So I’m back from my week in Tokyo and I’m missing it already. We had such an amazing time, despite the freezing cold weather and the snow. It was our first time in Tokyo in the winter, so that was to be expected – and we packed accordingly!
As we’ve been to Tokyo so many times before, this wasn’t your typical tourist visit. We didn’t have a long checklist of places we needed to visit or sights we just had to see. We’ve basically been there, done that over the years.
That’s not to say Tokyo doesn’t have the capacity to still surprise and delight, however!
But instead, we took our week as an opportunity just to relax and take life at a different pace – deciding what to do when we woke up each morning, rather than following a demanding plan. This meant lazy, late mornings and evenings kick-started in the hotel executive lounge over lazy, late drinks.
And it was fabulous and just what I needed.
We flew to Tokyo Narita with Finnair, via Amsterdam and Helsinki. The flights were excellent as ever and I’d recommend Finnair to anyone thinking of going to Asia. The service was top-notch, the planes were in great shape and the business class experience is just what you’d hope for on such a long flight.
I’ll be writing a separate post on this, for anyone interested, but I found the break in Helsinki was an excellent way to make such a long journey more bearable.
I didn’t sleep a lot on the flight over, probably due to the combination of free champagne and an iPad full of TV shows I was dying to catch up on. But I managed a couple of hours on the flight between Helsinki and Narita, which meant I wasn’t a complete car crash when we landed.
Added bonus: we traveled with cabin baggage only, which meant arriving at Narita was as painless as showing our passports at immigration and walking straight to the train to central Tokyo.
Narita to Shinjuku
We usually get the Airport Limousine Bus service from Narita to Shinjuku. While it’s a very comfortable coach service, it’s also an epic undertaking and frequently delayed by traffic.
This time, we took the train – the Narita Express – and frankly, I’ll never take a bus in Tokyo again! Trains are fast and frequent, stopping occasionally and getting to Shinjuku station just 10 minutes from our hotel.
Announcements are made in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English, so there’s no risk of getting lost. And maps are prominently displayed and updated on the screens onboard.
Tip: don’t buy your ticket at the airport via a machine. If you’re a tourist, you can get a discounted return ticket (4,000 Yen) from the ticket office just around the corner. You’ll just need to show your passport.
Beating jet lag and getting outside
Having landed at Narita at about 0930, we were in our hotel reception in Shinjuku at 1200 and managed to check in immediately. It can be a real chore to fly to Japan, arrive at the crack of dawn, only to find your hotel is not ready to accept check-ins.
Thankfully, most hotels will take your luggage in, so you can go elsewhere for a few hours. But what you really want is a shower and a change of clothes!
The slightly later arrival, plus my Hilton Hotel gold status, meant we got our room immediately and were able to ash up and get changed before heading back outside. The room is magnificent and I’ll be writing a separate post reviewing the hotel – it’s definitely my favourite in the world.
But I was determined to get outside into the brilliant (freezing) sunshine, so we had to step away from the views on the 31st floor and get moving. Exposure to local sunlight and some light exercise is one of the best ways to reset your body clock and beat any residual jet lag.
We went for a wander around Shinjuku, to reacquaint ourselves with the neighbourhood and go for a coffee. We started as we meant to carry on: lots of sitting around, soaking up the atmosphere and people-watching. I also began the slow, arduous process of once again trying to speak what little Japanese I have.
Despite my shameful lack of practice, I found it came back to me relatively easily and I was able to cover the (very) basics in coffee shops, restaurants and bars. No discussions about world peace and the economy, but plenty of orders of delicious food and drinks.
You know, the essentials.
Walking to Harajuku and Shibuya
Although the weather was extremely cold, most days we had nothing but blue skies and sunshine. So on day two of our trip, we decided to take advantage of this and walk to our destinations. We left our hotel in Shinjuku and walked first to Harajuku and then made our way to Shibuya.
Not long after leaving the hotel, we were stopped in the street by some schoolchildren, who wanted to take a selfie with me and then practice their English. I think they were on a mission from their school, as they all had forms to fill in after speaking to me.
We encountered the usual crowds in Harajuku, especially down Takeshita Street, where once again I bought not a single thing. It’s fun to look at all the tat on sale there, as well as look at what some of the more adventurous locals are wearing, but it’s never going to be somewhere I’ll go to pick up my summer wardrobe.
We went for a coffee to our favourite local coffee shop – which happens to be a Starbucks – located on the roof of nearby Tokyu House. It’s great vantage point to watch the neighbourhood, but also a welcome break from the crowds on the street below. Sitting outside on the roof terrace, sipping a Frappuccino in the Winter sun, I really felt I could stay there forever. Bliss.
