12 Apr 2018

Tokyo: How Can it Be So Clean?

I hadn’t been to Tokyo since I was 16 and visiting my friend and her family who were living here at the time. I was curious what I would remember and how much it would have changed in the last 10ish years. Turns out I didn’t remember as much as I thought I would, though it definitely felt familiar.

The first impression you get is just how many people live here. Then it sinks in that so many people live here and yet it is so clean and orderly. How do they do it? I lived in New York for graduate school and couldn’t get over how trash was just piled on the sidewalk for days waiting to be picked up. In Tokyo it is rare to even see a discarded plastic bag floating in the wind.

Pro-tip: If you want to fit in with all the ladies in Japan, carry a small towel with you. Bathrooms will rarely have paper towels and so everyone just pulls out cute little towels from their purses to dry their hands instead. I had a washcloth I’d packed that did the trick. I think I’ll just keeping carrying it going forward too because so often there aren’t paper towels plus not using them is more sustainable anyway. Now I just need to find a cute patterned one.

What We Did in Tokyo

Tokyo is huge and with just under a week, we saw a lot but still couldn’t really do it justice.

Day 1: When we arrived in Tokyo on our bullet train from Osaka, we had not taken into account that it would be rush hour. We had no choice but to cram ourselves into the unbelievably tightly packed train toward our neighborhood. Trains here run like clockwork but with so many people trying to get to and fro, it is inevitable that there will be crowds. Still even on the most crowded subway ride I’ve ever taken, it was nothing compared to this. People would file in and then as it clearly became full, people at the door do a heave-ho motion and cram another wave of people in. All this might not have been so bad if it weren’t for our backpacks but we decided that it would be worth it to just walk 15 minutes to our Airbnb rather than transferring and trying to squeeze onto another train.

Enjoying the cherry blossoms in our neighborhood along with everyone else...

After settling into our Airbnb we were able to stop into a very nice supermarket a few blocks away to stock up on breakfast foods before heading to dinner to eat our first bowl of ramen in Tokyo (more on that later).

Day 2 To dive straight into the business of Tokyo, our first stop was Shibuya and the infamous intersection where thousands of people cross during the day in a giant scramble. It’s fun to watch the mass of humanity move with all the bobbing and weaving to cross to your exit but Shibuya is also full of restaurants and shops, so there was much more to see and we did so wandering up and down streets mostly at random.

Shibuya Crossing

From there, we continued north through Yoyogi Park and onto Harajuku to get a taste of Tokyo’s “cute” culture. On Takeshita Street, we were completely overwhelmed by the glitzy, glittering trinkets and crazy shirts with psychedelic cats on them but even more overwhelmed by the intense smell of sugar. There are crepe stands and candy stores and even another branch of the giant cotton candy cones we’d first seen in Osaka. How cotton candy as big as a beach ball hasn’t made it’s way to the US, or how I’ve missed it, I’ll never know.

Nate didn’t last very long in the streets of Harajuku before he was ready to head somewhere with a lower concentration of “stupid tourist crap.” So we headed back toward the apartment to rest our feet after covering almost 10 miles already that day.

Day 3: For our third day, we visited the Imperial Palace. You can reserve a spot in advance to actually go through some of the buildings that are open to the public on a tour but we didn’t have our act together enough for that, so we just enjoyed the grounds. The palace was destroyed, like so many things, during WWII but was since rebuilt in the original style. The grounds have plenty of wide grassy lawns where families were enjoying their weekends and the pleasant spring weather as well as cherry blossoms. You can also see the massive stone walls that survived and would have protected the castle.

From the palace grounds it is only a short walk to Ginza. Giza is the ritzy part of the city full of designer shops and the only place where we saw both a Maserati and a Lamborghini causally out driving around. We obviously could not afford to go shopping here but there are wide avenues to walk down and take a look at the budget-busting wares that other people apparently buy.

Day 4: We finally got to use the baseball tickets that Nate purchased from a convenience store vending machine back in Osaka. We saw two of Tokyo’s teams, the Yakult Swallows and the Giants, face off. With both teams being from Tokyo and the Giants being so popular, the stands were pretty evenly split between the bright orange of Giants fans and the neon green of home-team Swallows fans.

We had stopped before the game to pick up sushi and snacks for the game at Tokyo Foodshow and at a grocery store right by the stadium for beers. Unlike at games back in DC, you can bring your own beer with you to games. All you have to do is transfer the beer from the can you brought to a paper cup when you get to the game. This meant that we were able to pay less than half of what beers were selling for if you bought them from the women with small kegs in backpacks walking around the stadium.

