Six days in Tokyo (Japan Part 1)

Akihabara

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).

Akihabara

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).

Jingu Stadium Baseball

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.

Sumo wrestlers at work.

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).

Imperial Palace

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.

Replica Statue of Liberty in Odaiba, with Rainbow Bridge behind.

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.

Avocado sandwich at Kua 'aina, Odaiba

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.

Hapineko Cat Cafe

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.

Life size Gundam (Diver City)

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.

Boss Coffee

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 …

15 Comments

  1. Teresa

    Ah, I’m so jealous! I really want to go back and visit Japan. It’s such a wonderful country.

    Your tip about finding out how to get to your hotel before you arrive is one of the best. I remember being a little lost on a couple of times!

    It sounds like you guys had an amazing time.
    xo

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Teresa – Yes indeedy … we had a great time in Japan. I’m so looking forward to going back again too (why must there be so many awesome places in the world to visit though?) 😉

      I was so grateful that our hotel had photographic directions on how to reach them … I think we would have got horribly lost otherwise. Haha.
      xx

  2. Viviana

    I’ve been reading about Japan and my dream now is to visit… hopefully one day I’ll make it 🙂
    Thanks for sharing, the photos are great!

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Viviana – I just know you’ll have a wonderful time in Japan. I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It’s so safe, easy to get around, the scenery is amazing and the people are so friendly. Thanks for your visit and your kind words. 🙂

  3. Linda from Heartfire At Home

    What a great time it sounds like you had Tracey! I LOVE the idea of the cat café. I clicked through and had a look at their cute cats! It would be a good place for older people to go and get some companionship. My mum has missed her cat dearly since she passed away, and would absolutely adore being able to go and pat cats in a lovely place like that. She thinks she’s now too old to have another one and look after it properly, so having access to some would be great for her. I wonder if they’ll ever appear over here? I know the whole ‘pet’ market is huge over there with speciality shops and services that we don’t have over here.

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Linda – Oh it was THE BEST. We had a great time!! The cat café was so much fun (we ended up visiting our favourite café twice) … the kitties were adorable and ensured we had some feline love while we were away and missing our own cat.

      It would be lovely if we had similar concepts for cafes here, or at least other ways for people to be able to spend time with cute and cuddly critters. The Japanese are crazy about animals and all things cute, but I’d like to think we could apply the benefits of animal interaction here in Australia. It would be so wonderful for people like your mum. 🙂

  4. Pati Mo

    Wow what a GREAT post! Going to Tokyo is one of my lifetime goals, and this is a great trip guide. i’m glad the language aspect wasn’t a problem because that is one of my worries since i don’t speak japanese. Is their sushi different from our western sushi?? x

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Pati Mo – Thanks so much … glad you enjoyed the post. Putting it together made me miss Tokyo all over again … you’ll love it there!

      Seriously you’ll do absolutely fine without Japanese language skills … if we got through without much trouble, anyone can.

      Sadly I didn’t get to try sushi while I was there because it was hard to guarantee vegetarian options, but from what I saw the sushi wasn’t sold in such big pieces as it seems to be here (in Australia at least). 🙂

  5. Debby

    Hi Tracey
    It’s so good to find that you’re blogging again. Quiet Paws looks lovely, I like the new layout. It sounds like you had an amazing holiday. Thanks for sharing so many photos and useful information. This will be a great resource.

    Japan had never appealed to me until my daughter visited with friend for about ten days and came back so enthralled with the country. The busy cities but also the temples and tea ceremonies. Like you she went to studio Ghibli..fortunately it wasn’t too busy that time. She even brought me a kimono… I must tell her about the cat cafe…I’m sure she won’t be able to resist next time.
    debx

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Debby – Thanks so much for your lovely comments; it feels good to be back in blog world again … and as you can see, I have quickly become obsessed with planning my next visit to Japan. 🙂

      Your daughter sounds like she had such a wonderful time in Japan – much like her I loved the range of contrasts. A kimono is something I’d love to buy for myself next time … what a lovely gift for your daughter to bring home for you. xx

  6. krystal/village

    i am SO GLAD i read this!!! i am visiting tokyo for a week in november to visit a friend – i will pass on these shopping ideas for us, because they sound wonderful!! so excited for the 2nd part 🙂

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Krystal – Oh how wonderful!! I’m so excited for you visiting Tokyo in November (that’s not too far away at all). You are going to absolutely love it!! xx

      1. krystal/village

        i so did!!! Harajuku was my favorite area in tokyo, the shops were amazing!

  7. tinyWOOLF

    i am SO grateful for your efforts here to tell us about japan, and boy do they come in at a blessed time as i am daydreaming about japan. talk about serendipity. i just hope to materialize my dreams, but somehow i’m pretty sure i will. i will have to come back to your concise and effective info here.
    tracey, i can imagine you miss it; i already miss it, and i haven’t been!
    n♥

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi dear TinyWOOLF – Oh I do love to help fuel some travel daydreams … wonderful. Japan is such a lovely and fascinating country to visit, I have no doubt that one of these days your dreams will make that transition into reality. You are most definitely right in suggesting that I miss it … I’d dearly love to pay another visit very soon. xx

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