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Lost and Translating: How to Spend 5 Amazing Days in Tokyo

Thirty-eight million people can't be wrong. Here's what we learned and how we squeezed the most out of five busy days in one of the largest cities in the world.

Sheer Scale

First let's just clear this up: you say, 38 million people? That can't even be possible! Many discussions take place about this figure, and several differing opinions, and it's because there are several ways to count a population. In Tokyo "proper" there are 9 million, but the city itself spread out from those lines long ago. So it seems logical to me to count the inhabitants that live in this single populated area, regardless of city boundaries. Right? This area is called Greater Tokyo, and here live 38 million people. If you're a visual person like myself, this amazing (not actual) map helps you grasp this number in relation to other cities you may be familiar with. Insane!! So yeah, this is a huge ass city. One with 23 different wards, and within those there are several districts each. Before you arrive you'll want to acclimate yourself to these neighborhoods using this (actual) map below, and figure out which appeal to you because there's literally something for everyone. The question is, what do you choose when you've only got 5 days?

Let's Ride

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The very best - very best - way to acclimate yourself to a new place is to sign up for a tour. Food tour, wine tour, food and wine tour (you get the idea), walking tour, bike tour, whatever. This accomplishes multiple things:

1) introduces you to some friendly and helpful local people who have some time to answer your questions and give you insight/suggestions/ideas for the rest of your trip,

2) introduces you to other travelers who are interesting and also interested in the city you're visiting and may have suggestions/ideas/advice that you'll find helpful while there, and

3) visiting multiple places around the area acclimates you to the area itself, gives you ideas for places to return to, and immediately makes it feel more familiar and welcoming.

Night Bicycle Tour of Tokyo through Airbnb Experiences

Because the city of Tokyo is so vast and we wanted to explore as many areas as possible, we chose a night bike tour hosted through Airbnb Experiences. The bikes were electric, which means they "assist" your starts. Terrific! Yet I could totally see myself running into a wall, a curb, or worse - a car. Especially in such a busy city with sooo much going on all around you. Turns out you still need to pedal a lot of the time so you're in total control, but with that assisted start it's much easier to get started and its very fun. The tour was hosted by Takashi, the owner of a local e-bike shop that has 6,000 bikes available for use. Over the 3 hours we navigated through the city to many areas we would never have seen - various business districts, adorable neighborhoods, the waterfront, and various bridges... from the unique perspective of a BIKE! The weather was warm and the breeze felt great as we maneuvered our way in a large loop, getting to talk to the other travelers as we went. Takashi knew so much about the city and asked us to stop often; together we would discuss various attractions, history, and random interesting facts (like this public school with Armani uniforms). So much of what he told us we would NOT have learned on our own. Thank you so much Takashi! It was a wonderful evening that I would highly recommend..

The Restaurant that Serves Robots... Food, Not So Much.

Speaking of amazing, the Japanese are known for their anime and incredibly theatrical productions so I wanted to make sure we saw some type of performance while in town. What to choose? After some web searching, I found one that kept coming up with rave reviews so I took the plunge. Let's just say it did not disappoint. Ho. Ly. Crap. So many things going on - so many lights, dancers, loud music, we've never seen anything like it in our lives. We found ourselves laughing out loud at the sensory overload. Book a night at the Robot Restaurant - we highly recommend!

To have the best experience possible, keep in mind the following:

  1. This place is popular (with good reason). Definitely buy your tickets ahead of time! Tickets through their website are approximately $70, but you can get slightly discounted tickets many places online so definitely do some digging to save yourself a few bucks!

  2. It's called a restaurant, but don't go for the food. Get drinks and snacks there, but plan your "dinner" to be elsewhere.

  3. Be there 30 minutes before the show. Your seats are not guaranteed if you're late.

  4. These seats are tight! You'll get pretty cozy with your neighbors, so don't go in thinking you'll have space to move around and stretch, or get up during the show. Once it starts... you're in!

  5. If you have an aversion to loud noises and flashing lights - and kitsch - maybe rethink this one. If not, it's absolutely worth the money. You'll never see anything else like this.

“Ho. Ly. Crap. So many things going on - so many lights, dancers, loud music, we've never seen anything like it in our lives.”

The Infamous Subway

The two Tokyo and Tokei subway systems carry an estimated 8 million people around the city every day, and there are a total of 278 stations. In a city with this many people in it trying to constantly get from one end to the other, this is obviously a vital way to get around, and during busy times people will (very, very politely) squeeze themselves into a packed train. And I mean squeeeeze.

The most efficient way to get across Tokyo.
The most efficient way to get across Tokyo.

