I’ll be honest – I’ve never really thought about going to Japan anytime soon. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s because although I enjoy Japanese food, it’s not really my favourite, and I seem to always attach travel to some kind of gastronomic indulgence so I tend to want to go to places where I can eat things I like. I saw Japan from the eyes of the TV, and it always looked so regal and clean and flowery and cultural. So I suppose I’ve always felt that it was a rather interesting place, but the urge to actually go never really manifested itself.
But one day, an opportunity came and I just couldn’t pass up the chance to go see Japan for myself! I spent about a week exploring the city and its outskirts, and here I list my Top 10 things I think you should not miss out on if you ever land your butt in Tokyo.
1. See A Glimpse Of Mount Fuji In Hakone
Okay, this isn’t exactly in Tokyo city. In fact, you’ll have to take a 2-hour train to Hakone, a highland village surrounded by gorgeous rivers, lake, and greens with a supreme view of the majestic Mount Fuji. Take the Hakone Free Pass, which means you pay around RM200 for full access to all its public transportations (cable car, train, bus, ferry, 2-coach tram) for 2 days, including the train from Tokyo to Hakone.
When you’re here, try your best to get on all types of transportations, as each of them offers stunning views of different things – the ferry goes around the beautiful Lake Ashi, the buses give you access to peaceful shrines, and the cable car takes you for breathtaking views of Mount Fuji. Food is a little more expensive than Tokyo, and I bought decent meals from 7-eleven or Lawson and would eat by the river while enjoying some sun and watching Japanese teenagers take pictures like they’re in America’s Next Top Model.
2. Be A Child In Disneyland
I know it sounds kind of lame. Disneyland? What are you, twelve? (I wish. I had lots more collagen back then) But there is a reason why this is the happiest place on earth. When you’re in Disneyland, be a kid. Really. That’s the best way to enjoy it. Dance, sing along to childhood Disney tunes, eat junk food, go for rides, climb here and there, laugh a lot, and watch the parades. Disneyland is enchanting and picture-perfect and beaming with unadulterated joy that you’ll no sooner forget about your work or your ex or your mundane Netflix life. At least for a while anyway.
By the way, did you know that Mickey and Minnie live in separate houses? Kind of sends the wrong message to the kids about marriage, if you ask me.
3. Eat At A Tiny Neighbourhood Restaurant
Prior to my trip I did a lot of research that alluded to eating out in Tokyo as ridiculously expensive. Which is true, up to a point. It was hard to find a proper meal that costs less than RM20, for instance. And I suppose you should expect that from a city that boasts more Michelin Star restaurants than any other place in the world.
But that being said, I also discovered that the best way to enjoy local Japanese food without selling your kidney is to try the smaller, neighbourhood restaurants. Get off the main tourist areas and into the quieter districts of Tokyo, and you’ll find plenty of small eateries (with only a few tables or less, or even just bar seating) with delicious house specialties. And for the love of God, try not to McDonald’s your way out of mealtimes.
4. Join The Crowd At Shibuya Crossing
Only tourists will ever find joy in joining a crowd of hundred trying to cross the street. But then again, for all you aspiring Insta-Famous celebs out there, what is a trip to Tokyo without a snap of the organised chaos of humans at this popular junction crossing? The appeal to me is the herds of humans in this big, big city, and you’re just another one of those hundreds in that junction point at that particular time. It makes you feel small, in a way.
My tip would be to go there around sunset, as the lighting gives off a better picture, and you’ll be in time to see the billboard lights pop against the darkening sky. There’s also a statue of Hachiko (if you don’t know what this is, suffice to say that you should watch the movie and bring a lot of tissues), and once you’re all done with people-watching, why not pop over at the Lindt Chocolatier Café nearby? Try a cup of its dark hot chocolate. Then thank me later.
