This year is full of changes for our family. Grace leaves for college (American University) in a month. Ellie starts at a new school (Academy at Penguin Hall) in September. As we were thinking about our Spring break plans, we really weren’t sure how our family travels would be change going forward. So we decided to go big this year and try Asia. As luck would have it, I found some great deals on flights to Tokyo. I’m calling this blog post “Japan 101” because after 8 days, we barely scratched the surface of this incredible country, and I know we will be back.
It was a LOT cheaper for us to fly to LAX, spend a night, and then go on to Tokyo the next day. This worked out perfectly because Jeff and I both got to see college friends on the stopover.
At noon on Thursday we took off for Tokyo, and landed at 4:55pm Tokyo time on Friday, losing a day and a half to travel and the time change. As much as I hate to fly, the 12 hour flight was not even that bad. We slept a lot, watched movies, and somehow it went by fairly quickly, and in a reasonably non-torturous way.
We stayed at the Square Hotel Ginza. A small, relatively new boutique hotel. It was perfect. The rooms are not big, but they are really well designed, very clean and come with traditional Japanese robes. I guess this is a good time to mention that I never knew what the hype was about Japanese toilets until we arrived at the Square Hotel. But now I can say — I want one. If you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, then read this. To be honest, if I’d thought of taking notes while we were there, I could have written an entire blog post on the toilets in Japan. ?
But I digress… The Ginza Neighborhood is full of high end stores and fancy restaurants. It’s clean, and central, and really easy to navigate to anything from here.
Leading up to the temple is Nakamise Street — packed with people and various vendors lining either side. You can buy all kinds of souvenirs, and try many different foods.
I had read about the Melon bread before we arrived so I knew we had to try that. Apparently this melon bread lady is famous, or so I’m told by a friend who lives in Tokyo.
From the Melon bread we moved on to the daifuku — which is mochi with red bean paste inside and a strawberry on top. VERY sweet.
The man in the photo below is making Taiyaki cakes. They are a pastry filled with sweet read bean paste (red bean paste is often used as filling and it is delicious). Taiyaki are often shaped like a fish. If you want to try Taiyaki and you are in Boston or NYC, check out Taiyaki NYC (in the seaport here in Boston), where it serves as your ice cream cone (and also comes filled with custard as an alternative to the red bean paste).
After our snacks, we made our way to the main temple building.
As we approached, there was a smaller building where you can choose a fortune (or o-mikuji ). First you shake a metal canister, and pull out a stick with a character that corresponds to one of the drawers you see below. You open the drawer that matches your charact er, and pull out your fortune!
Grace got a “small fortune” which, while not bad, is not as good as a good or excellent fortune, so she decided to tie it up here — the place designated for bad fortunes so they don’t attach themselves to you. Sometimes they get tied to trees (which you’ll see on my post about Kyoto).
Before entering the temple it is customary to cleanse your hands and mouth with the water from the fountain.
The temple was huge, beautiful, and crowded!
I loved the lanterns.
The whole area around Senso-ji has other small temples and shrines, including this peaceful buddah sitting atop a lotus blossom.
If you visit Senso-ji, you really need to stop by the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center. Not only is there an information center, but there is an observation deck on the 7th floor with an amazing view of Nakamise Street and the temple, as well as the Tokyo Skytree.
Our next stop was Tokyo Station. We needed to pick up our Shinkansen tickets for our trip to Kyoto in a few days, and the girls wanted to check out the underground shopping. There is an entire area of Tokyo Station called “Character Street”. This is where we found the Hello Kitty and Pokemon stores as well as many stores dedicated to Anime.
After Character street we headed straight to “Ramen Street”, a little underground alleyway of Ramen restaurants, for a late afternoon lunch. I really wanted spicy ramen and this place looked great (and was). First you wait in line, then you place your order at the kiosk (there are pictures!). You can pay with cash or with your Pashmo or Suica card (more on that below). Once a table opens up, they seat you and your order comes out! So delicious.
Side note. In Japan they drive on the left. And walk on the left too! I kept forgetting, but conveniently there were signs and arrows as reminders.
That night, we took a walk down Omoide Yokocho an alley of Izikayas — or tiny Japanese pubs where they serve grilled meats and beer at counter style seating.
It’s not just your chicken breast on a stick here. There’s some chicken skin, hearts, and all kinds of other bits and pieces.
Sunday morning we were up early and ventured first to Meji-Jingu, a Shinto shrine, and an easy 30 minute subway ride away from the hotel.
Leading up to the torri gages are these Sake barrels — donated by sake makers from around Japan.
