I just got back from my spring break, 2 weeks in Japan and China! I had never been to Japan before but heard so many friends rave about it, so I had high expectations. My family was able to pull together some vacation days and make it into a joint vacation and trip home to visit my extended family in Beijing. I booked our Airbnbs a few months ago and didn't do much research beforehand, so landed in Tokyo knowing next to nothing! We bought a pocket wifi (essential in Japan) at the airport and then mainly used Google Maps to get around, which worked out just fine.
We stayed in Shibuya, highly recommended as it's one of the liveliest areas, popular with a lot of young people, with a ton of shops and restaurants. It's what you think of when you think of Tokyo. They're also famous for ""scramble," or Shibuya crossing, which is rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world. Our first stop after dropping off our bags--food! A common theme during our stay in Japan.
I had seen this conveyer belt sushi place on my friend's blog and decided to try it as it was cheap and convenient to our place. And what better meal to kick off Japan than sushi?
These places are fun as you sit at your own personalized tablet where you can order different sushi plates that are whizzed right out in front of you! You can order up to three items at a time and each item is only around $1-2 dollars each. We went around 2-3 pm, so a lot of the good items were already sold out for the day, but the fish was still tasty! And with our entire bill only being around $15, such a steal.
Tuna and salmon
A fitting snapchat filter
Our $5 instax with the maid
The famous Shibuya scramble, taken from the equally famous second floor of Starbucks
We ate ramen a lot on this trip as it was cheap, filling, and hey, you can only eat so much sushi. One of my favorites was Ichiran, a famous Japanese chain that you can find all over the country. You order at a vending machine (the Japanese love their vending machines) and then you go into dark corridor of individual cubbies. You fill out some more customizations (richness, oiliness, amount of spring onion and garlic, spiciness) and then an anonymous server behind the bar hands you your bowl of delicious ramen and puts the screen down. Then you eat in silence with 20 other people around you doing the same thing, all focusing on that single bowl of ramen. It's a unique experience that you can only have in Japan.
The second day, we made the trek out to the world famous Tsukiji fish market, the biggest fish market in the world (about 30-40 minutes from Shibuya by metro). I chose not to wake up at the crack of dawn for the famous tuna auction as I am definitely not enough of a sushi fanatic to wake up at 3 am for the auction at 5 am. We got to the market around 9 or 10am and wandered the outer market first, trying out the different onigiri, mochi, and sashimi. I've heard that the fish they sell all comes from the same stock, so it doesn't really matter where you eat as you're getting the same fish.
Different types of indistinguishable onigiri (rice balls) -- I grabbed one and hoped for the best
JJ's favorite mochi
The best fish I had this trip, at a sushi restaurant in outer Tsukiji market.
We walked around for a few hours and almost didn't find the inner market, where the real action happens. It was a couple blocks away from the outer market and it would have been easy to overlook it if you didn't know it was there. The inner market is where all the city's chefs come each morning to buy the freshest fish. They are all probably super annoyed at the tourists that come and interrupt their daily routine, but the market is probably more famous for being famous than for the actual fish market itself by now.
Line outside Sushi Dai and Daiwa sushi, right next to each other
The famous Sushi Dai and Daiwa sushi were also located near the inner market and had appropriately long lines outside. Once again, I wasn't quite keen on waiting in line for hours in the cold and rain for the experience. The fish I had at that outer Tsukiji conveyer belt sushi place was fresh enough for me!
After some hot tea, we took the subway again to Harajuku, the center of Japanese anime/manga culture where we hoped to see some Harajuku girls dressed in anime costumes (alas, nothing). It was a popular shopping district though and seemed like a nice central area to stay. Takeshita street is a pedestrian shopping street with shops, cafes, and crepe stands. We followed the winding roads to Fukuyoshi, a well known tonkatsu place that's supposed to be Eric Clapton's favorite restaurant in Tokyo.
After lunch, we strolled along Takeshita street and skipped crepes in favor of Garrett's popcorn (so random but JJ's fave) for dessert, and ambled across the street to Yoyogi Park. It was peaceful and serene and a haven from the frantic city pace across the street. We visited Meiji shrine in Yoyogi park, however most of it was under construction so I didn't take any pictures.
Washing hands before entering Meiji shrine
Our parents flew in that night and we ate some quick udon and tempura with them before heading off to bed in preparation for our day trip to Mount Fuji.
My mom had always wanted to visit Mt. Fuji, but I honestly wouldn't recommend it unless you had more time in Japan and were looking for things to do. It was difficult to get there -- you have to take a 2.5 hour bus ride (may be worth while to buy tickets ahead of time as some return tickets were sold out) there and back from Tokyo. The bus only takes off from Shinjuku and Tokyo stations (also Shibuya, but less availability). We had a great view from the bus but then clouds rolled in and we weren't able to see the top of the mountain for the rest of the day. And especially before the cherry blossoms had bloomed, the whole area was desolate and sparse. It would have been really beautiful in the spring/summer when the cherry blossoms are in season.
The bus (get tickets from Shinjuku station, around $75 round trip) dropped us off at Kawaguchiko station, the hub for exploring the Fuji area, and from there, we took a tourist "retro" bus around Lake Kawaguchiko. We got off at the cable car area and took it to the top (around $8) of a neighboring mountain to get a panoramic view of Mt. Fuji.
