I’m not sure how it happened, but I managed to visit almost a hundred other countries before I decided to treat myself to Japan. Last May, I went for two weeks, traveling with my wife. My expectations were few, but people told me it would be weird and fascinating. They were spot on.
This post will only be about Tokyo. We stayed in Tokyo for almost a week, split between a few days at the start and at the end of the visit to Japan. Getting to know this enormous city would require much more time, but as you will see, a week is enough to approach the city from a few different angles.
The twelve hour flight from Norway, mainly above Siberian Russia, is a good transition. Looking down at the still wintery tundra, I throw away all my thoughts about work and life at home. As usual upon entering unfamiliar land, I read about country’s recent history, and I memorize how to count to a hundred. It’s a bare minimum of preparations, which still is vastly better than no preparations at all.
Arriving in Tokyo on a Sunday during Golden Week, the city is surprisingly quiet. The Golden Week is a series of Japanese holidays that allows a majority of the Japanese to on vacation for a full week. Train and plane tickets may be hard to come by during this time, but walking around Tokyo can be less stressful than at other times. We stay in the Nihonbashi district, fairly close to the ultra-busy Tokyo Station, yet we barely see other people around.
The silence stretches into the evening. Exploring the city, I’m pleasantly surprised by the many water canals and rivers that split Tokyo into many distinct neighbourhoods. The number of pipelines, highways and bridges built to conquer these water valleys is stunning.
I see few other pedestrians, and there’s not much motorized traffic. I’m beginning to think that there’s a curfew in place or something. Is Godzilla on his way? Or maybe I have just chosen the “wrong” parts of Tokyo to explore. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy about the city staying so quiet for me. I had expected city noise and crowds of the kind that usually makes me want to go home.
Instead of the well-groomed and futuristic city I imagined, I find many places where I feel as if I’m back in the 1980s. The front of this gaming centre is much less impressive than the decibels of noise coming out of it. Inside, people sit around, playing old games in what appears to be a weird mix of apathy and excitement. But everything is perfectly clean, so my expectations got that part right, at least.
I head underground, to see if maybe that’s where everyone is hiding. They’re not. I’ve seen videos of people in Tokyo being stuffed into the subway trains by employees whose only job is to do just that. Fake news?
At last I find people. It’s cozy here, in a distinctly urban way. Karaoke places, bars and restaurants urge people to leave the street and come inside. I think I’m about to find the real Tokyo. Or one of the many real Tokyos, at least.
As if a flood gate has opened, suddenly this street outside the Tokyo Dome fills up with happy people leaving some event that just finished there. Smiling people effortlessly stream across the road and quickly disappear down a subway entrance.
I just do my best to stay out of their way.
Walking almost straight east for half an hour, I arrive in Akihabara. It’s also quite busy, an hour before the shops close. This is nerd heaven, with all kinds of weird/retro/fun/flashy things being sold.
I’m not the only tourist walking around with open mouth and lifted camera. Because of Golden Week, most of the other tourists are Japanese. It seems that they are just as astounded by the wonders of Tokyo as I am. That’s good to know. It means that if I need a change of habitat, I probably won’t have to travel far.
Shopping for strange items can continue even after the shops close. Akihabara is home to many vending machines with unusual offerings. Snails, party ballons, muffins and earthquake detectors are all available in this one machine alone. No one can say that Japan lacks diversity.
The next morning we go to Harajuku. It’s the epicentre of Japanese youth culture and fashion, as evidenced by the many storefronts that look much like giant toys. The English language used on signs and clothes is often less than innocent, though. I’m not sure if that’s intentional, or just Google Translate at work.
Wherever we go in Harajuku, we see long, orderly queues full of young girls and, curiously, quite a few middle-aged men. They’re all victims of fashion, of course, but apart from that they look like they have little in common. And I have no idea what they’re lining up for. The line often starts on a seemingly random spot, and every now and then someone comes to get the next ten people in line, and off they go. To somewhere, for some reason.
