Tokyo. A Brief Guide & Travel Tips

This blog covers some tips for seeing and staying in Tokyo, based around my personal experiences of my first day in Tokyo. You may also want to read about some quirky restaurants.

JJ Travel Tip: Buy a Tokyo Metro one day ticket for 600 yen. A single journey is around 200 yen so you’ll easily get far better value out a 24hr ticket. They are available to buy from self-service machines in all Metro stations (which, by the way, are huge. There’s no shame in getting lost in them. Repeatedly!). There is also the option of changing the language on the machines to English and they accept coins and notes.

JJ Travel Tip: Download the Tokyo Metro app. It gives you compete listings for all Metro stations (also signposted as subway stations). Click on a station and it gives all the nearby attractions and major hotels, including which exit to leave a station by for them. It’s free to download and works offline.

Tokyo

The first day you wake up in Tokyo it hits you. It’s so busy. There are thousands of people everywhere. The air is heavily polluted, it smells polluted. The city assaults you full on, all your senses.

Bright lights, tall buildings and packed streets assault your eyes and ears. The pollution assaults your sense of smell on one hand, the welcoming aroma of wonderful food from the many eateries on the other. The tropical heat in August assaults your sense of touch. There’s plenty of wonderful food to please your taste buds too – you’re spoiled for choice.

Metropolitan Government Building 

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View from Tokyo Government Metropolitan Building – around 10am on a weekday morning.

Situated in the heart of Tokyo is the Metropolitan Government Building. It’s a Government building, obviously, that consists of two towers that are connected on the lower floors.

On the 45th floor (if memory serves me correctly!) there are observation floors that visitors to the city can access. These observation floors offer spectacular panoramic views of the city. This was our first destination – to get a good birds eye look at the city we’d arrived in.

The staff on the ground floor will greet you in typical Japanese style, “Irashai Mase!” and after a quick security check will help you in the lift and send you to the correct floor.

Best of all, it’s completely free of charge.

It’s recommended that if you go here you do so in the morning.

Unfortunately the city is so polluted that later in the day the views can be obstructed by all the smog.

Asakusa

From the Government Metropolitan Buildings we made our way to the Senso-ji Temple, located in the Asakusa area. From this area you can also see the Sky Tree.

This area leading up to the Senso-ji Temple was ram-packed full of tourists. The main entrance was a wide walkway with a kind of market, catering to tourists, set up on the main path to it full of souvenir stands. There were also plenty of places around here to eat and drink. We went into one little traditional Japanese place (don’t ask me it’s name as it was displayed only in Kanji and we seemed to be the only foreigners in it) and enjoyed some breaded pork and omelettes whilst getting to grips with chopsticks (which with a little practice become surprising easy to use).

Unfortunately the Pagoda next to the Temple was closed off with scaffolding.

Imperial Palace

We hopped back on the subway and headed to Nijunashimae to see the Imperial Palace. It used to be known as the Edo Castle, which was formally the Tokugawa family residence. It became the Imperial Palace when the Emperor of Japan moved there from the Kyoto Imperial Palace following the Meiji restoration.

We didn’t really get a good look at it. It’s surrounded by high walls and a moat. It turns out entrance to the grounds are only be advance booking and numbers are also limited. So if you want to see the grounds book it in advance.

Entry to the buildings is not permitted.

Akihabara

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Akihabara

From there we headed back on the subway to Akihabara. This is the Mecca for manga/anime. Manga is the Japanese word for “comic”.

I found our way to this area by asking a railway station worker where I could buy manga in Japanese, while pointing to a map. Or at least at the time I thought I was asking that. I later learned I’d asked how much manga costs while pointing at a map! Nevertheless, he understood and got us to the right place. (See my first blog on learning some Japanese.)

This area is a vibrant assault on your senses. Brightly lit buildings, manga and anime shops everywhere and amusement type arcades – where you can win anything from a packet of chewing gum to a stuffed animal or plastic sausage.

The reason for the seemingly odd prizes is, apparently, gambling is not permitted in Japan. However, it is possible for a prize up to the value of your stake to be won. The winnings are then taken to another place, usually just around the corner, where they are exchanged for the actual cash prize through a little window. It’s a loophole in Japanese law, which everyone turns a blind eye to. Don’t try to be clever and buy chewing gum in a shop to exchange for cash though, you’re liable to get your hand cut off.

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Massage leaflet. A little iffy?

Japanese girls dressed as schoolgirls or anime type characters try to lure you into various premises. For the most part it all seemed above board, however one leaflet for a “massage” place looked a little iffy.

Definitely worth a visit. The area that is, not necessarily the massage  premises. I didn’t visit so I can’t comment.

Shibuya

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Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya, home of what may well be the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Known as “the scramble.”

It’s THAT iconic Tokyo scene. Thousands of people, buildings with brightly lit adverts.

No trip to Tokyo, for me, would have been complete without coming here.

For the best view head to Starbucks. You’ll be lucky to get a seat at the window though. Alternatively there’s a good view, which is easier to be had, within Shibuya station.

Golden Gai

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We rounded off our first day with a trip to the Golden Gai area of the city, home to scores of micro bars. It’s an area within the Shinjuku area.

Golden Gai is an entertainment district formed during a period of chaos after the Second World War.

It’s home to 300 establishments, ranging from the very old to the new modern ones. All are equally as small.

Seriously, these bars and ‘restaurants’ only have enough seats for 5-7 patrons at any given time. They’re absolutely tiny! Which is all part of their charm.

My fiancée and I entered one that was empty (I couldn’t possibly name it) and ordered a couple of drinks. The woman that owned it was transgender, though on first encounter it was incredibly difficult to tell.  Within a few minutes an Australian couple and an American couple arrived and the place was full. The six of us chatted away with the owner, shared stories and had a drink. It was a really nice, relaxed atmosphere.

We learned that until a couple of years ago only the Japanese drank at Golden Gai, tourists never went there. Now lots of them do (probably as a result of a successful blog by someone!)

It is known as an area where people go to discuss politics, speak freely and by those that are perhaps not so mainstream in their views. I got the impression it was distinctly socialist and the transgender owner led me to think probably an area that has traditionally been visited by the gay community.

Tips for Golden Gai: If the signs outside are all in Japanese, they don’t want foreign visitors. One or two also have signs up saying “Japanese speakers only.” All of them also take a cover charge. Drinking here is generally more expensive than we found in restaurants. However, the price can fall with the more you drink and there are places that’ll let you buy a bottle of your favourite spirit and come back night after night to have some more until the bottle is gone – if you want to drink that much. It seems a pretty safe area to be.

Hotel Sunlite Shinjuku

We stayed at the Hotel Sunlite Shinjuku. Double room was ‘cosy’, as is the norm for Tokyo accommodation. A comfortable air conditioned, clean room with very friendly and welcoming staff. Good buffet breakfast in the morning, ranging from traditional Japanese to scrambled egg and toast. A few minutes walk from the city’s best park, Shinjuku Gyoen, Shinjuku station – so really easy to get to everywhere.

All a bit too much?

When Tokyo becomes too much, consider visiting the nearby Hakone for some respite. Or perhaps travel a little further and stay in a quiet sacred Buddhist mountain temple at Koyasan.

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