Tokyo: 04-11 Aug 2018
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Welcome to the way civilization should be, but seldom is. A magical place where people are courteous and knowledgable, and everything just works. Most places in this world unless you wear flip-flops and a t-shirt that says "I'm with Stupid ====>", no one will know you're not a local (until you open your mouth) and when you look around you could be anyplace. Not so in Tokyo, where you will quickly have a feeling you're not in Kansas anymore and are visiting someplace quite unique.
1. Narita International Airport (NRT) is one of two international airports servicing Tokyo (Tokyo International Airport: HND, also called Hanada is the other). Before landing fill out two forms (one for Immigrations and one for Customs). After clearing Immigrations and Customs follow signs to the Narita Express (N'EX) - follow the red path. Buy your ticket at the ticket office or from the vending machine (NRT to Shinjuka = $30). Insert ticket to enter and board train (if your ticket has a car and seat assignment, then take a seat accordingly).
- the Japan Railpass (JR Pass) can be used on the N'EX, so exchange your Voucher for the JR Pass at the JR Ticket Counter and then at the same JR Ticket Counter make a reservation for N'EX (N'EX train requires reserved seats).
2. Tsukiji Fish Market. It's the largest one in the world. You can't get access to the market when it is open, you are only let in at 1100 after the selling is done, so you can watch the workers clean up. If you are into fish heads, fish guts, and fish smell then this could be for you. Don't eat sushi at the market. Avoid the lines, the cost, and the attitude, instead have a bowl of gyūdon at Yoshiniya.
3. Whisky: the Japanese enjoy their (Scotch) whisky (no e in whisky if ya please) in the form of a highball (in a can). It's whisky watered down by soda. You have to have at least one but then may realize you should have it on the rocks or neat.
4. Meiji Shrine: if you are staying in Shinjuku and you want to visit a shrine, then this is the one to visit, it's only a 10-minute walk away.
5. Tokyo Municipal Government Office Building (five minutes West of Shinjuku Train Station): free views of Tokyo (and Mount Fuji on clear days) from the 65th-floor observation deck. A perfect Beer O'clock location.
6. Sunroute Plaza Hotel Shinjuku: if you decide to stay Shinjuku this is the place to stay ($141/night). Five(5) minutes from Shinjuku train station.
-FamilyMart Convenience Store across the street is a great place for packaged sushi, packaged sandwiches (the three sandwiches in one package: tuna salad, eggs salad, and ham & lettuce trifecta was a winner), beer, and whisky (Jim Beam Bourbon @ $12 or Japanese Whisky @ $7).
-Lawson's is around the corner and has a delicious packaged Egg Salad Sandwich - a Tony Bourdain favorite
-There is a NY Times on every floor, get up early enough and make it yours.
-Every hotel we stayed at in Japan came with his and her pajamas. A big hit with the Misuses.
7. The restaurants and bars in Tokyo were even better than Seoul or Hong Kong:
-Golden Gai is an area the size of a football pitch that is five (5) minutes North-East of the Shinjuku. It is filled with hundreds of tiny (5-6 stools) bars. Some forbid foreigners ("f you too"), some have cover charges (@¥500), some don't. Spend 10 minutes nosing around before settling on a place. Two I recommend are Hair of the Dogs (also called H.O.D; punk rock, write your requests on a piece of paper, may I recommend The Clash's "Train to Vain") and the Albatross Bar (multi-level, indie rock). I conducted some international relations with a couple of Dutch gents at H.O.D. (Jack Daniels makes the world a smaller place).
-Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley): directly North of the Shinjuku Train Station is a rabbit warren filled with small restaurants (5-6 stools), many of which have small charcoal grills that serve meat on a stick for ¥2 (i.e. Japanese tapas). Try the pork belly and pig rectum (yes that’s right pig rectum, it’s quite chewy), Snoop around a little and find one that looks inviting (we had too good a time at the place we ate and therefore I can’t remember the name). Most places either have an English menu and/or photos. In a pinch just point to what looks appetizing. And of course the word beer (along with the words: ok, bye-bye, and various English curse words) is universal.
-Ichiran Shinjuku East Entrance (love that name): a kiosk noodle joint (and probably the best one). Go down the stairs to the kiosk. Enter cash or coins, push the buttons for your order (I recommend Udon and Draft Beer), ticket(s), and your change will be spit out. Take your ticket to your cubicle and fill out the form provided to personalize your order (it's very straightforward and pre-filled out). Hand tickets and order form through the window at your cubicle and receive your order minutes later - voila!
