Tokyo is one of the most fascinating cities I have ever had the honor of visiting. Before my visit, my image of Japan was pretty much sushi eating ninjas who played Pokemon and hung out with geishas and Hello Kitty. To my surprise, I wasn’t that far off. Japan is innovative to the SciFi degree while also paying homage to its traditions. Skyscrapers rub shoulders with thousand year old temples while bullet trains take you from the best sushi you will ever eat to playing with Owls in one of their famous animal cafes. Let’s just say a quirky girl like me was easily entertained. So here is my quirky guide to Tokyo. As you can imagine, a city that boasts the largest population in the world has plenty to do and see, especially for me.
Senso-ji Temple & Nakamise street– located on the eastern side of city center near the Sumida River. This region was speckled with kabuki theaters and red light districts marking it Tokyo’s prime entertainment district in its hay day. The most popular attraction is the Senso-ji temple, a 7th century and the oldest temples in Tokyo. This temple is absolutely gorgeous and a must see! Take note that there will be a ton of people if you go during the day which is why I would recommend going at dusk right before the sun sets. The temple is lit up and really gives you that sense of peace one should feel at a temple. While you’re there you can pull your fortune. There will be a stand with a box for your donation (100 yen is what they suggest). Once you’ve donated, you pick up the box and shake it around until a stick comes out the hole. Each stick has a number that correlates to a box with a piece of paper that will have a fortune written. If you have trouble just watch the others do it for a while and you’ll get it. If the fortune is something bad don’t stress. What you’re supposed to do is tie it to the stand where all of the other fortunes are and that keeps the bad fortune away. If you receive a good fortune then you can keep it and live happily ever after. You’ll see where to tie it. The one thing you don’t want to miss by going at night is Nakamise street. It is the main and oldest shopping street and is esentially the gateway to the temple. Make sure to try “Age-manju” it’s like a pancake filled with red bean paste and it’s amazing! You can get other flavors if you’d like. Last but not least, there is a viewing deck at the Asakusa visitors center that’s FREE and you can see the street and temple from above.
Kappabashi– also known as “kitchen town”. It’s location is not far from the Sensoji temple so you can definitely check this out and then walk to the temple. In Japan, You will notice that all of the restaurants display these fake food plates that look super realistic. From sushi to bowls of ramen with a hardboiled egg, it all looks really convincing until you touch it and realize its plastic. Well, Kappabashi is where you buy all of those delicious looking plastic meals. But that’s not all. You can also purchase pretty much anything kitchen related. Bowls, strainers, spatulas, chopsticks, whatever you want all packed into tight little shops and for really reasonable prices. You can wander around and mingle with the locals as it’s not a touristy area. I picked up a couple of dumpling key chains and a sushi role magnet that looks good enough to eat.
Harajuku -super well known part of town made famous by Gwen stefani in her reference to Harajuku girls and their eccentric fashion (well at least that’s where I first learned about Harajuku.) Harajuku is really cool. Gwen definitely was on to something. Check out the main Tokyu plaza. It’s got some great unique shopping but that’s not even the good stuff. Head to the Starbucks on the top floor and you will not regret it. This Starbucks had the most amazing set up I’ve ever seen. I’m talking twinkle lights, good music, coffee (definitely a plus) a view, the whole Shebang! If you make it there for sunset then you’ve really outdone yourself and your instragram will thank you. If you want to creep with the cool kids the street to do it is Takeshita street. It’s super fun to people watch but it’s dead during the weeknights. I went on a Saturday night and it was bustling like an 80s prom dress (which you might find there as well). There are many different subtypes to Harajuku fashion. There are Goth and Sweet Lolita, Japanese Punk, Cosplay, Decora, Kawaii and more. Go nuts and try on your favorites in the endless shops bursting with it all. If the eccentric style isn’t your thing then you can always find just cheaper H&M/Forever 21 type shops to get your fix. I am a massive fan of all things cost effective so to my great discovery, there was also a massive Daiso shop, which is pretty much a 99 cent store. They have everything from cheap snacks to chopsticks packed into the 4 level shop. Did someone say souvenirs? To round it all out, why not try a crepe? Oh! But these aren’t just any crepes, no, these crepes are stuffed with literally whole slices of cheesecake, or chocolate cake or bananas and nutella, or strawberries and creme, or whatever you want! Go nuts! You can literally get nuts, in your crepe.
Meji Shrine -located in Shibuya but adjacent and walkable to and from Harjuku. Give yourself a break from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo traffic and crowds by coming here. It’s surrounded by beautiful forested greenery and is the most popular shrine in Tokyo and the best place to catch a Shinto wedding procession where the bride and group are dressed in beautiful traditional Kimono and Hakama. In contrast to the Senso-ji temple, it’s architectural design compliments its natural surrounding landscape, mimicking the same colors as the leafy trees that surrounds it. One fun thing to do is to leave a wish. You can purchase wooden wishing plaques called “Emas” for around 500-1000 yen. You can then write any wish on the back and tie it to the giant Camphor tree. After the day is done the Shinto priests will come around and collect them and pray for all of the wishes on the plaques, including yours. If you sit and listened to all of the wishes sway in the wind it sounds like a giant wooden wind chime.