I follow one of the lines, and it leads to a place where you can buy ice-cream with cute ears. The girls squeal with joy and take a few photos of the ice-cream and themselves, rapidly flinging the resulting pixels towards social media. Then they eat their ice-cream and walk off to stand in some other long line. Japanese don’t seem to mind queues at all.
As if there aren’t enough people around already, the architect at Tokyu Plaza in Harajuku decided to add mirrors to everything at the entrance to the shopping centre. It makes for a cool effect, but it doesn’t lower my stress level at all.
To calm down a bit, we walk up from Harajuku and enter Yoyogi Park. You can go there (do it!) to look at Japanese Elvis copies, jugglers, cosplayers, martial art groups, and other show-offs, but we walk the other way in search of some peace, towards the Meiji shrine grounds. Giant toriis mark the entrance.
It’s quite busy around the Meiji shrine as well, but it’s still pretty, so that’s okay. Religion and gardening are close companions in this country.
We want to see Tokyo from above, but we’re too cheap to pay for entrance to the Skytree or Tokyo Tower. Fortunately, there’s this option; Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Floor 45 here is open to the public, free of charge. It does cost us 30 minutes of waiting time for the elevator, though.
From the top of the skyscraper we see a landscape full of buildings stretching towards the horizon in every direction. Given the extremely high cost of land here, it would have made sense to build taller buildings instead of having the city spread out so much. But earthquakes and Godzilla says otherwise. So this is what we see.
For a few minutes after the sunset, Tokyo turns a wonderful shade of blue. I’ve never seen anything like it in a city.
And as the sky turns dark, Tokyo becomes an absolutely overwhelming ocean of light.
From up here it’s all quiet, too, so I have no problem appreciating the beauty in front of me.
A friend tells us about an extreme Japan-style pet shop in Ebisu. For some reason it’s called Ebisu Zoo, and not EbiZoo. It is a really, really strange place. Navigating the narrow aisles inside this store, you encounter a surprisingly high number of different species. Some have just been brought here to be groomed, while others are for sale. Get your owl, meerkat, desert fox, or whatever, here.
I’m not that into samurai movies, but the one on that poster I’d love to see. I suspect that it’s nowhere near as good as the poster, though.
From Ebisu we walk through several cozy neighbourhoods to go north to Shibuya. People have tiny, but incredibly nice and green gardens, and there are children playing in the narrow streets. I’m a bit surprised to see several clearly Muslim locals. Maybe the nice area attracts embassies.
We make it to Shibuya, and as expected, it’s the busiest place we have been to in Japan so far. It gets particularly crowded in front of the Hachikō statue, a memorial to a dog that sat outside this station for 9 years, waiting for his deceased owner. It’s a touching story, and someone has put two kittens between Hachikō’s front legs to make the place more “kawaii”, Japanese for cute/adorable.
Something must have gone wrong in Tokyo’s city planning office, and the result is the Shibuya Crossing. Several main roads meet up here, exactly at the centre of one of the most popular shopping areas in Tokyo. Pedestrians and cars take turns using the road, and it’s a spectacular view when up to 2,500 people rapidly make their way across here every time the light changes.
A great place to watch the show from is a Starbucks, located right above the letters “TSUTAYA” in this photo. You don’t have to stand in the long line at ground floor, you can access the upstairs through the shops behind it.
Here’s a quick timelapse I made from up there:
And here’s a still shot of the moment just before people start crossing, as seen from Starbucks.
Ten seconds later, people are rushing across. Many are tourists, filming their voyage, and there are all kinds of quick photo-shoots going on in the middle of the road during the short time it is possible.
Returning to street level, we see this. They encourage people to use the stairs by prominently displaying how stairs can help you lose weight. It seems to work, because the number of obese Japanese is still low. Stairs like this is not the only explanation for that. If you exceed a state-mandated waistline limit, you must attend counseling and support sessions.
