I have always loved big cities… The busy atmosphere, the maze of diversity amongst people and their overall rhythm. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore visiting villages and towns, but big cities have a special place in my heart: Rio, London, New York, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong… And now Tokyo.
In the course of five days, venturing from dense commercial modern areas to old temples, markets and parks, I explored Tokyo with the challenge of visiting a city supposedly very expensive, on a backpacker's budget. Surprisingly, it wasn't difficult at all, and visiting Tokyo as an independent traveller was a very rewarding experience.
The Arrival: incredible display of Japanese hospitality hitchhiking out of the airport
As soon as I landed in Narita's international airport and got a hold of my backpack, I went directly to the tourist information office, to get maps, information on what to do and see, and much to the workers’ surprise, to ask them for help making my hitchhiking plate in Japanese characters, so that I could hitchhike into Tokyo. As most locals do, they reacted giggling, and as they continued to mention that there was a direct high-speed train into the city, I gave up on potentially explaining to them what hitchhiking meant to me. Soon, with a board sign that said “Tokyo – any metro station will be great, thanks”, I ventured into the airport's parking lot exit, confident that I would be successful.
I stood in the exit for under one minute. Two cars drove by, looked at me, giggled, and sort of apologised as they couldn’t take me. I thanked them for stopping, insisted it was not a problem, but they continued on apologising, before taking off. A hilarious cultural experience already! So very “Japanese” of them to behave like that! Then the third car stopped, a driver greeted me and came out, put my backpack into their cute little tiny car’s trunk and even thanked me for coming into their car. They spoke some English and were quite nice. When I told them where I was going, they said they could drop me off there, instead of at a metro station. I insisted it wasn't needed, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. Well, it couldn’t have gone better! In under 40 minutes I had reached my friend's house where I would be staying. It was a promising start.
Shibuya, Ginza and Shinjuku: The highly modern Tokyo we all picture in our minds
The part of town where I was staying was really nice, and incredibly modern. As I crossed some incredibly well designed bridges and gazed at many of the skyscrapers, my friend just kept on saying that his area is really just any other one in thousands of similar neighbourhoods in greater Tokyo, which slowly, started to make sense to me, as I continued to visit the city.
It was now time to visit one of Tokyo’s busiest districts, so that I could take my first real look of Tokyo at night: Shibuya. It was crazy. Shibuya is home to that famous image of Tokyo many people might carry in their minds: Incredibly busy streets full of people, with a crazy street intersection amongst many skyscrapers with massive TV screens and neon lights (somewhat overwhelming everywhere) where when the traffic light goes green, one zillion people start crossing from all possible directions. It was pretty cool – I felt like I was in a scene of my own imagination from years ago, or part of a TV commercial. As we walked around Shibuya it all just felt so big. So massive.
The area is also home to Tokyo's notorious “Love Hotels” and sex shops. It was something rather interesting to see, in a city that holds such a traditional culture at the same time. I spotted some rather interesting characters in the area: Grown-up girls walking around in baby clothes, grown-up men walking around in school girl uniforms, goths of all sorts... It was truly hilarious to observe.
Next day I woke up early to venture into Ginza, another famous neighbourhood of central Tokyo. As I like to walk, I figured I would try to walk as much as I could, not only to save money – as public transportation is indeed expensive in Japan – but to properly see the city. Well, much to my misfortune, it was raining. I started my walk towards Ginza, under the pouring rain. I was indeed the only rain coat wearer in a sea of umbrellas. Mind you though: a sea of properly organized umbrellas! Couldn’t believe it! Not once did I get close to being poked by an umbrella, as it happens everywhere else. The Japanese, and their extreme organisational skills – never cease to impress me!
So I walked around the famous, fashionable central district of Ginza, full of brand name shops and expensive, gourmet style cafes and restaurants. The rain was annoying, but it didn’t stop me. Nor the Japanese. Even under the pouring rain, heel-wearing, well-dressed Japanese girls could be seen everywhere coming out of shops, carrying loads of shopping bags.
With drier weather the next day, it was time for Shinjuku. Shinjuku is just as big if not bigger than Shibuya – something hard to imagine. Also full of Japanese-style department stores, youth walking around, big skyscrapers, huge TV-screens and large crossings everywhere, it can take hours for it to be properly explored. Time flew by and as night fell (it was getting dark at 5PM, the only disadvantage of travelling in November to Japan, as the actual temperature is perfect for travelling!) I headed into the notorious Kabukicho district, famous for its Red Light district.