The best part of the game (for me at least) was how energetic fans are. I couldn’t understand most of the chants but there was a chant for everything and when the Swallows scored a run their fans pulled out miniature umbrellas for a singing and umbrella raising number that was more entertaining than the actual baseball being played (for the record, Nate strongly disagrees with this but he is wrong).

In the end, the Swallows won to sweep the series and we left feeling very content with our afternoon.

Partially as a reward for going to the game and partially because my clothes were getting pretty worn out at this point, we stopped at Uniqlo on our way home. Before the baseball game, I’d stopped at several shops I’d found recommended online for affordable clothes but they weren’t exactly what I was looking for and didn’t hold a candle to the very stylish clothes it seems every Japanese woman wears everyday. So, I splurged a little and replaced a few things that will make me feel a little more comfortable for the non-SE Asia portion of our travels going forward and will make me look slightly less like the backpacker that I am.

Day 5: One of the top to-do items on most people’s list for Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. We had already decided that we were not dedicated enough to do the 2am wake up and trek to see the early-morning tuna auctions. Once we opted out of that, the wholesale area of the market doesn’t open to the public until 10am once all the real work is done. So, we got a slower start to our day and then headed over to check out all the fresh fish and get ourselves some sushi.

To be honest, the wholesale area was a little underwhelming. Most everything is finished for the day once they let all the tourists in (probably for our own good with all the fork-lift type equipment zipping around and all the chopping and slicing of fish everywhere). So, I can understand the reason for caution but it still means that most of the stalls are already dark and empty.

Outside the wholesale area is a completely different story though. There are hundreds of people crowding into little alleys full of sushi restaurants, shops full of cooking utensils and supplies, and souvenirs. We wandered around looking for snacks but only tried on piece of egg sushi that tasted like how I remember the eggs on a McDonalds breakfast tray tasting when they got some of the syrup from the pancakes on them. It sounds weird and it is a little but I enjoyed it. We knew when we arrived that we would be by-passing the expensive sushi restaurants, including the ones with hour long lines, to visit Motodane a family restaurant tucked in an alley away from the crowds. I have to give full credit to Migrationology’s blog post about Tsukiji street food for this find. It is a tiny place and you should be prepared for a zero-English environment. We came prepared with pictures of the dishes we wanted from the reviews online and it worked perfectly. If not, just point at the sign for whatever price you’d like to pay and regardless of what they bring you, it will be delicious.


After filling our bellies, we took a meandering walk through Ginza’s fancy shopping streets again and then all the way to Tokyo Tower. The tower itself has attractions inside but we mostly just wanted to take a look at the area and then move on. You can go up to an observation deck but there is a fee and we’d already found a free option at the Metropolitan Government Building.

Tokyo Tower

Day 6: We started our day a little later than usual while we caught up on some thing in the apartment. So, our first stop was for lunch at Genki Sushi, a popular spin on running sushi where you order from a tablet and your sushi is delivered to you on a conveyor belt. We were able to completely fill our bellies and try a bunch of different kinds of sushi for about 20 USD total, not bad in a city known for its high prices!

Our next stop was going to the the observation deck at the Metropolitan Government Building but our route took us back toward Yoyogi Park and since we didn’t have the energy to check out the Meiji Jingu Shrine the last time we were there, we decided to pass through on our way. The shrine was built to honor Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who opened Japan to outside influences after the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is surrounded by lush forrest and has wide paths for you to meander along on your way to the shrine.

From there, we made our way to the Metropolitan Government Building’s observation deck on the 45th floor. Entrance is free and you just have to wait a short while for your turn to take the elevator. While the views were great, though too cloudy to see Mt Fuji, it reaffirmed that it really isn’t worth it to us to go somewhere just for views, especially if you have to pay for it. We stayed around 10 minutes and since it was free we enjoyed it but we were glad we didn’t pay to go up in the Tokyo Tower to see the views.

Our final stop for the day was going to be the Shinjuku Goyen National Garden. Unlike many of the parks in Tokyo, there is a small entrance fee of 200 yen (1.90 USD) but it was completely worth it. The park is beautiful, especially with many of the cherry blossoms still in bloom. I was able to fully indulge my love of the fluffy pink and white flowers one last time before we head to China and Nate only got a little frustrated with how many stops I made to take pictures of the pretty trees.

