Checking Off Our Tokyo Travel Checklist

Tokyo with an American Expat

Godzilla statue in Tokyo’s Central Business District, check. We’re here with our awesome guide for the day, Jodie’s high school friend turned expat, Brooke

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

Travel is a chance to reconnect. That’s why, on our last full day in Tokyo, we saw the city with a high school friend of Jodie’s who has now lived in Japan for 8 years.

The thing about a city on the scale of Tokyo, New York or London, is that it is devil hard to take in the major sights. Tokyo sprawls beyond the eye and the imagination. Getting around takes a lot of chuffing and coordination. It’s much easier, though, if you know someone on the inside.

Family photo at the Imperial Palace, check

Brooke met us at Noborito Station. “Today we check off your Tokyo tourist checklist,” she said. “We’re going to see the big things that everyone comes here to see, and a few other things too.”

Having a guide also means you don’t have to focus as much on the logistics of getting around. Brooke already knew the train lines we needed to take and the directions we needed to walk. Instead of spending precious sightseeing time looking over maps, pointing and discussing, Jodie and I could simply wheel Connor along and follow Brooke’s shiny blue scarf.

Diaper change in a huge Japanese train station, check, but not by me. Despite the diaper and a bag of wipes gearing up my Ergo Carrier Chest Bandolier, there were no changing facilities in the men’s room. Jodie had to take Connor to the women’s room for this change. However, Japan overall had good facilities for changing rooms, dedicated handicapped/baby bathrooms, and changing tables in many men’s toilets too.

A day like this also balances out travel. Yesterday’s visit to the wooded, peaceful Meiji Temple gave us an intimate, restorative moment with Tokyo. It took us into ourselves, recharged us after the rigors of the last couple of days. Jodie, Connor and I could take a deep breath and feel truly ready for the 3 weeks ahead.

Today is when we start cashing in that renewed energy. Today is seeing Tokyo for its dazzle, its fast pace, and for the things that, once you’re home, you really just need to be able to say, “Yup, I saw that.”

Tokyo Station with drowsy toddler, check

From Noborito we took the train to Tokyo’s Central Business District, or CBD. From the tall buildings of the CBD, we wandered toward the more open grounds of the Imperial Palace, low flat spaces covered in a few trees. Seeing Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is a bit like standing outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in London. It’s the closest to royalty you may ever get, and the buildings and grounds are pretty.

Park packed with cherry trees, plum trees and people devoting some of their day to hanami, check

We wandered through nearby parks, giving Connor some needed time to romp around and climb things.

Back into the CBD, Brooke took us to the Godzilla statue in Hibiya Park. Godzilla movies comprised a fair few moments of my childhood, and it was a proud papa moment to show this bit of geekery, erected in 1995, to my wee son.

Saw these tie t-shirts on wee kids all over Tokyo. Really, really want an adult size. (I wear either a men’s small or medium, btw)

With over 3,000 trains passing through and over 381,000 passengers boarding every day, Tokyo Station is one of the world’s busiest and largest train stations. We stopped for a photo in front of it, but our visit was not just for snapshots and checklists. Jodie and I also needed to activate our 7-day Japan Rail Pass. After Tokyo we’d be hopping, skipping and jumping around for the next few days, and the JR Pass was going to save us a lot of money on trains. By showing our pass, we could board pretty much any train on the Japan Rail network (not subways or private train lines, but no worries).

There’s nothing like sightseeing and rail pass activation to work up an appetite, though. Brooke steered us to the Ameyayokocho street shopping area, a network of narrow streets packed with locals, tourists and lots and lots of stuff for sale. From fresh fish to Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap, you can buy anything in Ameyayokocho except for a square foot of space that doesn’t contain another person. Tucked off a side street that I couldn’t find again if my life depended on it, Brooke guided us to her favorite sushi restaurant (you can read about our only sushi meal in Japan here).

Souvenir stalls with tourists and plum trees in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood

After adoring the wonders of the sea on twin beds of wasabi-laced rice, it was time to adore the wonders of spring. We wandered parks where thousands of people admired the plum and cherry trees (though in true Asian all-things-coexist fashion, the start of one stunning park was just down from a building’s massive “Adult Movies” sign. We did not point this out to Connor).

Not part of the checklist. I just love this photo. Check.

From the hanami, we turned both inward and outward, to ponder the desires of life, the needs of the moment, and the profound. To do so, we made our way to the popular Asakusa area, where the 7th-century Sensoji Buddhist temple lies at the end of the Nakamise shopping street. After all, the profound must be balanced with the mundane.

