With Spain behind me, it was now time for the biggest portion of my trip around-the-world: Japan.
I arrived in Tokyo in the early afternoon. By the time I got my Japan Rail Pass & took the Narita Express into the city (there will be a separate post about these later), it was already almost dark. I got a little bit lost walking to my hotel due to the maze of underground tunnels & bridges near Shinjuku station, but I eventually found it.
Since I had been on the go for the last couple of days, I opted to spend an exciting evening doing laundry. Plus, it was New Year’s Day, so most of Tokyo was closed.
I awoke at a normal time the next morning, ready to begin exploring Tokyo, one of the greatest cities in the world. I love wandering, especially when I first arrive in a city. Fully refreshed, that’s precisely what I did on day one in Tokyo.
I headed off from my hotel toward central Shinjuku. My first stop was to get some money. I use Charles Schwab’s Schwab One for my banking, which I highly recommend, especially frequent travelers. I pay zero ATM fees anywhere in the world, and I also don’t pay any foreign transaction fees. As long as my card works, I can get money. That was the problem. I didn’t realize that most Japanese ATMs do not accept American debit cards. After a few unsuccessful attempts at acquiring yen, I spotted a Citibank. Hoping that an American bank would take my ATM card, I headed straight for it. I was able to take cash out, and it would become my dependable spot for money in Tokyo. I did more research later that day, and found that if you want to take out cash at a Japanese ATM with an American bank card, your most dependable options are Citibanks, 7-11s, and Japanese post offices. You learn to keep an eye out for these spots, so it’s not difficult to find them, but don’t expect to be able to take money out on every corner in Japan like you might in the United States. It’s important to know how to get money, as most transactions are still conducted in cash in Japan, which I found to be surprising given how technology-focused the nation is.
I wandered around a quiet Shinjuku, which was still mostly closed due to the New Year, passing the famous video game arcades, which I would come back to a few days later.
I saw my first of many, many banks of vending machines. No matter how long my trip went on, I was still fascinated by their omnipresence in Japan. Flush with fresh yen, I treated myself to a soda.
I began to wander further south, roughly following the rail lines toward Harajuku.
In Japan, even the construction barricades are cute. It was at this point that I realized that I was going to spend the next two weeks smiling constantly, enamored with Japan. I don’t know how anyone could ever be in a bad mood in a place that uses cartoon characters to warn you of danger.
Along the way between Shinjuku & Harajuku, I passed a large park containing Meiji Jingu shrine. I ventured toward it and found it to be filled with visitors for the New Year. You can read about my full visit to the shrine here. I was glad I got that unique New Year’s experience.
After I visited the shrine, I cut toward the east to Harajuku. Keeping with the theme of the day, New Year’s crowds were out in full force. But while Shinjuku had been completely dead, Harajuku was bustling, just like the shrine had been. Harajuku is the epicenter of Western retail stores in Tokyo, and New Year’s is one of the biggest shopping periods of the year. As a result, the sidewalks were so crowded that I could barely walk down them.
The Harajuku outpost of Garrett Popcorn Shops had a huge line of people waiting outside.
Outside a large shopping center, there was a group of Japanese girls playing a taiko drum routine, which I watched for a while. It wasn’t a place for anyone with a headache, but their drum skills were impressive.
Given the youth presence in Harajuku, it’s not surprising that targeted marketing would be close behind. The area saw street traffic from trucks that were promoting the latest Japanese musical groups.
Not only were they giant, moving billboards, but the trucks also played songs from the bands. None of the trucks I heard played anything that was as enjoyable as BABYMETAL. I actually could have seen BABYMETAL later in my trip had I ventured back to Tokyo one day sooner.
I then walked from Harajuku toward Shibuya. By this time, I was hungry. I’d had some eggs for breakfast at my hotel, but now it was time to try some true Japanese ramen. I’d had a friend recommend a Japanese ramen chain called Ichiran to me, and it just so happened that I was passing by one. The line outside drew my attention, and it was perfect timing for some food.
Every now-and-then, you encounter a meal that is life-changing. This was one of those times. I’d had ramen before in the United States, and it was fine. This was my first experience with it in Japan, and it was at Ichiran that I fell in love with ramen.
The line leads down into a dark basement. At the end of the line, you order your ramen from a machine. You put your money in, select your options, then it gives you a ticket. You are then seated at a private booth. Some magical person on the other side of a curtain takes your ticket, has you fill out a few more options for your ramen regarding the specifics of your noodles & condiments, and then you’re set. A few minutes later, a steaming hot bowl of tonkotsu ramen (pork bone broth) is pushed through the curtain. The entire process feels delightfully filthy.
Doesn’t that look amazing? This would be my first of many bowls of ramen during the next couple of weeks. While Ichiran is a chain, it was a great first ramen experience. I hope that they expand worldwide someday. A world with an Ichiran in every city would be a peaceful world.
Belly full of ramen, I walked around Shibuya a bit more, crossing the famously wide intersection near the subway station. There were a few craft beer spots I wanted to check out, so I spent the afternoon trying some Japanese beers, starting with Brimmer Beer Box in Aoyama. Stay tuned for a full post about Tokyo’s craft beer scene.
It was a long day of walking, but it was a great introduction to Tokyo. During the course of the day, I walked from Shinjuku to Harajuku to Shibuya to Aoyama to Harajuku. I can see why Ted Leo was inspired call these neighborhoods out in his great song “Walking To Do”.
I’ve seen the cruel and hard And I’ve seen them hard on you But I’ll buy you brand new shoes if you cross to my side There’s a whole lot of walking to do
And if we’re near or far from our city by the seaside Well as long as we keep our stride I believe we’ll be fine
You’ve seen the years roll on And you’ve seen me roll with you I see the road is long, so get on my side There’s a whole lot of walking to do
And if we stay on our feet we’ll make it in our own time And though the road has got some steep climbs I believe we’ll be fine
. . .
Aoyama to Shibuya There’s a whole lot of walking to do
AKA Jonathan Sacks. Traveler. Writer. Photographer. 40+ countries & major territories so far, slowly working my way through the rest. Related interests: craft beer, street food, sporting events, frugal travel, credit card bonuses, hiking, visiting non-touristy places. Join me for the journey!