For all the great travel experiences out there, few things thrill me more than landing in a new, foreign city with time to play. While Europe spoils for choice with its beautiful and diverse cities, Asia’s urban centres boast their own delights. From watching locals practice their dawn Tai Chi on Shanghai’s Bund, to scarfing down delicious pho and sweet coffee on the streets of Hanoi, or getting lost amid the energy of Bangkok’s nightlife, there’s no shortage of memories to be made on an Asia tour, in between the big sights.
Everyone has their favourite though, and I make no apologies for singling out mine.
I have never experienced another city like Tokyo. The Japanese capital distills everything I love about Asia into one of the world’s most accessible and well-ordered cities. Here are some specific reasons why it stands out for me amid such strong competition.
Despite multiple independent networks and minimal English translation, I was able to pick up the nuances of Tokyo’s public transit system within a couple of trips, eventually making it through my stay without even once getting lost. This included a spontaneous trip into the suburbs to visit a local friend’s favourite whiskey bar, and all the sightseeing I could stuff into five days. Simply load up your PASMO or Suica smart card (either will do, just remember to return it for a refund when you leave town), and away you go on Tokyo’s metro, and on the JR lines that run through the city. You can even use it to make purchases at certain shops and vending machines! Note that a JR Pass will not cover non-JR lines, or the local metro. Unless you have private transfers, a smart card is the easiest, most economical way.
When it’s time to eat, many Japanese eateries, restaurants, and pubs offer very considerate illustrated menus, or plastic models of various dishes. These are incredibly useful, since many servers only speak Japanese. They’re also a great way to try food that looks interesting to you without quite knowing what it is. Getting around allergens can be a challenge, so consider carrying a card explaining any food allergies in local characters, so you can jump into the local cuisine without fear.
Anyone who tries to shame you for eating your way through Tokyo, on your Asia tour, is just jealous. A few days here will show you just how far beyond sushi Japanese cuisine can go. In fact, while Tokyo is full of world class sushi options, locals consider it something of a special treat. If you’re determined to eat Tokyo’s freshest raw fish, join the breakfast queues at Tsukiji Fish Market.
But go beyond sushi. You’re in one of the most unusual foodie cities in the world, where the creative options aren’t just confined to high end restaurants. Japanese pubs are an excellent place to be spoiled for choice without spending a fortune, and to watch the locals at play as well. On the go, you can enjoy a street food culture as rich and varied as any in Asia, or duck into a noodle, ramen, or curry house for a cheap, fast meal. If you want to blend in with the locals, pick up a perfectly balanced bento box from a supermarket to enjoy in the park, on board the Shinkansen, or even at Kabuki-za.
If you’d rather be served your meal by cutesy Anime-style maids, await your food in a dark, creepy jail cell, or enjoy a full robot cabaret after dinner, your culinary adventures are limited only by your imagination in Tokyo.
Respect and hospitality are taken very seriously in Japan. While the Japanese are not intrusive or particularly outgoing people, they are proud of their country and will usually help an obvious foreigner if they can. Don’t hesitate to ask directions, preferably trying a little Japanese, however broken. Not only does it show you’ve made an effort, it may put the person you’re speaking to at ease about their own English skills, since fear of making a mistake can be the biggest barrier to Anglo-Japanese communication. Absolutely do not mistake Japanese hospitality for a submissiveness (even at a maid café where it’s part of the shtick). Instead, return the discretion, polite humility, and respect you are shown, and you may find yourself making friends quite quickly.
It’s Cheap… if you know how
As a bona fide travel cheapskate, this, for me, is a huge tick in Tokyo’s favour. You can sightsee for almost nothing. Specifically…
- Meiji Jingu shrine
- Senso-ji temple
- The view from Metropolitan Government Centre
- Tsukiji Fish Market
- Colourful teen fashions in Harajuku
- Geeking out in Akihabara
- Browsing a utopian shopping future in Roppongi Hills
- Walking under the blossoms in Ueno Park, or the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace
- The neon-lit streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya at night
All of these iconic Tokyo experiences are free, on your Asia tour, while many others, including the impressive National Museum, or a one-act ticket to Kabuki-za, offer superb sightseeing value. Tokyo can cost a fortune if you’re determined to eat at the finest restaurants and drink at the trendiest designer bars. Still, it’s completely up to you. Splash out on these luxuries, or save instead for a day trip to a spa resort or Mount Fuji. Just don’t turn up on too small a budget. You never know when Tokyo will surprise you with a “must-do” experience. Keep in mind also that many stores and eateries accept cash only.
Tokyo? Relaxing? It can be, especially if you discover the Japanese onsen. Public baths are ubiquitous throughout Japan, and many are fairly utilitarian affairs. A real onsen experience however offers you multiple natural spring baths with varying mineral ingredients and temperatures. They aren’t for the body shy, as you’re typically expected to completely disrobe in the (single-sex) bathing area, but the effects are fantastic, particularly after a long flight or sightseeing day. Get your head around the elaborate check-in ritual (which is part of the fun), then spend an hour or two hopping between pools, recharging and letting the day’s stress slip away. Onsen range from traditional style baths dating back hundreds of years, to flashy onsen “theme parks” like Oedo Onsen Monogatari. What these lack in authenticity, they make up for in fun. They’re a good pick for families and mixed groups as well, since you can regroup and socialize in the common areas in between baths. Many inns and ryokans also feature their own small onsen. It’s not the same experience, but it’s definitely a less confronting option for shy travellers.
Note that many public baths will not admit guests with visible tattoos, though Japan’s tourism leaders are encouraging them to relax this policy for foreigners, and some are beginning to do so.
It’s Endlessly Creative and Original
Japan went through its economic boom and love affair with all things western before the internet globalized pretty much everything. As a result, many things can seem familiar, yet unmistakably Japanese. While there’s no shortage of western icons and brands (hello Ginza), home-grown Japanese creativity and sensibility is everywhere, confidently evolving on its own terms. Boundary-pushing galleries and restaurants can be found all over Tokyo, but unique to the city is its sense of style and fashion. Now, Harajuku is not what it was 15 years ago. Takeshita Street is now little more than a pedestrian strip of chain stores and tourists hoping to spot a ‘cat girl.’ But dive into the nearby boutiques and malls on a weekend, and you can still see Tokyo youth fashion at its most creative. Though they’re a minority – perhaps even a vanishing subculture, it’s not unusual for young Tokyo-ites to be rocking original punk, gothic, Victorian, steampunk, or even Anime-inspired looks, as they comb their favourite clothing and record/CD stores for new ideas.
Yes, old-school music fans… rejoice on your Asia tour! Tokyo is your haven from the iTunes era!