It’s finally here – Tokyo. Our final stop in Japan, our final stop in Asia, and the final stop of our 22 weeks on the road. We spent a full week in Tokyo, plenty of time to explore this huge, and fascinating, city. We split our time between unique Japanese experiences and traditional sightseeing.
Experiences in Tokyo
There are six sumo tournaments in Japan each year, with three of those in Tokyo. We specifically planned our trip around being in Tokyo during the grand sumo tournament in May. What can be more Japanese than watching fat men in thongs slap each other around? Each tournament lasts for 15 days, and we attended the last Friday.
As with any popular sporting event, tickets were hard to come by. Tickets were completely sold out within minutes of going on sale (thanks to scalpers of course). We ended up having to buy our tickets through a local tour company. Not ideal, but hey, at least we got them! The price was high but definitely worth it. It was really interesting to watch the pomp and ceremony around the event. The Japanese crowd really got into the matches. We were even lucky enough to see Hakuho, widely considered to be the best sumo wrestler ever.
Baseball is another hugely popular sport in Japan. The rules are very similar to American baseball, with only minor differences. Two of the top teams, and one of the biggest rivalries, is between the Hiroshima Carp and the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. We got tickets to the Tokyo Dome to watch a sold-out Saturday evening game.
We’re not huge baseball fans or anything, but this was a really fun event to attend. Probably the majority of the crowd came wearing jerseys, hats, and scarves of their favourite team. There were also plenty of team noisemakers and some face paint action too. Rivalries can be so intense that the stands are actually divided up between Home and Away crowds, similar to European football stadiums, to avoid conflicts. The atmosphere reminded us more of a football match too, with the different groups of fans chanting and singing almost non-stop. Japanese baseball is more spectator-friendly, in our opinion. There are cheerleaders, there is a a wide assortment of drinks and food being sold in the stadium (no need to wait in long lines at the concession stands!), and you’re allowed to bring in outside drinks and food (including alcoholic bevvies).
The Yomiuri Giants were no match for the Hiroshima Carp (who won 9-0), so luckily we were sitting in one of the “Away” sections. We were surrounded by fans cheering and singing at the top of their lungs.
Theme Restaurant – the @Home Maid Cafe
Theme restaurants and cafes seem to be a “thing” in Tokyo. We’re not sure why it’s a thing, but we had to try one. There is everything from prison to ninja to robot themed cafes and restaurants, all seemingly popular and busy. We chose a maid cafe, one of the best known and common themes. There are a bunch around the Akihabara district of Tokyo, and we picked the @Home Cafe, reputed to be the best of the dozens around the city.
The experience was weird and bordered on creepy. The restaurant was spread over several floors of a multi-story building, each floor with a slightly different aesthetic. Our floor was decorated in shades of pink, and sort of resembled the living room of a dollhouse. As you can imagine, all the wait staff were dressed in frilly “maid” dresses, were overly cheery and chirpy, and referred to their customers as either “Master” or “Princess”.
After paying a cover charge and agreeing to a list of rules (no pictures, no touching), we got seated at a table. For a combo price, we could buy a drink along with either a picture with our choice of “maid” or play a board game with them for 15 minutes. We opted for a picture, which came with mandatory props and poses.
We were the only tourists in the place. Everyone else seemed to be locals, paying a steep premium for drinks or food and a few minutes chatting with an over-the-top, frilly-dressed girl. It seemed sad in a lot of ways, but was an interesting experience.
Sightseeing Around Tokyo
Akihabara and Harajuku
Tokyo is a huge city, made up of dozens of different neighbourhoods. Some parts of Tokyo are traditional and buttoned-down, some are bustling metropolis and business oriented, and other areas are just weird. Both Akihabara and Harajuku fit into the last category, so naturally were a priority for us spend time in. Akihabara is best known for its Otaku (geek) culture, and is filled with video game and anime viewing centres, and toy and comic stores. And it’s not just a few…it’s literally building after building, with every shop front and every floor taken up with booths selling anime figures, manga comic books, or offering private viewing rooms to play video games or watch cartoons.
This area is also where the weird/creepy schoolgirl fetish, that still seems to be a thing in Japan, is on full display with huge murals of schoolgirl-looking, but scantily dressed, manga characters on billboards, and plenty of displays of big-busted figurines in tiny schoolgirl outfits.
The Harajuku neighbourhood is maybe the female equivalent. It is known for youth fashion, and became well known outside of Japan after Gwen Stefani, during her post-No Doubt period of making terrible music, started touring with her “Harajuku girls”.
We wandered the main shopping street, Takeshita Dori, but unfortunately didn’t see anyone dressed up in the crazy clothes that we’d heard about. Mostly locals dressed in casual gear and other tourists.
Temples and Shrines
To be honest, we really didn’t feel like trudging around to a lot of temples during our time in Tokyo. We did, however, visit the Meiji Jingu shrine, probably the most famous one in Tokyo. And we wandered around the old Asakusa area. But neither area really impressed us after all the amazing temples we had seen earlier on our trip in Kyoto and Nara.
Shibuya and Shinjuku
The areas of Shibuya and Shinjuku are two “must-explore” parts of Tokyo. Shibuya is primarily a shopping and entertainment district around Shibuya Station, while Shinjuku has the busiest railway station in the world and an edgier atmosphere. Both areas are known for their restaurants and nightlife.
Shibuya is known for one of, if not the, busiest street crossing in the world. At Shibuya Crossing, upwards of 2,500 people can cross the intersection every light cycle. Per day, it ranges from 250,000 to as much as 600,000 people. The neon billboards and huge video screens make this the Tokyo equivalent to New York’s Times Square, and was made even more famous as the backdrop to scenes in the movie Lost in Translation.
Shinjuku has a grittier, edgier feel due to the Kabukicho area, which is essentially a red light district. While much of the area is commercial, with plenty of regular bars and restaurants, there are also plenty of strip clubs, “relaxation rooms” where locals (almost anyone who doesn’t speak Japanese fluently is not allowed into any of these establishments) can watch porn in private, and short-stay “love hotels” that offer rooms for rent by the hour, partial day, or late night.
For a bit of something different, we also spent a day on Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay. The area is filled with shopping malls, arcades and other entertainment venues, and offers some great views back towards the main city of Tokyo. It was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, even for a few hours.
A Little Bit of Everything
While we didn’t see everything in Tokyo, we were pretty happy with what we did see. Any “Top 10” list of what to see in Tokyo is going to include a couple of temples/shrines, the Tokyo Tower for some views, and the famous Tsujiki Fish Market. We didn’t bother with the tower, opting instead for the free views from a viewing area on the 45th floor of the Metropolitan Building. We stopped by the fish market, but didn’t bother to get up at 2am to see the tuna auction. Are we worse off for it? No.
During our time in Tokyo, we saw a great range of cultural, historical, and traditional sights. We ate some great food (ramen, sushi, soba…!), and even treated ourselves to a bottle of wine or two. Tokyo was also a great place to pick up some small souvenirs – there are so many quirky and unique items sold in the stores in Japan, making shopping so much more interesting. What more can two, traveling, unemployed, homeless former finance people want?