Bleary eyed and groggy, I landed in Narita Airport over an hour late and thought solely of the nap that awaited. Before sleeping, I needed cash. The next two hours gifted me uncertainty, confusion, and panic: classic travel emotions.
Four International ATMs rejected my Taiwanese bank card. Annoyed, I inserted my Bank of America card. “ENTER PIN” flashed on the screen. My eyes darted left and right as I thought, “What is my pin number?” I tested three variations of four numbers, all rejected.
As the panic settled, I reached out to those who could help: Krystal (my sister) and Peter with watery eyes and a quivered voice. Krystal called Bank of America on my behalf – bless her – but they were closed. Simultaneously, Peter sent pictures of password journal (I know, very unsafe) so I could access my accounts online, but he only had 10 minutes to spare.
Uncertain of what to do next, I walked into the bathroom, locked the door, sat on the ground, and cried. In between snotty gasps, I recalled the Taiwanese cash sitting in my wallet. I wiped my tears, converted the cash for ¥5000 ($45), and purchased the cheapest train ticket to Nippori Station ¥1030 ($9.29).
Yuki, the friend I was meeting in Tokyo, agreed to front me cash that I could transfer at a later date.
Much, much later than expected, I arrived to the hotel miffed but excited to explore Tokyo. Sara, Yuki, and I left our hotel in Nippori and shuttled to Shibuya, where we ate impeccable yet affordable conveyor-belt sushi for ¥1000 ($9).
As I walked through the narrow and neon-light streets of Shibuya, I gawked at the towering, sleek skyscrapers and the brand-name street fashion surrounding me. Tokyo is rich. Though the people are respectful and quiet, their architecture + fashion speaks volumes.
Once we ate dinner and looked through a few clothing stores, we agreed to sit down and have some cocktails in Shinjuku Golden Gai. This quaint, traditional neighborhood is hidden among the bright mega towers in Shinjuku. Since the buildings are owned by local families, there were strict rules posted along the sidewalks, such as: no photography, no loud noise, and no loitering.
The size of each bar equated to a dorm room, maybe even smaller; only 10 people could sit comfortably. What they lacked in size was made up in unique styles and moods.
We skipped the bars charging ¥700 ($6.25) to enter and settled into one owned by an elderly Japanese couple with ¥700 drinks. I sipped on sake in a dimly lit wooden room, squeezed next to strangers from France, Canada and Spain, and listened to Santana blast from the T.V. overhead.
Technically, this photograph is against the rules of the neighborhood (Photo taken on Samsung Galaxy S8).
Next stop: Bar Sono. We greeted three Germans playing card games, then filled the remaining seats. The narrow width of the room allowed us to comfortably lean against the back wall while sitting on the stools at the bar (as pictured). Here, we helped ourselves to two more drinks and laughed at cheesy comics and stand-up joke premises.
Buzzed and hungry, we ventured through Shinkjuku to find a second Cremia ice-cream cone of the evening (the richest, smoothest vanilla ice-cream I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating twice in one day). We walked around in a haze, again, gawking at the bright lights, modern architecture, and supreme organization of a city that is Tokyo.
Hungry from drinking and walking, it was the perfect time to fulfill the Ramen craving. We entered a small restaurant covered with fish decor that served an incredibly salty bowl of pork and fish Ramen. (I’m fairly certain I ate at this exact spot in February with Peter.) Mid-meal, Yuki checked Google Maps to find our way back home, only to realize the majority of trains stopped running at midnight. The last train would be leaving in 10 minutes, and would only takes us halfway to Nippori. We dropped our chop-sticks and rushed towards the closest station.
We made the last train, but we still had to hail a taxi. En route to the taxi station, I passed a supine man blacked out next to the men’s restrooms. Upon closer inspection, he soiled himself. I wasn’t so much alarmed by his public intoxication, but by the nonchalance of others walking past him. As if he was either a) regular sight b) too embarrassing to help. The only other human to acknowledge the sleeping man was another drunk. (I still feel a tinge of guilt for snapping this photo).
Adjacent to the station exit, a bright street lamp boasted a “Taxi” sign. Underneath the light stood a hushed, swaying line of tipsy individuals. On the street, a rank of taxis patiently waited to drive up to their customer. Not an experienced taxi patron, the organization really impressed me. Though the ride cost us ¥3000 ($26), I enjoyed experience Tokyo traffic on the left side of the streets in a shiny, black Toyota Comfort.
