The following is a letter I wrote to my sister, Ellie, and her husband in March 2016 when she asked if I had any tips for their upcoming visit to Japan in the April. I know Tokyo well – although the rest of the country I am only fairly familiar with. So for what it’s worth; here’s the letter. There are some insights in there for anyone wanting to travel to Japan, and I wanted to keep it for posterity’s sake. I hope it makes an interesting read for you too.
Dear Ellie and Mike,
First of all – I am extremely jealous of your trip! Second of all – please be aware I lived there nearly eight years ago and so some of this information may be inaccurate (prices for example!) or just plain wrong by now. I will try my best though. I have included some useful phrases at the back, and anything written in italic in the text is in Japanese; also some hyperlinks to useful sights/references etc.
Tokyo is safe; clean, and pretty much crime-free. It is well-lit, most areas females can walk at night, and there are policemen about. Just so you know, the Japanese drive on the left like us (helps when crossing the road) and are extremely anal about everything. I.e. the Japanese are the kind of people who only cross at actual zebra crossings, even if nothing is coming. Also they only cross when the light is green unlike other massive cities like NY/London (NB: The Japanese don’t say “Green Man” – resulting in much hilarity when I tried to translate that to a friend once – in fact they don’t say “green” at all. The road crossing will count down the seconds until you can cross like in US/Canada and when the green light is on, the speaker in the lamp-post goes “Aou Des” – “It is blue”, meaning you can cross). Weird. But I guess it’s safe. Food/conditions/etc are very hygienic and the people are extremely polite to everyone (but in the faceless, American “have a nice day” kind of way). As you go into a shop or department store (“departo”) you will hear the girls or the welcome staff etc shout “Irashaimase” – very polite “welcome” expression – but you will notice how they just shout it to everyone rather than actually meaning it….
Also FYI road signs/subway stations have the English writing just below the Japanese writing too for when you need to navigate around. And as so many cars are made there they’re extremely cheap, so you won’t really see any old cars. One other thing – do NOT use a postcode to navigate around on foot. They add postcodes to buildings/streets as/when they are made, so they are not in any order up the street and make no sense!
The weather when you go in April will be perfect Spring weather – dry, bright and clear, and fairly mild temperatures. You might have rain – they have April showers like us. The Cherry Blossoms, or sakura, may still be out in some parts of the country too (it goes from South to North in line with spring temperatures from late Feb to April) but I doubt it will still be around in Tokyo. You might be lucky – although it is considered so beautiful exactly because it is so fleeting.
Tokyo has millions of people. Literally millions. Sometimes walking down the street can feel like you’re in a massive human pinball game, and women do get bumped into as much as men. However Japan/Tokyo is not as big, dirty, and smelly as China for example; it all still feels very civilised. You will see many more bicycles, almost everywhere, in Tokyo than in NY/London and in that respect it feels much more of an ‘Asian’ city.
Your bag/camera etc is probably very safe but I would still advise taking normal travelling precautions anyway as you don’t want it to be you that one time…
It is geographically massive too, as you will see from the Subway map.
Conbini. Conbini is the Japanese shortened word for the English “Convenience Store” (they don’t pronounce the letter V). They have 7-eleven, one called sunkusu (wierdly translated from English word “thanks” (as they have no TH so use an S, and have a U after consonants… get it?!), and several other brands. They all sell hot drinks, cold drinks, bento boxes for lunch, really cheap Ramen noodles (packet dry noodles like a pot noodle without a pot you add boiling water to; I think I used to buy about 5 for about ¥100 – 200) in a variety of flavours (I always liked the Miso soup flavour, although it is not vegan or vegetarian). Newspapers, chocolate, crisps, cheap umbrellas that kind of thing. They are always open 24/7, seen as a real lifesaver in the city, and you’re probably never further than about 500 metres from one. I lived on these and essential if you’re on a budget!
I have tried to break recommendations down into sights/eating/drinking, and then a paragraph or two about things outside Tokyo, which I don’t know as well. I think whatever you do you, at whatever pace, you will have fun – and to be honest even time spent sucking up the funiki, or “atmosphere” of the place is well spent. Remember, I was there before broadband/3G/iPhones/data roaming – so things may well be a lot easier for you to find/do anyway.
Akhihabara (Where the Yamanote line meets Hibiya line (the grey one) on subway map). This is the ultimate geek’s paradise (Ellie I’m thinking YOU). Computer shops/video game shops/arcades/game cafes etc all are here. You can also purchase goods duty free (all/mostly electronic) if you show your passport (I never did as they’ll all be in Japanese Operating Systems and manuals etc, but I did buy a digital watch there once). Comic books “manga”, robots (look up “Asimo” the robot online!), and cartoon movies “Anime” everywhere. Video signs/billboards, loudspeakers, Pokemon style art etc – absolutely mental. I thought it was worth a wander around though just to see that side of Japanese life if you have a spare hour or two.
