Super fast-paced city, crowded, organised, cultural, food heaven, shoe heaven…I could go on and on with words to describe this amazing city. We began our Japanese adventure here in Tokyo right at the beginning of the Golden Week. Tokyo has been one our dream cities we have always wanted to visit, but put off by the high cost. Choosing inexpensive and mostly free activities and planning carefully we had a great two weeks in this city.
Golden Week is a cluster of public holidays packed in to one week (starts end of April), it is one of the busiest periods in Japan as people spend time with families and friends. Hotel prices become inflated and the transport links are busier than usual. For many tourists, this might not be the ideal time to travel in Japan. However, we remained in Tokyo until the Golden Week had finished and during our stay we finally meet our friend Kevin.
THINGS TO DO
To find our bearings we headed to Shinjuku for a panoramic view of the city from above at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. There is a free to access observation floor at both towers; North and South Observatories (the North is opened until 23:00 and the South closes earlier at 17:30).
Tokyo is split into multiple neighbourhoods, we were keen to find alternative, less busy places to explore. We discovered Shimokitazawa, a hipster hangout which only took a 3 minute train ride from Shibuya. Cosy cafes, vintage clothing shops and a relaxed vibe, Shimokitazawa was a great place to chill and people watch.
The Studio Ghibli Museum was one of the things we wanted to see in Tokyo (having been inspired by the famous Ghibli animation films). However, not knowing that tickets can only be purchased many months in advance we missed our chance. I still checked out the area (Kichijoji) where the museum is based and there is a cool sneaker store (K Skit) selling rare stock which gave me another reason to go. After leaving Kichijoji station I walked towards the nearby Inokashira Park, most visitors on their way to the Ghibli Museum will pass through this lovely park. Surprisingly it was uncrowded and the park is connected by different walkways that lead into forested areas and bridges over the ponds. This soon became my favourite park in Tokyo, it’s far from the centre but there is plenty here to warrant a day out.
Tokyo is blessed with many green spaces across the city, you don’t have to go far to find a spot to chill. We walked through Uneo Park, another pleasant park if not busier due to nearby attractions and ease of getting there. Our plan was to go to Nezu Shrine from Uneo. Walking through the backstreets of Nezu we saw traditional buildings along the way to the shrine. The area is renowned for it’s historic buildings surviving the World War II.
Of course we would not leave Tokyo without seeing the more popular areas such as; Akihabara (as featured on the cover image) for it’s electronic stores, manga and anime. Asakusa for Sensoji Temple and Nakamise Shopping Street. Harajuku – touristy, fashion stores, crepes and maid cafes. The great shopping and entertainment districts of Omotesando, Shibuya and Ginza.
One of the highlights for us was a visit to Tsukiji fish market. We’ve heard that to see the market in action (for businesses) and you have to be there around 2 or 3am and the market limits to 100 visitors per market day. For the rest of us who cannot get up at this time, the surrounding streets are filled with public market vendors (opened until 2pm) and resturants with all the fresh sushi, sashimi and king crab you can eat! The earlier you go the better to enjoy the freshness of the fish and it’s a very popular place attracting many crowds at lunchtime.
We spent our final day in Tokyo in Odaiba with Kevin and his family. This popular entertainment and shopping area is constructed on an artificial island and comes with it’s own sandy beach. Earlier this year, the famous 18m tall Gundam statue in Odaiba was taken down as part of ongoing refurbishment works – to be replaced with a new Gundam model in late 2017.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in Ikebukuro in a modern apartment found on Airbnb, it was cheaper than a hotel. A city within a city, Ikebukuro is as large as Shinjuku and Shibuya – self contained with shopping and entertainment outlets. The Yamanote Line (Tokyo’s ‘Circle Line’) serves this major hub, along with subway and JR services. Ikebukuro was the ideal base for us to explore Tokyo with many sights and popular areas within easy reach. We would happily stay here again.
WHERE TO EAT
We would usually recommend a few resturants in this section but the number of food places in Tokyo is extraordinary and to save on cost we mainly ate in. You can almost get anything in Tokyo from international cuisine to Japanese food which is not too expensive. A good value sushi place is すし台所家 渋谷本店 Sushi Daidokoya in Shibuya. They have picture menus and the restaurant always seems to be busy so prepare to wait.
Ramen noodles can be cheap, look for ramen resturants where you can self order from the ticket machines at their entrance.
With room for desert, there are endless cafes and desert shops across Tokyo. We noticed pancakes are the thing at the moment – with each store selling their different creations.
For the budget traveller, the convenience stores and supermarkets is your best option (with the occasional eating out). The stores sell fresh ready meals and are mostly affordable. Food courts in the shopping centres can also be great places to find a bargain meal, especially the market style ones where you ‘pick and mix’ food items – if you go an hour or two before closing time you might find discounted goods.
Tokyo is renowned for it’s efficient transport services. The most reliable and affordable way of getting around this metropolis are the trains. The Japan Rail (JR) company covers most of the main lines and this is where you can use your Japan Rail Pass. There are privately run lines and services where you cannot use your rail pass and you have to purchase a separate ticket. We did not actually begin our JR Pass until we left Tokyo, so we used IC cards (a contactless card) and paper tickets. Buying a paper ticket for a single journey can be confusing as the machines require you to enter in the correct fare rather than the destination. We recommend you purchase an IC card at the station keep it topped it up, either the Pasmo or Suica card – it can be used almost anywhere nationwide and very convenient.
- English is not widely spoken even in Tokyo. Many public signs and menus are in Japanese only. We recommend you download the Google Translate app for your smartphone and download the Japanese language pack for offline translation (it will use your camera and translate in realtime). Although not 100% accurate you can always ask someone for help at public information desks.
- Public WiFi is sparse but you will find in cafes and in most rail stations across Japan. You can buy a local prepaid sim card (data can be pricey) or use your accommodation’s pocket WiFi device (if supplied).
- For Studio Ghibli fans and those wanting to visit the museum – order your tickets online through their official website (at least 2 months before you arrive) www.ghibli-museum.jp/en or through authorised reselling agents. It is really difficult to buy tickets in Japan. At the time of writing, Studio Ghibli announced a new Totoro theme park to open in Nagoya City in 2020.
- Book your accommodation as early as you can so you can benefit from good deals, hotels tend to be a bit more expensive and the rooms can be very compact. We recommend staying in a private apartment for longer stays found on Airbnb.
- Costs can be managed if you stick to a reasonable budget. We knew Japan is an expensive country but not shockingly so and prices are comparable with cities like London. A good website offering Tokyo day out ideas and cheap places to eat is www.TokyoCheapo.com