Didn’t read Part I of our trip report? You should be embarrassed! Go read it right now before all your friends point and laugh at you.
I will admit that my first impression of Tokyo-Narita Airport was not favorable. Where was the futuristic Blade Runner design everybody was telling me Tokyo had in abundance? Narita was gray and plain–did we just fly halfway around the world for a carbon copy of Philadelphia International Airport??
Thankfully, once you get past customs, you truly enter the Japan of your dreams: efficient and multiple modes of public transportation connect the airport to Tokyo, there’s new and exotic candy at the airport shop, and most importantly of all, seemingly crazy and elaborate vending machines!
I love how nearly all of the drink vending machines actually have these displays in the door so you know exactly what you’re getting. I’m not sure if it’s really that big of a deal and is kind of a space-killer compared to American vending machines, but having the actual product showcased to us consumer whores is somehow very appealing.
Above, Lance enjoys the peach tea concoction for which we never learned the actual name. We instead referred to it by its slogan: HAPPY UP!
…We then proceeded to spend the next seven days checking every vending machine we stumbled across (and man, there are a ton. Seriously, vending machines just in the middle of city blocks, on every train platform and inside every home!) for Happy Up!
Here comes our ride from Narita to Tokyo (which, even though called the Narita Express, still takes 80(!) minutes to get into the city)!
The Narita Express (N’EX for short) was very nice: spotlessly clean, ample amount of legroom, cupholders and garment hooks at every seat, with a food cart that would come down the aisle every half hour or so, not to mention an incredibly smooth ride (apparently, this kind of service is actually a thing in certain parts of the world!). While nice, you do pay for this level of amenity: it’s about $70 round-trip per person, but our tickets did come with a $20 transportation pass which we could use around Tokyo.
After exactly 80 minutes (punctuality is actually taken very seriously in Japan. SEPTA, please take note), we disembarked at Shinjuku Station. Shinjuku is one of the major neighborhoods in Tokyo, and its station is actually the largest train station in the world, with millions of people passing through every day–definitely not for the ochlophobic.
For hotel #2 on our trip, we were booked at the Best Western Shinjuku Astina. While I don’t tend to have the best experience with or impression of Best Westerns, this hotel got pretty solid reviews on TripAdvisor, and since they’re all privately owned, it’s hard to judge any individual property by the overarching brand alone.
Unfortunately, trying to use the directions the hotel provided from the station was nearly impossible. Not only were we discombobulated from a combined 15 hour plane and train ride, but there were like twelve “East Exit”s out of Shinjuku Station. We wandered around aimlessly and increasingly irritated until we just rolled the dice and headed out above ground.
…And there it was: the Electric City. Shinjuku is building on top of building of neon, restaurants, manga comic cafes, and shops. Photos don’t do it justice. Unlike American cities, where most public, commercial businesses are on the first floor or two, in Tokyo, businesses are literally stacked right on top of one another, 6, 7, 8 stories high. There are signs that stretch up the side of the building telling you which floor this cafe or that noodle shop is located. This is everywhere, too, not just in the busiest intersections (spoiler: they’re all busy intersections).
We had a little bit of difficulty in finding out hotel at first. The directions we had didn’t make sense, and the street signs in Tokyo aren’t all written in English like they were in my (in that moment useless) Lonely Planet guide. I had no idea real idea where I was going, but randomly selected a direction to go hoping it was in fact the right way. I knew there was a Mister Donut down the street from the hotel which I’d seen on Google Maps. I just needed to find the Mister Donut!
Not too long after, we found the two-story Mister Donut, and then our hotel. Hurrah!
Our hotel had this very interesting feature where you had to leave you keycard in this slot near the door in order to have the lights work; as soon as you removed it, everything turned off. A great way to save on electricity when you’re not in the room, a bad way to easily forget your key!
My first Japanese toilet! I was so mystified; not only did it have a bidet feature, but something called “shower,” too. I stood over it, marveling, pressing random buttons. When I got to “shower,” this little, robotic arm extended out from the back of the bowl, and then shot a stream of water three feet in the air! I yelled many an expletive as I was scrambling to turn it off as water was spraying all over the bathroom.
We walked around to explore a little bit that night, running totally on adrenaline and the caffeine from our first Japanese convenience store purchases, including the Starbucks Frappuccino with Coffee Jellies in it (literally, little coffee bubble tea-like flakes in the Frapp). We also hit up, like with every city we visit, the Gap. Sigh.
