Tokyo: Exploring the Biggest City on the Planet

Life in the biggest city on Earth Tokyo

Unlike a lot of travelers, who are in complete control of where they travel, we travel based on where the Army sends us. We arrived in Korea a few months ago and we’ll hit as many countries as we can over the next two years.

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My husband and I each have our own bucket list. China was on both, so we did that first. Japan was his top destination. I found tickets at a reasonable price and we booked a week at the New Sanno, which made our money stretch a little longer.

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Tokyo, the Biggest City on the Planet

That’s how WE roll—price trumps everything and banking on travel being cyclical—we’ll eventually get around to everything on the list before we leave on our next assignment.

Our tickets from Busan Korea to Tokyo set us back $520, a reasonable fare even though we could have gotten there for free if we tried for a seat on one of the Space-Available flights that leave from Osan to Tokyo daily. But in this case our motto “we’ve got more time than money” wasn’t an accurate statement. There was no telling how long it would have taken to get one of those prized, yet “flexibility required” seats.

We spent the night prior to our flight in Busan enjoying the world-famous Fireworks Festival… and we are glad we did. But that also added to our tiredness the next morning having to depart Busan at 6:30 am.

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The colorful markets and neon lights of Tokyo Japan are beautiful.

Tokyo is Huge

I realize that statement doesn’t actually give you an accurate description of just how huge it is. The city is THE largest city in Asia. I read that it’s 845 square miles and more than 13 million people living in the 47 districts that make up greater Tokyo, may not be the leader in density (Shanghai has that honor) it is by just about every other measurement.

I’ll give you some metrics that put it into perspective.

New York City metropolis has roughly 8 million people in a 304 square mile radius. It’s a huge dude.

After a little research, we knew that day passes would be our most cost-effective way to travel. And our first experience with transportation in Tokyo checked off a bucket list item for us both.

The Shinkansen—a Transportation MUST

We arrived in Tokyo around 9:00 am, stood in the long, but efficient customs line, and were on the Shinkansen (bullet train) bound for our Tokyo hotel by 10:00 am.

There are three Shinkansen train categories based on speed: Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama trains. We selected the Hikari train based on how much we wanted to spend.

The Nozomi Shinkansen is the fastest and is one of only a few JR trains that cannot be used with the Japan Rail Pass. It can reach speeds up to 300 km/h (186 mph), arriving in Kyoto is 2 hours.

However, I selected the Hikari train. It is the second-fastest train category along the Tokaido Shinkansen, reaching up to 220 km/h or about a 136 m/h and serves a few more stations than the Nozomi. It arrived in Kyoto in 2:30 hours and substantially less money.

Train Amenities

The Kodama is the slowest train category along the Tokaido Shinkansen, stopping at all stations along the way and requiring about four hours to reach the end of the line. There are usually two departures per hour in each direction, one operating between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka and one between Tokyo and Nagoya. Some trains during AM and PM rush hours are first come, first served.

The trains are clean, run on-time, have a dining car that serves snacks and beverages, and a cart that comes through each car several times during the trip. They also have outlets at your feet to plug in your laptop. And unlike many Asian countries, the voltage is 100v and can be used without the need for a converter. What they don’t offer, unlike the train station platforms, is free WI-FI.

The Japanese are quite polite people on the trains. Announcements ask riders to be quiet and courteous, refraining from talking on their phones. Unfortunately, they do not ask riders not to bring food, which in Asia can be quite aromatic.

Where we stayed: The New Sanno Hotel & Resort

Tokyo Mass Transit

We arrived at Tokyo station 40 minutes later and figured out how to use the subway system less than 15 minutes later. The underground mass transit system is made up of 13 lines and is run by two separate operators: the Metro and the Toei Lines. The two lines operate independently of one another, although you can transfer for one to the other as long as you purchase a round-trip, day, or combined ticket.

Get a Map

Pick up a map to make sure you are buying the correct ticket or you may be blocked from boarding the train. Having access to all three will make travel easier below ground, but you can get around the city using only the metro, as long as you are diligent and plan accordingly.

Like traffic above ground, the trains and the walking patterns run reverse to what you are used to. There are signs to help you if you forget. All instructions are either spoken in Japanese and English or can be read on digital screens on the platforms or in the train compartments themselves.

Where We Stayed

Check-in at our hotel wasn’t until 3 pm, so we had a few hours to kill. We opted for the New Sanno Resort in the upscale Azabu residential neighborhood. A week’s stay at the military resort cost $320… a steal in the pricey hotel market of Tokyo. The New Sanno Hotel, if you can get in, is a great bargain for the military traveler and I will ALSO write a dedicated post about it and its facilities.

After a quick lunch (sashimi for me, a burger for him) and a long nap in the hotel bar, we checked into our room at 3 pm on the dot, dropped our bags, and hit the streets.

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First up, the Tokyo Tower

You’ve heard me say before, I really like to get an aerial view, my bearing to say of a place. I hadn’t planned to go up, it’s pretty expensive, but hubby insisted. The tower is in the Shiba-koen district of Tokyo and affords a birds-eye view all the way to Mount Fuji on a clear day. For roughly $27, both of us could see the harbor, the Skytree and many of the iconic landmarks we would visit over the next few days. There is a reference that points to everything including the Australian Embassy (which I found weird).

Note about the price… you have to pay for both the main observation deck and the special observation tower if you want to go the top. You switch elevators, traverse a couple of flights of stairs to get to the smaller elevator that takes you up to the heavens.

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The Tokyo Tower

It’s a tower, some restaurants, touristy pictures can be bought, but I liked the elevator girls and their cute little uniforms. They reminded me of the iconic stewardess uniforms, complete with matching hats.

