The boyfriend and I decided to make the best use of our holiday and take a trip together. We decided on Tokyo, and I’m so happy we did : it was an amazing experience. Tokyo manages to pull off a breathless balancing act, switching between crushed and hectic, exciting, serene and meditative / spiritual at the drop of a hat. It was also a hugely photogenic place, something heightened by a lack of understanding of the language : If you can’t read kanji, you’re not going to know what 99% of the things around you say, and instead you’re surrounded by symbols, an abstract of language as graphic design. It’s quite awesome.
There’s a full gallery up on Flickr of the pictures taken in Tokyo (access here) if you prefer a raw image feed. Here I wanted to take a little time and go over the days we were there, some specific hurdles and delights we discovered. Tokyo can be a confusing place at first, and the few blogs I read beforehand really helped prepare me for some things. I’m hoping to fill in a few of the gaps here.
There is a custom Google Map we created you can access here which has almost all the places we went to (plus more). It’s a great resource, especially for camera shops.
View TOKYO in a larger map
Travel and Lodging
We flew ANA from SFO to Narita. From Narita you have a couple options to get you into Tokyo proper. We chose to take the KeiSei Skyliner to Nipporri and then transfer to the JR Yamanote line which would take us to our hotel in Ikebukuro. The Skyliner was a great option : fast, relatively inexpensive (about 2400 Yen), and simple to navigate.
The JR Line uses paper tickets which you can buy individually in almost any amount, or the Suica card. Get a Suica card, for sure. Not only are they easy to refill and use on trains, they’re also good for some of the vending machines around town, as well as some of the convenience stores. The little penguin is magic.
The Hotel Metropolitan in Ikebukuro turned out to be a great choice. Ikebukuro is at the northern tip of the JR Yamanote line, which means you can drop down Southeast or Southwest and hit up almost every neighborhood. Ikebukuro is also a pretty chill introduction to the blueprint that is the rest of Tokyo : you get the alleyway neon experience without the density crush of places like Shinjuku. Your mileage may vary, but it worked very well for us.
One weird little thing about the hotel, and Tokyo in general, I should mention : most gyms will not let you work out with visible tattoos. Since tattoos were traditionally only for Yakuza (the “Japanese Mafia”), most places have banned them outright as a way to protect their costumers and reputation. This rules goes for Onsen, the traditional Japanese baths, as well.
You can read more about this phenomenon as it pertains to health clubs here.
Eating, Drinking, and Smoking
Eating, at first, was one of the most challenging aspects of the trip. Not only did we want to make sure we were getting into something we would enjoy consuming, but we were also trying to be very conscious of whether the establishment accepted foreigners. A lot of bars, we read, (especially in places like Golden Gai) are for locals only, and we certainly didn’t want to rile the natives and be disrespectful. This meant, sometimes, great deliberation leading up to a meal or drink. After about the 3rd day we pretty much got over it and were able to spot noodle places with ease that we could navigate.
Besides great noodles and gyoza we had some Yakitori in a little alleyway place under the Shunjuku train tracks. The food was meh, and the service, by “American Standards”, was poor : you were expected to shout out when you wanted service. This wasn’t horrible once the boyfriend remembered how to say “Excuse Me!” (“Sumimasen!”), which was one of the only times we actually had to “speak” Japanese during the whole trip.
Almost every eating and drinking establishment allows smoking, which is great if you’re a smoker (we were) because you cannot smoke on the street. There are signs everywhere not to, and most people adhere to these rules. You’ll find “smokers stations” near train stations (sometimes) with a group of 10 – 20 people huddled around smoking, but your best bet to smoke is popping into a coffee shop or restaurant, ordering something, and doing your thing.
I admit with a certain amount of shame that we ate at McDonalds a few times during the trip : once for breakfast and once for a after-drinking meal. Breakfast was surreal because we had it on the second floor with the rest of the smokers… something about smoking in a McDonalds is weirder than most else we experienced the whole trip.
Drinking was generally pretty chill : we found a bar near our hotel the first night that we went back to a few times : The Nostro Modo International Cafe and Bar, a chill little basement place with an affable South African bartender who spoke enough English for us to have a proper conversation. He gave us lots of good advice, and more importantly, beer. We also caught a drink at Advocates in “Friendly Town” (the Toyko Gay district) which was a low pressure experience. The bar filled up with French foreigners the longer we sat, but that seemed pretty normal. Also, they were playing atmospheric / jazzy Drum & Bass… something I’ve *NEVER* heard at a gay bar in the states.
Ah, now here’s where things get interesting : Shopping in and around Tokyo is nuts. There’s no comparison on the West Coast. Maybe New York rivals Tokyo for it’s sheer variety and availability of obscure goods, but I doubt it. Clothing brands I only seen small selections of in bigger department stores have their own storefront in Harajuku. The big electronics store (Yodobashi and Bic Camera) are like walking through Amazon.com : their selection is off the charts. Then you have the smaller camera stores peppered throughout each neighborhood, each with their own special magic to sell.
