Prior to this vacation in Japan, I had never before been to Asia. It’s funny, when I look back and think about it… Prior to graduating university in 2007, my high school buddies and I were all planning to make a trip to Japan as a sort of post-graduation celebration for everyone. Unfortunately, the timing just never worked out and we ultimately ended up scraping the plan altogether by the end of the summer of 2007. After that, everyone fell into focusing on their own careers and life, so Japan was relegated to the backburner.
I can’t speak for my friends, but Japan was somehow always on the back of my mind. From 2007 until just recently, I had always longed to visit the land of the rising sun. Well, thanks to travel hacking, that dream just became a reality!
Day 1: August 08
I departed San Jose on August 08, and flew to Japan on business class courtesy of ANA. It was my first time flying business and I’ve got to say, it was totally AWESOME! I flew on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and got to: eat well, sleep well, and was pampered like a baby. I’ll admit, for the first time ever, I was sad when the captain announced that we were descending into Narita Airport. 🙁
Day 2: August 09
When I arrived in Japan, it was now Day 2. After navigating my way through Immigration and collecting my baggage, I made my first stop at the JR Terminal in Narita Airport. Prior to the trip, I had actually shelled out 29,110 yen (~$270) to purchase a 7-day Japan Rail Pass.
As I’ve mentioned before, this trip was totally unscripted, so I didn’t know if I would be spending all my time in Tokyo, or if I would end up also visiting Osaka, or Kyoto.
While on the plane, I made the executive decision to just stay in Tokyo. Isn’t life great when you don’t have to answer to anyone else? 😉 So, when I finally landed in Narita, I made it to the JR Terminal to collect my refund. I had to pay a restocking fee, but I probably came out ahead in the end. The subway in Tokyo is super convenient and cheap, so if you aren’t going to be using the long-distance bullet trains, there really isn’t a reason to purchase the Rail Pass. The Rail Pass grants you unlimited rides on any JR owned (or partner) subway.
$270 buys you a lot of train rides on the subway… and the pass is only good for seven days…
It took about 1 hour to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo. I took the NEX Express train, which cost about $16. I arrived in Shinagawa Station. Since it was my first time in Tokyo, and I had no data on my iPhone, I decided not to overcomplicate things, and paid for a taxi ride to the nearby Sheraton Miyako Hotel. After flying for 11+ hours and taking a 1 hour train ride, you can say that I just wanted to check in the hotel and lay down… The taxi was about $9, so it wasn’t overkill by any means.
After settling in the hotel, I laid down for maybe 10 minutes before deciding “the night is still young”. Although I was pretty exhausted, I was too excited to just call it a night. So, I walked out of the hotel and went exploring…
I walked down the streets, and had absolutely no idea where I was going. So, I approached strangers and asked for recommendations… You can say, I learned right away that the language barrier would be a problem for me on this trip! Unfortunately, most of the locals don’t speak conversational English, so it can be a struggle to get by. To make matters worse, I arrived knowing no more than two Japanese phrases (konichiwa, arigato), at best…
One thing that really struck me, however, was how unbelievably friendly and polite everyone was. Most everyone was more than willing to give me their time of day to help answer any questions I had, even when they couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them.
So what did we have to do? Use sign language and drawings! Man, it was actually quite a bit of fun… This one store cashier I met was so adorably helpful, she even reminded me of my own grandmother. She told me to keep walking, and I would eventually hit Meguro Station…
The walk from the Sheraton Hotel to Meguro Station was making me hungry. Since I couldn’t read a lick of Japanese, and didn’t have a data plan to tell me what was good (no Yelp, Trip Advisor, etc.), I went on a hunch and just picked a random sushi restaurant.
Here’s where I stumbled into…
The name of the restaurant was Smart Sushi. After being seated, I stared in horror as I glanced at the screen and noticed everything was in Japanese! Luckily, as I kept staring and staring, and failing to decipher the characters, I saw an “English” button located on the bottom left corner of the screen. I was in luck!
Even prior to ordering, I had a good feeling that this restaurant was a simple, “fast food” variety. But everyone back home was always telling me that authentic Japanese sushi was to die for, so I wanted something cheaper to compare it to. After all, how can you know what good is without the bad?
My total bill was less than $10, but I gotta say, I was pretty impressed!
Here’s some of the salmon that I ordered:
For fast food, it was a pretty darn good meal! Certainly, the sushi was better than most anything I’ve eaten back home… This positive experience was only building up more hype for me; I was now very, very eager to try some world class sushi.
On the way out of the restaurant, I turned the corner and noticed a very familiar sight, so I had to snap a quick photo:
By the time I was finished with dinner, it was about 10:00 PM or so. I walked around a little more, but was pretty beat so decided to finally call it a night.
