Tokyo is huge, confusing, daunting, but the best way to enjoy this crazy city is to find your way through all the madness. I made a list of shrines to visit, temples to see, parks to rest in and restaurants to eat at, but as soon as I reached Tokyo it consumed me. So I swiftly kept aside my checklist and went with the flow doing things that came my way. I didn’t look down on the glittering city from Tokyo Skytree’s observation deck, I didn’t go to any museum or go watch Sumo wrestling, but the experiences that I had were still unique.
Walk, walk, walk…
There’s no better way to explore a city than walking; it familiarizes you to every turn of the road, every nook, and every store at the corner of the street. I walked around Tokyo looking at the lovely and neat houses in the suburbs, marvelling at the glitzy stores and being amazed by the sense of discipline. I got lost and connected with people who, despite the language barrier, helped me out to find the way and in some cases, walked all the way with me to make sure I won’t get lost again.
Have fun with the subway
The subway trains – pretty much like Mumbai’s local trains – are Tokyo’s lifeline. There are 13 lines and it’s a daunting task to understand the web of stations at first, but you soon get comfortable navigating through the map and start enjoying it after a while. Tokyo’s subway stations are where you see people’s love for wi-fi connection – yes, they’re all glued to their phones – and sense of discipline. It’s just so much fun hopping from one train to another and realizing that you’re already a pro at using their ticket vending machine.
Dodge and cross at Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble is the world’s busiest crossing with sixteen intersections. It’s fascinating to see all the pedestrian lights go green and people pouring in from all the directions. The crossing is at the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station, which also has the statue of the famous dog Hachiko (remember the Richard Gere starrer tear jerker Hachi: A Dog’s Tale?).
Retail therapy in Shimokitazawa
Japan is really expensive, but also houses some of the best fashion brands with Tokyo being the hub of it. You’ll probably have to survive on 200 Yen meal of rice and soup if you shop in Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ginza. So, shop smart and head to Shimokitazawa – a small suburb on the western side of Tokyo famous for its second hand and vintage shops, small eateries and live performance venues. I picked up a cute dress for 1200 Yen and a palazzo fro 1600 Yen. Right from shoes and bags to cosmetics, there’s plenty of things to keep you interested. Shop to your heart’s content here and then hop into an Izakaya for a few drinks and Japanese tapas.
Dine in solitude at a Ramen house
At Shimokitazawa, I hopped into Ichiran – the famous ramen house specializing in just one kind of ramen (pork-bone-broth tonkotsu). Ichiran is as famous for its serving system as its dish. You buy a meal ticket from the machine at the entrance, go at your seating booth (these are single seating booths with wooden panels giving privacy), fill out a form like menu customizing the richness of your broth, strength of dashi and amount of the special red sauce, and pass on the coupon and form from the gap between the counter and the curtain; all you can see of your server are the hands passing you that delicious bowl of comfort. The curtain is pulled down and you’re left alone to dive deep into that perfect bowl of ramen.
Sushi at Tsukiji
I had horrible luck with Tsukiji – Asia’s largest fish market. The day I made the trip there was a national holiday and the entire market was shut but for one sushi house; thankfully I had my fill there, some of the freshest sushi I’ve ever eaten. There’s a tuna auction too at 5am, go for it if you’re keen; if not then got at around 9-10am for a sushi breakfast.
Geek out in Akihabara
With its bright lights, manga covered buildings and strange sounds, Akihabara feels like a sudden attack on your senses. Once settled you can’t stop but be amused. Walk around marvelling at the Manga display screens, geek out at Yadobashi Camera – THE store for all things electronics, shop for Manga and comic book collectibles at Mandarake, watch the robot dance at the Gundam café and dine at a maid café – it’s a role-play themed café where waitresses are traditionally dressed as maids and indulge their customers in friendly conversations (few of these cafes have entry charges too).
Grab a drink (or five) at Golden Gai
Once you’ve been here you might want to spend your every evening in Tokyo at the tiny bars in Golden Gai. The street near Shinjuku station is full of such bars serving just drinks with a seating capacity of 6-8. Spend hours here clinking your sake and shochu glasses with strangers’ with the cheery kanpai (cheers in Japanese), make friends and experience how the locals spend their time after work. Hungry? Head to an Izakaya – a Japanese gastro pub serving mainly tapas. Line your stomach with pork yakisoba, gyoza, grilled prawns and sautéed mushrooms and get back to your bar for next round of drinks. Some of the bars have an entry fee of up to 800 yen so watch for that if money’s tight.
• Almost all the major suburbs in Tokyo are connected through city’s various subway lines. The tickets aren’t too expensive but if you plan to take multiple subways through the day then get a day pass that’ll cost you just 600 Yen.
• The subway stations and trains have free Wi-Fi and Tokyo has Wi-Fi spots at almost all the major shopping centres. Connect to the Wi-Fi, open your browser which will take you to a page, accept the terms and conditions and stay connected.
• Tipping is considered rude in Japan.
• Your regular charging plug might not work in the Japanese sockets so make sure you buy a universal adapter before you leave for Japan. Alternatively, you can buy it from the electronic stores in Japan where you’ll get an adapter as per your county’s specifications.
• If you plan to travel intercity in Japan, get a JRR Pass. The pass gives you access to almost all JR bullet trains, barring a few. Getting a pass will be a lot cheaper than buying tickets on the spot. JRR pass has to be bought before you leave your country. You can find the details here.