Bursting with history and tradition, while simultaneously being ultra-modern, Tokyo, with its 37 million inhabitants, is the largest city in the world, according to the United Nations. Three days (73 hours and 50 minutes, to be precise) is not quite enough to cover the whole city, but we still managed to see, do, and experience a lot; and to sleep, at least a little. In any case, a desire to return was ignited, including to see other parts of the multi-faceted country of Japan.
Our trip to Tokyo, which took place in late November and early December, was arranged by SAS and Marriott as a learning opportunity for CWT’s employees. I was the only Finn on the trip, joining a group of colleagues from our Danish office. To learn as much as possible during the trip, we changed hotels daily, and fly in two different classes; indeed, since I made the extra trip of returning to Helsinki from Copenhagen, I managed to experience all three classes.
Moving in style
Our nine-member group met at the Kastrup airport in Copenhagen, where we had the opportunity to test the newly renovated and opened, and spacious SAS Business lounge. The biggest hit of the lounge has turned out to be its own barista, who has an immense selection of different coffees on offer. Also, as a speciality, there is a children’s lounge in the same space. For busy travellers there is also an option for on-the-go-dining.
What’s new is also the light room at the SAS Gold Lounge, known as Daylight Booster Zone, which can help you to recover from jet lag, as well as from the darkness of the Nordic winter. Apparently, just twenty minutes of light treatment does the trick.
There is also an SAS Service Point in terminal three, which is open to all travellers and offers, among other things, the opportunity to charge one’s all-important mobile devices.
We took off at 3.45 PM, flying the first part of the trip in Business class. The flight takes just under 11 hours, but in the circumstances it would not have been catastrophic had the flight taken longer. Service was excellent as was the food, all our luggage easily found their proper places, and personalised entertainment was available on the large, individually placed screens.
You could spend the night in a completely horizontal position, in your own private space, sleeping in top-quality bedsheets by Hästens. If anyone got hungry during the night – despite the earlier offerings – the snack bar was open throughout. Although, having had a look at what was on offer, I am not sure if the word ’snack’ was exactly appropriate.
Morning broke, and with the morning came breakfast. The process was simple: just choose from the list what might suit you this morning. After enjoying breakfast, it was time to fill in the registration card and start preparing for the final destination itself.
We touched ground at the Narita airport in Tokyo on 10.40 AM. The necessary procedures were taken care of appropriately and punctually, and the queuing time was not too excessive. It is wise to fill in the whole registration card on the plane diligently, even if you might think some of the information not applicable or necessary. In case you do not fill your card, you risk having to look for your card and filling it in at the airport.
In Finland, unlike in Japan, we use daylight saving time. Therefore, the time difference between Finland and Japan is six hours in the summer, and seven hours during the winter. It will be interesting to see how our bodies cope with the time difference on such a short trip. In this case we tried to adapt to the local time immediately, which was made easier by a well-slept night. Weather was favourable: the sun was shining and the temperature was 16 to 18 degrees centigrade – which is warm if you arrive from Finland in November.
The trip from the airport to city centre took approximately an hour – the exact time depends on where exactly you are going. In general, regardless of whether you are traveling by train, bus, metro, or taxi, moving around in Tokyo takes some time. Everything works impeccably, but a big city comes with big city traffic.
Traveling by taxi was an interesting experience. People who knew the city better informed me that five years ago there were none. Now there are some, and all of them of the same brand and model, which is not one of the most recent, and neither were the drivers. They were all extremely kind and helpful, but not all of them spoke English. It is wise to ask for your hotel to write their name, as well as the name of the destination on a piece of paper in Japanese.
Cozy & retro Moxy
Our first night was spent in Marriott’s Moxy Tokyo Kinshicho Hotel. Moxy-branded hotels are now available in the United States, in Europe, as well as in Asia, and their numbers are increasing. Moxy is aimed at the young, or the young at heart. The decor is cozy, retro, and colourful. Wifi was free, naturally.
Connecting to broadband mobile networks is still relatively expensive in Japan, which makes wifi a necessity. At Moxy, wifi was available in all corners of the property, and not just to hotel guests. The hotel’s bar and restaurant welcome outside customers as well, and many people seemed to have taken them up on the offer.
Time to head to Shinjuku
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s 23 so-called special wards. The name is also used as shorthand for the large entertainment, business, and commercial centre that has grown around the Shinjuku station.
The Shinjuku railway station is the world’s busiest. Each day, over two million train and underground passengers use station. A massive area for taxies and the Busta Shinjuku-coach station for long distance coaches is located on the upper floors of the building.
