OK, so this is probably not the ultimate guide to visiting Japan – just a recap of my own experience.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to a lot of different places around the world, and coming from New York I’m always interested in the ways cities function in comparison – from the transit, the culture and the night life, every new place I experience has it’s own distinct personality. Tokyo, Japan was no different – it’s unique mix of rich history mingled with a very advanced way of living through technology and order, blew me away. Some things that stood out at me at first glance:
- The city is super clean yet garbage cans are difficult to find on the street.
- The train system looks extremely complicated but is easy to navigate.
- There’s a lot of train service people at every station – it’s impossible to get lost.
- There are bathrooms in every train station and they’re all very clean.
- WiFi access is a must to get around – you can rent a device in a lot of places (including the airport as soon as you land).
- There are 7-eleven’s everywhere and you can get anything there.
- People are ridiculously polite, a lot of gentle bowing.
- Service industry (restaurants, etc) don’t take tips.
- There are vending machines everywhere – the ones in train stations accept payment from your train card (what we’d call a metro card in NY).
Now, for the details on my trip – this is a bit lengthy and the rest of my posts won’t be this long, but I went in:
I flew Japan Airlines – and let me tell you, probably one of the best flights I’ve ever had. It was about a 13-hour flight but they made it feel like a 5 hour flight. The seats in economy we’re very comfortable, I even lucked out with a semi-empty flight and got a whole row to myself – felt like I was in first class. The meal was delicious, some of the best in-flight food I’ve had, and they bring you snacks and tea every hour or two. The head flight attendant is constantly walking down the isles making sure you have everything you need – really made everyone feel comfortable. The only complaint I had is the movie selection was meh, but that was probably my fault for having seen most of the movies they had on deck anyway.
I arrived in Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, Japan – as soon as I got off the plane I was overwhelmed by the signage and got that “oh shit” feeling of not knowing how I’m ever gonna get around, but from I was told I’d just need to get my hands on some WiFi and I’d be fine. No farther than a 5 minute walk from the airplane exit was I able to find the Ninja Wifi: Pocket Router rental station, after a quick sign up I was online within a few minutes. Google Maps is a godsend, it’ll quickly update and have all the train/bus routes you’ll need to get around – it directed me to a train line that was not too far from where I already was but then that just led to the next challenge, how do I get money and how do I get a train card? With the Dollar to Yen exchange being close to being 1:1, a simple trick I learned when buying something is moving the decimal over 2 spaces to get a rough comparison to dollars (ie: ¥1,000 is roughly $10.00).
I was heavily recommended to hit the ATM in the airport as the fee is less than paying for money exchange at a counter – so I backtracked a bit, hit an ATM and made my way back to the train. I got my train card (PASMO) through a small vending machine near the train entrances, just hit “ENGLISH” and follow the instructions, it was pretty simple. Once you get your card (You can customize it, obviously I had to) you tap it at the turnstile and keep following your Google Maps. Note that you shouldn’t follow Google blindly, it will tell you the right train to take but sometimes gives you the wrong platform to get on so make sure to read where you are going.
The trains are awesome, seats are so much more comfortable compared to the New York’s MTA, and the advertisements are amazing – it’s anime cartoons and hilarious ads everywhere. After about an hour I got to the neighborhood I’d be staying at: Shinjuku, Tokyo. I couldn’t wait to start walking around – I checked-in, dropped off my bag and headed to Shibuya to experience what I’ve seen in every single movie featuring Japan, the famous crosswalk outside of the Shibuya Station and it was amazing. The inadvertent synchronized crowds looked like marbles being spilled from all corners of a table, a beautiful mess that just seemed to work. I stood at a corner watching this happen a few times and soaking it in, then I walked around the neighborhood putting up stickers for a while before heading to my hotel to pass out.
One of my big things when traveling to new countries is getting a tattoo as a keep sake. I had booked an appointment at Three Tides Tattoo Tokyo a week before heading to Japan thanks to a recommendation from my buddy Adam Guy Hays. While the shop opened up I walked over to the famous Takeshita Street in Harajuku, where even at 10am there were lines of girls waiting to get into specialty boutiques. By 10:30 most places were opening their doors – I opted to check out an owl/cat cafe to see what the fuss was all about. I was picturing tables with owls bringing you coffee and engaging in conversation, but it was more of a mini path where you get to pet owls for a bit before heading upstairs to a separate cat cafe. I at least hoped the cat cafe would once again be a bunch of tables with cats hanging out – but it was more of an astroturf area where cats walk around and you sit along the sides – you pay for 30 min of being in the presence of cats. Definitely not the most mind-blowing experience but fuck it we’re in Japan.
