Japan is a country rich in history and culture but also modern and futuristic. I spent a good two and a half weeks exploring this wonderful nation and was delighted to meet so many interesting people, both local and fellow travellers. Japanese people are the loveliest, well-mannered and kindest people I have ever encountered. The locals were always willing to help and did so with amazing grace. One should always feel safe in Japan.
In addition to the people, I must highlight how impressed I was with the public transport system. Hearing and reading about it is one thing but you have to see it to believe it! The service, quality and efficiency are impeccable. I must admit though, I was a little confused at first because there are multiple train companies that operate the railway network. I mostly used the Japan Rail (JR) but there is also the Metro and the Subway. Australian residents are entitled to buy a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), which can be purchased in Australia prior to departure. A JR Pass provides access to the whole JR network, with only a few exceptions. Whether you are travelling between districts, such as Shinagawa to Shinjuku, or between cities, such as from Tokyo to Osaka, the JR Pass will get you there! Alternatively, you can purchase a Suica card in Tokyo, where you simply upload money and swipe your card to get through the barriers at the train stations.
The first part of my trip was mostly spent in Tokyo. Now, I always knew Tokyo was big. But it is even bigger than what I have ever imagined. Each district within Tokyo has its own character. I stayed in Shinjuku, famously known for their red light district. My accommodation was at the centrally located Hotel Sunroute Plaza, which I highly recommend, as my 6-night stay was very comfortable. Generally, the standard of rooms is slightly higher in Japan but the size of rooms is smaller compared to hotels in Australia, Europe and USA. It didn’t bother me though. Their bathrooms are very well-equipped with toiletries and appliances and their TV’s have an acceptable amount of channels. Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku is a little bit on the pricey side though (for me anyway). I paid approximately AUD$140.00 per night. I don’t normally pay that much.
My favourite place to visit in Shinjuku was definitely Kabukichō. There are plenty of clothing and electronic stores surrounding it and at the heart of Kabukichō is a bustling social atmosphere with plenty of options for food, drinks and entertainment. Other notable mentions are the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
With Shinjuku as my base, I embarked on daily excursions to the various districts in Tokyo, navigating my way through the overwhelmingly busy Shinjuku Station. These are the districts I managed to reach:
- Ginza – The ultimate shopping destination! I’m a bargain hunter so I didn’t buy anything here but there are endless options for clothes, bags, accessories, you name it! The roads at Ginza are blocked during certain hours so pedestrians can walk around freely.
- Tokyo City – I didn’t spend a lot of time in the city centre of Tokyo. Tokyo Station was mostly a transit point for me if I had to switch lines or platforms. But it is the closest station to get to the beautiful Imperial Palace.
- Harajuku – More famously known as the district with Harajuku Girls, I went for a wonder around the city area, with the massive Daiso and again, so many clothing stores and food outlets. But on the other side is the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine. The shrine is surrounded by beautiful forest and garden. It is a peaceful place in the midst of a lively district.
- Asakusa – This is the neighbourhood of temples and home to the famous Buddhist temple Sensō-ji. There is a line of markets where you can buy souvenirs and there is also food stalls scattered around. Asakusa is extremely popular. You might find yourself squeezing passed people to get through. My photo opportunities were limited. I went on a Saturday but if you go during the week there might be less people. From Asakusa, I walked to Tokyo Sky Tree, an impressive piece of architecture that you can immediately spot when you walk out of Asakusa station. The queues are quite long to reach the observatory deck but you can pay extra for the express lane, which is what I did. I went on a day where the sky was clearing after grey clouds and rain the day prior. The views are spectacular regardless.
- Odaiba – One of my Tokyo highlights! You cannot get there via JR though so you have to purchase a separate train ticket, or you should be able to use a Suica card. Odaiba has a man-made beach, the famous Gundam statue, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, and plenty of food, shopping and entertainment. I personally believe it’s a great spot to get a view of Rainbow Bridge. You can walk across it starting from Odaiba too.
- Minato – On the same night that I saw Rainbow Bridge, I caught the train to Tokyo Tower. The nearest station is actually a 15min walk away but heaps of people are walking in the same direction and there are signs everywhere so it’s easy to find. I was lucky to see it glowing in the evening sky, while the views from the top showed a rapidly moving and glittering city.
- Akihabara – Electric City! Personally, I’m not much of a gamer or anime fan but I was still so intrigued by Akihabara. There are electronic stores and arcade gaming stations everywhere. You will spot the Sega logo on almost every building. I am not kidding or exaggerating. If you are a hardcore gamer and/or anime fan, Akihabara is your heaven.
Stay tuned for Journey through Japan – Part II, which I will post next week, as I take you through my time in Osaka!