Discovering the City
My first night in Tokyo, I found that time had leapt forward. By the time I got to my hotel, it was already around 6 or 7pm and I realized that with the major time difference it was probably going to be easier if I went to bed early and got an early start the next day. I checked into the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel. Click here for a longer review of my great experience at this hotel. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you one of the most confusing parts of planning a trip to Tokyo is simply deciding where to stay. There are SO many options. I am really pleased with myself (if I do say so myself) that I picked Shinjuku. I doubt I could’ve picked a more perfect location for me. Everyone is different and has different tastes. I prefer a high paced atmosphere on my first visit to a large city. I want to be in the middle of things and have as much walkable as possible. For me that’s what’s important and this location knocked it out of the park. I really enjoyed Shinjuku. I can’t speak to every ward in Tokyo as it’s a massive city. I spent most of my time in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ginza. Any one of these wards of course could fill a whole trip to Tokyo! That’s how large a city it really is.
Just to help you wrap your head around how busy a place Tokyo is, consider this: Shinjuku is home to Shinjuku station. Shinjuku Station is the busiest railway in the WORLD. When you visit it, you will not doubt that distinction! Want to know something else crazy? The THIRD busiest railway station in the world is also in Tokyo not far from Shinjuku station. That would be Ikebukuro station (another one that I visited and it’s a monstrous experience!). In fact all of the top five are in Japan (including Shibuya also in Tokyo). I spent quite a bit of time just in the subway/train stations observing the organized chaos and trying different foods on hand (of course). Pictured below are various train stations I visited (though certainly not all of them).
My first day in Tokyo I woke up naturally without an alarm at 4am! I guess I was excited to get started. I decided to go to Tsukiji fish market without a plan. I had my first experience with the subways and it was pouring rain outside. It was just a torrential downpour but that did not detour me! If I could deal with 3 days in Vancouver, I could deal with rain anywhere!
I’m not ashamed to admit that I walked around in circles for a while trying to understand what Google maps was telling me. Part of my challenge in Japan are the street signs. In Tokyo, some streets have signs and some don’t. Some have English translations and some do not. As you may imagine, it’s not always easy to know where you should go if you aren’t sure where you are in the first place! So a lot of following the little arrow on Google Maps. That was just to find one of the many entrances to Shinjuku station. Luckily it was just minutes from my hotel. (Actually not luckily, I planned that part when I picked the hotel!)
Anyway navigating the subways is a particular challenge. I don’t like to dwell on the negative so let’s just say plan for extra time when you use Tokyo’s subways (if you are traveling without the aide of someone more experienced with that city). Even with apps such as Hyperedia that supposedly tell you how to navigate the subways, I still struggled. Sometimes the instructions were not very clear. It might tell you which line but not necessarily where to find it within the subway station itself. Like I said, I could talk for some time on the frustrations of the Tokyo subway system (and Kyoto too for that matter). Suffice it to say I got lost more than a few times in Tokyo … but that’s part of the fun!
Once I reached Tsukiji fish market I walked around but it was not very clear where one could or couldn’t walk. So I used one of my most important travel laws (When in Rome…). In this case, “when in Tokyo…”. I just followed what everyone else was doing and I figured it out. It’s a massive place with forklifts and crating and all manner of chaos going on. In heavy rain, it’s even more so. Still I found a nice little spot to enjoy sushi (yes for breakfast). I would probably suggest you get a tour guide to get the most out of that market.
From there, I spent most of the day walking around Tokyo. I like to wander a new city to get the hang of it. In this case, I overdid it and ended up walking all the way from the market back to Shinjuku. Something like a 16 or 17 mile walk. My feet were killing me by the end but I made it. At several points, I wanted to try for the subway or a taxi but (as I mentioned before) neither were so easy to figure out so eventually I just decided to walk it. I got to see a lot of Ginza and Yotsuya along with a lot more of Shinjuku. Shinjuku is as large as a city on it’s own.
I enjoyed walking through several parks along the way.