At many shrines in Japan, you can buy Ema — little wooden plaques where you can write a prayers or request to the gods.
If you are going to Japan, and plan on visiting shrines and temples, definitely pick up a Goshuinchō either at your first stop, or at a shop along the way. Many shrines and temples have calligraphers available to inscribe the temple or shrine name and place a stamp in this small “book of memories”. We really enjoyed collecting them, and it’s a perfect souvenir of our visits. You can see our book in the photo below — Next to it are the small amulets (Omamori) you can also purchase at many shrines. They are meant to ward off evil, bring you luck, money, good health, etc. There are different Omamori for whatever you might be hoping for!
Meji-Jingu is a popular spot for weddings, and we were lucky enough to see two wedding processions that morning. I think Sundays are a popular day for them if you are planning your visit.
Grace and Ellie were pretty excited for Takeshita street. It’s a buzzing pedestrian shopping street, mostly with shops for teenagers, and they couldn’t wait to dive in.
First stop was Purikuraland, where you choose from a multitude of themed photobooths (or purikura). They even give you ideas for poses and let you decorate your images before the machine spits out your sheet of photos.
While the girls purikura-ed, Jeff and I bopped around Takeshita street a bit.
Last stop before moving on was this crêpe place that the girls were not going to pass by. (Honestly, I don’t think the crêpes were that were that good…)
Lunch was at Sakuratei — a place I’d read about that is known for its Okonomiyaki, which is basically a pancake primarily made from batter and cabbage with the addition of whichever other ingredients you like; from meat to cheese, to octopus. You mix them all together, and then cook the okonomiyaki on the grill at the center of your table. Our first one was a little wobbly looking, but once we got the hang of the flip they came out great.
After lunch we walked to Shibuya, and along the way came upon these J-Pop girls being interviewed at a radio station. The guys out front were hilarious — dancing and singing and trying to make the girls laugh.
So many people.
Monday would be our last day in Tokyo, and it turned out to be the most sensory overloaded of a string of sensory overloaded days! (In a good way!)
We made our way out towards Tokyo Bay (again only 30 minutes via Subway from Ginza), heading to the Team Lab Borderless museum.
First and most important piece of advice about this museum — buy your tickets in advance (at least a few days), because it will most likely sell out. Second piece of advice — arrive BEFORE it opens at 10AM. If you don’t want to be packed in like sardines and melt from the heat, you want to be at the front of the line when they start letting people in. It gets very crowded. But it’s so worth it, and like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
The pictures only give some idea of the delight that is this place, but honestly, you just have to go and experience it for yourself.
The Lantern Room. This one usually has a line, so when you enter the museum, ask how to get there right away if you don’t want to wait. They let small groups in for about a minute at a time to allow everyone to experience it.
After spending about two hours at Teamlab, we were craving gyoza for lunch. Someone had recommended Chao Chao Gyoza over by Tokyo station and it did not disappoint. Yummy dumplings, and cheap, good beer.
We planned to spend our last night in Tokyo in Shinjuku. Originally we were going to stay in this neighborhood, but as I looked at the subway maps, it seemed like Ginza was just more central to what we wanted to see. And truthfully, Shinjuku was A LOT to take in. Lights, noise, tons of people and so many choices it was overwhelming. Not that it wasn’t fun — I’m just glad we stayed in Ginza.
If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, you will no doubt hear about the Robot Restaurant. People kept telling us we HAD to go — that it was wild, bizzare, and both SO Japan and not Japan at the same time. It’s also around $75 a person, and you don’t actually eat there. But we decided we’d try it — after hearing so much about it. Problem was, with all the other planning — I forgot to book tickets ahead of time, so we didn’t make it. Honestly, it’s totally fine with me, because we ended up having a great time elsewhere in Shinjuku. I’m not exactly sure what we missed, but if this display in front is any indication — it was probably a trip.
With no luck at the Robot Restaurant, we headed to the massive Sega arcade. I’d heard about these claw machines, and how hard it is to actually win, but after I don’t know how many yen, and maybe a little help from the attendant, the girls finally did secure this adorable winking kitty.
And then… Karoke. Because you can’t come to Tokyo and NOT, right?
We made a pact that no video of this will ever see the light of day. Also, if you guessed that Jeff sang “Brandy”, you’d be right.
From Tokyo’s Narita Airport, we took the Narita Express train into Tokyo (Buy your tickets at the kiosks in the airport. There are other ways to get into Tokyo but this was the fastest for us due to our hotel’s location in Ginza. This article will help you determine the best way to reach the location of your hotel.
