I’ve been meaning to write about our days in Tokyo for quite some time now, but I can’t seem to get into the right mood for it. What is making it especially difficult is my own doubts in my ability to convey all my memories and the warmth that exists in my mind while thinking of this magnificent city through words. But nevertheless I must try before everything starts to fade away.
Arrival to Tokyo
We landed in Narita Airport in the middle of Saturday after a 14 hour flight. When we were done with our business in the airport that I wrote about earlier we got on a bus that was going to take us to our hotel. Now looking at bus schedule I see that the ride took us almost two full hours, but in my head it was much shorter. I guess all our surroundings were so interesting to us that the time passed by quickly.
We arrived to our hotel — Conrad Tokyo — at about 4:30pm, but since the day was very very rainy and we were even more “very very” tired we just settled on sitting in our room, looking through a rain covered wall-sized window of a suite, located on 37th floor, upon an evening Tokyo. It was really hard to believe that after so many years of wanting to visit this city and this country we were finally here.
Our first order of business on Sunday morning (after eating our breakfast) was to figure out how JR passes work and how we’re going to get around Tokyo. Our original plan was to get our passes activated on Monday, just in time for our bullet train ride to Osaka, thus making them valid until the next Sunday. But since we decided that we won’t be using a train to get to the airport in Osaka on our last day we activated them 1 day earlier — starting from this very day.
We were thinking of getting an all day pass for Tokyo subway lines originally, but now that made little sense. What made it even more convincing was the fact that I assumed there is only one JR line in Tokyo. In reality it turned out that there are tons of them and 4 of them passed right by our hotel and our JR passes granted us free unlimited access to them.
Our hotel ended up being surrounded by all kinds of train lines. There was normal Tokyo subway, JR station and some other train company that I don’t remember. This was somewhat surprising, considering that New York City is serviced by one company, but I guess it’s kind of like NYC subway, LIRR and Path trains to New Jersey. Only in Tokyo they all seem to service the same areas.
We walked over to Shimbashi JR Station. The walk was about 10 minutes from the door of our hotel. First order of business — make reservations for our bullet train to Osaka — JR pass includes free reservations, and we felt safer knowing that we have our seats reserved as opposed to having to try to find an available seat in a non-reserved portion of the train. We made our reservation for an early afternoon, to give ourselves enough time to carry out our Monday morning plans in Tokyo.
At the same place we asked for some help on getting around the city and basically it all came down to using a green line named Yamanote Line. It was a loop line going through all the points in the city that we wanted to visit and our station — Shimbashi — turned out to be on the same line as well — very convenient.
After going into JR station (you just show the pass to the controller near the tourniquets and they let you in) we were a bit confused about getting on the train in the right direction — that is until we realized that each sign also has an English name of the line and a list of stations in English that the train stops at. That was the case everywhere.
Our first destination of the day was Shinjuku. Shinjuku train station is the busiest station in the world servicing a little bit under 4 million (!!!) people per day. Shinjuku also is an administrative center of Tokyo housing multiple government buildings.
We didn’t really have an exact plan of exploring that area, until I remembered that the government towers had observation decks on the top floors. I also remember reading that people didn’t recommend going there as the access is free and because of that lines tend to be rather long. We decided to walk there anyhow, to see the towers themselves and we would decide if the line was worth waiting in. We were planning to go to Roppongi Hills Tower observation deck later in the day anyhow.
The thing is that we woke up very early on Sunday, since we were still running on New York time. While we were walking through Shinjuku streets everything was quite, even though the station itself seemed crazy busy. It was a nice warm autumn day. We’re in Tokyo and we have a great deal of exploring to do in the coming days. We were in a great mood.
Funny thing is that when we got to the government towers there was no long line. Not only that — we were there so early that there was no line at all. We ended up going to both observation decks (each tower has one) and looking at Tokyo from the top. The bad thing is that you have to look through the glass windows — great views, but not very suitable for photography. We saw a park with Meiji Shrine that we were planning to go to next, we saw Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills Tower, but mount Fuji which normally could be visible was hidden by clouds.
After checking out the observation decks we walked around the square in front of the towers and started our walk south — all the way to Shibuya — a route that would take us right through Yoyogi Park and an adjacent Meiji Shrine.
Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine
After a short walk we passed under a large wooden torii gate and ended up in a big green forest. When planning our vacation we came to peace with the thought that we’ll have to see Japan during a winter times when all the tree would be long asleep — the very end of November. What we didn’t account for was the fact that Japan is located much more to the south when compared to New York. So not only the trees were leafless — they weren’t even yellow yet. Everything was very much green.
The park itself was very serene. A wide road coverd in gravel, tall green trees leaning over it and very few people. We did notice that there were a lot of Japanese people wearing traditional attires — kimonos — mostly women and kids. Men were mostly wearing traditional western suits. As it turned out there was a wedding hall near the shrine and that’s why people were dressed up like they were.
