If you’re looking to experience Tokyo from an offbeat, street-wise perspective, then read today’s guest post from Mike at Previously Bitten. Mike’s blog is named after the Travel Bug that bit him and inspired his backpacking trip to Tokyo.
It was exactly one year ago that I had just confirmed my travel plans for Tokyo. Back then I was flipping through travel books (much as I hate to admit it, I bought three. I was limited to this option. Now I understand there are other tools available for me.
So what was this tool? What is this new resource? Travel blogs. The kind that you’re reading right now. They are full of information that is directed to a specific audience; they try to convey a personal and human love of a city, a place or a culture.They do not simply direct you to the same places every other tourist has been before. So I hope to help you in setting up your own path perhaps incorporating some less than obvious sites from Tokyo into the mix.
Ten Offbeat experiences in Tokyo
1. Harajuku Graffiti
Everybody visits Harajuku. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a wonderfully Japanese experience on a warm Sunday evening. The Elvises are out and about, girls are dancing with poodle skirts, and kids run around dressed like robots, or burn victims, or little girls in a sexually confused Eighteen hundreds United Kingdom. But that seems to be all people experience. I’ve watched people walk out of the subway, stare across at the Snoopy Mega-store, best avoided, and turn towards the bridge. There they will take their pictures, make some comments, perhaps grab a “free hug” and then get right back on the train.
There is a whole culture that is being neglected. Heading East into the streets, laneways, and alleys will give you access to a word of unprecedented street art and Graffiti. There is a style to Japanese graffiti that is unique to the country alone. And while some artists embrace it, others branch out creating a more universal image. As graffiti is always changing, and always being taken down, painted over, and created anew there are no specific directions that I can give you here. But, walking around in a virtually crime free city, during the day time? You’ll have no worries as you explore the environment and make new finds all of your own.
Ready that camera again: there’s more here than just Harajuku girls.
2. Nakano Broadway
If you’re looking for Manga, or previously unknown candy, or just a change of scenery I would recommend heading to Nakano Broadway. It’s straight up the road from the station exit, you can’t miss it. Now, obviously, I had to miss it. Any time instructions are simple, I’m sure to mess them up. But this put me in the middle of a wine festival where people were buying like mad, and smashing bottles every time they turned around.
Across the street was a large bike lot, where you could leave your bicycle until you needed it. As I paused for a moment, I noticed two high school boys setting up guitar amplifiers, and opening up their gig bags. For the next twenty minutes I listened to brain melting guitar solos interspersed with cascading melodies that evoked powerful emotions. Yes, I eventually found the mall. Yes it too was wonderful. But those moments, as I bumbled around were some of the most memorable from all my trip.
3. Day Trip to Kamakura
Japan is a system built on rails. And it’s fantastic. Because of the interconnectedness of all the towns, an inexpensive train ticket will pull you from the rush of the Japanese epic-centre and settle you in the small town of Kamakura. The town itself is relatively small, and perhaps easy to overlook. However, they are home to one of the worlds largest Buddhas.
For a nominal fee, you can make your way through the temple gates, and gaze as the casting, towering above you – seemingly untouched for hundreds of years. For the almost laughable price of ten yen, you can enter into the Buddha and walk around. For over four hundred years it has rested here. In 2004 a couple from America wrote their names inside. Graffiti in Harajuku? It’s beautiful. But the irresponsible tag here? It’s just upsetting.
4. Visit the Water in Odaiba
Remember to see the beach. Well, if not the beach, then the water. A train to Odaiba will allow you the privilege of gazing at the Fuji TV building. More of a skeleton with a globe somehow suspended, it is an architectural masterpiece. But why stop there? Take a look at the Statue of Liberty (wait – what?).
Yes, a replica of the Statue of Liberty stands proudly in Odaiba. Be sure to take a picture of it, or have a friendly local – dozens of them will be posing in the area, with peace signs held high – to grab a shot of you with it. Don’t forget to put your first two fingers up! Cheese-o!
5. Explore Seedy Akihabara
Those who know Akihabara need not read on. You understand this place. Don’t you? To be honest, I thought I knew what I was in for. I had read all the stories, and done my research. But Akihabara is so much more. It is the worst parts of the internet come to life, right before your very eyes.
Hentai Pornography lurks in every alley. Posters are proudly displayed for small booths selling the latest DVDs, but it doesn’t stop there. Every building you walk into will seem normal at first. Some new accessories for your Nintendo DS, a flashy memory card for your camera phone, a micro sized piece of every day tech you’ve known and loved for years. But beware, for Tokyo is a city built up.
There are elevators in these buildings. The higher you press on these lifts, the more obscene your world becomes. Press button five and you may end up with nothing more than near naked anime girls. But continue on to floor seven, and you will be faced with businessmen searching, shoulder to shoulder, through discount bins of naughty comic books. And if you dare to push all the way up to the top floor? Well, there you will find costumes of all sorts, best kept to the bed room, and toys the likes of which you never could have dreamed.
