Our trip to Tokyo was amazing, as predicted. For 8 days, we took in the sights (and heights), the sounds (when it wasn’t eerily quiet), the tastes (holy crap, food city), and in all realness, only made it through 1/2 of what Tokyo had to offer.
I never thought I would visit Tokyo. I was always curious about it, but it never made my top 10 destinations. Growing up, Akira scared me, I didn’t like sushi, and I wasn’t in to anime. There also that whole Hiroshima thing, which made me feel like it wasn’t appropriate for me to go. Thus, I became an insulated American, and wrote it off.
While we were planning our trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only references I had for Japan were movies, and the semester we spent learning about Japanese culture when I was in 4th grade. It’s always been painted as a beautifully lonely city filled with contradictions: historic temples in the middle of high-tech, bustling neighbourhoods; condom shops next to arcades; zen gardens surrounded by skyscrapers; business men in suits and women in school girl outfits and neon hair falls; high-end shopping around the corner from run-down alleys. I thought Tokyo would be an experience in stuffed trains and visual overstimulation, and would feel like walking around in an anime – a grimey, bright, loud, Yakuza mobbed anime.
And lo, I was wrong. What it was really like: Quiet. Clean. Safe. Cheap. Traditional. Spiritual. Delicious.
Quiet: It was so quiet. I was surprised by, for a city with so many people, how quiet and still the neighbourhoods would be. As we walked around Shibuya and Shinjuku at night, the streets were filled with people, but the only noise you heard was music and commotion coming from the stores, and occasionally traffic. The trains were stuffed with people, but almost silent. It was easy to walk around and get lost in your own head, because there wasn’t a wave of noise and people and bullshit.
Clean: Tokyo was freakin’ clean. The streets and train stations and corner stores and alley ways and parks and random toilets were surprisingly clean. Even the sketchy squatty toilets in the park were cleaner than most gas station bathrooms I’ve endured in the States. Everywhere we went was sparse, minimal, and clean. It made me want to go home and throw away half the shit I hang on to.
Safe: I can’t explain it, but I never once felt vulnerable or uncomfortable. It was weird, especially for me, who has had stranger danger engrained in my psyche since I was in the womb, and who sometimes rounds the corner at work wondering who’s going to attack me. Even walking around at night, I felt perfectly safe. I saw fewer police and police cars than I have in Sydney or back in the States, but I’ve never felt safer in a big city.
Cheap: I was expecting Tokyo to drain our wallets, but surprisingly, you can have an amazing time on a dime. There’s heaps of free things to do, vending machines selling iced coffee and water for cheap, and eating from the 7-11 and other convenience stores is just as fresh and high quality as ordering from a real restaurant. Some of the museums and attractions were pricey, but overall, I was surprised by how affordable it was.
Traditional: For a city that’s known for its technology, it was still very traditional. Women still walked around in formal dress kimonos, people still worshipped at the shrines (as tourists flocked around them), meals and tea are still conducted in the old ways, and people are reserved and respectful.
Spiritual: Obviously. It’s a country of Buddhism and Shinto, and you can barely walk down a street without seeing a shrine. I’m not one for spiritual moments, but I definitely had a moment at a shrine. I was alone, looking through the building from one side to the other, and I was enamoured with the furniture inside, and how the reflection off the lacquered floors made the room look as though it spilled on for infinity. In that moment, I felt the stillness, and heard the quiet, and somewhere in my dead cold soul, I was moved. It may possibly be the closest I’ve come to zen. And then an American in a short short dress stood in the doorway on the other side, right in the middle of my view and posed while her boyfriend took a picture and BAM. Zen = fin.
Delicious: With the exception of octopus sashimi (which was so chewy and weird and gross (I felt every single suction cup on that fucker) that I nearly gagged trying to swallow it), everything I ate was amazing. Even the 2 minute noodles from 7-11 seemed more involved and delicious than they do anywhere else. The 24 hour convenience shops served fresh udon and yakisoba meals, cold vegetable and noodle sides, and hot chicken and pork entrees. We ate at a 4 star tempura restaurant for my birthday, and we ate fresh grilled crab legs, tuna steak, and octopus spears from a tiny vendor at the fish market that were both equal levels of greatness. It all seemed so fresh and light, it’d make you never want to stop eating. Also: desserts. Japanese deserts are now #1 in my heart. Fresh custard creme filled doughnuts, mini waffle tacos that are filled with whipped vanilla creme, crepes filled with every ingredient under the sun, milk doughnuts, melon soda floats, tarot root soft serve – and holy shit: Japanese cheese cake. It looks like sponge cake, feels like cheese cake. It’s a miracle. Also they make their ice cream with heavy cream instead of milk. Sheeeeit, it’s life changing.
And now: PICTURES! It’s taken a week to cull through and edit 1,700+ photos and videos, so enjoy!
A 9.5 hour flight, a 2 hour train ride from Narita airport to Shibuya, a sweaty walk through the (seemingly) massive train station, and a shorter train ride later we made it to our Air BnB: a one bedroom retro apartment over a noodle bar. It was old and cozy and had magical air conditioning, which made it the best place on Earth. We raided 7-11 for dinner, snacks, and beer, and called it an early night.
Our first day in Tokyo was hot. Like 33*C and 94% humidity hot. It was on the verge of raining all day, but it never quite got there. We were tired from the day before so we took it easy. We briefly walked by Takashita Street and the famous Harajuku area (very crowded, very full of young people, but Gwen Stefani was no where to be found), and made our way to the Meiji Jingu shrine and garden, a massive shrine and park in the Harajuku area. I was eaten by mosquitos, but in awe of the gorgeous greenery and the beautiful structures.
After the shrine, we headed into Shinjuku. Shinjuku is a crazy mix of restaurants, shopping, and shady looking businesses. At night, it lights up like a pin ball machine and it’s really fucking cool. I convinced Joel to eat at Shake Shack (yassss), and we also took in all 8 levels of Tokyu Hands, a massive craft, supply, and homewares/one stop, buy everything here store. Oh, and we passed the Japanese Communist HQ. Fun!
We made dinner at our apartment that night, and settled in to plan the rest of our week.
Tune in tomorrow for pictures from days 2 + 3!