Excited for the onsen! Obviously no pictures inside
Our last day in Tokyo, we met up with one of my mom's old colleagues. They hadn't seen each other for over 30 years so he was over 70 years old, but we were struggling to keep up with him, he was so spry. Since he lives in Tokyo, he guided us around the imperial palace, the gardens, the Ginza district, and the Senso-ji shrine area. Unfortunately, we were in Japan about 2 weeks too early for the cherry blossom, and Tokyo was still shrouded with dead branches and grey skies (actually this was my biggest regret). However, we saw this one cherry blossom tree in the imperial gardens, blooming just a week earlier than all its peers, giving us the first glimpses of spring.
Imperial gardens -- it would be so beautiful with trees in full bloom!
Mini bamboo forest
Two arch bridge
For lunch, we walked to the trendy/upscale Ginza district for some more sushi. I wanted my parents to experience some conveyer belt sushi which took them them to a random sushi place in a mall. For my parents who aren't very adventurous eaters and would only ever eat Chinese food if it were up to them, it went ok!
Mom enjoying her first sushi platter
Finally, we took the subway to Asakusa for Senso-ji shrine, probably the most famous shrine in Tokyo. At all the touristy places in Japan, you can see girls dressed up in kimono costumes so they can take pictures in front of the sights. While they weren't real geishas, they were really cute to bring a little color to the landscape! I actually wanted to do it but it seemed kind of inconvenient.
Japanese cheesecake (masquerading as an egg tart)
Finally, we took the subway again to Akhibara, the electronics city, a few stops away. It seemed like a mecca for gamer types and computer geeks so I didn't get much out of it, but it could hold appeal to a certain type of person. They had anime maids out on the street handing out fliers and also posed with live owls to advertise owl cafes!
JJ said this picture reminded of the Westworld picture that gets lost in the park lol
Pooped that night, we took the subway to Shinjuku (where our second Airbnb was) and got ramen at a place that was recommended to me by TWO separate people, Fu-unji. It was a little awkward eating with a long line of people standing behind you, waiting to jump the moment you're finished with your noodles, but it has a large and loyal following. It's famous for its dipping noodles (tsukemen) but we all got the special ramen, which was...interesting. I thought the broth was a little strong/had a fishy undertaste but the egg was cooked perfectly and it was still good, just not that good. A funny thing that happened was that my mom and sister both added an egg to their ramen since it wasn't included in the first couple of places that we went to, but it was included in this one, so they both ended up with TWO eggs in their ramen, that of course they both couldn't finish. And my dad was devastated we were sitting apart so he couldn't eat their leftovers!
Inside of Fu-unji
There ya go, our three days in Tokyo with a side trip to Mt. Fuji. That's just the start of our Japan trip, stay tuned for Kyoto (Part I and Part II)!
Airport: We arrived in Haneda airport, as it's more centrally located than Narita airport. We took the subway to Hamamatsucho and then transferred to the JR Yamamote (circle) line to get to Shibuya. It took about 40 minutes.
Pocket Wifi: this was a popular option to get wifi in Japan and priceless for getting around. We picked up a pocket wifi in the arrivals terminal of Haneda (the only store there). We didn't do our research and so probably got a bit ripped off (it was about $70 for 8 days in Japan, I have seen quotes online for around 30-40) but it was the most convenient for us as we got it as soon as we retrieved our luggage. The pocket wifi accommodates quite a number of people and so it's adequate for a big family or group of friends. You can return the pocket wifi at any airport, so we returned ours at Kansai airport in Osaka.
Trains: There are two metro systems in Tokyo, an underground (Tokyo metro) and an aboveground train, the JR line. The trains are super convenient, arrive every 2-3 minutes, and take you everywhere you need to go, each ride costs $2-5 (Tokyo taxis are notoriously expensive), however navigating them is quite challenging. While I have traveled by public transport all over the world I found the Tokyo subway system much more complex and difficult to navigate. Imagine every station is like Penn station in NYC, they're that massive. Be sure to give yourself plenty of extra time to find the correct lines and platforms, more than you think you need, and use Google Maps. Get yourself a Suica card (below) to use the trains.
Suica Card: The best thing we did was buy a Suica card at one of the fare machines in the airport, which takes a $5 deposit. These are like Clipper Cards or Smart Trips, but also work at convenience stores and food stands in the metro station so you don't have to be fumbling in your purse for coins. You can also use them for coin lockers. You can keep your Suica card when you go down to Kyoto and Osaka as the cards work in those cities too, you'll just lose your $5 deposit as you can't return them outside of Tokyo. We were pretty conservative in loading our cards, only putting $5-10 them at a time, but we wouldn't be far off if we put $100 on each card as they were just so handy for the subway, coin lockers, and random purchases.
Cash: Japan is still very much a cash society. While department stores, drug stores, and big restaurants take cards, many of the hole in the wall and famous restaurants only take cash. You can either bring a wad of dollars to exchange at the airport or use ATMs in Japan to withdraw cash from your debit card (keep in mind the ATM fee). I know some people who also ordered cash from their bank, but we didn't have the foresight to do that. If you bring cash to exchange, definitely do it at the airport as rates tend to be better there (around 117 yen for 1 USD at the time we went). We also didn't see many exchange places in the city.
Coin lockers: Coin lockers saved our butts in Japan! We basically stayed in a different Airbnb every night (poor planning on our part) so we would drag our luggage to the subway station and store it in a coin locker. You can use your Suica card or coins to pay for the lockers. Around $6 for a big locker, $3 for a small.