Japan is a living dichotomy, a country steeped in history and yet one at the forefront of the future. The threads of its past are woven inextricably in the architecture, language, customs, and culture, and its people embrace the past even as they continue to push forward. It’s not uncommon to see a temple or shrine that has stood for over a thousand years thriving in the shadow of a modern, hi-tech skyscraper. This combination of history and progress makes for a fascinating place to travel.
The most striking example of this is Tokyo, the largest megacity in the world, with a population of nearly 40 million. Like many large cities, Tokyo is the result of many smaller cities growing together and eventually merging into one; as a result, there are distinct districts within the city (which were previously cities of their own) which offer very different experiences.
One such district is Akihabara, Tokyo’s so-called “Electric City”. For sale here you can find electronics of every sort imaginable, from computers to video games to toys to things you never even knew existed. Akihabara is also known for being the gaming and comic mecca of Tokyo. There are multi-level comic shops, retro gaming stores showcasing old games and memorabilia, trading card shops, and some of the largest arcades in the world. The arcade culture that died out in the 80’s and 90’s in the US is still alive and well in Japan, so these arcades, some of which are 8 or 9 stories tall, are frequently packed with everyone from high school kids to salarymen just off of work, still sporting their suits and ready for a few rounds of Street Fighter. Towering over many of the small specialty electronic shops (literally) is the Japanese electronics giant Yodobashi Camera. Their flagship store is in Akihabara, and the size is mind-boggling. Each floor is like four Best Buy stores put together, and there are nine floors stacked on top of each other. One floor is phones and computers, one is cameras, telescopes, and binoculars, one is video games and toys, and so on. It was easy to spend a few hours in this store alone.
Our hostel was located in the Asakusa district, a more traditional, slower-paced area of the city. It is especially known for the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple. Asakusa is a nice area to get a feel for the more residential style of living present within the sometimes overwhelming city, while never being more than a metro ride away from the action. Shinjuku is the center of shopping and entertainment in Tokyo, and is home to the world’s busiest railway station complex. If you’re here on a short vacation, you can take advantage of the ubiquitous tax-free shopping, but as budget-conscious backpackers, we limited ourselves mostly to window shopping. There are multiple movie theaters, showing films in both English and Japanese, and a plethora of food options for any budget. Overall, a cool place to wander around for a day. Harajuku, just south of Shinjuku, is an eclectic part of town popular with the younger crowd. Particularly known for its unique fashion displays, you’ll commonly see girls dressed up in elaborate cosplay, goth, or punk getups. There are lots of street food options, which is somewhat uncommon in Japan; it’s considered a faux pas to eat while walking, except in somewhat enclosed areas like Harajuku.
A quick side note, you might notice a 7-11 in the Harajuku picture. Those stores are amazing in Japan, nothing like their cheap hot dog hawking brethren in America. They’re also a budget traveler’s best friend. There’s a 7-11 on every corner in Japan, and they have everything you might need on a moment’s notice. They have alcohol at a quarter the price of the bar next door; full meals, including sandwiches, noodles, pasta, and meat dishes that they’ll heat up perfectly for you on the spot; a full-on deep fryer spitting out all kinds of breaded goodies; and enough snacks and beverages to let you try something new every hour that you’re in Japan. On top of the food and drink, they have free public restrooms (useful after a few of those cheap adult beverages) as well as free wifi, which is a lifesaver when you’re trying to find a restaurant, temple, or just the way back to your hostel. Oh, and they have ATMs that actually work with foreign cards, which isn’t always a guarantee.
Some other highlights of our time in Tokyo included Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, visiting the Pokemon Center, and cheering on the Yokohama Baystars at a Japanese baseball game. The Disney parks were a cool balance between traditional Disney magic and Japanese weirdness. We especially liked trying all the unique snack food options around the parks, since they were so different from the traditional theme park food we’re used to. The Pokemon Center is a veritable mecca for Pokemon fans, offering the largest selection of merchandise anywhere in the world. This was a particular hit with Bridgette, who is not-so-secretly obsessed with Pokemon. The baseball game was a ton of fun, especially seeing how enthusiastic the fans get at the games. They actually have separate seating for the away team fans to avoid incidents between rival fans, and each team has pre-prepared chants that they bellow tirelessly while their team is at bat. Our team ended up losing, but by that point, everyone has had enough beers not to care all that much.
And that’s Tokyo! We could have easily spent weeks longer in Tokyo alone and not run out of things to do, and I’m sure we’ll make our way back someday. Even with only a week, though, it’s not hard to see a ton. Boasting one of the most extensive metro systems in the world, it’s easy to zip around Tokyo to hit the highlights without spending too much time or effort getting around. From Tokyo we rode the rails a bit and saw some of Japan outside Tokyo, which I’ll hopefully post about soon. Sayonara!