Harajuku. Harajuku is just one station North from Shibuya (more on that in a minute) and is the place where all of Japan’s cute (“Kawaii”) fashion fantasies come to life. I think it may have been in a Gwen Stefani music video once – you get what I mean by that. You could literally be dressed up as Big Bird from Sesame Street and no-one would bat an eyelid. It’s famous for steampunk style clothes and french maid outfits etc (there are actually some fetish cafes where you get served by girls in maid outfits although I’ve never been in one) and generally being mental. Lots of clothes stores and mannequins displaying things, shoe shops, Ebisu jeans and other famous brands etc. Be aware that when I was there taking photographs was frowned upon and sometimes outright banned in some areas (because of copyright issues and some designers stealing others’ designs etc) so I would maybe check its OK or see if other tourists are taking photos first.
Meiji-Jingu Shrine. This is inside/next to Yoyogi Park which is a large park in central Tokyo. I used to go to Yoyogi Park to chill out on a Sunday, have an ice cream or whatever; I had the odd picnic there. There are drummers or street performers all the time, plus loveley green spaces and some ponds, and the vibe is cool. But, back to Meiji-Jingu. This is a big buddhist temple which is easily accessible being in central tokyo, and surrounded by the park. It is well worth a visit for an insight into olden-times Japanese culture and the architecture, without all the travel to Kamakura for example (more later).
You can get to Harajuku/Meiji-Jingu/Yoyogi all in vicinity of Omete-Sando station or “Eki”which incidentally is also where I used to work. If you do take the Subway to Omote-Sando, slightly down the street from the station on the right hand side – there may still be a green ‘Gaba’ sign on one of the buildings – I think it was on the second or third floor and looking on Google Maps appears to be a building or two down from the Apple Store (which wasn’t there in my day!). Omote-Sando and Omote-Sando Hills are very nice upmarket streets/districts (think Tag Heuer watch shops and Louis Vuitton, Gucci etc). But, it was only ever window shopping for me!
Roppongi. Roppongi can be a bit of a dive – cheap R&B nightclubs etc and not loads to go see; but the “Roppongi Hills” bit is lovely and modern and central to it is the Roppongi Mori Tower which has a western-style shopping centre on its lower levels, accommodation etc all the way up it, and an art gallery and city viewing section at the top. For views of the city it is a great place to start. I *think* you can see Mount Fuji (“Fuji-san”) from there on a clear day.
Shibuya and Hachiko square. Shibuya is a central transport point and is also the place you see on New Year’s Eve countdowns where the five crossings meet, with big screens and zebra crossings – think Tokyo’s Times Square. Right outside the front is a square with a small statue with a dog on it. The dog is called Hachiko and is the focus of a Japanese legend. His owner died but the dog was so loyal he kept returning to the spot he saw his master last. As a testament to loyalty the Square was erected. If you come at rush hour/busy times, try to cross the square with the crowds! All the traffic lights stop at once at each corner so everyone crosses at the same time. It is like being in a shoal of fish and actually it is quite difficult to maintain your direction. But fun. Hachiko statue is also a spot where many friends meet as it is so iconic and easy to find, and central for coffee, bars etc. Maybe a good tip for if you two ever get separated by accident.
Just down from Shibuya Hachiko Square is a large departo called the Shibuya 109 building (there is a large “109” on the front so you cant miss it). From Shibuya station, look straight at the Starbucks across the square; and take the street to your left about one block. I only mention as it is a hub for fashion for young J’ese women/teenagers so you may wish to walk around and get a flavour.
I used to live one or two stations down from Shibuya on the Tokyu Den-en-Toshi railway line (purple one going left, or West, from Shibuya on the Subway map) at a station called Ikejiri-Ohashi. I won’t give you directions to my old guest house because a) it’s not very interesting and b) it’s been knocked down now.
However, the district I used to live in is close to a cool area called Sangenjaya. Just north of Sangenjaya is a place called Shimokitazawa (known as “shimokita”) – both were great places for independent bars, coffee shops, live music etc. Small pedestrian streets mean more independent fashion/vintage shops. I can’t remember any specific bars or shops, and it was a while ago – but just one to consider if you have time on your hands for wandering about.
