I just returned from an impulsive, whirlwind weekend trip to Tokyo. I went with friends to Kyoto earlier this month, loved it so much that I had to come back to Japan. My brain is still buzzing from all the new sights and people, my legs are still sore from all the walking, and I’m still tired. This trip had a lot of firsts for me – first trip I’ve decided to take to another country with very short notice, first time staying in a hostel, first time to Tokyo, and first time to take a photography tour.
When I first arrived in Tokyo, it was raining but I knew good weather was predicted for the two days I would be out and about so I didn’t let it bother me. I was rushed onto a train that was leaving in a few minutes to my stop that was almost an hour away so my arrival felt confusing and scary. I didn’t have any time to get a Pasmo or Suica card, get a pocket wifi or get a round trip ticket for the train to the airport.
I am always a little confused when I first get to a new country, and I like to spend a few minutes orienting myself.
No time for orienting – little did I know that my quick decision to go to Tokyo would set the tone for the entire trip!
I arrived at Shinjuku Station excited but nervous. I had to change to another subway line, but this station was huge so I found an information counter where I was told where to get a Suica card. Whew! That was easy. Now for food – it was late and I was starving!
As I often do my first night, I wound up with the familiar and found a pizza place in the station called 800 Degrees where I got a salad and a beer. I sat, recharged and observed. My first impression of Tokyo is sophisticated, chaotic, big! I loved it already.
I headed out to find my hostel and bed.
The hostel was easy to find based on the directions on the website but was a bit of a shock. The room was super tiny with four bunk beds crammed into the space. I was on a top bunk with a low ceiling. Being a tad claustrophobic (okay, more than a tad!), I was nervous. I climbed up and found out there were no outlets to charge my phone and no room to put my bag except at the end of the bed. Okay.
The girl on the bunk bed next to me asked me a question about where I was from then I asked her for help. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers! She showed me the outlets in the kitchen and shared my concern for lack of space. She had all of her things on the bed with her as well.
We sat on our beds and chatted for a little while. She was a sweet Japanese girl, in college, attending a medical conference in English where she had trouble understanding the speeches. She had recorded them and was going to go home, listen to them and transcribe them into Japanese to study later. Impressive work ethic and a big heart: she was hoping to be a midwife in a developing country upon graduation.
We both decided to try to sleep since we had early mornings. She confided that it would be hard to sleep as two of our other roommates had come in at 3 am that morning. I laughed, and we turned the lights down low to get whatever sleep we could. She was leaving to go back to school the next day, and I wanted an early start to explore.
Sleeping is easier said than done in a hostel. Lights are on or coming on and off. It was hot because the heater was turned on too high. I felt cramped in my top bunk with the ceiling just above my head and my bag squished to my side. And the bed was hard as a rock. As the night wore on, I dozed off here and there.
Morning came with a blinding headache from lack of sleep, but I got up, showered in the teeny bathroom and headed out to find coffee.
The cold wind struck me as I left the hostel and felt good after the overheated room. I took a few pictures of the area around the hostel then found a little café to get some food and coffee. The coffee was delicious, and I was ready to go. My headache wasn’t as bad, and I couldn’t wait to see some of Tokyo. No pocket wifi so I was offline for the day, but that was okay. It is possible to navigate and explore without wifi, but it is harder and I did get lost a few times.
I spent the morning at Harajuku Station visiting the Meiji Shrine, Takeshita Street, and Yoyogi Park.
Harajuku: Funky, fun, lots of shopping and restaurants
Meiji Shrine: Elegant, old world, beautiful
I had delicious ramen for lunch at a place where you order the food at a vending machine then sit at the counter to eat. Again, I had to have people help me. I watched a guy order to see what to do by practically hanging over his shoulder, found a seat at the crowded counter, then didn’t know what else to do. The guy sitting next to me spoke English and explained the next steps. I put my order on the counter as he instructed me and, through mostly hand gestures from the waitress and me, found out I had ordered something twice. She kindly gave me a refund and put in my order.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help! The ramen was delicious and the experience worth the confusion. I left for Yoyogi Park with a full belly, ready to tackle the afternoon.
Yoyogi Park: Peaceful, busy, interesting
Yoyogi Park was so beautiful with all the tree leaves either bare or changing colors. There was a little pond with fountains and birds everywhere. The people-watching was plentiful with couples strolling, families on bikes, photo shoots, a class trip and people exercising. I could have spent all day there, but, after only an hour, I had to leave for my photography tour with EYExploreTokyo whom I would highly recommend.
Everything takes longer to do in a foreign country than I expect so I left super early to meet up with the group. And thank goodness – I found them with only 10 minutes to spare. I was the last one to arrive since there were only two of us plus the guide so we started off right away. What a cool experience!
Photography Tour: Stimulating, interesting, entertaining
The tour was the Tokyo Metropolis tour and it was with Stephane, a French photographer who has lived in Tokyo for two years. We walked around the Shiodome and he showed us some interesting techniques for mirroring and reflections then shadows then angles. It was awesome! We did things I had never thought of, and he explained how to set a mood or tell a story with a picture versus just taking the shot and showing the scene.
