My first trip to Tokyo was also going to be one of my first solo trips. But happily some of my fellow ALT’s decided to come along and meet me about half-way through the day! Here’s a rundown of my Tokyo Adventure and some tips based on what I learned there so you can hopefully learn from my mistakes!
Not many people have heard of the Ibaraki Airport, but it offers some pretty sweet perks! Located in Omitama City towards the middle-southern part of the prefecture the airport also serves as air-base for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Their priority is keeping things low-cost so they have free parking, three consistent airlines, and several buses going north and south. What makes this place very valuable for me is the proximity (20 minute drive from me), free parking, and shuttle bus service directly to Tokyo Station (¥500 if you are an airline passenger transferring in Narita or Haneda, ¥1,000 for general). ¥1,000 to get to Tokyo is dirt cheap compared to a train! I live in a smaller town and there is no direct route to Tokyo, I would first have to go up to Mito and then down to Tokyo for about ¥3,000 total one-way. Being so cheap it’s nice to go on day trips, just remember to reserve your place on the bus in advance here and you can see the schedule and other bus destinations on the Airport website here. I leave my car in the lot and take the 06:10am bus to get to Tokyo Station at about 8:30am and come home either the next day or on the 19:20 bus that evening to get back to the airport at about 21:00.
Coming from a rather small town in Ibaraki I know that if I wear a tank top I’ll be getting a whole lot of stares on that bus so I always bring something light to throw on over it until I get to Tokyo, the land of the invisible foreigner! Seriously, it was rather nice to see other gaijin faces and to wear normal non-super-conservative clothes! Though I stared at them all a little too much for comfort sometimes, it was just so exciting!
I first considered checking out the Imperial Palace, a close walk from Tokyo Station before heading over to Ueno Park and the festival I had heard was happening there (never found that…). But eventually I decided I wanted more time to explore the Ueno area and proceeded to attempt to figure out the Tokyo train system. Dun dun duuuuun! Seriously, one look at the map and I thought I was gonna have a heart attack! Or, at the very least, somehow end up on a non-stop express to Sendai… But the signs posted everywhere in the station (in both Japanese AND English!) and the fact that I knew I needed the JR Yamanote line kept things in check. The Yamanote line makes a circle around some major parts of the city–Ueno, Tokyo, Shinjuku, Yoyogi, etc. (find more information here)– and I found out it was the green line on those rainbow maps which helped a lot!
When I got to the gates that require a ticket to pass through I had yet to find out that there were automatic machines that you choose a fare and get a ticket (with a map of your station and how much you need to pay for each stop right above them) so I found a room where you stand in line and talk to a person, and they even knew enough English to help me! Another thing I’m not used to anymore, people in public places that can help me in English and speak to me first in English! Even if I started in Japanese, they would just speak back in English. A tourist’s dream and a Japanese learners nightmare, but at that moment my overwhelmed self was glad for the help. So I proceeded to put my ticket in the gate, pick it up on the far side (Tip: DON’T forget that part or you’ll have to pay all over again when you leave your destination’s station!) and search for something that said “JR Yamanote”. Finding the platform was pretty simple really (there are signs and station maps in several languages everywhere!) and I made it to Ueno without mishap! Success!
Luckily for me, my train stopped at a platform just next to the conveniently named “Park Exit” that is quite literally just a crosswalk away from Ueno Park. It was still too early in the morning to check out the restaurants and shops in the station (there was a Pokemon store in the Tokyo station basement, seeing that still closed hurt my heart a little…) so I proceeded across the street to Ueno Park, a place that has topped my list of “Places To Go In Tokyo” since I first decided to make one! Once I was past the scores of museums I came to a large central plaza that led to the National Museum. There was a Starbuck’s (of course there was) and a cafe and the sun was blazing and the humidity was melting so I popped in to grab a way too expensive tall dark mocha frapp (shhh!) and bask in the glorious A/C in front of the huge windows framing a green paradise!
I didn’t know much about Ueno Park beforehand, I knew there were museums, I was relatively aware there was a zoo, and I knew the cherry blossoms in the spring were spectacular! But as it’s mid-summer I figured I’d walk around and marvel at all the greenery in such a big and crowded city.
