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Tokyo was somewhere we had dreamt of visiting for a very long time, years ago we wondered if we might ever get the chance, but after finally venturing to Moscow and then getting married in New York, suddenly these dreams felt so much more possible. We headed out to Tokyo with such an uncontainable excitement, this would be our first time in the far east and we couldn’t wait to immerse ourselves in this rich and diverse culture.
Tokyo is like no where else, it’s mixture of modern and historical, chaotic and serenity is something it effortlessly pulls off, each one feeling like an antidote to the other when needed. It’s cool and it’s cultured, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world and yet the details are amazing and intriguing…. here’s our must do Tokyo!
Where do you start when describing somewhere like Tokyo, it feels almost impossible to sum up, it’s everything you imagined but so much more. It’s got an almost schizophrenia feel to it, one moment it’s an overwhelming sensory overload, the next it’s a contemplative and soulful city. The many sides to Tokyo mean it fulfils both the need to see Japan’s technological future, but also it’s mysterious and alluring past.
At times being in Tokyo can feel like you are inside a computer game, lights flashing, strange noises and electric soundtracks coming from all over, groups of people dressed up in all manner of crazy and colourful costumes… you feel surrounded, but in a good way. You can’t help but be immersed, it’s all around you, movement and noise, but somehow softer and more friendly than that of other major cities. We visited at a great time of year, around Autumn which was still great weather. Tokyo can get cold but it is still a great place to visit in Japan in the Winter too!
Then you turn a corner and suddenly you are wandering a tight street, wooden houses and jungle crows perched above, the smell of incense and the rhythmic beating of a drum fill the air. The many Buddhist and Shinto temples feel like shelter, they seem to block out the noise of modernity and transport you back to a simpler time. Monks wander the grounds whilst the faithful send their prayers with a clap and a bow, the sweet smoke dancing on the wind and cleansing your soul.
For a big city Tokyo can feel very intimate, it is split up into several “wards” or districts, each an unique and the next. Some, such as Ueno where we stayed, retain a very residential feel. Many older people going quietly about their business down a maze of narrow ancient streets. Whilst others have that electric, “lost in translation”, dizzying buzz to them. There is a lifetime’s worth of adventure and discoveries waiting in this amazing city, here a are a few we think you shouldn’t miss in strange and wonderful TOKYO!
Dive into the electric world of Akihabara
Akihabara is the weird and wonderful, techno crazy Tokyo you have been searching for! Electric town is a buzz with thousands of different shops and arcades each blasting out it’s own high pitched tunes and flashing neon signs. You can karaoke on one floor, play computer games all night on the next, buy all sorts of weird and wacky vinyl toys… and if you wander a little further you might just end up in the manga porn section by accident…
This is truly where you feel like you have stepped away from reality and into a cartoon computer game world! It is wonderfully overwhelming with sights, sounds, strange outfits and crazy technology around every corner! We ended up buying quite a lot of odd things from around here!
If Manga, Anime, Computer games, maid cafes or anything typically Modern Japanese is your thing then Akihabara is heaven! Even if you are indifferent to Otaku culture Akihabara is a must visit area just to experience the buzz and strangeness of the place!
Akihabara or Suehirocho subway station on the Metro Hibiya line
Akihabara station (located on the JR Yamanote, Keihin-Tohoku, and Chuo lines)
Yes indeed, you read correct, get lost! Tokyo is massive and as we mentioned in the intro it has several interesting wards and neighbourhoods to explore, each unique and different in their own way. Don’t worry, getting lost in Tokyo is easy! The metro and subway systems can be confusing and the address system is a series of numbers which only make sense to locals… but instead of this holding you back, this can be the key to finding some amazing and unknown gems!
One of the first things we did when we arrived was to just walk, we had to wait a while to check in and as such had no particular plans for that day… What we found was something totally different to what we expected of Tokyo. The technology and the large temples are a given, something we would have always seen. But these weaving streets and tiny locals shrines were a fascinating look into the everyday lives of this amazing city.