We spent our first day (and the boyfriend spent most of his money) at MAP Camera. They have two storefronts on the same street in Shinjuku (you can find them on the map linked at the start of this article). They have an amazing selection of Laikas, Hasselblads, and other outta-my-prince-range-cameras. Their medium format selection, new and used, body and lens, was superb. Briand picked up a Pentax 55 f4 for his 67 II kit at a price well below American used internet pricing. While he shopped I ogled the vast array of cameras I’d only read about online : Rollei Rolleiflex 6008, Fujifilm GF670, even a Mamiya 645ZD. Tokyo is also a great place to shop for compact, intelligent 35mm cameras like the Fuji Klasse or the Nikon 28ti. These cameras just aren’t available in the states.
We hit up almost all the camera shops in Shinjuku, which quickly because an exercise in over-stimulation. Which MAP Camera, Lemon Camera, and some others were nicely organized and easy to browse, some places like Chuuko Box were indecipherable : glass cases floor to ceiling, stuffed chock full of vintage cameras. It was impossible to tell what anything was, what shape it was in, sometimes even what the price was. We ogled, pointed and cooed at a few of the rarer birds, but in the end it was too much : back onto the streets to take more pictures with the cameras we *did* understand.
If you’re going to Tokyo as a photographer, make sure to check out this blog post from JapanCameraHunter.com.
I actually only bought one thing in Tokyo, if you can believe that : a sling bag from Rescue Squad in Harajuku. But that’s not for lack of trying! There were lots of enticing things in Harajuku, especially down the little “menswear alley” section, lined on both sides with Nike concept sneaker stores, Carhartt, Supreme, Huf and many many others. There were also tons of used / vintage clothing shops that I was dying to get into, but in the end didn’t have the energy. Next time!
Harajuku sort of became our hub for shopping, in part because of it’s proximity to the Meiji Shrine and the New Years activities surrounding it. While we were pretty clear on the shrine-visiting part of New Years, what we didn’t also know was that it was a huge shopping vacation for most people. The shops had lines out the door, everywhere, for crazy deals and sales. Almost every shop had a variation of the Happy Bag : you pay ¥10,000 to ¥20,000 and leave with a grab bag / box of mystery clothes and accessories. These bags were serious business at all the menswear places in Harajuku, leading me to believe that they must contain limited edition stuff. Most major international stores participated too… I think Levis was one of the only places I didn’t see rocking the Happy Bag.
Outside of fashion and cameras, we really dug Akihabara (Electric Town). Could definitely spend another day there getting lost amongst the transistors and crazy computer cases.
Random note about something I was shopping for and noticed : the Japanese do not wear sunglasses on the street in Tokyo. I do not know why, but the only people wearing sunglasses, no matter how bright the sun got, were tourists. I Google’d the phenomenon and found this :
“They only wear sunglasses under certain conditions, such as when they go to the beach. Each time he put on his sunglasses on city streets, the Japanese found it to be hilarious. This was all good clean fun until they approached the office building where they were to meet with an important customer. At this point, one of the Japanese salesmen turned to by boss and said, “Larry-san, please remove the sunglasses…it makes you a stranger.””
The New Year
I hate to say it, but I barely stayed up through 12/31/12 in Tokyo. Sure, Ellen Alien and Apparat were playing Womb, but after walking around all day and dealing with a subpar drinking experience at Nostro Modo (some foreigners had organized a beer bust…) we decided to wring in the New Year from the comfort of our hotel room. That’s not to say we didn’t participate in the festivities. Japanese New Year is different than ours here in the US. Sure, some people choose to stay up all night getting wasted and dancing. Some people ride the JR Yamanote line round and round drinking with their friends. Most people, however, spend the night with their families or at a shine, celebrating Shōgatsu with Hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of the year.
We spent the later part of New Year’s Eve at Asakusa, where the beautiful and popular Hōzōmon shrine lives. The area was already in a festive mood, even before sundown, as food vendors set up tents along the spidery paths around the main temple. Throngs of people practicing the Osenko ritual with incense made for some stunning picture opportunities, and filled the air with a scent I will also associate with that place. It was a charged moment, and one that would have been amazing to see at Midnight had we had the fortitude to stick around.
We decided to visit the Meiji Shrine outside Harajuku on the 1st, along with thousands of other people. Over the 3 – 4 days of Hatsumōde, the Meiji shrine is said to pull in around 3 million people(!), but lucky for us it wasn’t crushed the morning of the 1st. The experience was at once festive and sombre : a carnival-like atmosphere with serious spiritual underpinnings. I really like this about Japanese culture : a quick trip to the shrine during the day for a clap and a bow seems very normal. With shrines dotting every major neighborhood, you’re never far from a place of reflection, which is good when you’ve been in the crush and swell of the Tokyo streets for a while.
Despite the fact that lots of retail places were open and bustling by the 2nd, we learned that most places stay closed through the 3rd. Eateries and bars in Ikebukuro were closed on the 1st and 2nd, which made our morning coffee routine a little more difficult (hence the McDonalds that one morning). Once you get into an area like Harajuku or Shinjuku your options open up again, but even there not everything is open those days. If you do decide to go to Tokyo over New Years, be prepared to walk a little farther to find sustenance.
I would go back to Tokyo tomorrow if I could : it got under my skin in a way no other city has. We only saw / did about 50% of the stuff we set out to, and in between those specific points are 100 more undiscovered things to experience. The density, the people, the architecture, the speed and tempo of the city… the scale of everything : it was right up my alley. I’ve been told it’s more of a function of vacation itself rather than the place you’re vacationing, but I really felt alive in a way I’ve not felt in a long time. Thank you, Tokyo.