A Three-Day Girls' Trip to Tokyo
They said we wouldn’t be able to do it, but we did—my friend B and I got through our Tokyo list (and then some!) in just three days. While it was certainly a packed trip (we got in around 2:30am the first day), it never felt rushed or overwhelming.
We somehow got ourselves out early for Tsuta Ramen, the world’s first Michelin Star ramen, in a sort of nondescript area by Sugamo Station. How it works (because no one will explain it to you): get there early, before opening time, to get tickets. We got there around 8:30am or so to pay the cash deposit (one bowl of ramen per person, or 3,000 yen ~$27.80 USD) and ensure a spot in line. Be ready to line up along the side of the building before 11am; we returned maybe ten to and there was already a line to the back. Once you are closer to the front of the line, you will exchange your ticket for your deposit and enter the small restaurant to place your order on a cash-only machine. Then, you will be sent back outside to wait in line until it is your time to eat. Once you’re in for good and your ramen is ready, you are expected to eat and not linger.
Take it from someone who has the #unpopularopinion that udon > ramen and (shock, horror) doesn’t even like ramen all that much—that was some damn good ramen.
Despite it adding to our wait, I’m glad we didn’t line up until closer to opening time because it allowed us to have a leisurely morning wandering the neighborhood which was just starting to wake. See snaps of that time in our Japan highlight on Instagram!
We spent the afternoon well-occupied in Akihabara, a shopping hub that is famous for its electronics, including at Azukishiba No Sato Cafe, a Shiba Inu cafe I spotted on the face of one of the high-rise buildings. There is a cover charge (that includes one drink) and time limit (30 minutes), you do need socks (which you can purchase at the cafe or almost any of the shops on the way), and the puppies are so very cute. Again, refer to our Japan highlight!
At night, we visited Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. I’m sure it’s a sight to see in the daytime, but it was glowing at night. Literally. The only downside to visiting at night is that most of Asakusa is closing down. And that’s my one regret of this trip, that I didn’t get to peruse the traditional craft shops or sample the street-food stalls. Of all the neighborhoods, Asakusa was definitely the most my style and the most similar to how I envisioned Tokyo and Japan.
We had booked tickets for teamLab Borderless for this morning and spent until lunchtime interacting with each of the five sections of the museum—Borderless World, Athletics Forest, Future Park, Forest of Lamps, and the En Tea House.
The Forest of Lamps, pictured left, is a crowd favorite for obvious reason. My favorite was the crystal room in Borderless World, an installment so stunning it took my breath away, and resulted in an emotional hug session with B. Her favorite was the En Tea House, where flowers continue to bloom in your cup until you’ve drunk all your tea.
We were famished by noon and devoured a delicious pizza each with spicy chilis (my mouth is watering typing this) at Pizza Studio Tamaki, another cash-only joint with a close-up view of Tokyo Tower (though nothing beat the view of Tokyo Tower between the high-rises as we sped down the highway in a taxi late at night).
I had put Hie Shrine (pictured above) on the list because of its Torii gates tunnel which resembles Fushimi Inari-taisha, but we somehow missed the tunnel. Still, it was an interesting sight in the middle of Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace (pictured below) wasn’t much of a palace as most of the grounds were under construction, but there was an open section that had a beautiful pond and garden.
We ended the day at Roppongi Hills, an obviously affluent development area that boasted good views of Tokyo Tower.
Did you really go to Tokyo if you didn’t cross Shibuya Crossing? And then photograph it from a nearby rooftop? It seems most visitors try their luck at the Starbucks, but we went up to the lesser-known deck at Magnet by Shibuya109 and had it all to ourselves, and it wasn’t the butt-crack of dawn! It was 3 or 400 yen (~$2.78-3.71 USD) to access and we stayed there for several rounds of crossings. The building is also stocked with all sorts of cute souvenirs to consider on the way down.
Lunch was a three-course meal at Sahsya Kanetanaka, for the same price of our ramen on day one. The first and final courses are set with your choice of two mains. Now that I’ve eaten through four cities in Japan, I’d say the food here was nothing to write home about (though the sweets were particularly good), but B and I found the experience to be both enjoyable and memorable, and I appreciated the design of the space.
