Japan has fascinated me ever since I can remember. Last year, when I found a super cheap flight to Hong Kong, I knew I wanted to combine it with a hop over to Japan, even if I wouldn’t be able to see much of the country.
Through the magic of budget airlines, a friend living in Tokyo, and affordable transportation, I was able to make it to three cities in Japan. And not just that: I did it on the cheap! Whenever I told someone I was going to Japan, they said, “Ooh, it’ll be expensive there.” I found it to be pretty darn affordable, even without really trying to scrimp.
If you only have a short time to hit some of Japan’s highlights, here’s what I’d recommend, starting with…
TWO DAYS IN TOKYO
I knew I would fall in love with Tokyo. I love big cities (although as the years go by I’ve become more and more of a country girl), and I couldn’t wait for Tokyo to join my list of favorite modern cities: Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York…
The moment I landed, I was enchanted. The customs officer sweetly pointed out to me that I had written my birthday as November 11th, 2016, not yelling at me like they would have in some countries. (Cough cough, the United States).
Then I embarked on my journey to my friend’s house in the expat district of Roppongi: multiple trains later, I stepped out from the underground to the city of my dreams.
Tokyo is very much a city of neighborhoods, and I tried to see as many as I possibly could.
You’ll probably end up here at some point, since it’s the home of Tokyo Station. The other main sight is the Imperial Palace, which made for a lovely stroll. However, I was a little underwhelmed by the total lack of signage or information: I left still knowing nothing about the Japanese royal family. If you find yourself looking for some good eats in Tokyo Station, I recommend T’s TanTan: it’s a busy little vegetarian ramen restaurant and it was SO yummy.
This is the “electric town” of Tokyo. It’s the home of hundreds of electronic shops, which makes for a glittering spectacle of flashing neon signs. It’s also the home of some of Tokyo’s most famous cafe’s….everything from hedgehogs to cats to maids. If you haven’t heard of a maid cafe, it’s a restaurant where the servers treat guests as their “masters”, and it is SUPER weird. The very young-looking girls standing outside the doors trying to entice diners made me very uncomfortable, but it was definitely a sight to see.
Senso-ji is a famous Buddhist temple in Asakusa, and you really can’t leave Tokyo without seeing it. The walk up to the temple from the subway station is full of souvenir shops, unique looking snacks, and anything you could imagine: it’s very touristy, but also very charming. I had a wonderful time at this temple – an old Japanese man offered to take my photo and walked me around to have a precious little photo shoot:
Then, while I was sitting on a wall, drinking my coffee and people watching, a group of children came up to talk to me. This has happened to me in a few countries, where schoolkids approach tourists to do an ‘interview’ and practice their English. It’s always adorable because the kids are so nervous. These kids were from the countryside and gave me some green tea in exchange for speaking with them. Then they wanted a photo with me. SO cute.
Everyone has heard of Harajuku! It lives up to all the hype. It’s the fashion mecca for young Japanese kids, and young tourists as well. I wasn’t here to shop, but to people watch – you’ve probably seen photos of the outrageous outfits paraded around the famous Takeshita Dori alley. The rest of the district is very charming as well, the type of place I’d love to live with all kinds of independent coffee shops and restaurants.
In the alley, every store is bursting with clothes and accessories that my mind could never dream up. There are also crazy snacks, from giant cotton candy to excessively stuffed crepes. Go here on a Sunday morning for the best people watching, but any day of the week your mind will still be blown.
Three great things happened to me in very quick succession in Shinjuku.
- I found a 48 hour unlimited metro pass on the ground, right before I was about to buy my own
- I saw a group of Japanese toddlers dressed as firefighters milling around and trying to take a photo, and I almost exploded from the cuteness
- I walked into the Meiji Jingu Shrine right as a traditional wedding procession was walking by
Needless to say, this was a good couple hours. Meiji Jingu Shrine was one of my favorite temples for the setting: I took a lovely stroll through the woods after my visit and felt like I had stepped back in time to ancient Japan.
The next highlight in Shinjuku are the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings. I went up here to have lunch with a view! The observation tower is free to visit, which made it an easy choice. Look at this amazing skyline!!!
I went here for one reason: the Shibuya Crossing. One of the most mind-blowing things about Japan is its efficiency and organization. Every time I was on a train I was shocked by the total silence, and the way that absolutely everyone was so courteous of one another. A dream come true compared to my Toronto commutes.
This crossing is a defining example of that, with an amazing number of people moving in perfect unison to make it across this intersection in any direction. The popular tip is to go into the Starbucks above the crossing for a great view, which I did: it wasn’t very busy, but I also wasn’t there at rush hour. I’ve also read that the Keio Inokashira Line Shibuya Station give a great view.
Like I mentioned, this is where I stayed, in my friend’s beautiful and modern condo. It’s known as the nightlife district – my last night we went out for dinner and drinks, and I can see why it’s so famous. Even on a weekday it was one of the most lively nightlife areas I’ve ever seen! Tokyo Tower is also nearby, so there is a great view of it from Roppongi.
Now, full disclosure: I didn’t have time to venture past these most touristy districts of Tokyo. Obviously this is a pretty surface view: but with a short time in Tokyo, you can’t go wrong with a wander in each of these areas!