There is a new sheriff in town and his name is not Reggie Hammond. The name is Tokyo and it’s my new favorite Asian city on the block. Tokyo rocks……pure and simple. I will go on record and say Tokyo is the most livable city in all of Asia, if not the world. Life is pretty sweet here. Tokyo has this unique small town feel coupled with big city excitement. Tokyo is the most civilized major city I have ever visited, on par with Singapore. Spotlessly clean, despite the fact we could never find a garbage bin on any of the streets…. just like in Singapore. It was modern, efficient, super safe and to top it off, Tokyo had incredible food options to fill your belly. All this goodness but without the stifling Singapore humidity which can really wear your ass down.
Many long-term travelers opt to skip Japan for budgetary reasons as it’s mistakenly often dismissed from many itineraries on the basis that it is “too expensive”. I had long dreamed of visiting Japan on my numerous previous trips to Southeast Asia over the last 25 years, but the cost had always kept me from booking my ticket. While Japan is certainly one of the priciest destinations in Asia, it is not too expensive and is on par with New Zealand and Australia. Both, Barbie and I really fell in love with this country. It was a fascinating full 10 days in Tokyo alone and was among the most interesting places I’ve ever been to on our RTW. We now continue our journey to explore the outlying cities within Japan. We secured a 21 day JR Rail pass which we activated once we left Tokyo in order to get maximum value from the pass. This pass, which must be purchased prior to arrival into Japan, will allow us to zip around the country on the famed speedy Shinkansen bullet trains for an unlimited amount of train segments, without spending a fortune on transport.
Outside of Tokyo, our preliminary intended targets are Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Mirajima, Takayama, Kanazawa, Nikko, Nara and any other interesting place we hear about from fellow travelers while flashpacking around the country. If time and weather permit, we plan on taking in some of Japan’s beaches down south with a visit to possibly the following islands on our radar. (Amami Oshima, Tokashiki, Ishigaki and Miyako-jima)
I must admit, prior to our visit to Tokyo, I was a bit frazzled by just the thought of navigating around this massive city by train despite our extensive experience utilizing public transportation while traveling throughout the world. Taxi’s and even Uber’s are very expensive so it was the trains that we had to rely on to navigate around. The train stations are like mazes. This is how I see it, Tokyo has 2 cities in itself; underground and overground. Despite viewing the brain numbing subway map below upon arrival, getting a handle on the extensive train system was really a piece of cake. And, if you ever get slightly confused, a local is always there to assist and with a sincere smiling face. The locals would even go one step further and go out of their way to personally lead us in the right direction.
We mostly avoided the notorious rush hour masses of people on the trains. However, we did get on a few trains where we were packed in like sardines where the pushing is so courteous that you cannot even get mad. I am so glad we had this experience as you haven’t lived and breathed Tokyo until you’ve stuffed yourself onto a train at the same time all 13.6 million residents are heading home for dinner. When you think they couldn’t possible squeeze one more limb in, there’s inevitably the guy who will sneak in at the last minute to make sure every inch of breathing room is obliterated. With so many bodies holding you up, this situation makes falling asleep while standing possible. It was a real trip.
I did find it bizarre that with Japan being the most advanced country in Asia, the people in Japan speak the least amount of English than any other country on our journey. This includes all the 3rd world countries we visited in Southeast Asia. (ie Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos….etc.). This gap in communication did not bother us one bit. I simply do my little bow with a smile, the Japanese do their little bow with a smile, throw in a few ‘Arigato’s’ and you don’t have to worry about who speaks what language.
The Japanese are probably the most patient and quiet people I have encountered on our world travels. There exists an amazing sense of quiet wherever we went. I found it bizarre how people are so quiet on the streets, in stores and dead-silent on public transportation – a refreshing change of pace given how overwhelmingly crowded the Tokyo metro can get. We are talking absolute total silence with nobody talking on their cell phones as it’s apparently taboo here. I was told it is actually a law now and you can get fined talking on your cell phones on the subway. I really enjoyed simply studying the people here in Tokyo. The Japanese are some of the most beautiful in the world: fashion forward, put together, and smartly dressed. Even the street bums we saw, which I could count on one hand, were smartly dressed. One was even dressed like the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island.
