Right before the end of last year, I decided to spend a weekend in Tokyo between Christmas and New Year's. I found a cheap airfare and why in the world would I not just fly halfway across the globe for a fun weekend getaway. Yeah, 48 hours in the world's biggest city (36 million people) sounds perhaps a little insane but in the spirit of you only live once I decided to book and make the cross-Pacific jump from Los Angeles to visit the land of the rising sun (and the world's pop mecca).
It has always been a dream of mine to go to Tokyo and experience first-hand the fast-paced metropolis that is the source of so much next-level pop culture. I was curious what it would be like to get around in a city where I don't speak the language in order to reset and start my 2014 reinvigorated. I decided to mix up my regular pop music coverage on this blog and share in detail my experiences of traveling to Tokyo. If you're planning a trip (and you should), hopefully this post will give you some good starting points.
Flying to Tokyo. Choose Haneda Airport.
I'm a Delta frequent flyer so I checked the Delta Airlines web site for some good deals for flying to Japan. If you fly Delta, you can fly either into Narita International Airport or Haneda airport from Los Angeles or Seattle. Haneda is traditionally known as Tokyo's domestic hub but it has a growing number of international arrivals and departures. I highly recommend flying into Haneda if you arrive from abroad and are not making any connections. Haneda is much closer to Tokyo's city center than Narita, which is located about two hours away from the main city. Haneda is a quick 45 minutes from all major hotels in the city. Highly recommended.
Lodging in Tokyo. Consider Hilton Tokyo.
After traveling to places like India and China earlier in 2013, I've learned that staying in a comfortable hotel can make a world of difference. But finding something affordable in Tokyo is challenging. It's an expensive city to sleep in unless you're happy with staying at a capsule hotel where you can sleep in, yes, a capsule and share a bathroom with 20 others. There are a couple of hotels that provides comfort and luxury without breaking the bank. Enter Hilton Tokyo. After some careful research I opted to stay at the Hilton in Shinjuku, a business and entertainment district in the center of Tokyo that is home to Shinjuku Station, the largest train station in the world from where you can easily travel to other parts of the sprawling city.
The Hilton Tokyo is a modern, 37-story hotel with many amenities including a gym, spa and pool. I had the pleasure of staying in a junior suite room that was just renovated in March 2013. It's a bright, spacious room with a large comfy couch, glass desk and large bathroom (with separate tube and shower plus one of those fancy Japanese automated toilets). The room even included a fancy Nespresso coffee maker that is perfect for making a cup to kickstart your day. The king-size bed was outfitted with a plush down comforter and crisp linen for the ultimate night's rest - just the type of heavily bed you need after a 15 hour flight. Even though the hotel caters to a lot of guests, one of the things that struck me was that the service at the Hilton Tokyo was exquisite. The hotel's concierge desk was particularly helpful with making suggestions, booking reservations and giving directions.
Getting Around. Get a PASMO Card.
During my (almost) 3-day stay I set out to see as much as possible of Tokyo. Traveling in this massive city seemed daunting at first, but it turned out to be a lot easier than I expected. Public transportation is easy, far-reaching and runs like clockwork. Maps, destination guides and important announcements are made in Japanese and English so you always know exactly where to get in and when to get out. If you plan to do most of your travel using the subway and train (and that's likely), I highly recommend you get a PASMO pass. It's a travel card that you purchase once at a vending machine and can refill when you need to. Super easy. You tap the card to enter the station and tap it again when you leave the station.
My Itinerary. Seeing Tokyo by foot and train.
On Day 1, I decided to do most of my travel on foot to get a feel for the city and its rhythm. I started the day early to get a view of the sprawling city from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. The skyscraper is less than a block away from the Hilton so it's a perfect place to start. From the observation deck, you have a gorgeous view of Tokyo especially on a clear day. From there, I walked to the peaceful Meiji Jingu shrine that is located in the heart of the wonderfully lush Yoyogi Park. Meiji Jingu is one of Japan's most famous Shinto shrines that is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The serenity of the park serves as a wonderful oasis and gives you a taste of traditional Japanese culture.
