In 2016 I travelled to Japan on an exchange program and was lucky enough to have some time for travelling beforehand! My first stop – Tokyo!
I arrived to a rainy and overcast Tokyo. After making my way through immigration and customs (heads up, this includes fingerprinting) I was greeted by the overwhelming sight of the Tokyo railway map. Wow. I think I stood in front of the map for ten minutes before deciding I needed help. I eventually found my way on to a bus destined for Tokyo station and instantly made friends with the only other person on the bus, an English girl from New Zealand. After the ‘hello, where are you from?’ formalities, we decided to spend the day together – and so our adventure begins!
There are a number of easy ways to get from Narita International Airport to the centre of Tokyo.
- Many train lines have a stop at the airport, including JR which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
- Public busses service the airport. I caught the ‘airport limousine’ which was a one and half hour journey.
- The airport is very organised (welcome to Japan) and there are literally lanes on the floor for travellers to follow to their destination, so if in doubt, stay in your lane and look for train signs!
We struggled around Toyko Station, which I think may in fact be a small city, looking for lockers to leave our luggage in but failed and proceeded to attempt to catch the train to my hostel.
- Hot tip! Do NOT rely on leaving your luggage in a locker at the station because you may be on the hunt for an empty locker for hours, only to get lost and forget where you left your bag!
- For proof that some stereotypes are true, I accidentally left my passport in the train station bathroom only to reach the panicked realisation five minutes later. After sprinting to the bathroom I found my passport exactly where I left it with a concerned bystander waiting for me to collect it!
Navigating the subway proved quite difficult to do while lugging my 30kg bag around and so we ended up catching a taxi. After dumping our bags we were finally free to explore!
First stop was a department store basement which was joined to Ginza station. This place was a food wonderland. Eating at a department store sounds less than glamorous, however it is a totally different experience in Japan. More akin to the David Jones Foodhall (fancy food market to those unfamiliar) than a food court, the array of food was incredible! 10/10 recommend.
– a fruit stall with individually wrapped fruit and strawberries the size of oranges,
– pre-packaged curries, noodles and vegetables that looked amazing,
– beautiful cakes that would not have looked out of place in a French patisserie,
– a variety of fresh fish and seafood I had never seen before.
Every department store will have a food floor, usually at basement level. It is usually a sort of market, with lots of individual food stands but will also have a general grocery store. They had samples of some pickled fish which was delicious.
Food samples are everywhere so you could almost eat a meal for free here (I have the eye of an eagle where free food is concerned). We walked out with a small sweet bun with pink sugary decorations for cherry blossom season, and lotus flower root with pork and sauce. Now, after buying this delicious food we remembered it is frowned upon to eat in public in Japan, forcing us to hide down an alley and try to very secretly, and quickly, eat our food.
- Eating in public is considered, for want of a better word, rude in Japan. The Japanese take meal times seriously and try to always put aside time for a proper sit down meal. For quick meals on the go, convenience stores such as 7/11 and Family Mart usually have a few seats inside or an area just outside the store for people to eat. Of course, this doesn’t apply for markets and street food stalls. Rule of thumb, if you can’t see anyone eating then it’s probably not the place.
We then made our way to the famous G.Itoya stationery store, which has eleven floors! This store was beautiful, colourful and very organised. If you like stationery, it’s definitely worth a look.
Still hungry despite our earlier snacks, we stopped at a small Japanese restaurant and had our first proper meal in Japan! I had a big bowl of (ramen?) soup and omurice. Omurice is a mountain of rice with omelette and sauce on top, an example of western influence on japanese cuisine. It is delicious, if not all that traditional, and for 700Y (about $8) you can’t go wrong!
Our next stop was Asakusa, a trendy neighbourhood home to one of Japans most significant temples, Senso-ji temple. The Senso-ji area also includes Asakusa Shrine. On entering you walk under an impressive gate with a huge red lantern hanging within and are greeted with rows of markets teeming with tourists and locals.
The shops along this strip sell handmade crockery, painted chopsticks and fans, t-shirts, food and many other things. I found this area too touristy and a bit tacky but other people I have met really enjoyed it. The temple itself is large and beautiful, however the amount of tourists and gimmicks surrounding it made it a less enjoyable experience (I found a much nicer shrine in Harajuku). My mistake may have been visiting on my first day in Japan, before acclimatising to the sheer number of people about.
After all this it was finally time to check in to my hostel and recover from the flight and long day exploring. The hostel I stayed at was lovely. I think I was definitely very lucky to have a great first hostel experience.
I stayed at Irori Hostel in the Nihonbashi neighbourhood. It is close to central Tokyo, about ten minutes on the train, but in a quiet neighbourhood with small craft shops and Japanese restaurants. The hostel staff are friendly and have good English skills.
That night in the hostel I was invited to join a table of Japanese men cooking fish on the ‘irori’ – tables which open and have fire pits within for grilling fish or vegetables.
The men all worked at a magazine – writer, author and illustrator – and were researching Tokyo hostels. Their spoke very little English so we communicated via a little translation from the staff and with the very few English words they did know, such as ‘Crocodile Dundee’, ‘Kangaroo’ and ‘Beer’. They cooked squid, pike and butterfish which was delicious. I also tried sake for the first time, which is like a mild vodka. Sort of a spirit and wine in one drink. All in all, I received a very warm welcome to Japan and ended my first day on a high!