Japan 2015, Episode 2: Takin’ on Tokyo

There is something about the simple act of moving from one place to another that excites me. Planes, trains, metros, and cars are little “mini vacations” in and of themselves. It’s definitely the anticipation of my next destination that gets me, but I usually enjoy the ride as well. After all, travel has gotten pretty comfortable over the last few decades to make up for the stress it can cause, with everything from meals to Wi-Fi provided on many of these forms.

But let’s go back to that stress for conversation’s sake. Yes, in spite of all that great excitement, traveling in a new place still stresses me out like it would anyone. This is elevated ever-more by my aforementioned weakness in navigation. So when the day slowly awoke on Sunday morning, I was relieved to find nearly-empty streets at 7:00 in my Chuo City neighborhood.
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Taken down an alleyway near my hotel. Since when do alleyways look like this?
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Same thing. Like, really?
This leads me to my first noted observation: contrary to popular belief, not all of Tokyo is wall-to-wall crowded with headache-inducing lights and signs all over the buildings. The pleasant business hotel I stayed at near Ningyocho station couldn’t have been quieter throughout the entire time I was there. While I had perhaps missed out on being in the middle of the action of Shinjuku, (most of) Shibuya, or the infamous Roppongi where people turn up at all hours, it was kind of a weird relief to be able to experience “real” Tokyo. Or maybe I’m just getting old.
I spent the day exploring the area near Daikanyama station in Shibuya, the Shinjuku train station, and the Harajuku district as well as getting accustomed with the transportation system. It may seem odd that I did this the day before I’m leaving Tokyo, but I know it will be useful for other cities and, even more importantly, building up my confidence in navigation. While I had arrived a mere 24 hours earlier in a cold panic, I was happy to say that by the afternoon, I was navigating like a pro. I felt even more comfortable in the metro than I did navigating the London Tube, which says a LOT (and should convince you to visit Tokyo even more!)
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White buildings abound here, and the result is stunning.
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Tsutaya Books near Daikanyama station. It just might be the most beautiful bookstore in the world!
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Ivy Place, where I totally cheated and got American-style pancakes during my first real day in Japan. C’mon, Haley. But the pancakes were DELICIOUS!
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A small garden in Shibuya. Oh, the benefits of being up on a Sunday when no one else is.
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The area near Fukuro no Mise, Tsukishima, is lined with tons of yakiniku (cook your own food, similar to Korean BBQ) and other types of restaurants.
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As you first step out of the train station at Meiji-jingumae, it almost looks navigable!
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A less common view of Harajuku, as most pictures focus on the crazy, pink, rainbow sparkly stores and the subculture costumes. However, I think this picture illustrate the crowd drawn to Harajuku pretty well.
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I’m not a big “food picture taker”, but this dinner at Torafuku in Shinjuku Station’s Lumine was worth it.
The highlight of the day was, by far, visiting the Fukuro no Mise (Owl Cafe), a cafe that lets you interact with live owls. I had happened upon this jewel on the Internet prior to my trip and made it an absolute priority, given my love for all animals. Another observation about Tokyo is that there are all kids of theme cafes — cat cafes, maid cafes, and even Gundam cafes. This sub-activity of visiting cafes alone is enough to come back to Tokyo again (or stay longer) to visit them all.
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She was camera shy.
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My incredibly FIERCE modeling partner!
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Giving them Naomi Campbell realness with that stare.
For my directions to Fukuro no Mise, see the linked listing in the list of sites visited below.
I do get one more day in Tokyo (the day before I go back), so I intend to make the most of it. The best advice I have for anyone in Tokyo, whether you’re there for a day, a month, or an indeterminate period of your life, is to let yourself feel stressed at first. Let yourself have this short moment of stress, because pretty soon you’ll feel like you get it. Picture yourself “getting it” eventually rather than lying in a perpetual state of confusion and don’t get in the way of yourself. Have faith.
Observations/Tips about Tokyo (based on a 48ish hour visit)
  • People are monumentally helpful.
  • The JR pass does not cover the metro because it is not run by “JR”, so you’ll need to buy a metro pass of some type depending on your length of stay. While the JR “Yamanote” line does operate in a circle through most of Tokyo’s major tourist sites, I highly recommend dropping the little bit of extra cash for a metro pass to build flexibility into your day and save a little time. Day passes covering the two major subway lines, Tokyo Metro and Toei, are only 10 yen for one day. If you’re staying longer than a couple days, you can also buy a prepaid card, but it’s kind of expensive if you’re not going to be there for at least a week.
  • For the love of everything, get a travel agent to book your Ghibli museum ticket in advance if you’re a Ghibli fan! There are only two ways to get Ghibli tickets: in person through a Lawson through in Japan, or by having a travel agent book it online and then pick up the tickets for you in Japan within 48 hours or so. Tickets are booked out weeks or months in advance. This is an area that I deeply regret not booking early!
