So this is the first post I am doing in a series on traveling, living, eating, and vibing in Japan. I only decided to do a post on this topic because I have literally had three sets of different friends ask me what they should do in Japan. So I thought instead of copying and pasting my stream of consciousness excited ramblings on things to do from Tokyo to Kyushu I was like let me take a breath, brew a cup of tea, and take a trip down memory lane in order to put together a coherent list of things to do in Japan - starting with Tokyo. Just some background, to see if this list of things to do is for you: I am a very overly energetic, see everything, eat everything, shop everything kind of gal, but I do all of this on a budget. So you won't find on this list, go see and take the elevator up Tokyo Tower for $30! I lived there 2 years, I go back and visit almost every year, and I still haven't done it. The following list of places I would take my weekender, stop-over friends to see and do while they were there to have an optimized Tokyo experience.
This seems like the second most touristy thing to do in Tokyo. Yea it is but I am not even recommending it for the Gwen Stefani Harajuku girl appeal of it (you see those types, cosplayers and whatnot, but that is not the reason I would re-visit time and time again). Harajuku has great, GREAT, shopping for that traveler on a budget who wants to pick up knick-knacks without eating onigiri (rice balls) for the rest of their trip. There is a store called Thank You Mart where everything inside is $4 - so you can find most things in better quality than the 99 cent stores i.e. my winter collection of scarves was from here. There is also a Daiso store which has a lot of inexpensive everyday stuff i.e. I bought all my dishes and cooking utensils for like $9 there (that included like glass plate ware and cups, pans, and cooking tools).
Other stores include these urban apparel stores, so if you happen to be rolling with your 2-chainz boyfriend or you are that boyfriend, pick up some great deals on fitted caps and the latest and rarest Nike kicks air force 3000 - I only know this because my rapper cousin visited and was able to scrape up some nice merch. Where do you find these stores? Just ask the African people standing around (literally) - that is their niche market and they are very nice!
With all that shopping you will get hungry and don't worry there is something that will just hit the spot. Crepes. At almost every corner. This is not your nutella and powdered sugar type crepes. I am talking like slice of cheesecake with caramel sauce drizzle wrapped in dough-type crepe. No Japanese necessary, just look at the beautiful recreations (plastic food samples) of what you want to devour and go for it.
2. Meiji Jingu Shrine
Nearby is one of the entrances to see Meiji Jingu Shrine. You will notice this 10 acre patch of lush land, oddly out of place between Harajuku and the rest of Tokyo, just enter it and take a breather. After a nice 10 minute walk through huge toriis and even huger trees standing around, you will see one of the prettiest shrines Tokyo has to offer. You would never think that it is enveloped by city all around it.
I prefer Shibuya over Shinjuku any day! So easy to navigate, little nook and cranny places to explore and visit! The main attraction here is definitely Hachiko Crosswalk - you know that overly crazy crosswalk that is featured in every movie as a setting-shot for Japan? This is the one. I didn't realize I was walking in it until I was across it one day and I was like omg!
Once you cross the square you can continue up the hill toward the 109 building- another great place for some inexpensive shopping, only if you are a size zero or negative 1. Because I am flat-chested (and proud) I could fit some tops they sold there but if you are curvy in the bottom parts, sizes are difficult to squeeze in. Take the escalator up all 10 floors and be greeted by the flurry of irashaimase from welcoming store employees.
4. Kabuki-cho (Shinjuku)
I don't have much to say about Kabuki-cho because I always left the place in a drunken-blur. Like if you want to feel over-excited, overwhelmed, sensory-overloaded - this is the place to go. There is just everything in Kabuki-cho. Most notably there are hundreds of izakayas and karaoke - but to be honest that is everywhere in Tokyo, this place is just turnt up to another level.
5. Roppongi and Roppongi Hills
Great architecture (Giant Spider) and a cool mall, Roppongi is not that bad despite being proclaimed the "foreigner" area of Tokyo. At night it becomes an expat haven, especially for foreigner men. Beautiful to see during the day, especially fun at night - great DJs, salsa - some clubs are open till 10am (I did that one time, never again).
6. Tsukiji Fish Market
Wanna see a half ton tuna auctioned off to some chef in Italy at 4am? I didn't and still haven't. Instead I often walked to Tsukiji after a night of clubbing and drinking to sober up and feed my post-drunken-stupor-craving for fresh raw fish and sushi! It doesn't get much better than that. Exit Shibuya/Roppongi bar/club/hole around 4/5am, attempt to walk in an orderly fashion to Tsukiji where you are greeted with such visual delights as a turtle's shell being ripped off its back and an eel being skinned alive (this is not for the faint of heart, vegetarian, or sober person). Pick any side street restaurant and grab a seat and wait for that morning's catch. I had a friend who was not a fan of sushi decimate octopus and sea urchin nigiri in a heartbeat, it's just that good.
7. Imperial Palace
This was my spot Sunday morning when I used to go run 5km around a centuries old palace (who gets to do that once a week?). Take in the scenery, beautiful moat, wonderful gardens, dodge the tourists who wander onto the running path and get lapped by people twice your age! It is also a wonderful place to spend an hour wandering around without breaking a sweat. I think they also offer tours but I thought taking my friends for a stroll was just enough for me and them.
8. Rikugien Garden
One of the many lovely, lovely gardens in Tokyo. From an urban landscape perspective, when I used to live and work in Tokyo it was so nice to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and wander into a lovely traditional Japanese garden - similar to the concept of Central Park in Manhattan but on a small scale and you will find these places scattered all throughout Tokyo. Rikugien happens to be my favorite and little off the beaten path - closest station is Komagome - and in the northern Tokyo metro area. If it is not too cold outside you can have tea by the lake (traditional matcha tea - the foamy delicious stuff prepared for you right before your eyes).
9. Asakusa Temple
This is like the golden goose for tourism in Tokyo. Asakusa area comes complete with convenient and affordable accommodations nearby, almost every restaurant has an English menu option and if you are into the kitschy, you can take a rikshaw ride by the men with beautiful tanned legs and calves. The best part about visiting the temple is not the crowds but walking along this long street toward the main part of the temple where you can try traditional Japanese sweets like yakidango and agemanju and anything that looks good and is on a stick - buy it for a dollar and eat it! Also a great place to buy some special a-typical Japanese souvenirs i.e. Samurai regalia and those green tea flavored kit-kats, yadayada. When you make it to the end of the walkway don't forget to put 100 yen in a donation box for a fortune (which thankfully comes translated in English) and if it is bad news you can tie it to the nearest wire post.
The best guides to have on hand that I still use whenever I go back to visit is a map of the Tokyo Metro and JR lines (found in English here) and if you have a wireless connection from any of the local cafes or your hostel you can chart your course for the day via the train system and find out times and fares through this handy website
More to come in this series: 3 days in Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara), Day trips from Tokyo and where to party it up! Stay tuned...