While walking back to the tattoo shop, I hit up a couple of stores and managed to knock-off another item from my Japan bucket list – picking up a really dope original Sukajan (traditional souvenir) jacket. As I got to Three Tides Tattoo, I was re-greeted by my artist Hiro where we quickly reviewed what I was going to get and headed upstairs for a quick session.
We wrapped in about 45 minutes, chatted for a few and I made my way out to explore the neighborhood. I explored some of the local shops in Harajuku, picked up a few gifts and set my sights on the streetwear stores. After a quick stop at Stussy, Supreme and Bape I found myself spending more time in the overpriced re-sale stores which have some dope pieces. I also hit up a few vintage shops where they stock classic polo pieces I hadn’t seen in years, obviously all overpriced as well but worth checking out.
Another the other two stores on my must see list was Nike Harajuku and the Uniqlo world flagship store in Ginza. I made my way to the Nike store first as it was not too far from me, the store itself is setup very clean and modern – I was hoping to pick up a ton of Japan/Tokyo exclusive pieces but only made it out with a few tee’s, still a successful score.
I made my way to Uniqlo in Ginza, a short train ride away from Harajuku. Ginza is the high-end fashion capital of Tokyo, stores like Luis Vuitton, Van Cleef Arpels, and Fendi line the streets. So why Uniqlo? It’s a classic Japanese brand gone global, they consider themselves a tech company who’s focus happens to be apparel, and they’re also a client of mine – I had to visit. The store is amazing to say the least, 13 floors all meticulously laid out with each level focusing on something different – mens casual, mens dress, their UT (collaboration) section and more. I also happened to be there the day of the Kaws x Uniqlo drop so it was packed but I managed to snag almost every piece, one thing to note when shopping out here is to go one size up. Making my way down on the 5th floor I saw a tunnel that went to another store all together – the Dover Street Market. All of their floors had a very clean layout and gorgeous art installations to accent their brands which included Commes de Garcons, Bape and more.
I headed back to the hotel to drop off my bags and mentally prepare for where I was going that night and what many people told me was “the craziest shit you’ll ever see” – Robot Restaurant. Located in the Kabukicho neighborhood of Shinjuku (known as the red light district), the restaurant was easy to find, it’s neon sign is about a block long. I got there about 45min before the next show, giving me enough time to buy tickets before they were sold out as they usually do. I headed into the actual venue which is directly across from the ticket station, and proceeded down narrow hallways with crazy lights, anime robots and half naked girls all over the walls, floors and ceilings. I reached an elevator which took me down to the waiting area, a crazy colorful area where you can grab somewhat shitty food and drinks and watcha a band play til your show starts. Once it’s time for the show you make your way down to what felt like 8 stories underground through endless stairs filled with more crazy anime, girls and lights.
Getting to the show area was a nice relief, your tickets have assigned seats which are easy enough to find. The stage itself is pretty narrow but long, I immediately wondered how they were gonna be able to have all of the stuff I read about in that tight space, but holy shit do they. The MC gives the crowd instructions on how to stay safe and there would be 4 breaks in between acts – apparently there is a storyline but paying attention to that part doesn’t matter, the show itself is in absorbing everything happening around you. I won’t give too much away, but the experience is a visual orgasm of robots, girls, monsters and bootleg characters we all know. It’s best described as Naruto meets Transformers meets Power Rangers with a surprise appearance by KungFu Panda and more.
It was time to start exploring some of the culture of Japan, I made my way to Uenoonshi Park to check out the Tokyo National Museum. On the way I saw there was a zoo (Ueno Zoo) and I couldn’t pass up the chance to see their pandas, one of which is named Ri Ri (after Rhianna of course). Right by the zoo on route to the museum there’s a beautiful Peony garden I stopped at, definitely worth a peek. Walking through the park you run into endless photo ops with flowers and temples all along the way. The museum itself houses endless artifacts and paintings from ancient Japan – a must visit for any art or history buff.
Next stop on my itinerary was Meiji Jingu and the Meiji Shrine located within Yoyogi Park in Shibuya. Getting to the shrine is literally a walk in the park, lots of amazing places to stop and grab pictures with what felt like relics that are still being beautifully maintained. I must have walked hours and saw most of the park, all well worth exploring. As it started to get dark I made my way back to the train and hit up the famous crossing area to put up a few more dozen stickers before calling it a night.