Even though our legs were starting to get tired and we had crossed the 10 mile mark, we still pushed on to check out Golden Gai. Golden Gai is a set of about 4 streets lined on both sides with tiny bars. We were a little early for happy hour and so it was mostly abandoned. Given that most places had sizable cover charges, we probably would have skipped these bars anyway but it is a cool area. As we were leaving three loud and clearly American men showed up already drinking from beers they brought with them and yelling that people should watch out because they were filming a YouTube video…

Day 7: Our flight on our final day wasn’t until late afternoon, so rather than killing time in the apartment and then heading to the airport we stored our bags at the train station and set off for a couple more sights.

First stop was Ueno Park. We were running a little later than we had hoped and so we grabbed bento boxes to eat for lunch in the park. Unfortunately, it was extremely blustery with petals from all the pretty flowers, small stones, and pollen whizzing through the air every few minutes. We ate lunch and wandered the park a little but pretty quickly had to give up as the wind was blowing so much pollen around that my eyes were starting to get itchy.

Ueno Park

We didn’t have time to visit the panda at the Ueno Zoo but at just 600 yen, entrance is a steal compared to the 700 yen entrance to see the nearby peony garden. I like pretty flowers as much as most people but would never pay more to see them than a panda.

From there, we made a brief stop at Roppongi Hills to visit Maman, the giant spider statue. Strangely, this statue really sticks out in my memory of my last visit to Tokyo, possibly because I find the giant egg sack creepy but I still wanted to visit, even if it was just a short one. After that, all that was left was our train ride to the airport.

Despite remembering Maman so vividly, the photo on the left is the best one I have of my 2007 visit.

For all these adventures we did take the train a few times, even getting to so so for free many times with our JR train passes, but mostly we walked. While we were in Tokyo we averaged 10.6 miles per day with one day where we walked almost 14 miles. Needless to say, walking around Tokyo is easy with spacious sidewalks and plenty of interesting things to see along the way. It was a very nice change of pace from our time in India but we may have been to excited about being able to walk around and overdone it a bit.

All of the Ramen

I didn’t mention it before but we ate a lot of ramen. Partially because it was cheap, partially because hot soup sounded good when the temperature dropped at night, and partially because I think it may be Nate’s favorite food whether he admits it or not.

Nate in his bib at Oreryu Shio-Ramen, Afuri Ramen, and Ippudo Ramen.

I’m not actually sure we went a single day without eating ramen. Nate also had instant ramen almost everyday for breakfast. Eating it twice a day and he still didn’t get tired of it. I rest my case on this being his favorite food.

Ramen restaurants we tried:

  • Afuri by Naka-Meguro subway station: This was the only ramen place we actually waited in line to visit. It’s not as laid back as the other places we ate and the ramen wasn’t our favorite. I’m still kicking myself for not spending the extra money to try their vegan ramen though.
  • Tokyo Kimaru near Ginza: We stumbled in here because we got hungry wandering around, so we knew nothing about it going in. The ramen was unremarkable, though tasty, but the one remarkable part was that they kept a large container of garlic on the table ready to be pressed into your ramen. There is no such thing as enough garlic in my opinion and I’m glad they prepared for that.
  • Shiromaru-Base in Shibuya: The broth here was excellent. I had the shoyu (soy sause) based broth and Nate got their classic. His broth was so thick that just eating the noodles out of it so much stuck to them that his bowl was almost empty when he finished. No slurping for him.
  • Oreryu Shio-Ramen (twice) first in Meguro and then in Shibuya: This was our favorite for ramen toppings because Nate could get both pork and fried chicken on his and they had a pickled plum ramen that I liked. I’ve found that I’m obsessed with pickled plums. They are amazing and I am going to have to figure out where to get them back in the US. The broth didn’t have the same depth of flavor as other spots though.

For making it to the end of the post you get the added bonus of some throw-back photos of 16 year old me in Tokyo for the first time. You're welcome.

How We Did with Our Budget

For our time in Tokyo, we had budgeted as much as 90 USD a night for accommodations. We ended up spending 91 USD per night for our Airbnb near the Naka-Meguro subway station in Tokyo, which included a small kitchenette and everything we needed. It was bigger than our place in Osaka but not quite as tidy.

We had also budgeted 20 USD per day per person for food and 15 USD per day per person for entertainment. Out of that planned 70 USD total, we ended up spending 63 USD per day on average, including almost a 75 USD trip to UNIQLO to help Amy refresh her trip clothes now that we’re exiting beaches and deserts and heading to more metropolitan destinations. We ate one meal of ramen every day, which was always right around 9-10 USD per person.

For our time in Japan overall, we ended up almost exactly on-budget spending a grand total of 8 USD less than we had budgeted. We had also budgeted separately for a fancy dinner out which never materialized, so look forward to using that elsewhere instead.