Why you should go to Tokyo


Why I think you should go to Tokyo.

There are cities and then there are citiesCities, in italics, are world-renowned entities that elicit rhapsodic poetic waxing (think London), are given nicknames (see Paris, “The City of Lights”), and have songs written entirely about how awe-inspiring they are (“Empire State of Mind”, anyone?). They elicit wonderment, gasps of “Oh my god, you’re so lucky!” and stabs of biting envy when you mention that you’ve been or are going.

It is in this frame of reference that I declare Tokyo a cityThe response I got from friends and strangers when I mentioned my upcoming visit was overwhelmingly gushy and positive. Seasoned travellers told me that it was one of the best cities they had ever been to; those who had never been let loose breathy sighs of longing. While this excited me, I have to admit: I secretly wondered whether Tokyo would live up to the hype.

Well… It kinda did.  Full disclosure: I didn’t love Tokyo, I didn’t fall under its spell.  I really enjoyed it but didn’t find myself saying, “I could live here!” while rueing the day I chose Hong Kong as my place of residence over Japan. But I found the city arresting, fascinating and perplexing, one of the strangest and most interesting cities I’ve been to.  Why?

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The charged atmosphere will dazzle you.

Bright lights, big city!  Everywhere you turn there are people and neon.  My travel companion and I headed to Tokyo’s Shibuya neighbourhood to take a look at the famed intersection of the same name; there, what seems like an infinite amount of people deftly cross the street.  After throwing ourselves into the fray to get a feel, we parked ourselves on the third floor of a Starbucks with a coffee in order to cop an aerial view. Just walking around the city is highly stimulating in and of itself, and will leave even the toughest critic sated.  The best thing about Tokyo? Drinking in all this atmosphere is completely FREE. IMG_6072 IMG_6044

The food.

All the great things you have heard about Japanese cuisine are true.  I am by no means a foodie, but gorged myself on sushi and udon the whole time I was there.  In Shinjuku, we were repeat customers at Sushi Mamire. IMG_6245 IMG_6248

It’s not as expensive as you think.

I went to Tokyo expecting to blow all my hard-earned cash, but actually returned home with a fair bit of unused yen!  Most of the attractions we visited (like Meiji Shrine, Tsukiji fish market, and Yoyogi Park) cost nothing to visit.   We stuck  to public transport, which was efficient and relatively inexpensive — on average, we paid about $2 USD per ride.  Eating out also felt relatively cheap; we ate heartily in restaurants for between $10 and $15 USD per meal. However, there is one caveat: accommodation. Our hotel, the 4-star Best Western Shinjuku Astina, was eye-wateringly expensive.  We paid a hefty $170 USD per night for a double room (buffet breakfast was included in the room price). That said, if you’re willing to compromise location and hotel class it is entirely possible to find something cheaper. My friend, who stayed on in Tokyo after I left, moved down the street to the simpler Hotel Sunlite Shinjuku, where she paid only $75 USD for a single room.

Hardcore shopping for the fashion forward.

Tokyo is a fashion mecca… Though it may not be the fashion you’re used to. Anything goes here — the wilder the better — and the amount of commercial space devoted to shopping means that if you’re brave enough, you can attempt crazy Tokyo style or create one all of your own.  I’m more conservative when it comes to my duds so stuck to old favourites like Uniqlo (in the Roppongi Hills mall) and Forever 21 (I visited the massive location holding court in Shibuya). IMG_6132

It’s steeped in history and culture.

Beneath Tokyo’s strikingly modern exterior lies a very particular identity rooted in history and culture.  After visiting the many tranquil shrines, palaces, and museums dotting the city, you can take part in a Japanese tea ceremony. My friend and I attended the one offered by Hotel Okura and paid $15 USD each for a private presentation. This display demonstrated the choreographic ritual involved in the making and drinking of matcha (a Japanese powdered tea), one which extremely traditional and highly intriguing. Tea time doesn’t quite catch your fancy? Think about taking in a sumo match or watching a kabuki (Japanese puppet) show.  If you do, please let me know how it was! Sadly, we were unable to secure tickets to either while in Tokyo — they were all sold out!

Unique experiences you probably can’t get anywhere else.

Tokyo is home to the quirky and the strange.  We barely scratched the surface of this side of the city but managed to sneak in the following during our visit.