The Japanese seemingly love to form queues. You would see them line up on streets in front of popular food joints waiting ever so patiently for lengthy times, just to suck down a bowl of kick ass ramen or some other signature Japanese food item. I despise waiting on lines for food but I loved seeing the queues, as they served as our cue to get our asses in the queue cause some good shit is being served up. Fortunately, there never seemed to be any lines at the ubiquitous conveyor belt sushi joints. I loved eating at these places for a quick snack. The cost of each plate (2 pieces of sushi) varies for each type of sushi but most were about $1.50-$2 US per plate. A solid deal for some of the freshest sushi on this planet.
The Japanese have the most calming temperament and move about at a such a relaxed pace with seemingly not a care in the world. Everyone is so mild mannered and respectful of each other. As serious and stiff as they appear to many, they really know how to joke around. The Japanese are simply out to have fun with life. The game shows on tv are so colorful to watch. Watching adults retreat to clown around in karaoke rooms and boisterous video game parlors to play games such as Pachinko after they get off work, made me smile.
The people have a very childlike spirit and there is so much innocent fun here. Despite the fact of the Japanese being so shy and reserved, they do love their their adult fun. They even have their own red light district in Shinjuku. We stumbled upon this area and it was not seedy like other red light districts spanning the world. It blended in and was all part of the regular nightlife area. I did not notice any strip clubs but they did have many neon lit clubs geared to the those looking to mingle with the ‘ladies of the night’. We walked by these clubs and observed but could really not get a handle on what the deal was inside these places as we never entered. We assumed they were hostess clubs where women would keep you company over drinks but without any hanky panky. If you like your cocktails, Golden Gai is a really cool nightlife scene with a unique vibe. Here, there are more than 250 tiny (and I mean tiny) drinking dens crammed into the alleyways. It was so much fun to wander around the ramshackle streets of Golden Gai at nighttime.
While walking around in the Akhiabara area, we passed many themed cafes. The Maid Cafe was the most intriguing looking. Here, you can hang out with the cutest young girls dressed in sexy maid outfits while sipping your coffee (I can assure you they are not house cleaners of any kind). We also walked by and checked out the worlds largest Japanese sex store called M’s Pop Life. It soared 8 floors upward and is famous for their sexy costumes, sex toys, serious blow-up dolls, vast porn collection, and many other perverted goodies. Very strange porno movies were on tv’s next to the displayed dvd’s. Watching these movies kinda freaked us out. The Japanese are apparently into some weird shit. You may have thought Americans were freaky. However, the Japanese take freaky to another level. I have also took note that the Japanese have even mastered boob jobs. I have never seen fake tits so real looking. They were beautiful.
As previously mentioned, Japan has their own unique version of porn. Another very unique aspect of Japan are their electronic toilets. Who would have thought that taking a dump could be so advanced? These are no ordinary toilets in Japan. When you enter a private toilet stall, the toilet cover automatically raises as soon as the door opens. In addition to the usual flush handle back in America, the toilets here come equipped with a control panel with a shitload of buttons on it with the goal of making your dump a more comfortable experience. Check out the below video where the toilet seat opens as soon as you enter the bathroom.
On the toilets, you got a button for the following features:
Butt wash – w/ adjustable water temperature
Heated toilet seat – warming sensation on your tushie. Barbie was a huge fan.
Warm air dry – like a hairblower for your behind
Air conditioning – directs cool air at your bottom on warm, sweaty days
Toilet cleansing spray – various pressure controls for those nasty dumps
Refreshing deodorizer – rids the room of the smell of stank
Noisemaker – emits a white noise (sometimes even classical music) that drowns out the inevitable big splash sound. This is intended to enhance privacy. I am still waiting for a toilet to play Queens’, Another one Bites the Dust but so far I have stuck out.