To the west of the station is Shinjuku’s skyscraper area, where many of the city’s tallest buildings are located. One of these is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, whose observation deck is open for public, free of charge. The building itself is 202 meters tall, and the observation deck is on its 45th floor. To gain entry, we had to queue for a quarter of an hour, which was totally worth it. The view was amazing, and gave a good impression of the size and density of the city.
The queue to exit the building was slightly longer. In Tokyo, one gets used to queuing, because there are so many people, everywhere. Queuing and other kinds of communal behaviour go without incident in this town, where the practice of cutting queues seems to be completely absent. Live and let live seems to be the guiding principle of this town, whose population is seven times that of the entire country of Finland.
Kabukicho – Wild life from one extreme to another
North-west of the station is Kabukicho, described as the largest and wildest red-light district in the country. However, red lights do not mean quite what they might mean in the wildest western imaginations, but something much more innocent. The area also contains a lot more, for example, a large number of excellent restaurants. They are open, as restaurants in the city in general, between 11 am and 11 pm. Some restaurants also close their doors for a few hours between lunch and dinner times.
Golden Gai is its own chapter: a small, intimate center of night life with over 200 bars and restaurants, located in the Kabukicho. Most of the restaurants have only a few customer places. If you wish visit one of them, try to go before they are filled with regular customers, and don’t worry, if the menu might not be available in any of the languages you know. You will definitely be richer for the experience.
Golden Gai’s restaurants generally open between 7 and 8 pm, and they stay open until morning. On Sundays, most places are closed. You have to rest sometime.
Green amidst skyscrapers
Despite its density, Tokyo is full of parks and other green spaces. And as one might expect, they are all very well kept and unbelievably beautiful. The largest of the city’s parks, and one of the most stunning in the whole country, is Shinjuku Gyoen. Shinjuku Gyoen is open to public between 9 am and 4.30 pm. On Mondays, and between 29 December and 3 January, the park is closed.
During the cherry blossom season, which lasts from the end of March to the beginning of April, and during the chrysanthemum season in the first two weeks of November, the park is open on Mondays as well. The entrance fee is equivalent to approximately 1,5€.
The Tokyo Central Park, which is always open and free to enter, is in the same area. The Kumano-shrine, founded in between the 14th and the 16th centuries, is located in the Central Park, and is said to be the spiritual protector of Shinjuku. Large number of the city’s homeless sleep in the park, bringing contrast.
Despite the red lights and other unassorted matters and places, I would like to stress that at no place and at no time did the city feel unsafe or unpleasant. Calmness, tactfulness, tolerance, kindness, helpfulness, and open-mindedness allow everyone a chance to be themselves. I do not know if these traits are sincere or not, but they do the trick in any case.
In the evening, we visited The Westin Tokyo-hotel, belonging to the more luxurious properties in Marriot’s line. It is located in the peaceful, beautiful, and respected Ebisu-disctrict. There the city feels like it is miles away, but the location and transit connections are excellent. The hotel is held to be one of Tokyo’s finest, and that is not surprising. Everything has been thought through, and guests can rest assured that all and any wishes can be fulfilled.
We had the chance to enjoy an excellent teppanyaki-dinner at a restaurant in the hotel’s upper floors, whose windows allowed an excellent view. Teppanyaki is a dinner that is prepared by the chef on a large, hot surface right in front of the eyes of the diners. On offer was meat, shrimps, vegetables, fish, noodels, and fried rice.
Everything at the dinner was simply very tasty!
With full stomachs and good spirits we returned to Kotobashi and the Moxy hotel. We decided to go for a quick drink in the hotel’s bar. Though the ambiance of the place was excellent, the long day soon took its toll on us, and our respective bed beckoned.
The room was not massive, but big enough, with large beds of high quality. The whole worked well. Having heard stories about Japanese bathrooms, I was relieved to find out that the bathroom in my hotel room was close to standard Western ones.
The morning came quickly, and after a hearty breakfast it was time to explore the city a little bit further. When traveling, it is always wise to keep in mind that there is plenty of time to catch up on sleeping back home. Works for me, anyway.
New day, new agenda
We head towards Asakusa in order to visit the Sensō-ji, the oldest temple in the city, founded in 645. It is dedicated to the goddess Kannon Bosatsu, the goddess of mercy. Sensō-ji is one of the most colourful and busiest temples in the city. The temple’s popularity is on display on the ancient Nakamise shopping street, comprising 200 metres of stalls selling everything from casual versions of the yukata to fans and local delicacies.
The area near the temple of mercy had other things to sell, naturally. Mercy itself was on offer in various forms, such as the ’I pass my exams’-mercy, which appeared to be sold out. The wedding season and exam season appear to be at the same time in Japan.
