What have you been waiting to visit for years, or maybe decades? This Japan guide has been waiting to be made for 15 years. Tokyo was one of my very first destinations I had on my bucket-list. (Yes, I had a bucket list as a teenager. It’s all very morbid.)
I kept citing the fact that it’s very far away as a reason for not visiting, but I’ve gone to Hong Kong, Thailand, South Africa and Cambodia, so lengthy travel isn’t really foreign to me. Then there’s the fact that Tokyo, in comparison to countries like Thailand and Cambodia, is extremely pricey. But I live in NYC, so I’m kind of used to it.
Whatever the reason was, I finally loaded up my Japanese language software and packed my luggage for a two week trip to Japan. The geeky anime, jRPG and kawaii loving teenage girl inside me was screaming to get out.
After the long 13 hour flight, we touched down in Haneda airport. I was a little more anxious than usual seeing as I didn’t speak a lick of Japanese (except for konnichiwa, arigatou and sayonara). I also feel slightly like a jerk expecting everyone else to speak English in their own country, but I think that’s my own thing.
I spent a few weeks preparing for the visit by studying hiragana and learning a few common words. I didn’t get too far in my vocabulary, but I’m proud to say I can now read hiragana and I was able to sound out the train and metro stops without having to use English!
Here are a few useful phrases for you in case you’re going (sound out every letter phonetically, i.e, a is ah). I legitimately used these a lot throughout the trip, and even if you don’t know the vocab, it still helps you participate in the language:
- Konnichiwa – Hello!
- Ohayou Gozaimasu – Good morning!
- Suki desu – I like it (great to use at restaurants)
- O genki de – Take care! (casual way to say goodbye in lieu of sayonara)
- Arigatou Gozaimasu – Thank you! (the standard one to use in most situations)
- Kudasai – Please (when asking for something)
- Sumimasen – Excuse me
- Gomennasai – I’m sorry
Shinjuku Area Japan Guide
Hotel Gracery was our first stop in Tokyo. It was conveniently located about a 7-minute walk from Shinjuku station, which is one of the main train and metro hubs of Tokyo. The station itself is extremely confusing, so you have to pay attention to the signs.
Also, they’re not kidding about trains being crowded at rush hour. I managed to score a seat on the train. In the meantime, I saw my husband squished against the pole as the crowd literally pushed in. It was like a sea wave of people all pushing into each other’s backs to get on the train.
Hey, that’s one way to make sure you get to work on time.
One thing I can say though is even the pushing process has some organization to it. People actually wait for others to get off the train before getting on, and move out of the way in the entrances. NYC trains get crowded too, but you’ll end up never getting on because people all crowd near the doors and don’t move in. So, you end up letting a half empty train leave the station because of jerks blocking the doors. (I have a lot of disdain for NYC subways. I’m convinced I lost a couple of years of my life because of the amount of irritation the NYC subway system caused me.)
Hotel Gracery Shinjuku
This was a fun, novelty type hotel that turned out to be the perfect location for us. It’s also known as the Godzilla Hotel, aptly named due to the enormous Godzilla head on its mid-level roof-deck. The thing spews out steam “fire” and lights on the hour every day, with added sound effects reverberating down the street to boot! It’s a cute little show if you’re walking around the area.
Little did I know that it’s also smack dab in the middle of Kabukicho, the red light district of Tokyo.
Totally not a bad thing though, since the area is very active and has a lot to see. The red light district here isn’t the same as a red light district would be in Amsterdam for example. There are no windows with lingerie-clad women beckoning people in. In fact, you can walk through without ever knowing anything is going on.
There are a few seedy looking characters on the corners that are obviously trying to get people into the clubs and the bars. A lot of the establishments don’t cater to non-natives, so if you don’t look Japanese, you might not get bothered (until maybe way late at night, when it can get a little more dangerous).
My Takeaway From Kabukicho + Hotel Gracery
Personally, I loved the area! I got so many cool neon-lit street shots. I was so jet lagged but totally excited to go out and photograph the streets! Josh, in the meantime, immediately passed out on the bed and didn’t end up waking up until early next morning.