After our tour of the skyline, we sat down for a curry lunch in one of the restaurants at the base. More on curry and Japan later. The original plan was to walk to the Imperial Palace, but we opted out. We’ve seen a lot of Asian palaces and felt like doing something else instead.

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Sensoji Temple

We decided to walk to the Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district where we bathed in the heavy smoke that’s supposed to have healing powers. When I say we “decided” we actually just got a little turned around and missed the subway stop and ended up walking. It’s one of the oldest, if not less decorated shrines in all of Japan. The exercise was good for the mind and the body.

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It was also where I caught my first glimpse of women in the traditional kimono

First Sighting of the Kimono

It was also where I caught my first glimpse of women in the traditional kimono. I was mesmerized at how gracefully they balanced themselves on the wooden sandals and binding dresses. But I kept my distance too. I watched how this little girl broke down when tourists asked to take her picture. I remembered how I felt in China when everyone wanted to take a picture of the black girl. Besides, I had a date with a Geisha in Kyoto the next day.

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The scramble is a first-time tourist must– crossing one of Tokyo’s busiest streets– all four intersections at one time. It was fun, I never saw so many people filming themselves crossing a street. Hilarious.

The Shibuya Scramble

We jumped back on the train and did something totally touristy.  We headed over to the Shibuya neighborhood to partake in the nightly ritual of the “scramble”. The scramble is a first-time tourist must– crossing one of Tokyo’s busiest streets– all four intersections at one time. It was fun, I never saw so many people filming themselves crossing a street. Hilarious. We walked around a bit, checking out all the lights, headed to love hill where all the notorious love hotels are located.

Afterward, we snuck into one of the local hotels and filmed the scramble form the air. Luckily we didn’t catch, but not with my husband’s help, who kept moaning about what would happen if we got caught. Luckily we didn’t and I have an experience we can look back on that didn’t include embarrassment or jail time.

Day two we headed over to Shinjuku to get a FREE birds-eye view of Tokyo from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building and browse the numerous electronics stores that district is famous for.

We stopped in to see one last temple. The Sengakuji Temple in Shinagawa, the burial site for the famed 47 Ronin. After a quick lunch back at the hotel, we made our way via the JR line and metro to the Hinode Terminal where we would meet our yacht for the evening.

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The tickets for about $100 and well worth it. I already wrote about it here at Tokyo Harbor Cruise.

Tokyo Bay Cruise

I booked tickets on Viator for a meal and moonlit cruise around Tokyo Bay. The tickets for about $100 and well worth it. I already wrote about it here at Tokyo Harbor Cruise. The walk back along the river was romantic. Here is a little video of the cruise.

The next two days we spent in Kyoto and an entire day shopping all over Tokyo. We bought a few electronics, a beautiful silk kimono and I got my designer bag… something my husband started and I will not let him stop. I added a gorgeous Coach bag to go with my Chanel from China and my Michael Kors from Korea. It’s funny that I never had the compulsion to buy genuine designer bags until I moved to the land of knock-offs. And now I can’t imagine buying a fake one.

I have written several posts about singular experiences like my Gion neighborhood tour, but have yet to put pen to paper (fingers to keys) yet about the overall experience, so please come back for that.

Return to Tokyo

The first thing we did was head over to Kappabashi Street where they sell kitchen wares and the fake wax and plastic food items you see all over Japan. It straddles the Ueno and Asakusa districts and is fast becoming a quirky travel destination. The keychains and magnets can set you back, so you might want to hold off getting a souvenir and get them from stalls that line the path to the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. But some of the food did make us hungry, so we hopped back on the train and hit the Roppongi district where a friend said we would get a great meal. She was right, Roppongi is well known for its trendy restaurants.

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Kappabashi Street where they sell kitchen wares and the fake wax and plastic food items you see all over Japan.

Fish Market and Window Shopping

Quick stops in Ginza to see the famed Tsukiji Fish Market and Akihabara to window shop (but ended up buying a beautiful Coach bag too) and we made our way to Shibuya to visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine and the adjacent park known for its traditional wedding processions and lively Sundays… but it was Saturday, so we just strolled along the very quiet, hard-packed dirt trails for a bit. It was late November and we both only donned sweaters. It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon and our last day in Japan.

Our last stop in Tokyo was a short walk from the shrine. The big gate tells you where you are. It’s even equipped with a camera so you can see yourself taking a picture of it. Takeshita Street is known for its trendy fashion stores and even trendier Harajuku girls. They were cute in their 6″ wedge boots, mini skirts, pink hair, and punk make-up.

We hopped back on the subway bound for our hotel knowing we had seen as much as we could in a week and knowing that we would be able to talk about each experience with humor and fond memories.

I hope I get an opportunity to wear the stunning silk kimono I bought, maybe on a return trip to Japan in the future.

Just a few observations:

1. You may know that the Japanese drive on the “wrong” side of the road, but they are pretty insistent to walk that way too.

2. Taxi drivers have a handle that opens their door automatically… it’s pretty cool.

3. Subway platforms have free WI-FI, the trains don’t and they are SO quiet, whispering sounds loud.

4. Curry has become a national dish… go figure.

5. If you’ve traveled around Asia, you’ll notice the smells. The only place that smelled fishy in Tokyo was the fish market.

5. The Japanese don’t repeat your question as they do here in Korea.

6. The locals do queue up orderly. I was told they have people who actually such you into crowded trains. To my dismay, I never witnessed that at all.

7. Knowing the district of your destination is the most helpful information you can have while navigating the city.

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