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, check. The huge red lantern marks this as the “Thunder Gate.”

My time is Japan is primarily research for my Rucksack Universe travel fantasy fiction stories. As a long-time admirer of Japanese culture, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d want to set stories here. These first days were the first of many mad dashes of scribbling in my notebook, and Sensoji alone provided reams of ideas.

A statue stands on the right and left of the Thunder Gate lantern. “One of the statues has a closed mouth, and one has an open mouth,” Brooke explained. “It’s said to symbolize the beginning and end of something—a sentence, the universe, you name it.”

As you can imagine, my pen starting flying over my notebook.

There is nothing profound to be found in this statement

Sensoji was packed with tourists and locals. Like us, many came to just see the place and take in one of the most amazing temples in Japan. Many others came to pray and make offerings, all the better to deal with whatever bits of life they sought help with. Despite the crowds, a calm hung over the place. Sure, we were surrounded by thousands of Japanese and foreigners. But it was easy to feel wrapped in a wee bit of silent serenity too, where the mundane world really did seem left at the end of the shopping street.

Yummy sweet bean paste-filled treat Asakusa is known for, check. Also: bought a Coke from a food stall, which according to our guide is run by the Japanese mob. So I’ve also knowingly made my first purchase from the mob. As you can understand, I didn’t take a picture of the seller.

Leaving Asakusa was like a personal energy top-off. Restored by Sensoji’s relative calm, Brooke now steered us to one of the world’s largest intersections and pedestrian crossings: Shibuya. It’s been captured in countless photos and videos, and if you’ve seen that movie Lost in Translation, you’ve seen Shibuya. Every time the signals change, thousands of people cross the street at the same time.

It’s exactly the sort of thing I doubt Jodie and I would have done on our own. But when you have someone with you who knows the place better than you do, well, you don’t argue.

You’re also glad you listen. Crossing Shibuya was a thrill. All around you are people going in various directions, just as you are. They cross for countless reasons, each with their own destination in mind. Some are like us, crossing because, hey, how many people who don’t live in Tokyo can say they’ve been here? And some are crossing, like the chicken, because it’s the road and they need to get to the other side. Regardless, it’s a place packed with people and intent that has its own buzz to it, like midtown Manhattan or downtown London. There’s a lot of life going on in these few square meters, and it has a lot of places to go.

Crossing the street at the famed Shibuya Crossing along with a few thousand other people, check. This is strangely thrilling—so much so we did it twice.

Our last big sight of the day was a view of nighttime Tokyo from the free inside observation deck on the 45th floor free of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. I’m actually really glad to have seen this skyline at night. Even when I think about it now, Tokyo’s scale leaves me breathless. This city seems somehow beyond human comprehension and capacity, more like a massive lifeform than a collection of buildings, streets, people, animals, plants and objects. The lights of the city shone out as far as I could see. Anything could happen here. So much happens here that we will never know about.

Yup, out comes the notebook and pen again. A city like this, where anything can happen—well, eventually, anything does.

At the end of a long day of seeing Tokyo, Connor looks out over the entire city from 45 stories up. And yes, there was some soothing to be given once he freaked out at the whole “standing high above the ground and not quite understanding glass” thing.

Later that night, we said our good-byes to Brooke and made our way back to the Noborito homestay. Exhausted but beaming, it had been an intense day, but a thrilling day. We’d seen many of the major sights of Tokyo, but we’d also seen countless day-to-day bits and pieces of life. I’d gotten heaps of material for stories, ideas I only could have gotten by being on the ground in Japan.

We settled in for a good night’s sleep, and I wondered if this night would pass without more early-morning outings and dawn garden tours. My legs and torso, tired from walking and carrying Connor on my back, were happy for a rest. My mind stuffed all the ideas and input from the day into the back of my imagination, where they would slow cook and percolate into stories, settings, plots and characters.

Brooke had given us an amazing day in one of the world’s most intense cities. As we closed our eyes, the bright lights and big buzz of Tokyo’s dazzle was upon us. But soon it would all be a memory.

Tomorrow we would take a Shinkansen, one of the famed “bullet trains” of Japan, from the modern capital of Tokyo to the old, beautiful, former capital of Kyoto. We’d be heading into a completely different type of city, and to a different homestay too, from bachelor pad to family flat, where all sorts of new adventures awaited.

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