I lived in Hawaii for about 3.5 years in the early and mid-1990s. Japanese tourists flocked to Hawaii during this time, and I went to school with a number of Japanese students. I thought my Japanese friends had the best snacks: crushed, dry instant ramen with powdered soup poured on top was the coolest thing you could bring to school. (Trust me, this was heaven.) My Korean parents bought Pepero regularly, but I thought Japanese Pocky tasted so much better. I was also jealous of my Japanese friends’ Sanrio school supplies, which were decorated with Hello Kitty, Keroppi, and Pochacco.
Over the years, I religiously watched Pokemon episodes (the original 150 + Mew, duh) and abused/killed a couple of Tamagotchi. A highlight of sleepovers at my friends’ houses was playing Mario Kart (N64 version or nothing). As I grew older, I began to appreciate a wider range of Japanese cuisine and learned more about the country’s history. (As someone of Korean descent, going into Japanese history is…loaded.) Ramen remained a staple, as Totto and Ippudo were my regular haunts in New York.
It was a dream come true to finally visit Japan. When I first landed in Tokyo, I kept grinning dorkily and thinking, “I’m…in…Japan!” I’m warning you now: I’ll try to filter as much as possible for this blog, but my posts about Japan are still going to be annoyingly long. There’s just so much to say.
So, I’ll start with Tokyo, which was both my first and last stop in Japan. I’m going to devote this post to the sights, and another post will be dedicated to the food in Tokyo. (We haven’t even started talking about the convenience stores in Japan–that’s going to be yet another blog post.)
Tokyo is full of contradictions. The population is mind-boggling at 13 million people, but order still reigns. Even during rush hour and meal times, people patiently line up for subways and restaurants. Men and women are impeccably dressed during the daytime, but everything goes out the window during nights in Shinjuku, where salarymen pass out on sidewalks.
One of the first things I noticed in Tokyo was how impossibly chic the women were. Blouses, skirts, and wide-legged pants were de rigueur, and everyone had flawless skin and hair. I felt so sloppy in dry-fit tshirts, skinny jeans, leggings, and a ponytail. I was especially envious of the women who effortlessly paired casual tshirts with knee-length skirts. I was sorely tempted to duck into a Uniqlo to try to imitate Tokyo locals, but I wouldn’t have been able to fit any new clothes into my backpack. I consoled myself with the fact that backpackers aren’t exactly known for their fashion sense, anyway.
Senso-ji Shrine in the Asakusa neighborhood was the first sight I visited in Tokyo. It was insanely crowded, with tourists vying for the perfect selfie angle. Asakusa was an appropriate welcome: this was just a preview of the crowds I would later encounter in other parts of Japan.
I also visited the Meiji Shrine, which was considerably less crowded than Senso-ji. The temple was undergoing reconstruction, so I could only take a photo of the entrance.
Although it was slightly disappointing to see scaffolding rather than the actual temple, I loved reading the prayers that visitors wrote on wooden tablets. One in particular caught my eye.
One night, I visited Robot Restaurant in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red light district. I’ve done some touristy things on this trip, but Robot Restaurant takes the cake.
I have to give credit to whoever was responsible for creating Robot Restaurant. An enterprising man or woman must have thought, “Hey, let’s take foreigners’ wackiest fantasies of Tokyo, bring them to life in a show that will assault their senses, and profit handsomely.” As long as you don’t expect an authentic Japanese experience and don’t take yourself too seriously (come on, you’re at a robot show), you’re guaranteed to have a good time.
A couple of pro tips: don’t buy tickets directly from the restaurant. You can buy discounted tickets through a third-party vendor, which includes a free drink. While this establishment calls itself a “restaurant,” don’t buy any of the overpriced meals there. You can easily find better food at cheaper prices elsewhere.
Kabukicho is part of the Shinjuku neighborhood, which is packed with neon, restaurants, and bars. I got to shake hands with a couple of drunk salarymen, both of whom were clearly just getting started for the night.
Golden Gai is another section of Shinjuku with alleys of tiny bars seating no more than 10 guests. A few of these bars are for regulars only and are closed to foreigners. If you manage to find a foreigner-friendly bar, you’ll likely have to pay a cover charge. I was happy to just walk through the alleys and peek into the bars.
