quick?”

Shinjuku nights

Shinjuku nights

That’s how we found Kirin City, which is in Shinjuku (where we stayed).

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Having a fresh Kirin stout draft beer!

And how we found some incredible sushi (we followed a bunch of locals inside – it was cheap, too!).

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Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing was a fun place to have in mind. But afterward, the wandering through the side streets was equally interesting.

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View from an installation at Mori Art Museum

We also made it to Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills.

The views from the Sky Deck outside were amazing (and vertigo-inducing)!

Jesus take the wheel

Vertig-ohmygod

Wandering is also how we found Piss Alley (seriously, Google it!). It’s a narrow side street in Shinjuku lined with tiny food booths and bars and lots of food on skewers (including some really out-there stuff like salamander and pig testicles).

Near Piss Alley

Near Piss Alley

Microbars

I tried to find the bar where I spent a fun Friday night in Tokyo… but I can’t find it online. And I doubt it’s even there.

We went to the gay neighborhood, just to the east of Shinjuku.

While there are bigger, well-known bars, I grew fascinated with the small, glowing signs going up the buildings. After seeing lots of multi-floor buildings with these types of signs, I decided to just… go in. What’s the worst that could happen?

For a few of them, the place fell silent and heads turned when the door opened. There were only 6 or 7 seats inside. And I got the feeling I was walking in on a bunch of friends. I shut the door and bolted.

But eventually, we found one with karaoke and the peeps inside waved us in.

We didn’t speak Japanese. They didn’t speak English. Oops.

But we figured out enough to order beers and find something on the karaoke machine.

After a couple of drinks, we had new Facebook friends. And they showed us where to go and what to do with our remaining few days. It was awesome.

The next day, when I tried to find the bar online, I realized it was a microbar.

Many of them are in Golden Gai, but there are lots in the gay neighborhood, too.

The story is… there’s a patron or owner, and a generally set crowd of locals. Some of them are friendly to outsiders, and some aren’t. But it’s up to the owner whether or not you’re allowed to stay for the evening. And foreigners are especially not welcome at a few of them. Oops.

For whatever reason, I was welcomed in to one such bar. And honestly, it was probably my favorite night in Tokyo.

Bottom line

This post is getting long! I intended to also write about Osaka here. But this seems like a good time to end with Tokyo and let Osaka be its own post.

Arriving to Japan was a bit of a culture shock. I was expecting it to be a lot more chaotic and overwhelming than it was. In application, the city was quite easy to navigate, meticulously clean, and a complete joy to experience.

I fell in love with the Japanese order of things. I understood the city’s huge (but manageable!) infrastructure. It spoke poems to my Virgo heart. Sweet organized poems.

It also made me wonder why I’ve put off Asia for so long. What was I afraid of? On the other side of the same coin, I can’t wait to visit more places in that part of the world, with my newfound fearlessness.

If you ever visit, I highly recommend Uncharted Tokyo, a free digital file filled with tips and things to do and see. Even if you’ve been to Tokyo before, you’re bound to find something helpful in there.

For a city so huge and dense, I barely scratched the surface. When I get the chance to go again, I’ll do so in a heartbeat. In a word: wow. What a fantastic place in the world!

Feel free to share your favorite parts, bars, places, and/or things to do/see/go in Tokyo!

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

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  1. Harlan, this comes at a perfect time! I leave for Tokyo in June! So excited. Love Asia! Glad you enjoyed it too. (We’ll also be hitting up Seoul as well.) I’m going to come back to this post when I’m putting together our loose itinerary — it was really helpful. Also, “Vertig-ohmygod” was my favorite part. LOL 🙂

    • I wanna go to Seoul now too!!!

      Loose itinerary FTW! I have a few things in mind when I visit a place, but leave plenty of time to wander. 🙂

      I’m not really afraid of heights but being 60 floors up is kind of… whoa. LOL.

      Can’t wait to hear what you think of Tokyo. I think you will absolutely LOVE it!

  2. I studied in and later worked in Japan for a few years, and absolutely love it. I’m glad you got a chance to experience it and enjoy all the things that make Tokyo and the rest of the country so unique and interesting.
    I’ve also lived and worked in Korea and Taiwan and been to a couple countries in southeast Asia, I can tell you that Japan is different. So, experience every country you’d like, but Japan is still #1 in my books.
    (Just wish others didn’t know how great it was, so it could be all mine. 😛 )
    But that’s why i venture out of Tokyo. The country has even more to offer =]

    • So cool to hear. I got that sense too, that other SE Asian countries have lots to offer, but that Japan was truly special.

      How cool that you got to spend a few years of life there. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t be opposed to that, either.

      Thanks for sharing, definitely agree with you. Can’t wait to go back “off-peak” AKA not cherry blossom time. It got super crowded at times!

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