Update #23: Japan
July 21-26 and July 29-August 2, 2023
Most of our time in Japan was spent in the great city of Tokyo. There is so much to do in Tokyo that I had to split it off into its own post. And these are only the things we had time to accomplish. We hardly scratched the surface! Listed are our highlights of the city.
The Akihabara area is known as the anime capital of Tokyo. There are plenty of fun multi-level shops featuring mementos from hundreds of popular animes. I’m not as well versed in the media style so I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at the whole time, but if you were looking for an anime-esque souvenir this would be the place to go!
Another multi-level offering in the Akihabara area was the fantastical arcades. Each floor is a different theme, ranging from techno to cute kawaii, and features hundreds of video and arcade games. The occupants of the arcade were also on another level. All the players were experts on their respective choices. Whether it be a classic arcade-style, dance-dance revolution, or first person shooter style, the patrons played as if it was their livelihood. Even the floor containing only claw machines were filled with experts.
Shibuya is kind of the “Times Square” of Tokyo. Filled with large electronic billboards, neon signs, shopping, and tons of people. The area is most well-known for the Shibuya Crossing, an intersection where over 300,000 people cross the street each day. It is a massive movement of people and quite the sight to behold.
Outside of the metro station right in front of the crossing you’ll also find the Hachi statue, also known as Hachiko in Japan. This sad memorial is for a loyal Shiba Inu dog who would meet his owner at the train station every day after work. One day his owner passed away, never again meeting Hachi when his usual train arrived. The dog never gave up hope and showed up to the same train station every day to wait for his owner until his own passing years later. The Japanese felt for the poor puppy and have since made him something of a mascot for the Shibuya area.
Shibuya Sky Building:
After walking around for a bit, we looked inside of the Shibuya Sky. This massive building holds a multi-level shopping mall with gourmet Japanese restaurants and designer boutiques. At the very top there is a stargazing rooftop. The evening was all sold out so we were unable to see it for ourselves, but we hear it’s one of the best views you can get of Shibuya.
Tokyo National Museum
I’m always a fan of touring the national museum before exploring a city. It’s a good way to get a historic baseline to give more context as you move throughout the country.
The Tokyo National Museum had a similar layout to the South Korean Museum. It started with ancient times and worked its way up throughout history. The oldest exhibits were extraordinary artifacts dating back to 18,000 B.C.
The most uniquely Japanese exhibits were those of the Samurai armor and swords. The collection included intricately designed armors, and artfully detailed sword sheaths that held the signature curved blades. We read about the process crafting the beautiful weapons. By blending the metals together and intricately carving the sword sheaths the Katanas became deadly works of art. Katanas became synonymous with Samurai, and greatly helped them prepared for and conquer in battle.
It is worth noting the museum conveniently left out the most modern parts of their history, specifically that of the 1900’s. Instead, they chose to focus on ancient Japanese history and the great battles between kingdoms.
We loved this conveyer belt sushi restaurant so much we visited twice! Once at the location near our hostel and again at the flagship store near Harajuku. After getting a ticket number we waited nearly an hour each time for the, very busy, restaurant to have a table become available.
Once your number is called an automated screen tells you which table to sit at. Simple sushi dishes line the ever-moving conveyor belt that pass by your table. There are no servers or cashiers to take your order. Instead, you pop the plates off the conveyor belt, then dispose of them through a shoot. The shoot calculates how many plates you’ve had and adds the total amount to your bill.
If you’d like more than just sushi there’s an iPad at your table available to order noodles, sides, soup, and drinks. If you order something specific from the iPad a second conveyor belt above the continuously moving loop will deliver your item right to you! All the sushi found on rotation can be ordered on your iPad. Just in case you find a favorite you can’t get enough of!
There’s even a fun option to play a “game” of sorts. For every 5 plates your table collects you receive a gum-ball-machine-like anime prize in the form of a button or eraser.
Kura Sushi is fairly inexpensive. Each plate equates to about a dollar each. If the conveyor belt sushi and complimentary green tea is enough to satisfy you, it’s easy to spend under $20 per person.
One of the most iconic temples is right in the heart of Tokyo. Senso-ji Temple offers typical Japanese architecture in a grand picturesque style. It’s the perfect picture spot for tourists. You can even rent a kimono to pose in while you walk around the grounds, similar to the Palace in South Korea.
