Known for: Neon lights Anime + Arcades Shinjuku / Harajuku American fashion + tech Shibuya crossing Old + new culture living harmoniously together
Tokyo. A city that never really sleeps. The place where it’s totally acceptable to eat ramen at 3am, sing karaoke for 24 hours or get lost in the fantasy world of an anime store. The only time it is okay to fall asleep, is on the train home, then you know you’ve done a good day’s work.
When I heard this analogy about Japanese culture and working life, I was shocked. In New Zealand we work an 8 to 10 hour day and think we’ve had a long week. Japanese people work until they physically can’t work anymore and it’s visually obvious by the sheer number of subway catnappers.
The city runs at a competitive, fast pace, and has a population of 13.6 million in Tokyo alone (the most densely populated city in the world). To put this into perspective, the entire population of New Zealand (including a few sheep) cross the Shibuya crossing each day.
It’s like organised chaos.
WHAT TO DO
1. You’ve got to see Shibuya crossing. While Shibuya is most likely too touristy to hang out for a long period of time, it’s incredible to watch and join the masses who pass through the crossing on a daily basis.
2. Kitazawa was one of my favourite places for sight seeing and thrift shopping. I got a pair of Docs for $50NZD and we bought some rad Japanese patches for our tramping packs.
3. Enjoy a tea ceremony at Keio Plaza Hotel. A tea ceremony is a tradition which has been passed down through generations, taught and trained by mothers and grandmothers. The process follows very simple steps, but can be a tad convoluted for Westerners, that is why it was wonderful to be walked through a lesson from our lovely teacher (pictured).
🇯🇵 David and I were invited to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at the Keio Plaza. The beautiful Michiko-san (pictured) guided us through the process, blending a lovely brew of Matcha tea and teaching us how to drink from handmade teacups. Every movement she made was with elegance and quiet poise and she provided a witty commentary too 😊 It was such a different cultural experience I'll always remember. Special thank you to @sunaho.nakatani for organising it for us 🍵💝 #OliviaRoundTokyo
The ceremony begins with a sweet treat made of bean paste and coloured a bright pink and yellow. This is to sweeten the palate before consuming the matcha tea. All attendees of the ceremony wish one another blessings, take a sip (after turning the cup a special way) and finish with an appreciative “ahh” noise.
If you’re going to tick off any “guide book activities” while in Japan, I would 100% pick a tea ceremony over a robot restaurant any day as you get to experience the unique and fascinating element of Japanese culture, and it is something I will always remember.
4. Wander through the back streets during the day. We spotted a gaggle of cute kids off to celebrate a school festival, so naturally I stopped to chat to them and tell them they were “so kawaii!” *cute.
5. Explore the city by bicycle. If you catch a subway everywhere, the cost racks up and you miss things. Walking is great, but sometimes you just want to get to your destination. Through biking, we’ve spontaneously changed our daily itineraries, met interesting people, found cool shops and food haunts and explored areas we wouldn’t normally think of going to.
6. Visit Memory Lane. A traditional area of alleyways lined with warmly lit lanterns, a low rumble of after work chatter over sake, and steaming kitchens cooking up a feast.
Travel tip: Don’t bother visiting Ahikabara for electronics, go for the cultural experience.
7. Seek out the buskers. Some of the musical talent in Japan is out of this world – however above ground (as in not in the expensive, underground music dens) you’ll hear a lot of dinky nursery rhyme tunes playing and feel disheartened as to where the real music is. Right next to Harajuku we found this guy playing bass with his friend on drums. They were insane!
8. Hang out in Harajuku – I think I love Harajuku just as much as Gwen Stefani does.
9. Visit “Kitchen Town” in Taito. Anything you want for your restaurant, they have it! Plastic food, coffee machines, chopsticks, uniforms…
10. Take a Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka. It’s so fast and you can see Mount Fuji (just don’t fall asleep on the train or you’ll miss it)
WHERE TO STAY
The Gate Hotel Kaminarimon
The Gate Hotel is located in the central district of Asakusa, just across the road from the Asakusa shrine and walking distance to the Sky Tree.
What sets the hotel apart from others in the area is the incredible views spanning 180 degrees of the city. The lobby is located on the top floor so the first experience guests see is the aesthetically pleasing skyline view of twinkling lights in the evening or the juxtaposition of modern high-rises and traditional architecture during daylight.
Beds are comfortable, rooms are warm and very earthquake safe! We experienced one while we were there and the building swayed rather than shaked. Very impressed!
They also serve a buffet breakfast where you can select a hot cooked meal as well as your standard continental.
The staff will kindly point you in the right direction to a cheap and reliable bike rental too!
Travel tip: For best views, head to the top of a high-rise or hotel and you’ll get to see breathtaking panoramic views without a pricey admission fee.
WHERE TO EAT
I’ll let you in on a little secret… We found these ice creams on day one and have been trying to figure out how to import them to NZ ever since. Think of an eskimo pie wrapped in a wafer shell… oiishi! Best part? They’ll only set you back $1NZD. Pair it with an iced coffee from any 7 Eleven and you’re good to go.
Buffet dinner at Keio Plaza: Fresh sushi, sashimi, katstu curry, miso, soba, salad – oh and not to mention dessert for days! For an all-you-can eat Japanese/Western fusion cuisine, check out Keio Plaza’s delicious buffet. Don’t leave with out a taste of their specialty sake and a pumpkin karaage ball!
While you’re there, check out the executive lounge on the rooftop. They serve light refreshments to enjoy overlooking the stunning city.
Sakata Shinjuku: While being vegetarian in Japan means omitting almost all ramen and soba soups, we found a vending machine restaurant which does a wicked vegetable tempura soba noodle dish, which we ordered with a side of the best tempura I’ve ever tasted. Highly recommend.
Chabuzen: Run by a lovely older man in Kitazawa, everything is vegan and cruelty free. I had to ask many times as a lot of the pictures looked like chicken, but he assured me in broken english that they were soy meat. We enjoyed a lovely bowl of vegan-ramen and Japanese vegetable curry. Each dish came with a petit entree snack and dessert.
WHAT TO WEAR
Don’t feel the pressure to dress up. People in Tokyo look so incredibly swish 24/7, but remind yourself you are a traveller and supposed to look a little disheveled and windswept.
So I’ll leave you with those handy tips for now, but if you have any questions just flick me a message in the comments below and I would be happy to help. Up next is… Osaka!