The beautiful greenery you see as the featured image on this page is actually from Shinjuku gyoen, which is a major park/garden right in the middle of Shinjuku. Similar to a central park you see in many major cities. There are limitless trails, people watching, bird watching, picnic areas, and japanese gardens and tea houses there. It’s a delightful surprise so close to the craziness of Shinjuku.
Tokyo at Night
I also got a chance to wander the streets of Shinjuku at night. I have to say that it really is a sight to see. If you manage to stroll through their version of a red light district, you will know you are there. It’s not for the faint of heart but it’s good fun if you don’t mind the seedy nature of it. Not far from there is also Tokyo’s only real gay district: Shinjuku Ni-chōme. This area is a really cool neighborhood filled with gay bars, clubs, and other similar establishments and shops. Behind every alleyway, there are hidden bars and clubs for every taste imaginable. I walked through the area and stopped at a little pop-up type bar and enjoyed immensely my conversation with the kid at the bar. He spoke no English and I no Japanese but we managed to chat using the handy Google Translate app (download it!!). And I drank some type of Japanese whiskey to my heart’s content. Japan is such a welcoming country that even as a solo traveler, it’s hard to feel alone. Despite the massive language barrier, I felt perfectly at home in Tokyo.
One other note I want to make about Tokyo at night is the safety. I walked considerable distances and I never felt even remotely at risk. Tokyo is a very clean, very safe city (in my experience). I often tell friends that I didn’t see a homeless person in my entire stay there! I clocked in around 30 miles of walking around the city.
My second to last day in Tokyo, I decided to try to find an onsen. I was determined to experience a Japanese onset on this trip. An onsen is like a spa except it uses hot spring water (sometimes natural and sometimes an approximation) and it has strict rules of etiquette that the Japanese will enforce. The most controversial of course (to Americans, at least) is that you must be nude when you enter the bath. So yes it’s an uncomfortable thought for Americans! For me, that sort of discomfort made me want to go for it all the more. After all, “when in Tokyo…!” I got totally lost on my way to the onsen and ended up in a small town outside of Tokyo. I wish I could tell you where I was but I can’t. I can tell you it was a quaint family type town with people out with their kids and enjoying the day. It was awesome actually. Still, I didn’t know where I was and so I eventually made my way back to Ikebukuro station by nightfall.
I wandered into a small Japanese restaurant on my way back to the hotel. I was startled at first by the request to remove my shoes and sit on the floor. I knew to expect that in Japan but it hadn’t come up yet. Let me tell you that sitting on the floor to eat is something that requires practice! It was a teppanyaki style meal which was delicious. As is custom in Japan, tipping is not required or really even requested. That’s tough to get used to but you just pay and leave. No tipping!
My last day in Tokyo I enjoyed the Hanazono Shrine Festival. It was an outdoor festival with endless food stalls, music and grilling meat. It is overlooked by the Hanazono shrine, where worshipers can still go to for prayer. I love festivals, particularly in new countries. It really gives you a new dimension to engage with the local population. If you are in Tokyo during the festival, do yourself a favor and go for it. I also booked a food tour (Tokyo by Night: Japanese Food Tour) my last night in Tokyo. The tour itself was fine. I think the food underwhelmed me to be honest. I think I was expecting earth shattering flavors (like I had last year in Shanghai) but much of the Japanese food I encountered on the tour was food I’d already been exposed to in the United States. It didn’t move new ground for me. Where it did expose me to new things was on dishes like eggs with chocolate inside or the Kimchi pancakes. Neither of which I’d want to eat again! The true highlight honestly is the people. If you are a solo traveler like me, take tours!
You get to meet interesting people from all over the world. In my case, I met a crazy (but fun) lady from South Africa who told me some crazy stories about that country. I met two fun guys from the US and many others. I always end up with a friend or two more than before I started when I take a food tour. In this case, our guide even went out with us for drinks after! About 5 of us decided to keep the fun going and we had a blast bar hopping in Tokyo. That’s the kind of experience a solo traveler craves.
Anyway, the next day … with my JR Green Pass in hand (and my reservation previously setup for my seat) I was ready to hop on the bullet train (shinkansen) to Kyoto!