-Rabat-sha: this is a downstairs restaurant where you sit at a low bar and watch the chef prepare your dinner (a little like Beni Hana, without the kitsch). Not a gaijin to be seen. I recommend some surf and turf: start with some edamame and sashimi, then get the fish of the day (grilled) and Japanese beef, finished off with two Sapporos. All for just over $100, not bad.
-Mikore Sushi: just around the corner from the Sunroute Plaza Hotel Shinjuku. Solid sushi at a reasonable price. Sunday is half-price sushi day! I hear ya . . . we did it anyway and lived to tell this tale.
-Sukiyabashi Jiro: this is the most famous sushi restaurant in the world, where for $300 you get 20 minutes' worth of sushi and a hefty serving of disdain. We gave it the go-bye and maybe you should too.
8. National Museum of Modern Art: ¥600. Interesting to see that Japan developed its own modern art in the early 20th century. First floor contains international works like a Calder mobile.
9. JR Rail Pass:
-Get your JR Pass (7 day, 14 day, etc.) prior to landing in Japan (actually you get a Voucher that you take to a Japan Railpass Ticket Counter, which is turned into a JR Pass). We purchased our Voucher in Japan and it was a nightmare. We purchased our 7 day JR Pass First Class Reserved Seat Ticket (Green Car) Voucher (@¥38,800) while we were staying in Tokyo to be delivered on a Friday, 48 hours later at our hotel. We were departing Tokyo on Saturday so I was a little concerned, but Japan Railpass assured me it would be delivered on time by Fedex. I figured 48 hours to deliver a package in Japan would be more than sufficient. Well, it was not, as the Railpass was Fedex'd from Spain! (Why would a Japan Railpass to be delivered in Tokyo be Fedex'd from Spain . . . who knows!). Everything looked good when the package arrived at Narita Airport Friday morning, but then by Friday night it still had not arrived. Called Fedex and was matter a factly informed that it would be delivered on Monday! So we had the pleasure of staying two extra days in Tokyo at last-minute hotel room pricing. Thank you Japan Railpass! Oh yeah, if you ask for delivery outside of Japan it's free, but inside Japan, $25.
-Why in this day and age does a company need to Fedex a Voucher that then needs to be converted in-person to a JR Pass. Has anyone at Japan Railpass heard of the internet?!
-Shinkansen, known in English as the bullet train, is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan. The JR Pass enables you unlimited travel on all Shinkansen, (except the Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which btw are the fastest) and many other non-bullet trains (like the N'EX).
-Not sure if the First Class Reserved Seat Ticket (Green Car) is worth it. You pay an extra ¥9,770 and if First Class is fully booked (make sure you book early) you end up back in "economy" (this happened on the Hiroshima - Kobe portion of our journey) with the riff-raff
-Sit on the West side of the train to see Mount Fuji
-No wifi on the train . . . it's not the Acela
-Food was served on the Shinaken (both the Hikari: Tokyo to Kobe and the Sakari: Kobe to Hiroshima) via a cart (sandwiches, bento box, beer, etc)
-Tokyo to Hiroshima: The Tokyo Train Station is very confusing, low ceilings and numerous columns prevent visible signage. Go to the Japan Rail Ticket Counter to exchange your Voucher for the Japan Railpass (if you have not already done so at Narita Airport). If you are going First Class, then reserve your First Class tickets at the same time. Ask the clerk for the correct track. To use your JR Pass always show it to the attendant and do not go through the turn styles. Sit on the right side of the train to see Mount Fuji. Transfer at Shin-Kobe.
-Lose your First Class Reserved Seat Ticket (Green Car)? Technically you are not allowed to get another one for the same route. But . . . just go to the JR Ticket Office and book another First Class Reserved Seat Ticket (Green Car). Mums the word. Also, take a photo of it just in case.
10. Duty Free liquor at HND was terrible - limited variety, oddly laid out and 80% of the Japanese Whisky was out of stock.
-the one small display case with the in stock Japanese whisky was narrow and low to the floor, forcing potential drinkers to all crowd together while hunching down to read labels and prices.
-May want to buy any Japanese whisky to take home at FamilyMart (and pack in checked luggage) - limited inventory, but good prices.
11. Keep your eye out in Japan for everything a civilized society should be, but isn't back home:
-the trains/subways operate on time all the time
-having a problem figuring out how to purchase a subway ticket? Well, a young lady will suddenly appear, in uniform, and help you out.
-the door of the taxi automatically opens before you get in and before you get out
-interior train doors open automatically
-The train conductor bows to the car prior to leaving or entering
-No tipping (it's actually a no no). Servers/taxi driver/etc. are considered to be professionals
-No litter anywhere. And no garbage cans (maybe there's a connection?)
-No short shorts. I enjoy shorts on ladies as much as the next guy, but ladies come on
-No jaywalking (cross at the green . . . not in between)