From Yoyogi Park, I walked west to head to the fancy schmancy Park Hyatt hotel for a light lunch in the hotel's New York restaurant on the top floor. This restaurant is were Sofia Coppola shot many of the bar scenes featured in her film Lost In Translation.
After enjoying lunch, more wonderful views and a mellow jazz ensemble at the Park Hyatt, I walked 20 minutes eastward across Yoyogi park to make my way to Harajuku, Tokyo's vibrant hearth of emerging pop culture with narrow, bustling streets filled with off-beat clothing boutiques, shoes and colorful accessories. It's a must-visit for kids who are looking for pop souvenirs with stores entirely dedicated to Japanese boybands and other heartthrobs. I walked into a few of those stores that were filled with 12 year-old girls looking to buy posters, sticker, trading cards and other memorabilia (while OneDirection's "Best Song Ever" blasted unashamedly through the speakers. More proof that pop's global folks!)
Just a brief walk from Harajuka lies Shibuya that is another massive, neon-lit shoppers' paradise and home of one the world's busiest pedestrian intersections (see photo at the top of this post). One of the biggest treats of Shibuya is its multi-floor Tower Records just up the street from Shibuya Crossing that is a music lover's dream come true. The store has a massive amount of music both from local Japanese bands and a lot of imports.
After taking the subway back to the hotel and relaxing for a little, I stepped out to enjoy the wildly vibrant streets of Shinjuku to make my way to Robot Restaurant. A friend suggested to visit the restaurant and the friendly concierge staff at the Hilton Tokyo made the reservations for me (and arranged a sweet discount). Robot Restaurant is an entertainment experience on an entirely different level. After picking up a dinner bento box (included in ticket price), I took a seat in a small arena-style theatre where a group of performers delivered a show filled with music, lights, pyro and videos that sums of Japanese pop culture in all of its glory. It was like an arcade game come to life. Robots were dancing to a mash up of "Like A G6" and "Gangam Style," while bikini girls were riding sharks and motorcycles. There were moments that I smiled and asked myself "What in the world is happening right now?" It was surreal and a violent attack on the senses in all the right ways.
On Day 2, I took the subway from Shinjuku Station to head over to Akihabara, the center of of Japanese geek culture. The area itself was a little disappointing. All I found were large, multi-level electronic stores bursting with endless amounts of electronics of all kinds from top to bottom. It was Best Buy on steroids. I was looking for some manga bookstores, but I could not find anything that seemed authentic. I ended up spending some time in a local arcade playing some of the new music games, including Groove Coaster which is a lot of fun.
On Day 3, I only had a few hours left before heading to Narita airport to take my flight back to Los Angeles (via sunny Honolulu for a four hour lay-over). I decided to take the metro from Tochomae (conveniently located right under the Hilton Tokyo) to Roppengi that is another ultra-luxe shopping area. Roppengi is also home to the Mori Art museum. After a quick 10 minute metro ride, I walked around Ropengi Hills but decided to skip the Mori Art museum which had a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. Instead, I decided to go 3 metro stops further on the red line to Akabanebashi to check out Tokyo Tower, a 250 meter high structure that is a carbon copy of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. After buying a ticket for the lower observatory level, I enjoyed more great sights of Tokyo from a different viewpoint that was the perfect goodbye to this massively fascinating city.
One Final Tip. Get a Pocket WiFi Device.
One of the many things that I love about Tokyo is that the city and its people are so technically savvy. Everyone is on cell phones and instant messages using the very popular LINE app (try it, it's so fun!). One of the things I did was rent a pocket wifi device to keep me connected everywhere I went using my iPhone 5 and Nexus 7 tablet. This was superhandy as I used Google Maps constantly to get directions and look up information about the sights I was visiting. I rented my pocket Wifi device from Rentaphone Japan. Cost was around $50 dollars for 3 days with unlimited data. The device ran for almost 8 hours with constant use. I ordered the little device online and it was delivered straight to my hotel. Impressive and truly convenient.
(Thank you Yota Ogura at Hilton Tokyo for the warm welcome, Dan Barnhardt for tipping me about Robost Restaurant.)