But Akihabara is not all overly sexualized. No. It is a video game lovers paradise. Two words: Super Potato. You can’t miss it. It has the giant 8bit Mario and Pac-Man art on the front. You’ll be taken back in time when NES games were new, and shrink wrapped and… cost eight thousand yen? Wow. It really is 1988 in there. Still, it’s the closest you’ll ever come to a video game museum.
6. Wandering the Shibuya Alleys
When you disembark the train at Shibuya station you will be overcome by the giant crossing infront of you. But do not cross, and get lost in the madness. No: Turn right! Walk up the hill, and find the love hotels. These will surprise and delight you with all manner of names. My favourite? Hotel White Box.
But once again, do not limit yourself to these often visited destinations. Walk the alley ways, and get lost for an hour. It was here that I saw the most bizarre thing in my life. A dance battle. A real life dance battle.
A group of similarly dressed youth approached another teenager, seemingly at random. They started shouting at him, and then began to dance in tandem. This kid, not to take things lightly, threw off his jacket. From nowhere three of his friends appeared. They too were in matching clothes. They were not going to just take this affront, no. They danced back. The battle raged on for ten minutes before one group left, admonished, and beaten. A real life dance battle, with battlers battling in their own natural habitat. Only in Tokyo!
7. Using the Toilet
We’ve all had our share of toilet related travel tales. I’ve read about the luxurious restrooms the hotels in newcastle have and I’ve also heard stories about the dreadful toilets in gas stations and drive throughs. But it’s only in Tokyo that I’ve found such juxtaposing washrooms so close together. In Ginza you will find the Sony Building. Go in, browse around, take in a tech demo and check out all the latest gizmos. But please do not leave before using their washroom.
The toilet has all number of buttons on it. Some super heat the seat, others send a jet of water at your rear, still more control the temperature of that water. Play with them all. Expand your horizons, but beware: when you’ve set the jet on, and you can’t stand up less water rushes everywhere, it’s probably best not to turn the temperature to thermonuclear, unless you know how to turn it down once again. Mistakes? They were made.
Once you’ve left, continue down the street, away from the subway. Less than a kilometer later, you will come to a public washroom. Go inside, check that one out. A rusted squat toilet with no paper, and broken pipes is all you will find. Remember though, this is all in the name of cultural experiences.
8. Discovering the Best Sashimi
Located at 3-2-9 Nishi Shinjuku is Zauo Sushi. This is the best uncooked meat you will ever devour in your life. Stepping inside the restaurant you will notice that tables are laid out on a boat, surrounded by a moat. In that moat are fish; in that moat is your dinner.
A man at the door with pass you a fishing rod, and some squid for bait. It’s now your job to work for your meal. Don’t be afraid though, as the fish are mostly unfed catching one is not a problem. And when you do? Well – fish don’t come any fresher than this.
Be warned though, this is not for the squeamish. When your meal comes to you, you will have a plate presented, with the meat cut off. The fish, too, will be on the plate, skewered by a wooding rod, still twitching. Watching as you eat it. Once you are done, the fish body is deep fried, and you begin to eat once more.
9. Exploring Ikebukuro
Tired of the loud streets and bustling neighbourhoods in Tokyo? Take a brief trip to Ikebukuro. There you will find calm, peace, and serenity. Not to mention an abundance of ninety nine cent yen stores.
Walking those back alleys transports you away from Tokyo to a simpler time, without removing the city atmosphere. Whenever possible, I will try to stay in this district. At the end of a long day, there’s nothing better than walking home in the silence created by parties going on everywhere, but where you are.
10. Drinking too Much
If you want to experience the culture of Modern Japan you need to drink. I would never force this on anyone, but I do stress the importance of it.
These are the people that created a Sake can that self-heats to optimal drinking temperature when you pull a tab at the bottom. These are the people that place vending machines on every other corner stocked with cans full of beer, rum and coke, whiskey and water, and flower flavoured booze. Did I mention that there are other vending machines that sell 26oz bottles of hard liquor?
Drink or don’t. That’s up to you. But by all means, appreciate the significance of these landmarks.
There’s so much more to explore. Shinjuku at night, Golden Gai, the shrines located just off the main streets. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I wouldn’t want to spoil everything. Sometimes just getting off the train, and allowing yourself to safely get lost is the best way to enjoy a city. Discover landmarks all your own. But please, if you wouldn’t mind, drop me an email at tokyomike3(at)gmail(dot)com and let me in on your secret.
Like what you saw and read? You can read more by the author / photographer over at Previously Bitten , which is updated multiple times a week. The blog is hosted by a twenty-something year old high school teacher. After years of teaching, he’s ready to get off the proverbial treadmill of life, and take a year to travel the world. On September 2009 he will embark on a journey that will touch all seven continents, and over thirty countries. His preparation, journey, and past travel tales are all waiting for you to read.
trav.el bug [trav-uhl buhg]
1. something that bites, forever altering the course of your life.
Al photos by Mike at Previously Bitten