3 nights in Japan

If you are looking to book flights from SFO – one of the popular options is to fly through Japan. Why not stopover?

Tokyo is such a bustling city with so much to see. Our biggest challenge was how to take it all in and still stay within budget. Turns out it’s not that difficult.

First off – it’s all about the location. Try to find a hotel, guesthouse that’s close to a subway. Shinjuku is a good option. It’s a train/subway hub, unofficially dubbed the ‘cool’ part of town and is close to Shibuya. If you are flying into Narita, there’s plenty of options to get there. You could take the express, a bus to Nipori and transfer to JR line to Shinjuku or take the train to Nipori and transfer to JR line to Shinjuku. Option 3 is the cheapest at about ~1700¥ all up. The west end of Shinjuku has an urban vibe with skyscrapers and more tourist friendly. Not surprisingly it’s also a little expensive. Shinjuku east is more working class with hole in the wall restaurants and the more budget friendly part of town.

Once you’ve got your bearings check out Shinjuku national garden.

SHINJUKU NATIONAL GARDEN

Entry fee is about 50¥ and the greenhouse, tea houses and Japanese garden are all worth a photo-op. There are mozzies and carrying bug spray is advised. We made it there right after breakfast and it didn’t seem like we needed one. There’s a couple of rest areas inside the park and The park itself is a welcome retreat from the traffic and noise hugging its premises.

MEIJI-JINKU SHRINE

Yoyogi park is just another couple of blocks away and is a good next stop. I know.. Another park? Well.. This one has a shrine in it. In fact it is one of the most popular attractions. If you happen to be there over the weekend, save this for a Saturday- you might catch a wedding or two at the Meiji-Jinku shrine. Demure Japanese brides in their wedding finery, tourists sneaking in quick photos of the wedding party, curious onlookers and temple goers are all worth a sight to see. The shrine itself is huge with a number interesting stops of cultural significance along the way.

Yoyogi park itself is a pleasant walk, lush and green with plenty of shade. Would’ve been a great place for a picnic. As we didn’t really spot anyone I’m guessing it may be restricted.
TAKESHITA DORI

If you are walking (as did we) on the way to Yoyogi from Shinjuku National Garden a good detour is Takeshita Dori street. A narrow street packed with eye-catching souvenirs, t-shirts, western friendly restaurants( including a McDonald’s). It’s packed, it’s crowded, hold on to your partner and don’t lose sight! Which is hard especially when there’s so much distraction around. Get there between 2:00-3:30pm on Saturday to take in the Cosplay scene. Girls dressed as anime characters, out to meet others with similar interests and exchange fashion notes (maybe?). They often shy away or turn the other way when they see a wide-eyed shutterbug. Be mindful, patient and friendly. There’s plenty of candid shots to take. You can also find a lot of info on cosplay at Hirajuku however I decided to skip it as we got to experience it here.

SHIBUYA CROSSING

A couple of blocks from Yoyogi and the Meiji-Jingu shrine is Shibuya. Guide books and tourist info will direct you to Shibuya crossing. When the little walking man lights up signaling for the traffic to stop, you’ll find a sea of shoppers and like cross the intersection. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. For the space of a minute you’ll find intersection overflowing with swarms of people and then everything looks normal until the walking man lights up again. The best spotting can be done from the second storey of Starbucks across the street.

Shibuya 109 across the road is also a great place shop or window shop. From Gap to Armani to Japanese fashion you’ll find it here. Want a little something less touristy, step away from the main drag. Hit one of its many alley ways for a more interesting experience and also stop for a late lunch. A lot of the restaurants have picture menus which is a huge bonus.

By this time you are probably tired and ready to make your way back to the hotel and ease off some of that jet lag. A quiet drink at an eclectic trans friendly bar a couple of blocks from our hotel (N.U.T.S I’m not kidding) and good ‘ol subway wrapped up our day.

As much as we packed into day1, our day 2 was relatively quiet to make time for a much-needed put your feet up and chill for a bit agenda. By 5pm we felt rested and hungry, ready for some Japanese dining experience. We settled on Funabashi.

FUNABASHI

A highly recommended tempura place. It was a splurge but a well deserved one. We decided to forego drinks to save some cash and opted for the 8 piece tempura platter. Once you are seated, they get you some amazing green tea and start serving. The chef minds the food, fresh and prepared right in front of you, served one piece at a time while the sous check keeps a hawk eye on whose plate is empty and what next to be served. If you are clueless like us, he also walks you through the dining experience explaining what is being served and how best to eat it. See those miniature and delicate porcelain jars next to you, well those are the condiments. Put some on the tempura to your liking, dip in soy sauce and in it goes. Be respectful for their tradition, show them you are making an effort to understand and you will be treated with huge smiles and offers to help. For a tempura experience in a quiet place with excellent service I highly recommend Funabashi.

KABUKICHO
Now since you are in the area why not check out the infamous Kabukicho street. With its endless array of love hotels, pick up spots, bars and nightclubs and signs enforcing entry for Japanese only it definitely is a happening place. We never got bothered and it was actually very tame. Getting it in before the party kicks off also helps. While there, check out the robot restaurant. No need to go in, there a huge billboard with TV promoting the place with a preview of the show which is quite quirky.

TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
Of course no trip to Tokyo is complete without a trip to the Tsukiji fish market and this is how we kicked off day 3.
My thoughts on the market are thus-

It is a working market. Ie., step out their way, keep an eye out for those fancy looking fish trucks and take as many photos as you want as long as you have your flash turned OFF.

The thought of heading to the fish market first thing in the morning is not exactly my idea of fun. I have to admit I was quite apprehensive of the sights and smell in particular. After having been there I can say it is one of the cleanest markets with absolutely no offenses to your sense of smell. Unless you are staying in the area (it is a little ways away from popular attractions) making it to market in time for the Tuna auction which starts at 4:00am with a 100 person guest limit is hard. Also trains only start at 6am so getting there in time is going to be a hassle. Even if you do miss it, the market itself is worth a trip. Good photo ops and a great experience. Definitely worth checking it out.
Once you’ve done the markets you could also stop for breakfast at one of the sushi hugging the outer market. Be prepared for long lines though. These joints are small and can only serve about 10 people at a time. While there pickup some souvenirs. Your choice varies from sushi mats, mean looking knives to porcelain ware.

If you got there by train, then you would have seen the big Buddhist temple right next to the station. The outside is grand but not really much to see on the inside. A good place to rest your achy feet or catch a breath though.

AKHIBARA

From there on catch a train to Akhibara and check out the digital city and get your fill of Manga. Ours was a quick stop. After the overload of electronic stores in and around Shinjuku, where you could find camera SD cards for a bargain of the price in the U.S. even at the local 7/11 and with a motto to travel light this seemed redundant. Of course if you had the time and interest do check this out. I hear the manga stores are a sight to see.

SENSO-JI TEMPLE

Get off at Asakusa to check out the Senso-ji temple. The temple is just a block or two from the train stop and hard to miss. Just follow the crowd. The entrance to the temple is lined with shop after shop selling souvenirs. Options are plenty, take your time picking them out along with taking in the sights and sounds as you walk to the temple.

Big arch ways and walls painted in red with gold welcome you as you get closer to the temple and are a sight to behold. Since this is a popular attraction expect crowd. It’s hard to imagine a temple so big in the middle of the city and gives you an interesting perspective of the old and the new as you look up to capture its steeples with modern skyscrapers in the background.

There’s plenty of options for food and for a unique experience choose from a multitude of ramen shops. The process usually goes like this: queue up, pick out the dish you want from the pictures on the wending machine, pay, get your ticket and give it to the chef. When your order is ready, go slurp slurp slurp. It’s quite an enjoyable experience and of course the food is delicious. For a veggie fare – check out soba noodle ramen with mushroom soup. Yum!

TOP DECK VIEW

And for a night-cap I recommend the Manhattan. It’s at the Shinjuku Washington hotel on the west side of town. Since we stayed a night there it was both convenient and a great place to take in Tokyo by the night through its almost 360 degree view from up top. You could also do one of two towers (Tokyo tower or Tokyo Skytree) which seemed a bit too touristy for me.

That about wrapped our stay in Tokyo and off we went to our next stop Bangkok.

TRAVEL TIPS

There’s plenty of options for train passes; a ticket at every stop, one day subway pass, day pass for subway+private line, saica. Plan your day and pick one works best for you. We opted for a day pass on day 2 which worked out great after all the walking we did on day 1 and chose to take the long way home ie., subway transfers instead of private trains.

Take the subway. If you have a smart phone or an iPad , it’s worth installing the Tokyo subway navigation for tourists app. I particularly liked this one since it tells you the cost per route which is handy when you are planning your day and are on a budget.

Check out the Tokyo info website for calendar of events. Often times there’s music and art shows that are listed. We got to see a series of cultural dance shows by what seemed like kids from various schools at the Yoyogi park. It’s fun, colorful and free!

Where to stay? Frequently recommended neighborhoods are Shinjuku, Shibuya, Asakusa and Ginza. I’m glad we picked Shinjuku as it’s a convenient walk to neighboring attractions and quick train ride away to everywhere else. For budget accommodation look for one in Shinjuku east.

For cheaper food options head to your nearest ‘Family Mart’. They usually have on the go sandwiches (ham&cheese or eggs) which worked as brekky/light lunch. Brekky is usually the easiest with cafe shops at every corner serving up good coffee along with fresh croissants or pastries. For vegetarians and picky eaters Indian curry places usually have attest one dish on the menu that’s veggie friendly. If you are dying for a burger, something familiar McDonald’s is a popular option. And when all else fails there’s subway.

It’s always good idea to carry a bottle of water with you when you are out an about. Of course you could also get something from the dime a dozen wending machines. Although I found most of them carried juice, tea, cola or flavored water. Plain H2O does not seem to be popular. We often refilled our bottle at a cafe or restaurant. They really didn’t seem to mind and we’re happy to acknowledge.

Budget : 3 nights in Tokyo cost us about 3500¥ which included (2 nights accommodation on the east end of Shinjuku).

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