It was quite a busy summer for us – we got married! We figured after traveling around the world together for a year, married life would be a piece of cake. The wedding and associated festivities were amazing, but we were also really looking forward to our honeymoon.
We had a bit of a hard time choosing a destination. We wanted to go someplace that was a little bit more expensive than other places, since we figured on our honeymoon we wouldn’t feel guilty about breaking our $100/day budget. Our top choices were:
- Scandinavia – Eric has always wanted to go explore the natural wonders there
- Italy – we have both traveled there, but not together. Plus great food and wine!
- Japan-this was where we were supposed to end our RTW trip before we decided to cut it short after the earthquake in Nepal
Ultimately, we decided on Japan! We were able to squeeze in two-and-a-half weeks of adventure in between the wedding and heading back to work. Our first stop: Tokyo!
If you’ve read other blog posts of ours, you can guess that we used miles to book our flights to and from Japan. For the flight there, we were able to find seats on the direct Denver to Tokyo flight on the 787 Dreamliner, purchased for just $5.60 per person in fees (using 35,000 United miles each, accumulated from signing up for United Mileage Plus Explorer and Chase Sapphire cards).
Another benefit of the Mileage Plus Explorer card is that is comes with free United lounge passes. We took advantage of the lounge in Denver and grabbed a quick snack before our flight.
The flight itself took about 12 hours. The Dreamliner has a nice personal entertainment screen at each seat with a good selection of movies that we used to pass the time.
We arrived in Tokyo at 3 in the afternoon the next day. Narita Airport is far outside of town, so after landing we went to figure out how to get into the city. First though,we were randomly interviewed by a Japanese journalist about why were were coming to Japan. Hope our jet-lagged answers didn’t get edited out!
We were staying in the Ueno neighborhood, so we bought tickets on the Keisei Skyliner train which heads directly there. We also picked up our Japanese Rail passes for use on the rest of the trip (they are not valid on the private Keisei line). Train travel in Japan is very convenient, but you do have to pay attention to which company is operating the lines, as there are many private lines that the JR pass is not valid on. In retrospect, we should have just used the Japan Railways line which would have been included with our pass, and would have only required one transfer to get to Ueno.
Our first experience on a train in Japan definitely impressed us – the interior was very comfortable and the train arrived exactly on time.
Where We Stayed
It is hard to find good, cheap accommodation in Japan. As intriguing as a capsule hotel sounded, we didn’t think that would be the most romantic for our honeymoon! Instead, we decided to book an apartment on Airbnb. There were a good number of choices, but we settled on a reasonably-priced one in the Ueno neighborhood.
It was a little small but quite cozy. It had a main living area with a futon which doubled as a couch and a bed, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a separate shower room (having these last two separate turned out to be the standard in all the apartments we stayed in). We enjoyed our first introduction to the fancy Japanese toilets as well!
Ueno was a convenient neighborhood to be based in: near a big park and multiple museums, plenty of restaurants, and easy transportation to other parts of the city.
What We Did
We had three full days to see as much as we could of Tokyo!
This large park was located right by our accommodations. The southernmost pond was full of blooming lotus plants. We also explored a few different small shrines throughout the park.
Tsukiji Fish Market
We aren’t huge fish fans, but we had read that this giant seafood wholesale market was a must-see in Tokyo, and also was going to be moving soon so we needed to catch it now. We didn’t arrive until after 11 (no way were we going to get there at 5 AM for the tuna auction), and by that point everyone seemed to be packed up for the day already. We only poked our head in, but we were impressed by the scale of the structure. We can only imagine what a hive of activity it must be when the market is in full swing!
Free Walking Tour
One of our favorite things to do when visiting a city is to go on a free walking tour, since they offer an overview of the city at a reasonable rate, so we we were pretty excited when we saw the website for the Tokyo Free Walking Tour. As luck would have it, our first full day in Tokyo was on a Saturday, which is the only day of the week that the regular tours are offered.
The tour met up outside the iconic Tokyo Station (which feels like it belongs in Europe) and then headed to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. The emperor still lives in a different part of the Imperial Palace grounds, so we had to stick to the public gardens area. Our tour was lead by a team of two guides, who did a good job of pointing out the highlights of the gardens and filling us in on some of the history of the city and the palace.
An added bonus at the end was that they had “30-second kimonos” that were quick to tie on, making for an excellent photo opportunity.
Yanaka Neighborhood Walk
We followed a recommended Lonely Planet walking tour through the Yanaka neighborhood, the main attraction of which is a pedestrian street lined with all different types of shops. Of course our favorite was the 100 yen store! We also walked through the Yanaka Cemetery, which has thousands of tombstones of all ages.
On the start of our second day of sightseeing, we visited the Senso-ji, a large Buddhist temple located in the Asakusa neighborhood. This was our first exposure to some of the classic Japanese temple elements: elaborate entrance gate, incense urn, fountain to cleanse your hands, booths to buy lucky charms, and so on.
The city of “Tokyo” has actually only existed since 1869, when the newly-established Emperor moved the capital to the city (Tokyo means “eastern capital”). Prior to that period, the city had been known as Edo. It started out as a small fishing village but rose to prominence as the base of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. This museum, housed in an interesting modern building, describes the history and culture of the city from its founding to present day. There was a lot of information to be read, so we had to rush a little at the end.
The Tokyo National Museum, located in Ueno Park, is actually a collection of buildings housing a multitude of artifacts and exhibitions. Our “museum legs” were really kicking in, so we only visited two collections: the “Honkan” building which highlights Japanese art throughout the different periods of history, and the newly-renovated Gallery of Horyuin Treasures, which displays artifacts from an ancient temple in Nara.