Shinjuku. One of the big “hubs” of Tokyo, much like Shibuya. This is an urban playground, with arcades, restaurants, hotels and bars. Good entertainment there. On the roofs of the skyscrapers you will notice futsal pitches and also baseball bat ranges (like a golf putting range) where balls are fired at you automatically and you hit them back (there are nets at the side of the skyscraper obviously). I used to do it a lot and got the hang of it.
Tokyo tower. Why build your own attraction when you can steal someone else’s? Tokyo Tower looks exactly like the Eiffel Tower, except it is fluorescent orange and lit up at night. And apparently it is taller too! Cheeky. It makes a great night photo if you have the chance. I never went up it but I’m sure it’d be something cool to do as a tourist and something different. See this link to Tokyo Tower to see how to get there and what you can see do.
Ginza. Ginza is a very opulent shopping district and close to the business districts and city centre of Tokyo. There are lots of cool shops like the Apple store, Sony, Gucci etc, much like Bond/Oxford street in London. You’ll find it on the Ginza Subway line (yellow one) as well as Hibiya (grey) and the Maronouchi (Red).
Asakusa. This area is in the North of Tokyo on the Ginza and Asakusa Subway Lines and is famous for a large Buddhist shrine called Sanja-Sama. It is down a street from a large stone torii (stone gate thing at the entrance to all shrines). I have visited and it is a lovely thing to go see. In addition Asakusa is a very “traditional” area of Tokyo. Bearing in mind most of Tokyo was destroyed in the War, there are very few old buildings left and a lot are still in Asakusa. For some reason it is famous also for having loads of kitchen/homewares/pots/pans/knives/chopping board shops which are on a particular street. This area is not to be confused with Akasaka (other side of Tokyo). There are reportedly quite a few geisha in Asakusa too.
Sumo. This is easy for me as I never saw a single sumo wrestling match the whole time I was there. I know – but with work etc I was busy, and it never really floated my boat anyway. I don’t know whether you will be interested or not? My fading memory tells me there is a famous sumo dojo on Ginza but I have a feeling it is mega expensive (very prestigious and traditional and one for wealthy tourists). One to research beforehand if you want to go to one I think!
Cheap. The Japanese fast food place I mentioned I went to when I was on hard times was called “Matsuya” which as a Red circle with yellow and blue on as its logo. You choose what you want from a ticket machine and pay in change. Then you give the ticket to bloke behind the counter and in about 30 seconds you have your meal. Meals are like a Beef Bowl “gyudon” (bowl of rice with paper-thin beef sliced on top), Japanese curry & rice (nice – soft flavours and sweet unlike Indian), ramen noodles etc.
Also popular and a little more famous (they have them in LA and maybe one in London too) is a place called Yoshinoya, same type of thing: Japanese convenience food, cheap and quick.
The Japanese also have their own burger chain besides KFC and McDonalds etc called First Kitchen which do burgers and fries etc but Japanese style. So for example, one burger has an egg on top. The fries are their signature dish, called “flavour potato” – you choose a flavour and they put a sachet of that flavour in the bag and you shake it all over (like salt) – I used to have the paprika one. And it comes with dips etc. Here is their English menu – they have service counters rather than a ticket machine, so you can actually point to pictures on a menu at the counter if you wish although I notice there is nothing vegetarian on there at all.
Izakaya. Traditional Japanese restaurants are called Izakayas – think a cross between a sociable pub and a restaurant. Most you sit recessed in the floor so the table is at “floor” level. Service is usually very good and food is hearty. I used to have squid/calamari, chicken, they do things like rice and fries, edamame beans (yum), beers, teas, etc. More of an evening place than for lunch though I think.
Vegan/Vegetarian cuisine. Japanese eat a lot of meat. Even things like soups have fish stock or fish flakes in. Japanese policy towards animals is not great (they eat anything that moves) and as such no word for “vegan” exists. Dairy is not huge there though. I don’t think they’d get veganism even if you could explain it. Here are some links I found on Google – there are bound to be some restaurants which cater for vegans out there.
I notice from these searches that there is a traditional Buddhist way of Japanese cooking called “shojin ryori”which is close to vegan – but it looks mega expensive and not an actual daily diet, more a method of cooking and a Buddhist ritual. I hope you find somewhere. As I said before, bakeries and patisseries like Beard Papa do breads and cakes/croissant type things which may not use any animal extracts (although clearly you cannot live off it, can you?).
Other vegan/diet material:
Sangenjaya. As mentioned above, the area I used to go out in most. I remember quite a few small bars and local restaurants, which was nice to be off the beaten track. Locals are kind and I think would be more inclined to chat in this area than if you were just downtown somewhere. My tipple of choice was an Ume-shu soda – basically a cherry liquor mixed with soda water. Nice and refreshing!
