We have returned to Tokyo for another nine nights to close out our stay in Japan. This completes five (5) weeks Flashpacking around Japan and over two weeks in Tokyo. This extended time in Tokyo enabled us to really dig into the city. Many travelers come to Japan with only enough time to spend a few days in this sprawling metropolis. However, that is simply not enough time to take in all the good stuff Tokyo has on tap. Especially, if you want to experience some of the ‘off the beaten track’ neighborhoods outside the city centre of Tokyo, which include quieter areas that exude a sense of neighborhood in this urban setting. In my opinion, to effectively cover the majority of Tokyo’s areas of interest and activities, you would really need about two weeks. In my initial Tokyo blog post, I was able to explain in detail why the toilets in Tokyo were such a pleasurable experience to take care of business. In this blog post, I cover many of Tokyo’s neighborhoods in greater detail.
Home to more than 13 million people, Tokyo is a frenetic and endlessly fascinating city. It is a great city for walking and believe it or not, it is a very safe city to ride a bicycle around. I would never believe this until I saw it for myself, as inexplicably, there a so few cars on the road. Taxi’s are very expensive, however, they are really unnecessary because train travel around the city is so efficient and a pleasure to use. We did use taxi’s a handful of times and loved the coolness of them as they looked like they are from a ’50s film. I loved how the taxi doors open and close automatically as it made the whole riding experience that much more bizarre. The best things about the taxi’s in Tokyo are the drivers are true gentleman and they will never rip you off. They actually take you to your destination without any bullshit games. Now that is a unique concept in a world filled with an oversupply of dirtbag cab drivers.
On this second stint in Tokyo, we had the opportunity to check out all the stuff we missed out on our arrival stay. During our first nine days in Tokyo, we split our time and bunked up in the neighborhoods of Shinjuku and Shimokitazawa. This time around, we chose an Airbnb located in the residential upscale Ebisu neighborhood which is adjacent to the popular Shibuya area. It was a perfect quiet area to retreat to after long days of walking thru Tokyo’s visual chaos. Each of Tokyo’s neighborhoods have a distinct character of their own. A visit to Tokyo is very similar to a visit to Manhattan. For an extended visit to Manhattan, you would probably be better served staying in different areas to get a taste of different neighborhoods such as Soho, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Midtown and the Upper East/West side.
Shinjuku has it all. Shinjuku captures the modern essence of Tokyo. After seeing the film Lost in Translation which was filmed here, I knew I had to get to Tokyo to experience for myself the neon lights, pachinko parlors, masses of people, restaurants galore and crazy nightlife in Shinjuku. We wandered around the nightlife area of Kabukicho with all the hostess/karaoke bars, love hotels and mesmerizing neon lights. Golden Gai is adjacent to Kabukicho and its’ ramshackle streets and narrow alleys are filled with hundreds of tiny bars, and I mean tiny with some seating only a half dozen people. They were some of the strangest bars with the quirkiest themes I’ve personally ever laid eyes on. We spent our first 5 nights in Shinjuku and it was here that I first discovered that all the big department stores in Tokyo have the most kickass food courts in their basements. Shinjuku’s basement food halls, at the Isetan or Takashimaya department stores are two awesome places to munch out. For more unique food options, the colorful narrow laneway of “Piss Alley, aka “Memory Lane”, is a ‘must visit’ for its lively scene and unique food joints. If you are looking for a good green space to hang out in, Shinjuku is home to one of Tokyo’s nicest parks called Gyoen National Gardens.
To sum up Shibuya; you will find action and lots to do 24/7. Shibuya attracts a younger crowd and it’s where the teens of Tokyo gather and hang out with their bright futuristic clothes and colorful hair. I can assure you that there is never a dull moment in Shibuya but it really comes alive at night especially around the Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya is home to one of our favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants, Gyukatsu Motomura. It serves up some unique tender and juicy, Japanese beef katsu. The beef arrived to us partially cooked and then we finished up the cooking on our own mini sizzling stone grill in front of us. The place only seats about 10 people and you must perfectly time your visit between lunch and dinner to avoid some huge lines. There is also another location in Shinjuku which we visited as well. Some other lively places in Shibuya to walk around include: Center Gai area, Spain-zaka Slope, Love Hotel Alley, Dongenzaka Street, Nonbei Alley.