Once inside the temple don’t forget to check your fortune! Once offering an (optional) coin for good luck you ask for something, whether it be an answer to a question or a desire. Next, shake a bottle of sticks until one pops out of the small holes cut into the bottom of the container. On your stick will be an inscription written in Japanese. Match your inscription to the corresponding box and inside take the first piece of paper sharing your fortune.
Three kinds of fortunes are possible to receive: a good fortune, a neutral fortune, and a bad fortune. I got a neutral fortune which pretty much means it’s neither good nor bad. My desire which I had asked for will probably be granted in due time. Your request won’t be immediate, but it’s also not never. Lawrence, un-fortune-ately, received a bad fortune. But never to fret! For the bad fortunes you simply tie the paper in a knot and attach it to the lines provided. This symbolizes leaving your bad fortune with the temple and hopefully moving on towards better luck next time.
The main building of the temple sits at the end of a long road holding a market filled with permanent shops and restaurants. The surrounding marketplace is one of the best places to search for any souvenirs that may be on your list.
One of my absolute favorite activities was visiting the Kabukiza Theatre where we got to experience live, authentic Kabuki theatre. Kabuki and Noh are over dramatized styles of theatre. You’ll find elaborate costumes, heavy makeup, and intense overacting.
Listening to the Kabuki actors was like hearing a stereotypical, over the top, Japanese accent by a non native speaker. They performed in the traditional Kabuki style, which meant only males played the many different parts, including the female characters. The shows are recited entirely in Japanese, but there is a helpful guide that fleshes out large strokes of the storyline. You may not get the nuances, but the basic idea is easy to follow along.
They had some incredible set and costume changes. One of my favorites featured a fight scene with a stage full of ninjas. They somehow made it look like it was flurrying snow from the catwalk down onto the stage. During the climax of the fight, all the snow dumped at once simulating an avalanche! It was quite the sight to behold. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed once the show started. Hopefully I can hold on to the memory of the scenes as clearly as a picture.
The Kabukiza theatre has an awesome option to buy day-of tickets for a single act as well. This was an ideal option for us as it was much cheaper and only lasted about an hour, rather than several. We were able to get a taste of Kabuki without being overwhelmed and lost when it came to the plot. If a full show is more your speed, they almost always have shows you get purchased tickets for in advance online.
Bizarre and beautiful, this series of art fixtures displays thousands of goldfish in a variety of tanks. The scenes are set with props, lighting, and haunting music. The fish themselves appear grotesque, almost deformed, as they pace around in their small bowls. The artwork is certainly beautiful, but you can’t help but feel a bit uneasy as you watch the fish perform for us while fighting to breathe. This is no aquarium in the American sense, where the animals are being cared for and we are privileged to observe. These animals exist only to entertain us humans. When their short lives have been spent, they are simply replaced. I enjoyed the art but felt very sad for the fish themselves.
Famous for its anime-inspired costumes and fun accessories popular amongst younger generations, Harajuku is known as a “Teenager’s Paradise.” In the area you’ll find fun streets to walk down filled with shops and restaurants. It’s home to most of the eye-catching establishments like the Cat Cafe and Otter Cafe!
Harajuku is also where you can find the famed 3D billboard. A curved screen that uses its shape to create illusion-filled ads. While not as awe inspiring as it was when first released, it’s still fun to see.
Sumida Hokusai Museum
Though his name may not be immediately recognizable, I guarantee you’ve seen his paintings. Hokusai painted elaborate pictures of Japanese life. He featured cartoonish folklore, scenery, maps, and, most famously, he captured Mount Fuji countless times.
His most famous is the well-known The Great Wave, a painting of a cresting wave with Mt. Fuji in the background. It is often blown up to be a large menacing image, but in actuality it is a simple painting in size. It’s a bit of a wonder that it has become so famous. It’s just as nice as his other creations of the same time period.
We explored the museum which moved throughout the artists life and featured many of his works. If you enjoy art museums, we’d recommend Sumida Hokusai for its recognizability alone.
If you’ve read our “Weirdest Parts of Japan” post, you’ll know a little bit about the dietary differences between Japan and America’s Disney parks. We’ll reiterate here that the allergy-friendly and vegetarian options are not up to par with usual Disney standards. Be sure to check out our other article for more info.