And, for you big dudes who really know how to take care of business, there is a Turbo washbutton which is a high powered wash intended to push a turbo stream of water into ones rectum. These high tech toilets were the perfect match for any loose stools.
Considering the mass amount of people, you would figure the streets of Japan would be utter chaos with no room to move about. However, this was not the case at all. Everything appears so organized and people move around the streets at such a relaxed pace. I was shocked to discover locals biking around with ease, not only on the streets but on sidewalks as well, alongside pedestrians. Just try doing that on New York City streets. Forget about it. The locals were just so considerate of each other. Any attempt to ride a bike in a similar manner in NYC, will either get you cussed out or flattened by a straight arm with a high strung uptight Manhattanite. I am not sure if there are any automobile restrictions on the roads here in Tokyo but car traffic was nonexistent even in the heart of the city. It was an absolute pleasure crossing streets and simply walk around. Japan is so deeply rooted in respect, that it was impossible not to respect it back.
As the most populated metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo can be a bit intimidating for first-time visitors. It is an urban maze of neighborhoods. Instead of thinking of Tokyo as one giant city, you need to remember Tokyo is a massive sprawling metropolis. It’s almost better to break Tokyo down by its distinct neighborhoods. Each area having its own unique personality which can be seen by simply wandering the streets and alleyways. Most of them are conveniently connected by the famous JR East Yamanote line. Instead of restricting ourselves to staying in only one area, we chose to split our stay between Shinjuku and Shimokitazawa. On our return to Tokyo after touring the rest of Japan, we will base in Shibuya/Ebisu for another week. Shinjuku was packed with action, nightlife and a wide selection of food. Shimokitazawa was probably one of the coolest neighborhoods that we have stayed in on our entire journey. Its’ small town feel with narrow streets and bohemian atmosphere just oozed with charm. We absolutely loved staying in Shimokitazawa. It is a ‘must’ visit on any trip to Tokyo for a wander around.
The secret to Tokyo is do not plan too much. Just plan a few things and you will run across tons of shit simply wandering around. If going to Tokyo for the first time and you do not have 2 weeks to explore like us, the best advice is not to try to cover too much ground. Keep it simple and focus on a few parts of the city that are of interest.
AREAS TO VISIT IN TOKYO –
GINZA – luxury shopping and the famous Tsukiji Fish Market is nearby.
SHIBUYA – Times Square of Tokyo. Cool alleys to walk and the famed Shibuya Crossing.
SHINJUKU – neon lights, nightlife (Golden Gai), Piss Alley, Lost in Translation filmed here.
HARAJUKU – wacky teenage fashion scene on Takeshita St. on Sundays, Yoyogi Park.
SHIMOKITAZAWA – unique bohemian place. small shops, little cafes, street musicians.
ROPPONGI – nightlife and big nightclubs.
ASAKUSA – Sensoji Temple, touristy Nakamise Dori Shopping Street leading to temple.
AKIHABARA – game arcades, themed cafes, M’s Pop Life Porn Store. Barbie’s fav Owl cafe.
OMOTESANDO – fashionable shopping area, Tokyo’s version of Champs-Elysees.
UENO – lively Ameya Yokocho Market, Uenoonshi Park. Not as pretty as other areas.
KOENJI – temples, hip eateries/bars, underground music scene.
INKEBUKURO – did not visit
THRU THE BINOCS –
Japan is my kind of place. Why?
Slurping noodles or making loud noises while eating is OK! In fact, slurping hot food like ramen is polite, to show you are enjoying it. I cannot get away with this anyplace else as Barbie would be right on my ass, but she was hushed in Japan.
There is no tipping in any situation in Japan — cabs, restaurants, personal care. To tip someone is actually a little insulting. BFD hates tipping.
As a whole, hygiene and cleanliness standards are incredibly high in Japan, so you can feel confident eating pretty much anywhere at all. No loose stools here.
The Japanese are impressively punctual. I was told by a local that over the course of the year, across all the bullet trains, the total delay is only 30 seconds! I love visiting places where they have their shit together.
The Japanese appear to always be smiling and they have a lot to smile about cause everything simply worked.