As for other touristy attractions, I had no shame in watching the Shibuya scramble. I start hyperventilating whenever I’m within a ten-block radius of Times Square, but I was endlessly entertained by the scramble. I loved watching travelers break out their selfie sticks to film themselves walking.
Akihabara is an electronics and manga district that contains many pachinko arcades and maid cafes. When walking through Akihabara, I wasn’t sure if some stores were meant to target an 18+ crowd, based on the characters emblazoned on the storefronts.
As a PG-rated activity, a group from my hostel went to Karaoke-Kan in Akihabara one night. Managing the controls was a herculean task at first since none of us knew Japanese. However, in a few minutes, we were wailing away to “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
A baseball game was high on my priority list for Japan. I decided to go to a Yakult Swallows game since they were one of the few baseball teams that sold tickets online on an English website. You can also buy tickets at the stadium or at convenience stores like 7-Eleven or FamilyMart; however, it’s more difficult to buy tickets through these methods if you don’t know Japanese.
Japanese baseball games are awesome because: (1) you can BYO food and drinks (but concession stands are available if you don’t want to bring your own stuff); (2) the fans for both the home and away teams chant and sing throughout the whole game; and (3) although they fervently support their teams, fans never heckle or boo the opposing team or the umps.
At the game I attended, the Swallows played against the Hanshin Tigers. The fans were more entertaining than the game itself, which was a blowout–the Tigers won 8 to 1. The crowd was split pretty evenly between the teams, and each fan base had its own band, which led the chanting and singing. I have no idea how the fans remembered all the songs for each player, but I clapped along.
For the sole Swallows home run, the fans whipped out mini umbrellas, which they waved as they sang the Swallows fight song.
I only know the basic rules of American baseball, but the rules for the Japanese version were similar, as far as I could tell. If you’re interested in attending a baseball game, I recommend sitting in the outfield. You may not get the best view of the game, but you’ll be in the center of the fan action. This is where the bands are, and the fans in the outfield start all the songs and chants.
As a break from the never-ending bustle in Tokyo, I visited Shinjuku Gyoen, a garden in the city center. The grounds were perfectly manicured, and I spent some time by a couple of ponds.
I like looking at clouds, and they were striking on the day I visited Shinjuku Gyoen.
I stayed until the garden closed at 5 PM and got to enjoy a peaceful view of trees and part of the city skyline.
I loved Hostel Bedgasm, the first hostel I stayed at in Tokyo. While the name made me wince, everything else was stellar. Bedgasm was my introduction to the Japanese standard of cleanliness, which was immaculate. Tam, Jong, and Tomo went above and beyond by welcoming guests, cleaning, and bartending. They provided many great recommendations for restaurants and sights.
Bedgasm was in a residential area, which meant that nearby nightlife options were nonexistent. However, guests got a free drink at the hostel bar at 7 PM, which was an easy way to meet other travelers. Three Germans, a Swiss guy, and I played a lotto game where we drew numbers ranging from one to four. One was the best prize, as the winner got a drink with any liquor of their choice and a food item. Four was the “worst” prize, with a choice of a Fireball, tequila, or Jaeger shot. The Swiss traveler drew a one and chose a top-shelf Japanese whiskey. One of the German travelers and I drew fours, but I wasn’t complaining; I considered a Fireball shot a win. As an added bonus, it was the German’s first time trying Fireball. (“Sweet” was the verdict.)
The staff then entertained us with homemade bottles of killer bee sake and snake whiskey. Another one of the Germans was brave enough to redeem a glass of killer bee sake as his lotto prize. The sake was served with a dead bee as a garnish.
I took a sip of the sake and freaked out when the bee touched my lips. We tried the snake whiskey as well, and everyone agreed that the whiskey tasted better than the sake.
As much as I loved Bedgasm, I stayed at a couple of other places to be closer to the more active areas of Tokyo. I wanted to experience a pod hotel, so I spent one night at First Cabin Akasaka. I liked the size of my pod, which was tall enough to stand in. The pod contained a TV and enough shelving for my valuables. Pajamas and slippers were provided. I could close my pod with a divider that ended a few inches from the floor. It didn’t provide total privacy, but it was still cozy.
It’s impossible to capture all the things that make Tokyo such a special place. Even if I decided to live there for the rest of my life, I would barely scratch the surface of Tokyo’s offerings. Nonetheless, I had a blast exploring Tokyo and hope I’m lucky enough to return some day.
Next up: food!