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A weekend in Tokyo [Japan]

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My cousin Mike was coming for a visit! But where do you bring a soccer coach when the J-League is in the off season? I told him the professional soccer matches don’t start up again until March, but powder snow was his main objective, so February it was.

Well, there is not really a bad time of year to visit Japan. Winter is mainly dry and sunny. Everyone will tell you how cold it is, but a Tokyo winter rarely sees snow or sub zero temperatures. You don’t even need boots. Late March/early April is a great time for cherry blossom viewing, which is a huge deal. Whole streets become block parties, and being treated to some group’s extra snacks or drinks is not unlikely. May has perfect weather. June is raining the whole time and July and August are hot and humid as you-know-what. But summer has its advantages: small local festivals, bigger cultural festivals, and of course Fuji Rock is not that far outside the city. July and August are also the only months that Mount Fuji is open for climbing (it’s COLD at the top, be warned). Autumn is warm and pleasant, and winter is good for skiing.

Getting around and about

Mike had his skiing all booked before he came. Since he flew between ski towns and Tokyo, he didn’t need to buy a Japan Rail Pass, which is really worth the cash if you want to see a lot of places in a few days. If you’re planning to stay in one place for a while, don’t bother with it. But even if you’re just going to spend a few days in Tokyo, transportation within the area can get expensive and troublesome. Do yourself a favour and get a Pasmo or Suica card at the airport. The two different kinds of cards are basically the same thing sold by different companies. A card costs 500 yen and you load it up with credit at a ticket machine, which will have displays available in English. The card doesn’t just save you the time of buying a ticket (which can sometimes be crucial when making a connection), it also saves you from accidentally overpaying when buying the wrong ticket.

People working in Japan’s tourist industry are friendly and ready to have a laugh, and maybe take the piss out of a foreigner writing about Japan? (No, they were lovely!)

On your way back to the airport, you can cash it in at a ticket machine and get your 500 yen back too. Renting a car is possible, but not worth the hassle of sitting in traffic. Getting around on the trains is pretty easy and very safe, and you can check your routes here. All area names mentioned in this article are also the name of the nearest train station, so just plug that name into the route finder. The Keisei Line is the cheapest route out of the airport and into the city. And while we’re at it, a few train rules to keep you from being a total ‘stupid foreigner’: don’t talk on the phone on the train, don’t have loud conversations on the train, don’t eat on the train. But being drunk and annoying on the train is okay (if you’re not too loud and boisterous).

So, Mike stayed with me. But even if you’re not going to crash at my place, there are a lot of options. You can go really swank in Tokyo if you have the money for it. However, these hotels are not in my tax bracket. If you’re looking for more basic accommodation, there are plenty of cheaper places to stay in convenient areas. Another option is Sakura House which has affordable options for longer stays as well. Some of my friends planned to stay at Sakura House while apartment hunting, but enjoyed it so much that they decided to live there. Of course, Mike had a good time ’cause he was staying with family. You might not have a cousin in Tokyo, but the next best thing is couchsurfing.org, where you can meet folks who are into what you’re into and get a taste of something tourists would never find because you are introduced by a local resident.

Right, so I’ve been delaying the answer to the question I asked myself waaay back in the first paragraph. What do you do with a soccer coach when the J-League is in the off season?

Exploring the town

We started by wandering around famous areas and looking for food. The Ueno area has lots of old-style, cheap restaurants with legit Japanese food. Look for a red lantern and you’re good. These tend to be the places where locals eat local food: yummy, legit, and inexpensive. If you’re already in Ueno, after you eat you can check out Ueno Park which is full of interesting landmarks and museums and is a nice place to relax, and the Ameyoko outdoor market. Shinjuku is a more modern area which is usually madly on the go, and much more crowded. Outside the station, you might find a band hoping to get noticed (try the east exit). They might suck and they might be awesome, but it’s a free show and they’ll probably be selling CDs – definitely a better souvenir than a fridge magnet.

Shinjuku is full of restaurants, with izakayas (Japanese style bar-restaurant where you usually share small plates of food), lots of sushi shops (the kind where the conveyer belt brings the sushi around is cheaper by far than a place where you have to order), yakiniku shops (places where you barbecue your own meat and veg at the table), as well as chain Italian restaurants and stuff like that. Advance warning: Japan is difficult if you’re vegan or vegetarian, though there are a few exceptions. The Pink Cow in Roppongi has good vegetarian food that can easily be made vegan if you prefer. This venue is also a good one for live performances, including a non-tourist-oriented Japanese cultural performance one Sunday a month. Admission is free as long as you buy a meal. For a delicious vegan buffet at a decent price, check out SaiShokuKenBi in Okubo. Mike and I eventually stopped into a noodle and tempura shop. It was the kind where you get a bowl of noodles and can pick up whatever deep fried stuff (pumpkin, chicken, fish, lotus root, whatever) you want to go with it. Mike got to display his chopsticks skills, which was entertaining for both of us.