The Tranquility of Ueno Park
The Ueno Park is a large public park right next to the Ueno Station, in the middle of Tokyo. The park was originally part of the Kan’ei-ji-temple, whose purpose was to protect the city from the devil. The temple, however, was almost completely destroyed in the Boshin War of 1868-69. Subsequently the Ueno Park was founded on the site as one of the city’s first parks that drew its inspiration from the west. It was opened in 1873.
Today, Ueno is well known for its abundance of museums, the most famous of which are the Tokyo National Museum, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the National Science Museum.
Ueno is also home to Japan’s first zoo.
On top of everything else, Ueno is also one of Tokyo’s most prominent and lively places to observe cherry blossoms. The promenade through the park is lined with over a thousand cherry trees which, as mentioned, bloom around the end of March and beginning of April. Ueno is also one home to Hanami-celebrations. Hanami translates as ’flower viewing’ and it is regarded as one of Japan’s most important annual celebrations. At the height of blooming, the Japanese get together under the cherry trees to eat, drink sake, and to spend time together. The precise time of Hanami celebrations varies depending on the weather of the year as well as location, to ensure that the blooming is at its height. Full blooming only lasts for a few days.
Kappabashi: Everything for the kitchen and cooking
Kappabashi Street, between Ueno and Asakusa is a remarkable concentration of commercial properties dedicated to kitchenware and cooking equipment. Whatever you can think of, you can find it here, except for fresh ingredients. I focused solely on window shopping, but other members of our group ventured into some of the knife shops, and they did not return empty handed. Japanese knives are famously among the world’s best.
The Tokyo Bay, and with good luck, Mount Fuji
Our hotel for the second night was the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel, which is one of Tokyo Disney Resort’s official hotels. The hotel’s free-of-charge shuttle bus takes visitors to a monorail station, and from there, to Tokyo Disneyland as well as Tokyo Disney Sea theme parks. Iksipiari, a large shopping, dining, and entertainment complex is also located nearby.
The excellent location of the hotel and its extensive services mean that it is not strictly necessary to leave at all. Dogs and their friends are also welcome: the hotel has reserved a whole floor for them and their masters, with its own entrance.
There are a whopping 1016 rooms in this hotel, and like other hotels we stayed at during our trip, is a great venue for meetings and events as well. The local wedding season happened to be in full swing at the time of our visit, and it was not uncommon to spot newly-wed couples at regular intervals. In order to give each bride the experience of being a princess for a day – the sole princess – the hotel had even hired staff to make sure that two brides would at no point during the day run into each other. A formidable task, considering that there might be as many as a dozen weddings each day at the same location.
The Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel had an awesome location by the Tokyo Bay and offered a great view. On a clear day, one could even see the famous Mount Fuji, some 100 kilometres away.
Last night about to start
Our third and final hotel was the Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo, Autograph Collection. A very nice hotel, a great location, and impeccable services. Shinagava Station was only a few minutes’ walk down the hill – although free transportation service was also available.
The hotel has its own Japanese garden, 20,000 square feet in size, which is ideal for continuing to wake up after a good breakfast. The park is very peaceful, even though it’s close to an extremely lively neighborhood. At the hotel sauna is also available, as well as a spa and various treatments. And each room has its own Jacuzzi, too.
Harajuku: Fast but not furious
Harajuku is the area around Harajuku Station, between Shinjuku and Shibuya. It is best known as the centre of Japanese teenage fashion and culture, with its centre being the Takeshita Street and its offshoots.
The fashion, the phenomena, and the general buzz are worth seeing, even if you don’t belong in the target demographic.
Sweet, pink, music, alternative fashion, fast food, plenty of shops, people making appearances. These are the things Takeshita is made of, while it does also offer something for those looking for more conventional pastimes.
Heading west from the Harajuku station the scene changes completely, once again, and one comes to the Meiji Shrine, one of Tokyo’s largest holy sites. It is a huge, green oasis. Spacious Yoyogi Park, with its art galleries and Japanese gardens, is also in the area.
Ginza: Anything, if you can afford it
Ginza is the place to be for all things luxurious. It is quite likely that there is not a single luxury brand in any industry that does not have a presence in Ginza. It is also a must for many others, including many local brands.
The area is just not for shopping, but has also attracted restaurants, coffee shops, night clubs, and other entertainment, though these are also on the more expensive side. The expensive nature of the area is reflected in the fact that in the area, a square feet of land can cost up to ten million yen, equivalent to approximately 80 000 euros, which is one of the highest rates in Japan. ’Highest price in Japan’ goes for everything in this area, from a cup of coffee to sushi or a can of coke. When traveling on budget, it is probably wise to spent one’s money elsewhere, which is possible without sacrificing quality. If you do wish to have a refreshment as a break from shopping, go underground, literally: most of the more affordable joints are underground.
Shops in Ginza are open each day of the week. Weekend afternoons are the ideal time for strolling, as the central Chuo Dori street is a pedestrians only-zone between 12 pm and 5 pm (6 pm form April to the end of September).
