Sooo....it's official. I'm in love with Tokyo. To break up my grueling 20+ hour flight from Jakarta to Houston, I've been laying over in this Japanese metropolis. Tokyo has me looking at New York City like who are you and why WERE you important in my life again?
I used to not understand Westerners' fascination with Japan. In my mind, whenever someone said they wanted to visit Japan, had lived in Japan, etc, etc... I would be thinking Japan? Really? You said Japan? I would nod politely and ask questions, but I couldn't fathom ever visiting the island nation.
I know I have some nerve trying to give other places the side eye coming from Texas.
But I did.
Regardless, that's why Never say never is a popular adage because now I'm scheming with the best of them on how I'm going to afford an extended trip around the country...and I blame Tokyo.
Here are a few tips I've picked up during my long layovers in the Japanese capital:
1.) Take the express airport train into Tokyo. I made the mistake once of getting on the local train from Narita Airport to Tokyo. What could've been an hour trip turned into a time warp where I was on the train for at least two hours. By the time I got to my hotel, I was dazed and confused and barely wanted to do anything. After getting off a long haul flight, who needs another two hour commute? The trains are clean and spacious. There's a luggage section in each cart and a seat number printed on the ticket. If you can afford it, I would strongly suggest buying the express ticket. There are also express trains from Haneda Airport.
2.) Purchase a SUICA card. Once you load it with money, you can simply tap to enter and exit Tokyo's train system. Since fares differed depending on how far I traveled, I found it easier to just tap and go instead of trying to decipher train maps and various charges. SUICA cards can also be used to purchase items from the ubiquitous vending machines.
3.) Ride the elevators to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building (TMGO). Free and open to the public, on clear days there's supposed to be a great view of Mt. Fuji. Admittedly, when I went it was overcast. Even with that, I appreciated the volunteer tour guides who pointed out different sites dotting Tokyo's skyline and recommended places to see. There's also a small gift shop and a post office so souvenirs and post cards can be sent right away. Don't mind the old, worn carpet and benches. I'm OK with that if the entry fee stays at free!
4.) Stroll around the Meiji Shrine, its small garden, and Harajuku District. I visited the Meiji Shrine on a misty, gloomy day. The towering Shinto gates immediately lifted my spirits, as did the prayers written on wooden blocks. Anyone doubting that people from different cultures want different things in life only have to read those visual and spiritual pieces of art. Health, happiness, and success for our loved ones. That's all people want. Harajuku District is at the same train stop as the Meiji Shrine, if interested.
5.) Meditate at Sensoji Shrine early in the morning. Another temple on the other side of town, I visited Sensoji so early in the morning the shops weren't even open. There were a few runners, a lone security guard, and plenty of peace. Tucked in a small area within a bustling city, Sensoji shrine is humble, glorious beauty.
6.) Visit Kinokuniya Bookstore’s flagship shop. The book lover in me was amazed at this 5+ story building. English language books are on an upper floor. Plus, it's in walking distance from Shinjuku Crossing.
7.) Brave the Scramble Intersection, also known as Shinjuku Crossing. It's an organized ballet of pedestrians and cars, never mind the tourists darting out to take pictures in the chaos before running across to beat the light. I enjoyed watching it all unfold from a L'Occitane store while others perched at a Starbucks (*sigh, you can't ignore globalization).
8.) Eat tempura! I know Japan is famous for its ramen (with noodles so buttery and a broth so rich I no longer can say I don't like soup dishes) and sushi, but tempura is the only kind of fried food in a class of its own. That's saying something that would make my Southern grandma yell in outrage, but it's the truth. The tempura I had was delicate, never greasy, fried in front of me, and flavorful. I sat in that little smoky restaurant at the top of what I think is Shinjuku's Takashima Times Square (I get lost as often as Usain Bolt gets gold medals) and ate with no guilt. The chefs would ask me questions in Japanese, I would smile and remain mute, and a little old Japanese woman patted my shoulder, hugged me, and said something before she headed out the door. I loved every minute of it...and every bite. I ate everything they placed in front of me whether I recognized the critter or not.
9.) Embrace getting lost. I can get lost on a one way street with a dead end. I don't know why or how, but it's just a way of life for me. In Tokyo, I didn't mind wandering trying to find a restaurant (and never finding it) because I felt safe, the sidewalks are wide, and the fashion is inspiring (the only one walking around wrinkled in Tokyo was me). It was perfect.
10.) Channel the inner silence in you because the Japanese can be...silent. Though I was essentially a mute while traveling in Japan because I didn't speak the language (and illiterate whenever the signage was not in English), I felt completely comfortable using public transportation. It's efficient, clean, and quiet. Like old school library quiet. Like I felt loud when I snickered on the train while exchanging WhatsApp messages with friends back in the States. Like people flow silently around you when you can't manage the turnstile properly without huffing, puffing, or uttering a peep. Like...how can a city be this big and not be aggressive, loud, and in your face? Granted, I failed to experience Harajuku district in all its glory. But, still! It was a STARK contrast to the NYC subway experience. I felt like I could put my guard down even without speaking the language and without a map.
11.) If flying out of Narita Airport, kill some time by visiting the Origami Museum. It’s a small shop with intricate, beautiful origami displays. It lifted my spirits before having to lift off for the final leg of my long haul journey.
I've already decided that I will return to Japan on an extended break to explore the country more. I never understood people's fascination with Japan, but now I'm all about it.
Have you been to Japan or hope to travel to the country one day? What are your thoughts, opinions, and/or suggestions? Let us know below!