Kabukicho and Roppongi: Experiencing Tokyo's nightlife and searching for the perfect warm sake experience
Kabukicho was outstanding for people-watching. Bars were everywhere, but it wasn’t at all seedy, it all seemed surprisingly normal as a matter of fact. The highest concentration of adult shops and adult establishments I had ever seen, but in true Japenese style, calm, clean and organised. Aside from spotting a girl in a little girl’s uniform holding a teddy bear here and there, or a slightly drunker than usual Japanese fellow coming out of a disco once in a while, it was rather uneventful, but in a good way.
I was off to Roppongi next, to experience a Saturday night in Japan! An area full of expats, Rappongi's streets are lined up with bars and clubs everywhere. We must have gone into 3 different clubs in a couple of hours, all packed with people of all sorts and styles. The area was somewhat seedy, but that gave it a bit of character. My friend insisted that I needed to try warm sake, which surprisingly, was a bit hard to find. After venturing into a few bars and settling for the cold ones we were offered instead, we ended up at a bar of a five-star hotel where I could appreciate why he was making such a big deal of it: In that temperature, it was incredibly tasty, and couldn't be compared to cold sake.
As it was really late already, I had a brilliant idea: To remain awake, to pay Tokyo's famous Tsukishima Fish Market a visit early in the morning.
The Tsukishima Fish Market and watching the sun rise in “The Land of the Rising Sun”
Guide books highly recommend it, as it is Tokyo's biggest market, where the fish is the freshest, and where a not-to-be-missed fish auction takes place. First time I heard about it my thought was “I will not get up at 4 a.m. to go to some fish market, forget it!”, but now, it was 3 a.m. and I was awake, so hey! I would have missed out big time, and what a shame missing it would have been! Walking around that big big city at 4 a.m. without any people or cars around felt absolutely amazing. I still couldn’t stop staring at the many bridges and skyscrapers by the river…
We approached the fish market area, and it seemed very busy and very cool, with people arriving with boxes and boxes of fish, moving them around in a crazy maze of scooters and other motorised moving devices I simply can’t get myself to explain. It was lively and crazy! The market seemed really cool. There were countless alleyways hosting simply countless stalls selling fishes of all shapes and sizes.
The auction was a mix of madness with some measure of organisation. Massive tunas were being offered by a loud seller, to an avid audience of bidding buyers – but as soon as the deal was sealed, a moment of organisational silence took over in another interesting display of Japanese organisation.
After a delicious authentic bowl of Ramen noodles, we noticed tourists were starting to arrive. And tired, we were about to leave. But then, something quite cool that should have been expected but ended up being forgotten started happening: The sun started to rise. When was the last time I had actually been awake to watch the sunrise? And now, there I was: watching the sun rise in the land of the rising sun.
After a few days exploring highly modern Tokyo, it was time to visit its more traditional areas, and get away from the madness for a little bit.
Old Tokyo - Ueno and Asakusa
That day started with a walk around the Ueno area, and by the time we reached the Ueno Park, it felt like a full-on hot summer day: full of people jogging, families having weekend outings... It was very cool.
Ueno was a very different part of Tokyo – a part of “Old Tokyo”, although it didn’t seem all that old at all. What made it different was the fact that there were no skyscrapers everywhere, and indeed, a fair bit of nature, with parks full of gardens and open spaces. The market area is also really interesting.
We walked around in the arcade for a while, and there I decided to start my super-fun activity of approaching strangers and asking them to have their picture taken holding a “Happy birthday” card I had made for my brother. That went on all day and night, and most people were just so happy to do it! It was not only a really cool gift, but it gave me the change of interacting with locals – something I was finding a bit more difficult in Japan than in other countries I had visited, as their culture is a bit reserved.
At night, we walked to Asakusa, home of the beautiful Shoji Temple, very cool-looking and one of one of the postcards of Old Tokyo. The area was altogether cool, as it felt more like something that one day was an old part of the city.
The depature: hitchhiking out of Central Tokyo
I have never been to any country where people are so eager and well-prepared to help, once tourists ask them for information. Many people in Tokyo speak English, and the few that don't will quickly phone somebody that does, so that the traveller can be taken care of, as a part of their culture of hospitality.
Contrary to what many people think, Tokyo is not that expensive of a city. Many of the interesting experiences to be had are out on the street and free of charge, as well as many temples and parks. Food choices are plenty, and from street ramen stalls to highly rated sushi restaurants, finding something that suits one's taste and budget is very easy. It is overwhelmingly big, but very easy to navigate. I could have spent weeks in Tokyo alone, but unfortunately, I was now running out of time.
Just like my arrival, it was time to venture into Kyoto in my own style. My friend laughed at my prospect, but it worked out very easily. Right from the heart of the city, from the centre of Ginza, with my backback on and a smile on my face, I stood on a street corner near a viaduct that leads to a motorway and put my thumb out: Soon enough I was on my way to Kyoto, continuing my adventures on a country that was already very dear to me, and about to get better.