Tokyo – The End of our Adventure
After another successful high-speed train ride we arrived at our final destination, Tokyo. Looking back on it, we couldn’t have picked a better place to go out with a bang! Fabulous meals, bright lights, all you can eat sushi, and late nights of Karaoke, was the perfect end to six months of exploration. We ended up finding an Air BnB a couple of stops away from the Shinjuku area, in a great neighborhood with reasonably priced local restaurants and an amazing bakery we frequented almost daily.
We couldn’t believe that after we made the journey from the train station to our Air BnB that it would be the second to last time we shouldered our nearly 50 pound packs through yet another crowded transportation hub. We were both excited and sad that our backpacks were so close to retirement after making the journey with us through 10 countries. We spent nearly a week in Tokyo and narrowed our visit down to our top favorite things to do. There are so many other little spots we stopped and saw, but most American tourists only spend 3-5 days here so this list will easily fill your time! We absolutely loved this city and can’t wait to come back when we’re able to splurge a bit more on accommodation and some fancy meals.
This was one of our first stops after arriving in Tokyo and the perfect way to get a better look at the city. As budget travelers we were delighted to find that it’s free to take the elevator up to the 45th floor, giving you panoramic views of Tokyo. We hear that on clear days you’re even able to see Mount Fuji.
Robot Restaurant and Show
This was absolutely one of our favorite things we did on our trip and a perfect representation of the playful, weird and bright culture that is Tokyo. The night began with a tasty meat skewer dinner at one of the izakayas in the nearby area of Omoide Yokocho. All of these little restaurants are tucked into a series of alleys and often just have a few seats around the bar where you have a beer and watch the chefs grill up your dinner. It was just a short walk away from Kabukicho, the “red light district” where the Robot Restaurant was located. The amazingly choreographed show featured dancers in a variety of costumes, humongous robot dinosaurs, mythical creatures, transformers and more. The lighting of the show was one of the most trippy parts with lasers and floodlights in a rainbow of colors. We couldn’t get over how random, weird and spectacular the whole show was. It was a definite splurge for us money-wise but a MUST DO if you’re ever in Tokyo, thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s show for the recommendation!
Shinjuku and Shibuya are two of the busiest intersections in the whole world and could put Time Square in New York to shame. Electronic billboards lit up every building, with restaurants and bars hidden on every floor, it would take you a week to get through just one building alone. Right after we made it through the Shinjuku crossing we happened upon a premiere of the newest Godzilla movie complete with a giant dinosaur peaking out from behind a building. It was the ultimate welcome to Tokyo!
If you want to experience everything that is kawaii (cute) in Japanese pop culture this is the place to go. Kawaii has become a prominent aspect of Japanese culture, be it entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior and more. Fluffy cotton candy, t-shirts with puppies and kittens, crepes and more can all be found in the Harajuku area. It’s the perfect place to buy some Japanese souvenirs to bring home. We couldn’t pass up eating a crepe while watching all the young women and men take selfies and photos of themselves and friends in cute poses.
Asakusa Area and Sensoji Buddhist Temple
The famous Sensoji Buddhist Temple is Tokyo's oldest temple. Known affectionately to people all over Japan as the temple of the Asakusa Kannon, it draws some 30 million visitors every year, remaining an important center of worship. As you head towards the temple is a great walking street/market selling all sorts of traditional Japanese gifts and foods. Also a short subway ride away is the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest structure in Japan with an observation deck and a great mall inside. Since we’d already been up in the Government building we passed over the viewing deck and instead I dragged Jeremy to the Pokémon store.
We’d heard from other people who visited Japan that attending a Japanese baseball game was a must if we happened to be there while a team was playing a home game. I was able to hunt down some reasonably priced tickets to Tokyo’s cross-town classic between the Tokyo Giants and the Tokyo Swallows. It was almost like being at a college football game with fans on either side singing and chanting cheers specific to their team. Jeremy was also pleasantly surprised that the beer girls were much better looking than the beer vendors at Wrigley Field.
