When I was planning my trip to Indonesia to see my family, there was a possibility of taking an extended layover in Japan. I’d fly to Narita airport in Tokyo, but my connecting flight to Indonesia would leave 20 hours later from Haneda airport, about an hour away from Narita. Knowing that one of my best friends is living in Japan (she’s an English assistant language teacher with the JET program), I felt like the Universe was sending me a signal to see her. Finally! Instead of spending 20 hours in Japan, though, I took the whole weekend to go on adventures around Japan with my best friend, Ivy.
I flew from Jax to Houston at the crack of dawn (thanks to my friend, Lynn, for giving me a ride at 4 am!) and made it to Tokyo-Narita around 4:30 pm local time. From there, I got a bus ticket to Kofu, the largest city in the Yamanashi prefecture. It was about a 3.5-hour ride from Tokyo to Kofu, and once I got to Kofu, we had to take a 30-minute train ride to another city in Yamanashi, and then drive an additional 30 minutes to Hokuto, where Ivy actually lives. Whew, what a journey!
Once I got there, though, I didn’t have much to complain about. Hokuto is a beautiful countryside in the mountains.
Originally, Ivy was going to take Friday off and travel to Tokyo with me. But after telling the staff at her school that I was visiting, she asked if I would want to come to her school and meet her students. Of course, I said yes! I know I’m supposed to be on vacation, but naturally, I find myself back at a school.
Ivy teaches at an elementary school and a junior high school, the latter of which I got to visit during my trip. Her students are so cute (or, as they say in Japanese, kawaii-desu)! The teachers and staff at her school are equally lovely and very welcoming. She’s in great company. It’s evident that her faculty and students appreciate her. I got to introduce myself to her students and tell them my story abut how I came to America, what I do for a living, and how I got to know Ivy. I answered a few questions (the most popular question, which I get from her students and mine, is “How old are you?” …smh) and assisted Ivy and her English teacher with playing Bingo and working a few workbook exercises. It was so much fun and I really hope the students enjoyed it as much as I did.
We left the school early and had lunch at a nice restaurant in Hokuto called The Rock. We had some delicious Japanese curry. Then, we took a little excursion to get soft serve for dessert. Her area is also well-known in Japan for their milk production. Let me reiterate once more how beautiful the region is. So much greenery and nature, and I especially loved being in the mountains. Seeing the mountains in the backdrop was lovely and nostalgic—it reminded me of my hometown, Greenville.
After our delicious lunch, we took a cat nap before traveling to Tokyo; another 30-minute drive to a train station, then a 2-hour bus ride. It was around this time that my jet-lag started to settle. I slept the entire bus ride… I was in such a deep sleep that once we got to Tokyo, I totally had forgotten that I was in Japan.
Finding our Airbnb from the bus terminal was an adventure in itself that I won’t go into full detail. Sometimes Airbnb advertises a place that is “6 minutes away” from the nearest public transportation when in reality, it was closer to 9 minutes. Also, when the public transportation system is as complex as the one in Tokyo, you’ll likely run into multiple stations with the same name. We ended up spending about an hour or so trying to find our way to the Airbnb, getting lost and perhaps being in a neighborhood one would likely not want to find herself. Once we found it, though, it was in an area central enough to all the places we wanted to visit.
Since we had lost a lot of time in between getting to Tokyo and finding our Airbnb, plus we were also tired from traveling, we decided to grab dinner and call it a night. We went to the main street of Harajuku, where we also learned that most shopping places in Tokyo open quite late (around 11 am) and close pretty early (around 8 pm). Most of the shopping places were already closed since we got there close to 8 o’clock. I was getting pretty hungry, so Ivy directed me to a creperie, which Harajuku is known for. We had some delish strawberry ice cream crepes to fill our bellies while we find a dinner place. Our friend Shane, who is also in the JET program and serving in Tokyo, gave us recommendations to places in Tokyo for the weekend. One was a Western place with many pop-up restaurants that had a hipster feel to it, called Commune 246 or simply “the Commune.” I saw a lot of foreigners and heard English spoken widely. We had a couple of beers and a savory seafood platter. Then, we hopped on a train and got some rest for the next day. (Since I didn’t get to take many pictures at the Commune, here is a cool article with lots of photos that describes my experience well.)
