Location: Tokyo, Japan
Let me just begin by saying: Japan is more than an interesting place. It is like nowhere else in the world, not exclusively because it was at the forefront of technological innovation for several years, but also because it is one of few places to become successful without embracing all of the tenants of Western culture. Japan is extremely insular. Even its largest city, Tokyo, after having been rebuilt after World War II, managed to retain some of these specifically Japanese elements.
Tokyo was our last stop before returning home to the States in August. It, more than any other place, made us feel bittersweet about leaving our travels behind and our home in Asia. It is a city so monstrously large (in population and area) with so many distinct nooks and crannies that it is nearly impossible to generalize about all of them succinctly enough to write a post. We were guests in the city for just under two weeks (not even enough time to make a dent), but were still able to formulate some opinions to share with you. Overall, we were amazed by Tokyo. The people were well educated in English, accommodating, and so polite that they would literally bow to us as we entered and exited establishments. If we needed directions, proprietors would take out maps and leave their shops to walk with us until we had found our way again. Everywhere was so clean (even major metropolitan areas like subway stations) that I wouldn’t have hesitated twice if someone asked me to sit on the ground. Public transportation was easy and affordable- opening the large city up immensely.
Just to give some background, Tokyo is often thought of as a city, but is really what is known as a “metropolitan prefecture”- something unique to Japan- with 23 “wards,” each governed as it’s own smaller city. Those “wards” are all home to famous districts, each known for the unique things offered. We stayed in Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s original districts. It is farther away from the new city, and plays home to several major Buddhist Temples and also traditional festivals throughout the year. We explored Asakusa thoroughly, but we were super interested in what makes Tokyo the modern epicenter of the world. Some other notable districts that we visited include: Akibahara (popular for electronics, anime culture and otaku goods); Harajuku (known internationally for its role in Japanese street fashion); Roppongi (home to Mori Tower and a huge nightclub scene for international tourists and expats); Shibuya (A long-time center of shopping, fashion, nightlife and youth culture- pretty much the “beating heart” of Tokyo); Shinjuku (the business center of Tokyo). We spent a few days in each district- seeing the highlights and trying to give credence the things that make each one great.
K and I spent a lot of our time going to museums. Sounds boring, I know, especially when you have a city with as many things to offer as Tokyo. BUT, museums in Japan are unlike anywhere else in the world. We got what is called a Grutto pass, which allows the holder to visit every museum in the city either for free or at a heavily discounted rate. The best thing about museums in Japan is that they are wide ranging. We found our way to a film museum, a textile museum that let you try on 100-year-old garments, a museum with an exhibit that allowed you to recreate the plastic food on display in restaurant windows, a Pokémon exhibit and a museum devoted to children. Most of them were interactive- all of them were unique.
The one thing I insisted that we do in Tokyo was visit a Cat Café. The first thing you must understand is that in Tokyo there are strict laws regarding pets. Very few people can own an animal if their apartment doesn’t meet a certain spacial requirement. For a city that is so crowded, most people fall short. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, a Cat Café is simply somewhere where you can go and have a coffee/pastry and be surrounded by dozens of cats. Basically, a dream for a crazy cat lady like myself. We went to the largest cafe in Tokyo- Calico Cat- right in the heart of the Shibuya nightlife. Two whole floors of cuddly creatures (they even have a book with all the cats’ names, histories, and fun facts about them). There’s a library and a bar with refreshments. You take off your shoes, put any dangerous items in a locker, wash your hands, and you can go inside. You pay depending on the length of your stay and number of refreshments purchased. You can also purchase little containers of tuna as treats to make the cats go haywire. Anyways, it was absolutely as interesting as I thought it would be. If you’re visiting Tokyo anytime soon, it’s my must see! If you’re allergic to cats, I hear they also have Bird Cafés, Rabbit Cafés, and Owl Cafés. Although, I think you have to wear protective gear.
However, the thing we did the most in the city is get lost. So many times. We got lost looking for restaurants that we had looked up on the Internet, not realizing that tenants in Japan shift so rapidly that any place you see on the internet might as well be a pop-up shop. We got lost because Japan has an idiosyncratic addressing system for buildings. We got lost because there’s a sea of people everywhere and it’s hard to work through the crowds. But the amazing thing is how helpful the denizens of the city are when you’re a confused foreigner. People actually left their places of work to help us find our way, walking several blocks down the street to make sure that we got where we were going. Sometimes what we found when we were lost was better than our original intention- a hole-in-the-wall conveyor belt sushi restaurant with matcha tea on tap and filled with locals, with food probably as delicious as the Internet’s proclaimed “best” sushi in Tokyo. And sometimes getting lost led to the most wonderful misadventures- a sunflower garden in the middle of a metropolis- for instance.
And what would a visit to Tokyo be without seeing Harajuku. We spent multiple days there. Between the fashion and the architecture, it truly was as distinctive as everyone said. The colors and the kawaii cuteness are inescapable. We ate crepes at Angel’s Hearts, I got everything I needed to dress as the perfect Lolita, and K and I both got to see an exclusive showing of a Steve McQueen short film. All the rumors were entirely accurate. The vintage stores were a treasure trove.
Tokyo is on the forefront of so many amazing things. The food was spectacular, and affordable. We both broke our vegetarianism for one night to try the freshest sushi of our lives. Honestly, for hearing how expensive the place is, I was pleasantly surprised that the dollar had purchasing parity there. It’s also—bar none—the greenest city we’ve ever visited. You walk down the street and you’re almost shocked by how many tiny pop-up parks there are in the city. Between the bikes, the trees, and the whiskey. We found nothing not to love about Tokyo.
Next time, more time out in Roppongi to experience the nightlife. First stop is the Robot Club.
Have you visited Tokyo? We would love to hear about the things you saw and did!
Hope everyone in America had a Thanksgiving week full of family, friends, and the perfect amount of pie.