Our first task after landing in Tokyo was to exchange a voucher which we bought in Australia for an actual JR-Pass. It is not a hard thing to do. You can do it via the counter in JR Service Center inside the train station at the airport terminal. From the very first moment in Japan, we liked the way the foreigners are treated. The locals seemed very friendly, helpful and pleased that people are coming to visit their country. Not all Japanese speak as good English as the airport staff, but everybody who we met was eager to help us. No matter the language barrier and cultural differences.
Japanese hospitality is easy to spot on websites like couchsurfing. Despite that the apartments are often very small, people are welcoming and happy to host.
On our very first night in Japan, we tried to make it to our host in western Tokyo. After studing the map of train network – which looks like a plate full of colorful spaghetti, we made it to the right station. All the signs were obviusly in Japanese, therefore we had some problems finding the right street. Friendly locals offered us help. Even though they did not speak any English, they made an effort to solve our problem. If there is a will, there is a way.
We had the JR-Pass, so we were using only trains to move around Tokyo. There are hundreds of stations and after a few train rides you will move around with ease. In addition, there is an underground/subway network. For us, it did not make much sense to use it and pay again, since we already paid a small fortune for the JR pass. Trains are very frequent and even if you miss one, there is another one coming in minutes. Trains can a bit packed in rush hours, especially downtown.
First day of our sightseeing was all about Sakura. We went to the famous Ueno Park. Cherries were in full bloom and under the trees there was a hanami at its best. There are a few temples inside the park. The streets leading to them are lined with food stalls. You can find there famous okonomiyaki, grilled calmari, rice cake and much much more. Plenty of goodies to choose from! It is the busiest part of the year in the park and there were heaps of people. After spending so much time in Australian Outback and mountains of New Zealand we were a bit schocked. The park is very picturesque. We spent a lot of time walking along its cherry trees and temples. A popular attraction seems to be renting a swan-shaped boat to cruise around the pond and marvel at spring flowers.
Shibuya & Shinjuku
Shinjuku is the busiest train station in the world. It is located in the west of Tokyo and serves as a major transport hub. The district is full of modern architecture, shopping malls and butiques. Thousends of neons set the evening sky ablaze. Not many places shine so bright. Well, maybe the neighbourhood Shibuya district does. There, you can find the busiest crossing on the planet.
These fashionable districts ae bordered by gardens of Shinjuku Goyen. Best time to visit is obviously spring and sakura. A short walk from there you can find Meiji Shrine. It is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji who ended feudalism in Japan, moved the capital to Tokyo and started modernisation of the country. The shrine is located in the middle of small, but dense forest. We walked a wide path sometimes leading under gigantic wooden Tori gates. Main shrine is curently under restoration, so the views are limited. Still a nice place to walk to.
The royal family currently lives in a palace not far from Tokyo Station. It is open to visit for everybody only twice a year: on new year greeting celebration and on emperor birthday. Visitors are welcome to visit Eastern Gardens. From there, you can see palace walls, gates and brides hanging over the moat. Japan is a country filled with tradition. We experienced it in very interesting way while buying tickets to the Snow Monkey Park in Nagano. The date on the ticket was year 29 not 2017. Why? Because it was the 29th year of Emperor’s Akihito ruling. You can extend your visit in the area and see world’s largest fish market – Tsukiji. You won’t find fresher sushi anywhere else.
Tokyo is famous for shopping. Different districts specialize in different goods to attract more customers. If you are after some bargain electronics, you should visit Shinjuku or Akihabarea. Fancy fashion brands can be found in Giza, while modern, youth trends dominate in Shibuya and Harajuku. Mike as a trained and passionate chef was very eager to visit Kappabashi. This district is famous for suppling kitchen and restaurant equipment. There you can find world’s best knives. It is worth it to take your time and walk to smaller shops on side streets. You can find excellent japanese knives 50% cheaper than in Europe or Australia. These are the best blades you can possibly find, so they will still cost a fair bit.