Emperor Meiji was the aforementioned emperor who established Tokyo as the capital of Japan and seat of the Empire. This Shinto shrine nestled in a wooded park in the middle of the city honor him and his Empress. Parts of the shrine were under renovation, so we didn’t see everything we could have, but it was still a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Just outside the shrine is the Harajuku neighborhood, known as the epicenter for Japanese youth culture. We walked down the main street, Takeshita Dori, and took in the atmosphere. Our most exciting find was Daiso: a mega 100 yen store, with FIVE floors of items. We spent a long time marveling at all of the different things you could get for the equivalent of a dollar. We also bought a crepe at one of the many stands along the street.
We couldn’t come to Tokyo and not come to the famous crossing located just outside of Shibuya Station. This intersection of multiple roads is stopped for just pedestrian traffic, and a flood of people from all directions crosses the street. We crossed ourselves a few times to experience it.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
The name sounds a little dry, but this is a great tourist destination. You can ride an elevator for free to an observation deck with great views of Tokyo in every direction. Unfortunately, we were there on a cloudy day, so we couldn’t see everything, but we still were able to spot many of the landmarks we had visited as part of the three whirlwind days!
Where We Ate
On our first night in Tokyo, we wanted something simple and close for our first meal. Luckily, our apartment in Ueno was close to quite a few places. In the guide for the Airbnb, the host recommended the Tabelog website for finding a place that locals like to eat. We used this to find a ramen place that had good reviews. It was a little hard to find- restaurants in Japan are pretty small! We actually walked by the door the first time before realizing it was the right place.
We also got a crash course in another common feature in small Japanese restaurants: ordering from a machine. Before we even sat down, we had to pick out our items from the kiosk by the front door that looked like a vending machine. This one was especially tough because it had no English or pictures on the buttons! The waitress motioned that there were pictures around the machine that were in English, but we were having a hard time correlating them to the buttons. We finally just guessed based on the prices. We ended up getting two types of ramen, an order of gyoza, and a beer each. A delicious introduction to eating in Japan!
The next day, we were meeting up with the walking tour at Tokyo Station just after lunch time, so we decided to grab a quick lunch at one of the restaurants on “Ramen Street,” a collection of well-known ramen shops on along one small hallway on the lower level of the station. We were running a little behind so we chose one with no line (most are very small so you have to wait for a spot to sit). We again ordered from a machine, and both ended up with a tasty bowl of ramen.
Located just next door to our apartment building was an izakaya named Shinsuke. An izakaya is a Japanese pub that serves sake and other drinks in addition to small plates of food (kind of like tapas). We went one evening and sampled two types of sake and a good number of the dishes (although sticking mostly to non-fish dishes). We tried the potato salad, fried chicken, simmered vegetables and the house specialty, tofu raclette (fried tofu stuffed with raclette cheese).
Cafe by Ryogoku Station
After visiting the Edo-Tokyo museum, our plan had been to go to the nearby sumo district and dine at one of the restaurants serving sumo-style soup. Unfortunately, we didn’t take into account that it was the middle of the afternoon, and the place we wanted to go was closed. Instead, we found this small cafe by the JR station. It turned out to be quite good. We were again confused by the vending machine, but someone helped us figure out how to order. We had the choice of soba or udon noodles, and we both chose udon. This was our first udon meal of the trip and definitely wouldn’t be the last – we decided it was our favorite type of noodle!
We ran into a similar issue that evening, as it seemed like many of the places in the neighborhood were closed on Sunday night. We just decided to eat at Siam, a Thai place that was open. It was enjoyable although a lot more expensive than actually eating in Thailand.
Takeout meal place
After a long day of sightseeing, we decided to just get some food to go from a place we had seen in our neighborhood that seemed to serve ready-made meals. We perused the trays of items already prepared but ultimately both ordered something from the short-order menu (again kind of guessing based on pictures). Della got stir-fried veggies and Eric a fried meat dish (tonkatsu?).
Piss Alley yakitori
Yes, the name sounds weird, but bear with us. While in the Shinjuke district, we decided to find this small side street, which they try to call “Memory Lane” – but it keeps its other nickname because back in the day it was a popular place to go get drunk. The street is very narrow, and has very tiny restaurants all along. We found one with some open stools and were surprised to see that the restaurant was just wide enough for our seats and the grill. We ordered some skewers of different meats and veggies, watched the proprietor grill them right in front of us, and then enjoyed!
After determining that udon was our favorite type of noodle, we decided to look for a place near our apartment in Ueno for dinner that had it. The restaurant review site listed Miyoshi as having udon, so we decided to try it. It was a little hard to find, since the small Japanese restaurants often don’t have a sign out front. Also, when we first looked, it was Sunday, and as it turned out it was one of the closed places. Finally, on our last evening we were able to locate this small place. It indeed had udon and soba noodles. There was not an English menu, but through a combination of pictures and hand gestures we were able to order. Della had regular udon and Eric had curry udon which is udon noodle soup with curry flavor added.
You may have noticed that we didn’t list any breakfast places above. Since we had our own apartment, we decided to keep it simple and do breakfast ourselves. There was not a big grocery store nearby, but the convenience stores in Japan have an excellent selection of pre-prepared food for takeaway. Every evening, we would go to one of the nearby stores – 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart (depending on which corner we were closest to) – and would select a few items that looked good. We were often guessing, but were rarely disappointed. We got a lot of different rice balls and sushi rolls that were quite good. We also would often pick up beers and dessert from one of these stores as well for a cheap evening treat!
Tokyo was a great place to start our honeymoon trip in Japan. We feel like we barely scratched the surface of things to see and places to eat. We would definitely like to go back again!