Another way to experience the Shibuya Crossing is to join a MariCar tour, and drive through it in a group where you’re all dressed up like real-life Mario Kart players. It is absolutely not approved by Nintendo, who has nothing to do with this, but it looks like great fun anyway. Just be careful, ok?
What looks a lot less fun is this, which apparently is a very popular pastime for the Japanese. It’s a pachinko parlor, where people waste fortunes on this peculiar mix of pinball and slot machines. The level of noise alone is enough reason to stay away. Gambling is illegal in Japan, but for historical reasons, pachinko is exempt from that ban. Also, smoking is allowed inside. I recommend avoiding them, but going inside once and seeing the silliness with your own eyes is an experience.
Wherever we go, our eyes are tempted by delicious displays of food. It’s plastic, but unlike in the rest of the world, what you are served if you order any of this will actually look exactly like promised! The taste may in some cases surprise you, but generally they do sweets very well.
The Shibuya Crossing stays busy until late at night, thanks to the many shops in the area. We sit here and just watch the people for a long time. There’s a great variety of amusing styles to behold.
If you have ever seen a Japanese Web site, you must have noticed how incredibly untidy and chaotic the design is. We now discover that their web pages suck because they accurately reflect what Japanese shops look like. There’s writing everywhere, and everything has been given a colour that makes it stand out. Which means that nothing stands out, obviously. Hm.
What surprises me the most about Tokyo, is that as soon as the shops close, it transforms all the way from busy metropolis to quiet village. A nocturnal stroll around the natural pond of Shinobazunoike in the Ueno district feels much like a wilderness walk.
Every now and then you see a large group of people standing around, looking at their phones and nothing else, being together in ignoring each other’s presence completely. They are hunters, and their prey is Pokémon. These pocket monsters are extremely popular in Japan, and Tokyo is full of huge battles where invisible virtual beasts are slayed by actual nerds.
We head inside Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science, and it’s a really good one. Stuffed animals from all over the world are magnificently displayed, and in a country like Japan, there’s of course also plenty of technological wonders to admire. It’s easy to spend a rainy day in here, and if you finish it, several other good museums are nearby.
While jaguars, pandas and polar bears rarely meet, I like to see them presented next to each other. It’s easy to start speculating about who would win in a fight to the death.
Once again, we meet with Hachikō! This time it’s the taxidermy version of him. There’s no doubt he is Japan’s favourite dog, being preserved for the public like this.
He is accompanied by Jirō, one of two Sakhalin huskies who were abandoned in Antarctica but still managed to survive a winter there on their own. They probably taught themselves to hunt penguins and seals, but we know little about what actually happened. The last dog is Kai Ken, who is of Japan’s purest breed, the Tiger Dog, “Tora Inu”.
Much of Japan is quite rainy, so the Japanese have perfected the art of the umbrella. As soon as a raindrop can be felt, you’ll suddenly see umbrellas magically appear in the hands of everyone around you. Shops have special umbrella lockers to let you safely leave your umbrella at the entrance, or they have a machine that wraps your umbrella in plastic, so that you can bring it inside. Some even have special umbrella drying machines.
Foggy evenings are the best for exploring Tokyo with a camera. There will be nearly no one else around, and all the lights are suitably reflected both in the air and on the wet ground.
This street in Ueno is one of many lined by various clubs where you can go and sing karaoke, be cuddled by maids, gamble, or just eat something particularly nice. They generally seem to have a guy standing outside to prevent stupid tourists from wandering in. It’s fun trying to guess what’s going on inside, based on the wacky signs outside.
You don’t have to walk far to find a convenience store that stays open throughout the night. There’s a 7-Eleven, a Lawson or a FamilyMart around the corner wherever you are. It’s more expensive than going to a grocery store, but it’s better than starving or thirsting. As a tourist you may also find them useful for buying tickets to various museums, theme parks and so on. There are vending machines for that inside, and yes, you can choose English language on them.