The next morning, I woke up bright and early at…4:00AM Tokyo time. This was actually kind of surprising to me, since I normally get up at 5:30AM EST, so I felt kinda adjusted already!
The weather forecast for that day predicted rain, so our bike tour was cancelled. One of the stops on the tour was supposed to be the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest seafood market in the world featuring a cornucopia of weird-ass fishy stuff. I don’t really care for seafood, but since I was a tourist and Tsukiji was a big tourist destination, I, like a sucker, had to go.
Lance had no desire to go to Tsukiji, so I took the opportunity to fit it into the trip while he was still asleep.
I hopped on the subway toward Ginza…
Above: the entrance to the Tsukiji fish market. As you can see, Tsukiji is not some Disney-fied tourist trap: in fact, it’s very much a bustling commercial space where tourists are merely tolerated so long as they don’t get in the way. Tsukiji is actually where a lot of restaurants from around the region will buy their seafood for the day. You can’t get any fresher than this.
Some of the below photos are not for the faint of heart. If you like fish and/or other animals, you might want to close your eyes and scroll
to further on down the page…
There were a few alleys near the market that were more geared toward capturing the tourist set, including some sushi places that had lines out the door as early as 5:30AM. Given that I don’t particularly love sushi (I can take it or leave it–good thing I was in Japan!) and Lance wasn’t around to goad me into it, I just moseyed around until I got bored.
My tourist itch sufficiently scratched, I headed back to the hotel as the sun was starting to rise.
Lance finally rolled his butt out of bed, and even though I was running on about 5 hours of sleep, my mind was racing, thinking about all the stuff we had to visit that day in order to make this trip “worth it.” There was no way I was going back to sleep!
Free breakfast at the hotel!
Of course, Lance couldn’t turn down the opportunity to stop by Mister Donut, which is almost non-existent in the U.S. these days (their U.S. branches were bought out by Dunkin’ Donuts).
As I said earlier, our original, daylong plan to take a bike tour though the city was cancelled, and I didn’t really have a back-up plan. At the last minute, I threw together a “greatest hits” list of places I wanted to see; of course, we may have gotten to about 30% of said list.
Above: Shibuya Crossing, supposedly the busiest pedestrian crossing in the entire world (this is the one you see in all the movies, though it didn’t seem that busy during midday on a Tuesday).
In Shibuya, Lance found a Tower Records. Of course, we had to venture inside to see what they’re selection of “obscure foreign cast recordings of artistically-questionable Broadway musicals” was like. What would we find??
Lance found a whole slew of Japanese cast versions of a bunch of musicals, though he only ended up buying the recordings for Aida, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Miss Saigon. Of course, not only were these at a specialty store, but a specialty store in Japan, so those four CDs cost about $150!
We soon afterwards spotted a Disney Store, and I knew they sold the Tokyo Disney park tickets in the Disney stores in Tokyo. As we crossed the street to get there, a cab started revving its engine. At first, we both thought it was a little weird, but didn’t think much of it. Once we were on the other side of the street and I started taking photos of the ridiculous facade of the Disney Store, however, the same cab’s driver was suddenly standing extremely close to me, saying something very insistently in Japanese. Was he asking if I wanted a ride? Had I somehow offended him by looking at his cab? (They’re all so pretty, all black with lace-covered seats and drivers in suits!) I panicked, repeatedly saying in Japanese that I was sorry and that I didn’t understand (something…both him and the situation), and eventually he just went back to his cab.
That was by far the weirdest, most inexplicable thing that happened during the trip! You might as well stop reading now!
After we got our tickets, we went to go look for something to eat in the Shibuya Mark City building. After lots of fretting (read: trying to find a restaurant that served something Lance would eat; thankfully, most have convenient plastic representations of their dishes near the entrance!), we settled on this place:
Though we’d only been going for a few hours at this point, I knew we were starting to hit that jetlag wall. Still, I wanted to see more of the city, so we hopped on the Chuo line to Tokyo Station to pick up our shinkansen (bullet train) tickets which I’d preordered through Japanican.
Many of the larger stations in Tokyo seem to have shopping districts of the size and quality seen nowhere in the U.S. (Penn Station and Grand Central? Not even close.) Here in Tokyo Station, there was a whole hall called “Character Street” with various shops dedicated to Japanese pop culture icons like Hello Kitty, Totoro, Pokemon, and Domo.
