Some cities make me feel at home immediately, as if I could move to them next year and be completely content. I felt that way the first time I visited New York many years ago, as well as when I visited Milan last summer. I felt that same way when Anthony and I arrived in Tokyo, the first stop on our honeymoon around Asia.
After landing at Narita, we exchanged our vouchers for 7-day Japan Rail passes, which are a must for anyone planning to visit multiple cities in Japan. The passes were created to boost tourism in the country, so only international tourists are allowed to buy these. In fact, when we visited some family friends in Tokyo, they excitedly asked to see what our JR passes looked like since they’ve never been able to purchase them. After receiving our passes, Anthony and I hopped onto the next Narita Express train (N’EX, for short) and enjoyed the comfortable one-hour ride into Tokyo.
We got off at Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest transportation hub, servicing 3.6 million commuters a day. The clean, spacious station has 36 platforms, elegant shops, and 12 different train lines. We tried not to compare it to New York’s drab Penn Station, with its fast-food chains and homeless people sleeping in every corner.
Our hotel, Shinjuku Granbell Hotel, was a leisurely walk from the station. My goal is to always find hotels that match whatever city I’m visiting, so this sleek boutique hotel, located in the heart of a vibrant neighborhood of neon lights, was perfect for Tokyo. Our room was small — as we expected (and even hoped for) — but was designed efficiently so that the size didn’t bother us.
One of my favorite things about our hotel was that the front desk provided an entire shelf of their personal neighborhood recommendations. Since ramen is a Tokyo specialty, we vowed to eat ramen every night we were there. For our first dinner, we walked a few blocks to Mensho Taketora Honten, a small ramen shop known for its tsukemen (dipping noodles). You know we’re New Yorkers because when we got there, the line outside didn’t phase us at all; in fact, if a restaurant has no wait at prime dinner time, it can’t be that good, right? So, we waited, and it turned out that the line moved quickly, and the restaurant handed out menus and took orders from waiting customers so that our meal would be ready just shortly after being seated. Japanese efficiency!
We were pleased when we were led to bar seats at a counter, where we could watch the ramen being made by hand. The proper way to eat ramen is to eat it as quickly as possible, since noodles only last for a few minutes after they’re added to the hot broth before becoming overcooked and mushy. If you’re a slow eater like me, the best thing you can do is order tsukemen so that the noodles are served separately from the soup. I ordered the ura tsukemen and dipped my fresh noodles into a bowl of thick, spicy broth with roast pork. Before our meal, we were given an oshibori (a hot, damp cloth towel used to wipe hands before and during the meal), which is customary in restaurants around Japan and China. The restaurant also served us complimentary deep-fried noodles before our ramen arrived. These were delicious!
The next morning was pleasant and cool, so we roamed around our neighborhood for breakfast and stumbled into Matsuya, a cheap Japanese chain established in the ’60s, with over 833 restaurants scattered throughout the country. Once you are familiar with Matsuya’s bright circle logo, you’ll notice Matsuyas everywhere. There’s no need to talk to a single person inside, as vending machines flank the entrances. Just choose the pictures of food you want and pay at the vending machine, then sit down at the counter and put your ticket order on the table. A few minutes later, your meal will be placed in front of you. This place is perfect for tourists who can’t speak Japanese! Compared to the grilled salmon, refreshing tofu, and pickled vegetables that Japanese workers can eat at Matsuya, the greasy breakfast foods that American workers gorge on before they rush off to work seem so pitiful.
We continued our walk to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. On the way, we noticed that almost all businessmen wear white shirts (reminiscent of Paris, where everyone wears only neutral colors — no bright colors allowed!), and there are designated smoking areas around Tokyo. These smoking areas are brilliant! New York needs these desperately, so all those smokers can huddle around and get lung cancer together without affecting my life. Meiji Jingu was first built in 1915 and is located in a 170-acre evergreen forest. The 120,000 trees were donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established.
We left the serene shrine for Shibuya Crossing, located in a popular shopping district. Shibuya Crossing is often compared to Times Square and is one of the most iconic spots in Tokyo. However, considering it’s “the most crowded intersection in the world,” it didn’t feel much worse than midtown Manhattan on a weekday. (Thanks, New York, for making the rest of world feel kind of underwhelming.) In fact, I’m certain that the only reason Shibuya Crossing is technically more crowded than New York’s intersections is because people in Tokyo don’t jaywalk. In such an efficient, fast-paced city full of pedestrians, it was surprising to us that they don’t jaywalk like New Yorkers (come on, Tokyo, you have my permission!). We went to the famous Starbucks right in the middle of the crossing for the best view. As someone who normally opposes Starbucks, I have to admit that in Japan and the Philippines, this sugary-drink corporation sure has a monopoly on good views.
