Four months have passed since I returned from a magical two weeks in Japan. Even though it seems like just yesterday that I returned home, it’s about time I summarised what I got up to in the crazy wonderful madness of Tokyo (and hopefully convince you to visit too).
Sleep. After doing an alarming amount of online research, poring over relevant travel guides and reading an inordinate number of accommodation reviews, I decided that Shibuya would provide the best base for first-time visitors such as ourselves. After discovering that my preferred hotel was unavailable, I opted for the Shibuya Granbell Hotel instead. It has a brilliant location just on the outskirts of busy Shibuya, is a few minutes walk from the train station, and also happens to be located close to one of Tokyo’s best vegan restaurants.
Top tips – Figure out how to get to your hotel before you arrive, because once there the city can be overwhelming. This way you can leave your bulky luggage in your room and get exploring as quickly as possible. Also check which exit you’re supposed to take before leaving a train station (it can make a big difference to your walking time).
See & Do. We could have honestly happily spent all our days in Tokyo wandering around Shibuya, but there were a few other places we wanted to cross off our list. Being fans of many Studio Ghibli films, paying a visit to the Ghibli Museum was a must-do, however I found it a little disappointing. The number of visitors within the museum are supposed to be limited at any one time, however that concept was seemingly abandoned the day we were there, so it was incredibly busy. I’m glad I’ve been, but I don’t think I’ll pay a return visit on my next trip.
As our Tokyo dates coincided with the sumo tournament season, we headed out to the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium at Ryogoku to watch a few matches. Even though we had instructions on how to find our seats within the stadium, we spent many frustrating minutes trying to decipher our ticket numbers with the help of the stadium map. Eventually though we found our way and settled in for a couple of hours before heading to the baseball. Definitely one of the highlights of our Tokyo trip, watching a game at Jingu Stadium (home of the Yakult Swallows) was lots and lots of fun.
Visiting a cat cafe was a quintessentially Japanese experience which we were definitely not going to miss. The Hapineko Cat Cafe is a few minutes walk from Shibuya Station and it offers a welcome respite from the bustle of the city. The cats are healthy, happy and clearly well looked after (unlike some cat cafes we saw). The expansive window which looks down onto the street brings light into the space and allows the cats to catch some sun and watch birds in the trees below.
Top tips – Buying your tickets for the Ghibli Museum before your visit is necessary. Pre-booking your sumo and baseball tickets just makes life easier (and ensures you won’t miss out).
For those like me who like to run, the circuit around the Imperial Palace is perfect. Each loop is around 5km long, there are useful distance markers along the way, no traffic to contend with and the scenery is great. I ran 10km one lunch-time and even though it was hot, it was great to get amongst the locals and pound some international pavement. Another Tokyo highlight was a day spent at Odaiba, Tokyo Bay. Aside from posing with the life size Gundam and replica Statue of Liberty, the view of Tokyo and the Rainbow Bridge was pretty special. While there we also had fun at Madam Tussauds and Legoland.
Top tips – Avoid visiting Odaiba and the Imperial Palace on weekends as they will be crowded. The preferred direction to run the Imperial Palace route is anti-clockwise.
Eat. Even before I started planning this trip, I knew that being a vegetarian traveller in Tokyo was going to be a challenge. While much of my pre-trip dining plans came to nought, there were always options to be found (providing you were patient). Next time I’ll be armed with valuable on-the-ground experience, so finding those veggie-friendly options will be a much less frustrating prospect. In pursuit of something plain and relatively healthy for breakfast, most mornings we found ourselves at Starbucks where we’d dine on plain yoghurt, muesli and blueberry scones … accompanied by coffee of course. We didn’t always have a formal lunch, but we did enjoy a set meal at the Royal Garden Cafe in Shibuya – a delicious blue cheese and vegetable focaccia with fries.
