By Robert Baerg
We didn’t have much money, we didn’t have much time, and we were going to one of the most expensive cities in the world. It was hectic but fun; and finding ways to keep the costs down was a challenging mission – but we accomplished it.
The three of us split the flight and the hotel, and we each paid about $650 US for four nights and a return flight from Seoul.
We were in a great location called Shinjuku (right off the Tochomae stop on the Oedo subway line, and near to the Shinjuku stop on the JR line Yamanote) and the hotel was called Shinjuku Washington Hotel.
The hotel had least ten restaurants, a sauna bath, nice, clean, simple rooms, and some great bars; one of which sold beers from around the world in a more comprehensive way than I have ever seen.
The hotel had a three-star rating and Shinjuku proved to be close to many attractions that we enjoyed thoroughly.
Harajuku – Shopping, Shrines, and Weirdness
This was a place that promised two things: people dressed up in crazy outfits, and shopping. It delivered both along with an unexpected historical aspect that came out of nowhere.
The shopping was intense and varied. I will admit that I am not much of a shopper, but my two friends loved this place.
There was every type of shop you can imagine. I finally found a treble clef necklace for my girlfriend, and it cost me about $12 US (I kept that little secret to myself).
Even if you don’t dig the idea of a massive market-style shopping walk in Japan, there was a lot to do. People watching, for example. There were more outrageously dressed people in Harajuku (and Japan in general) than you could shake a stick at.
We finally found the place where the ‘weirdies’ gathered, and it was quite a sight. A group of six people, varying in age from mid-forties to teens, were carrying ‘Free Hugs!’ signs.
Then we saw Gwen Stefani’s ‘Harajuku girls’, and I tell you what, it was wild. Only pictures can do them justice. The best part of the experience may have been the opportunity to wonder why they all stood there smoking and posing for pictures all day.
We then found a beautiful garden shrine called Meiji Jingu, which was right beside the Harajuku girls and the subway stop (Harajuku is located on a JR line called Yamanote, and the stop is called Harajuku as well). An emperor and his wife are enshrined there.
Their shrine included a stunning garden (500 yen) a martial arts complex, a treasure museum (500 yen), and beautiful nature walking right in the middle of a bustling market town. It was nice for the non-shopper to find some space and smoke a cigarette.
Tokyo Tower and Zojo Temple
This stop on the subway (Akabanebashi on the Oedo line) yields two very different but equally cool sights. The Tokyo Tower is your basic tall structure.
If you’ve been to the CN or the Eiffel Tower, or the Empire State Building, than you know what you’re in for: high prices and long waits for a few beautiful moments and pictures. It’s cool and it is better at night. For the experienced traveler, perhaps just get a shot of it from the ground and head to the temple.
The Zojo temple is one of two Buddhist temples we visited in Japan, and it was beautiful. We walked in the back door and found a graveyard of sorts that was really breathtaking.
We eventually made our way to the main attractions, and thoroughly enjoyed the traditional architecture and the statues. The front gate was huge, and when you pass through it you are rid of three human fallibilities: anger, greed, and stupidity.
The other temple we saw was the Senso Temple (Asakusa on the Asakusa line) and it was equally brilliant and twice as busy.
There is a really cool market that leads up to the front gate of this temple, and this accounts for much of the business, and makes it a double-whammy of a tourist site. Both temples were free of charge.
Shibuya Crossing and Hachiko the Dog
This was a free and stunning part of the trip in a very different way than the temples or Harajuku. Shibuya Crossing is a massive intersection (mostly for pedestrians) that is best known for being in the movie Lost in Translation.
It is a sea of people and advertising, located at the Shibuya stop on the JR line called Yamanote. The atmosphere of the whole square will make you feel like you are sitting on the pulse of modern Japan.
Right beside the crossing is Hachiko Square, named for a dog whose statue graces one corner. Hachiko was a very loyal dog who waited for his master every day after work on the spot where the statue now stands.
Even after his master died, Hachiko returned to the spot every day for ten years to await him. This is a simple attraction, but we loved the story. The loyalty of the dog was something with which the Japanese people we spoke to really identified.
The Yebisu Beer Museum
This was a highlight for obvious reasons. The free self-guided tour was very funky, despite the fact that the information was in Japanese. There was a lot to look at and enjoy.
The tasting room at the end of the tour was cheap and offered a variety of Sapporo brand beers. It was 500 yen for four ½ pint tasters, and 300 for a pint of one type. We enjoyed our fair share of fine beers at a comfortable table.
This museum was also on the Yamanote line, and the stop was called Ebisu (sometimes Yebisu).
We arrived tired on a Saturday, so we missed weekend nights out. We did wander into a few bars, and they were very different from anything in Korea or North America.
They were small, they regularly charged a cover of 500 yen, and they had every imaginable drink in stock. The service was incredible and very polite. For the record, you do not tip in Japan, but some places may add a service charge on the bill.
The highlight was a place called Abbey Road, which was at a stop called Roppongi. This major stop is a hop and a skip from Ebisu on the Hibiya line, and was also on our hotel’s subway line, Oedo.
Abbey Road is a Beatles cover band joint. It was expensive – 2400 yen cover per person, and a minimum of one drink and one food order as well. This was the only time we opened up our wallets, and let me tell you, it was worth every penny.
The first band played old, cheesy Beatles to perfection. The second band came on and played later stuff. I will never forget their rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
I would highly recommend blowing some cash here: good food, drinks, and a small venue with uncannily good cover bands and great sound. Get there early or call ahead; this place was jammed on a Tuesday night, let alone the weekend.
How to Get Around
Subway, subway, subway. Cheap, easy enough to figure out, and quick. All of the stops we used were within 10 minutes of our hotel except for Asakusa, which was a reasonable 25 minutes, and on the way back to the airport anyway. Check the link out for a package that suits your trip.
Robert Baerg was born in Ontario, Canada. He is a traveler, an aspiring writer, and has zero martial arts training.
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