  • Harajuku definitely had a handful of people dressed in gothic lolita or decora clothing wear, but most of the people walking around were either foreigners or other locals just trying to have a normal day.
  • Most people do not appear to speak impeccable English, but almost EVERYONE speaks at least a little bit. Harking back to the first bullet point, people are more than happy to help you regardless of their English capabilities. I even had an older lady on a bus ask if she could talk to me, just so she could practice her English and see what my opinion was about Japan (cue my uncontainable happiness and over-gushing over how much I love Japan).
  • There is a ton of random English in advertisements and on peoples’ clothing. Most signs and many menus are at least partially in English, making it much easier to adapt to the many modes of transportation that Tokyo has to offer.
  • As I mentioned earlier, not all of Tokyo is crowded. In fact, if you visit near the Ningyocho or Tsukishima stations at any given time (outside of rush hour, I assume), you’ll feel like you’re in a mid-sized city.
  • Free Wi-Fi is offered is most of the train and metro stations. Use this to your advantage as this is definitely NOT the case in a lot of countries.
  • All Japanese food is good. You cannot argue with this point.
Places Stayed/Things Seen/Places Eaten 
Shibuya. Super-upscale. The white walls near Daikanyama are reminiscent of Greece, Italy, and SoCo in Costa Mesa, CA. There are a ton of European- and American-influenced businesses here, including the restaurant I ate at for breakfast, Ivy PlaceThe most notable place in this area is the Tsutaya Books bookstore, stocked with gorgeous books in Japanese and English covering everything from cooking to cats.
Directions: Get off at Daikanyama Station on the Tokyu Toyoko Line.
Tsukishima for Fukuro no Mise (owl cafe) – This is a pretty unassuming part of Tokyo, but that’s probably the best place for this small, cult favorite of a theme cafe. Admission is 2200 yen (roughly $20 at the time of this writing???) and includes one drink and an hour with the beautiful, adorable owls. The reservation system is unique. You must arrive early and give your name; from there, they will give you a time to come back. You don’t get any type of confirmation other than this, but there are only two ladies working here and they will remember you. If you plan to go, I implore you to get there by no later than an hour before it opens to put in your name. By the time I arrived at 11:00 am on Sunday (exactly an hour early), the line was already 20 people deep. I was able to snag the 12:00 time slot, so I got pretty lucky!
Directions: Get off at Tsukishima station on either the Yurakucho (for Tokyo Metro) or Oedo (for Toei) lines. When you exit, you’ll see a store called “Hotto Motto”. Cross the street towards that store and then continue down the street on the right side. The cafe will be on your right and will have owl curtains and more than likely a gigantic line of people unless you come early.
Harajuku. By far the most crowded place I saw in Tokyo. Hoards of people march up and done the street and through the various side streets where a seemingly endless amount of stores cater to the latest fashions. I saw a lot of vintage and second-hand stores, but also happened to venture down a particularly crowded walkway where stores aimed towards young girls like “Pink Latte” prevailed. A site to see, but I was more than willing to beeline to a quieter area.
Directions: Get off at Meiji-jungumae on the Chiyoda Line or Fukutoshin Line.
Shinjuku. This is the business district where many of the “night” scenes of Tokyo come from. I didn’t get to see much of this area, but Shinjuku station has a pretty fantastic mall (Lumine) that has some great restaurants on the 6th and 7th floors. I opted for the very Japanese Tora-fuku, a traditional Japanese restaurant, though there were American, French, and Vietnamese options available as well. Downstairs, I opted for the delightful Cafe Amati, a French-style cafe serving exquisite coffee and yummy desserts, to end the night.
Drections: From anywhere in Tokyo, get to Shinjuku station. Look for signs leading to “Lumine”, which is the department store there. Go to the 7th floor for awesome food.
Things I Missed (among MANY others)
The Tokyo Edo Museum – This was on my list and I was super-bummed that I did not get to see it.
The Ghibli Museum – process of reserving a spot for this unique museum requires you to book tickets in advance at a Lawson store. There are only four time slots available each day and only a limited number of people are allowed in each one. Sadly, this is one of those things that I really should have planned a lot longer ago, as they were booked out even to April when I checked. If you’re going to Tokyo and are a Ghibli fan, I highly recommend booking at least a month in advance. If you don’t live in Japan, that means you need to have a travel agent do this for you, as there is no way to book tickets in advance online without having to pick up the tickets in person. 
 
Akihabara “Electric Town” – This is actually a huge area for anime fans and I was bummed that I didn’t get to stay at a manga cafe while here. Here’s hoping the manga cafes are at least somewhat common in Kyoto and Osaka!
Asakusa – Another older part of Tokyo known for its many temples and vintage architecture.
 
Robot Restaurant – Wow, where do I begin with this one? Just look it up. Trust me.
Important Links
Tokyo Subway Map – This was essential for me during my stay in Tokyo.
JR Tokyo Map – If you’re dead-set on only using your rail pass, download and print this.
Stayed tuned for my next post, Episode 3, where I “tackle” another little “slice” (a couple puns here, don’t mind me) of Tokyo before heading off to the golden city of Kyoto. Auf wiedersehen!
Readers: Is there anything else you would like to know about Tokyo? Anything you would like for me to try and see when I return for a day towards the end of my trip? Let me know in the comments below!
– H

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