Dates: Feb 23-28, 2018
Route: Flight from Seattle to Tokyo Narita, which is about 1.5 hrs away from Tokyo center by train. Note that Haneda airport is far closer to the city center but limited flights go there.
Tip: Train is the best way to travel around Japan and all visitors are eligible for a Japan Rail pass which cannot be purchased in-country. So, order your voucher before you leave and exchange it for a JR pass when you get there. We used JTB which delivered our vouchers by 2nd day air.
Of all the big cities in the world, Tokyo is perhaps the one place that offers the visitor the most intoxicating mix of a truly foreign culture and custom along with all the amenities one may find in any western city. There is no real way to describe Tokyo, and Japan as a whole, so it is best experienced in person. I will say that it has the most civilized people in the world when it comes to social norms, humble people, and just genuine respect for the fellow man. These Japanese, as one may expect, have an obsession with everything electronic and nowhere is this more evident than in Tokyo. Your first clue to this will be the heated toilet seat which comes with its own control panel with button colour coded for men (blue) and women (pink). Vending machines line most alleyways and offer every manner of drink conceivable, all from glowing, beeping machines. From the alleyways of Shinjuku to the hundreds of electronic shops of Akihabara you will be immersed in a culture that feels right out of a futuristic, sci-fi movie. Every part of the city pulsates with neon lights and lively signboards that really come alive at night. Tokyo is a microcosm of Japan and thus is the best place to experience all that it has to offer. The best site we found for planning our visit was Japan Guide.
Another superlative about Japan is its rail system which, in all our experiences, is the best in the world. You can get to most places in the county using a very logical system that is easy and fun to use. A must-do is to ride the bullet-train (Shinkansen) which is one of the fastest trains in the world. Check out our video on Japan to see what it looks like from inside the train. Finally, taxis are readily available but expensive. Uber does not have anything on offer other than Black.
We stayed at the excellent Century Hyatt in Shinjuku which is one of the two major rail hubs serving Tokyo (the other being Tokyo station). This is very convenient to get around the city and also to the surrounding areas. Shinjuku is the single place to go to in Tokyo to see it in all its neon glory. Every wall and corner has some light or sign that puts even Vegas to shame. As a bonus, you can see Godzilla on, where else, Godzilla Road. The many alleyways have a plethora of bars, restaurants, and gambling centers for Pachinko which is a cross between pinball and a slot machine. There is also a massive Robot Restaurant which can be best described as crazy robots (people dressed as such), throbbing music, lasers, lights, and alcohol. My Japanese friend told us this is an offering more for tourists than locals. Finally, Virtual Reality arcades are really popular and actually fun but expensive. We tried out Mario Cart and it was far more realistic than expected.
This is a mini-city onto itself and full of electronic shops ranging from tiny, one-mall stalls to massive national retailers. If there is anything in the world that is electronic or an accessory for it, you can find it here. In addition to shops, there is are many animation-related places catering to anime, manga, retro video games, card games, figurines and costumes. The are also features maid cafes where waitresses dress up as anime characters and manga cafes where customers can read comics and watch DVDs (remember those?). This is another place that is lit up at night and offers some amazing photo opportunities.
Asakusa is a part of Tokyo that is the opposite of Shinjuku and Akihabara and one where the ambiance of an age long past survives. It is centered around the Sensoji which is an old Buddhist temple built in the 7th century. Just a bit past this is the Asakusa shrine which is also a popular attraction, especially during the Sanja Matsuri festival held in May. These attractions are reached via the Nakamise, a shopping street lined with traditional Japanese items and food and also our favorite shopping street in Tokyo. The two streets branching off also offer many more eclectic shops and cafes.
This area is known for it’s shopping with a focus on youth fashion and culture. It is full of bars and restaurants that are teeming with younger people well into the night. For us, the main reason to go there was to see one of the world’s busiest intersections which is just in front of the station. The backdrop is full of neon signs and giant video screens and when the pedestrian light turns green (4 ways and the diagonals as the same time), it’s like watching an anthill come to life.
(click on image to enlarge)