Thursday, August 2, 2012

The trendy Tokyo - the most amazing city in the world?

Tokyo - actually Tōkyō or in Japanese 東京 - was, surprise to me, the biggest city of my RTW trip and is by most measures the largest city and metropolitan area in the world! (By the way, the second biggest city on this particular 6,5 month trip was São Paulo and third either Osaka or Buenos Aires.)

It was the beginning of June (...yes, I'm this late on my blog posts...) and I was reaching the end of my big trip. I wanted to have a bit more time in Japan so I had moved my flight from Cairns to Tokyo a couple days earlier. This was one of the rare occasions I used the opportunity to freely adjust the flight plan that I had made end of last year (well the plan basically only included the intercontinental flights so most of my travel plan was created as I went on..).

The flight from Cairns to Tokyo was comfortable, yet quite boring 7,5 hours. I arrived to Narita airport in the evening, pretty tired and not feeling ready to tackle the Tokyo public transport system. I don't know any Japanese, at all. It was the first country on this trip where I was complete lost with the language. But no need to worry, I walked straight to the information desk at the airport and they gave perfectly clear instructions on how to get to my accommodation, in fluent English. It was a 1,5 hour journey to the city and through the city (bear in mind the airport itself is also 60km from downtown Tokyo) but I had no troubles getting around.

I started my sightseeing the next morning. Well actually I had no idea where to start but I had a map and Google and some recommendations. First up I went to Shinjuku to see the urban Tokyo with all the tall buildings. I quickly realized how massive the city is and how easy it is to get lost, especially in the mazes of the subway and train stations.

I continued strolling around Shinjuku and apparently found the local "red light district". It was a clean neighbourhood though and completely safe like it is I guess everywhere in Tokyo. But it was easy to tell by all the pictures of the girls :D For the rest you wouldn't have noticed it. I also found my first sushi restaurant (surprisingly hard to find!) and enjoyed my first ever sushi meal in Japan, yum!

I saw on the map that the Gyoen National Garden was close and stopped by for a stroll. There was a small admission fee (200¥) but the massive garden is worth a visit. It's especially popular when the cherry trees are blossoming (called hanami) during the spring, usually end of March-April. There are French and English gardens in additional to the traditional Japanese garden. Beware though that there are no playing of sports (soccer, frisbee etc), no roller skating, no alcohol, no music playing and you can't come with your pets, among other things. Fun times! :D But there are lots of places to sit down, relax and have a picnic. Or stop by at some of the traditional tea houses.

How do you know you're in Japan...? #enforcing sterotypes
The famous Taiwan pavillion

In the evening I joined my couchsurfing host for a dinner in a traditional Japanese restaurant and see the view from one of the towers in Shinjuku. There was a restaurant on the top floor and we got a table next to the window, ordered some (expensive) drinks and enjoyed the view of Tokyo night-time cityscape.

The second day I wasn’t feeling too good, I think I caught a bit of cold on my sailing trip two days back and all my muscles were severely sore from the last night out dancing in Cairns. I took the day to mainly rest – it’s amazing how when you’re under the weather you can sleep most of the day and still sleep the night straight after.

Luckily next day I felt better and was back doing sightseeing. I went to have a walk in my hostel's local neighborhood, Ueno. It’s one of the many train hubs of Tokyo but right next to the station there’s also a big garden and the city zoo! It was a beautiful sunny day so I thought why not stay outdoors and see some animals! The Ueno zoo's star is the giant panda but there are loads of animals to see, pretty much everything from elephant to mouse as well as lots of reptiles. I especially liked the bears, including a pretty anxious polar bear and a massive Hokkaido brown bear, the tiger on the prowl, the lounging gorilla family and the curious meerkats!

There were also some very interesting creatures, the naked mole rats. These little rodents are adults, although they look like babies with their furless skin and closed eyes. I filmed them going back and forth in their tunnel system... looked like being sucked by a vacuum cleaner for some reason :D

If you like animals you'll love the Ueno zoo! And it's only 600¥ for adults (around 6€). In Ueno park there’s also lots of long avenues to have a stroll or a run. And of course a couple shrines – those you’ll also find everywhere in the city, sometimes you feel like there’s a shrine in every block!

A shrine in Ueno.. for the dogs?
Shrines and temples in Tokyo... everywhere!
One of my favourite things in temples, the prayers
Down from Ueno there’s a couple shopping streets with tons of small cheap shops and lots of restaurants. I quickly noticed that in Japan you can find anything, especially small knickknacks, toys, decorative items and things to decorate any items with.. accessories, utensils and any shape, size or type of electronic appliances of some sorts. If you can think of something they already sell it here! And lots of things you couldn’t have even thought of... A camera that looks like a muffin. Or a muffin that looks like a camera :D Or for example a gadget the shape of a milk carton, with the face of a walrus: you place it in the fridge and it will greet you when you open the fridge.