Karaoke bars. It took me a while to get into these but they are fun if you’re in a group (large 8 – 10 man rooms with a TV and karaoke set, sofas, large central table etc). Also in most if not all karaoke bars is all-you-can-drink (Japanese “Nomuhoudai”) and I mean ALL you can drink. They are happy that you order your next round as the one you just ordered turns up (draught beer and cheap spirits but still fine). The karaoke bar that featured in “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen is in Shibuya… To get to it, go to the Shibuya 109 building, if you are facing it, it creates a fork in the road, take the right hand side road, and up along that street, on the left hand side… but I cannot for the life of me remember the name of it.
Yokohama. You may remember I once sent a card or picture back with a massive ferris wheel on it – that’s located in Yokohama which is a kind of cool town a bit like San Francisco. I only went once or twice and combined it with a visit to Kamakura. It is a short hop away on Japan rail and has a different feel to Tokyo. Although with your trip to other places around Japan you may not have time.
Kamakura. This is a big buddhist shrine down from Yokohama on the railway. Tourists go there as it can be done in a day from Tokyo… it’s a massive giant Buddha statue which was made from Copper so has gone turquoise. There are lots of little temples surrounding it too and it’s quite leafy green. Nice experience if you can fit it in.
Narita Airport is located to the East of Tokyo, in Chiba Prefecture. You will need to get a train from the Airport into Tokyo but from memory there were lots of express trains going. I can’t remember where you arrive when you get into a City terminal so worth looking it up in advance to save you time on transfers.
Kyoto & Osaka. I only came to Kyoto and Osaka for a long weekend and so cannot speak with much authority. In a nutshell, Kyoto is an old historic Capital, largely untouched by WW2 so has lots of lovely old buildings remaining. It is famous for temples/shrines and there are more than you can shake a stick at. Osaka is known as the food capital of Japan – lots of different cuisines here, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, as well as lots of street food from stalls etc. It is known as Japan’s second city and the locals have funny accents – remind you of anywhere you know/already live in?! I think Kyoto and Osaka share a Subway Line but can’t remember so do check your travel in advance. The shinkansen, or “bullet train” goes from Tokyo in a few hours or you can get a regular, slower train cheaper.
Money. Japan is heavily a cash-orientated society. Things may have changed with the advent of chip-and-pin / contactless / Apple Pay etc but I’d wager not so have a reserve of cash on you. I have a slim hide-able ‘bum-bag’ you wear inside your trousers if you want to borrow it as well as a belt with a hidden pocket all the way up it on the inside if you need it (I used to put photocopies of my passport, British Embassy addresses, and about £50 in various currencies rolled up in there when I was travelling, in case of trouble).
This is a PDF of the Tokyo Subway – maybe download it to iBooks on your phone or print it off to help you not get lost. I know – it looks like Noodle Soup when you first see it. Notice the grey/white dashed train line, as the Yamanote Sen (“Sen” is “Line”) is overland (“JR” means Japan Rail, like our British Rail is not the Underground) and therefore not part of the Subway (you need a different ticket to get on). I spent my first week trying to put a subway ticket into the barrier at the Yamanote Line before realising…
The Yamanote Line is a circle (so never stops), and is a great way to see the city as it is all above land – it takes about an hour and is 26 miles long. On two occasions I walked around it (following the nearest streets to the tracks; once at night clockwise and once in the day anti-clockwise) which was mega as I saw all the neighbourhoods and different parts of the city as I walked and ate. I would not recommend for you though as it would take between 9 -12 hours on a good day!
One good thing about Tokyo Metro Stations – the “fare adjustment machines”. I never knew how much a ticket was (there are zones like the Tube) so if in doubt, buy the cheapest ticket, get on the subway. Then, at your destination, before exiting the barrier, find a “fare adjustment machine” and put the ticket in. It will calculate if you owe any more, and if you do you, pay the difference and then exit. Hey presto. Although, I imagine now they may have some sort of Oyster/digital Railcard system – best to check.
I was there pre-economic crash and it was around Y200-250 per GBP £1. I assume things will have returned to about that level by now meaning the Y1000 yen note was about a fiver (also blue like our £5 which helps).
- “A Geek in Japan” by Hector Garcia
- “A year in Japan” by Kate T Williamson
- Famous Japanese novelists: Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami (if you fancy a fiction read)
Let me know if you want any more information!
Lots of love,
I lived and worked in Japan from 2006 – 2008. ‘The Slow Boat to China’, a book detailing my first big adventure, travelling from Japan to Europe across Asia overland without using air travel, is coming soon.