Monday, February 9

A Weekend in Tokyo

WELCOME TO TOKYO!

Sensoji Temple
   Let's come to terms with one thing before we plan our Tokyo vacation, shall we?  Tokyo is not one of those cities that will ever feel conquerable.  In much the same way that you can't 'do NYC', Tokyo is just too expansive and too innovative to ever feel like you can really cross it off your bucket list just from a short trip.  Bummer, I know, but at least now you can enjoy the land of sushi sans outrageous expectations.  Moving on. 


WHERE TO STAY:
   Where you stay will depend entirely on what type of traveler you are.  Since traffic is absurd, cabs cost a fortune… and you could suffocate to death on the subway during rush hour…  I suggest choosing a region of the city you prefer first and planning your lodging from there.


   Playing it safe and opting for a gorgeous view and a short walk to the "Beverly Hills of Tokyo" I stayed at the Mitsui Garden Premier Hotel in the Ginza district.  It is affordable, the rooms are spacious for Asian standards, and the futuristic toilets heat your toosh (among other options that I'm too shy to delve into). The hotel begins on floor 16,  affording every guest a spectacular view of the
skyline from their room. The staff speaks a passable amount of English and they were patient and helpful throughout the stay.

    My one major complaint is that the pillows are absolutely dreadful.  Two are paper thin.  The other two rocks hidden in a pillow case.   I was devastated.  But in hindsight, maybe it's just part of the cultural emersion.  Perhaps the japanese prefer this sleep method of torture.  And who am I to complain? It got me out of bed bright and early to explore the city.  Nonetheless, sans the pillow incident, the Mitsui Garden Premier Hotel was the definition of affordable luxury and a place I would happily return to.  

    If you are able to drop the 'affordable' from affordable luxury then I'd opt for the Park Hyatt or the Mandarin Oriental - both are lavish with impeccable service.  You'll recognize the Park Hyatt from the classic film "Lost in Translation".  Even if you don't spend the $500/night to stay here it's worth stopping by their famed NY Bar for a drink with quite the impressive view. 


TOURIST MAP WITH METRO LINES
GETTING THERE:
The airport is at least an hour drive from the city center.  The ride is an unpleasant stop and go through pretty heavy traffic.  It will cost you $200+ if you take a taxi, a bit less (perhaps $150) if you book ahead through the hotel, and substantially less if you muster the courage to schlep your suitcase onto the painfully overcrowded metro. Sorry for the negativity, but I rather burst your bubble now than have you pout the whole drive into the city.  I should also mention that cab drivers rarely speak English, so have your Tokyo map ready. 

....ALRIGHT YAY! You survived the flight and the shuttle into the city!  You've checked in and had your first butt warming on the toilet …and you have no idea how miserably uncomfortable the pillows are yet… you're in freaking Tokyo and going to have the best two days EVER! 

ITINERARY: 
Day One: 
Sweet Potato Street Food Heaven
1. Start your day off at the Sensoji Temple,  which is quite a bit north-east of the city.  I cabbed to save time, but the metro is efficient and inexpensive.  Explore the street food and shops outside of the temple doors.  Make sure to stop at every single street cart serving sweet potatoes. There's no sweet potatoes actually being sold.  It's a front.  It must be some kind of drug cake, because it actually tastes like heaven.  If you see anyone with an apple stuffed with whipped sweet potat interrogate them on the exact whereabouts of this shop.   Nosh liberally on street food, but remember the Japanese don't eat and walk, and you shouldn't either.  Enjoy your colorfully dipped chocolate banana in front of the place you purchased it.   Choke down that last skewer and stroll through the temple grounds, making sure to take off your shoes before entering places of prayer.

Now, I know you are going to see the Skytree in the distance and feel drawn to it like a bug to a light.  Stuff another sweet potato in your mouth and keep moving.  The Skytree is not worth the 30 dollars a person.  It is a tourist trap and you can see the same view without the lines and headache from other areas in the city.  

Leaving the Sensoji Temple will be your most ambitious migration across the city - as we're going to the second most famous temple from here.  For that reason I suggest taking the metro to save the cab money.

2. Tour the peaceful Meiji Shrine, write out your prayers, buy some trinkets and head out.

3. On to Shibuya Crossing to see the hectic moshpit of teenie bopper fashion strut the street.  Go down to the trenches if you've got a go pro or take my route and head to the second story Starbucks to watch the world's busiest crosswalk from above.