Yurakucho: Another story
Yurakucho is located one station to the south from Tokyo Station on the JR Yamanote line. The area, near Ginza, offers a lot of dining and shopping opportunities as well, at a more affordable price. Yurakucho also has a larger number of locals, and in my opinion a more relaxed atmosphere.
One of Yurakucho’s most attractive aspects is its lively restaurant area, located under the rails heading north and south from the station, for a whopping 700 metres. This might not sound very appealing, but in a place such as Tokyo, where new land is impossible to find, the solution of building underground makes sense. It is definitely worth a visit.
The restaurants are usually simple and authentically Japanese. The food is often straightforward, such as yakitori-chicken skewers, and delicious. You can, however, also find elegant French wine bars, Italian restaurants, and German beerhalls. Anyone looking for these should head north west of the Yurakucho Station.
Eat what you get and drink as much as you like – and can
The area surrounding the Shibuya station is full of shopping opportunities, nightlife, and entertainment. It is one of the busiest and most colourful areas in Tokyo.
Shibuya’s most famous landmark, near the Shibuya Scramble crossing, is the Hachiko-statue, which functions as a meeting place for many locals, as well – it appears – as an obligatory selfie-spot.
The Hachiko-statue is cute, but not particularly distinctive. It is the story behind the statue that makes it remarkable. And everyone has probably already seen the movie. Long story short: in the 1920s a dog of the Akita-breed named Hachiko spent his days waiting at the Shibuya station for his master to get back from work. One day the master did not return, because he had died at work of a sudden seizure. Hachiko was not bothered about this detail, but instead he came to the same spot to wait for his master each day for nine years, until he died. Hachiko has become a symbol of loyalty.
We continue on our way for a bit, towards the neon-lit side alleys, where love hotels and shrines live in perfect harmony. Our destination was a small restaurant called Koryōri Hyakken. We were looking forward to spending our last night in Tokyo in a cozy atmosphere, with shared food and plenty of refreshments, enjoying good company. Koryōri Hyakken is a restaurant in the Izakaya-style. Izakaya-restaurants, in the broadest terms, offer drinks, and to increase thirst, there is a constant flow of delicious, salty and a bit creasy food coming in to share with your friends. This is an excellent opportunity to taste a wide range of known and unknown delicacies.
We have ordered our food in the omakase-manner, which means that the chef is free to choose what he wants to offer, let his creativity run wild and surprise the guests. This might sound like a gamble, but I think we emerged victorious from this gamble. The food was absolutely fantastic and there was plenty of it. Apparently, ordering in the omakase-manner is also cheaper than à la carte. This is because omakase gives the chef an opportunity to use the ingredients at his disposal, which might otherwise go unused until they are no longer edible.
An entertaining evening was coming to close, except for final drinks. We chose to go to a nearby pub run by the Danish brewery Mikkeller. Mikkeller brews over 2000 beers and has won several prizes. The brewery has now begun conquering the world, running its own bars in 42 different countries. Thanks to a new partnership deal, beers served at SAS flights are now also made by Mikkeller.
Heading back home
After a breakfast at the hotel and a quick tour of the Japanese garden, it was time to head towards Narita Airport and our flight, departing at 12.30. On this flight, we will be traveling in SAS Plus-class, which is a good option for business class. Plus-class gives travellers the opportunity to use fast track-services, an access to SAS lounge, free meals and drinks, two luggage, with the maximum weight of 23 kilograms each, checked in, a free ticket change option, and a more spacious seat, as well as the option to choose where you sit.
Travelling in this class was pleasant. I chose not to sleep too much in order to make it easier to return to Finnish time. We arrived at Copenhagen at 4 pm, which meant that by staying awake and getting in bed early once at home, I was able to return to normality the next day.
From Copenhagen to Helsinki I flew in SAS Go-class, which was all good as well. It is a nice and advisable alternative on short flights.
At home I reflected on what was the most striking detail about Tokyo: its cleanliness. Not a single piece of rubbish on sight, not even cigarette stubs, or dog dos. To be fair, the only dogs I saw during the whole trip were the six to eight Chihuahuas being pushed by their owner in a pram near Takeshita. Other things that impressed me were people’s friendliness and helpfulness, and the excellent English of the younger locals. Everything worked, felt safe, and was in order: the average train delay in the city is 32 seconds.
A very short dictionary for travellers:
Konnichiwa – Hello!
Arigatou – Thank you!
Kanpai – Cheers!
Wi-fi Arimasuka – Have you got WIFI?
Text: Päivi Lappi
Images: Päivi Lappi. Shutterstock.com, SAS, Marriott, Lars Andreasen , Pilar Widung.