I surprised myself the next morning by sleeping through the night and waking up right when the alarm rang! We left our Airbnb around 7:30 am, hoping to make it to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building by 8. According to Shane, the building has observation decks that allow you to see spectacular views of the city for free. But after about 30 minutes of traveling by subway/train and by foot, we still couldn’t get to the building even though we could see it from afar. Google Maps also said that the building was closed on Saturday. Not sure if it was true or not (it is a government building, after all), but we gave up the quest and opted to go to our next location instead. Plus, I was getting hangry.
Our next location was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. We stopped by a conbini, a 24-hour convenience store that has a variety of deliciously fresh foods on the go, to pick up some breakfast foods that we’ll eat picnic-style at the garden.
The garden was impeccable—it was beautifully well-kept and massive! It’s made up of French and English gardens in the north area, and a Japanese traditional garden, with Japanese tea houses, in the south. We only saw the latter, but it was enough. I loved being surrounded by so many beautiful florae, breathing in the fresh air and feeling harmonious with nature. Upon researching, the garden is a popular spot for cherry blossom viewing. Sadly it’s not cherry blossom season, but I can imagine how beautiful it must be.
Next up, we made the trek to the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world (and the second tallest structure to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). Before going up to the tower, we stopped by a shop that sold Studio Ghibli merchandise. I was so excited because we couldn’t get tickets to the Ghibli Museum, which apparently you have to purchase a month in advance. If you aren’t familiar with Studio Ghibli, it is a Tokyo-based production studio behind famous anime feature films, such as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and most recently Ponyo.
Once we got to the Skytree, we paid ¥3,000 (about $30) to go up to the first observation deck, which was 350m high (1148.29 ft for scale, #merica). The elevator went up so smoothly that it didn’t even feel like we had moved, but my ears definitely popped on the way up and down. Once we got there, the views were spectacular. Floor 350 had 360-degree views of the city and Floor 348 had glass floors that you can see down from. For another ¥1,000, you could go up to the 450m-high observation deck, which is all glass, but we didn’t think it was worth the price. I got to see some pretty nifty views of the city, but overall, the Skytree was one of those “touristy” sites that you just had to see once when you visit Tokyo.
Next up was a Shintō shrine in Tokyo, the Nezu Shrine. I’ve always been fascinated by different religions and having spent my childhood in Asia, the images of Japanese temples are not unfamiliar to me. I wanted to make sure that I visit one of the beautiful Shintō shrines while I was in Japan. While we were at Nezu Shrine, there was a Japanese wedding happening! It was so fascinating, though I’m sure the bride, groom, and guests must have felt a little weird having visitors “crash” their wedding.
After the shrine, my stomach was growling (and my feet were starting to feel pretty sore). Since I was in Japan, I had to have sushi, duh! I wanted to go to one of the restaurants that serve sushi on a conveyor belt. I’d been to one in Jakarta but I wanted the authentic experience. We headed the direction of Harajuku and made a stop at Ameyoko, a market street with lots of restaurants and shops along the street. We found a restaurant that serves kaiten sushi and my stomach was singing!
A couple of observations at the kaiten sushi joint: most of the sushi served were a variety of raw fish meat. While there are sushi restaurants that serve the rolled “sushi” we’re all familiar with, this restaurant seems to be more fast-food-like, so while the food isn’t necessarily the fanciest, it was nonetheless delicious (if you like raw fish). As for drinks, these places serve unlimited green tea. Unlimited! Grab a ceramic mug, get your own hot water from the tap, serve your matcha, and boom. It’s amazing to me how matcha, the wondrous green tea powder with high antioxidants and is attributed to weight loss in the U.S., costs about $20 at your local fancy grocery store, yet I got to drink mine for free at a fast-food sushi joint.