Now I wish I’ d looked into some of the history behind the many shrines located here, and that I’d known this area was host to one of the largest battles between the Meiji Emperor and the Tokugawa Shogun (the Battle of Ueno) in the Boshin War (the power struggle between the two in the late 1800’s)! There is so much history here: Kaneiji Temple (built to ward off evil in the unlucky north-east direction of the Imperial Palace–the direction of the demons gate–and became one of the city’s wealthiest and largest temples in the late Edo period before most of it was destroyed in the Battle of Ueno. What was once 30 buildings is now just the main hall and the 5-story pagoda, the ruins became the grounds for the present Ueno Park) , Kiyomizu Kannon Temple (dedicated to the goddess of child-bearing and child-raising, people leave dolls representing the children they hope to have and they are all ceremoniously cremated every year on September 25th) , and the Ueno Daibutsu (giant Buddha) face (which fell in the Great Earthquake of 1923 after standing in the park since 1631, it remained where it fell until the rest of it was melted down for metal during WWII)! I thought the giant face was slightly creepy at first and resembled something like Hinduism or something… How very wrong I was! This website has fascinating, to-the-point info on some of the great places you can see in this park! I’m such a sucker for history!
If you walk down the cherry tree-lined path leading away from the square and National Museum (I bet it looks absolutely amazing in the spring and fall!) and if you look like you speak English you are bound to meet an older Japanese man who will call you over, talk your ear off, and try to get you to buy either his ¥500 haiku book or his ¥1,000 book of short stories based on his life (apparently now on Amazon). He complains about all things Japanese, yearns to go back to America (apparently he lived in Orange County, California for 26 years, one reason I got roped into staying for so long! It’s my home county.) and ask for your generosity in spreading his name and buying his writing so that he can feed his starving… cat. That was a new one and he drew a picture of his cat on the front of the haiku booklet so yes, I bought one. It was a very interesting talk with a very interesting man. Just be prepared to stay there for no less than 15 minutes! (And here’s me spreading the word: his name is Hideo Asano and this is a link to his webpage!)
I was supposed to be meeting people around noon. Travel tip: when you specify a station to meet up at, also say which exit to go to! As I’m waiting at the Park Exit, they went to the exit on the opposite end of the station and I walked all over the place looking for them! But eventually we were all found and all hungry! A place I really wanted to check out was the market street Ameyoko. It is an outdoor shopping street known for the variety of goods and that sells everything from fresh fruit to printed t-shirts to traditional Japanese crafts so is great if you want some cheap souvenirs or gifts! The Ueno and Asakusa areas are known to be the cheaper places to shop and to stay in Tokyo and are also known for being the more historical and old-style, so tell me, why would I shop anywhere else? Here is some more information about Ameyoko street and a map to the location (God bless maps, right?!)
Due to the heat, we all voted immediately against all of the delicious-smelling ramen shops or hot food places and with heavy hearts we trudged past all that wonderful food (ramen, okonomiyaki, and tempura oh my!) in search of something with that most blessed of commodities: air conditioning! Lunch wound up being a very Western affair, all of us ordered personal pizzas complete with pepperoni and sausage. The most Japanese part of the meal was the portion size, about the size of a kids meal pizza at CPK in the U.S., and the melon soda (my new favorite flavor! I’m expecting superpowers any day now due to its radioactive neon green color!). But it was appropriately cheap and I would have paid anything to sit indoors for a little while! Have I mentioned it was searingly hot and disgustingly humid yet? But the beauty of the park could not be diminished and the excitement of Tokyo lured us out once more. Back to the park for all my friends to explore its wonders (one of our number a certified Japanese history buff), to grab the most beautiful shaved ice I’ve ever had the privilege to consume, and then on to Asakusa and the Sumida River Fireworks Festival! (But that’s a whole other post! COMING SOON!)
And that’s all for today folks! For the evening’s adventures in Asakusa and the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, stay tuned! It’s in the works! I still can’t quite believe I was actually in Tokyo. TOKYO you guys! Wild! The saying is true: Anything is possible and thank you for reading!
If you have any questions about anything please comment, message, or email me! I love to answer questions! (Seriously, I get far too excited when I see someone asking about something….) 😀