Then I continued to the "center" which you will find in maps marked as Tokyo. Close to the Tokyo station lies the Imperial Palace, the residence of the Japanese Imperial Family. You won’t be allowed to enter the Palace though, except if you're in town on Jan 2nd for the New Year's Greeting or Dec 23rd for the Emperor's Birthday. But around the year on most days you can go take a stroll in the East Gardens. It’s a big area even though it represents only a small part of the Palace grounds so you can really get a picture of how massive the place is.

In the evening I went to Shibuya to see the oh-so-famous intersection close to the Shibuya station. And yes there seems to be always tons of people all crossing the street in different directions. There’s quite a few similar crossroads in Tokyo but this is probably the most impressive. I had a local guy giving me a tour of the area where there are hundreds of shops and several big shopping complexes next to one another.

We then continued to one small side street which was lined with tiny traditional restaurants, there were a couple dozen of them. Each restaurant had one row of chairs and could fitting up to 8 people - well some had about 12 people in them in despite the small space. They tend to serve various local foods, don’t expect to find and English menu though! We tried different types of sake, beer and some tofu as well as yakitori with chicken file, heart and hips. You can find quite exotic food there, including for example some crickets for snacks ... if you're brave enough to try them!

Shibuya crossing!
Dinner time
A tiny restaurant - me & 5 locals (the lady was the chef)
The next day I returned to Shibuya with my hostel roommate Christine to see the more of the shops - just see and mainly not to buy anything since most of the shops there are quite expensive (e.g. clothes shopping: a top would be easily 5000 ¥ i.e. 50€ or bikini set 120€…). But it’s an experience just to go there: everything they sell is really beautiful – or funny – and the best part is the atmosphere. In the shopping centres the music is blasting on full volume and each, small individual shop plays their own music... The shop attendants (99% are pretty girls with bleached very stylish hair) are all greeting you with an extremely fake nasal voice irasshaimaseeeeee (= "welcome"). You can see how many floors of one shopping center you can last with all the noise :D A complete opposite to the serene shrines! Shibuya 109 is one of the best shopping centers for the full-on experience.

Shop 'til you drop in Tokyo - on the bottom left is Ueno shopping street; bottom right are shops in Shibuya 109
We also went to have our Purikura photos taken - purikura is the Japanese version of photo booths where you can take 4-6 different pictures and after the pictures are taken you can add some funny special effects & drawings to them. They're quite hilarious!

In the evening I went to the Roppongi hills which is a famous nightlife district. There was a football game on, I think Japan was meeting Jordan, and lots of sports fans where cheering Japan's victory. In Roppongi there are bars and restaurants all one after another - if there's a party in Tokyo it will most likely be in Roppongi! A nice place to catch the Tokyo nightlife during the weekend.

A late evening in Roppongi - you can also see the Tokyo Tower (similar to Eiffel Tower) on the right.

The weather was changing quite a lot as it was the rainy season; one day was completely sunny and hot, another was rainy and chilly. Well I wasn’t going to let rain stop me from sightseeing! I wanted to see the famous shrine in Asakusa, Sensō-ji (conveniently located just a block or two from the Asakusa subway & train terminal). Despite the rain it was the most impressive temple in Tokyo and in fact I had to return there later on, on a sunnier day - it was really beautiful!

The rainy temple grounds with the sea of umbrellas
And sunny late afternoon on another day - gorgeous!

I also made a visit to Harajuku - a shopping district famous for the swarms of cosplay people and various other funky styles the teens wear in Japan such lolita and visual kei. In that rainy day I saw only one cosplay girl but did go around to do some window shopping. There are some really cool shopping centres in Harajuku! Close to the Harajuku station is also the Yojogi park with its impressive gate and the Meiji Shrine.

Saturday evening was one of the highlights of my Tokyo week - I went out to Ebisu to dance zouk with my fellow Japanese zoukeros and zoukeras! I didn't know anyone there from before but through mutual friends I had found out when & where the party was. And it was a fantastic evening!! More about that in my next post about dancing in Japan.

Unfortunately in some file transfers I lost the pictures of that day... oh well, I still have hundreds of other pictures from Tokyo and over 15.000 on the entire trip :D The next morning I whizzed off to see more of Japan and boarded a Shinkansen (the bullet) train to Osaka!

Five days later when I got back to Tokyo from my Osaka & Kyoto trip I still had one more afternoon in Tokyo - time to visit the Skytree! Skytree is a 634m tall tower, making it the second tallest building in the world (after Burj Khalifa in Dubai). It was opened just this May and the whole area is still sparkly new! There is a fancy shopping complex and restaurants as well as a train and subway terminal.

