Another year drew to a close and our latest holiday was a trip back to Japan for a close friend’s wedding. As you can imagine this experience was incredible. There was a sense of authenticity about our visit that had been lacking in our previous trip to Japan. Our experiences last year in Japan briefly touched on Japanese culture and history, whereas this time around we were able to immerse ourselves in the culture a little deeper. My biggest accomplishment from this recent adventure has been the handful of Japanese phrases that I have now picked up! As you will see in the upcoming blogs about Japan they definitely came in handy!
I had every intention of updating my Tokyo blog from our previous trip and publishing it as one piece. However when I sat down to try and do this I realised that the Tokyo that I had experienced during the short 3 days I was there recently was completely different to the Tokyo I had experienced as a Japan newbie. I had placed this city in a box and tied it off with string, assuming that I had understood the city and its people in a basic way at least. Yeah ok, I’ll be honest, I thought I had passed all of the cities tests and survived. Oh how wrong I was…..
Yes, Tokyo comes across as a calm, almost peaceful city, especially when compared to other global megapolises like NYC and HK. This my friends is where the city deceives you. The people are incredibly polite and quiet, there is none of the loud raucousness of NYC or Hong Kong. Instead, the city is overwhelming due to the combination of bright flashing lights, electronic noise and the teeming mass of people wherever you go. Having travelled around other parts of Japan, the change in pace, sound and sheer volume of people in Tokyo, hits you like a sucker punch. Everywhere you turn in Tokyo is crowded and people seamlessly weave in and out of the crowd to make their way.
This is possibly the most stressful aspect of the trip to Japan. Both times that I have been to Japan, we have landed in Narita airport and the travel from Narita airport to Tokyo honestly is a headache. The lines to get train tickets or exchange your JR pass have been endless both times that we have flown into Narita. After a nine hour flight, waiting in line for upwards of 30 mins for a train ticket is the last thing you want to do.
In the evening most of the Narita express trains arrive at Tokyo station, during the day it is possible to get a train that goes through Shibuya or Shinjuku stations. If for the return trip you want to board the Narita Express from Shibuya or Shinjuku just make sure to book your ticket ahead of time so that you will have access to a reserved seat for the train journey. This is the only way you can board a Narita Express train from Shinjuku or Shibuya.
If looking at this map gives you nightmares, you are not the only one. The Tokyo rail network is clean, efficient and always on time, however it is also incredibly complex. On top of this it is nearly always crowded. The Tokyo train station is the hub of the rail network, all the regional trains including the Narita Express arrive and depart from this rail station and as a result there are people everywhere. Regardless of the time of day, Japanese business men and women, families and weary travellers all briskly traverse through the wide fluorescent underground hallways of this train station. Figuring out which train you need to take to get to your next destination can be really tricky at Tokyo station and finding an information booth to help you can be difficult. The biggest tip for anyone new to Japan would be to either plan out your trip using Google maps ahead of time or if you are uncomfortable with this then you may be better off staying near Ginza for your first night especially if you are arriving late at night.
The majority of the large metropolitan train stations in Tokyo are underground, this can become a problem as cellular reception (for Google maps) can be difficult to access and inaccurate with location. In stations like Shinjuku certain platforms/train lines are best accessed from specific entry points into the sprawling maze of the underground train station. The other thing to know about many of the train stations in Tokyo is that most of the smaller stations only have stair access onto the platform level. Sometimes elevators are available however they can be difficult to find. This can be a huge problem if you have large suitcases that need to be taken up/down stairs or need wheelchair/mobility access. However there are options available where you can forward your luggage to the next destination so that your train travel is an easier experience.
Shinjuku is a vibrant area of Tokyo and is an ecclectic mix of luxury brands in the large shopping centres juxtaposed by narrow back streets serving authentic Japanese cuisines. The central area of Shinjuku is what most people would have imagined when they think of Tokyo. There are bright lights and billboards everywhere, some of the billboards have visual and auditory advertisements and people of course are everywhere. Its busy, bright but also has an underlying traditional Japanese vibe. It’s an incredibly fun area to visit where you can explore the various nooks and crannies however it can also be incredibly overwhelming with the bustle of people and noise.
Bus to Haneda
Day 2 of our trip and we were flying out to Hokkaido. This meant that we needed to catch the airport limousine bus to Haneda, which departs from the Shinjuku bus terminal. Its possible to get to the bus terminal from the main train station in Shinjuku, however you need to head to the street level as there is no direct connection to the buses from the underground subway. Once you are on the street level, its a five minute walk to the entrance of the bus terminal which is located on the rooftop level of a shopping centre complex. At the bus terminal in Shinjuku, you can purchase your tickets for the airports bus at the vending machines, there are plenty of buses that depart for Haneda airport from the bus terminal and they leave frequently. The trip to the airport takes 30 minutes although is dependant on traffic.
We arrived back in Tokyo for one night prior to our flight home the following day. This time we had booked a boutique hotel in Shibuya. This was one of the nicest hotels we stayed in during our trip, although the room was incredibly tiny! We arrived by train from Kyoto and disembarked at Tokyo train station. We realised afterwards that we could have gotten off at Shinagawa station and switched to the Yamanote line for Shibuya. This would have saved considerable time as the trip from Tokyo train station to Shibuya can take over 30 minutes.
Shibuya train station is another sprawling mecca, finding the exit to the street level can be difficult as they are discretely located. Shibuya has multiple exits so its good to try and figure out which exit you want to take out of the station to get to your destination otherwise you may end up doing a lot of unnecessary walking.
Shibuya has a very hip vibe and is filled with various department stores, bars, eateries and karaoke joints. Many students hang out and party in Shibuya district and the fashion in this part of town is on point. Its a stark contrast to the rest of the country. In Shibuya the fashion is sleek and avant garde and very different to the other prefectures of Japan we had been travelling in. It pays to have a few well tailored pieces in your Japan luggage for when you are roaming the Shibuya streets.
Tokyo is such a large city and the train network is incredibly complex. The positives are that all the signage on the trains and at the stations is in English and announcements are made in Japanese and English. Once you get the hang of how to use the Tokyo subway it is a great way to get around and just requires a bit of pre-planning. Sometimes though it is easier to catch a taxi or take a long walk to your destination as opposed to changing multiple train networks to get there. If however you do get stuck just politely ask someone for directions, everyone in Japan is incredibly friendly and helpful.