A beginner’s guide to Tokyo

Tokyo combines tradition and modernity. The shrines, Buddhist temples and the businessmen in black suits (also called salary men) are part of the Japanese culture, while the high-buildings, the skyscrapers, the high-technology and the world’s fastest bullet train give this fascinating city its ultra-modern character.

Getting there

Station signs in JapanMy boyfriend and I flew into Narita International Airport, which is about one hour away from Tokyo. At arrival we immediately bump into some problems. First, my new passport was not recognized by the Japanese systems. A friendly Japanese customs officer slowly tried to explain the problem to me in Japanese. But how hard he tried; I did not understand a word of it. Another man was called. He said something to my boyfriend who stood already at the other side of the customs. The Japanese man told me to follow him, but he did not answer any of my questions. I had to wait in an office, made some more fingerprints and pictures and had to answer some questions about my middle names and nationality (he thought that Dutch was the same as Deutsch). After awhile I was allowed to go, still not knowing what happened. None of my questions were answered, but fortunately I was allowed to enter the country of the rising sun. But when I found out that my boyfriend knew what the hassle was all about, I was wondering why that Japanese man could not tell me what was going on. Was it because I am a woman?

From one problem to another….. our vacation starts GREAT!

After the first problem was solved, we bumped into the next one. One of our bag packs did not arrive. Three Japanese employees did their best in trying to locate our bag pack. They asked many questions about the bag, the content of the bag and about our travel plan.

Traditional Japanese costume

In the future I will definitely make a picture of all the bags and suitcases so my boyfriend and I will not have any arguments about the color of the bag. The employees, and even the big boss, felt bad about the situation and apologized many times for the inconveniences this may caused. But because of my smartness all our stuff was divided over two bags. So both of us had some clothes to wear for the days to follow.

We bought a JR ticket to Tokyo. Buying a JR ticket to get to Tokyo might not be the cheapest way, but since we were tired of all the hassle and the long trip, not sleeping well for two nights, we were happy to sit down and finally leave the airport.

Where to stay

Tokyo offers many kinds of accommodation: hotels, hostels, apartments, creepy capsule hotels, guesthouses and traditional Japanese inns (called Ryokans). During our three days we stayed at Hotel MyStays Hamamatsucho, nearby Daimon subway station and close to the Tokyo Tower. This hotel has an excellent location. It has good access to Asakusa and Shinyuku. Although not everyone in the hotel spoke English, there was always someone available who spoke (some) English.

Getting around Tokyo

Tokyo’s network of train, subway and bus lines is operated by several companies. Two of Japanese Eiffel Towerthese companies, Toei Subways and Tokyo Metro, run the subway lines. Each line can be recognized by a color and a letter. The Marunouchi Line is, for example red, and is marked by the letter M. Each station is marked with a number which is mentioned after the letter. So is Sinjuku Sanchome station 9 on the red line. This makes it easy to know where to get out. If you take the subway at Yotsuya (M12) you know that you have three stations to go to reach your destination (M9). Moreover, all station names are mentioned in Japanese as well as in English. The ticket vending machine is also available in English.

But what ticket to take…..

Choosing the best ticket is at first overwhelming. Tokyo offers a whole variety of different kind of passes and tickets. Some of these do not cover all trains and subway lines. It is best to know beforehand where you are planning to go. Do you only need the subway or will you also take the train or the bus? We took the Toei and Tokyo Metro One-Day Economy Pass for 1000 yen (about 8 EUR) at a subway station in Tokyo. This pass offers unlimited use of all subway lines, Toei as well as Tokyo Metro for one day, but is not valid on JR trains or in busses. We did not only get our money’s worth out of it, but we also avoided all the hassle of buying a single ticket each time and of taking a subway which was not covered.

Culture

ImmeJapanese tuffed toy monkeydiately, upon arrival we noticed how polite and helpful the Japanese people are. When asking for directions, many people, even busy business men, will guide you to make sure you will find your way. We met relative many Japanese people who do not or hardly speak English. However, they do their best to help you and in case, they cannot help you, they feel bad and apologize as much as possible. Particularly the young Japanese people seem to like speaking in English and are open for conversations.

The impossibility to lose something

Another cultural characteristic was the honesty of Japanese people. Before we left for Japan we heard about the impossibility to lose something in Japan. In the beginning, we thought…yeah right, but in the first three days I noticed that this was true. If you lose a pen or if a piece of paper falls out of your bag or purse, chances are big that someone grabs it and give it back to you. Moreover, my boyfriend forgot his cell phone in a sushi restaurant, I am not kidding, but a waiter was following us for two blocks!! I was surprised, since from my experiences, I always had to contact the restaurant and hope that my cell phone would still be there.

