Tokyo wasn’t originally in our travel plans when we decided to plan our trip to Asia earlier this year. Japan in itself is a travel destination. A few days just doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about immersing yourself in the culture, the food, and the history. Japan deserves much more than the time we had to give it. And yet, as we started the search for flights, we were both surprised that airfare was much cheaper if we incorporated a longer layover in Tokyo into our plans. So with carry on bags stuffed to the brim with every contingency plan we could imagine for a long haul flight, we boarded a plane at Washington Dulles and emerged 14 hours later in Tokyo. With just 48 hours in the city, the clock started when we cleared customs – so here’s how we spent a whirlwind weekend in one of the world’s great cities.
What We Saw
Thanks to some impressive jet lag, we fell asleep incredibly early on our first night, but that ended up being a smart move for us- we had no trouble waking up for an early start on our one full day in Tokyo.
Our first stop took us to the Meiji Shrine, which is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and is located away from much of the hustle and bustle of the city down a tranquil, tree-lined road. The shrine is a lovely tribute though not a particularly historic place to visit (it was built in the 20th century and rebuilt after World War II), but our visit was particularly special because it coincided with Niinamesai, the harvest festival. The shrine was decorated with beautiful displays of fruits and vegetables, and adorable children in traditional kimonos cheerfully ran throughout the complex. We even saw a traditional Shinto wedding!
After an hour or so of wandering, snapping pictures, and exploring, it was time to head off to our next destination: Sensō-ji. First founded in 628, this Buddhist temple absolutely had the history I was excited to see (although it also was rebuilt not too long ago). Sensō-ji is a very popular tourist destination and is equally popular with the locals, so finding peace or a spot for quiet reflection wasn’t in the cards here- but the crowds didn’t detract from how much we enjoyed visiting! The five-storied pagoda and the Asakusa Shrine were definite highlights for us to see.
No one should return from Tokyo without a souvenir or two, and just beyond Sensō-ji’s main gate sits the Nakamise shopping street. Even this street has history- it was originally established to cater to pilgrims who walked to Sensō-ji. Today, the street is 200 meters of color and chaos. We found ourselves shoulder to shoulder at every turn as thousands of people sampled food and selected the perfect gift or trinket to remember their day. There are close to 100 stalls selling just about everything you can imagine- magnets, paper fans, t-shirts, artwork. There are also stalls selling food: handmade noodles, rice crackers, and mochi seemed to be the most popular. We were amazed by the lines; any vendor selling something to eat had people waiting for their turn to place an order. The crowds were pretty overwhelming (I occasionally get a touch of clausterphobia in large groups), so with purchases in hand we headed away from the masses… to the busiest intersection in the world.
Shibuya Crossing looks pretty harmless when cars have the green light. We stood on a pedestrian bridge above the intersection, watching out the window as the streets lights cycled from green to yellow to red. All of a sudden, the streets flooded with people- as if a gate had opened and the crowds could finally spill into the intersection. For a long time, the masses scurried from sidewalk to sidewalk, and as the streetlights finally turned green again the last people hopped onto the curb. All in all, it was a neat sight to see- but what’s amazing is that it happens over and over again. As the cars drive through, the crowds replenish and wait for their turn to take part in what the locals call “the scramble,” and no matter how long you watch there are always huge groups waiting to cross. To think of how many people walk through that part of Tokyo in order to create that volume so regularly is astounding.
Our second day in Tokyo was also our last. We were greeted with overcast skies but almost no crowds- it was a national holiday, and very few people were out and about. We woke up early and enjoyed a leisurely walk to the Imperial Palace. Set inside a gorgeous park area, we were a bit concerned as we approached that the grounds might be closed due to the holiday. We had barely seen anyone outside on the streets (even traffic was light!), but we saw a couple of joggers run through a gate so we followed their path. That’s where we found out where the people were hiding. The park was alive with runners, kids playing, tourists, and locals engaged in conversation. It wasn’t too crowded for us to get some great pictures of the palace and the Seimon Ishibashi Bridge, which dates back to the 1600s. We thought about exploring a bit more of the grounds, but four giant tour buses unloaded some very loud visitors who quickly descended on the area where we stood, so we decided to continue our quiet morning elsewhere.