From there, we went to a train station to take shots using shutter speed to make the shot interesting then headed to a tunnel for night shots which were hard. Using shadows and light here is something I’ve always wanted to do but have always struggled with. He gave some great ideas for using ISO, whatever light you can find, and moving shadows. I used his ideas the next day and my pictures were definitely better because of it.
By the time the tour was over, I had been walking that day for about 10 hours and needed dinner. I found another pizza place in one of the tunnels our tour guide had shown us. The tunnels were built during WWII to escape bombing going on above and people had built restaurants down there. The restaurant felt like a cave, and they had capitalized on that by creating small nooks for tables. I ate my fill of a ridiculously good pizza that made me very sleepy.
I felt like a zombie and, of course, got lost going back to the hostel. It was frustrating, but several people helped out and I met a young man from Germany doing a gap year in Tokyo to learn Japanese. He assured me I was finally on the right train heading to my hostel. It was after 10 when I finally got back and, by then, I was feeling sick from being so tired and just wanted a relaxing shower. The relaxing part wasn’t going to happen, but I took a shower and laid down to rest. New people had come in to share the room, and I talked some more to another woman I’d met the night before who was from Taiwan. Then – lights out for another early morning start.
Woke up with another blinding headache even though I’d slept a tiny bit better. I decided to just take it easy and do what I wanted to do. First thing, as always, coffee.
Got coffee at Starbuck’s in Shinjuku and wandered around the area before braving the confusing subway system and heading to Asakusa. I had better directions today and arrived with no problems. My plan was to see Sensoji, a shrine in that area, but I was drawn away from the tourists toward the Sumida River. It was so peaceful. I could see Tokyo Skytree in the distance and decided to head in that direction instead. I went across the bridge, passing the Asahi Beer Tower and walking through this beautiful little park where multiple photo shoots were taking place. I’ve never seen as many photo shoots as I saw in Tokyo.
Sumida River and walk to Tokyo Skytree: Quiet, peaceful, different
The Sumida River offered another view of Tokyo with the subway, highway, and waterway all crossing each other.
Several photo shoots of couples and families in traditional garb were taking place in the park. They were gracious and didn’t seem to mind that other people were also taking pictures as they posed for their photographer. The couple below is the first photo shoot I saw and what drew me into the park in the first place.
An older lady struck up a conversation with me in her limited English as I stood beside a lovely pond with ducks. She was so sweet and seemed pleased that I was visiting her country. I’m always humbled by the fact that they try to speak my language yet I know none of theirs.
There was a tiny shrine at the back of the park which I wandered through before winding through roads, keeping the tower in sight.
Tokyo Skytree: Tall, fun, entertaining
The Tokyo Skytree was a lot of fun! It’s currently the tallest tower in the world, but I didn’t wait in the super long line to go to the top. If I had children, I would definitely come here. There was an aquarium, a Christmas wonderland set up on one of the patios, the tower itself, a planetarium, lots of shops, restaurants, and a very talented street entertainer down below. There is also a subway train that goes directly here which I took to Tokyo Station after a few hours.
Tokyo Station: European vibe, elegant, professional area
At Tokyo Station, I went to see the Imperial Palace. The light was already fading by 3:30 that afternoon so I was trying to hurry. I followed the crowds of people and, when I finally saw it, I was a little disappointed. It’s simply a building you see at a distance over a moat and bridge. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just a building. I took a few pictures then walked around some more.
As usual, I took a million pictures, becoming interested in the gates around the palace and the way they framed the area. I was also interested in the guards keeping everyone from overrunning the place. Selfies, selfie sticks, and photographers dominated the area. One woman traveling alone asked me to take a few pictures of her with her camera, and I obliged. I wondered what it was like to visit the place before cameras were so easy to come by. Did people still come? Did they move through the area more quickly and move on? Did the guards still have to stop people from going over the guardrails in place which people were climbing over to get a better picture?
As the light faded further, I passed the fountains in front of the Imperial Palace Hotel and saw another photo shoot with a couple in modern wedding attire. I snapped a quick photo. They looked like royalty!
I finally left the area when the light was almost completely gone and the bottoms of my feet were bruised and I was so hungry I could eat my arm.
I headed back to Shinjuku, wandered around then found a soup place. I loved it so much – and the soup was delicious! More wandering commenced once my belly was full then back to the hostel for my last night in Tokyo. I still had so much I wanted to see and do, but I was out of time.
I took an early train to the airport the next morning, got off at the wrong terminal, took a bus to the right terminal, sat around for a delayed flight and finally got home that evening. For a three and a half hour flight, it was a long travel day.
After getting home, it always takes me awhile to come down from the buzz I feel after a trip and I’m still flying high. Even though travel is hard work, especially solo travel, it is worth it. Seeing new things, learning new things, meeting new people, getting new ideas: I’m officially addicted to travel.