Around midnight I saw two women dragging a heavy suitcase and a bag up the street. When they passed this convenience store they decided to go in to buy something to eat. And they went. And they left their luggage standing out on the sidewalk, out of sight. I love that this is a natural thing for them to do. We don’t do that even in Oslo.
Another typical nocturnal scene from Japanese cities. No matter how late you work, or play, you will find a ramen restaurant where you can go and fill your stomach on cheap food when you need to.
The restaurants that stay open during the night stand out like literal beacons of light in otherwise dark streets, with all their wonderful decor, lanterns and plastic food models.
Sometime after sunset, dubious signs offering all kinds of intimate services suddenly appear on the sidewalks of Tokyo. I don’t know exactly what they offer, but it seems to involve women, underwear and hourly rates. I’m sure it’s legal, but it’s clearly only available outside daylight hours. Come morning, the signs will be gone again.
After spending the afternoon with a real geisha down in Omorikaigan, we head back to the city centre. We jump off the train when we see this nearby, Tokyo Tower. It’s a good place to see the sun go down from, but it’s also a great place to behold from a nearby park.
Tokyo Tower is like the love child of the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge. The Japanese are really good at taking things from the west and combining it to new and wonderful things. This is just one example of that.
The Japanese are not that great at combining English into sentences that make sense. But they do their cooking well, and then it doesn’t matter that your table is just a beer crate with a plate on top of it.
Shinbashi means “Old Bridge”, and Shinbashi district got its name from a bridge that was new in 1604. Both the bridge and the river has since disappeared, and there isn’t much in the way of tourist attractions here. Unless you like to just watch everyday Tokyo life go by. In that case, this area will do just fine.
Traveling through the train and metro hub of Tokyo Station gets easier with every attempt. It’s a labyrinth of exits and entrances, with cheap gourmet Japanese fast food places, all kinds of specialty and novelty shops, and around half a million people making their way through here every day.
The passengers on Tokyo’s subway will generally be found looking down at their phone, or they will be practicing the ancient art of sleeping while sitting, waking up at the exact moment the train pulls in at their station.
We surface in Asakusa, to have a look at the Sensō-ji temple. Just outside the temple grounds there are dozens and dozens of people lined up to offer various tourist-friendly attractions, like this girl who wants us to come and visit her owl-and-capybara cafe. We may have made a huge mistake.
Yep, Sensō-ji turns out to be the absolutely worst place we visit in all of Japan. It’s tourism hell, full of all the things you do not want when you travel.
Souvenir shops, bare-chested rickshaw pullers, people of every nation wearing silly sun hats, bad food at inflated prices, strangers coming up to you saying “Herro my fliend, where you flom?”, and all that shit. Avoid this place if you can. Unless you’re an obnoxious tourist. Then this is absolutely the place for you.
There are hundreds of geishas walking around Sensō-ji. Except there aren’t.
These are tourists that have spent the equivalent of 30-50 US dollars to be dressed up as a geisha, and then they walk around photographing themselves at picturesque sites in the Asakusa area. It’s a thing, not cultural appropriation.
The Japanese really like to build roofs, you often see multiple roofs on a single building. It may seem a tad impractical, but it looks impressive. The higher the pagoda, the more religiously significant it is.
We quickly escape from Sensō-ji and head across the Sumida river. There’s a lot of architecture going on here. The Skytree looms in the background, and closer to us you can see the Asahi Beer Hall, looking remotely like a glass of beer with foam on top. Sort of. And there’s the hard-to-ignore golden turd, of course. The architect claims it’s a flame, but we know better.
We end our time in Tokyo by going to a couple of escape rooms. It’s great fun, and after exploring Tokyo, we think we can figure out pretty much anything. I’ll leave it at that.
All in all we have a great week in Tokyo, and it is an excellent way to prepare for exploring other parts of Japan. This city is so enormous that you can easily spend all your time here, but personally I am more than ready to try something else after just three days in Tokyo.
We decide to head for Hokkaido Island, in the far north of Japan. But that’s another story.