Harajuku is a small area within Shibuya that is most famous for being the center of Tokyo’s gothic/ zombie/ punk rock subculture. Youths from all over Japan come to shop in the dozens of small specialty and second hand stores that line the colorful Takeshita-Dori Street. On any given Sunday, the place to be is in Yoyogi Park for some relaxation and some people watching. This huge park is the perfect place to go for a walk or run, play frisbee, have a picnic or just lay on the grass to get some sun. On weekends, you will find lots of entertainers in the park and the best day to capture the peak of the wackiness is on Sundays. Also located in Yoyogi Park is the very popular Meiji Jingu Shrine and is definitely worth checking out.
This upscale area is adjacent to Harajuku. The wide boulevard-like street Omote-sando, sometimes called Tokyo’s Champs Elysées, is the main artery of the Shibuya-Harajuku area. The street has tons of chic modern designer boutiques and international fashion brands. Just off the main drag in Omotesando is a street (Cat Street) that is lined with shops and a cool little coffee place called The Roastery. A short walk on Cat Street will lead directly into Shibuya.
The main attraction is the very popular Senso-jo Temple. The street leading to the temple
(Nakamise Dori Street) has tons of shops/food stalls leading to the temple. For fellow degenerates, a vist to Wins Off Track Betting (Hatsune Koji Inshokugai) is renowned for the hordes of horseracing fans drinking outside the bars betting on the ponies.
We hunkered down for 9 nights here in our favorite Airbnb which was located in this fashionable and trendy area. Big Doug, being the most un-trendy and un-fashionable person actually enjoyed the upscale relaxed feel of this area. Ebisu is a favorite area for locals and expats and has amazing options for eating and drinking. Ebisu Yochocho was one of our favorite food alleyways in all of Tokyo. It is open at night, packed with awesome tiny eateries and was a great place to eat. Yebisu Gardens was our ‘go to’ place for high quality prepared supermarket food in addition to many restaurant options.
Home to all the electronic stores, gadget stores, game arcades which include the famed Pachinko arcades. I was one of the fortunate kids to have a Pachinko machine in our house growing up so I did have some idea what this game was all about and it is insanely popular in Tokyo. In a big game arcade, there are rows of these machines with an absolute deafening roar of metal marbles shooting and clanging around the machines. These are not kids games. It was quite strange seeing adults (both men and woman) fully engaged playing these pachinko machines. Just another place in Tokyo, that makes you stare in amazement and say, WTF.
The 5th Avenue of Tokyo with luxury shopping and is best visited on weekends when the streets turn pedestrian only. The famous Tsukji Fish Market is nearby and definitely worth a visit during morning operating hours. You can opt to visit the popular tuna auction at 4 AM, if you are lucky enough to secure a very limited slot. We chose to sleep and simply visit a bit later. The Tsukji Fish Market is packed with seafood and killer sushi joints. The big kahuna sushi place is Sushi Dai. Alternatives if the line at Sushi Dai is too long, include: Daiwa Sushi, Sushi Zanmai, Ryu Sushi and Sushi Bun. We chose Sushi Zanmai and it was first rate.
This area is known for its nightclubs. Big Doug is usually asleep when nightclubs get going, so Roppongi was a skip for us.
Skippable. However, if you do find yourself in the area, the highlight was the shop (named Ringo) right outside the train station which sold the most kick ass Apple Custard Pies. We saw the queues for these hand held pies so we did the most logical thing when in Japan. We got our asses on the queue.
‘OFF THE BEATEN PATH’ NEIGHBORHOODS (outside Tokyo’s City Centre) –
These low-rise neighborhoods are a bit away from the concrete jungle of Tokyo. They are where you can uncover a different side of Tokyo and get a glimpse of a different way of life outside of the city centre.
While Tokyo is filled with neon lit futuristic streets and frenetic pace, for a change of scenery, we headed out to Kamakura. Kamakura is sometimes referred to as “Kyoto of the Kanto region” or ‘Petit Kyoto’. This sounded good and so did a free train ride. We arrived back into Tokyo with two (2) days of validity left on our JR train pass and being the budget savvy flashpackers that we are, we wanted to squeeze out the most value from our JR train passes before our 21 day unlimited journey passes expired.