These details, the little vending machines selling all sorts of strange goods, the electric cars and residential housing are a great off the beaten track experience. We even ended up in someones front room, which happened to be an artists studio displaying generations of artwork from a whole family including paintings and recent photographs of a famous sumo!
Shibuya crossing is probably one of the most famous road crossings in the world, second only to Abbey Road and most definitely one of the most visited “attractions” in Japan! So ok, it’s just a crossing, only it’s so much more… It’s organised chaos at it’s finest. This five way crossing stops traffic in all directions simultaneously, thus allowing the entire intersection to become inundated with hundreds of crossing pedestrians at a time… like marbles rolling out in all directions.
The area is always busy, being outside of one of the largest train stations in the world and at the centre of Tokyo’s shopping district, the area constantly fills with people between each crossing making the scramble a great thing to observe and take part in. One of the best spots is to sit in the window of Starbucks on the opposite side to the station.
Visiting Tokyo and not having your very own “Lost in Translation” moment on Shibuya scramble would be to miss a massive tick of the bucket list. This area is very much reminiscent of Times Square and similarly serves as a social focal point for the city.
Get there –
Shibuya Station is on the Ginza Subway line, the Hanzomon Subway line, the JR Yamanote Line, the JR Saikyo line and the Keio Inokashira line
Eat some weird and wonderful things!
Some people love Japanese food, some people hate it, for us we can’t quite decide if it’s deliciously strange or just downright freaky! We have always been fond of Asia and in particular Oriental food, but Japan is on another level! At times it feels like a lottery, the English descriptions of the meal would be very vague… what you end up with might very well be more than you bargained for, but sometimes that is a good thing.
On our first night we headed out at some ungodly hour in search of something to eat after our body clocks had been completely ruined. What we innocently bought believing to be rice balls turned out to be massive tentacle balls… Blergh! Then again a hour long search on a tentative tip off about a tempura restaurant turned out to be one of the most amazing meals we have ever had at “Tsunahachi Rin”.
We can’t claim to be too great with the old chop sticks either… as much as we try in vane! Sushi being flicked half way across the room in an attempt to look cultured was the result, but at least we tried! Many of the best places to eat ended up being small shacks/ stalls serving Ramen, yakitori and Soba to the hungry locals.
The Japanese also have their very own special blend of confectionery and culinary gifts… Hello kitty squid anyone, or what about a Tokyo tower combustion dried cuttlefish? Although some of the sweets we did test out in the local corners shops turned out to be pretty amazing, apart from some angry red ones which almost made me sick!
Check out the amazing views above Tokyo!
Tokyo have many different vantage points to view this magnificent city from, each has it’s good and bad points and yet all offer something unique and different. In the end we decided to check out the view from the Mori art centre in Rappongi hills, the Tokyo tower and the new Sky Tree.
Rappingi hills was our first port of call and although not the tallest of look outs it does offer one of the most impressive views and for a reasonable price. You can compare heading up to the top level of the Mori arts centre to the “top of the rock” in New York. It might not be the most famous but what it does give you is an unrivaled view of the legendary Tokyo Tower against the backdrop of the metropolis.
Next up we headed over to the new Tokyo Skytree which at a dizzying 2,080 ft is the second tallest structure in the world. One of the main reasons we wanted to head up here after the Mori art’s centre was because of the fact that it is so high even Mt Fuji can be made out from the top! However the price is quite high and you have to pay again to get all the way to the top, the queues are also pretty ridiculous… but the view is insane!
The Tokyo Tower was probably the most disappointing of the three vantage points we explored but that was partially because the highest point was being renovated. However it was really quite cheap and there were virtually no crowds. The tower has become one of the symbols of the city and was one of the things I (Nic) remembers from my dad’s photos after he visited Japan in the mid 90’s. We headed up at night this time to get a different view and despite it being quite a bit lower than the others it was still a magical sight.