We walked from lunch to Harajuku and down the colorful Takeshita Street.
After a thirty-minute wait, we were seated in Reissue, a 3D latte art cafe. There’s a menu of art you can choose from, or sometimes you can make requests! B went for My Neighbor Totoro (pictured right).
Late afternoon, we walked through Yoyogi Park and then Meiji Jingu (pictured below), a Shinto shrine in Shibuya and an unexpected favorite for me. There is a bit of ground to cover there, so if you’re into more cultural and traditional sites, be sure to give yourself enough time before closing time. We had just missed the garden which was sure to be my favorite.
We made it to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building just in time to see the sun set over the city. It’s free to go up but the capacity is monitored so there may be a wait. While the views are spectacular, it’s hard to avoid the glare on the windows. I resolved to snap a photo of the building itself.
Dinner at Tokyo Mentsudan was a happy accident—it ended up being both of our favorite meal of the trip! It was also a tenth the price of all our other meals (my bowl of udon was a whopping 300 yen ~$2.78 USD). The chef prepares fresh, handmade noodles and the main ingredients for each customer. You take your bowl down a line of all sorts of toppings, garnishes, and sides, pay for what you choose, and then help yourself to unlimited hot broth.
Bellies full, we made our way to Omoide Yokocho (pictured below, left), an alleyway of restaurants and bars lit by lanterns. Finally, we walked over to Golden Gai, a slightly seedier network of six narrow alleyways connected by narrower passageways, just wide enough for a single person to pass through. We were a bit early for the nightlife but already ready to call it a night (and a trip).
Some tips for traveling in Tokyo:
It’s probably best (definitely if you’re going from South Korea) to exchange currency at your own or a local bank. Otherwise, the machines throughout Tokyo (hotel or bank currency exchange machines) seemed to consistently provide the best rates. Travelex or other counters and companies had worse rates by 10%, regardless of the type of currency being exchanged. A quick conversion from yen to USD is to move the comma one place to the right (e.g., 1,000 yen = ~10,00/10.00 USD).
Almost every small business we visited was cash only, including popular restaurants and shops. Only chains and bigger businesses accepted most credit cards. Transportation ticket machines seemed to take credit cards, but that might be limited to domestic cards as neither of ours worked. If you do try your credit card and the machine asks for a pin, try inputting the last four digits of your card.
The subway system is relatively easy to navigate and very accessible. If we weren’t walking, we were taking the train. Depending on how frequently you’re taking the subway and which subway you’re taking, an all-/one-day pass might be a good purchase. The ticket office at the station was very helpful with this. Our clerk provided us with a map of all the stations included with the pass and answered all our location-specific questions (in English even). Generally, one-way tickets cost around 170 yen (~$1.58 USD). Our one-way tickets to teamLab Borderless cost around 380 yen (~$3.52 USD).
The one time we opted to take a taxi was from the airport to our Airbnb. It was a 20- to 25-minute ride and cost us between $80 and 90 USD. Taxis are crazy expensive in Tokyo (and Tokyo is generally expensive). We took trains to the airport at the end of our trip for a fraction of the cost, though getting on the right line in this case can be confusing.
As it is in Korea, summertime in Japan, and August especially, is extremely hot and humid. The forecast called for rain all three days of our trip, but the weather always cleared. Weather forecasts are often fickle, but that can work to your advantage or disadvantage, so it’s best to be prepared for all possible scenarios. The humidity also means mosquitos, and if you’re like me and have more severe reactions to mosquito bites, definitely have topical products and antihistamine pills ready. Expert tip: the best topical product for mosquito bites I’ve ever tried is from Japan. I’ve been using some variation of it since childhood. Stop by any drugstore and ask for a product for your bites. The one they give you will be the one.
Though the locals sometimes don’t follow this, the expectation when walking up or down stairs or standing on escalators is to stay to the left.
Helpful Japanese phrases to know: sumimasen (sorry and/or excuse me), arigato gozaimasu (thank you), arigato gozaimashita (thank you, past event), hai (yes).