Touching down in Tokyo Narita airport I was well prepared. This was my first trip to Tokyo, although not my first trip to Japan.
I spent a long weekend in Sapporo as a 19 year old acting as a journalist to cover a Magic: The Gathering grand prix tournament. Needless to say that weekend was not your typical Japan experience, so I felt like this trip was my first chance to get to know the place.
I came prepared because I had concerns. I had seen a picture of the subway map before, which looks very much like someone has dropped a bowl of spaghetti on the floor then placed train stations on to it.
Slightly intimidating to say the least…
While I knew Hong Kong would be English friendly, I was not expecting the same from Japan. In particular I expected to see mostly Japanese characters – Kanji, Hiragana or Katakana – three languages!
I could imagine getting on the wrong train, it taking me off somewhere and then not knowing how to get back. I was even thinking silly things like maybe I would just walk everywhere, and hence be stuck to whatever things were near-by my hotel.
As it turned out, my fears regarding the language barrier were largely misplaced…
Respectful and Organized
While my getting-from-the-airport-to-the-hotel-experience in Hong Kong was daunting, in Tokyo, everything went… well, Japanese.
I’ve always been a fan of Japanese culture. I grew up watching anime cartoons like Astro Boy, Robotech and Voltron. Japanese is my favourite of the asian food groups, and there is something about the Japanese people – they are a quiet, introverted, respectful, yet wholeheartedly quirky.
Landing in Tokyo and boarding a bus to town, I was immediately impressed by how organized and efficient everything was.
I had no problems asking for instructions for the bus to my hotel, which apparently I was too late for, so would need to catch a bus to central Tokyo then get a cab.
I was carefully herded on to the bus by diligent attendants, who respectfully bowed to the bus driver when he pulled away. Then there was the taxi driver, so respectful of me as his passenger and such a safe driver, especially compared to my taxi experience in Hong Kong.
By the time I arrived at my hotel room I was feeling very calm about Japan. Despite the potential language barriers and the sheer amount of people in Tokyo, I felt the Japanese vibe was more in tune with my own. It certainly helped that one of the first television shows I found on the hotel TV was entirely dedicated to watching what cats did…
I Brave The Train
During my first full day in Tokyo I took it easy, catching up on some work things, exploring the local area and seeing what kind of food was available.
After walking the somewhat chilly streets around the hotel it was clear that if I wanted to do anything fun in this city, catching the train or the subway was a must.
I used the internet to educate myself about Suica train cards (I’m building up quite the collection of transport cards – Octopus, Opal, Myki, GoCard and now Suica), then on my second full day in Tokyo took myself to the train station with plans to head to Shinjuku. In theory I only needed to catch one train to get there, so I figured that was a safe start.
I’m embarrassed to admit that after boarding the train I felt a moment of self doubt and jumped off the train one station later thinking I might be on the wrong one. However I wasn’t, and caught the next one a couple of minutes later, riding it safely to Shinjuku.
I was pleasantly surprised to not only see English spelling of all the train stations, most of the trains even had English announcements, which made things a whole lot easier. Plus if I got really lost, I could always get a taxi back to the hotel. I don’t know why I was so worried about getting around!
What I didn’t know in advance, was that Shinjuku is actually the worlds most busy transport hub (used by 3.64 million people PER DAY in 2007), and wow, it certainly is a crowded place!
I got off the train and did my best to go with the flow of people hoping I would end up somewhere interesting.
As I quickly learned once I started catching trains and subways, Tokyo city planning is very smart.
All the major attractions like shopping areas, restaurants, monuments and even the red light district are around train stations. Hence you can get off the train and instantly be where all the action is.
Shinjuku certainly made for a big Japan experience on my first day. It’s a large area, full of tall buildings, wide streets and also lots of smaller back streets, big bright signs, and plenty of people walking around.
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Food And Drink
Whenever I land in a new city one of my first goals is to locate supplies. In particular I look for healthy organic vegetables and a green juice source.
Tokyo food, upon first impression is all sushi, udon, pasta and some weird fast-food options like the three-stack fried noodle burger (that’s an afternoon nap waiting to happen!). I love my sashimi, teppanyaki, and yakitori, but I like a dose of healthy greens at least once a day too.
Let’s just say organic vegetables where not obviously apparent at first glance on the streets of Tokyo.
With thanks to Lauren my virtual tour guide back home in Australia, she helped me find a fantastic organic buffet, located downstairs at a Crayon House kids toy and book store in Harajuku. There was also a green juice bar just a few blocks from away from the buffet, so my food needs were set.
Speaking of Harajuku – it quickly became my favorite area and the place I spent the most time during my trip to Tokyo.
The streets while super-busy with Japanese teenagers and tourists like me, are more quaint than mega-massive like other areas are. I particularly loved the back streets, which surprisingly could be quite quiet, except for this one…
A photo posted by Yaro Starak (@yarostarak) on
Speaking of busy-ness, after the at times intense experience in Hong Kong bumping into people walking the streets, I was expecting more of the same in Tokyo. The Tokyo prefecture is part of the world’s most populous metropolitan area with upwards of 37.8 million people – that’s a lot of people to bump into!