5. Find Hidden Treasures at Jimbocho Secondhand Book District
Jimbocho District is the second largest secondhand bookstore area in the world. It comprises of a few streets with a lot of secondhand bookshops, and in the ultimate Japanese manner, categorized neatly according to book genres. If you’re a book lover you would probably hyperventilate (at one point, a Japanese bookstore owner had to try and calm me down when I found a 1970 copy of the ORIGINAL WINNIE THE POOH book. I bought it, by the way).
If you’re not a book lover, you’ll still appreciate the sentiment of the area. The stacks and rows of old books are absolutely picture-worthy, and you’ll enjoy going through some of the old editions – it’s strange to think that some of the scribbles in the books are from people who lived in a different lifetime than us and are long gone.
This is a great place to get art pieces and/or some original souvenirs. Think old sent-out postcards, vintage Doraemon comics and leather bound children’s books.
6. Sample Sashimi At Tsujki Fish Market
And if you have the balls, why not show up at the market at 3 am in the morning to witness the world-famous tuna auction?
If that doesn’t float your boat, I bet eating does. So head over to the streets along the market to sample some Japanese breakfast. Sashimi at 5 am? Because why not? Unlike some dodgy sushi outlets back home, here you’ll find that the seafood is fresh (well, you’re at the fish market after all), and there are so many options to choose from.
7. Shrine Hopping At Old Tokyo
If you’ve seen one shrine, you’ve seen it all.
That’s probably what my Dad would say. But my Dad probably has not walked around Old Tokyo to check out its many shrines and cemeteries. Old Tokyo, or Yanaka, is an area in the suburbs, much quieter and dotted with many small, unique shrines. The cemetery is especially famous during the Sakura season, as the streets are lined with these beautiful tress with cherry blossoms that turn the whole place vibrantly pink.
Speaking of Old Tokyo, you can also check out other smaller areas that exhibit Tokyo’s past. There is Golden Gai, which are narrow streets with small, quaint bars that can only host a few people at a time. Piss Alley (unfortunately I didn’t see a single person peeing in public) is also pretty especially at night time with the Japanese lanterns and dim romantic lights along the tiny alleys. Take note that these places will always amp up its food and drinks prices.
8. Try Streetfood And The Vending Machines
There are vending machines everywhere! Literally, everywhere! Check these out, and if you don’t enjoy sugary drinks like me you can always take nice pictures with them anyway.
On another note, streetfood is a great way to try cheap local food. Of course Takoyaki will always be the crowd’s favourite, warm balls with octopus in the center and a crispy outside. There are grilled meats, crepes, baked sweet potatoes, deep fried favourites and fresh rice crackers, amongst other popular choices. If you’re having trouble choosing which stall to visit, just remember a tip someone gave me; go to the ones where the locals line up.
9. Go Fortune Telling at Senso-Ji Temple
And before you go all netizen and wonder why the heck should one believe in fortune telling, I should say that whether you believe it or not, it’s always a fun little activity! Senso-Ji Temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo, and in adapting to the more international crowd coming its way these days, the fortunes are also written in English.
They are mostly generic predictions (“You have Good Fortune”, “The one you wait for will come soon” “Better get some cats soon” -__-), so relax and don’t take it too personally.
Otherwise, you can always hang around the pretty gardens, visit the shop stalls or watch a religious procession happening in that area.
10. Check Out Cheap Electronics At Akihabara
In case you want to spend time choosing new earphones from a choice of 500 earphones on sale, you should really come here to Akihabara. It’s an area with so many electronics shops it will make your head spin, and if you’re one of those crazy gadget-guys, you’ll probably have a seizure.
The electronics are in general a lot cheaper than back in Malaysia, and aside from these things, there are also anime shops aplenty (psstt there are also shops selling weird porn anime stuff, in case you’re asking for a ‘friend’). Akihabara is an interesting place to observe the common popular notion of the modern Japanese culture of video games, comic books and technology.
So there you go! I’m sure there are so many more interesting things to check out in Tokyo if one has more time, but so far, these are the things that stand out to me the most. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll pay Japan a visit again. I certainly am glad to have had the chance to see it for the first time with FlyScoot Dreamliner!