Bellies now full, it’s time to go shopping. (Pro tip: never go shopping on an empty stomach.) We went to Harajuku and hit up a few places for some eclectic Japanese fashion finds. I bought a dress, a few makeup items, and some souvenirs for my family. I also got this phone case that Ivy endlessly made fun of me for (later on, I found that my mother actually wanted it as a gift). In Ivy’s words, “This b— thinks she’s Japanese now.” But in the words of Icona Pop, “I don’t care, I love it.”
After shopping in Harajuku, it’s time for our last stop: the famous Shibuya crossing. Aptly nicknamed the “scramble crossing,” getting there was tricky because there are about 20 different exits at the Shibuya station. I guess it makes perfect sense when you’re going to the “busiest crosswalk in the world.” A short Google search led us to the wrong exit initially, so we went back inside the station again to find the correct exit, which was the Hachikō exit.
Hachikō is the name of a famous Akita dog, known for his loyalty. The story goes that Hachikō would see his owner off to work in the morning at the Shibuya train station and then in the afternoon when he comes back. One day, his owner died unexpectedly at work, and Hachikō waited for his owner at the train station who never came back. While Hachikō gained a new family, he still waited at the Shibuya station every morning and afternoon for his beloved owner until his death. A statue commemorating Hachikō’s loyalty is erected outside the Shibuya station.
The views at Shibuya station mirror those of Times Square in New York. I’m glad that we got to see it at night when all the lights and electronic billboards were illuminated. It was a sight to behold.
According to articles on Google, the best views of the actual Shibuya crossing is from a Starbucks overlooking the crosswalk. After crossing the street ourselves (which was so much fun, I’d never been surrounded by so many people at once), we went to the Starbucks and saw what we had just experienced. We saw some dude dressed up as Pikachu who’d run to the middle of the street as people are crossing, pretending to be a wild Pokémon waiting to be caught. It was so absurd. Japanese locals just went about their business and walked around Pikachu, but others thought it was fun and they all took pictures of him and his friends, one of whom dressed up as Ash. The things people do to amuse themselves.
With sugar in our system, we ventured to find literally any restaurant we could find within our vicinity. At this point, the only thing on my food bucket list that I haven’t eaten was katsu, Japanese breaded and fried cutlets. We found a restaurant where you’d order and pay for your food at a slot-machine-type thing, a ticket comes out, and then you go inside and hand your ticket to the cook. Ivy told me that this is also a fast-food-type of a restaurant, where the focus isn’t so much social aspect of food where you get waited on and such, but how quickly your food comes out. I also noticed that most people who ate there were eating alone. Being a huge foodie myself and loving the experience of eating more than anything, I didn’t mind the fast-food restaurants at all because the food was so good and it was exactly what I wanted at the end of a long day. I had no idea what I ordered (I just saw a picture and went “yep that looks good”) but it tasted like some kind of chicken katsu cooked with fried egg on top and steamed rice with sweet soy sauce underneath. I also got a side of noodles to go with it. Mmm.
By the end of the day, we were exhausted but so proud of ourselves for making it to every place on our list. We walked a total of 28,091 steps (about 11.12 miles), stood for 16 hours, and burned about 653 calories. My Apple Watch was also proud of me for exceeding all of my daily goals.
The next day, I had to catch an airport bus to Tokyo-Narita at 6 am for my flight at 8:15. We woke up around 4:30, giving ourselves plenty of time to walk to the bus station in case we couldn’t find a taxi. Come to find out that the streets are bustling at 5 in the morning (do you people not sleep??) and we found a taxi outside of our Airbnb in less than 5 minutes. A little salty because I could’ve slept in. Anyway, we said our tearful goodbyes, caught our respective buses, passed out on our way to our destinations (another one of those “Who am I?” naps for both of us), and I hopped on two planes to Jakarta… another ridiculous, day-long journey in itself. But that’s all for now.
To sum up the aftermath of my incredible weekend in Tokyo, here’s a picture of a Japanese man at the bus station, courtesy of Ivy’s Snapchat. Until next time!
Most photos were taken with my iPhone 7. Photos of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and the featured image from Nezu Shrine were courtesy of Ivy, taken by her Nikon D-SLR. The meme was from the Internet.