Our first evening in town happened to be a Friday, and we found ourselves caught in the middle of the rush-hour subway surge of workers heading home. When we first boarded the train there were only a few people on board, and we stood apart from each other comfortably. But each time the train stopped more people got on. And more, and more. That extra space quickly disappeared, and soon it became very close quarters. Before we knew it we were squished tightly up against expressionless, limp-bodied, total strangers, getting jostled in tandem by the trains bumps and sways. Just when I thought we could fit no more, the train stopped yet again and even more people got on. That's when I got the giggles and could not stop laughing. I looked around to the others closest to me to find another passenger that found this as amusing as me. Not a one. It was as though every soul had left its body for this journey and would instantly return once they got off the train. I could only catch a glimpse of my S.O. a distance away from me, smiling at me as he too marveled at our situation. We were the ONLY ONES smiling. This obviously happens every day, and I found the odd situation terribly funny. Eventually passengers began to unload, and as the stops continued our ability to stand independently again returned. This was one of the funniest experiences we had in Tokyo and I'll never forget it. What a curious standard practice. But hey, if you don't do this... how would you EVER get home? And I understand the blank expressions too. I mean, in no other circumstances would you ever, ever stand smashed up against a stranger like that, so it's probably much better to pretend it isn't happening at all!

Tokyo By Day

So, via this amazing subway we got all over the city. Of course, figuring out maps in Japanese proves to be challenging, but we're glad to say we never got on the wrong train going the wrong direction. Stand and stare at a subway map for an ungodly amount of time? Yes, quite a bit. Employ significant patience, both with the process and each other? Oh hell yeah.

What could go wrong? Navigating the Tokyo Subway map.
What could go wrong? Navigating the Tokyo Subway map.

Using said subway, by day we explored so many neighborhoods and various attractions. How do we even know where to begin? Here's a trick I use before I leave home: I build myself a customized Google map. This way I can see all of the spots I want to remember to visit in a single map. Sure, I may not get to all of them, but there's no chance I'll forget an attraction that I wanted to check out. Always referencing my handy map, we explored the city each day. In SHINJUKU we walked through the stunningly peaceful Goyen Gardens, which is the largest park in Tokyo and spans 144 acres of zen gorgeousness that makes it hard to remember that you're in the middle of a busy metropolis. Of course in SHIBUYA we marveled at all the activity, and were mesmerized by the famous Shibuya Crossing (above), long considered the busiest intersection in the entire world. With 10 lanes of traffic and five major crosswalks that are all synced to turn at the same time, it is said that as many as 2,500 people cross this intersection at each turn. We traveled to SIMUDA to discover the Sky Tree, which as the tallest tower in the world stands at 634 meters (2,080 feet), my S.O. absolutely loved. I, on the other hand...... felt a little sick and could not be more appreciative when we got back on the trusty ground. Of course there was no way we were going to miss the famous TSUKIJI Fish Market, or the opportunity to wander around HARAJUKU, where we lunched at the very strange and creepy Kawaii Monster Cafe, and then actually paid real money to play with adorable hedgehogs.

Freshly-grilled Wagyu beef at the Tsujiki Market
Freshly-grilled Wagyu beef at the Tsujiki Market
Sky Tree Tokyo Japan
Tokyo's famous Sky Tree
Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens
Hedgehog cafe Shinjuku
Hedgehog cafe in Shinjuku neighborhood
Kimonos everywhere! Some teenagers in rented kimonos in Asakusa.
Surveying the scene in the Shibuya shopping district

My Favorite Takeaway

In my life I try to be a positive force, leaving a positive footprint and, if I'm lucky, even a smile on someone's face. When I arrived in Japan I don't think I gave much thought to what the culture would be like... I had heard that Tokyo was very organized. Clean. Crowded. But I had not really been told about the people themselves. What I found was such a pleasure to discover. I'm not sure if I can accurately describe how many positive experiences we had with individuals... nor could I even remember all of them, I'm sure. Over and over we found ourselves a bit awestruck by an individual's kindness, for seemingly no reason other than being helpful and polite.

While standing in the very busy Tokyo Station as thousands of people rushed back and forth around us, we found ourselves at a complete loss trying to find a shuttle bus stop that said it was located there - at the train station, which made no sense but nonetheless. I asked a man passing by if he recognized the location that was appearing on my phone screen, thinking it must be on some sign overhead in an adjacent terminal. He shook his head quickly and mumbled "Sorry", he clearly didn't have time or any idea what I was talking about. My S.O. and I continued wandering through the terminal, searching for something that looked right. At least ten minutes later, after we had made our way about a quarter-mile further down the block, I saw someone weaving through the crowd in my direction. It was this man.... he was waving at me urgently, and when I made eye contact he waved at me to follow him back the way he'd come. Um ok! Together the three of us quickly maneuvered through the busy crowds a few minutes, and before we knew it he was passing us off to an employee who apparently knew the location we were trying to find. This employee smiled at us and said hello in English. He looked at my notes and easily directed us to our destination - which was across the street and another block away! Why this stranger took the time out of his day I do not know, but we were both amazed and humbled.

Another example? Here's one: the parking lot attendant that we thought was coordinating taxis because there were several parked in his lot. Not speaking a word of English, he shook his head, No no, we could not get a taxi here. Then he looked all around him, let out a deep sigh, and locked his parking shed. He waved at us to follow him. We did.... for FOUR BLOCKS. He kept turning around and making sure we were still with him - we were laughing and saying, No no, but he kept going. Four full blocks. It was finally then that he indicated an area we could catch a taxi or Uber, and he left us to return to his lot. Unbelievable!

Do you have recommendations for visiting Tokyo? I would love to hear them!



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