My first night in Tokyo wasn’t very eventful, but I was happy. I knew I had a ton more to look forward to… 🙂
Day 3: August 10
I woke up on August 10 as excited as I have ever been in my life. This was my first full day in Tokyo, and best of all, I had nothing except for FUN penciled in on my agenda! That’s right… No work, no meetings, no projects, no schedule, no commitments (except for a meet up with a Couch Surfer in Shibuya later on in the day), absolutely no stresses! Hmm, sounds a little like how I envision early FI being… 😉
I got up really early and started my day off with a light jog. So many times I’ve wanted to do this before work, back home, but unfortunately, I almost never do. I ran at a slow pace, and just tried my best to take it easy and breathe in the fresh, morning air. Tokyo at this time of year is pretty humid, so I can’t say the jog was the most refreshing one I’ve ever had. But the exercise was good, and it helped me work up an appetite for breakfast.
I stopped by the nearby cafe, and had some oatmeal. In the process, I made my first friend in Japan. 🙂
After breakfast, I used the hotel wi-fi to help me find my way to Shibuya… Nope, I still didn’t have a data plan setup yet…
Prior to heading out of the hotel, I also made a mental note to remember to bring the postcard I got from the helpful ANA flight attendant.
She provided me a wonderful list of recommendations for some good ramen shops in Tokyo. Ramen is probably one of my favorite dishes, so I knew I would have my fair share number of bowls before all was said and done. 😉
I met up with the Couch Surfer at the Shibuya Station. More specifically, the popular Hachiko Staute, which is a very popular meeting place for people.
After meeting up with my friend, we walked across the popular Shibuya Crossing! Wow, so many people!
I was overwhelmed…
Some random shops I entered…
I showed my friend the ramen list, and she had a definitive recommendation. She assuredly said to me, “Ichiran is the best ramen noodle shop on that list, no question!”
Who was I to argue with a local expert? So, I said, “I’m starving for some good ramen. Let’s go to Ichiran!”
Ichiran is a small shop where patrons each get their own individual booth to eat from. One thing I thought was neat was ordering from a vending machine. I had never ordered ramen in that manner before, so that was a new experience for me. Apparently, it’s quite the normal way of doing things out in Tokyo.
I added a soft-boiled egg (super delicious), but made the mistake of not ordering extra chashu. In general, Japanese portions are much smaller than what you would find back in the states.
OMG! Ichiran was easily the best bowl of ramen I had ever eaten in my life. Nothing back home in the Bay Area even comes remotely close to Ichiran… A $9 bowl of ramen at Ichiran has got to be one of the best deals in Tokyo… If you are ever in Shibuya (and you love ramen), it’s a must!
I’ve waited in line for 2 hours to have ramen at Orenchi in Santa Clara, and that falls well short… Not to sound like a food snob or anything (I’m most definitely not a foodie), but I seriously can’t understand the Orenchi hype…
After lunch, we headed out to Akihabara, the gaming capital of the world! When I was much younger, I used to be obsessed with videogames and manga, so the kid in me was very eager to finally get a chance to see this place.
Once out of the train station, one of the first sights you’ll come across is the Sega building:
I played a few rounds of Street Fighter. I was doing quite well until one of the local teenagers decided to interrupt my battle and challenge me. No sweat, I figured… I’m pretty decent at Street Fighter so I ought to be able to give this guy a run for his money, I thought…
Boy, how wrong was I! The teenager beat me “perfect” in Round 1, and I barely grazed him in Round 2… I came to realize, the gamers in Akihabara are most definitely no joke… They succeeded in putting this old man in his place.
Next up, the Home Cafe…
The Home Cafe was not my idea, but my friend suggested we stop inside so that I could fully embrace the “weirdness” that is Akihabara and Japanese kawaii (cuteness) culture.
Saying that I felt lost and out of place would be an understatement… But when in
The girls dress up as maids, and you are the guest, apparently coming home after a long day of work. When you enter, the girls will all say, “Welcome home, sir!”
It struck me that a lot of these girls looked really young. When I consulted with my local expert, she laughed, and said, “You’d be surprised by how old some of these girls actually are. Many are over 30…”
Can’t say I understand the whole Home Cafe experience, or kawaii culture, but I’ve got to hand it to the girls who work there, they all have a ton of enthusiasm and energy for the job that they do. It must be tough smiling and giggling all day long. The place was packed too, so I guess the customers are happy as well.
We left the Home Cafe and continued our journey to Odaiba. Here you’ll find a replica of the Statue of Liberty! In case you didn’t know, America carries with it some seriously high status out in Japan. Most everyone I talked to wanted the chance to visit New York City, and when you say you’ve been to New York (or if you live there), people will typically respond by saying, “You’re so lucky! What a dream come true!”
New York is an awesome place… and Tokyo is pretty amazing as well!
There’s a really cool mall located in Odaiba. Right in front of it is this oversized Gundam statue (so awesome!).
After checking out some shops, we went back to nearby the Sheraton Hotel to have dinner and drinks. After dinner, I was pretty tired and ready to pass out.
My first full day in Japan was a memorable experience. I got to see Shibuya, Akihabara, and Odaiba. In the process, I made some new friends and had the best bowl of ramen in my life. Not a bad way to kick off Tokyo…
To be continued…