Tokyo is exhilarating and peaceful, confusing and orderly, dense and vast. It is weird and wonderful. It is a place rooted deeply in tradition and societal harmony, and also arguably the world leader in futuristic, polarizing trends. It is all these things simultaneously, and the fact that one place contains such multitudes will challenge preconceptions you didn't even know you had. I learned, for example, that American appliances are way less musical than their Japanese counterparts. In Japan, I heard an ATM, a toilet, a washing machine, the train doors, and even a floor buffer play songs.
Even if you take geography out of the picture, Tokyo is the farthest I've ever felt from home. I loved it. Possibly more than any other city I've visited to date. To paraphrase the late, great Anthony Bourdain, as an American in Tokyo, "you will not blend, you will not immerse" but you will learn a lot, eat plenty of amazing food, and even if you only have three days there, you will have "a true, true adventure".
Day 1: Meiji-jingu, Harajuku, and Shibuya
Start the day at Meiji-jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The grounds contain a beautiful garden and are surrounded by a forest that was planted from tress donated by people from all over Japan. The paths are shade-covered and peaceful, with signs along the way so you can learn more about the Shinto religion and the significant history behind the shrine itself.
Tall torii gates line the path to the shrine
Sake barrels are left as offerings
Walk down Omotesando street and experience some of Harajuku
Harajuku is world famous for being a center of fashion - from the expressive teenage styles born there to the upscale shops that line Omotesando street. If you're coming from Meiji-jingu, you can walk through this area on your way to Shubuya. Turn down some of the side streets to check out some of the colorful boutiques, vintage stores, and themed restaurants (such as the Kawaii Monster Cafe!) for a more youthful vibe.
Visit Shibuya, home to the busiest intersection in the world
Shibuya is one of Tokyo's most lively districts, with a huge array of shopping, entertainment, nightlife, and dining options. It is also home to Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world. Grab a coffee at the second floor Starbucks just off the intersection to get a view of the Shibuya Scramble in action. Marvel at how, amazingly, no one bumps into each other.
Also in the area are a number of large department stores like Tokyu and Marui worth checking out for their amazing variety of clothes, goods, events, and incredible food.
Your trip to Tokyo will not be complete without a ramen experience or two or three, as each neighborhood and restaurant does it differently. None, perhaps, as unique as Ichiran in Shibuya. Ichiran is a small, basement restaurant that specializes in basic ramen that you order from a machine. You customize your dish by specifying the level of spice, toppings, broth, etc. you would like and then you are whisked away to an individual seat in a "flavor concentration booth" where there are no waiters or other diners to distract you from your glorious food. The ramen is amazing, cheap, and totally negates the usual awkwardness of a solo dining experience in a sit-down restaurant.
The "flavor concentration booth" at Ichiran in Shibuya
Have a drink overlooking the city
Even when I'm traveling on the strictest of budgets, I like to do one thing that feels glamorous. I do not, however, like draining my bank account in order to achieve this. Fortunately I have discovered many ways to "fake it til you make it", in terms of being a super wealthy jet-setter. The Park Hyatt Tokyo (famous from the movie Lost in Translation) is one of the most upscale hotels in the city, and at $500 per night has the price tag to match. Needless to say, this is not in my grad school budget. But if you're willing to pay about $20, you can sip a fancy drink at the New York Bar on the 52nd floor, pretend you're Scarlett Johansson, and enjoy one of the most spectacular sunset city views Tokyo has to offer.
If you're in the mood for something more lively, the nearby Shinjuku Golden Gai is a collection of tiny, tumbledown bars packed together in alleys and is an area you must see to believe. Some of the bars there are locals only, some quite literally only fit 6 people, but it's a fun and unexpectedly inviting place to bar hop. Begin your night there at Albatross if you don't know where to start!
The view from the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo
Day 2: Asakusa, Tsukiji Fish Market, and Tea
Asakusa (also known as Senso-ji) is Tokyo's oldest and most significant Buddhist temple. During the day, it is packed with worshippers and visitors, but if you get there very early (around 6 am) you may have the area to yourself. If you are unfamiliar with the customs of visiting a Buddhist temple, there are many signs that indicate rules and expected behaviors. As with anywhere, make sure you are respectful and do not take pictures where they are prohibited.
Outside the temple there is a shopping street lined with stalls selling food and goods
Have breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market (of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame) is the world's largest seafood market, where giant tuna routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The wholesale section of the market is mostly closed to tourists, and is slated to move to a new location in late 2018. However, the section with retail and restaurant stalls remains open and is home to some of the best sushi you will ever eat. Get to the counter called Shou (it will be difficult to find, but worth it) in time for breakfast while the fish is fresh and before noon when the market starts closing up for the day.
You may be skeptical, but sushi for breakfast is a thing of beauty
Experience tea the traditional way
One of the things I was really interested in learning about was ocha, the traditional Japanese ceremony of preparing and serving tea. Although not strictly traditional, one of the ways you can do this is by going to the tea house in the Hama Rikyu Gardens near Tsukiji. After ordering matcha and a sweet, the tea house provides you with a card explaining the traditions and steps to the ceremony, and you can follow along at your own pace.
Day 3: Oedo Onsen Monogatari
Spend the day at an onsen
An onsen is a natural hot spring and public bath filled with mineral-rich spring water, and visiting one was the highlight of my time in Japan. There's a decent amount to know before you visit one (which may be the subject of a later post) but if you have done some research and are considering it, I very highly recommend it. Spending the day relaxing in the hot springs, the cold baths, and eating delicious food at an onsen is the perfect way to relax from a fast-paced trip filled with walking. Oedo Onsen Monogatari is located in Tokyo and although not strictly a traditional onsen, is filled with a variety of hot springs and baths of varying temperatures, as well as an indoor area with delicious food and an outside foot bath filled with fairly pointy rocks that are supposed to improve circulation. (I'm not going to lie, my feet did feel great after I got used to the feeling of being speared in my toes.)
Before planning a visit, keep in mind that tattoos are traditionally not socially accepted in Japan and if you have any visible tattoos or henna you will have to do research to find an onsen that specifically allows them as many (including Oedo Onsen Monogatari) do not.
In terms of the baths themselves, I'll get right to it: you're going to spend the day totally nude around random strangers. That's just the way it's going to be. My advice is this: take a deep breath, remember that being ashamed of nakedness is a strange and arbitrary societal norm anyway, and take this as an opportunity to embrace a body-positive environment.
Unfortunately, because of the rigid requirements, visiting an onsen that is separated by gender may be very difficult for transgender, genderqueer, and intersex people. I can think of two potential workarounds: one is to look into a mixed gender onsen (which are less common but still prevalent throughout the country), and the second is to try to find a hotel where you can book a private onsen. If you have experience with either option, or are willing to share your advice on this for fellow LGBTQ+ travelers, I'd love to hear from you!
The yukata (a lightweight style of kimono) they give you to wear in the outside mixed-gender area, which includes a foot bath
The food in the indoor Edo era-themed area is incredible
So that's three days in Tokyo. It's an amazing city, and one of my favorite places on the planet so far. For more information, stay tuned for an upcoming post on essential info you should know before visiting and feel free to contact me or leave a comment below!