Watching the romantic-comedy Lost in Translation put visiting Japan firmly at the top of my bucket list, despite my trip being postponed year after year. In December 2017, after much scheduling and planning, my family and I finally booked flights to spend Christmas in the Far East. We started our trip with a week-long stay in Thailand (where we enjoyed the difference between snowy Glasgow and sunny Thai beaches) before journeying on to Tokyo.
Landing in Narita International Airport offered an exciting glimpse of the rest of the city. Unlike most airports, which are a boring and time-consuming necessity, Narita is an attraction on its own. It is spotless and futuristic and filled with organised queues and an abundance of technology. The normal chaos that characterises many airports is replaced by an intricate system that works like clockwork. Japan is full of useful inventions to make every process easier; from sophisticated toilets to taxis with doors that automatically open and close. These are fascinating to witness and use, and made our trip that much more enjoyable.
Before proceeding to the trains to take us into the heart of the city, we stopped at the travel centre to collect our Japanese Railcards. The Japanese Railcard is the most useful purchase and travel decision you can make. For £196 you can travel for free on any trains throughout Japan for seven days. This is especially useful if you’re planning to travel to other cities (just travelling to Kyoto and back would have cost us the same as the entire railcard).
Next was the hour-long train journey that took us through the Japanese countryside and residential areas and into the bustle of the city, allowing us to appreciate the beauty of both urban and rural Tokyo. We stayed in a hotel within walking distance from Shinagawa Station, a prominent station which offers direct trains to different cities throughout Japan and is surrounded by various shops and restaurants. Traditionally, most Japanese houses are quite minimalistic and small and this is true of hotel rooms as well, offering us a glimpse of normal life in the city.
English is not commonly spoken in Tokyo and products and menus are entirely in Japanese. This can get a little tricky, especially when ordering meals. There were many occasions when we accidentally bought products such as seaweed crisps and green-tea flavored Kit Kats. However, luckily most road signs and signs in train and subway stations are written in English. Moreover, residents are very welcoming and helpful if you ask for help or directions; they often kindly took the time to take us directly to our destination.
Our first proper stop was Tokyo Station, which features stunning Marunouchi building. The building dates to 1914 and is a relic of Japanese art. Designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Kingo Tatsuno, it marks the starting point of the Japanese railway network and symbolises Japanese modernisation. The area is a business hub and houses many offices, banks and company headquarters.
Tokyo Station is also within walking distance of the Imperial Palace, residence of the Emperor of Japan. Although it is not open to the public, we were able to see it from afar and, as our visit coincided with the Emperor’s birthday, we also saw the Emperor’s carriage procession through the area. The Imperial Palace is also surrounded by parks and gardens which visitors can walk through. Even during winter, brightly-coloured flame trees contrast the buildings in the surrounding business district demonstrating both the natural beauty of the city and its metropolitan nature.
As devoted advocates for tour buses (think Hop On Hop Off buses), we then decided to gain a holistic view of the city to help us pick spots we would like to revisit later. We took the Tokyo Skybus which consists of three tours, each exploring a different part of the city. From the artificial island of Odaiba and Tokyo Tower to the Ginza shopping district and Ryōgoku Kokugikan centre for sumo wrestling tournaments, the buses covered the entirety of the city.
As the day was winding down we decided to revisit the iconic Ginza shopping area, wanting to see the famous boutiques and large TV screens and billboards in all their night-time glory. We enjoyed walking through the various Japanese department stores such as Takashimaya and Muji and sampling delicious local food at the Japanese eateries scattered throughout the area. Not far from there we found the Tokyo Christmas Market, a wonderful, unique experience. Like the Christmas markets we’d experienced in Glasgow and Edinburgh, it brought a little bit of home and festive cheer to our trip. There were craftsmen from across the globe, from Russian retailers selling Babushka dolls to German chefs selling traditional Christmas delicacies.
Travelling in December had other advantages as well. While it’s undoubtedly cold and winter jackets are necessary, during the day it is actually quite sunny and there is rarely snow. Moreover, it is not the height of tourism season, so many attractions are comparatively less busy.
One of our final stops during our stay in Tokyo was Shibuya, a major commercial centre and fashionable meeting spot for the city’s youth. Hosting an exciting nightlife scene, Shibuya also features one of the busiest scramble crossings in the world, which we enjoyed walking along several times. There are also various iconic arcades in the area for video-gaming lovers to try. Similar to the Ginza shopping district (although perhaps replacing the higher-end designer labels that characterise Ginza with more affordable brands), the area is a shopaholic’s dream. Here you can buy a range of local products exclusive to Japan, allowing you to bring a little piece of your trip back home with you. One of my favourite purchases was a bag made out of Furoshiki. Furoshiki is a Japanese cloth that was used to wrap items such as gifts and clothes. In an ancient practice dating back to the mid-Nara period (sometime between AD 710 and 794), these cloths – which can be translated to mean ‘bath spread’ – were used to bundle clothes and prevent them from being mixed up with other people’s at the public baths. Their use extended to encompass gift wrapping and protection for merchant’s wares. In contemporary society, Furoshiki has remerged as an alternative to plastic shopping bags and a means to preserve the environment. The shop I stopped at hosted a range of different fabrics and, after making my choice, I watched a wrapping expert fold and tie the fabric to form a handbag.
Tokyo was proves to be one of the most unique places I have ever visited and by writing this article, I not only document my memories for me to look back on, but share my experiences with others to hopefully inspire them to travel further afield.