Elsewhere ended up being Zōjō-ji Temple, located in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower. Zōjō-ji is a Buddhist temple. The highlight here was the Sangedatsu Gate, where it is said if you pass through you can free yourself from foolishness, greed, and hatred. We also saw Daibonsho, a large bell cast in 1673 that tolls twice each day to purify people of 108 “passions” that can lead them astray. It may have been the holiday, or possibly the location, but Zōjō-ji was much quieter than Sensō-ji, and we enjoyed the tranquility of our time there.
How We Got Around
Tokyo has an incredibly clean, efficient, reliable public transportation system, and when we weren’t walking we were on a train. That being said, we should have done a little more homework on what it means to take the train in Tokyo, because we were confused almost instantly.
Confusion began right after we cleared customs and found ourselves facing the challenge of getting from Narita International Airport to our hotel, located near Shimbashi Station. We knew there were direct trains available, so we decided to buy tickets from a ticket counter in the arrivals area instead of a ticketing machine. The lady we talked to told us there was a train that would cost ¥2650, but we could only pay in cash. After a quick trip to an ATM we found ourselves back at the counter, this time talking with a different lady who recommended a different train for only ¥1330- and credit card was OK. No problem; we bought the tickets, found the right track, and took an easy and quite scenic ride to Shimbashi.
The next morning we walked to Shidome Station (even closer to our hotel than Shimbashi- another fact we learned!) and were excited to find we could buy all-day passes for only ¥800- about $8, so a real bargain when considering a trip could be ¥160-220 and we were planning on using the subway most of the day. We got a quick breakfast before heading out to start the day- but when we tried to use our farecards the gate displayed an error message. The station manager quickly came over, took a look at our farecards, and told us we had somehow bought tickets for a different subway line. And that was when the confusion from the airport made sense: there were several different train lines, they all had different fares associated with them, and they often went to different places. The station manager very kindly helped us to buy similar all-day passes for the subway we intended to take (for ¥1000- still a good deal), and then we were back on track.
Moral of the story: when you visit Tokyo, take some time to understand the different train options and which will be best for you. We ended up taking Japan Rail (JR) to and from the airport and the color-coded Toei lines while we were in the city, although if I had done some more homework or asked more questions I might have chosen a different train strategy.
One more note: as it turned out, the first pass we purchased was refundable at the ticket office at Shimbashi Station, so we went there in an effort to get our money back. After a significant amount of pantomime, nodding, and shaking our heads, the very kind lady whose sad duty it was to talk to a foreigner with no Japanese vocabulary eventually understood I was hoping for a refund and walked me through a labyrinth of offices until we found a manager who could help. The money returned to us immediately went back into the Japanese economy as we bought dozens of interesting Kit Kats to share with friends back home.
What We Ate
Sushi. Ramen. Udon. Mochi. Your choices are endless in Tokyo, and our big regret is we wish we had more time to try it all. Tokyo is a city where you won’t starve as long as you are a bit adventurous. Most of the restaurants had picture menus on hand for non-Japanese speakers to make sense of the offerings, although in fairness not all picture menus are created the same: it wasn’t always easy to tell if the picture had chicken, fish, eel, or something else. Not much of a problem unless you’re picky or have food allergies, but it was a complication for us on occasion. We feasted on Udon noodles, teriyaki chicken, and tempura for most of our meals, and the food was delicious and fresh and left us wishing we had something beyond hibachi grills waiting for us at home.
Tokyo was an incredible city to see and experience, and we know our short trip didn’t even crack the surface of how you can spend some real time there. But Kuala Lumpur was calling, and so after just two days we found ourselves boarding another plane to begin the second leg of our adventure!