Getting around Tokyo: I know that subway map up there looks crazy, but truthfully, it was really easy to navigate. The most valuable tool at your disposal is Google Maps. Not only does it give accurate directions, but it will tell you subway station names and numbers and indicate which direction you need to travel. I do recommend familiarizing yourself with the subway system BEFORE you leave home. When we arrived, I already had a good idea how long it would take to get places. Google Maps also helped me plan an itinerary that made logtistical sense. Tokyo is HUGE — so you want to plan your days in a way that doesn’t require you to criss-cross the city. Don’t plan to take cabs anywhere unless you need to get somewhere in the same neighborhood quickly. The subway is all you need.
To pay for your travel, the best thing to do is buy a Pashmo or Suica reloadable IC card on your first day. This will allow you to hop between subway lines and tap in and tap out of the stations. You can also use your card at places like 7-11 and Family Mart, and some restaurants (like the Ramen place in Tokyo Station) as well.
If you like seafood, you will be very happy in Japan. However… I don’t like sushi and most fish, and Jeff is allergic to shrimp, so feasting on Japanese delicacies from the sea was not happening for us. For dinner at the end of our first full day, we discovered CoCo Curry House, home to delicious Katsu Curry. We actually ended up eating here twice. Sorry, if you are looking for a long list of great restaurants in Tokyo, I can’t be a lot of help! We did eat a lot of street food (non seafood) and katsu though!
One night we were so tired we didn’t want to go out. So we hit up the Family Mart. This and 7-11 have a huge selection of surprisingly good ready-to-heat foods, including delicious gyoza, noodles and pork katsu sandwiches. You can even get wine and beer there. Tokyo Station and the Department Store food halls are also really great for food to go. So many great and interesting options.
I am a planner. And this was a big trip, but a short one — just eight days on the ground in Japan (4 nights tokyo, 4 nights in Kyoto). So I really wanted to do my homework in terms of how we were going to get around. This spreadsheet helped with that, and it was an invaluable resource for us. It also lists a lot of restaurants and activities that came up in my research, but that we didn’t get to.
Definitely carry cash. A lot of restaurants, taxis, etc., do not take credit cards, and you will most definitely need to use cash every day. It can be difficult to find and ATM, but you can usually find them in a Family Mart. It’s a good idea to replenish your cash if you see one, and before you run out and are desperately trying to find an ATM that will accept your US bank card. Also, while I don’t usually bother to get foreign currency prior to leaving home, in this case we did get a few thousand yen so we had it.
Rent a pocket wifi. We were told that Verizon wireless was not very reliable in Japan. Even if it were, with four family members, the international plan would be $10 per day per person, or around $320. Instead, we rented a pocket wifi through Japan Wireless, and for around $80 for the entire trip, we could connect all our devices and have fast wifi throughout the day, no matter where we were. There are many other companies from which you can rent pocket wifi devices, but JW was definitely the least expensive, it worked flawlessly, and even came with a portable charger so that we could charge the battery if we were still out at the end of the day. You need to pick up the device at the Post Office in the airport when you arrive, but they provide step by step directions here. (It’s not at all as complicated as it sounds.)
Don’t worry too much about the language. You will find that a lot of people do not speak English. However, we didn’t find that to be problematic at all. The subway (and lots of other) signs ARE in English, and you will also find that many restaurants have an English menu. For the most part, you can get by with basic phrases like please and thank you. As I was told my my friend in Tokyo, “When in doubt, just smile and bow.” We did a lot of that.
Be sure to download the Google Translate App as well. It will actually scan type and translate it for you. It’s not perfect, but it is reasonably accurate, and great for checking food labels in the 7-11!
Hotel rooms can be expensive for a family. We often use AirBnb when we travel, but I really wanted to stay in hotels for this trip, given how totally unfamiliar we were with Tokyo, it’s size, and the language barrier. However, finding a hotel room that can accommodate a family of four is very difficult in Tokyo, and if you find one, it will be either far out of the Center (Disneyland does have some!), or very expensive. In Tokyo, we ended up with two rooms that were right next to each other, and while it it worked out great, it was quite a bit more than we’ve paid in Europe. That said, we were there in April, at the height of tourist season, so other times of the year will likely have better prices.
Check out YouTube before you go. There are tons of helpful YouTube vlogs that you can use to familiarize yourself with Tokyo before you leave. We watched a ton of them from Paolo in Tokyo. He has great tips for many spots in Tokyo and beyond and his vlogs where so helpful to us. Definitely check them out! There is a link to his YouTube channel on the website.
So that’s our experience in Tokyo. I’m still working on our photos from Kyoto, but that post will be coming soon. I’m happy to answer any questions in the meantime!