Japan has always fascinated me. I feel like Japan in general is just always a few steps ahead in the game, whether it’s technology or fashion they always have it down on lock. Two things stood out to me in Tokyo: their kindness and their fearlessness. Japanese people are overly friendly and polite. Also, their creativeness and thoughtfulness in simple things like architecture and fashion was refreshing. Oftentimes, in America, I feel we hold ourselves back from crazy, with Japan, the more crazy you are, the better. Needless to say, I felt right at home.
My first trip to Tokyo was similar to Anthony Bourdain’s experience: “When I first went to Japan, it was an explosive event for me. It changed my life in very real ways. I went to Tokyo the first time and my head kind of exploded. I compared it to taking my first acid trip: Nothing was ever the same.” Indeed, experiencing Japan was a whirlwind of adventure. If you’re headed to Tokyo for the first time here are the top things you need to do:
Experience Cherry Blossoms At A National Park
The best time to visit Japan is during springtime, during late March and early April, when cherry blossom is in full bloom. The Cherry Blossom festival is all about appreciating the temporal beauty of nature. I would recommend going to a national park to experience it in all its glory. Families typically enjoy the beauty of sakura (cherry blossoms) with food, drinks and friends. Having a nice picnic under the cherry blossom trees is something simple yet unforgettable. Recommendation: Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
The love for streetwear is real in Tokyo. They embrace hip-hop fully and you can tell in their fashion. Harajuku was a hypebeast dream: BAPE, Undefeated, Billionaire Boys Club are must-visits. What’s great about these spots is they typically have merch that’s exclusively for Japan. This means that when you go back to the States no one will be rocking what you’re rocking and that feeling is basically magical and indescribable. Other favorite stores included Funktique, which is the vintage shop of Coco Princess’s mom. If you don’t know Coco Princess, she’s basically the swaggest 6-year old you’ll ever come across. For 80's and 90's vintage vibes Pin Nap and Candy Stripper were top favorites with Kicks Lab being the go-to choice for sneakers. Harajuku will take all your money! Be prepared.
Bar hopping in Golden Gai
Golden gai is a line of tiny drinking dens hidden in the heart of Shinjuku. Each bar has its own vibe and feel which can range from the 80s vibes of Kenzo’s Bar or an art lover’s paradise in Albatross complete with art exhibits of photographs, paintings, illustrations, etc. Note: Tipping isn’t necessary in Tokyo. Japanese workers are decently paid and good service is standard, which is why tipping is often considered rude and sometimes offensive.
Play arcade games in Shibuya
Japanese people take their arcade games seriously. Just imagine the noise and colors of a Las Vegas casino, it’s like that but with more anime. I would recommend Sega in the Akihabara district. There are 4 levels with each floor dedicate to a different game. There’s modern arcade games, music/rhythm games, online and card games, VR games and so much more. Each game is typically 100 to 400 Yen.
Walking Shibuya crossing: World’s Busiest Pedestrian Crossing
Nothing says, “Welcome to Tokyo!” better than experiencing the busiest intersection of the world. Shibuya crossing is right in front of the Shibuya Station Hachiko exit and stops vehicles from all directions to allow pedestrians to cross the intersection. The best time to go would be during Friday or Saturday night so that you can experience it at its busiest with the city lights illuminating the perfect backdrop. For a more scenic view of the crossing, you can head to the 2nd floor of Starbucks which is directly across from the crossing. Shibuya Crossing is Tokyo in a nutshell: Lights. People. Chaos. Supposedly, there are hundreds of pedestrians crossing with over 2,000 people crossing the intersection during peak hours!
Experience nightlife in Shinjuku
Oh man. Where do I even begin with this one? There are so many places to go in Shinjuku, depending on your music preference. If you’re into hip-hop checking out HARLEM is a must. The coolest people in Tokyo are here, and they dance like there’s no tomorrow. Seriously, I was impressed. Entrance for ladies is 1000 Yen but includes a drink. Worth it.
Side story: Did I tell you about the time I had a Big Pun angel save me? My friends and I ended up going to the wrong venue and ended up lost in Harajuku. The streets were empty, it was midnight. From the darkness, the swaggest Japanese teenager came up walking on the street. He was smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a “Big Pun” vintage tee. We asked him for directions and he helped us find where we needed to go. At the end of the night, we ended up at HARLEM. And we were reunited with Big Pun angel on the dance floor.
Visit An Owl Cafe
Where can you spend an hour holding and petting owls? Only in Japan! During a day trip in Harajuku we ended up going off a beaten path and ended up the Akihabara district to visit the infamous Owl Cafe. When you enter, you’re told simple instructions in Japanese such as no flash photography, no sudden movements, etc. After cleaning your hands you follow a pathway of trees, with each section of the path designated for a specific owl. Each owl had their own personality, some looked happy while some looked like you were interrupting their sleep. They are so cute! Truly one of my favorite experiences during my Tokyo trip.
Day-trip to Mt. Fuji
What’s great about Japan is that in the hustle and bustle of everything, there’s always a shrine or park nearby. The Japanese truly value nature and serenity so balancing your trip with a visit to iconic landscapes such as Mt. Fuji is a must. The Mt. Fuji adventure is a full-day trek so I would recommend going on a tour such as the ones offered through Japanican. Pricing is 14,500 Yen which is about $133 USD and includes a trip to Mt. Fuji’s 5th station, a cruise on Lake Ashi and a ride on the Komagatake Ropeway, which is ideal for photo opportunities of the views surrounding Hakone National Park. Note: Remember to go when the weather is ideal. Because you’re elevated, the temperature can get cold so remember to pack warmly!
Robot Restaurant - I’ve heard so many amazing things about this spot, but didn’t get a chance to go. I’m serious, there are SO many things to do in Japan! The robot restaurant is a themed restaurant/bar featuring a pop-culture show with robotic monsters, dancers and lasers. Make sure to book in advance to save your spot. I’m going to have to make a trip to Tokyo again just to experience this!
Things I wish I knew before going to Japan:
Language barrier is real. The farther out you go in the city, the less likely they’re able to speak English. If you’re taking a taxi, I would recommend writing the address down and showing it to the driver.
Get a pocket WiFi and portable charger. Exploring Japan required lots of Google mapping, so make sure you’re juiced up and ready to go!
Buy a Suica card. This saves you time when moving from city to city. Japan’s has the most amazing subway system and if you get lost, there are helpful subway officers to assist you
When walking on the street, walk on the left side. The left side is specifically for pedestrians the right side is for bicyclists.
The trains stop at specific times at night, so if you plan on going out, prepare to take a taxi with a friend or leave when the last train runs. The trains always run on time. Always.
If you're planning for an international adventure keep in mind Tokyo will be hosting the Summer Olympics 2020. 😉 Have you been to Tokyo? If I missed any spots, comment below and let me know!