Most of Shibuya was a bit too commercial for me, but soon we stumbled into Harajuku, still part of Shibuya but filled with smaller, more independent boutiques. Some streets were quaint, with surf shops and quirky cafes, while other streets were wide with designer stores and reminded me of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. Appropriately, we found an Island Vintage (my favorite coffee shop in Hawaii) and an Eggs ‘n Things (a breakfast eatery from Waikiki)! Throughout our time in Japan, we couldn’t help but notice how much Japan seriously loves Hawaii — specifically, Honolulu. Japanese tourists have always been a crucial part of my childhood, so it was fun to see their obsession with my city even in their own country.
On the way back to our hotel, we caught the subway for the first time, and that’s when I once again realized how utterly disappointing America is. Tokyo’s subways are spotless and so easy to use. Signs on the platform say what the previous and the next stations are. Each station is numbered, and so is each exit as you leave the station — this is very convenient for tourists who can’t read Japanese. There are lines painted in the stations, urging pedestrians to walk to their left, and more lines are painted on the platforms, urging commuters to stand in line to enter the train while leaving enough room for commuters exiting the train. On the train, multilingual electronic signs tell you what car you’re in. It must be so frustrating for Japanese tourists who are used to Tokyo’s subway system to come to the U.S. and have to deal with New York’s convoluted one.
We met my dad’s friend Takahiro and his young daughter Asuka at our hotel before going to his home in Nerima, just a 20-minute train ride from us. It was lovely to walk through his neighborhood, filled with quiet streets and groups of schoolchildren, wearing adorable uniforms that almost made me miss my 13 years of embarrassing Sailor Moon outfits. Takahiro’s wife Reiko welcomed us when we arrived at their house. I have so many memories of Takahiro and Reiko visiting my family in Hawaii throughout my life; it was really nice to see them in Japan for a change.
Reiko and Takahiro treated us to a feast for lunch. We started with a sausage plate, moved on to a sushi (we got to make so many hand rolls!), continued to some Osaka-style okonomiyaki, and concluded with chilled azuki jelly and green tea. That sushi bar was one of my favorite experiences in Tokyo. We’d place a large sheet of nori in our left palm, fill it with a small scoop of rice, place a slab of sashimi in top, and roll everything into a cone before dipping it into our wasabi-shoyu mixture. I got very good at putting in the right ratios and carefully rolling everything. I think my new goal in life should be to have monthly sushi parties with my friends.
Anthony’s favorite neighborhood was Asakusa, which started out as an entertainment district for rice traders with disposable income who could enjoy theaters and geisha houses. Asakusa really reminded me of Montmartre in Paris, not only because Asakusa’s geisha past is equivalent to Montmartre’s cabaret past, but because both neighborhoods are now extremely touristy due to their historic charm. We visited the architecturally- stunning Asakusa Tourism & Culture Center, an 8-story building designed to look like a stack of small houses with sloping roofs rising horizontally. The top floor has a small cafe and free observation deck, offering a panoramic view of the city. Then we went to Nakamise Dori, a long shopping street that leads to Sensoji Temple and contains tons of shops selling local snacks and souvenirs. Many of these shops have been run by the same family for generations.
We woke up early the next morning, but not early enough to watch the 5 am fish auction at Tsukiji Fish Market. Regardless, we got there before the huge crowds did and were able to leisurely wander around, trying not to eat everything in sight. Sushi for breakfast at Tsukiji is a must. There are a bunch of restaurant options, and any of them will have better sushi than anything you’ve had in the U.S. — even if you’ve grown up in Honolulu, and even if you’ve been to some of the fanciest sushi restaurants in New York.
Most Americans don’t eat sushi properly. Just like with ramen, the only place you should be eating sushi is at the sushi bar, right in front of the chef. The quality of the fish declines exponentially the longer it sits on your plate, so you want to minimize the amount of time between the sushi chef and your mouth. Use your hands to pick up your sushi, not chopsticks; chopsticks will ruin the perfect form of your sushi made by the chef. At the very best sushi restaurants, the chef will have already put whatever shoyu or wasabi is appropriate on each piece, so you shouldn’t be dipping anything yourself. However, at mid-range places, you might still have to add your own shoyu and wasabi; when this is the case, do not dip your sushi rice side-down because it will fall apart and leave bits of rice in your little sauce bowl. Tilt it, fish side-down, and dip only enough to put a hint of sauce on it. Place it fish side-down on your tongue as well, so you taste the full flavor of the fish. Eat the sushi piece in one bite; breaking it is very rude to the chef, who spent time making the perfect piece for you. Don’t forget to eat ginger between each sushi piece to cleanse your palette.