Maid Cafes: Cosplay (literally “costume play” — a cultural phenomenon where people dress up as fictional anime or comic book characters) is HUGE here, as is fetish culture.  A combo of the two has resulted in the proliferation of the “maid cafe” — essentially a cosplay restaurant where the prepubescent-looking waitresses dress in frilly maid costumes and act as servants to patrons (often referred to as “masters” and “mistresses”). It really is bizarre as it sounds! We checked out Maid Dreamin’ in Tokyo’s Akihibara district. MaiDreamin Maid Cafe - Tokyo, Japan

Source: Uncornered Market on Flickr

Robot Restaurant: We also spent an evening at Robot Restaurant in Kabukicho, which is less eatery (the food is awful, actually) and more cabaret show replete with Transformer-like robots.  If that weren’t good enough, there are also many scantily clad women who straddle said Transformer-like robots (it’s not as sleazy/camp as it sounds, I promise).  If you can handle the garish lighting, loud music, and semi-nudity, it is well worth the $50 USD price of admission.

Reggae music scene: Lastly, our foray into “alternative Tokyo” involved a visit to a reggae club.  Reggae, the music form popularised by greats like Bob Marley and embraced the world over, is very much a hopping semi-underground movement in Tokyo.  My friend suggested we check out the scene, so we dropped in at Garam in Kabukicho for a hilarious evening hanging out with Japanese dancehall reggae enthusiasts (say that 5 times fast!).



But. There are a few things about Tokyo you should probably know.

English is not widely spoken. At all. Though we found locals extremely nice and helpful, very few spoke good English, which may be jarring for those who rely on being able to communicate while travelling.

Tokyo may be difficult to navigate. Streets and buildings are numbered in a way I am unused to, and sometimes English street signs and names are not available or visible.  Transport is excellent but understanding how to seamlessly combine travel on the metro and the Japan Rail — two separate systems with a dizzying amount of lines — may be a doozy. IMG_6023 IMG_6025

Accommodation is bite-sized, and poor value. Even by European standards, hotel rooms are agonisingly small and even more shockingly expensive.  Decide what’s important to you (location, amenities, hotel rating, etc.) and let that determine whether or not a room at a particular place is worth busting your budget.

Is Tokyo a place that interests you? Have you ever been to Japan?


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  • I would love to discover Japan! It’s the quirky stuff especially, that I’m drawn to! And the food of course! The metro lines look difficult to decipher…Did you get lost at all?

  • Not gonna lie, seeing that crowd of people on the sidewalks of Shibuya crossing kinda scare me! However, I would LOVE to check out Japan someday. I find it to be such a fascinating a country with a very apparent intersection of modernity and ancient rituals. Glad you had a blast in Tokyo!

  • Really cool to hear about your experiences! I adore Tokyo, and would love to live there one day. (I actually was planning on living there – I met my boyfriend in Japan and moved to Holland instead!) You’re right, it’s not too shockingly expensive as long as you’re comparing it to what you would spend in Europe or the US, for example. If you’ve just come from most other places in Asia you’re in for a bit of a surprise! I was lucky – I speak Japanese so I could talk to locals, but no Japanese can make it trickier than SE Asia. It’s definitely worth it, though 🙂

  • Why should English be widely known when the official language is Japanese? I understand English is the lingua franca, but we should appreciate other languages and not assume or expect everyone to speak English. Imagine what non-English speakers of other languages have to go through when traveling around the world? If you’re going to another country where English is not the official language, put in the effort to learn that language, or at least enough to get around. The locals appreciate that sort of effort, especially from native, English speakers who tend to believe they are more entitled to English-language accessibility everywhere.

    • As someone who speaks four languages (native English and French, fluent Spanish, and basic German) and is a teacher of English and French by trade, I agree wholeheartedly that travellers should not expect that English will be spoken and should make an attempt to communicate in the local language. The above was simply an observation for those (whether native English speakers or non) who rely heavily on being able to communicate in English on their travels, nothing more. Forewarned is forearmed, I say!