Getting there & Prices –
Mori arts centre/ Rappongi hills –
Roppongi Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line.
Adult: ¥1,500, ¥1,000 student (Includes entrance to gallery as well as viewing station)
Every day except Tuesdays: 10:00-22:00 ,Tuesdays: 10:00-17:00
Admission until 30 minutes before closing.
Tokyo Sky Tree –
Catch a train or a bus (30 minutes from Tokyo Station) to Tokyo Skytree Station or Oshiage (Skytree) or walk across the Sumida River from Asakusa (20 minutes).
¥2000 Yen (first observation deck); ¥3000 Yen both decks
8AM to 10PM everyday.
Tokyo Tower –
Metropolitan Subway – Oedo Line: Akabanebashi
JR – Hamamatsucho
¥900 Main Observatory, ¥700 Special Observatory , ¥1,600 both.
10:00 – 21:00 Everyday. Last admission 20:30
Take part in a traditional tea Ceremony
One of the things we were keen to do in Japan was to take part in a traditional tea ceremony. The only problem was when we researched this online is all seemed a little expensive and also many required pre-booking. We longed to see these amazing rituals of this mysterious country and came across a tea house in the middle of Hama Rikyu gardens which ticked all the boxes.
The traditional Japanese tea house in the gardens is set in a wonderfully picturesque and tranquil setting and lives up to all expectations, it’s also amazingly cheap and openly available too. The servers float around in Kimonos whilst you observe and follow the historic etiquette and rules.
Of course there are so many places throughout Tokyo to experience this beautiful ceremony and it is worth doing some research to make sure you get the right type of version for yourself. For us this low key, relaxed but yet organised and fulfilling location was perfect for us. The green tea was the thickest I have every seen and although I am usually not a tea fan and despite it’s rather strange appearance it was in fact pretty nice and the experience most definitely a must do!
See the ancient Edo beginning of Japan in the Imperial Palace
The massive site of the Imperial Palace is both the main residence of the the Emperor of Japan and also the site of the ancient Edo castle and the beginnings of the Japanese empire. Walking around these grounds you can feel the history that has gone before, the pieces and traces of past lives and eras.
It is a wonderfully peaceful place to wander and relax, it is both full of young people picnicking on the lawns and older Japanese folks bursting with pride. The grounds could take days to completely cover such is their scale. When visiting Tokyo a step into the past a great antidote to the fast and furious future.
Subway – Marunouchi exit at the Tokyo JR station
Closed – The Gardens are closed on Mondays, Fridays and Holidays.
Open – 9:00am to 4:00pm. Last admission at 3:00pm.
Admission – Free
Take a load off in the amazing parks & gardens
Not only is Tokyo one of the most built up cities in the world, but it also contains many beautiful and diverse parks and gardens, each containing a glorious range of native plants, wildlife and other features. These include the Tea house of Hama Rikyu, the Shrine and boating lake of Ueno as well as rides, museums, zoos and sports pitches!
These parks can be a great way to escape the sometimes claustrophobic city, much in the same way as with central park, you feel as though you have stepped out of one world and into another. The lily pads, bridges, Japanese pine trees, lakes filled with Koi and lovely warm breeze make these parks a serine place to relax and unwind.
They are also a great place to observe local people, traditions and cultures. Many of the larger parks such as Ueno host local amateur baseball games, families come to play together or workers take their lunch in these beautiful surroundings. We also hired a peddle boat on the small lake in Ueno, which apart from nearly capsizing, was a great way to see the city from another perspective.
Some of the main parks and gardens are: Shinjuku Gyoen, Hama-Rikyu, Higashi Gyoen , Hibiya Koen, Kyu-Shiba-rikyu, Rikugien Garden, Kyu Furukawa Garden, Meiji Jingu Garden, Yoyogi Park, Ueno Koen Park – So lots to choose from, many are free but some of the gardens require a small entrance fee often between 300-400 Yen.
