In 2013, the first leg of my Asian Invasion was a stop off for a few days in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo is exactly like everything you have ever seen and read about it. It is the future and the past coexisting next to one another. You can walk by a pair of skyscrapers that set the standard for what the future of architecture will look like, and then sandwiched in between these two buildings will be an ancient Bushido temple that has been there for hundreds of years. Everything is clean, everyone wears black and white apparel for the most part, and everyone takes honor in displaying respect for one another.
I first arrived at Narita Airport, which is located a little longer than an hour away from downtown Tokyo by train. I got into the airport around 4 p.m., so I was still able to see the countryside while in transit from the airport to my hostel located in Kuramae, Taito-ku. My train stop was only about a block and a half from my hostel, which made getting around super simple and super fast. The name of the hostel was called Nui. Hostel & Bar Lounge, Tokyo. I highly recommend staying here whether you’re alone or as a couple. It is very quiet compared to most hostels, it has social areas located on the top floor, and it has a beautiful lobby that has a bar made from a 1,000-year-old tree. The hostel definitely lives up to Japanese quality standards for a very affordable price.
I arrived at the hostel and checked in. The sun was setting, so I wanted to go see the Tokyo I had seen in Blade Runner and the futuristic movie backdrops I had seen since I was a kid. I headed out of my hostel, caught the underground, and headed straight to the Akihabara district. Akihabara is an epicenter for the latest electronics. Dozens upon dozens of ten-story or taller buildings that are full of the latest technology, ranging from 3D TVs to drones to high-tech spyware. You don’t have to travel very far to see technology and neon signs in Tokyo, but Akihabara is where you go if you’re a gadget geek. I was just getting a feel for what I was looking at for prices and options because I didn’t want to spend all my money on the first night.
After catching a mild case of cataracts from all the flashing gadgets, I decided to head over to the Shibuya district for some authentic sushi. Shibuya is famous for its night clubs but most importantly for its world-famous intersection crossing. Around 2,500 people cross that intersection every time the signal changes. That’s about 45,000 people every 30 minutes.
As you walk by hundreds of different sushi shops, the streets are lined with girls dressed like anime handing out fliers. I don’t speak a lot of Japanese, but I know enough to see drink and sushi specials. So I stepped off the street onto this very narrow wooden staircase that led to a subterranean, very authentic-looking Japanese restaurant. There were about 10 tiny booths for two people and then a sushi bar that could only hold five people. I looked at the menu and quickly realized that the sushi in Japan is not commonly rolled like it is here in the states. The fish is thinly sliced and placed on small, warm, hand-molded mounds of white rice with a side of wasabi and steamed veggies. I’m not fish person at all, but I like sushi because it’s a mixture of many flavors (rice,seaweed,cucumber, etc.), and this was the best sushi I ever had. It’s not expensive, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to raise your standards in sushi. After dinner, I caught the train back to my hostel to retire for the night.
The next morning, I woke up early, made a pot of tea, and went to the roof to see the sun rise in the land of the rising sun. After my serene morning start, I headed out to see some Tokyo culture. My first mission was to find my electronic heaven on earth, better known as the Sony Headquarters. The Sony Headquarters is located in the Ginza district, which is also known for its high-end fashion shopping district. I got to Sony just as they were opening and proceeded from floor to floor to see flagship items that at that time were not yet released to the western world. I got to experience virtual reality that we are just now starting to scratch the surface of here in the states. After leaving Sony, I headed out to do some Tokyo-style gambling with a little Pachinko.
My first mission was to find my electronic heaven on earth, better known as the Sony Headquarters. The Sony Headquarters is located in the Ginza district, which is also known for its high-end fashion shopping district. I got to Sony just as they were opening and proceeded from floor to floor to see flagship items that at that time were not yet released to the western world. I got to experience virtual reality that we are just now starting to scratch the surface of here in the states. After leaving Sony, I headed out to do some Tokyo-style gambling with a little Pachinko.