We then wandered down to do some shopping in Shibuya. Bearing in mind we only had hand luggage with us on this trip, we weren’t going to be going mad on the shopping front. But, top tip: we both packed clothes that were on their ‘last legs’, such as underwear and t-shirts, which we could bin while there – thus freeing up room in our bags.
And so began my hunt for an elusive Nintendo Switch – which are still very difficult to find on the shelves in Tokyo. It took several visits to several different (enormous) electrical stores before I eventually struck gold – saving about £100 on UK prices in the process. Bargain.
We visited Harajuku and Shibuya a few more times, as well as Odaiba in the South East of the city – simply to avoid the snow and sleet one day. The former easily accessible on foot or metro, while the latter needs to be reached by metro as it’s quite far from Shinjuku.
Evenings in Shinjuku Ni-Chome
I think it’s fair to say we fell into a very regular routine in the evenings while in Tokyo. Which is fair enough when it’s your eighth visit to a city, I think! My gold status with the Hilton meant we could use the Executive Lounge on the 37th floor and take advantage of their ‘cocktail hour’ from 6pm to 8pm each evening.
In practice, this means a free bar and an impressive selection of buffet bites. Some evenings, this represented dinner for us, particularly if we’d had a late (usually large) lunch somewhere else. It also meant the chance to watch beautiful sunsets and even, if you’re very lucky, a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance. While inhaling the very delicious champagne on offer…
Other evenings, it was just a warm-up for a night out in Shinjuku Ni-Chome, which amongst other things, is the major LGBT centre of Tokyo. So, cue a wander around the various bars and even – one, memorable and very long night – a visit to a gay nightclub. While all the time muttering “I’m getting too old for this…”
Our favourite bar in Ni-Chome remains the Eagle Bar. Firstly, it’s aimed at an international clientele. So you won’t get turned away at the door for being Caucasian – a real risk in Japan, where it’s still perfectly acceptable to operate a race-based door policy. Secondly, the staff are brilliant – friendly and knowledgeable. And third, they have one of the most reasonable bar menus we came across, price-wise. Yes, 700 yen for a beer is very reasonable in Tokyo.
The club in question was Aisotope, which I think it’s fair to say, needs to be a one-per-visit kind of thing. I was broken for most of the following morning as a result of getting to sleep at 4am… Id’ still recommend it to gay visitors to the neighbourhood – it had an extremely friendly vibe.
One challenge with going out in Ni-Chome at night is the pervasive cigarette smoke. Most venues in Japan still openly allow smoking, which is a bit of a shock to the system if you’ve come from Western Europe. I’m sure I must have had over a pack of 20, in terms of passive smoking while I was there. After such a long time since being exposed to such smoke, it left me feeling a bit gross the following morning, not to mention the stink on my clothes.
Another thing to be aware of is that many venues will have an entrance fee, which usually includes a drink. But it’s always best to check this before entering, so you don’t get stung, and have a look at the bar’s prices. Some are frankly astronomical!
We returned the way we’d come over: flying with Finnair via Helsinki, but avoiding the last leg to Amsterdam as it wasn’t necessary. We needed to get an 08:05 train from Shinjuku, so it was an early start. Shame we stayed up far too late the night before 🙄
We enjoyed an hour or so in the JAL First Class Lounge in Narita before boarding the first flight to Helsinki. Unlike the outbound flight, I sleep quite a bit on this one. I’m not ashamed to say I traveled the whole journey home wearing sweatpants and a hoodie – despite being in business class. This made for a superbly comfortable trip and lots of more sleep.
We just made our connection in Helsinki! We had an hour to get from the Schengen to non-Schengen parts of the airport and had to go through security. Which is a challenge when several large flights have decanted into the airport at exactly the same time.
We ended up dashing to the gate – and a bus to the aircraft – puffing and panting once in our seats…only to find that we had to wait on two more bus-loads of passengers to make it out from the terminal. Oh well… The local weather was a bit of a shock to the system, as it was -9C in Helsinki when we arrived. Not the best weather to have to hang around on aircraft steps while waiting for other passengers to get a move on and find their seats!
All in all, this was a super enjoyable visit, albeit a short one. It was relaxing and fun in equal measure and I’d definitely visit in January again. A perfect antidote to the new year’s blues.
Our next visit will be in August, which will be quite a contrast, weather-wise. And I’ll finally make it to a Japanese beach – a first for me.