We landed in the bustling city of Tokyo on a Saturday morning, tired from our long-haul flight and expecting a culture shock that would undoubtedly come from visiting a city in a country we had never visited before.
Since booking our flights in August, we’ve been planning and preparing for our holiday to Japan so that we can get the most out of our two weeks there. But, I’m not sure we were fully prepared for the extraordinary food-scene, quiet streets, charming izakaya and more than 13 million people (10% of the Japanese population) squeezed into the 26 cities, 5 towns and 8 villages that make up the teeming, neon-lit metropolis of Tokyo.
It took about an hour to make our way from Tokyo’s Narita airport to our hotel near Shinjuku station on the train. It was an easy trip, but after no sleep on our flight I was already grateful that I had packed only a carry-on bag for the next two weeks. On the other hand, Dan was battling with his rather large snowboard bag and it’s precious contents, hoping that the effort would be worth it in a few days.
Japanese-style the Shin-Okubo Sekitei way
We were staying at Shin-Okubo Sekitei in the Shinjuku area, one of Tokyo’s prominent entertainment districts. It was conveniently located only a short five minute walk from the from Shin-Okubo Station on the JR (Japan Rail) Yamanote Line and they had provided us with very clear directions and photos guiding us to it’s location.
Shin-Okubo Sekitei is a Japanese-style “Showa” themed hotel, meaning that its decor and atmosphere is reminiscent of the good and old Showa (昭和) Era (1926-1989) – an exciting period of war, darkness, work, economic growth and technology.
On arriving at Shin-Okubo Sekitei, we received our first lesson in what “Japanese-style” really meant.
The lack of bed and the unusual flooring were the first differences we noticed when we slid open the paper screen doors and entered the Japanese-style room for the first time.
Shoji screens made from strong rice paper stretched across a light wooden frame were used as window coverings and to separate the entry way from the rest of the room. Tatami mats of straw covered the floors and we were required to remove our shoes before entering. Inside sat a zataku, a low table designed for people to sit on the floor around it, cushions, a fridge, a kettle, and some small white bowls and green sachets, which turned out to be instant green tea.
In the corner was a oshiire, which is used to store the “do-it-yourself” bedding. We were given instructions on how to lay out a traditional Japanese futon over the floor, replacing the usual spring mattress and bed frame.
I was so glad that we were spending our first four nights in Japan in the authentic and traditional Shin-Okubo Sekitei hotel, and even happier when I set up my futon and napped for a few hours to get over my overwhelming jetlag!
(Shin Okubo Sekitei, Shinjuku-Ku Hyakunin-Cho 2-15-10, Tokyo, Japan. Approximately￥14,075 per night.)
First impressions of Tokyo
Sometimes, I think the best way to combat jetlag is to stay busy and force yourself into a regular sleeping pattern before it sets in. But, having arrived in Tokyo at lunch time after 20 hours in transit and no sleep, I needed to recharge my batteries. Dan, on the other hand, was keen to eat as soon as possible. So, we had a sushi picnic in our hotel and recovered before we set out to explore some of what this incredible city has to offer.
When we did venture out a couple of hours later, there were lots of people out and about on a Saturday afternoon in Tokyo, but not as any as I was expecting. We were easily able to navigate the streets, purchase rail tickets from the vending machine, and board a train without any hassle.
I was starting to like the Tokyo public transport system.
Much like the London Underground + Overground + National Rail system, Tokyo has plenty of fast train options that can transport you from one end of the enormous city to the other in about an hour. The hardest thing to get our heads around was the mix of “English” and Japanese characters (kanji, hiragana and katakana). This was one of those times that I was eternally grateful for smartphones and portable WiFi – much to our delight, the public transport symbols and Japanese characters were displayed when we searched for directions on Google Maps.
And paying for our journey via the vending machines was so simple when we worked out where we were going!
I’m not sure why, but I was surprised with how clean and calm our area was. I think I was expecting an overwhelming number of people crammed into small spaces, but the streets we explored were peaceful and safe. Perhaps this trip was going to be easier than expected?
Koenji: the birth of Japanese punk, home to cool things and possibly my favourite place in Tokyo
Dan and I met up with Maria and, on a recommendation from a high-school friend who now resides in Tokyo, we explored the izakayas of Koenji.
Koenji is an area of Tokyo in the Suginami ward, west of Shinjuku, and is known for its alternative youth culture and for having the most second-hand clothing stores in Tokyo.
Within a 2km square area, there are around 18 shopping promenades boasting an abundance of vintage and thrift shops, book stores, toy stores, vinyl record shops, izakayas and “live houses” (tiny clubs for live bands). It has the reputation of being the birthplace of the punk movement in Japan in the 70s and still has some old Japan charm even though it can get quite popular on the weekends.
As exhausted as we were, it was a fantastic area to explore on our first day in Tokyo as we were able to absorb so much culture and atmosphere in the one evening.
Getting local with the locals in a local Japanese Izakaya
Izakaya are a Japanese version of a pub. They are lively but casual drinking establishments with a small variety of food that can be shared at the table, similar to tapas bars in Spain. Izakaya are usually found around train stations and entertainment districts, and come in all shapes and sizes from tiny single-counter joints, to a divey after-work hang out, to a multi-story chain restaurant.
For travellers and tourists, izakaya are the low-budget dining option for when you want a drink or relaxed meal for ￥2,000 – ￥5000 (£12-30). Some will even offer an all-you-can-drink plan for 1-2 hours, starting at ￥2,000 (£12-13).
We found out that some izakaya will have English menus or menus with colourful pictures so that we could identify what we were ordering, but we decided to try our luck in one that had no English writing at all.
We were rewarded with a great cosy atmosphere, friendly bar staff, and delicious food – but just don’t ask me what we ordered!
Monique joined us here and we then set out to explore the surrounding area and ended up at a ramen bar in a little side street. Again, the food was delicious! I could get used to this.
After an exhausting but mind-blowing afternoon in Koenji, I’m ready for bed – and it’s only 10pm! But we have a huge couple of days ahead of us and I am in need of a beauty sleep.
I wonder how comfortable these Japanese futons will be?
What’s next on our journey through Japan?
Culture Shock: reflections on my first day in Japan
Three days in Tokyo: a tantalising taste of Japan
Journey through Japan: The Year of the (Japanese Snow) Monkey
How to onsen in Japan like a local
Journey through Japan: Snowboarding in the Japanese Alps
Journey through Japan: Two days in Kyoto