What to See in Tokyo: My Top 10 Memories

Japan has been on our travel wishlist for a while and we finally fulfilled our dream to go in November 2014.  We spent nearly two weeks sampling the highlights of what Japan has to offer visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and more.  I'll be telling you more about our trip in a series of posts.  In this post, I'll cover our Top 10 memories of Tokyo.

Video Games

Not long after checking into the Shibuya Tokyu Inn, we decided to take a walk and get our bearings.  We were lured into a video arcade by the combination of lights, sound, and happy music.  We soon heard 'Ye-ahhhh' in a high pitched voice and turned around to see these awesome taiko drums.  We couldn't resist giving it a go and this is something we returned to at least two more times on our trip.  Part of the fun was actually trying to figure out how to play the game since the instructions weren't in English, of course.  We watched some others play and finally figured out that you hit the drum directly when the red circle hits the target and tap the edge of the drum when the blue circle hits the target.  We also discovered that you could dress up your drum character is awesome items of flair.  How could we resist.  Loved this game!
Taiko Drum Video Game - Tokyo

Signage and Ads

The dramatic signage in Japan in general and Tokyo in particular totally made me smile.  I think it's even more intriguing because as non-Japanese, most of the time we can't read the signs.  It's usually pretty clear though what the sign is getting at (e.g., hot beverage, don't burn your hand).  In some cases though, you totally have to guess.

For example, in the bottom right of the photo below, I bought a package of what I thought were sour mango flavored gummy cubes.  I assumed they were sour based on the expression the guy is making.  Turns out they are not sour at all.  In fact, I'm not even sure it was candy.  There was a picture of 3 oranges on the back so then I got to thinking they might be vitamin C drops.  I ended up using the photo functionality on Google Translate (you take a picture and Google Translate attempts to translate any text).  This time the verdict was still a bit unclear.  The main thing that translated was 'small middle-aged man'.  Hmm...  hope I haven't done my medium, younger (:-)) woman's body any harm.

At tourist attractions, the signs were sometimes translated to English which was endlessly entertaining.  Check out the picture of the hawk below.  "They'll aim for your food, fly from behind and come to take it.  Their sharp claws will injure you.  Please be careful!" The language is so straightforward and ominous, especially when we saw a ton of hawks circling overhead in Kamakura.
Japanese Signs and Ads
The video ads in the department stores are also quite entertaining.  We watched, mesmerized as a cartoon egg sang and showed us a gimicky machine that essentially mixed the egg yolk and white to creamy perfection before hardboiling the egg.  Beware that in the video below, the song is quite earworm-inducing.  We were humming it for days.

Cat Cafe

Before heading to Japan, I insisted that my husband (+Vacation Counts) add a 'cat cafe' to our itinerary.  I think it's less common for Japanese people to own pets so they use these cafes as a way to get a little creature comfort.  You sign-in and pay for a certain amount of time with the cats.  A hot beverage (tea or coffee) and a cookie are included in the price.  We had to go through an elaborate procedure of taking off our shoes, rolling up our pants, and washing/sanitizing our hands before we were allowed in.  We were also told that if the cat had a collar we were not allowed to play with it.  It turns out the the cats with the collars are the ones that most wanted to play with us.  I'm not sure what the deal was with those cats.  Our guess was that maybe the cat cafe proprietors run a kitty boarding service for private pet owners.  Who knows!  

You can also pay for use of toys to entertain the cats.  Most of the kitties were pretty aloof at the time of day we went (mid-afternoon) and we were the only ones there.  Perhaps we should have invested in the toys to get a bit of engagement.  The little gray kitty with the collar found the zipper pull on my sweater endlessly entertaining though.  Overall, I'm happy we had the experience and the expressions on the cats' faces in some of the photos I got will make great #caturday fodder :-)
Cat Cafe - Tokyo

100/300 Yen Stores

We love checking out locals' stores when we visit a place plus we love bargains.  Because of this, the 100 yen (Daiso) and 300 yen shops (3 Coin) really appealed to us especially since the yen to USD exchange rate was so good when we visited.  We spent an hour looking at stuff that was impossibly cute or interestingly practical.  For example, I found foldable drawer boxes with lovely pictures of birds on them for organizing 18 pairs of socks or underwear.  I just had to have it and bought two for 300 yen each (less than 3 USD).  I now think of this trip every time I pull a pair of socks from its individual cubicle.  
Sponges at the 100 Yen Store - Tokyo