The hotel room was TINY, as you can see in the video. I was ready for something small, but even with our carry-on sized luggage, it was hard to fit. I ended up making peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to achieve a zen living situation in the room. On the plus side, the Japanese toilet made up for all shortcomings. Nothing spells comfort like a warm toilet seat.
Walking Through Japan Guide- Tokyo – Days 1-4
We walked a LOT! In fact, we chose to walk almost everywhere and only took the train back to the hotel when we physically couldn’t handle any more walking. On average, we clocked in about 10 miles a day. One of the first days was a 15-mile day. Needless to say, both Josh and I lost weight this trip.
Shinjuku Chuo Park
This was a nice walk in the morning. I enjoyed it more int the early morning than I did mid-day. There is a little waterfall and a turtle pond with a LOT of turtles. Also, in the morning, you’ll get to see group exercises orchestrated by NHK Rajio Taiso, a public radio exercise program blasting through the speakers which tends to attract many Japanese early risers.
Meiji Jingu Park
We went here on two separate occasions. The first time was on our second day in Tokyo. We woke up very early and decided to walk through the park. This was a very serene experience where I managed to snap plenty of photographs of the nearly empty park. If you can, go early!! Our second time was toward the tail-end of our trip, on a Sunday around 3 pm. It was extremely crowded and didn’t have nearly the same breathtaking ambiance. If you’re planning on catching photographs like the black & white shot of all the sake barrels, go early.
I went during an off-peak time, so I didn’t get to experience the intensity of the rush hour crossing. Seeing as I’m not an enormous fan of crowds though, I didn’t mind. The mid-day crossing was easy enough and it was still a cool little checkmark on our landmarks list.
Asakusa – Senso-ji Temple
I recommend coming here when you’re jet lagged and get up super early! I was lucky enough to arrive before the crowds, so the photos hardly had any people in them. If you’re looking to take photographs, go early (I think we arrived around 8 am). Also, don’t forget to draw your fortune while you’re here!
Tech and anime paradise in other words. Akihabara is a must stop for die-hard anime and gaming fans. This otaku culture haven are also a ton of maid cafes! Because of Akihabara’s popularity, it’s often crowded with tourists, so a lot of die-hard otaku-culture lovers frequent Nakana Broadway instead to find the ultimate collectibles.
Taito Station + Sega arcades
We spent way too much at the UFO machines, and brought home a ton of different plush toys and boxed figures. Josh got obsessed with figuring out the best ways to maneuver the claw machines for wins. I spent a good amount of time watching other players absolutely crush it at rhythm-based video games. I really wish we had arcades like this stateside. The average age is much higher for these arcades vs the US, so you see a lot more players with skill.
Personally, I preferred the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden as a place to stroll through and enjoy, but the Imperial Palace is a historic landmark. It occupies a large bloc of Tokyo that’s designated a no-fly zone. There’s also no subway system underground underneath this park. The meadow in the center is a prime spot for a picnic while you overlook the Tokyo skyline surrounding the park.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
I thought this park was so beautiful! Most of my cherry blossom pictures are from this place. It’s extremely serene and has benches dotting its paths. Lots of photographers were in the park the day I went, also looking to capture the beautiful flowering trees and shrubs.
Harajuku, as a neighborhood, is fairly consistent with others, until you get to Takeshita Dori (Takeshita Street). Things get PACKED walking through the main street. I was really looking forward to visiting the street that inspired some of my wackier fashion choices 15 years ago, but I ended up just feeling exhausted by all the tourists and little girls. I saw a few girls who wore some cutesy outlandish stuff, but to be honest, most of the wacky looking people were tourists. Nevertheless, it’s fun to see, and I ended up buying a backpack that says “I Will Burn Yourself” on the sides. Whatever that means. 🙂 There are a LOT of cutesy food places here. This is basically the girls’ answer to Akihabara.
If you see any Furyu (or other) photo booths, go in! I swear you won’t be disappointed. I did two photo booths while there- you’ll see a ton of them in and around arcades, and there are full establishments dedicated to these photo booths in Harajuku. They are ridiculously fun and an amazing souvenir to take home.