Tokyo, despite the crazy amount of people, is more spread out than I expected. Yes certain places like train stations and big shopping malls are way too busy, but it’s not hard to find a near-empty park or walk down a side street if you need some space.
At least half of the days I had in Tokyo I would start with a four station subway ride to Omotesando (a subway station near Harajuku), followed by a great meal at the organic buffet, then a laptop session at a cafe somewhere in Harajuku or on the streets connecting it to Shibuya.
Shibuya is the next big train station area down the line from Harajuku station and home to the famous Shibuya crossing where thousands of people cross the street every few minutes (it’s pretty epic, and features in plenty of movies).
I’m a creature of habits, so once I felt comfortable with the train and subway, I had my favorite areas and a good source of food, I felt much more relaxed. I also felt more comfortable about exploring other areas because I had the confidence to use the train or subway to get myself back to familiar areas.
Japanese Pop-Culture Tour
When it comes to travel, I tend to procrastinate making decisions on when to leave. I had planned early 2015 as my likely departure time, but if it wasn’t for one thing I may have continued to put off booking my flights.
Once I made the decision to visit a couple of cities in Asia I’ve always wanted to go to as a detour on the way to the USA rather than fly direct from Australia, I knew there was one thing I had to do – a Japanese anime tour.
I figured if I am going to go to Japan, I should take a tour of one of the main exports I love from the country – Japanese Animation, known as “anime”.
As timing would have it, a once a year pop culture tour, including entry to the huge ‘Anime Japan’ conference, occurs in March, which is the month I was planning to make my move.
Since the pop-culture tour is only held once a year, it forced my planning (nothing like a deadline!), so I locked in my tour, then my flights and hotel. If it wasn’t for this tour I might still be in Australia right now.
The tour was set for the second half of my Tokyo visit, so by the time the three days rolled around I was already familiar with the city and had my comfort zone established.
I hoped the tour would provide one thing I didn’t get walking around by myself – education. I love it when locals talk about their city, giving the history as well as local knowledge insights.
Unfortunately my three day tour was not good value for money. We had two Japanese guides who spoke reasonably good English, but they acted more like parents than tour guides. They took us on the subway to an area, then said go look around yourself and meet us back here at so and so time.
I could’ve done that kind of tour myself. In fact I was doing that myself already!
The Anime convention on the third and final day of the tour, while certainly eye-opening, wasn’t as good as some conventions I’ve been to in Australia primarily because of the language barrier. My favourite thing at conventions are the panel interviews, which when they are in Japanese are not nearly as good.
I was happy once the tour was over so I could be in charge of my day again without having parents telling me where to go.
A video posted by Yaro Starak (@yarostarak) on
Working In Japan And The Great Tokyu Food Show
Since I had no friends in Tokyo I had more time to myself. When this happens I’m more inclined to work rather than go be a tourist. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not – I just love my work more than anything else.
As I mentioned earlier, I spent some quality time in Harajuku and also Shibuya most days. My routine was to wake up around 8am, do any urgent work that had come through over night, then head out for my organic buffet.
After that I’d head to a cafe I knew had wifi (surprisingly hard to find in Tokyo), do an hour or two of work mostly interacting in my Laptop Lifestyle Community, replying to emails or working with Carly to get our next major tech release done (in this case a new version of the community software platform). I’d use my afternoons to explore an area near by, sample food and chocolate, then do some more work.
On one of my last days I came across what ended up being a big highlight of my trip – the Tokyu Food Show.
In the basement of the Tokyu department store there is a massive food court, but it’s not your typical food court full of fast food. This food court was full of so much amazing produce and meat – from pastries, to steamed buns, dumplings, fish, chocolate, bakery good, vegetables I had never seen before, roast and poached meats, sushi, and so much more.
I’ll let these pictures give you an idea, but you really need to see it in person. Needless to say discovering (and eating) food in cities I have never been to before is one of my favorite things to do as a traveler.
A photo posted by Yaro Starak (@yarostarak) on
The End Of My Asian Journey
As I boarded the plane to Vancouver, leaving Tokyo – and Asia – behind, I felt that I had tasted just enough for the time being.
I didn’t do everything I planned, for example a day trip to Macau while in Hong Kong, or to see Mount Fuiji in Tokyo, but that’s okay. I like having a reason to return to a place.
Now that I have landed in North America, typing this from Vancouver, I’m feeling the urge to get a home base. Having a regular home, a place to do your laundry, cook meals and a stable environment for work, is something I quickly crave while on the road.
I’m off to San Diego in mid April to attend as a special guest an event that Chris Ducker and Pat Flynn run called 1 Day Business Breakthrough, which the guys are streaming live online, so should be a cool experience.
After that it’s time to settle in San Francisco for about six months – as long as my Canadian passport qualifies me for in the USA. That’s assuming I can find a place to rent, what a crazy expensive city it is!
I’ll have more updates for as time goes by.
For now, here’s to the laptop lifestyle!
Slightly More Asian