While the food isn’t quite as iconic as the Florida or California parks, Tokyo does offer some winners. The Mickey and Minnie ice pops are a super tasty replacement for the Mickey bars and ice cream sandwiches. Matcha white chocolate popcorn was also a unique twist on the park classic. Though the crown jewel of Tokyo park snacks has to be the multi-flavored mochi made to look like the aliens from Toy Story. Delicious and cute as heck!
Let’s get the incredibly complicated ticketing process out of the way. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea are third-party parks operated by the Oriental Land Company. This means that they still fall under the Disney umbrella but play by a different set of rules. For example, tickets can be a big headache to purchase if you do not have a Japanese credit card. Most U.S. Visas and Mastercards do not work when purchasing tickets online. There’s also no option to buy them at the gate or to call and purchase over the phone. Instead, you must use a third-party online ticket vendor, or go to a convenience store and purchase them from the (Japanese language only) kiosks.
Crowd Levels and Quality:
Tokyo is clearly not worried about tourists visiting the parks. It has a much more Annual Pass vibe, as most of the attendees are local Japanese. If you’re able to jump the hurdles and make it into the parks, you’ll be rewarded with low crowds and short lines. Tokyo Disney sells a less expensive park pass that works after 5:00 p.m., and this seems to be when the crowds start coming in. So, if you can get there early, you’ll have the park to yourself for most of the day!
The technology in Tokyo is on another level. Every ride has detail and design standards that far exceed the American parks. Maybe I’ve just been to the U.S. parks too many times, so I notice every detail, but there was far less disrepair to be found throughout the Tokyo parks. The theming is also incredible, especially in the original DisneySea park. It is so different from the Magic Kingdom, and unlike any other Disney park (at least that I’ve visited).
Like we mentioned, Tokyo DisneySea has such an original and unique theming we declared it the favorite of the two parks. Lawrence even said it was his favorite Disney park of all time! This park is better for an older crowd and those that love thrill rides. It features original rides like Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Raging Spirits, along with familiar favorites like Turtle Talk with Crush, and Indiana Jones Adventure (but with a Crystal Skull-twist). The Sinbad ride is also a can’t-miss, and perfect for all members of the family to enjoy. It’s a hard decision but I think I’ll have to go with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for my favorite ride. It all but blew my mind!
We recommend you try out the following rides:
- Journey to the Center of the Earth
- Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage
- Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Ah, Disneyland. Tokyo’s Magic Kingdom felt like something refreshing and new, but warm, cozy, and familiar at the same time. It features similar lands from Florida’s Magic Kingdom and California’s Disneyland like Frontier Land (renamed Western Land), Fantasyland, New Orleans Square, and Tomorrowland.
Like DisneySea, its ride standards were miles ahead of America. It included a lot of familiar favorites like It’s a Small World, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Some have little tweaks here and there like ‘Small World, and some are direct lifts like the Haunted Mansion. You’ll find a lot of classic rides that have since been closed at the Magic Kingdom in Florida still living on here. Mickey and Minnie’s houses are still alive and well in Toontown, and Splash Mountain is still having a Zip A Dee Doo Dah Day in Critter Country.
Disneyland has a few original rides as well, like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek. The latter is a fun interactive dark ride similar to Universal Orlando’s Men in Black ride. You’ll use flashlights to find the monsters throughout the city streets, much like Men and Black has us hunting for aliens with stun guns.
The Enchanted Tiki Room has a more intergalactic twist. It features Stitch who crashes the birds party and takes it over for himself—chaos ensues!
Rides we recommend are:
- Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek
- The Enchanted Tiki Room: Stitch Presents Aloha e Komo Mai!
- It’s a Small World
- Western River Railroad
- Pooh’s Hunny Hunt
There are only fireworks seasonally, August through December. So, we unfortunately missed out on those since we visited in July. If you’re a fan of the Electrical Light Parade, since laid to rest at Walt Disney World, you can find it resurrected and better than ever nightly at Tokyo Disneyland.
Phew. Well, that’s it for our Tokyo explorations. The city is huge, and we honestly could’ve filled up another week or two to the brim with activities given the chance. There’s a little bit of something for everyone be it Disney, Kabuki, or endless sushi!