I couldn't visit the actual top viewing deck of the Skytree as tickets were only available with advance reservation and not sold on site at all - and the advance reservation website was only in Japanese, making it a bit difficult to be spontaneous. But now (after July 11th) you should be able to get tickets there at the building though I suspect there are long queues in any case. Do not confuse the Skytree with another tall structure in the city, the Tokyo Tower: this has the similar look of the Eiffel Tower, except this Japanese version is red & white (you can see it in my Roppongi picture above).

As it was my last night in Japan I finished my day in Tokyo with some last sushis - finally managed to pass by one cheap "conveyor belt" sushi restaurant. So even though I wasn't all that hungry I was enjoying myself and ate lots & lots!

The Skytree panorama - the tower is too large to fit in one normal frame this closeup!
Riverside close to the Asakusa Station; on the right you can also see the Skytree, while it's 1-2km further out it appears still a lot taller than the buildings on the riverbank!
Eating out in Japan... Some of my favourite meals! And sushi at least once a day :)

Tokyo in a nutshell

Tokyo is a massive city and no wonder as it's the largest in the world. It is quite spread out without one distinctive "downtown" area where you would find all the tall buildings, attractions, shops, restaurants and nightlife. There are obviously many areas I didn’t go to and sights I didn't visit (like Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo Tower, Disneyland or the Skytree viewing deck or the aquarium... so much to see!) but I can sum up my recommendations from what I experienced:

Great areas for shopping:
  Cheap: Shinjuku and Ueno side streets.
  Latest urban fashion and popular “high street” shops: Shibuya and Harajuku.
  Luxury brands (Louis Vuitton, Gucci etc): Harajuku.
Great areas for temples: everywhere... but to name one in particular: Asakusa.
Great areas for nightlife: Roppongi; also lots of restaurants in Shibuya, Ebisu and Ueno. 

What is the best in Tokyo?  The culture.. The aestetics in every small detail of everything - mixed with the crazy mess of the Asian urban streetscape... And especially the people. The smiley, polite, timid, extraordinary, funky-cool-stylish people. You'll be amazed at how welcome you feel there, everywhere you go, whether it's a train station, a restaurant, a shop, a hostel, a temple, the street or even a toilet.. And I've never seen such clean public toilets in my life. One funny small thing you'll enjoy as a traveler is that you never go thirsty in Japan: you can bet there's at least one vending machine in every block selling water, tea and various soft drinks - and there's a bunch of other vending machines around too (for pretty much anything a person can need, even hot meals).

On the other hand, the food is not cheap (like you'd expect from the rest of Asia), transportation is pretty expensive (but very very good) and the accommodations are on the higher end of the range. But hey, that’s pretty common for any major capital. You’ll still find you get a lot of value for your money as the service is great everywhere. And there's absolutely no tipping by the way. The streets are clean and safe. I have to say I couldn’t help but to love this culture and the people!

Getting around

The trains and the subway are a great system to move in the city. Once you get over the initial shock the system is fast and easy to navigate through, with English signs and maps almost in every corner. The Pasmo card is pretty handy since it works both in the train and the subway network. You have to pay a 500¥ deposit (returnable) for the card itself and you don’t get any discounts on the ticket prices but you can charge money on it easily on the stations' machines (multiples of 1000¥). It saves you the trouble of buying a new ticket for every journey and figuring out what value the ticket should be since the prices vary according to which lines you use and how many stations you pass. Most journeys in the city will cost you 160-230¥; from one end of the city to the other you may have to pay around 500¥ (about airports see below).

A word about the train stations: you will soon notice that the Japanese train and subway terminals are a bit like mazes - on several levels. After a while you will get familiar with them but always allow yourself some extra travel time just for finding your way in/out and finding the right lines and tracks. Luckily maps are everywhere and big stations have English speaking staff to help you around. And the trains run on time - on the minute.

Maps everywhere: terminal maps, street maps, park maps - there was once even a map inside a toilet (of the toilet)!!!
They must have hundreds, no thousands of miles of passages under the terminals...

To/from the airport: The airport trains cost around 600-2500¥. Note that there are two airports and a couple different train lines (at least to Narita)! The price varies depending on how fast the train is but you should be able to take a relatively fast train with about 1000¥. When arriving to the airport just drop by to the Info desk and they will tell you how to get where you want - extremely helpful staff!

To/from the Shinkansen (bullet) trains: There are a couple stations that serves the various Shinkansen lines but as far as I understood 'Tokyo' train station serves all. Make sure that you check what line and what rail company you are using, and what is the terminal. You may be able to use your Shinkansen train ticket to travel to the 'Tokyo' station if you use the same company's rail network (such as the JR line). Shinkansen schedules and prices you'll find at Hyperdia. If you plan to travel a lot in Japan check if you want to purchase a Japan Rail Pass - note that you have to buy this before you arrive to Japan!!

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