Thanksgiving break was a little bit different for me this year – normally I’m sleeping a lot, watching football and eating way too much pumpkin pie. This year I was sleeping very little, wandering streets at strange hours in the night, eating all the noodles and sushi I could handle, and waking up to an earthquake.
Japan isn’t a country I had immediate plans to visit. I thought it would be cool to check out one day, but I mostly had southeast Asia on my mind because that’s what is closest to China (and cheapest). But when Alli planned to visit a friend in Japan and we found a way to make it affordable, it was hard to pass up. We booked a flight, a hostel, a train ticket, and that was that: we were going to Tokyo.
There are 23 wards in Tokyo – we stayed at the Ace Inn Hostel in the Shinjuku area, which worked out nicely because we spent most of our time in the central wards of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Chiyoda, and Minato.
We only had three full days to spend in Tokyo, so we jam-packed as much as we could into our time there. We also tried to our best to save money, so we found lots of great things in Tokyo for little or no cost.
Tip: Before going to Japan, it’s very helpful to learn a bit of Japanese and have a useful translation app! I recommend downloading Japanese Translator + for free before you go.
Wednesday November 23
Our journey from Hengyang, China to Tokyo, Japan wasn’t a trip across the Pacific, but it wasn’t a short journey either. It technically started at 9:30pm Tuesday night with a taxi to the Hengyang train station, then continued with a train ride to Changsha High Speed Railway Station, another taxi, and then sleeping in the Changsha airport.
After 3 hours of shut-eye on a bench being watched by various Chinese passerby, we woke up, caught our flight to Shanghai, missed a flight to Tokyo, and then finally flew to the Tokyo Narita Airport.
Once we reached Tokyo, we needed to take a train into the center of the city and then transfer to a metro line that would take us to Akebonobashi Station where our hostel was.
In total, it took us 26 hours to leave our apartments in Hengyang and go to sleep in our hostel in Tokyo (yeesh).
Thursday November 24
Thursday morning I woke up to an earthquake around 6 a.m. (an earthquake!) The building was swaying back and forth and when I looked outside it was also snowing – the first snow Tokyo has had in over 50 years. It was all a little dreamy and whimsical (mostly the snowing and waking up in Tokyo, not the earthquake part).
We got ready and went out to find a portable wifi adapter to carry with us during our stay – these are super popular in Japan right now but we promptly gave up on finding one after a wild-goose chase and instead went to cross some things off the Tokyo Bucket List.
This was our first real event in Tokyo. When researching Japanese food to try, we found this noodle shop near the Shinjuku train station. It’s actually pretty famous in Tokyo and you can read more about it here. There’s always a line out the door, but it didn’t take too long to get inside.
We met another American traveler named Andrew who helped us with the system; you use a machine to punch in your order – noodles are 750 yen, and then you choose extra toppings for 100 yen each, like a boiled egg, green onions, seaweed, or bamboo shoots.
The machine gives you tickets with the orders you chose and you wait in line until you make it to the counter. You give them your tickets and tell them if you want a small, medium, or large bowl of noodles (all sizes are the same price).
There are only 12 seats in the restaurant, so it’s not a long drawn out eating experience – you eat your noodles quickly then move to open up space for more people.
Tokyo City View in the Mori Tower
At the Roppongi Station there’s a famous shopping area and a giant building called the Mori Tower. At the top is an observation deck with a planetarium inside. For just 1200 yen you can go to the top and walk around the 360 view of Tokyo. It was gorgeous and the night view was amazing. They had a photographer there taking pictures – Meredith and I loved the picture and both of us bought it for 1300 yen.
Getting Lost in Shibuya
I don’t mean this in the cute way of saying we walked around Shibuya and got lost and found ourselves and discovered the meaning of life and all that, I mean we were wandering around for two hours trying to find a pub and absolutely could not find it. The American we met earlier asked if we wanted to hangout later and suggested this place in the Shibuya district, saying it was an 8 minute walk west from the train station.
Meredith and I hadn’t been to Shibuya at this point, and other train stations have been relatively easy to navigate, so we weren’t worried …until we got there and saw there were like 4 train station exits, and 5 streets headed west, and Shibuya is huge with small side streets everywhere.
We’re both seasoned travelers (or so we thought) but it took us an embarrassingly long time to figure it out, and poor American Andrew had to come meet us back by the train station and take us there.
Even though it was cold and frustrating because our maps weren’t working, I loved Shibuya. It’s like Times Square – big lights everywhere, lots of people and shops and neon signs. There’s also a really cool thing called the Shibuya Crossing, a giant crosswalk rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world.
We grabbed a late dinner at a noodle shop Andrew heard was good (it was good) and we also accidentally left our photos from the Tokyo City View here when we went to grab a taxi (oops).
A few thoughts after traveling in Japan for a day:
There are NO trashcans anywhere
Our whole day turned into a chorus of “Do you see a trashcan?” “I need to find a trashcan” “Can we stop by the bathroom? I don’t have to go, I need to throw this trash away.”
Someone told me this is because of a terrorist attack that happened in the subways in 1995, and it is also an effort at being more environmentally friendly. (It seems paradoxical at first, like there would be more trash on the ground because there’s nowhere to throwaway your trash, but the opposite is true. There’s no trash anywhere.)
Don’t miss the last subway and avoid taking taxis in Japan
The subway lines close between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. and you should not miss the last train and take a taxi from Shibuya to your hostel because it will cost you 3000 yen (note to future self). They’re so expensive after coming from China where taxis are cheap!
Family Mart and 7/11 are lifesavers
You can find either one of these little marts on pretty much every street in Tokyo and they are the greatest. When you’re in a foreign country and need to buy a phone charger, grab some fast and cheap food, or find free WiFi, these places have got you, fam.
Download some apps
I used an offline city map (Ulmon Tokyo Map) that showed me landmark locations and popular destinations, and I downloaded a subway map (tokyosubway) to plan routes and look at which subway exits led where. I also used an app called Japan WiFi which shows you free WiFi locations and helps you connect to the free WiFi in the train stations and subways stations.
Japanese people are really polite and environmentally friendly
I’ve always heard Japanese people are polite but wasn’t sure how accurate it would be. I don’t want to be reinforcing stereotypes and put a blanket statement out there saying all Japanese people are like this, but from my experience people were very polite.
They stand neatly to the left side of the escalator for people to move quickly past them on the right side.
They don’t push you to get onto the subway. They are generally quiet on public transportation. (Chinese people talk very loudly on their phones and to each other on buses and trains.)
They don’t spit on the streets.
They help you buy train tickets when you don’t know what you’re doing. (Of course some of the things they do are just common human courtesies you would find people from most any country doing.)
They have small, limited public smoking areas. In China, everywhere is a smoking area – in school, in restaurants, in taxis, in bathrooms. It doesn’t matter, I’ve seen it everywhere. Not in Japan.
I saw many people waiting in line to read the maps outside train stations. No joke, we were looking at a map and then realized a line had formed behind us. I saw this several other places too. It’s unbelievable. Coming from China, these things really stand out.