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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.
In This Post
- Link: Uncharted 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.
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.
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.
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
- Link: Yoyogi Park reviews
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.
Somewhere in there, we visited Meiji Shrine, which was incredible.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
- Link: “Harry” hedgehog cafe
If you want to hang out with animals, you have your pick of cats, owls, and hedgehogs in Tokyo. What an eclectic mix.
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.
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?”
That’s how we found Kirin City, which is in Shinjuku (where we stayed).
And how we found some incredible sushi (we followed a bunch of locals inside – it was cheap, too!).
Shibuya Crossing was a fun place to have in mind. But afterward, the wandering through the side streets was equally interesting.
We also made it to Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills.
The views from the Sky Deck outside were amazing (and vertigo-inducing)!
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).
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.
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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