Sluggish from the night before, we headed to an artsy and hip cafe-art-event space, Hagiso, later than expected. In Yuki’s words, this place was “total hipster nonsense.” I loved it.
The combination of cool concrete walls, dark wooden beams and tables, and large windows with natural light created a minimalist, warm, and luxurious atmosphere. It made the entire 2.5 hours dining experience float by.
Since this was Sara’s last day, we spent our day scouting locations to purchase souvenirs. First stop: Ginza.
After window shopping in a designer mall that resembled a modern art museum, we headed off to Japan’s oldest stationary store, Itoya. This 111-year-old store housed eight floors of stationary materials from journals, to $150,0000 pens, craft papers, and so, so much more. I walked out with a mere turquoise bullet journal and a 10 pack of pens that I adore.
Hungry from the hours of shopping, we walked to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We were all excited to see the market in operation and eat fresh seafood. I admit, we showed up a later than suggested, but none of us expected what we saw.
First, we assumed the market was open-aired and centered in one giant space. Instead, it was a typical block with rows of store fronts.
Second, we thought business would be bustling and selling raw fish. Instead, most shops were closed, and those that were open were simply restaurants serving dinner.
Disappointed that we didn’t see a lively market with fish vendors, we rushed through the neighborhood and sought a Yakiniuku restaurant (Japanese BBQ).
I’ve never had Yakiniku, so I let Sara and Yuki take the reigns deciding the meats and grilling. We ordered beef tongue, short rib, and pork loin. Honestly, the meal slightly disappointed me. I expected more flavor or sauces. Sadly, it was plain tasting veggies and meat. Plus, it wasn’t enough food for me; I left hungry and ready for a second dinner.
Done with shopping in fancy Ginza, we opted to play arcade games in Akihabara, which is the destination for video games, anime, and manga. Walking through the streets here is such a lively experience. There are women wearing maid costumes in the streets, hundreds of tourists from around the world, stores blasting songs, and numerous arcades. We walked through three SEGA buildings and admired the crane games prizes and Japanese gamers playing obscure games. My favorite arcade, HEY Taito, offers old school games like Parodius Da, Street Fighter II, and Puyo Puyo. I spent $10 solely playing Parodius Da.
Exhausted and ready for bed, we found our way to Nippori before the trains ended operation.
We had to stop to get one last bowl of Ramen before bed, of course!
The night before, I laid awake convinced I needed to throw up until 4 a.m. As such, I had no energy for an afternoon walk. I opted to stay in the hotel to catch up on R&R.
After we parted ways with Sara, Yuki and I ate at Yoshinaya, which he described as “The Cracker Barrel of Japan.” It’s cheap, sort of delicious, and open 24-hours.
While eating our beef bowls, we agreed to have a low-key afternoon in Ueno Park, since it’s close to our hotel in Nippori.
Ueno Park provided peaceful walking grounds to lazily stroll through. The volume of the cicadas in the surrounding trees reminded me of summers in Georgia, which felt like a comforting hug in a foreign place.
We had no intention of visiting Shinobazu Pond, a three-part pond that includes a Boat pond, Lotus pond, and Cormorant pond, but I’m glad we did.
The Lotus pond was breathtaking. Sunshine flickered on the Lotus leaves and flowers which covered the entire surface of the pond. Framing the pond were giant, beautiful weeping willows whose long leaves danced in the wind.
Past the Lotus pond lay the Boat pond where customers could rent a boat for ¥600 ($5.35). I looked at Yuki and laughed “why the heck not?” For 30 minutes, we chastised ducks and peddled circles around the tiny pond.
We stumbled across Ameyoko, a busy street market located below and alongside the Yamanote Line between the Ueno and Okachimachi stations. The open-aired stores sold brand name shoes, clothes, accessories, and food. It resembled night markets in Taiwan, but the stores sold high quality goods instead. I bought a matcha whisk, bowl, and light pink high top Vans here!
Wanting a light meal we agreed on sushi. All plates cost ¥150 ($1.35) and the only available options whiz past you. Hands down, the best sushi in my life.
Content from our serene afternoon, we headed back to the hotel to end our evening early.
We planned to meet Yuki’s friend, Lyna, at Shinjuku Station by 2 p.m. Beforehand, I suggested we shop in Harajuku, which is close to the Shibuya station.