  • I have to admit, Tokyo was probably my least favorite place in Japan. Not to say I didn’t like it, I just felt that it wasn’t the technological wonderland that it’s made out to be, and unlike a lot of the big cities you mention above that have a lot of cultural attractions, it just felt like a big business city to me for the most part. I much preferred Kyoto and even Osaka to Tokyo, and though I’d be wiling to go back to explore a few of the neighborhoods we missed during our 3 days there, I don’t think I’d want to live there either.

  • I’ve been to Tokyo before, in 2010 and I absolutely love it. Currently planning a return visit. I chose to stay in a hotel that wasn’t near the popular sites, I can’t even remember the name of that area but it was a very quiet residential neighbourhood, so I had to travel everyday. I got the Japan Rail Pass which may seem a lot to pay for at first but was worth it because I also traveled to Kyoto and Osaka, as well as to places near Tokyo like Kamakura and Yokohama.

    Before going to Tokyo I didn’t expect much wrt fashion, but I ended up spending a lot on clothes. I admit I didn’t eat as much Japanese food as I should have, but I did develop a fondness for Japanese sweets. And it was the opposite for me with English. I know some basic Japanese and had crammed all the words I thought would be necessary for me as a traveller. But for the first week I landed in Japan I was able to communicate in English. This definitely was because I was meeting up with a lot of my friends who I met while they studied abroad in the UK, so they could speak English while encouraging me to speak Japanese with them. Of course after the first week, I then found myself surrounded by people who didn’t know a word of English, I’m still amazed I was able to communicate with them, my Japanese must have been really bad.

    And I found the train system easy. I expected it to be confusing after reading other tourists experience in Tokyo but I took to it relatively well. The only place that confused me was Shinjuku station but that’s to be expected. Other than that I never got lost or found myself on the wrong train.

  • Oneika! I’m leaving for Tokyo this Saturday! And we’re going to Kyoto! This was absolutely perfect! Thank you!

    PS. I may be moving to Hong Kong this summer!

  • Can´t imagine living in this city — It gives a whole new meaning to the word crowded. But visit and stay in one of its unusual hotels that´s something else. I´ve heard a lot about this Capsule Hotel where you sleep in a kind of tiny pod..Sounds like something very Japanese to do.

  • Lovely pictures! I have been dreaming about Japan for a long and and usually drool over my friend’s pictures as she lives in HK too and frequently goes to Japan yearly.

  • I frequently go back and forth on which place I love more between Japan and Hong Kong. There’s just something so alluring about Japan, and I think you did a good just touching on that here.

    Glad you finally got to visit Tokyo! Next time, you should totally head south to Osaka and Kyoto. Maybe I’m biased since that’s where I lived, but I enjoy them more than Tokyo.

  • Oneika! First and foremost…you are awesome! Secondly, how in the world did you navigate if the very few people speak english and little signage is in english?

  • My husband and I are going to Japan for our 1 year anniversary in November. Your blog post was extremely helpful! Looks like we are going to stay in the Shinjuku area.

  • Long time reader, first time commenter here! So excited to see you went to Japan and loved it – I’m going on a study abroad placement to Niigata this September and I cannot wait to visit Tokyo! Good to know things aren’t too expensive there, and the quirkiness is right up my street lol. I’ve heard Kyoto is also amazing (have a friend who’s studying there next year as well).

    Love your blog by the way!

  • One of my favourite cities in one of my favourite countries! I wouldn’t live there either but I’d visit often if I could.

  • I have been to Tokyo on a trip around Japan and I loved it. I am planning to go back and explore more of the country in the future.

  • Japan has been on my “list” for so long and I can’t wait to visit, but do, like you, worry that it won’t live up to the hype I’ve created when I finally do. Good to hear it wasn’t as expensive as you thought though!

  • Hey Oneika, thank you for this post. I haven’t been to Japan but I wouldn’t mind visiting it. As you said earlier, Japan is unique in culture and experience and I only know two people (incidentally my neighbours), who have actually been there as people seem to be quite put off…
    I would love to go there because it’s still a mystery for Westeners and not overrun by “everyone.” However, personally I prefer Hong Kong. I went there only a few years after “the handover” and it still felt quite British, and therefore “home” to me LOL!

  • Oneika, Great info! I’m planning a trip to Japan in September and sometimes it’s hard to know pitfalls and especially difficult to know how to work around them. You have provided info that will be very useful to me. Thank you!