Good and inexpensive food is often to be found in the basement of shopping complexes, such as we discovered when visiting Character Street at Tokyo Station (a slice of tasty vegetarian pizza plus a blueberry, banana and acai smoothie). I also very much enjoyed an avocado sandwich from Kua’aina at Odaiba. Dinner was a more successful pursuit in Shibuya, with several dining experiences at Kantipur (a Nepalese restaurant) and Nagi Shokudo (which is a great vegan restaurant and my pick for an inexpensive and tasty dinner). Snacks and drinks were also enjoyed at Hands Cafe (located within Tokyu Hands), Jonathan’s Coffee & Restaurant, and the Hapineko cat cafe – all of which can be found in Shibuya.
A meal I often think about, is the brunch we had at conceal cafe on our final day in Japan. I’m a big fan of set meals and this was the best! A starter of salad and miso soup was followed by a huge bowl of tomato cream & asparagus pasta, and finished up with a slice of cheesecake and coffee. Delicious! The cafe is located eight floors up in a narrow building, with stunning views across South Shibuya. The coffee is also blessedly hot and strong.
Top tips – By all means do your research, but be prepared to be flexible with your dining choices. Many vegetarian cafes in Tokyo are tucked away, so you may have to consult several sources of information to locate them (just having a street address in Tokyo isn’t all that helpful). conceal cafe is a great place to visit for a meal, a late-night drink, or a strong cup of coffee.
Shop. Despite my best intentions, it was impossible to resist all forms of retail therapy while in Tokyo. I bought some clothes from Uniqlo and stocked up on washi tape and pet toys from the amazing Tokyu Hands. Even though Loft is much talked about in travel guides, it was a little more high-end and standard department store-ish than Tokyu Hands (which I would highly recommend). Mandarake is a great shop to visit if you’re interested in action figures, retro toys, manga, anime and other associated pursuits. We visited two outlets – one in Shibuya and one in Akihabara, both of which are comprehensive and stock an incredible range (though personally I really didn’t like anything else about Akihabara).
If Tokyu Hands is a store which has something for everyone, than Village Vanguard is like its cooler, pop-culture obsessed sibling. It’s a haphazardly arranged, meandering store crammed into a pretty small space, and it is completely awesome. A word of warning though, it will take all of your money. Another store I loved, but was a little challenging to find was Violet and Claire. Located on the third floor in a building opposite the Shibuya Tokyu Hands store, this teeny tiny shop is packed full of unique items by independent artists from all over the world.
Top tips – Because Japan is a largely cash-based society, visit an ATM and load up before you head out, lest you suffer a shopping crisis.
Speak & Read. Aside from knowing how to say hello and thank you, we had no other Japanese language skills, but you know what? … we more than got by. The language barrier rarely presented a problem – we picked up more vocabulary as we travelled around and people were friendly, patient and often interested in practicing their English skills. Many restaurants had bilingual menus and photographs of dishes to help us out, and even buying medication from a pharmacy was a challenge readily overcome.
Top tips – Being polite, patient and wearing a smile goes a long way to not being one of ‘those’ tourists.
Transport. Getting around on the trains is fantastically quick, easy to use (once you figure out which line you need to use) and reasonably priced. Because we were also doing substantial travel outside Tokyo, we purchased a Japan Rail Pass, but if you’re not travelling long distances around the country, this wouldn’t be the best value-for-money option. Whenever possible I booked my Shinkansen tickets ahead of time (these are separate tickets to the JR Pass). Reserving a seat ahead of time meant that I could take pressure off my commuting days and gave me certainty that I’d be travelling in a non-smoking carriage.
Top tips – While the rail network in Japan is comprehensive, it’s not all that difficult to figure out if you follow the signs and make use of Hyperdia to plan your trip. When booking your Shinkansen tickets you’ll need to provide details of what bullet train/s you want to book seats on. I found the easiest way of doing this was to have the train details printed out or written down – it overcame any language barriers and avoided confusion about dates, times, destinations, and non-smoking preferences.
Writing about Tokyo has made me miss it all over again. Over the coming weeks I’ll share our adventures in Takayama and Kyoto. But for now, excuse me while I ‘just have a look’ at whether there are any flight specials to Japan …