Journey to Japan Part 1: Tokyo

And now for one of the most rewarding, culturally diverse trips of my LIFE. It was mid March, and our flight left around 1:00pm from Minneapolis, and after 12 hours, we arrived at Haneda airport outside of Tokyo. We landed around 4:00pm Japan time, and after such a long flight of doing mostly nothing but napping and watching movies, four movies to be exact, I found myself in a lethargic, zombie-like state. The excitement of seeing a new country was the only thing keeping me energized for the remainder of the evening. Just a side note in case you’re thinking of traveling halfway around the world soon, prepare to feel destroyed! Shout out to all of you out there who switch between 1st shift and 3rd shift. Now, let me tell you a little bit about our trip and then I’ll give you some budget numbers to work with.

Upon purchasing our train pass at the airport, we navigated the train system (which was mostly in Japanese), and made our way to the Shinjuku district where we found ourselves a very quaint AirBnB. I mean VERY quaint. The space had just enough room for a bed, a desk, a mini galley kitchen, no shutting the door while you are on the toilet…that kind of small. And as you entered, you were to leave your shoes at the door and put on the provided slippers before stepping up onto the main wood floor of the apartment. This is common in Japanese dwellings to keep the living space clean and not introduce dirt and germs from your shoes. The apartment was also positioned next to a quiet walking path along the neighboring river and marked by a blooming Japanese cherry blossom tree that smelled heavenly. 

We dropped our things and headed back out into the quiet surrounding neighborhood before we stumbled upon an intimate restaurant with a bar-style set up for a surprisingly delicious ramen dinner. This mom-and-pop-feeling restaurant even lured us back a second night! The udon noodle style ramen was crave inducing, and the man we can only assume was the owner was the only one running the place both nights. And you can tell he likely had slung thousands of strainers full of noodles throughout his life! It looked like an art form as he prepared our meals. To answer your question, no, we could not understand each other. The common way to communicate in restaurants was by picture menus (every restaurant had one for the tourists!) where we could simply point to what we wanted. Sometimes it was tricky determining from the picture what type of meat we were getting, but I had zero complaints about any of the food we ordered in Japan.

Early the next day, we rose to take the train to Shimbashi and walk to the Tsukiji outdoor market. This was a great way to start our day. First of all, the market is huge, covering multiple blocks and offering everything from super fresh fish, to mochi, and dumplings. A common food you will find here is the white strawberry. These are apparently bred to grow larger and tastier than traditional strawberries, but we tried a few and because the flavor did not seem that different from a normal strawberry, figured it wasn’t worth the expensive price of this abnormal fruit. At the market we were lured into a sushi restaurant for breakfast (you have to remember, this was our normal dinner time back home) with a conveyor belt to deliver your sushi on small plates right in front of you! They also had instructional menus telling you what ramekins to grab and what sauces to put in which, what glass to grab to fill with hot water (individual mini faucets at each seat), how much tea to take, and how much each plate of conveyor belt sushi cost. I had never seen anything like it, but I enjoyed the thoroughness! 

The remainder of our 2-day stay in Tokyo (the other day of our trip was spent in Kyoto)  consisted of some other unforgettable activities. I would highly recommend the Tokyo National Museum to anyone. We arrived late in the day and did not get to see everything, but based on what we did get to view in two hours, this museum really packed a punch. From the samurai to the art form of hand painted Japanese writing to Buddha, this museum housed an impressive, bountiful collection of culture, and my astonishment was heightened simply by the difference between Japanese and American culture.

Our walk through Kiyosumi Park was a nice escape from the surrounding city, although the city of Tokyo was unbelievably quiet. No loud mufflers or blaring music. No honking horns or squealing tires. Not to exaggerate, but you could almost hear the traffic lights change color. It was that peaceful and pleasant even in the heart of it all. So really, our walk in the park was just for a change of scenery. We were met with fields upon fields of flowers and cherry blossom trees, ponds with turtles, Japanese garden style landscaping, and a replica of a traditional falconry hut (where hunters would go stay to hunt with their hawks)!

And then there was THE Imperial Palace established  in Tokyo in the mid 1800s, before which, Kyoto served as the capital of Japan. This complex serves as the home of the Emperor of Japan (how cool!) and incorporates additional administrative and event buildings, original guard houses, and vast gardens. The palace gardens contain trees and flower species from all over the world and are mostly maintained by volunteers. We were leaving the gardens and saw a bunch of people huddled in the shrubbery plucking weeds. Apparently citizens of Tokyo report to clean the gardens and find great honor in helping to maintain the gardens of these historic grounds.

And now, money talk. For those of you interested in the budget, know that Japan is similar in price to the United States and Europe. Here are some pointers on how much we spent on what:

  • AirBnB – an apartment to ourselves just big enough for the two of us: $40 [4263 Yen] per night 
  • Japan Rail Pass – purchased at the Haneda Airport; train travel is not cheap to begin with, but this is probably the most economical rail pass you can buy if you plan to leave Tokyo, and it includes trips on the bullet trains: $275 [29300 Yen] for 7 days
  • Tokyo National Museum – we were able to purchase at the door because we arrived late in the day, but they typically require purchases to be made online in advance. These cost about $10 [1000 Yen] a person 
  • Imperial Palace Walking Tour – FREE, however, you must register by reserving a ticket either in advance or the day of. We got our tickets the day of and only stood in our large tour group line for 30 minutes before being admitted.
  • Ramen dinner for two – Each dish cost approximately $12, so about $25 [2664 Yen] total for nothing fancy
  • Sushi brunch – We were afraid this would wrack up in price quickly, but regardless of how filling sushi is, we ate a good amount and only paid about $35 [3730 Yen] 
  • Tsukiji Market – we probably spent an additional $20 or so on little snacks throughout the market
  • Random selection of convenience store Japanese snacks – because this is a must to further get to know the culture, and when you need a pit stop hiking literally across the city; we spent around $30 [3196 Yen] in total both days

As you may have picked up, our experience was nothing like The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. Our visit was calm and serene both in the city and in the suburbs. The courtesy and discipline rooted in the Japanese culture made going out in public and interacting with strangers a pleasantry. We walked along clean gum-free streets with no trash cans in sight as it is expected for you to take your trash with you. That way, the city does not have to maintain a workforce to empty and maintain trash cans. I touched on the silence in the city before, but Tokyo achieved an unbelievable level of quiet for a city. We could also tell that safety mostly was not an issue. However, police brutality is not illegal in Japan, so if the strict discipline and courtesy of the Japanese does not initially deter people, this threat likely solidifies the dissuasion. The level of safety we experienced, however, did allow for kids of all ages to ride the trains and walk to and from school by themselves. One neighborhood we walked through actually had color-coded lines painted on the ground. Based on what school grade the kids were in, they would wear an appropriately colored bib on their backpack and follow their respective line on the ground to and from school.  The culture was vastly different than what I was used to and will admit that after that trip, I figured “eh, I probably don’t need to go back”. But that was only temporary and what I feel was a side effect of the culture shock I experienced.

In 1300 words, this is my regurgitation of my short-lived time in Tokyo, Japan. I was exhausted the entire time as I tried to live during the day when I would have normally been fast asleep. But I ditched the contacts, embraced the glasses, and marched on. Tokyo had tons to offer and we obviously couldn’t do and see everything in two days. But the new capital lacked some of that old heritage that the prior capital of Kyoto possessed. Next week, read more about Japan in my Kyoto review!

-Rebecca

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

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