Pachinko is a game where you purchase ball bearings to insert into a slot machine-like contraption. You control the rate at which the balls shoot up vertically and then fall through pegs to land on the number that pays out in games tickets. See, gambling in Tokyo is technically illegal, so to get around that, you walk into a Pachinko gaming facility and buy ball bearings with Japanese Yen and then use those ball bearings to play the game. After you are done playing, you take your ball bearings back to the cashier, and they give you a receipt. You then take that receipt to a booth located directly outside or just around the corner from the gaming facility to a person in a booth behind blacked-out glass who swaps your receipt for cash. It’s a gambling loophole that the government turns a blind eye to. To be honest, I was in the gaming room for only 20 minutes, lost 20 dollars, and had no idea what the hell I was doing. Imagine playing a slot machine crossed with a Street Fighter game and all the action is controlled by the tension you place on a knob. It was visually stimulating to say the least, and now I can check off gambling Pachinko in Tokyo from my bucket list.
After Pachinko, I wanted so see Mount Fuji, but my tight time schedule didn’t permit me to travel to mountain and back in time, even with high-speed rail. So I went to to the highest point in Tokyo, the Tokyo Tower! It is basically an orange Eiffel Tower but less crowded, quicker to the top, and cheaper entrance fee. When I got to the top of Tokyo Tower, I was hoping to be greeted by a picturesque view of the Mount Fuji, but to my dismay, there was just enough haze to not get a picture worthy photo. I did, however, see how vast and big Tokyo really is. I was also surprised to he so many rooftop helicopter pads and tennis courts. There are roughly 8.5 million people in New York City and more than 13.6 million people living in Tokyo. I’ve been to a lot of big cities all around the world, but Tokyo is by far the cleanest, fastest, and safest of any metropolis I have ever seen.
Upon leaving Tokyo Tower, I wandered my way into an ancient, traditional Japanese tea house. I had my afternoon tea (I don’t really drink coffee) and then headed back to my hostel for some R&R. I rested for a couple hours, grabbed some noodles from the noodle shop around the corner from my hostel, and then went back to sleep to let my jet lag catch up. I was only a few days into my Asian invasion that would last a month across four countries, so I needed some rest.
The next morning was the beginning of my last day in Tokyo and was my designated historical culture day. I started off by walking to the Sensō-ji temple located near my hostel in the Asakusa district.
There is a big marketplace leading up to the temple that sells all types of Japanese souvenirs. There are many beautiful shrines between the entrance and the main temple. After viewing the beauty of Buddhism captured in this these temples, I headed back to the shopping area to buy a souvenir (or as I like to call them, “conversation pieces”).
I call them conversation pieces because the piece of history I bring back from the country is not just a refrigerator magnet but something that really captures the eye and usually costs a pretty price as well. The conversation piece I was looking for in Japan was real Japanese steel. Real Japanese steel in the form of a samurai sword and katana set. I highly recommended doing your homework before buying a Japanese sword set. Just like any other country, there are cheap knock offs that look good from a distance but crap up close. Let’s just say my set wasn’t cheap, it was tempered properly, and has real shark bone hand-carved handles.
After Sensō-ji, I went to see the Emperor of Japan or at least walk around his house, The Japanese Imperial Palace. The Emperor of Japan is just a figurehead, much as the Queen of England is. The palace is located in the heart of Tokyo and serves as a very popular route for avid runners.
As you pass the the enormous wood doors, you approach the guard booth that provides you with a token. It is free to get in, but you must return the token to the exit guard, or you’re not leaving the palace. Three quarters of the grounds are beautiful cherry blossom trees and bonsai-trimmed juniper plants. You get to see the guard towers and the archers stand as well as many zen gardens.
Upon leaving the palace, I went to complete the final stop on my Tokyo tour, Hello Kitty Heaven. Every girl/woman I’ve ever met loves Hello Kitty, so I decided to grab a souvenir for my niece. I passed by a shawarma joint earlier that I wanted to try, and it just happened to be near a Hello Kitty Heaven. I bought my niece an arm bag covered with kitties and Japanese calligraphy; she went wild when she saw it! After I mailed my swords and Hello Kitty bag to myself in states, I headed back to the hostel to pack my stuff to head off for Bangkok in the morning.
When I came back to my hostel, I discovered that not only is the lobby bar cool enough to attract backpackers but local Japanese businessmen as well. After sitting at the bar for about 20 minutes, I was invited to drink with a group of Japanese men, all dressed in black suits, white button-down shirts, and black ties. They asked me about America and my travels, and I asked them about Japanese business tactics. After many warm sakes, we bowed to each other, and I retired for the night.
The next morning, I woke up, drank my tea, watched the sun rise, and then caught the train to Haneda Airport to say sayonara to Tokyo and the blissful land of Japan.