One minute you’re at an ancient shrine, and then next you’re gazing up at skyscrapers and more neon signs than you could ever imagine. Tokyo is truly a city of juxtaposition.
Tokyo was our first stop on our eight-day Japan adventure. I have so many thoughts and raves about the Japanese culture. We had the most amazing time on our trip, and travelled with Brett’s parents who were a pretty amazing duo to round out our little crew.
Moving to New Zealand (the magical place where sheep outnumber humans by 10 to 1) has made us much more used to open spaces and way less tolerant of crowds. Over the past couple of years, we’ve opted for warm, nature-centric holidays that include off-the-beaten-track glamping sites, secluded beaches and empty hiking trails (notice a theme?). I’ll say that Japan in the winter was the exact opposite. But just as incredible.
We knew that Tokyo is synonymous with crowds. But we didn’t know how the New Year’s holiday would impact that norm. We’d done our research and expected many restaurants and shops to be closed for the most celebrated holiday of the year – and that many locals flee the bustling city for their families’ suburban homes, like any other metropolis.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t have the city to ourselves. Except for 31 December and 1 January, we found most attractions were still open. And that the must-visit shrines for tourists were even more crowded than ever – as Hatsumode, the first Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple visit of the new year is a big deal. A very big deal. Visitors make their wishes for year ahead dressed in traditional kimonos. This made for a really unique experience. On one hand, we missed any likeness to tranquility and it was hard to appreciate the actual architecture – but we were in the midst of a unique mass pilgrimage that only happens once a year.
I’ll dedicate an entire post to the beautiful temples in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hakone… but for now, let me tell you about toilets. And some other things that make modern Japanese culture so cool!
- Japan has the most high-tech toilets I’ve ever seen. They’ve solved the age-old problem of how to mask unpleasant sounds in a public restroom. Enter the ‘music note button.’ I was so curious, but nervous to touch it in case it started playing a cute little jingle to announce “hey, I’m pooping now!” (I seriously wouldn’t be surprised based on the songs that trains and vending machines play!) Luckily it just plays an oh-so-subtle whooshing sound to emulate running water.
- Japan is incredibly orderly – and quiet. You line up to board trains. Which always run on time, no matter what. And once you’re on, no one talks! We spent A LOT of time on trains. They were super efficient. If you don’t have a JR pass, get a Suica card when you first land, and top it up at machines in any station. Oh, and on the subject of transport, cabs have automatic doors that the driver operates for you!
- Over the top is normal. Bright colours, neon lights, pink hair, dressing like a Maid or anime character – it’s all normal, especially in Harajuku or Akihabara. I was actually a bit shocked by the amount of materialism in Tokyo. For example, there are vending machines selling a million things you don’t need, like hats for cats. No joke. It was worth my $3.00 US dollars to hold my breath as I took my chances on which of the bread-shaped stress ball keychains I got. I was hoping for the muffin, but I got a roll!
- Everyone oozes politeness! The one word you’ll hear more than anything else is “Arigatou Gozaimasu!” – meaning “thank you very much!” And we were advised that when in doubt you can say “sumimasen” – a magically broad word covering “excuse me, I’m sorry, thank you!”
- You can’t eat on the street (and other etiquette). Despite the amazing number of street food vendors, it’s considered impolite to eat on the go. It’s not polite to handle money directly, as it’s exchanged on a tray in a restaurant or shop. And you remove your shoes not just in private houses, but some restaurants. Brush up on your manners. You’ll see that a lot of people wear masks. Still unclear on the answer why, as we heard a number of reasons. Some are explained in this article.
Instead of seeing all temples in one day, and then all modern fixtures the next, we mixed them up and explored both sides of nearby neighbourhoods. Here are some of our highlights by geographical region:
Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku
- NEW: Shibuya Crossing – the busiest crossing in the world! There’s a Starbucks above the street that give you a pretty good aerial view – if you luck into a window seat!
- NEW: Harajuku – this is your spot for animal cafes and rainbow food. We checked out Harry Hedgehog and had the sensory-overload Kawaii Monster Cafe experience (mostly because Robot Restaurant was closed for the New Year period and we heard this was a decent substitute. But don’t go for the food… it looks cool but actually the opposite of appetising.)
- OLD: Meiji Jinga – a beautiful shrine set deep in a park, just steps from Harajuku’s main street. Note the closing times and make sure to plan enough time to see more of the park.
- OLD: Shinjuku at night – Get lost in the tiny alleys with yakitori stalls (Omoide Yokocho) and the smallest bars, all themed completely differently (Golden Gai). This was one of our favourite experiences of the whole trip.
- NEW: Red Light District – You’ll most likely visit this area for the Robot Restaurant ANY OTHER time of year. We didn’t stay long, but wandered through some of the 10-storey department stores selling everything from toothpaste to sex toys. A photo of the entrance gates is a must.
Asakusa, Yanaka and Akihabara
- OLD: Senso-ji Temple – Unfortunately we weren’t able to get very close as it was way too crowded. But we caught a glimpse of the Thunder Gate and pagoda.
- OLD: Yanaka-Ginza – This is a preserved market street reminiscent of Japan back in the day.
- NEW: Akihabara – ‘Akiba’ for short, this is a shopping hub for electronics and anime. We heard that Fukubukuro or ‘Lucky Bags’ – a common type of New Years sale in Japan where you take pot luck on a mystery goodie bag – were the best here. We didn’t buy one, but did find one of our favourite San Francisco coffee shops, Blue Bottle Coffee!
Other can’t-miss NEW-world gems:
- NEW: teamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum – This place in incredible. It’s not your typical art museum. Lights projected on the floor, walls and ceiling create complete immersive experiences. Each room’s theme is different, and ever-changing. Some of the rooms are hidden, so be sure to spend some time exploring.
- NEW: Ritz Carlton in Roppongi – Tokyo has no shortage of skyscrapers. You can pay to go to the top of the Tokyo Tower or SkyTree. However, we had a local tip that the best view of the skyline was from the swanky hotel bar. It was worth the splurge on a cocktail.
- NEW: Illuminations – In the winter, different parts of the city are decked out in Christmas lights. We saw the Shinjuku and Roppongi illuminations, but there are so many more!
There you have it – our rough neighbourhood guide! I can’t believe I haven’t even mentioned the food – from teppanyaki to shabu shabu. That deserves its own dedicated post, so stay tuned…