13 months
Jan 16:
where did i put that building?
Jan 21:
winter wonderland
Jan 22:
too-tall charlie
Jan 22:
meat & greet
Jan 23:
black eggs & boiled octopus
Jan 28:
roley poley fish market
Jan 30:
spot me a yen?
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Doraemon unjustly trapped in a claw vending maching
Tokyo (Ueno neighborhood), Japan; Jan 27, 2005

the low down

What we did: Stayed in Tokyo for about 2 weeks, with short side trips to Nikko (2 days) and Hakone (1 day).

Overall: We’ve had a great time in Tokyo - the city is a feast for the senses! And while it is arguably the most technologically advanced city in the world, the people and culture have somehow managed to remain conservative and traditional. It’s extremely safe and it’s a great feeling to safely walk in the streets at all times of day. It is not, however, the easiest place to be a tourist; finding things can be difficult (see japan: where did i put that building?) and the language barrier is quite high.

enormous Buddha on huge screen
in Shibuya

Essentials: You can pretty much buy whatever you want in Tokyo (plus a whole lot of things that you don’t want, or never knew that you wanted before you saw them here), but things tend to be over-packaged and you might pay a bit more than you’d expect. Quality is emphasized over quantity.

Food: The food in Tokyo is excellent. From displays in the department stores to myriad amazing restaurants, you have plenty from which to choose. We were trying to stay on a fairly tight budget, so we didn’t sample the high-end food choices, but after we figured out how to eat cheaply (local restaurants, bottom floors of shopping malls, etc.), we were very happy with our fare.

People: Japanese people are respectful, diligent and extremely polite. They can also be outgoing, but it might take a hot sake or two before they’re ready (see japan: meat & greet). We had positive experiences with a variety of people; they seemed interested in chatting with us.

Cost of living: It doesn’t have to be as high as everybody tells you it is, but it’s certainly not cheap. Accommodations, food, and entertainment can set you back a small (or huge) fortune if you’re not careful, but you can get by on much less if you try. Looking back we wished we had splurged a little bit more and tried some more expensive cuisine (we’ve heard it’s worth it).

Standard of Living: Japan is an ultra-modern country. The standard of living is among the best in the world.

Daily budget: Our budget hotel ran about US $100/day. This was for a minimal business hotel (not a capsule hotel, but it was *extremely* small). Our food budget was about US $20-30/day for both of us (breakfast at the hotel, a cheap snack-type lunch, and dinner in a restaurant). The metro is convenient and fairly cheap ($5-$8/day each) and sight-seeing in the neighborhoods is free but nightly entertainment and drinking are expensive. In retrospect, we probably should have splashed out a bit more in Tokyo, but we were worried about our year-long budget, so we were playing it conservatively. Oh, and movies cost $15/person. Argh.

Exchange rate: US $1 = 10 Japanese yen

controls on a typical Japanese toilet

What's fabulous: Besides the food and beautiful sites it’s the toilet seats. You can choose all the following options on the seat: heat, water spray, waterfall noise, dry, vacuum, freshener and more!

Weather: It was pretty cold during the time we were here (late January) and snowed several times, even in Tokyo.

Getting around: Blasting around Tokyo on the metro is quite easy, efficient, and affordable, once you get the hang of it. There are quite a few different subway lines, and even several companies, but eventually it all starts to make sense. Most of the stations have one map in English. Taxis are readily available but we didn’t need to take one the whole time we were there. Also, using the older (standard-type) train system is a great way to cover longer distances getting out of Tokyo.

Random translation (sorta’): The Japanese really really don’t like to say, “No.” They’ll say almost anything else instead, like, “Maybe you can’t do that.” Or “Maybe you can do something else" (also see the sidebar in japan: winter wonderland).