After stuffing ourselves with as much sushi as possible, we made our way to Akihabara, the electronics and anime neighborhood of Tokyo. The electronics shops are west of the Akihabara Station, while most of the anime shops and maid cafes are to the north. We started with the electronics side and ended up at Yodobashi, an impressive chain store with everything from rice cookers to shoes to food courts. Yodobashi even has a theme song: a lively cover of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The best part was Yodobashi’s massage chair area. There were about twenty massage chairs just waiting to be tried, and these were the most elaborate massage chairs I’d ever seen. A staff member walked around to make sure no one stayed too long, but we were able to spend about half an hour there — it was like getting a free couple’s massage!
Eventually we felt guilty and had to move on to other things. We left Yodobashi and walked toward the anime section of Akihabara. It was a stark contrast. In this part of town, cosplayers lined the streets, handed out advertisements, and posed for photos. We found refuge in a honey toast cafe and explored quirky shops that sell those crazy Japanese inventions like umbrellas that you can strap onto your shoulder and inflatable phone holders for the bath tub.
Animal cafes are huge in Tokyo, especially since pets are not always possible in such tight living spaces with strict rental agreements. Americans get excited over cat cafes, but Japan has had much more interesting ones for years — hedgehog cafes, rabbit cafes, snake cafes (yikes!), etc. The hedgehog cafe was booked, and a rabbit cafe didn’t sound that intriguing since I used to own a rabbit, so we agreed on an owl cafe called Ikefukuro, in the bustling neighborhood of Ikebukuro. (Yes, the cafe’s name is a play on words since “fukuro” means owl.) The neighborhood of Ikebukuro reminds me of Greenwich Village — previously home to struggling artists but now a hot spot for shopping and dining. We had to make an appointment, and for less than 20 bucks we got to spend an hour interacting with a bunch of owls stationed around the cafe. Some owls were “in training,” which means they are still acclimating to humans and are not ready to be handled yet. Others were able to perch on our fingers or shoulders (depending on their size), and one was even free to roam around the cafe. Anthony was brave enough to handle a couple of owls, but I turned out to be terrified by them! I tried, but every time I got too close to one, I freaked out. Must be the sharp beaks. Maybe the rabbit cafe would have been more my speed.
For our last dinner in Tokyo, we made sure to have ramen again — this time from a restaurant known for its shrimp broth — and finished the evening at our hotel’s rooftop bar, where we toasted the night with Japanese whiskey and sparkling sake.
We had one last day in Tokyo before we needed to catch the shinkansen to Kyoto, so we ventured to Roppongi, a neighborhood known for its night club scene, expat residents, and expensive high-rise complexes called Roppongi Hills. The extravagant but sterile environment really reminded me of Singapore. We went to the Mori Art Museum, a contemporary art museum located on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills complex. We saw a huge installation of paraphernalia from Studio Ghibli, the animation film studio best known for Miyazaki’s films. Eight of Studio Ghibli’s films are among the 15 highest-grossing anime films made in Japan, such as Spirited Away. After the museum, we went up to the Tokyo City View observation deck for stunning 360-degree views of the city.
It’s funny to see Tokyo from above. You can tell Japan peaked in the ’80s because most of the buildings still seem to be from that era. However dated, I was in love with the city. Tokyo is like a large Honolulu, a dignified New York, and snippets of Paris, all in one. I could easily see myself living in some of the neighborhoods we had explored (e.g., Harajuku, Ikebukuro), and yet there were still so many that we had left untouched. We’ll be back, Tokyo. Until then, konnichiwa, Kyoto!
Tips for future travelers:
- When in doubt, bow. In Japan, people bow when saying hello and goodbye, when starting and ending a meeting, when thanking and apologizing… The list goes on. To be safe, we just bowed whenever we were greeted at every restaurant, store, and hotel. I’m sure we didn’t follow all the strict rules of this intricate cultural gesture, but since we reeked of American tourist anyway, I think most locals appreciated that we attempted to be as respectful as we could.
- My only complaint with Tokyo’s subway system is that it’s divided into two companies: the Tokyo Metro and the Toei Subway. If you don’t want to deal with the headache of figuring out which subway line is owned by which company before each ride, just purchase a ticket that covers both. Here’s a very useful site on how to use the metro.
- In Japan, a public restroom may have a high-tech, electronic Toto toilet in one stall, and then a simple squat toilet in the very next stall — what a juxtaposition, right? If you don’t want to use the squat toilet, check the other stalls; it’s very possible there will be a Toto toilet in one of them.
- If you’re going to multiple cities in Japan, Tokyo is a great city to start your trip. Almost everyone we met in Tokyo was fluent in English. Not all cities are as English-friendly, so start in Tokyo to get your bearings and practice your Japanese at leisure before heading to the other cities.