Yoyogi park-literally right next to the Meji Shrine and one of my absolute favorite places in the city. I would recommend going on a Sunday afternoon. Most people have the day off and it provides for quite the eclectic experience. People from all walks of life were there. I’m talking Japanese greasers, Harajuku models, hula hoop hippies, tai chi enthusiasts, families with puppies, foreigners jamming on bongo drums and drunk teenagers. What more could you want? I even saw a guy walking around with an owl. An OWL! Like Japanese Harry Potter just got out of defense of the dark arts class and was heading casually to the Gryffindor common room with Hedwig, his owl! It was amazing. Also, there is a beautiful cherry blossom grove in the park, which was the only place that had them in bloom, as I was there in the off season (end of February.)
Tsukiji fish market-is literally in all of the guide books and totally worth it. You’ll hear a lot of people suggestion you do this and I agree. Most people try and go for the tuna auction which starts at 5am meaning you have to get up at like 3 am to get there. It’s first come first serve to see it and you’ll need to get a taxi because public transport doesn’t run that early. I however cannot give you any review of it as I chose sleep, to each their own. I did eventually drag myself out of bed at like 9 and it was stills super interesting. Make sure you go into the actual fish market though. You’ll have to walk past all of the little restaurants to get there. If you find the Tsukiji fish market they can give you a map and point you in the right direction. Once you arrive, not to quote Aladdin or anything but it was, “a whole new world.” You can wander through the rows and rows of fish parts while dodging the workers driving their segway-like transfer vehicles with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other. Make it a game and see who can find the strangest parts. Once you’ve grossed yourself out, then the next thing to do is get a sushi breakfast. We saw people waiting in massive hr lines to get in to specific shops but in my opinion, honestly, no where is going to be bad. I just skipped the wait and picked somewhere not too sketchy with a short line. I did not regret it.
Shibuya– this is the main business district where you will find shopping, I mean mega shopping and where the famous “shibuya crossing” happens. The Shibuya crossing, is pretty much when a bunch of people cross the street all at one time and by a bunch I mean over 2ooo pedestrians using one intersection. Why not get into the nitty gritty yourself and cross it? Heck do it twice, feel alive. In Shibuya you can literally find everything. It’s like Times Square but bigger. It’s like if you copied and pasted Times Square over and over in a row. Keep in mind, that while you shop in Shibuya 109 or many of the other giant shopping buildings. My personal favorite was definitely the multi level Muji store. If you haven’t experienced Muji, it is an amazing minimalist Japanese retail company that focuses on avoidance of waste in their products as well as having a “label-less” policy, i.e. every hipsters dream brand. They are also really well known for their makeup products. Although, I was a bit too tan for the foundation colors they currently hand in stock for the lighter Japanese complexion, I did pick up an eye liner and it is my forever favorite. One ore thing to note, If you buy anything over $100 a lot of the stores will reimburse you the tax charged on the items. You’ll have to ask but it is totally worth it. I saved about $20.
Shinjuku– this is the spot for nightlife! There is this section of town with all of these tiny bars, it’s called Golden Gai and it’s great. My friends and I ended up in a place that fit only 6 people at a time and the bartender played Joan jet music and made her own plum wine. We traded stories, tried some of her wine and were off to my biggest recommendation yet The Robot Restaurant! The best way to describe it is, Lisa Frank meets pokemon with fighting robots that also sing and dance to lazers and have a hype crew of Japanese cheerleaders. If that’s not enough to get you to book a ticket to Tokyo then read no further because there is no hope for you. It’s a bit pricey at about $80 a ticket but there are always deals through hotels or just online if you book it more than a day out. Keep in mind that drinks and food are expensive inside. I would recommend to eat and drink before you arrive. So final thought, GO TO THE ROBOT RESTAURANT! You’ll be guaranteed to have a great night in Shinjuku.
This should keep you busy but in case you want more than here is a list of some other random things that I was particularly fond.
- Check out a Japanese Onsen- it’s pretty much a spa except its super naked.
- Animal cafes- kittens, puppies, goats, owls. They have it if you want it. I went to an owl cafe. Check back in for a post about my experience.
- 7/11 sushi roles-Believe me they are delicious and super convenient when you are lost in translation and hangry.
- Vending machines- Japan has vending machines for everything. Try the hot ones, a can of coffee or tea will come out hot! It’s magic.
- Ramen- noodley oily goodness, my advice, always get the hardboiled egg.
- People watching on the subway- the Japanese have this insane ability to power nap. They will get on, fall asleep and then wake up literally right before there stop and walk off. Amazing.
- Get lost in a Manga store-the Japanese do not joke about Manga and neither should you.
- Step foot into a Japanese Pachinko Parlor-You will notice them straight away. They are loud, bright, filled with smoke and are the Japanese way of getting around illegal gambling.
- Try and find a square watermelon-They do exist! I tried really hard and couldn’t find one, sad day. These specialty fruits are luxury items that can cost up to $800 for one watermelon!
So that’s my little guide to the quirkier side of Tokyo. Hopefully it inspired you to get out and have a Tokyo adventure of your own. Even if it is just to your local sushi joint. If you have any questions or feedback please leave me a comment! I love to hear from you. Arigato.