“Flights to Tokyo from £408”, the email from Jack’s Flight Club said, which had landed in my inbox one dreary January afternoon. My eyes wandered over to the ‘Travel List’ to the left of my computer screen. Japan was at the very top, and for that price, it would be rude not to go. I booked the flights, and figured I’d worry about everything else later.
When ‘later’ inevitably came around, as it has an irritating habit of doing, I had to sort out my itinerary. I was going alone, so I had complete freedom to do whatever the hell I wanted. But as someone who can talk for England, I was worried about being lonely. A couple of solo-travelling, kickass female friends had told me about their trips with G Adventures/STA Travel, and said they were a great way to see a place and share the experience with a small group of others. Trusting their advice, I dug around a little and found the ‘Epic Japan’ tour, which went to most of the places I wanted to go – Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka (as well as a random mountain town called Takayama I’d never heard of). Plus, it included a Japan Rail pass, which is an absolute essential if you want to whizz about on the country’s iconic Shinkansen (bullet) trains. As soon as the tour came on sale, I booked myself on.
I still had a few days either side to kill either side, though. Naturally, my first few days had to be spent in Tokyo – it’s the world’s biggest city, and the list of places to see/do/experience/eat/drink/exist in is endless. But for my last couple of days, I had only one place in mind – the island of Ishigaki. One day when I was idly looking on Google Maps, I discovered Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, which are so close to Taiwan they can almost smell it. I thought, “Wow, I had no idea Japan went so far south – I wonder if they have any cool beaches”. Of course they did, and Ishigaki had the best ones of the lot. And so it was decided. Ishigaki was the place for me.
In both Tokyo and Ishigaki, I opted to try out hostelling again. After all, I did want to meet people. I had experienced a youth hostel in Budapest last year, but got quite lonely because my hostel was very dead at the time I was there. But I was determined Japan would be different.
Even from the get-go, it was. I met an adorable Canadian couple on the plane, and spoke to them about Tim Horton’s for an hour. I’ve never been, but boy I’ve heard their doughnuts are good. I also got chatting to a fellow Brit, who it turned out was staying in the same part of Tokyo as I was. So, fortunately for me, I wouldn’t have to face the confusing Tokyo underground system all alone, as soon as I’d hit the ground. As the tower blocks whizzed past the carriage window, my dazed and confused brain began to process my 12-hour flight, and the thrilling – but somewhat scary – trip ahead of me. I was in a new country with a completely different culture to my own, one that’s notorious for being difficult to fit into. I spoke no Japanese. How on Earth was I going to do this?
I shrugged it off. Best to go in blind and hope it’ll all work out.
Plane friend and I took the train up to Asakusa, a fairly quiet area where you’ll find a lot of cheapo accommodation lovers and basic bitch backpackers, such as myself. We parted ways and agreed to hang out the next day (incidentally, my birthday), do some sightseeing, and take in the Tokyo atmosphere. Somehow, I’d made a friend before I even got to the hostel. Things were going well, and I sensed I was in for a great trip.
Asakusa was an eclectic mix of old Japan and techno Tokyo. Charming, decrepit bookshops like this could be found next to ultra-modern apartments.
But first, I needed to get my bearings. No matter how jetlagged you are, the day you arrive is a great opportunity to orientate yourself, find out what you can do without going too far, and most importantly see where you can eat. As for me, I had an M&S meal deal that I’d bought in Heathrow, and hadn’t touched in about 16 hours since. From the bottom of my backpack, that spicy bean and cheese wrap was calling my name. There’s just one problem – I’d heard it was unacceptable to eat in public in Japan. And from my whole 1 hour’s experience of the country, I hadn’t seen anyone munching away on the street, so I assumed it must be true.
I found a quiet bench next to the Sumida River, and pondered my next move. On the one hand, I was hungry. On the other, I didn’t want to break any etiquette taboos on my first day, and reinforce stereotypes about grubby and rude Westerners. But, a hangry Alice is not an Alice that anybody would want to meet. A grubby and rude Westerner is what I’ll be, then.
Not a bad view to enjoy your meal deal to.
As I snaffled up my meal deal, shamefully trying to conceal my actions from passers by, I noticed something. There were more joggers along this riverside path than I’d ever seen run past my window at home, and lots of cyclists, too. If they weren’t dressed in activewear (and actually exercising, unlike in Britain), then they were suited and booted/heeled. I’d heard Japanese people were generally healthy and fashionable, but it really was astounding to see it for myself. Japanese women, in particular, always look on point. I wonder how they have time to do such lovely makeup and hair, when they also work famously long hours, and in some cases look after the family as well. If I was stylish enough to wear a hat, I’d take it off to them.