City Views and City Lights

Impossibly bright and blinking signs that assault the senses are one of my favorite memories of evenings in Tokyo.  By day, we also enjoyed expansive views of the city from viewing platforms in Roppongi Hills (Mori Tower) and Shinjuku (Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building)
City Lights and City Views - Tokyo

Plastic Food

Restaurants in Tokyo and Japan more broadly take pride in putting mouthwatering displays of food...plastic food...in their windows.  You can even buy plastic food to take home in shops in Asakusa.  We preferred to window shop, drool, and plan our next meal instead.
Plastic Food in Tokyo

Shopping for Electronics

We were so impressed by the sheer size of the electronics stores in Tokyo.  Yodobashi, one of the typical electronics chains (kind of like a 'Best Buy' on steroids) had 9 stories.  That's a lot of shopping.  As you know, I love taking photos and since the exchange rate was so good, we decided to look into getting a new point and shoot camera.  I found a Canon with a 30x zoom for less than the equivalent of 200 USD.  I was able to check Amazon using the 'pocket wi-fi' that we rented from Global Advanced Comm for the trip and realized a savings of more than 25% over what I could get at home online.  I was not planning to make a spontaneous purchase when I visited Yodobashi but Saito-san was super helpful and the price was right so we went for it.

By the way, speaking of pocket wi-fi, this is another example of a great gadget to get while in Japan.  It's a portable device that you pay less than 10 USD a day to rent with unlimited data.  It fits right in your pocket and basically creates a wi-fi hotspot that you can hook into with your phone.  We found it useful for translating stuff (the Google Translate app requires internet access to OCR and translate text in photos) and for looking up prices of things.  Indispensable!
Electronics Shopping in Tokyo

Join the Commute

Japan is famous for it's heroically dedicated employees that commute long distances to work, party hard afterward, head home, and do it all over again.  When we visited Tokyo, we took the opportunity to join the commute and feel what this life might be like.  Behold the crush of humanity.

Pachinko

Pachinko is the Japanese answer to a casino.  It's kind of a cross between pinball and a slot machine.  We had a heck of a time figuring out what we were supposed to do, but fortunately, one of the guys working there spoke a tiny bit of English and this combined with avid miming taught us how to play.  You basically buy a bucket of ball bearings.  A ball is worth different amounts depending on the machine.  You pour the balls into a hopper and they are launched from the top of the pachinko course.  Your job is to turn a very sensitive knob in such a way to aim the launcher and send the balls flying toward the 'goal'.  The more balls you get into this slot, the more balls come out.  If the balls fall into another hole, you lose.  You can take your 'winnings' and cash them in for arcade style prizes that increase in value the more balls you have.  We lost all our balls within 30 minutes.

Apparently, there is an art to this though and some gentlemen were sitting there glued to the machine with a giant tub of balls behind them.  A little flag was placed in the buckets so the attendant knew how much they were worth.  Oh, did I mention to bring ear plugs?  Pachinko halls are, simply put, one of the loudest places I've ever encountered.  Take the noise of an individual machine and multiply by 1000 and you have an assault on the senses.
Pachinko Parlor - Tokyo

Kamakura Day Trip

After our wild pachinko playing evening, we ended our visit to Tokyo on a more serene note with a day trip to Kamakura.  We happened to time our trip with the Monday of a 3-day holiday weekend in Japan.  My recommendation would be to avoid this timing if you can.  The trains and sights were absolutely packed!  We took the scenic route to get here.  We started on the traditional train from Tokyo and then got off at Ofuna to board a suspended monorail (Shōnan Monorēru).  After a short and swingy ride, we arrived in Enoshima where we boarded the narrow-gauge Enoden line to our final destination.  Normally, this final leg would be quite scenic with views of the sea along the way but the train was so crowded that all we could really see was a dense piles of heads and arms.

We disembarked at Hase Station and headed out on foot to see the iconic Great Buddha at Kōtoku-in.  Cast in bronze in the 1200s, this statue has withstood the test of time and is an impressive site to behold.   We also enjoyed the amazing views over the bay at Hase-dera.  When the weather is nice, braving the crowds doesn't seem too bad to experience such a peaceful place.  To escape the crowds, we walked between Hase and Kamakura (about 30 minutes).  We shopped our way through Kamakura before heading back to the train station for the journey back to Tokyo.
Temples and Great Buddha in Kamakura Japan

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Top 10 Memories from Tokyo Japan

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: What to See in Tokyo: My Top 10 Memories
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