I visited Japan back in 1999, eek! I had just graduated from University and had a friend who had moved out to Tokyo to teach English. Prior to going to University I was a temp, so I got a summer job doing admin work to save up (my parents graduation present to me was the flight!) and then I took off for a month to the Land of the Rising Sun.
You still cannot fly direct to Tokyo from any UK airport other than London Heathrow, with Air Nippon, Japan Airlines and British Airways being the only airlines flying direct. If you plan to fly from any other UK airport and want a cheaper option too, then you’re best choosing a European or Middle Eastern airline and changing somewhere like Amsterdam or Abu Dhabi ( I once had a very nice breakfast in Abu Dhabi airport and its maybe the most modern futuristic airport I’ve ever been too).
The main airport is called Narita International and I remember feeling extremely jetlagged and pretty ovewhelmed immediately with the noise, the lights, the mad colours, the people and the language, it was my first time in Asia, and I was completely confused and spellbound all in one go. Luckily my friend had travelled in from the capital to meet me and was on hand to give me a crash course in Japan 101 before I was let loose on my own. As I am always travelling on a budget, I tend to use public transport to get myself to my accommodation, unless I am arriving somewhere late at night alone. When arriving in Narita Airport it is pretty easy to get yourself into Tokyo and onto other surrounding regions by public transport. There is the electric railway or Skyliner which takes about an hour with one change, the high speed Narita Express which goes direct to the city centre or you can take the cheapest option, the Bus which takes about an hour and drops you off at Tokyo Station. What I will say is, figure out where you are going and have detailed instructions about how to get to your hotel/hostel/house before you arrive at any of the main train stations in Tokyo. They are big and busy with multiple exits and just navigating yourself out of some of the stations through the correct exit is a feat in itself, never mind if you have just stepped off a long flight and dont speak any Japanese.
As it was so long ago when I was in Japan, there is no point writing this post up as a factual day by day account of everywhere I visited, ate and drank, but I do remember the main sites I explored, I kept a travel diary and I have photos to help me recollect, the main historic sights are still there to this day though of course, so hopefully that may be of some use to someone.
What I do remember though was being rudely awoken on my first morning by an minor earthquake, it’s was about 4am, and I couldn’t get back to sleep, probably because my bodyclock was still back in the UK. So at about 5am, I grabbed my friends spare key, left her a note (she was working that day anyway) and headed with my guidebook and detailed metro instructions to get to Tsukiji Fish Market. Back then anyone could turn up as soon as the doors opened, not just the fishermen and wholesalers, but the general public too and we were allowed to walk all around the smelly and sometimes still alive stalls of fish, at what is said to be one of the largest fish markets in the world. In fact my Rough Guide to Japan that I still own suggests getting there just after 5am to see the best of the actions and the auctions. But it seems this central wholesale market was never built to become the huge tourist attraction that it is now, and as a result gets so busy, that it seems tourists are no longer allowed into the market until 10am, leaving the professionals a few hours to do business before the public descend. There are also lots of places to eat around the market, food stalls as well as restaurants, but I was still tired & limited in my language skills, feeling slightly nervous of ordering something unknown, so after being totally flummoxed at the menus, I gave it a miss.
Not surprisingly, the fish market is located close to the shoreline, so in order to explore some other main Tokyo Districts and tourist spots, you need to get back on the metro. There are tonnes of cool areas to explore in Tokyo, I would pick maybe 2 wards (as they are known) a day to explore, as they all have their own history, style and atmosphere. I do have lots of pictures from Japan but they are all locked away on a hard drive I currently cant access, so hopefully I can add them at a later date.
Shibuya – this ward is truely an unmissable area in Tokyo to explore, you have probably seen so many photos of it maybe without realising, as it features the iconic Shibuya Crossing, possibly the busiest intersection in the world and it is right outside Shibuya Metro Station. I crossed it maybe 2 or 3 times, but remember another time when I arrived during peak commute hours, it was so busy and overwhelming, it took me a couple of goes to pluck up the courage to cross. They say there may be up to 1000 people crossing at once during peak hours, along with the noise, the people and the vast neon electric billboards towering up above, it is most definately an unforgettable and unique Tokyo experience, a must see!
Close by and in the Shibuya region is the Meiji Shrine a stunning complex of shrine buildings that must also be on your list. A short walk from Harajuku station you know you will have arrived when you see the Torii Gate. There is lots to do here, visit the museum, witness a wedding maybe, make an offering, buy a good luck charm or write your wish on an Ema, which is what I did.
Other things I remember doing in the Shibuya region whilst I was there, included the Yoyogi Park (opposite Meiji Shrine). If you go on a Sunday through the East entrance, you will see many of the young locals dressed up in Punk, Rockabilly and Manga costumes, an absolute must see. The park is one of the largest in Tokyo and you can rent bikes and grab some food here too, its a nice retreat from the busy city centre. The Yebusi Beer Museum is also in this area, which I remember visiting as well as so many truely unique Japanese shops, not surprisingly there is a huge Hello Kitty store here.
Another area I spent a lot of time in was Asakusa. Here you can visit Senso-Ji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest and one of its most important Buddhist Temples. Again, its easy to find the entrance of any temple in Tokyo by the large gates, in this case look out for Kaminariman or Thunder Gate to welcome you inside. Once through the gate is Nakamise -Dori Street, which is full of stalls selling food, clogs, traditional gifts and so much more, so plan enough time for a good wander.
Asakusa is also the oldest Geisha district, so keep a look out for the immaculately dressed women carefully walking the streets in their wooden sandals (Geta), ornate wigs and beautiful Kimono’s. Also look out for the Golden Turd, it is close to Asakusa station and is home to the Asahi Beer Hall, no more description needed!
The final area I will recommend is Chiyoda where you can find the Imperial Palace and impressive Palace gardens. Although you cannot freely walk around the palace grounds, you can apply online or at an information office on site to book a free guided tour, the tour is in Japanese but foreign audio guides are available. You can however visit the palace gardens of which there are multiple entrances, the easiest one being by Otemachi Station. In the immediate area there are many other shrines and a cathedral, and the area is said to be heavy with Cherry Blossoms too come the spring. If you still haven’t shopped till you dropped already, then Akihabara known as Electric City, is where you can geek out over the latest tech gadgets and even if you aren’t in the market for a new camera or phone, still head over for amazing people watching and window shopping.
Still got time, then visit Ueno Park and the National Museum, Ginza for more shopping, see some Kabuki at a theatre and if you have a head for heights see the amazing city views atop the Skytree.
Some handy helpful Japanese phrases –
Hello – Kon’nichiwa
Thank You – Arigato (gozaimasu -add to make it polite)
Ano – Excuse Me (casual)
Goodbye – Sayonara
I’ll write up my other Japanese adventure at a later date, think this post is long enough!