Back the hostel for a quick nap and a shower, then I’d planned to go out for dinner. I’d spotted a nice Greek restaurant (perhaps the only one in Japan), and I wanted to feel at home. But first, it was time to try the whole ‘meeting people’ thing in the hostel bar, to see if I could find a friend for dinner. Because I was feeling a bit socially awkward, I downed a cocktail to give me some Dutch courage, and looked around.
I locked eyes with a girl about my age, who was sat at a table by herself, writing in a notebook. I’d normally think it was rude to interrupt someone, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that if you’re sat at a youth hostel bar by yourself, chances are you want someone to talk to you. I introduced myself and asked if I could sit with her, and we got chatting. She was a filmmaker from Canada, and we talked about her experiences in Japan thus far. Before long, a few others had come over to our table, and we had a fairly international squad going on.
But a not-so-gentle rumbling in my stomach reminded me why I was there in the first place – I needed to get food, and fast. One of the girls suggested I pop to the 7/11 convenience store round the corner and try their sushi. I remembered one of my colleagues had said the same thing, and insisted it was good, despite my protestations that shop-bought sushi never tasted good at home. Being vegetarian, my options were limited – I could only get the tofu-wrapped rice, the fried mushroom rice, followed by more rice with adzuki beans. Still, it was at least on a par with Yo! Sushi, and with a belly full of rice I retired to bed.
The next morning, I awoke, put on some cute summer clothes, and went downstairs to start my day. Sadly, nobody had told me that June is rainy season in Japan, so it was pissing it down. Defeated, I went upstairs to change, then met up with plane friend and a guy from the hostel to do some sightseeing. Thankfully, we were only quarter of an hour’s walk from one of the most impressive sights in Tokyo – the Senso-ji temple.
Most of Japan follows Shintoism, but a significant minority of its people are Buddhist. Founded in the 7th century, Senso-ji is the oldest temple in all Tokyo, and the stunning complex spans quite a wide area. Within its grounds, you’ll find a bustling marketplace, a zen garden, a towering pagoda, and a main hall filled with gold, candles, and incense. With 30 million visitors annually, it’s the most visited spiritual site in the world.
Even when it’s raining cats and dogs, you can barely move through the crowd.
The first stage is to pass under the main gate, or ‘Kamimaron’. It’s adorned with a massive paper lantern, and some imposing lion statues, which are intended to frighten away any evil spirits that might want to invade the temple.
It also makes for a fantastic cheesy tourist photo spot.
You then walk through a marketplace filled with street food and souvenir shops, before passing through a second gate, and finally stepping onto the sacred ground. The first thing you’ll notice is the scent of smoky incense filling the air. That’s because there’s a massive pot of it just in front of the main hall. Breathing it in is supposed to bring you blessings, and I need as many of those as I can get, so I took a big sniff.
Expectation vs. reality. That shit burns.
We had a quick nose around the main hall, which while a bit dim, is dripping in gold and stunning decorations. But it was too dark to take pictures, and the business was starting to bother me, so we headed for our next destination – Tokyo Tower.
I’d first seen it on a computer game – the pixelated backdrop of the Tokyo level on Tomb Raider: Legend, to be precise. Nerdy though it might be, I was so excited to be able to see it for myself, after Lara had ran, swan-dived and motorbiked around it.
I’d say I’m ashamed, but I’m not. This game is super fun.
In the flesh, the Tokyo Tower looks like a gaudy red-and-white version of the Eiffel Tower. At 333 metres tall, it’s just a little higher than its French inspiration. And since it’s indoors, the observation deck is considerably warmer.
I seem to have a habit of going up high buildings in rainy season.
The tour tells the story of how the tower came into being, how it’s been used by Japanese TV stations, and why it’s become a symbol of the city over the years. It’s brightly painted because at the time, they were concerned planes wouldn’t be able to see it at night – and I’ll have you know that’s not really red, but ‘international orange’. It’s the same shade they painted the Golden Gate Bridge, and for the same reasons.
I’d normally put in a picture of the view from the top, but since it was raining, you couldn’t see much. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Fuji, but I could barely see the cars down below, so I came back down to Earth to do something else.
