All along, our plan for our trip has been to visit Japan on our way back home…and now we’re here! We packed up our things, checked out of our condo in Chiang Mai that we called home for three months, flew to Bangkok, and got on a plane to Japan! Altogether, we’ll have spent seventeen days in Japan, with the first six of those days in Tokyo (everything else will be decided as we go along). Tokyo is a large city – over thirteen million people – and the last ten days of our seventeen day trip overlap with Japan’s “Golden Week”, where almost the entire country is on vacation for a series of national holidays. Because of this, we decided to use Airbnb to find places to stay instead of more expensive hotels. So far, it’s worked out very well, giving us very memorable experiences and allowing us to really connect with the Japanese way of living more than we might have otherwise!
Our first taste of Japanese hospitality came when Kenji, our host in Japan, accepted our reservation request on Airbnb. He sent us a detailed document with step-by-step directions – with pictures of every turn – on how to get to his house from the nearest train station! Getting to Nippori station was very easy, even as first-time users of the Tokyo Metro. There was only one time where we were momentarily confused – trying to figure out which track to wait for our last train – and two locals came up to us and asked if we needed help! After three months of relying on taxis and rented mopeds for all of our transportation, the Tokyo Metro has been a godsend. There are metro stations all over town, so you rarely have to walk for more than ten minutes from any station to get to where you want to go. The trains always arrive and depart on time, to the minute, and there are maps clearly showing you how to get to your destination. If you are ever confused, there are many employees (that speak great English) that always go above and beyond to help you figure out where you are going.
Kenji was waiting for us at his house when we arrived that evening, and he was quick to show us around. There are three bedrooms in the house (besides the one that Kenji sleeps in), and they are all quite “cozy”! We had grown accustomed to having lots of space at our Chiang Mai condo and any hotels we stayed in, but that sort of space would cost a fortune in Tokyo! We shared a bathroom with another room, though there was a second bathroom with a very nice shower/bath by the shared kitchen. This property (and many places in Japan, really) involved lots of ducking of heads and awkward shuffling around corners due to the lack of space. Not to sound like I’m complaining – we loved our time with Kenji, and we were happy to be living for so cheap in Tokyo!
The next day, the sun was shining (and only seventy degrees instead of over a hundred!) so we decided to go to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The main street that leads from our house to the metro seems to be a popular tourist attraction, and it’s chock-full of shops selling anything and everything related to cats! In Japan, feeding cats is considered good luck (you’ve probably seen the good luck cat statues before; they are ubiquitous here), and judging by the size of most of the cats we saw in Tokyo, the locals really take that belief to heart! On our way to the metro, we saw a traditional Japanese temple next to a graveyard and couldn’t help but walk that direction to explore a bit and take some pictures.
We got off the metro at Shinjuku Station and started walking towards the garden, and got our first real taste of the Japanese metropolis. We saw what we thought was a Japanese arcade (cool! we love video games!) but we walked in and quickly figured out that it was a slot machine and arcade gambling hall of some sort – we would later read that Pachinko is a popular “illegal but the cops look the other way” form of gambling in Tokyo, and Pachinko halls are everywhere.
In general, I’m a bit surprised how quickly I was able to acclimate back to a big city, as opposed to suffering a bit of “reverse culture shock”. I think that’s because even though Chiang Mai doesn’t have every modern luxury I might desire, we were still never far from cars, the internet, and other such comforts that we’ve grown accustomed to over our lives. In hindsight, Japan and Thailand are a lot more similar than I ever would have imagined. There are some major differences, like how much things cost (goodbye one dollar meals) and how to get around, but the similarities are more apparent. Everyone is incredibly helpful and nice (and most don’t speak English), there are beautiful religious monuments everywhere, and both countries are very connected to the internet. Whether in the middle of nowhere in Thailand or on a busy metro in Tokyo, if someone is idle, they are on their phone – surfing the web or watching a video.
Shinjuku Garden was created in 1772, with the current configuration finished in 1906. Like the rest of Tokyo, it was rebuilt after WWII. We got to the entrance of the garden and paid the modest entry fee (300 Japanese Yen, a little less than three dollars), and walked in to explore. I don’t want to mislead you with the word “garden” – this place is basically the Tokyo equivalent of New York City’s Central Park. It’s not quite as big, but it’s not exactly a quick stroll, either. Even though it was a Monday morning, the garden was busy with tourists and locals alike. The peak cherry blossom season was a few weeks prior, but we were still able to take some great photos.
Feeling hungry, we headed back to the city to get some food and saw a sign with a picture of some food that looked positively delicious. After heading downstairs and ordering from a machine, we confirmed that yes, cheese does in fact taste delicious – we had almost forgotten, it’s been so long!
Our next stop that day was to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Center, which we’d read had an observatory on the 45th floor that was free to visitors! Finding free entertainment is a rarity in a city like this, and after getting accustomed to spending so little in Southeast Asia, we enjoyed finding free entertainment that wasn’t simple walking around the city.
We were starting to feel a bit tired from our day of walking around and just a little bit jet lagged (it’s a two hour time difference between Thailand and Japan), but we resolved to do one more thing on our first day in Japan – visit a Pokémon Center! Pokémon is one of our favorite games, and it was invented in Japan, so of course we had to visit a shop dedicated to it! There was one issue that hadn’t really affected us until that moment – we didn’t actually have sim cards in our phones. We imagined that we would have no issues getting wi-fi in Japan (I mean come on, they are really technologically advanced, right?), but Japan’s wi-fi access is actually worse than everywhere else we’ve been on this trip – including Myanmar and Cambodia, which are certified third world countries. We wandered around for quite a while, staring at our phones looking for an open wi-fi connection. We later learned that the best way to get free internet is to look for a corner store – 7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart – they all have free internet access. Anyway, we finally got internet access, made it to the Pokémon center, and nerded out for the better part of an hour!
The next day, we headed to Meiji Shrine, a relatively new shrine (only ninety years old) dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who oversaw Japan during the Japanese Industrial Revolution. Emperor Meiji ended the feudal shogun system and opened up Japan to the rest of the world. With so many rapid changes, it’s impressive how Japan was able to hold on to traditions and their unique culture. The Meiji shrine is really a smaller part of a large forest area that, similar to the Shinjuku Garden of the previous day, is very nice to walk through.
After lunch, we headed to the Imperial Palace of Tokyo, the primary residence for the Emperor of Japan. The Emperor of Japan is a bit like the Queen of England – no actual sovereign power; mostly a figurehead. But he is the only person on earth that has the actual title of “Emperor”, so that’s pretty cool! We found out later that to actually access the palace, you have to book a tour in advance, so we weren’t able to enter the palace. However, the palace grounds were very nice to walk around, and we were extremely lucky to get a glimpse of the emperor himself (though we didn’t know it at the time)!
Japan has been a lot of fun, and it’s so easy to explore, especially with how nice and helpful everyone is!