Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is an overwhelmingly large city. There are many travel sites and blogs dedicated to what you should see and do in Tokyo. We narrowed down our choices to visiting several neighborhoods. We wanted to see modern Tokyo and traditional Tokyo. We spent a day each in Shinjuku (modern) and a day in Asakusa (traditional). The final day we visited the Imperial Palace and Akihabara, geek central of Tokyo.

We used the trains and subways to negotiate the city. We purchased Suica cards which we pre-loaded with enough money to get around for a few days. We much prefer this to buying individual tickets. We used a combination of Google Maps and an app called Hyperdia to plan our routes. Normally, I can plan our own routes but this is what the Tokyo subway is insane – so many lines and routes.

A good route planner is critical! What we found is that Hyperdia worked pretty well but didn’t always give us the most direct route (the one with the least transfers). Google usually gave us the most direct route but did not always give us the track number we needed (sometimes Hyperdia didn’t either). We tried to avoid the trains during peak commuting hours.

There is limited posting of information in English at the stations and we did not find many local people that spoke English either. Google Translate often gave us some really bizarre translations so wasn’t a dependable way to figure things out. What worked best was to watch what others did and follow along. At the train stations this meant lining up single-file to wait for a train. The stations were posted in English as well as Japanese so it was easy to figure out when to disembark.

There are maps around the train station exits that will help you decide which exit to take (there are many, many exits at each station). Definitely plan what you want to see ahead of time and then find the correct exit based on that.

I was worried that the trains would be really crowded going in to Tokyo. Though that was true, what took me by surprise was how many people took the train to Yokohama. Very few people were heading in to the train station but hordes were coming out on their way to work. People dress up for work here; almost everyone wore business suits. Women wore hose and pumps. Many people wore face masks. Unlike other countries we visited where they were worn to protect against pollution, people here wore them to prevent the spread of germs.

Shinjuku

This was our visit to modern Tokyo. There are 14 districts in Tokyo; many are shopping areas. This is one of the biggest. We took the east gate exit from the train station and were surrounded by tall buildings and stores. There were broad boulevards and narrow lanes. We found the narrow lanes more interesting; smaller storefronts and restaurants lined them. There were many hotels (some renting by the hour), bars, karaoke bars, massage parlors, video game/pachinko parlors and restaurants

Asakusa

Asakusa is home to Tokyo’s largest Buddhist Temple: Senso-Ji Temple. We knew we were in the right area because there were tons of tourists wandering around. Across the street from the train station were rickshaws lined up to snag customers. We passed by a long line of people waiting to get into a bakery. The baked goods must’ve been something special given how many locals were waiting to purchase them!

To get to the temple you pass by stall after stall of souvenir shops. You could even rent a geisha outfit for the day (it was quite expensive to do so!). We did see a few people dressed in traditional garb.

The temple was beautiful. I took pictures and then afterwards read the sign saying photography was not allowed. Oops! Outside the temple was a place to wash before entering and a cart with incense. People were using their arms to direct the incense smoke towards them.

After leaving the temple grounds we walked to Kappabashi Kitchen Town. This is the part of town where restaurants purchase their supplies. I am a bit of a kitchen slut so was interested in seeing what was for sale. Most Japanese restaurants display plastic replicas of the food they serve so people can see what their dinner will look like. Kappabashi is where these plastic replicas are sold.

Imperial Palace

We probably could’ve skipped this one. The castle grounds are pretty but you can’t actually enter the palace. We knew this ahead of time but were expecting more interesting grounds. We walked around for awhile and then moved on.

Akihabara

Loved it. If we were (much) younger, the best time to visit would be after dark but it was still really fun during the daytime. The area used to be known for its electronics stores. You can still find plenty of them but this is where you find the hip anime crowd. There are strings of vending machines dispensing all types of anime/manga stickers, toys, etc. that line the streets. There are stores filled with “claw” machines where you can spend all kinds of money trying to pick up cheap stuffed toys. We stepped foot (very briefly) into a pachinko parlor. The noise was overwhelming; imagine millions of bb’s being poured through a metal funnel, only magnify the sound a hundred times over. I can’t imagine being in there for any length of time. There are maid cafes here. The waitresses are dressed up in costume and must refer to their customers as “master”. The best part of the day? Seeing Mario and Luigi drive go-karts down the main street! So sad I couldn’t get a picture of it!