Visiting Japan wouldn’t be complete if we hadn’t participated in Karaoke. We were fortunate to experience two different versions of Karaoke, one in a local bar and one in a private suite. It was hard to decide which one was our favorite as both were unique. The first time we stumbled across Karaoke was on the way home from the Robot Restaurant and we noticed a tiny bar near our Air BnB with neon lights on the door. Curious to what was happening inside, we peeked in and were welcomed in by the bartender and a bunch of locals belting out Japanese classics. Some of these people were absolutely amazing, and we learned later that many people have personal karaoke machines and practice at home before singing at a bar. Jeremy and I are notoriously tone-deaf but we participated anyway, picking from the English songs we could find and jamming out to N’Sync with our new friends. Our second Karaoke experience came after a wonderful dinner with some of Jeremy’s cousins that happened to be in town on a family vacation. This time we opted for a private Karaoke suite, drinking endless amounts of sake and embarrassing ourselves in private.
Pokémon Go had just launched in Japan while we were there and everyone was crazed about it! We saw hundreds of people in this park on their phones all hunting Pokémon. It was really an insane cultural phenomenon to witness and be a part of. I grew up collecting the cards and playing the game on my Gameboy so I was excited to participate; Jeremy was not as amused. The garden itself was beautiful and there were Pokémon hiding just about everywhere. Most of the park and neighboring gardens were very shaded so it was the perfect way to spend part of the hot afternoon.
Sushi and Tsukiji Fish Market
We’d been told that attending the 3:00AM tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is a must, but after countless other sunrise sessions throughout our trip we decided to pass. But, this didn’t stop us from arriving around 9:00am in order to put our name down at a famous all you can eat sushi restaurant near the market. After putting our name on the list, we spent the rest of the morning walking around the market; gawking at the fresh fish and watching other people purchase their weekly groceries. Anything you could ever think of fish-wise was here, eels, uni (sea urchin-a delicacy), tuna, mackerel, salmon roe so fresh it wasn’t even separated, etc. And with just our luck, we happened upon one fish vendor doing a late morning butchering of a massive 300-pound tuna. After about three hours of wandering and waiting it was finally our turn for the all you can eat sushi. Everything was purchased fresh from the market that morning and served to customers until it runs out. All you had to do was point at a fish and the sushi chef would form a piece of rice, spread it with wasabi and plop a piece of fresh fish on top. Needless to say, we ate sushi until we were nearly sick.
This is a very famous high-end shopping area, much like the Champs Elysees in Paris or Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Alas, we didn’t have $1,000+ to spend on a Louis Vuitton bag so it really wasn’t so much fun for us. Still, it’s a great place to just do some walking and get a sense of the high-end fashion scene in Tokyo. Apparently there are also some good department stores in the area with those amazing food basements! Ginza is an area most people won’t want to miss in Tokyo, which is why we had to at least check it out.
Akihabara is known as the “nerdy” district in Tokyo both for the crazy amount of electronics stores dotting the streets as well as anime and manga stores. Manga and anime are a style of Japanese comic that run the gamut from history, science fiction, porn, teenage romance and more. We went into a famous shop there called Mandarake, one of Tokyo's largest vendors of used anime and manga-related products. The store stocks collectibles, VHS tapes, DVDs, CDs, used manga, toys, and large numbers of fan-drawn dōjinshi, particularly those catering to a female audience. Akihabara is also known for its maid cafes, a category of cosplay restaurants where waitresses dress in maid costumes and act as servants. We didn’t go into one, but I hear it’s quite an interesting experience! We also went into Yodobashi, which is like a department store but just for electronics. There were so many high-quality home electronics we wanted to buy, from speakers to TVs and even dishwashers, but without our own apartment to go back to, that wouldn’t have made much sense, now would it?
Ramen can be described as a representative of modern Japanese cuisine. Located within the maze of shops and restaurants in Tokyo Station, Ramen Street boasts eight of Japan’s most famous and tastiest ramen restaurants. They are all supposed to be amazing so we just picked one with a medium sized line, punched a delicious looking choice into the vending machine and waited for our turn. The ramen we chose was a thick, creamy broth with chewy noodles, a soft-boiled egg, and strips of tender pork. Before leaving for our trip I was never a huge ramen fan, but I’ve come to really love this filling noodle soup.
Japan and Tokyo as a whole ended up being the perfect end to our six-month journey. While still distinctly an Asian city with it’s own unique culture, with the high amount of people who spoke English and Western-style amenities, it helped us slowly ease back into the “real world”. We both felt extremely lucky to have been able to take six months off to travel and experience such a different part of the world. Although we won’t likely be taking six months off again, we hope to find some way to #KeepOnTraveling.