Traveling Around Tokyo
We started making plans last fall for a truly unforgettable two week trip to Japan to celebrate our one year anniversary and visit with family and friends. Tim grew up in Tokyo and lived there from infancy through high school, so we knew it would be a special place full of old memories with the potential for new ones - we couldn't think of a better spot to ring in a new year of marriage!
We started off the trip with a few days in Tokyo, then plan to head south to Okayama, Kyoto, and Hakone - plenty to see and lots of different sides to Japan, other than what tourists may find in just the metropolitan area. Because Tim lived in Japan for over half of his life, he speaks pretty fluent Japanese and really knows his way around the city - so our experience and useful tips may be different than some others who plan to visit Japan in the near future. We also have so far had the blessing of several different host families through various connections which significantly cut down the cost of hotels or hostels (we only have to pay for two nights in a hotel throughout our entire two week trip!), meaning we have had more spending money for food, shopping, museums, travel, etc. But our days have still been jam-packed so far, so I thought I'd give a little insight into how we tackled Tokyo!
We arrived in Tokyo in the mid-afternoon on Wednesday and were absolutely beat after over 24 hours of traveling. However, the best way to beat jet lag is to wait it out, so after dropping off our luggage at our host family's home and sitting down for a few minutes, we hightailed it over to Shibuya Station (only a few subway stops away from where we were staying) right at rush hour to catch a glimpse of the infamous confusing crosswalks.
I'm not going to lie - going to Shibuya on our first day, after about 5 hours of sleep in a 36 hour period, was probably not our brightest idea. This area of Tokyo is essentially the Times Square of Japan. Total sensory overload. I felt completely disoriented and dizzy at times, but it really did look magical in the golden hour glow. We grabbed some katsudon (fried pork and egg served over rice) and tea and just sat and watched the people go by. Since it was our first night, we didn't last too long, but it was good to stretch our legs with a little walking and push through the jet lag until it was actually time to sleep.
Turns out, powering through our jet lag and staying awake until 10 PM really helped us the next morning, because we slept in until 6 (really uncommon with international jet lag, folks) and only had to lie in bed for an hour or so before getting an early start on the day. Our first stop was the Meiji Shrine, a short stop from the infamous Harajuku area (but more on that later).
The Meiji Shrine was created in 1920 and is a truly beautiful and peaceful sanctuary so deep in the woods you'll almost forget you're in the middle of the biggest city in the world. It's a pretty long walk from the subway stop you'll come out at, so make sure you have comfy shoes on. Luckily, it's all pretty flat and shaded, which makes it worth the effort to see. We went pretty early in the morning, so it was cool and not too crowded either. Then, as we were walking out, we noticed signs for a garden and decided to take a peek. I'm so glad we did because it was gorgeous! Dedicated to the emperor who built the shrine's wife, the gardens host a tea house, waterlily ponds, irises, azaleas, and a whole mini forest of ancient trees. I've never visited any place in the US quite so peaceful.
After the gardens, we hit up Harajuku Street and I basically went b-a-n-a-n-a-s. (Gwen Stefani style, of course). It was a color-lover's dream. Everything was just opening up when we arrived so it wasn't too crazy, but it definitely got a lot busier as the day went on, so I can't imagine what it must be like in peak tourist season... "Cute" and "Colorful" were definitely the names of the game, and I was tempted by a few too many little shops and ended up walking out with several shopping bags full of trinkets.
Another highlight of Harajuku was coming across these gigantic cotton candy confections! It was only about $9 USD for this larger-than-life cotton candy that we easily split between the two of us. So, so worth it. Only in Japan, right? Even the shop we entered to buy the cotton candy was a total rainbow daydream. If you're ever in Harajuku, you seriously cannot miss it.
After our cotton candy and a quick convenience store snack, we headed to a different part of town to visit the Yayoi Kusama museum. Seeing her work in person has been on my bucket list for a long time, and it did not disappoint! I will say, a few caveats: tickets are pretty pricey (I think we paid $50 each for ours because the $10 tickets on the official website sold out within hours of going on sale) and they do have to be purchased online several months in advance because, obviously, they sell out pretty quickly. You buy a ticket for a 90-minute time slot and basically have free reign of the museum (which is five levels tall with each level featuring a different exclusive Yayoi Kusama exhibit) during that time. Photos aren't allowed except on the top two floors, but the entire space is completely breathtaking! You don't even need photographs to always remember the experience.
After our long, busy day, we were ready to call it a night, so we headed back home. Last stop for the evening? A cheery pink conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Shibuya called Genki Sushi. Great prices, amazingly fresh fish, and the sushi arrives almost immediately after you place your order!
We started off our third day by visiting some of the neighborhoods where Tim would hang out as a teenager, stopping for tea at his favorite coffee shop and getting the most ah-mazing curry at popular Japanese restaurant chain CoCo Ichibana (seriously the best meal I've had so far).
Then, since it was a beautiful afternoon but the sun wasn't oppressively hot, we headed across town to Inokashira Park because, hello, swan boats! It was only about $7 to rent one for half an hour and it was every bit the dream come true you'd expect. One of my favorite memories of the past few days has been drifting across the pond in a swan boat with my husband, smiling at each other and feeling happy and peaceful and warm and exhausted in the very best kind of way. You can just name me the Swan Princess now because I've truly done it all. Afterwards we got grape and strawberry soft serve ice cream and I could have died right then a very happy woman.
As the day drew to a close, we had one more big important Tokyo stop to make: Ginza. I had my heart set on seeing the flagship Kate Spade New York Tokyo store and, let me tell you, it did not disappoint. Three levels of gilded staircases, stripes, a private salon, cocktail bar - the works! And everyone was so friendly and sweet. Truly heavenly.
While in Ginza, we also visited ITOYA, an incredible paper and stationery floor with seven floors of product! It was a little overwhelming, to be sure, but we walked out with a beautiful art print and our eyes spinning from color and pattern and whimsy.
Those were our three days in Tokyo... Next up, Okayama!