Consequently, we hopped on a JR train and headed 1 hr. south to Kamakura where the pace was more relaxed. It seemed as if time had stopped in this coastal city and was a great short escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The town gets very busy on summer weekends as it’s a favorite getaway for locals. Yuiguhama Beach is located here and it’s good for a quick dip in the ocean on a hot summer day, but it’s really a big nothing beach. The big activity is a walk down Konachi Dori Street with its many shops along with a shitload of Japanese snack places to munch out. This walking street leads to a really cool temple called Tsurugaoka Hachiman- gu. If you dig temples, Hase-dera Temple is nearby and so is Kotoku -in Temple where you can hang out with Big Buddha. A short train ride away from Kamakura, is Enoshima Island. We had planned to visit here as well for a wander around the park and the islands streets, but we ran out of steam and it was getting dark.
Koenji is a few minute train ride from Shinjuku, just outside the Tokyo city centre. It is part of Suginami City which also includes the smaller neighborhoods of Asagaya, Ogikubo and Nishi-Ogikubo. Koenji is considered the coolest ‘hood’ of all these areas and we loved spending the day here wandering around this laid-back area. The vibe of Koenji was very similar to Shimokitazawa and being that Shimokitazawa was one of my favorite places to stay in Tokyo, I thought we should head over to Koenji and check it out. It has an energetic and vibrant small town community feel with tons of inexpensive hip eateries, bars, music clubs and second hand stores. The many value priced izakaya’s can be found at the two yokocho’s, named Dailchi Ichiba & Gado-shita. One runs along the underpass of the train tracks and the other in a hidden alleyway, just north of the Koenji train station. Note, these do not open until around 6PM. I must mention, while walking around, we checked out Hattifnatt Koenji, the most trippy and strangest cafe for coffee/food where you feel like you are a kid exploring a tree house. A cup of iced coffee and children’s music. A strange place indeed, but we loved it.
We stayed in this area during our first week in Tokyo and loved hanging out in this small laid-back bohemian hipster town. Shimokita was a great retreat from the frenetic city centre of Tokyo. It was only a 5 min. train ride from Shibuya/Shinjuku but felt like it was a world away. The area has numerous hipster coffee shops, laneways full of secondhand and vintage fashion stores, hole-in-the-wall eateries, live music venues and even ‘old school’ record stores. It’s really like nothing else in Tokyo and absolutely worth the detour if you are looking to see something untapped and less touristy in Tokyo.
We took the JR train to Kichijouji for the sole purpose of checking out something called Harmonica Alley. It’s where 100’s of stores, eateries and izakaya (pubs) are concentrated in a small area. It gets its name as the layout is a bunch of narrow alleyways that run in vertical and horizontal directions and look like air holes in a Harmonica. Whatever. It is best to arrive in the evenings when all the tiny izakayas are open. I cannot vouch for the quality as we really just walked around to check out the scene. I left unimpressed because maybe we got there too early before all the izakayas opened.
Did not visit but many say worth a visit.
Skippable. Not worth a visit.
TOKYO’S TOP YOKOCHO’S –
Yokocho’s are Tokyo’s famous alleyways packed with tiny eateries. If you are cool with eating great food in real tight quarters and physical contact with locals (many of these places seat less than a dozen people on stools) than a visit to these Yokocho’s are a must. If you are cool with experiencing the city’s less sterile, more down-to-earth side of Tokyo’s eating scene, than these Yokocho’s are for you. They are so much fun to eat at and the atmosphere is high energy. Whenever you serve up small bites and skewers of meat along with free flowing beer and highballs, it makes for a true party eating scene and an opportunity to meet some new drinking buddies. However, you will need to utilize some good sign language coupled with a happy smile because chances are nobody will speak a lick of English. We hit up the following Yockocho’s:
(Note, some are open at lunchtime but many do not get going until 6 PM)
Ebisu Yokocho (Ebisu) – We absolutely loved this lively indoor alleyway. An entire strip of food/booze joints.
Omoide Yokocho (Shinjuku) – This food alleyway holds a special place for us as it was the first Yokocho we visited upon arrival and the scene made our jaws drop as the scene was nothing that we have witnessed before. The alleyway is oozing with atmosphere and is also referred to as “Piss Alley” or “Memory Lane”.
Harmonica Yokocho (Kichijoji) – A bunch of alleyways spread out in a harmonica-like maze lined with miniature stand-up eateries and small bars. I never really went to a restaurant where you stand up and eat but they are real popular in Tokyo. It’s about a 20 minute train west of Tokyo’s city centre.
Dailchi Ichiba & Gado-shita (Koenji) – For true value players, there are two (2) yokocho areas here to enjoy more value priced izakaya (meat on a stick)
Ameya (aka Ameyoko) Yokocho – This lively street market is located right next to the Ueno Station with vendors hawking all sorts of stuff.