On my way to the metro station, I stumbled across a not-so-hidden treasure – Zojo-ii temple. This Buddhist temple, like Senso-ji, is usually packed with tourists, but thanks to the unrelenting rain, they’d all gone back home. Admittedly I was about to do the same, but having found this place practically deserted, I decided to turn on hardcore-Brit mode and brave the storm. And what a reward it was. Zojo-ji was the family temple of the mighty Tokugawa shogunate (if you don’t know what that is, watch this handy and entertaining 10-minute video that sums up the entire history of Japan), and six of the dynasty’s shoguns are buried in the temple.
It’s a hugely atmospheric place, and the rain only made it more impressive. But if you turn away from the main hall and the Tokugawa mausoleums, you can explore the peaceful garden. In it, there are hundreds of small sculptures, adorned with flowers and colourful clothing. Upon closer inspection, these ‘Jizo’ statues are of babies, and are meant to commemorate dead and stillborn children. Families choose a statue to represent their lost child, and provide it with gifts, clothing and toys to help its soul go to the afterlife.
It’s a touching tradition, and even more lovely because people still take part in it.
I took one last look at the temple, breathing deeply to take it all in, before turning and heading back to the hostel. My plan for the afternoon was to hang out with one of the Americans I’d met the night before, William, and explore the modern district of Shibuya with him. He’s a big fan of anime and manga, and was currently playing a game that gave him near taxi-driver level knowledge of the Tokyo city streets. A useful person to have around indeed.
We did some tourist bits first, and Shibuya Crossing was top of my list. This is basically Tokyo’s equivalent to Times Square. The bright lights and loud adverts go up as high as your neck can strain, and the crossing is always busy with commuters, tourists, and Japanese shoppers.
As darkness fell, the neon Tokyo I knew and love from my internet research came into being.
We dashed across the road as soon as the green man appeared, for in Japan, you really don’t have long to get across before the cars come and you have to wait another 10 minutes. Aint nobody got time for that.
I’m not much of a shopper, but it was lucky we were here. On the coach to the airport, I’d realised I’d left my swimsuit at home, which would not do – I had beaches to look forward to in Ishigaki, and I couldn’t well jump in with my clothes on like I would at home. Turns out, William was also in need of some swimwear, so we ducked into a Bershka and bought the first things we saw. I ended up with something that made me glad of the bikini wax I’d got before I came out, but it would do.
Shopping done and Shibuya ticked off the list, it was William’s turn to choose our destination. We headed for Akihabara – what he described as the ‘Nerd District’ of Tokyo. It’s the electronics and gaming area, with lots of anime shops, and a plethora of themed cafes. Hell, if this is the nerd district, I don’t want to be cool. Neither did anyone else, it seemed – we couldn’t get a seat at the Square Enix theme cafe, and I really wanted that Tomb Raider merchandise. We could have gone to a J-pop boyband cafe, or a French maid cafe, but I think both of us would have found something to object to in each.
At some point during our meander back to the hostel, my new friend William made an unusual proposition. The conversation went something like this:
W: “I really want to go to a traditional Japanese bathhouse [sento]. Have you ever done one of those?”
A: “No, why?”
W: “There’s one right near the hostel, we should go.”
A: “… Aren’t those the naked ones? What are you doing inviting me there?”
W: “They are, but they’re gender segregated. Don’t worry.”
A: “Oh, alright then. Let’s do that, I could do with warming up from the rain.”
Relieved this budding friendship wasn’t going to turn very weird very quickly, we headed on over. Sento Misuji-yu in Asakusa is located down a dark and dodgy-looking back alley (but it’s not really dodgy, because Japan has 0 crime), so only the locals – and William – really know about it.
After putting our shoes in a locker, we went into our respective gender-defined areas. Handing over 400 yen (about £3) to the lady at the front, I was given a towel as she gestured to the women’s changing area. There were no booths. Just me, a bench, and a middle aged Japanese woman. The towel was too small to cover my modesty as I undressed, so I struggled awkwardly for the first few moments. I sighed and looked around at the naked women around me, not giving a crap about who else was there. Well, if you can’t beat them, join them. I stripped off, had a shower, and plunged myself into the scalding hot sento water.
The sound of the artificial waterfall, the steam, and the massaging water jets were extremely relaxing. All I needed was some Radox Muscle Soak, and I’d be set. My body melted into the tiles as I sat in the water, and smiled to myself. I’d made it all the way to Tokyo, and had made friends despite being terrified of meeting new people. I was in a part of town that no tourists know about, and was doing something extremely authentic. On top of all that, it was my birthday. Life was good.
After about 20 minutes, though, the water had started to make me feel a bit sweaty. I got out, showered again, and went back to reception where William was waiting. It seems it was also a little too hot to handle for him, too.