After waiting around for 20 minutes or so for the Japan Railways people to process our pre-booked tickets (why did it take so long??), Lance and I were bushed. I hadn’t gotten to most of the stuff I’d wanted to that day, but I knew if I pushed myself much more, I’d be exhausted for the following day, too.
Back to the hotel to go to bed at 6:30PM!!
In our third day in Tokyo (and already final day at the Best Western Shinjuku Astina!), we hit up our free breakfast yet again. As we were to find out, not only do most mid-range hotels offer free breakfast, but also pajamas and slippers! When’s the last time you got pajamas in your American hotel?
After breakfast, we were off to Mitaka to visit the Ghibli Museum! The Ghibli Museum celebrates the cinematic history of animation, particularly focusing on Studio Ghibli, the animation studio behind films like Spirited Away, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and my personal fave, Kiki’s Delivery Service. Ghibli films have many similarities to Disney films in some themes, but the tone is often much darker and they revel in the grotesque in a way I’ve never seen from Disney.
Ghibli animation (save My Neighbors The Yamatas, for stylistic reasons) is always top-notch; characters are always on model and each frame is chock-full of detail. There is no skimping in a Ghibli film.
This was the day that had the most packed schedule, with little room for error if we got lost or underestimated the amount of time it was going to take us to get between places. I was definitely rocking a mild case of anxiety this entire day!
Above: Lance on the Chuo Rapid to Mikata. Above his shoulder is an ad for a movie? comic? called Panpaka Pantsu, which is apparently about a pig, in a diaper, who likes to spank himself.
Mitaka was a breath of fresh air after running around super-condensed, congested Tokyo for two days. Lots of beautiful, green foliage everywhere as we walked from the train station to the museum. Also on the way to the museum? Signs with cute animals on them!
Finally, after following the Totoro signs from the train station, we were there!
Totoro at the ticket booth.
The message about the door, if I’m not mistaken, is also the slogan for the museum. Loosely translated, it says, “Let’s Lose Our Way Together.” The museum is designed in a non-linear fashion, so you’re encouraged just to wander the grounds and stumble upon things, crawl through tiny doors and up extremely tight spiral staircases (no fat Americans here!). The museum is not big, but it’s incredibly charming; you could easily spend a half-day here. Unfortunately, our schedule was really tight this day, so we only had about an hour to zip through the place!
The museum doesn’t allow photos inside, so you’ll have to Google (or use your imagination). Your ticket also allows you one showing in their Cinema Saturn, which runs animated shorts created exclusively for the museum. We were treated to one called “Mr. Dough And The Egg Princess.” It was suitably weird, but exactly what you’d expect from Ghibli. I can only imagine how many people enjoy experiencing Ghibli films while high.
Unfortunately, we had to leave the museum after doing a quick drive-by culture-ization so that we could make it to our next stop in Shinagawa…
Oh wait, I totally mixed up the order of things. We had to go back to our hotel in Shinjuku to pick up our bags. Here’s the Mister Donut which served as our “breadcrumbs”, so to speak. As long as we could find the Mister Donut, we knew where we were.
Above: We now had to catch the train to Shinagawa. Notice on the platform how people voluntarily line up, single-file, to board the next train. Wild! Everything is so orderly! I can only imagine what Tokyoites would think of the Broad Street Line in Philly.
See, our next agenda item was something that Lance has wanted to do ever since we started talking about traveling abroad together: seeing a local production of a Broadway show. Given our schedule, we were only able to get tickets to Beauty and the Beast, even though productions of The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar were also in Tokyo at the same time.
Unlike a lot of other big cities, there is no centralized theatre district; instead, stage productions find their homes in the random-est of places. This theatre was tucked behind a train station and a strip mall:
The facility was incredibly nice: surprisingly big and super clean, just like everything else in Tokyo. We could not get over how clean everything was! Philadelphia certainly spoils us with low expectations.
The show was exactly the same as when I saw the touring production in Detroit with my parents way back when I was a kid…except in Japanese. It was fascinating and weirdly comfortable at the same time. The production itself was first-rate, very elaborate for a non-permanent show. The most unusual part of the “translation” to Japanese was how they kept some English in the show. The characters still since the line “Be our guest” in English, but sing “Ohio!” instead of “Bonjour” during the opening song. Why change one and not the other?
Confession time: our schedule after the show was fairly tight, so instead of meandering around to find a restaurant to eat at, we may or may not have stopped at a McDonald’s…
Back at the train station to travel to Tokyo Bay. We had one more place to visit that day…
Next stop: Tokyo Disney!