Tokyo after dark

Tokyo is a city that never sleeps, as the cliché goes, so there is always something going on. After the Udon, we decided to check out some live music. Tokyo is PACKED with “live houses” but you might not recognize them from the outside. And you might never find them without a map. A few places that have bands I tend to enjoy, and that draw a mixed crowd of Japanese and ex-pats, are O-Nest in Shibuya for bigger shows, NOB in Shibuya, which feels like going to a house concert in your friend’s basement, and Artist in Shimokitazawa for chilled-out acoustic shows. But my favourite spot for eclectic play bills, friendly staff and a you’re-at-home atmosphere is definitely Gamuso in Asagaya. It’s the closest thing in Tokyo to feeling like you’re at The Ship in St. John’s. Gamuso also features art by locally based artists and has FREE ENTRY. If they are asking for money it’s usually a fundraiser to support folks whose lives are still not back to normal since the tsunami of 2011, so be nice and spill a few hundred yen! Anyway, there are easy ways to check out what’s going on in Tokyo here and here.

Right, so there is a certain amount of must-see Tokyo stuff that we covered as well. One of the places is the crosswalk outside Shibuya station. You know those shots they show any time Tokyo makes the news? A shot of what seems like trillions of people crossing the street? That’s Shibuya. And it is actually the busiest street crossing in the world. Which sounds like something you’d want to avoid, but come and see it. Cross it. Take a million pictures. Sit in the Starbucks at one side of the intersection and just WATCH PEOPLE. (I hate to advocate for a multi-national, but they have the best view in this case.) It is incredible.

This restaurant is probably awesome
This restaurant is probably awesome.

Another people-watching spot is Yoyogi Park, specifically on Sundays. If you get off the Yamanote line at Harajuku station (not Yoyogi station) you are just a 3-minute walk from the most interesting park entrance. This area is near the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu), which is an important historical and cultural spot in Tokyo. As for people-watching, it’s also the entrance where folks tend to dress up as anime characters, in a goth-like version of Victorian fashion, in… all kinds of stuff. Go a little further and you’ll find the dancers in leather, pompadour hair-styles, poodle skirts, etc., dancing to 1950s American rock and roll. I’ve seen them allow people to take their picture, but I’ve also witnessed them aggressively (for Japan) remove a passer-by who tried to dance in their group. Look but don’t twist. On the road into the park you might find some street circus (performing or rehearsing), a bunch of hand-drum players, people eating and drinking (drinking alcohol outside is legal in Japan), a game of frisbee, a rehearsal for a musical… and whatever you’re doing. This area is also where most big protests in Tokyo start. The big anti-nuclear rallies, aside from the ones actually at the government offices, have mostly started at Yoyogi Park.

If you cross the street when you leave the station, instead of turning right, you find yourself in Harajuku, which is where a lot of the interesting fashions are purchased. If it were Mike’s sister instead, that street would have been a hit, but Mike just browsed through. Luckily, my resident expert on soccer brought us to Kamo Soccer Shop, which Mike said was the biggest soccer store he had ever seen. The multi-storied shop has specialty gear for all ages of soccer players, a custom footwear factory in the basement, and cases upon cases of signed, game-worn memorabilia. Messi’s boots, Rooney’s jersey, Ronaldo’s… I forget. There is so much stuff there. Pretty neat to me but a highlight for Mike. Price-wise, however, it was a little daunting. We skipped over to the lesser-known but much cheaper Futaba soccer shop for a look as well.

Not to miss

Tokyo people tell me that if I have a guest and they only have time to see one thing, it should be Asakusa. Walking from the station Mike commented that we could have been anywhere in the world, but when we reached the Kaminari Mon (Thunder and Lightning Gate) and the huge red lantern marking the entrance to the temple/shopping area, there was no doubt we were in Japan. The road inside the gate goes through a shopping street that leads to the temple complex. Mike got a nice print of an old Japanese woodblock carving. There are a few good souvenir shops and a lot of cheesy ones, and a pile of food stands as well. We went through another gate and entered the temple area. There are several temples and statues inside, and you can line up, toss a coin and make a wish even if you have no idea about Japanese religious practices. It is not considered rude, and the temples and shrines all appreciate the money for upkeep. The few temples and shrines that don’t welcome people who just want to have a look make it pretty clear. On the other hand, a private ceremony is still private when it is in a public place! Going out of the temple complex on the left side if you’re facing the main temple, we found a street with more shopping, what appeared to be an adult movie theatre, and some street performers. There is another, lesser-known and less tourist-oriented place similar to Asakusa called Shibamata. It follows the same shopping-street-with-a-temple-at-the-end plan, but the temple is much smaller, the shops are somewhat less cheesy, and the place is way less crowded. There are sometimes free concerts on the temple grounds during summer, but the area is really well known in Japan for the famous “Tora-san” movies. You thought Rocky was bad? There are FORTY-EIGHT Tora-san movies, all about the same guy who travels around Japan and consistently fails to ‘get the girl’. Anyway, he is from Shibamata and he makes reference to it in each movie. So if you do go to Shibamata, make sure to get your picture taken with the statue of the man in a trench coat holding a suitcase, ’cause that man is TORA-SAN!

Metropolitan Tokyo has a population of about 13 million, and the 23 special wards, which we would consider ‘metropolitan Tokyo’, cover over 600 square kilometers. What you do depends on what you’re looking for. There are tons of museums, gay nightlife is centred in Shinjuku Nichome [knee-cho-may] (a gay nightlife hotspot that includes a smaller number of lesbian spots), animation and video game fans probably want to check out Akihabara, and if you want to do tea ceremony you should check out one of these hotels. There is a lot to do and see, and there is no way to do everything. We decided to go with a relaxed route where we didn’t rush around, and we focused on stuff Mike would like along with a few must-dos. Go at your own pace, and enjoy!

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