Specific places we visited/things we did:
  - Lots of neighborhood exploring (see below)
  - Short trips to both Nikko (see japan: winter wonderland) and Hakone (see japan: black eggs & boiled octopus), both of which we recommend. In Nikko, we stayed at the Turtle Inn, which we really liked. It was reasonably priced, has an onsen on the ground floor and is in a good location. Just ask around and people will point you towards it.
Tokyo neighborhoods: Tokyo has a lot of neighborhoods, each with their own personality and interesting aspects. Here's a partial list (to all the ones we aren’t mentioning, our apologies; there are just too many to explore properly in two weeks):
  - Asakusa: This is where we stayed for the first week. It's an older neighborhood and one that we really liked a lot. There are a few tourist attractions here (Sensoji Temple and Nakamise Shopping Arcade), but for the most part, it’s a fairly low-key, local-feeling area.
  - Akihabara: This is well known as the place to buy electronics, though in recent years many of the one-off stores in this neighborhood have been losing ground to the larger chains that are mostly in the big shopping districts (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza). Still, if it’s electronic, you can probably find it here, including plenty of stuff that hasn’t reached the rest of the world yet.
  - Roppongi: Known as an ex-pat hang out, so we didn’t go here much. Very tourist friendly, but not as genuinely Tokyo.
  - Ueno: This neighborhood has lots of lower-end shopping (all the fake Louis Vuitton bags a body could ever need). There seemed to be considerably more homeless people here than in other places in Tokyo.
  - Shinjuku: A thriving shopping-oriented place and, along with Ginza, the best place to try and achieve total sensory overload (massive video screens on the street corner, a la Times Square, but more impressive), lights and sounds and smells everywhere, and tons of people, all bustling about doing who-knows-what. There are also some impressive government-ish buildings here, if you’re interested in that sort of thing (Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Buidling, etc.).
  - Ginza: Similar to Shinjuku at first glance, but with its own personality. Again, sensory overload is easily achievable here. We also visited the enormous Sony Building and checked out all their latest gadgets and games – pretty fun.
  - Shibuya: Yet another shopping district - go figure! It's reputation is that it's a bit safer and cleaner than the others since it's a bit newer, but the difference is not so significant in our opinion. It's also supposed to be the hippest and the most popular with the young and trendy. We enjoyed wandering around and looking at all the stores and people - a very interesting place to wander.
  - Tsukiji: The most interesting thing about this neighborhood, in our opinion, is the enormous Tsukiji Central Fish Market (see japan: roley poley fish market).
  - Odaiba: This is a strange one. It's basically a man-made futuristic island. Some people live there, but it seems more designed to be a daytime destination for locals. There are a ton of interesting shopping malls, Joypolis (a Sega-based humongous video arcade with lots of you’re-in-the-action games), Toyota Mega Web (the most over the top car showroom you’ve ever seen, along with some rides for fun), restaurants galore, and an enormous convention center. It's also home to the fabulous Museum of Emerging Science and Technology, where we happily spent a lazy afternoon looking at all sorts of interesting exhibits.
  - Ebisu: Long known as a sleepier neighborhood, it's now gaining popularity for dining and nightlife. It's much less over-the-top than some of the other neighborhoods, and we found some great, cozy restaurants here.
  - Ikebukuro: We only explored this place briefly, but we especially enjoyed the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space – definitely worth a look.

- Harajuku: It seems like folks in this neighborhood like to dress up (as whatever their fancy dictates). It’s also home to an interesting street of shopping (Omote-Sando) and the Meiji-Jingu Temple (a surprisingly serene delight).

© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


I know this is going to sound like a stupid question, but here it goes. I'm so nervous that I won't understand all the fancy toilet mechanisms when my husband and I are in Japan. Which button makes it flush??

--Siena (Saint Louis, Missouri, USA); Nov 19, 2005

Don't worry! We can't read Japanese and we figured them out. Sometimes it's on the back of the toilet (like in the States) and sometimes it's automatic. Just don't push one of the buttons that has a picture of water spraying up!

--Grace & Susan; Nov 23, 2005