  • There’s some very nice Japanese sites in different areas like movies, Japanimation and radio but many are just accessible from Japan. I hope this video is useful to visitors of http://www.oneikathetraveller.com as it hows how you can use a Japanese proxy to access them from everywhere.

  • I really want to visit Japan. I had a visit scheduled for this November but had to change plans and am now staying in NZ instead. The photo of the crowds is amazing I would love to walk through this!

    • Maybe a quick stopover in Japan on your way back from NZ is well worth it!

  • I absolutely, positively LOVE Japan!!! My dream is to move there and live out the rest of my life – but not in Tokyo! I visited in the summer of 2012 (Tip: NEVER go to Japan in August! You will suffocate from the heat!) Tokyo is amazing but also VERY crowded with lots of Westerners (big tun off!) I loved the smaller surrounding cities, my favorite being Kamakura – so nice! The locals were friendly and polite and for a big city, it was amazingly clean. Our hotel was spotless and the customer service is second to none in Japan.

    Although I went alone, three of my male Japanese Facebook friends who swore they’d come to my hotel and take me around to see the sights and all of them did exactly that! One guy would leave his job and come to my hotel and even came in on his off days to be my guide. Thankfully since they were all native Japanese, I didn’t have to worry about the language. Not once did I ever feel awkward because I was a black woman in Japan and that’s unusual for Asia. I’ve heard horror stories from friends who work in China and South Korea of the overt racism and puling of hair and rubbing skin – that didn’t happen to me at all in Japan. No staring, making faces, weird looks – nada. Of all Asia, Japan is heads and shoulders above the other countries as far as exposure and courteousness (IMO).

    Love your blog and I am working towards living in Japan permanently – but not Tokyo. 🙂

  • I used to live in rural Japan and am actually moving back to Japan to Tokyo in September for study abroad! I have been to Tokyo before (a total of 10 days), and didn’t totally love it like some people do. Reading this brought back a lot of memories of my previous visits, and I totally agree that it feels like a big business city. I will be going to school in one of the outskirt wards, so maybe it will be a little better for me.
    By the way, I happened upon your blog by that comment you wrote on Akilah’s Facebook post 🙂 I am really enjoying perusing some of your posts!

    • That is so cool that you lived in Japan! I was only in Tokyo for a few days but really enjoyed myself! That said, so many people have told me that Kyoto and Osaka are way more interesting. Thanks so much for coming by and I hope you’ll stick around Goldie!

      • Yes! I loved it and think about Kagoshima (the prefecture I lived in) all the time! Another thing about Tokyo that is hard for me (compared to Kagoshima) is that broadly speaking, the people tend to be a little bit more colder in personality and how they show emotion. I I occasionally have a hard time reading one of my close friend’s facial expressions who is a born and raised Tokyoite. I really like Kansai area too. If you ever make it back to Japan, I’d definitely suggest Kansai and Kyushu! Fukuoka is an amazing city and Kagoshima is really cool, in my opinion. Anyway, I really like your writing style and outlook, so I plan to stick around! 🙂

  • Hotels are expensive and small – but you didn’t mention rental apartments! There are many choices, but I recommend this one: Facebook.com/Shotozen
    Best thing, it’s just a short walk from that crazy intersection in Shibuya.

  • I taught English in Japan for two years recently and I’d have to agree that it didn’t always “wow” me. It is the Japanese countryside that completely stole my heart. The mountain towns and farm villages. The experience is so totally different from the ultra-modern and quirky Tokyo, still using fax machines and growing gardens at every house. I highly recommend a trip out of the city to a more rural area the next time you visit Japan, it’s completely worth it!

  • I absolutely LOVE Tokyo. The city has an energy like no other. I was only there for a week, but it wasn’t nearly enough time. I did enjoy my day trip to Mount Fuji and would love to more of the areas outside of the city. I was surprised at the number of people who didn’t speak English as well, but found the people to be extremely friendly and helpful. I can’t wait to go back.

  • I loved your review of Tokyo and could not agree more with your assessment. While I really enjoyed my time in Tokyo, I didn’t fall in love with it like I expected to. I did really enjoy the food, the in-your-face, anything-goes fashion and the nightlife. I also agree that accommodation was the only truly outlandishly expensive thing about it!
    Thanks for the wonderful article 🙂

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