4. From the Shibuya Station, hop the metro to Roppongi for a picture with the Louise Bourgeois' giant spider sculpture and a free city view from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building.  
Tokyo City View with a glimpse of Mount Fuji

5. Head back to your hotel to freshen up before dinner.  My restaurant suggestion is go for authentic.  The city feels like NY and you will undoubtedly be overwhelmed by dining options.  We ate on the 42nd floor of the Shodome City Center amongst Japanese businessmen sitting with their legs dangling below the sunken tables and shoes left at the door.  The raw fish impeccable, the sauces divine, the experience riveting.  Abide by the customs during dinner.  Finish everything, never pass food with chopsticks or leave them sticking up from your bowl, don't pour soy sauce directly atop food, and don't tip!

6. Nightlife: Tokyo comes alive at night in the most mesmerizing of ways.  I felt like I was walking through a video game of neon lights and overwhelming sounds and smells. For a ritzy night out with city views stick to Ginza or Roppongi.  For dancing amongst the trendy youth, head to the Shibuya or Shinjuku district.  You'll also find dozens of bars in these areas offering sake and a large variety of beers.




Day Two: 
Street Food outside of the Tsukiji Fish Market
1. Shouldn't be hard getting out of bed since you just slept on rocks (or had a real Tokyo night out and haven't slept yet)! First things first - and this is NOT to be skipped - head to the Tsukiji Fish Market via cab.  If you're ambitious (and they are in a season that allows tourists) get there at 5 AM to purchase a ticket to see the massive tuna auction.  If your stomach is week from too many sake-tinis and hite beers, just get there before 8:30 AM and you can still get an essence of the bustle. Wander the alleyways of street food and crafts after adequate gawking (and probably gagging) at the fish plopped all over the floor or hanging from motorbikes.  Your breakfast will be one for the books - something to relish and enjoy thoroughly - a true sushi breakfast with the best cuts of fish for the most reasonable price you can imagine.  The most renowned places are Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi but expect an hour + wait in line.  If the fish stench is getting to you and you can't fathom wasting your morning waiting -- you'll find a number of on par sushi breakfast restaurants sprinkled in the halls surrounding the market. 

2. Now, if it's warm weather you're going to head to see the Cherry Blossoms in Ueno or Shinjuku Park. .  Not cherry blossom season?  No problem, swing towards Ginza to explore the luxury shopping district.  Marvel at the 10 story department stores or post up with a japanese green tea at one of the chic cafes.  

Ramen Road
3. For lunch, head to Tokyo Station and make your way underground to Ramen Road.  Duck into one of the busier stalls, order from the kiosk, and enjoy some of the world's best ramen for an incredibly affordable price.  The bowls of soft noodles, meats and exotic vegetables are going to be life-changing-scrumptious just to give you a heads up.   After lunch, spend some time sifting through shops inside Tokyo Station and taking in your surroundings. This is the real deal tourist-free version of Tokyo and the perfect place to do wallet friendly shopping and eating while you soak up the urban culture of this bustling city. 

4. Back to the hotel to refresh before heading to dinner.  Again, you can't go wrong with a good locals recommendation in Tokyo - the food here is absolutely incredible. After dinner head to the Shinjuku district and take in the neon fantasy world you find yourself in.  If you can handle it, purchase tickets to Robot Restaurant for the most bizarre show of your entire life. The experience will definitely devastate your senses, so when you find yourself at your breaking point take a cab to Park Hyatt to grab a cocktail in their famed NY Bar. The drinks are great, the history rich and the music live… but you come for the view.  Decompress with their signature bubbly while you try to make sense of the crazy upside world you just inhabited for the past two days.  
Robot Restaurant

Social Norms
It's important to note that Tokyokians are particular in their customs.  This is a city where English is a rarity, but even more so is western tradition.  Never point at someone, leave your chopsticks sticking up from the bowl, don't eat and walk, no cell phone calls on the sub way, no displays of public affection, don't speak loudly or aggressively.  What you can do is disregard all personal space bubbles with leisure.   More on Japanese etiquette


Closing Remarks
 Tokyo is a whirlwind, an absolutely mind blowing experience straight out of a sci-fi movie in one neighborhood and a zen paradise in another.  It is a place rich with history but eager with technology.  Where American ideals are king but Japanese customs reign.  It's a beautiful, wonderful, hectic city that can't be understood in just two days, or maybe ever.  A place that changed me forever... that I yearned to return to before I had even left.  Culture shock is an understatement, but call it what you will, Tokyo awakened a curiosity and wonderment in me that I have never felt before and never will forget.














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