As it was my birthday, we’d planned to do some karaoke in Akihabara. Karaoke is only my favourite thing in the world – I have so many wonderful memories of singing my heart out to ‘Unwritten’ by Natasha Bedingfield with my pals from the Islamic Society at university. But just the two of us would have been awkward, so William and I headed back to the hostel to pick up some more wannabe singers. I went upstairs to change, and half an hour later, I came down to a table full of karaoke fans William had managed to find. We had three more Americans, and a guy from Northern Ireland, all eager to try this classic Japanese night out.
Hiring a private room was a bit on the pricey side, but as there were 6 of us, it wasn’t so bad. We had an hour to sing like we’d always dreamed of, regardless of our vocal ability. As we got to the room, we heard Japanese businessmen of all ages doing the same – at one point, I heard some guys attempting the Spanish parts of ‘Despacito’. From now on, it is my mission in life to be that carefree and ambitious.
We kicked off with some Eminem rapping, and some classic American rock. But I was feeling a bit outnumbered by my across-the-pond friends, so I put on a Busted song and asked the NI guy to help me out. It was ‘Air Hostess’, which as a kid seemed innocent enough, but when you have to sing the lyrics in front of strangers – oh my. Not so much. It is a naaaasty song. Worse still, we didn’t really know how to sing them, so we stared in horror at the screen as the dirty lyrics made us blush. Moving swiftly on.
William is the guy making the hand gesture. The guy to the right of him was a karaoke king, and did an incredible Freddie Mercury impression.
What I knew about karaoke is, it’s the best thing ever. What I didn’t know is that you must have mad DJ skills to make sure everyone has a good time. I learned this after a bad and slightly-too-emotional rendition of ‘Against All Odds’ by Phil Collins. It might be one of my favourite songs, but if you’re out of tune and a bit tipsy, the lighthearted atmosphere dies down pretty quickly. Time to bring the party back.
After a couple more highballs (whiskey and soda cocktails that are cheap to drink in Japan, if like me you don’t like beer), I thought it would be a good idea to bust out some dance moves. Most karaoke places have every song under the sun, and that includes non-English and non-Japanese music. This particular place had a surprisingly awesome array of Hindi songs from Bollywood movies, and being a huge fan, I picked one I knew the dance routine to. Well, sort of – it was Gallan Goodiyan from Dil Dhadakne Do, and I knew some choreography thanks to this amazing flashmob I did when I lived in Bristol (skip to 3:35 if you want to see the song. Look out for the overly enthusiastic – but out of time – girl in the dark blue top).
The good news is, I had a lot of fun. The bad news is, I can’t sing for toffee in Hindi. But the dancing made up for that, I think.
And there’s no better way to end the night than with… Christmas songs?
When our time was up, it was about midnight, and I still hadn’t had any dinner. But vegetarian food in Japan was proving extremely difficult to find – tofu was everywhere, but it was usually cooked in fish or meat sauce. That’s when Coco Curry came into my life. In big green letters, it advertised a whole vegetarian menu, in English. Thankfully, it was open, so we went inside.
Is this what heaven looks like? It’s a bit more yellow than I expected.
Coco quickly became my go-to food place in Japan. It’s a chain, so you’ll find it everywhere – even in Ishigaki, a little island far away from the rest of the country. With reliable and tasty vegetarian curry with actual vegetables in it (another surprising scarcity in Japan), I went to one in pretty much every city I visited.
Japanese vegetable curry with aubergines and rice. My mealtime memory of Japan.
I got a generous portion of curry rice with iced Oolong tea for just under 1000 yen, which is about £7.25 for a hearty meal in central Tokyo. I am forever grateful to William for introducing me to this place, because it meant I always had somewhere nice (and cheap) to fall back on. I have just discovered there’s a branch in central London, and almost jumped for joy – but they’re charging almost double that price, so I think I’ll stick to Spoon’s.
We walked through the city streets and toddled back to the hostel at about 1AM, high on karaoke and yummy Japanese curry. I hadn’t expected hostelling to be as fun as it was, or to meet so many cool people, but sometimes the best things happen when you don’t expect them to. The next day would be filled with further challenges – it was the first day of my G Adventures tour, and I’d be meeting a bunch of strangers I’d be spending the next 10 days with. While my birthday had certainly been a day to remember, it was time to get to bed, and prepare for tomorrow’s excitement. Join me next time as I cross Tokyo with a suitcase, visit my first Japanese cat cafe, and try to spot a Harajuku Lolita girl.