Cleanse your soul in a shinto/ Buddhist temples
When in Tokyo one of the greatest experiences is to visit the many Shinto and Buddhist temples the city has to offer. They seem to be around almost every corner, from huge brightly coloured temples to which tourists flock, to small ancient wooden shrines empty apart from the wandering monks. It’s really again another great way to escape the city and step back in time.
One of the things that fascinated us with Japan was not only the technology but the spirituality as well, and visiting these temples was really one of the defining experiences of our amazing trip and really does represent the contrast and differing sides to this country and city. The temples are a great place to relax and take stock of your amazing surroundings too.
When visiting the many temples it’s great to take a step back to watch and follow what the locals do. Often the sweet smell of incense can be sensed before the temple comes into sight, this smoke is wafted over the visitor to clean them. Then on to the ornate water fountains to wash the hands before approaching the front of the temple. Then clap twice before bowing and throwing a donation into the collection pots. You can also write out an “Ema”, a wooden plaque to leave your wishes or prayers on for the Shinto gods.
Some of the major shrines and temples are: Sensoji, Kanda Myojin , Gokokuji, Togo, Tennoji , Zensho-en, Suwa, Zojoji Temple.
Experience one of Japan’s passions: Baseball
Baseball may be America’s national game but it is also Japans too! It has been played in Japan since it was introduced by Horace Wilson 1872 and is a national passion. The rules in the Nippon leagues are very similar but do differ in some technical elements, for example some grounds are smaller, the baseball itself is tighter and tied games are allowed.
Baseball is as much a part of Japanese culture today as visiting the temples or eating Sushi! Going to a game and experiencing their passion is a fantastic insight into that. Unfortunately the pro season was over when we visited but we did end up watching a college game at the Jingu Stadium, which was pretty awesome. After going watching the Mets play in an MLB game earlier in the year it was great to see the similarities an differences.
Even if you are not a massive baseball fan (like Nic!) it is still a great way to connect to the culture of Japan. Another cool way is to visit one of the batting cages dotted around the city and have a go yourself. It’s pretty cheap and massive fun… although my arms ached for days after! Shinjuku at night is a crazy place, and often the batting cages are full of drunken salary men stuck in the city all night after working crazy hours only to be due in the office a few hours later!
Tokyo Yomiuri Giants (Large and successful team, like the Yankees) -Tokyo Dome
Tokyo Yakult Swallows (Smaller but loyal fanbase, the underdogs!) – Jingu Stadium, Tokyo’s oldest and most traditional ballpark, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in Jingu during an exhibition tour of Japan.
The season starts in late March or early April and ends in October with two or three all star games in July
Shinjuku batting cage: In the middle of Kabukicho (Red light district!). Open 10am-4am daily. 30 balls: ¥300
Meiji Jingu Park: 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.(March to October), 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Rest of year. 20 balls: ¥410
Oslo Batting centre: Also in Shinjuku. 10am-01am. 30 balls: ¥300
Tokyo is a crazy city, prepare to see things you have never and most likely will never see again. You will get totally confused over the fact there are two massive subway systems, you will get lost and easily disoriented, you will be overwhelmed by either absolute chaos or complete serenity… but just let it happen! Allow the city to take you on an insane journey and explore this amazing city and it’s enthralling and diverse culture! The people of Tokyo are also some of the most polite and hard working you will find, they will go out of their way to help you… unless asleep on the train from working gruelling hours. Tokyo and Japan can also be expensive and quite a different challenge to be a backpacker here than much of Asia, but don’t let that put you off!
Go and explore Tokyo, its easy to get around on the subway lines, we mostly stuck to the Yamanote Line as it covers almost everywhere we wanted to visit. Each line requires a different ticket or you can pay more and get a ticket that covers the entire city with its crazy spaghetti like layout. We found it easier sticking to the JR as it is a more simple map!
Bonus: Use all the features on one of these:
The fake flush has to be the funniest and most Japanese… prepare for another, rather different, unforgettable experience! :-p