The temple itself was the first one we got to see in Japan. There were a number of people praying there. They do an unusual to our eye ritual of throwing coins, clapping and bowing. Nobody can go inside. They all stand at special gates or windows and look inside. Photographing was also not allowed.
Also before entering into the area there is a hand washing ritual that consists of several steps that must be performed in the right sequence. There were even instructions provided in English. You wash one hand with a water from a special cup, then another one, then you put the remaining water into your palm and put it into your mouth. We did it as well. Really impressive temples and shrines though we found in Nara, Kyoto and Miyajima Island.
As we exited the park on the other side we ended up in an area called Harajuku. What it is know for is Japanese teenagers dressing up into different characters — kind of like Japanese Goths I guess. This is really the only thing that didn’t work out for us during the whole trip.
We did find several girls posing on the bridge and a lot of people taking their pictures. When I tried to do the same some guy ran up to me and started sticking a poster in front of my lens that read that photography is not allowed. Kind of ridiculousness, but I’ve read about this before. When they see somebody with a professional looking camera this happens. Maybe they are trying to make money, maybe they are just assholes, who knows.
We ended up not getting any pictures, even with an iPhone, but we figured it’s not worth getting into an argument over, waved and moved on. Oh, well.
Our next destination was Shibuya in direction of which we proceed to walk. Shibuya is probably one of the most recognized places in Tokyo. It’s kind of like Times Square in New York with tons of signs, people and a large crossing in the middle.
What makes Tokyo much different from the other Japanese cities that we’ve visited (at least the parts that we’ve been in) is the fact that most streets are very wide and are very crowded. We’ve stumbled upon only one tiny street in Tokyo. Kyoto on the other hand is full of streets where there are no sidewalks even — houses on both sides and enough space for one car to drive through. There is a yellow line drawn right on the side and that’s where people tend to walk.
Anyhow, back to Shibuya. We’ve seen this place on multiple photographs before and while doing our research, so seeing it with our own eyes was quite exciting. The crossing is indeed big, but what makes it special is the fact that the lights on all roads around it go red for the cars at the same time and it gets instantly filled up by a huge crowed of people trying to cross the road in all directions.
We read a suggestions somewhere that we should find a Starbucks located on the crossing and go up to the 2nd floor of it. Inside there should be a good vintage point for photographs and just observing the whole thing in action. However we were not the only smart ones with this idea. Second floor was filled up with people and not only we could not find an empty table to sit near the window — we couldn’t really get close to the window at all.
However from Starbucks I saw a restaurant on the other side of the crossing on the 5th floor of a building. We figured we’ll go there instead if the price wasn’t too prohibitive and it was time for lunch anyhow. And what do you know? It turned out to be a rather decently priced place and the plastic samples of food in the window looked like something we could eat. The place was called LOHB and we ended up paying $40 for the two of us.
Food was not bad, but the view was spectacular. They took us to the 6th floor (the restaurant occupies 2 floors) and sat us at the table that was right up against the window overlooking this famous crossing. We took some photographs, ordered some beer, ate our lunch, and just sat there trying to absorb the experience. We. Japan. Tokyo. Shibuya. Amazing and unbelievable!
The next objective on our list was to visit Roppongi Hills Tower — one of Tokyo’s skyscrapers. We were not as much interested in this skyscraper itself as much as we were interested in the open sky observation deck on the top of it and the views that it would offer us.
This is the only time when we actually had to take the subway line instead of JR line since there were no JR stops near Roppongi. The experience was easy enough. The only difficulty is that one must buy tickets and must pay the exact fair depending on the distance traveled. When we approached a guy manning the booth at the station to ask him about it he instantly pointed to a large sign specifying the fee for Roppongi Hills station. I guess we’re not the only ones asking this same question.
We bought a pair of round trip tickets at an automated kiosk and took the train to Rappongi station on Hibiya (grey on the maps) Line. Only 2 short stops away from where we were. The station exit was right inside the complex itself.
When I was putting our plans together I noted that we should try to obtain an advance ticket to the tower as it would lower the cost of admission slightly. But since we didn’t really know where to look for it we figured that we didn’t want to spend the time to save Â¥300 or so. However we realized that we indeed should’ve gotten these tickets — not for the money savings, but for the time aspect of it. It turned out that there was a HUGE line formed to buy the tickets spanning all the way from the ticket office to the street. Advanced ticket means you do not have to stand here.
At first we were slightly disappointed and even considered turning back and leaving. The line was huge, the price was quite high, it was starting to get dark and we didn’t even have our tripod with us. But we decided since we’ve made it this far we’ll go up. The line was moving pretty well and we got our tickets quickly enough. We ended up paying about $50 for admission. Not cheap.
