I’m doing a series of blog posts on my recent trip to Japan, over the Christmas holidays. Why? One: I miss travel blogging, and I realized recently there was nothing stopping me from doing it, beyond inertia and just sort of forgetting to. Two: Perhaps someone on the Internet will find this travel advice useful, and I’d really like to direct other people to some of the fantastic restaurants and places we visited during our trip. So, let’s begin with the beginning.
TOKYO: DAY ONE
I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, but despite living in Southeast Asia for years, I’d never managed to make it over before. When my parents suggested that my partner and I spend Christmas in Japan with them, I was thrilled: I also realized, to my embarrassment, that I really didn’t know shit about Japan. My Japan-centric knowledge before I arrived was a confused smattering of data on Japanese woodblock print landscapes, regional Japanese cuisine, beetle-fighting, half-remembered bits of anime shows from the 2000s, and errata absorbed from history books about other places in Asia.
My parents, who invited us on this trip, my dad had worked for a Japanese company for a number of years and had been many times, while my mother went for the first time as a kid back in the 1960s and has returned periodically ever since. My parents adore visiting Japan and have always spoken very highly of how pleasant, easy to get around, and (most importantly) delicious everything is. The one thing they don’t like about Japan is the fetid heat of summer time, and our end-of-December trip was perfectly timed to avoid it.
My mother had put together a classic itinerary for us. We’d start with a few days in Tokyo, proceeding to a hot spring (onsen) in the mountain-town of Hakone near Mt. Fuji. We’d then head to the ancient capital of Kyoto, and finish up in the industry-and-food town of Osaka. Thanks to Japan’s railway system, getting between each of these cities was easy, and we didn’t find it to be too compressed or rushed a schedule.
Traveling in Japan, for an American in a coastal city, is about as expensive as traveling in the US. The only inherently pricy thing about Japan for Americans is getting there. We bought our tickets early in the year, and we were lucky enough to book ourselves direct flight on JAL from Boston to Tokyo, a thirteen-hour long flight that passes over various beauty spots in Siberia. JAL was perfectly nice – as is the case, in my experience, with all airlines that aren’t run by my fellow, surly Americans – and I enjoyed looking out at the frozen expanses of Kamchatka whenever I got bored with watching violent comic book movies, of which there were so very many options.
When we began to descend near the end of the flight, I noticed a suspiciously conical-looking cloud out the window. Mt Fuji, or a suspicious cloud? The sun was in my eyes, but I kept glancing back at it, until the air became hazy and it became truly apparent what I was looking at. It was Mt Fuji, and we were landing at Narita.
Our flight arrived in the early evening, at 5:30 PM, and we had expected to meet my parents outside of customs. I figured out over the course of about ten very agitated minutes that we were actually in different terminals. Which brings me to my very first Japan travel tip, though it is in fact a very general travel tip, the sort you’d think I’d have memorized by now: figure out what terminal you’re in before you try to meet people at the airport. Daniel and I grumbled at each other and ran over to the bus between terminals, which deposited us at the stop for the shuttle bus to our hotels in the Shiodome area of Ginza. (Taxis from the airport are, I’m told, very expensive, and Narita is almost exactly an hour’s drive away from Tokyo proper).
Driving into Tokyo from the Narita side was not, I think, one of those great mind-blowing city entrances. I will never forget the first time I saw the glittering skyline of Hong Kong, approaching from the sea. But that’s deceptive. Tokyo is the biggest city on the planet, with 37 million inhabitants. We often assume that translates into it being a heaving mass of human beings, like Times Square literally all the time but with more vaguely dystopian neon lights. What many Americans don’t know is Tokyo is also a very spread-out city, and it is not nearly as dense as we tend to assume it is. Tokyo can be classified as a “low rise, medium density” city (at least according to this writer.
I was struck by this throughout my time in Tokyo. The city just didn’t feel crowded to me, especially in comparison to the other high-density megacities I’ve visited, like New York City, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Manila. I’m extremely familiar with that feeling of being squashed in the sweaty armpit of humanity while walking around in giant cities, and I’d sort of assumed that was what I was going to get in Tokyo: the truth was something much different, and more pleasant. Of course, we were visiting in winter, where there are fewer tourist – and cooler temperatures help with that perception of uncomfortable urban closeness. It also helps, as my mother pointed out, that much of the urban foot traffic and activity happens underground in the huge concourses and tunnels around mass transit stops, or on walkways elevated above the city. In American cities, even dense ones, most people tend to congregate or commute on the street level. This is decidedly not the case in Tokyo.
We were staying in the Shiodome area, which my father was very familiar with from his time working for a Japanese company. The district is very close to Tokyo Bay and to the old Tsukiji market area, and it’s home to luxury hotels like the Conrad Tokyo (where my parents stayed), and perfectly nice business hotels like the Villa Fontaine (where my partner and I stayed).
While the Shiodome area is indisputably an uber-polished business district where very few people actually live, it’s a great base for outward travel to the rest of the city, as the hotels are essentially on top of Shimbashi station. I enjoyed observing little snippets in the daily lives of the Japanese commuters trooping into their respective high-rise office buildings in the morning. I also liked exploring the Shiodome area’s vast network of underground shopping malls, restaurants, and tunnels, which connect many of the buildings in the area to one another and to the train stops.
Since we arrived in the evening, and we were swiftly experiencing the unpleasant knock-on effects of sitting in an airplane seat for thirteen hours watching “Deadpool” while growing uncomfortably sweaty, we defaulted to finding a quick bite to eat in the Shiodome area right by our hotel. We had a sampler of yakitori (chicken parts on a stick, done much more nicely in Japan than in other places I’ve been), a mysterious but tasty hot pot noodle dish, and ground chicken kebabs. We also each had a few highballs, Japan’s ubiquitous whisky and soda, which is available both from restaurants in convenient cans at the convenience store, and which I quickly became addicted to.
Tomorrow: we go look at some people eating curiously glowing cotton-candy in Harajuku, observe a crow gang war at the Meiji Shrine, and eat the platonic ideal of sukiyaki.