What to do

Tsukiji Fish Market & Tuna Auction

The Tsukiji fish market is world’s largest fish market, handling more than 2,000 tons of fish and seafood every day. In addition to fish, fruit and vegetables are also sold on the market.

Attending the tuna auction means getting up very early. The auctions start around 5 am. The first 120 visitors pitching up at the Fish Information Center are allowed to visit the auction. It’s on a first-come, first-servedbasis. So it’s best to be therearound 3.30 am.

If you have missed the auction, just like us, there is still plenty to see at the market. You can watch a tuna cutting demonstration, see many different unknown fish and seafood, grab a breakfast at a local shop or have a delicious breakfast in one of the small, often crowded restaurants offering dishes from ramen to sushi.

Shrines and temples

shinto shrineAs mentioned before in Tokyo you can enjoy modern shopping and entertainment but you can also soak up culture. Tokyo offers many shrines and temples. We visited the Meiji Shrine, Sensoji Temple and Zojoji Temple. The Meiji Shrine is worth visiting. This shrine is dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji, who was Japan’s first modern, constitutional monarch, and his wife Empress Shoken. The location of the shrine is beautiful and peaceful. It is surrounded by an evergreen forest which trees were donated by people all over Japan. The Meiji Shrine is a place to pray, to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature and culture but also a popular place for traditional Japanese-style weddings. We were lucky to have seen part of a Japanese wedding.

The Sensoji Temple is located in Asakusa, a more traditional area in Tokyo. It is one of Tokyo’s oldest temples. Instead of walking through a forest, like at the Meiji Shrine, the Sensoji Temple can be reached by following a path of stalls selling food and souvenirs to the temple visitors.

Zojoji TempleThe Zojoji Temple can be found at the Tokyo Tower. There is also a small park nearby. The most memorable thing at this temple was the stone figures, also called Ojizosama statues. All these cute statues wear red bibs, knitted caps and hold pinwheels. Every statue represents the protection of the soul of a child. I think it is like going to a grave of someone you lost. Instead of decorating the grave with flowers, parents of children who have passed away honor their children by decorating these statues.

Yoyogi Park

A visit to the Yoyogi Park can be combined with a visit to the Meiji Shrine which is nearby. The Yoyogi Park is one of Tokyo’s biggest parks, containing a variety of landscapes where people chill, play, walk, jog or have a picnic. At the time we were in Japan the Yoyogi Park was closed because of dengue-carrying mosquitoes.

Eat sushi, sushi and again, sushi

sushiWhether you are in Tokyo or somewhere else in Japan, sushi has to be tried. It is the best in the world here. The fish and rice are perfectly in balance. The fish is fresh and the taste is nothing compared to many European all-you-can-eat restaurants. A sushi chef has years of experience. All chefs have started with the preparation of the sushi rice. The rice is a very important ingredient, which needs to be made according to strict instructions. As a beginner you are taught by a senior sushi chef. Once he is satisfied about the daily sushi rice made by the student, a promotion may follow. This is the reason why the sushi in Japan is so much better than in the most sushi restaurants in Europe.

Shibuya

Shibuya is the popular shopping and entertainment area. It is a busy area full of stores and restaurants. If you take the Hachiko exit at Shibuya Station you will see a large intersection, decorated by giant video screens with sound and neon advertisements. At this intersection shibuyathere are so many things to see and hear. You hear the sound of the video screen on your left, the sound of the video screen on your right and many people around you talking. You see attractive advertisements, but also a flood of pedestrians crossing the intersection from all directions when the light turns green. It was remarkable that even with so many people there was no one bumping. There was nobody that seems to be in a hurry. Everybody seems to adjust their pace and go with the flow. You can find many pictures of this popular area which is also often used for a movie filming spot. However, I guess that flood wasn’t that WoW when we were there or I just had some bad luck, since it doesn’t look that crowded on my pics.

The Hachiko exit is named after the movie Hachi: a dog’s tale. This movie is based on a true story of an Akita dog. This dog is remembered for his loyalty towards his owner which even continued for many years after his owner passed away. At this intersection you will find a statue of this dog. This movie is also recommendable.

Besides these sights there is much more to see, such as the Tokyo Tower, Rainbow bridge, sumo tournaments,  musea, Japanese gardens and more and more and more. Let this city surprise you.

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