After we got up to the observation deck we didn’t even look out of the window. We proceeded to go all the way up to the open sky deck on the top of the tower for the unobstructed views of Tokyo. The views were indeed spectacular and it was worth all the time and money that we spent to get here. I took one of my favorite cityscape photographs here with Tokyo Tower being the main subject — shown at the top of this post.
One mistake that we made was leaving our sweaters in a locker downstairs. The day was pretty warm and we figured we didn’t need them. But it was very windy and pretty cold on top. Alena was completely freezing so we ended up not waiting for the sunset and left. One our way out we accidentally walked into some massive Pokemon or something like that convention. Turns out there was a huge line to go here as well, but we managed to walk in through some back entrance somehow and got some kind of token handed to us there.
And that was pretty much it for the Roppongi Hills visit. There was some museum there the admission for which was included into the price of our ticket. We walked a bit through it looking at some photographs of old Tokyo. We were getting pretty tired at this point, so we left and took the train back to the loop JR line.
Another point that we had on our list of things to visit was Ueno Market, but we were so tired from everything we’ve done and since we woke up at around 5am we decided to go back to our hotel, get some drinks and snacks at the executive lounge and turn in for the night.
We had a very busy day planned for Monday. We still had a lot of things to do and see in Tokyo and catch at train in early afternoon to Osaka. We planned to start out day early.
Tsukiji Fish Market & Sushi Dai
Our first thing to do was to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market. By virtue of our hotel being a walking distance away (a pure accident) we didn’t have to worry about the train, so it made the logistics easy. A lot of people visit the market to see a tuna auction at 5am, but the auction had no appeal to us. What we wanted to do is to go to Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi — two very famous places that serve extremely delicious sushi according to the “Internet”.
And everyone recommends to get there as early as possible, as the line can get quite long later on. We set an alarm clock for 6am, but things came out even better because we still were on NYC time — we woke up at 4am ourselves. Now if we were in any other place than Tokyo we would have absolutely nothing to do this early in the morning — so it was good planning on our part to start things up with Tokyo.
Now I’m probably repeating a lot of stuff here because we wrote about our sushi experience before so I’ll just make it short — we got to the market very early, but there was already a line in front of Sushi Dai. Daiwa Sushi had none, but we decided to go for the best. We spent some time in the line, but got in quickly enough.
We had an amazing experience not just because the sushi was really good (this is where I became a sushi fan), but also because we’ve been anticipating this moment for so long. We’ve seen tons of videos of this place and a lot of explanations on how to find it — but it’s all bits and pieces — obviously doesn’t compare to the experience of actually being there.
After we were done with our super-breakfast it was still way too early. The market itself opens to the general public at 9am and it was only 8am. So we walked around the market shops for a short while and decided to do what we were planning to do a day before.
We walked to our Shimbashi Station and caught a train to Ueno Market. The biggest contrast that jumped out at me was a fact that on a work day there were tons of people dressed in business attire (mostly men) going places. There were men in suites and ties everywhere.
As an aside as far as closing goes Japanese people dress very stylishly and very well. It’s more relaxed on the weekend than on business days. That is especially true for women. They wear stockings that are slightly higher than a knee and very very short skirts. They mostly don’t believe in pants at all. And we saw on several occasions that when those girls walk their skirt jumps up revealing pretty much everything that the said skirt is supposed to be covering up — there really is little wonder as to why they have groping issues in subway.
Anyhow, when we got to Ueno Market — it still was way too early. The shops and street vendors were just opening up and bringing out their wares. What really stands out in my memory though is that the place was impeccably clean. We walked around for a bit and decided to go back to the fish market to see what’s going on there. This was also the place where we were brave enough to try a vending machine for the first time. And this was where Alena ended up with a hot tea out of a machine to our great surprise.
Fish Market Again
We took the train back and walked to the fish market again — not a very short walk. By now we were already getting tired a bit from all the walking. The fish market itself has been past its peak busy time and majority of vendors were already closing up.
We walked through the numerous rows and saw all kinds of sea creatures being sold — from huge tunas to some strange things that I’ve never seen before. Basically not too interesting of an experience, but worth checking it out once. And soon after we proceed back to our hotel to get ready to leave.
We walked to our local JR station again and took the train to Shinagawa Station — a large hub where Shinkansen trains stop. We found our platform easily, bought ourselves a pair of bento boxes for the ride and got on our train which arrived exactly at the time specified on our reservation tickets.
Thus the first part of our vacation came to en end. I have became so fond of Tokyo that it’s hard to convey. Writing all this down and remembering all the little details brings up this warm, pleasant feeling inside of me. Being in such a magical country and such a magical city with my closest friend in the whole world — perfectly unforgettable.