Tokyo

Tokyo was far less intimidating than I feared. It was easy to get around using the subway and people were kind and helpful. It was the mix of traditional and bleeding edge that I hoped for.

Day 1: Singapore to Tokyo

There was no traffic so it took us 20 minutes to the airport instead of the 45 minutes we planned for. The driver’s device kept reminding him to “drive carefully” which didn’t instill confidence. We were so early for our flight we had to wait for the bag check kiosks to open. It was a good thing there were staff on hand to assist because the machine did not like the straps on our bags. Changi airport is very quiet and spacious. 

We landed at Haneda terminal 2 but our outbound flight will leave from terminal 3 so went there to drop off our checked bag. (We didn’t think we’d need our snorkel gear in Tokyo.) The sign at baggage storage in departures said it was full but while we were debating heading for arrivals they asked if we needed help and they said they could take our one bag for four days. So for about $6/day were were able to store our bag at the airport. It’s common in Japan to store bags at the airport and to have bags shipped to your next destination; we had forms for that in our hotel room. 

I got our limousine bus tickets to our hotel while Steve exchanged Singapore dollars to yen. It was fun finding the bus stop. While it was right across the road from the taxi queue, there was an impenetrable barrier between them. We had to go back upstairs and down a different escalator. The bus was full. It dropped us at Shinjuku bus station, an easy walk to our hotel. (Some buses stop at the door but we would have had to wait and hour.) This was our first real look at Tokyo.  

We dropped our bags then went to the FamilyMart across the street for beer and breakfast. We had one beer and crashed. 

Day 2: Sensō-ji and Ueno Park

Our first destination was the Sensō-ji temple, which meant we needed subway passes. Our hotel only sold the one day pass, so we went to Shinjuku station (the busiest in Japan) to find a three day pass. We got lost on the way to the station — we discovered that navigating in Tokyo is complicated by so many things being up or down a level — but found the station and a ticket office. A nice man came out of the office to help us and pointed us to the information center to buy our passes. It’s pretty obvious we’re not from around here.

On the subway to Asakusa station Steve and a female passenger did the “no, please, you take the open seat.” She ended up sitting next to me and chatting; told us there was a plum blossom festival going on (she was carrying branches) and that she taught Japanese to foreign students. Sensō-ji was beautiful and decorated with plum branches.

Senso-ji temple

We headed for Ueno Park from the temple. Along the way we saw plum blossoms silhouetted against skyscrapers and go karts on the road next to rickshaws. (You can do go kart tours on city streets.)

Ueno Park was a nice walk, with street performers and photo ops. We headed for the National Museum but the line was long so we skipped it. 

Near the fountain in front of the museum they even had footprints showing you where to stand for our photo. 

There wasn’t a lot blooming but we did see some daffodils and a few other flowers. 

We didn’t see any live pandas on our trip but we did see these panda topiaries. We checked out a nearby street market that had lots of clothes and some food. There are lots of stylishly dressed people here. 

We’d planned to go to Yanaka but couldn’t find an easy way to get there by subway so we headed back to our neighborhood, where we got baked goods for breakfast, went to the Hands store at Takashimaya, and had pizza. 

Day 3: Meiji-jingū, Harajuku, and Yanaka

We started the day with a walk. I don’t know if we would have found our way — certainly not the same route — without Google. It was a nice walk through quiet neighborhoods. 

We were headed to the Meiji-jingū Shintō shrine, located in a large forested area between Shinjuku and Harajuku. We walked to the shrine then out the other side. 

torii gate

Harajuku was busy with shoppers. We were there for modern architecture along Omote-sandō. It took us a few tries and some extra stairs to find the right but it was worth it. We’d planned our day to see Elvis impersonators near Yoyogi Park but failed. We were there are the right time but apparently not in the right place. 

Our next stop was Shibuya, to do the scramble crossing. Here’s the before, complete with more go karts. 

And here’s the during. So many people going in so many directions. 

We then headed for Yanaka historical neighborhood, which while busy was more calm. We saw several Persian rug vendors and a really long line for fried food. We were tired and hungry by this point so we headed back to the hotel and had dinner at a nearby burger joint. The Tokyo marathon was today; we saw scattered people in running gear. It’s also the last day of the plum festival. 

We’ve used the subway a lot here. The subway itself is easy to navigate. Most signs are transliterated into English and there’s plenty of info on upcoming trains and stops and how to find the right exit. (Some stations are huge.) Ticketing is confusing. There’s no tap to pay and you can only recharge a card with cash at a station kiosk. So our travel passes made it easy. Except they only covered the subway, not the local trains. Google kept giving us directions using both, so I learned to decipher and note our routes the night before using maps. (Subway stations are circles, train stations are squares. Joint passes were limited due to a worldwide semiconductor shortage.)

subway station

Day 4: Tokyo Government Observatory and Hama Rikyu Gardens

We walked over to the free Tokyo Government Observatory for views of the city. 

It’s amazing how big this city is. Skyscrapers as far as you can see. Besides the great views at the top there was a cafe and some interesting gift shop items. We scored some socks with a separate big toe to try with flip flops. 

Our last major sight was the Hama Rikyu Gardens. We saw more plum blossoms plus fields of canola and camellia, which doesn’t grow where we live. And the 300 year old pine tree shown below. 

old pine tree and buildings

We’d originally planned on heading to Ginza but decided to save our energy for Golden Gai instead. It’s a neighborhood of tiny — like cubicle size — bars in Shinjuku. We were too early for most of the action. 

We ended up at the Morris Lamb Chop pub for beer and food. Morris is one of Steve’s family names so why not? 

plane and spire

The following day we took off for home. I was a bit nervous about Japan, not knowing the language, but it was not an issue. And we ran into lots of super friendly and helpful people. We very much enjoyed our first trip to Asia and I hope it won’t be our last! 

Essentials​

Lodging

Our room and bath at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku were small (as expected), comfortable and clean. Nice pillows and selection of free amenities. And an elaborate bidet toilet. Those are the directions. It’s close to restaurants, shopping, and train, metro, and long range bus stations.

hotel room
toilet directions

Dining

We did not eat any Japanese food in Japan. We didn’t plan to do that, it just happened. The international food we had was all excellent. We had pizza and craft beer at 800°, burgers at JS Burgers (after a helpful shop guy showed us the stairs we couldn’t see), and more craft beer and fish & chips at the Morris Lamb Chop pub. We also loved the crunchy almond (and sesame) pastries from Sawamura bakery. All within walking distance of our hotel. 

Transportation

We took the limousine bus to and from the airport. It was convenient and significantly less than a taxi. We used our three day tourist pass for the subway a lot. It was worth it just for the convenience of not buying tickets.