Somehow we missed the Shibuya station and exited at Shinjuku station. No problem; there were used film camera stores I wanted to search through.
The two camera stores we visited had the exact same setup: all four enclosing walls were covered in ground-to-ceiling glass cases stuffed with film camera bodies, lens, and accessories. Separating the tiny room were four aisles of ground-to-ceiling glass cases holding even more camera gear. The stores organized the cameras by country of production, and ranged in prices from $15-$1,200.
I wanted to come back to Taiwan with a manual focus film camera that cost close to $100. I found just that: the Praktica BCA, which cost ¥13200 ($119.20) including credit card tax, and two batteries.
After eating a quick, and simple fried pork curry, I inserted a roll of film and immediately started shooting.
Yuki and I then proceeded to do something really stupid.
It never crossed our minds during the 20 minute commute from Shinjuku to Shibuya or during the 15 minute search for Lyna at the Shibuya station, that we went to the wrong station. Lyna sent a screen shot of the original plan and we realized our mistake. We needed to meet at Shinjinku…the station we left… Talk about SMDH.
Once we found Lyna, we settled in a coffee shop located under Shinkjuku station and chatted for an hour. We exchanged greetings and life updates until she had to leave for Kendo practice. Lyna asked Yuki to join, considering he has practiced for years in his life, which he kindly, but adamantly refused. We agreed to watch the practice then join Lyna and the team for dinner afterwards.
Attendance was small: nine members, including the four Senseis. With such few people, Sensei cut practice short to only an hour.
Once the team showered, we headed to an Izakaya style restaurant (informal Japanese pub) also located underground the Shinjuku station. Everyone removed their shoes before stepping into the private room lined with tatami mats. At first glance, the table looked so low I thought everyone sat cross-legged. Once I knelt down, I saw four-feet of space beneath the table where legs dangled comfortably, as if seated in a regular chair.
The group ordered numerous Asahi beers, raw squid, tamagoyaki (a very fluffy and light omelette), edamame, fried chicken, and fries (for us Americans). While snacking and drinking, I was taken by surprise the amount of French and Japanese spoken at the table. Half of the group are from French-speaking countries, and the other half are Japanese. I practiced my barely-elementary French for the first time in years! I gasped “Mon Dieu” upon the raw squid delivery.
We said our goodbyes to our new acquaintances in the Shinjuku station. However, Lyna narrowly missed the last train back to her house, which is a two hour train ride away, leaving her stranded. Of course, I invited her to stay in the hotel with us.
We started our day with sandwiches and iced coffee in a little shop across the alley from our hotel.
As I feasted upon my shrimp and avocado sandwich it hit me that this meal was ~so delicious~ because it was the first time I’d eaten avocado since I moved to Asia.
Lyna, Yuki, and I spent the day walking and shopping in Shibuya. I visited a long list of vintage, thrift, and brand name stores: Don Don Down Wednesday, Flamgino, Ragtag, Naked Trump, Opening Ceremony, and a handful of other shops in Harajuku. Did I mention Tokyo is expensive? I didn’t buy much, save one belt, deodorant, and a hair straightener.
We walked in 89 degree, cloudless day, with low humidity and a breeze always around the corner.
Guess what we ate for a late lunch…Ramen!
For our final destination of the day: Purikura Land (photo sticker booth) on Takeshida Street. This brightly lit, and colorful basement held 10+ photo booth machines and well-dressed teens giggling over their adorably edited photos.
We posed for six photographs in a large, brightly lit room, then migrated to an attached room to edit the photos. We added bunny ears, hearts, Japanese phrases, big purple eyes, and so much more to our photos.
To celebrate our last evening in Japan, Lyna spent the night with us again! We stayed up listening to music, drawing blind portraits of one another, and drinking Asahi tall boys.
We hugged Lyna goodbye in Nippori station and started the hour train ride go Narita airport. I regret not documenting more footage of Tokyo housing. Alas, this gif will have to suffice.
I feel incredibly lucky to visit Tokyo twice in one year! (I mean, who does that?) To top it off, I visited with a friend who speaks Japanese, and I met new friends.
Originally, I wanted to do some serious clothing shopping, but I’m happy with the few items I came home with. Plus, I got to spend more money on Ramen + Sushi.