Nonbei Yokocho (Shibuya) – The street that’s now known as Nonbei Yokocho (‘Drunkard Alley’) is located next to the bustling, Shibuya Station. Wandering around, we found tons of tiny bars with many being so small they only fit 4 or 5 people at a time. These tiny bars also seemed to sell small bites while drinking but I did see the big food scene as found in other Yokocho’s.
Golden Gai (Shinjuku) – Home of a few hundred drinking dens which are crammed into a bunch of streets in the Kabukicho area of Shinjuku, adjacent to the red light district. We took a ‘look-see’ into these tiny little drinking dens that seat about a half dozen people getting smashed and shooting the shit.
The following are a few more yokocho’s we never got the chance to visit: Sankaku Chitai (Sangenjaya), Minamiguchi no Nomiyagai (Nishi-Ogikubo), Amazake Yokocho (Ningyocho).
THRU THE BINOCS –
We totally fell in love with this beautiful country. Japan has everything…from their many castles, zen gardens, pagodas, temples and shrines to big action packed cities with just so much to see and do. Every single day we stepped out of the door, there is eye-popping fun adventure to be had. If you are a bit intimidated by the thought of traveling in Asia, I cannot think of a better country to visit for any travel newbies. Japan was insanely organized, the absolute cleanest and easiest country to travel around in all of Asia. The train system to navigate around the country might appear intimidating at first glance but it’s so simple to use and the most user-friendly in all of Asia. Actually, not only in Asia, but the entire world.
As for the Japanese people, they march to the beat of their own drummer and one word would best describe everyday life……..EFFICIENT.
The Japanese people are so kind and all look out for each other in the most courteous way. One of the Japanese traits that I will never forget during our time spent in Japan was the genuine smiles on the face of any employee we came into contact with on a daily basis. Whether they are selling high end goods or simply ringing up a bottle of water in 7-11, we were always greeted with the kindest smile. If they were simply bullshitting me with these pleasantries, then I bought it hook, line and sinker, and all I could do is smile back.
The Japanese are uber-polite, respectful, and don’t take what isn’t theirs. I found it amazing that when we were hanging out in cafes/restaurants and any public places, the Japanese people would leave their valuables (i.e. iphone, computers, pocketbooks) right on the table when they headed to the bathroom. Just try that trick back at home!
The Japanese know how to form queues. They really know how to line up for stuff in the most calm and efficient manner. The queues tend to move quickly and any queue in front of a restaurant was my cue to get my impatient ass on queue with the locals.
I was very surprised to see so few westerners wandering around the streets of Tokyo . I had expected to see lots of hot shot, high finance banking guys around the city but there were really none to be seen. When we ventured into the neighborhoods outside of Tokyo, we were the only westerners around.
The Japanese are probably the most hydrated people the world. They have millions of vending machines selling green tea, water, energy drinks and assorted other beverages on every street and in every train station. The best thing was every single machine works. Just try to find a working vending machine back home or one that doesn’t screw you out of your moolah.
So what are the downsides of Japan?
It basically comes down to the lack of English spoken. We have visited the majority of countries in Asia and surprisingly, for such an advanced country, the least amount of English is spoken in Japan. Lack of English, means:
- Not knowing what any of the products are in drugstores/supermarkets as they are all written in Japanese. Hardly any American brands are in Japan.
- Not being able to be more adventuresome with the supermarket food as I could not gather what the heck a lot of stuff was.
- Not being able to call places of business for information as nobody really speaks a lick of English. Besides, foreigner SIM cards included data only…..no voice calls.
Despite the lack of spoken English, the Japanese are so friendly, kind and accommodating. Consequently, it was easy to communicate with body language, google translate, facial expressions and the ole international finger pointing technique.
Frequent earthquake tremors seemed to be a common. They were minor but we did enjoy the minor swaying in the beds of our Airbnb’s.
The other big downside is space. Hotels and apartments are notoriously extremely small in Japan, especially in the major cities. To get us more space, we stayed in Airbnb’s with small kitchens. This proved to be awesome value compare to traditional hotels. It was interesting to see all of the creative space saving techniques the Japanese utilize to maximum amount of space inside the apartments.
Our time is up in Japan and we head to Australia for the beaches of the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast. We will be spending a month in Noosa Heads and Byron Bay.