My Trip to Japan Part 1
I’ve been in Tokyo for about a week at this point so I’m sharing about some of my trip thus far, including how I got my cheap ticket, and what I did to prepare for the trip.
Every time I told someone I was going to Tokyo, I felt like I had to justify it immediately with “I found a really cheap ticket.” Because I didn’t really have any other reason. I didn’t always dream of coming here. I’m not obsessed with ramen or sushi, although I did enjoy both as well as other Japanese food. I don’t have a fascination with anime or really any part of Japanese culture but on Thanksgiving when I got an email from Scott’s Cheap Travel boasting seven hundred-dollar tickets to Tokyo, during cherry blossom season, I felt like I had to do it.
If you’re not on Scott’s Cheap Travel’s email list, you should do that right now. It’s free. And I strongly suggest getting off any email list for cheap travel tips that costs you money. I’ve done a few and they’ve never been worth it. But Scott’s Cheap Travel is the real deal. My cousin, Kara, referred me to it. She’s gone to Ireland, Croatia, Thailand, and is about to go to Hong Kong – all with SCT referrals. Basically, SCT sends out a daily email with a great deal on international travel deals from the US within a specific timeframe. Scott includes all airlines. And the special pricing can be for a ticket a month from the day, or four months. Every day’s email is for a new destination. I’ve seen cities all over Europe, Morocco, Japan, Hong Kong, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Canada. There can be anywhere from 5 to 30 departing cities around the US. Cleveland, and other smaller airport cities are not often on it, but a fair amount. And if you’re scrappy like me and my cousin, you look for the bigger cities around you that you know you can buy a cheap ticket to. I was lucky this time and the $700 flights to Tokyo included Cleveland, with a layover in Toronto. But my cousin lives in Boise, which is almost never included, looks for San Francisco and Seattle, and then buys a separate ticket to one of those cities. Just don’t forget to add the cost of this ticket to the deal being offered by SCT. If the ticket to the departing city is more than $200, it’s probably not worth it, but that’s for me and my budget and my travel market.
In conclusion, Scott’s Cheap Travel is a great deal. Get on the list. He offers a premium email list too, which you pay for and supposedly get more (possibly better) deals. I haven’t signed up for it, but I definitely don’t need to. The free email gives me more than I need. You might get addicted. Kara thinks she might need an intervention and I’m on my way there too.
Once I got my ticket booked I was a little overwhelmed with the idea of traveling to Japan. ALONE. I’ve done the Caribbean or Latin America or Europe by myself, but those all seemed relatively close. This was also going to be one of the longest trips I’ve done by myself – 10 days.
The first thing I did was reach out to a friend from Chicago, Marie. I used to babysit for Marie and her husband Todd when I lived in Chicago. I started watching their two gorgeous kids when they were 6 months and three years old. Side note: this was my family to babysit for in Chicago. I used to babysit like 10 families that lived on or around DePaul’s campus, but this was the most gorgeous, down to earth, kind, and #goals family. Marie’s kids are now 13 and 10 years old and I feel so old.
I reached out to Marie because her and the family moved to Tokyo for her husband’s job back in 2015 and they lived there for two years. They are now back in Chicago but of course, she still had so much knowledge. The first thing Marie told me was cabs from the airport are out of the question expensive - $250. But obviously, she had a solution for me like the helpful queen she is. She recommended taking Limo Bus. It’s a bus service offered at both Tokyo airports, for a flat fee of $11 takes you all over the Tokyo area, dropping off at different hotels. Marie was such an angel she even helped me (when I say help, I mean that she did it for me) figure out which bus line to take and the closest hotel drop-off point to my Airbnb. This saved me.
The other great hot tip Marie made was that Yayoi Kusama Museum tickets go fast – and go on sale two months in advance. I was lucky enough to go to the Infinity Mirrors exhibit when it came to Cleveland back in September and I knew I wanted to go to her hometown’s museum too. To get this ticket, I put a reminder on my phone for exactly two months before my third day in Tokyo to go buy the tickets. I was surprised the tickets weren’t that expensive. More on my trip to the Kusama museum later.
Marie suggested that I do some travel outside of Tokyo, which I hadn’t thought about it before. But I thought about it and came back to her and said “I would love to do a 2-3 day trip to the beach or somewhere warm.” She was on it. Marie literally researched for me! And came back with Kamakura. More on my trip to the beach later.
One smart thing I did was follow #tokyo on Instagram. This was so helpful for inspiration on where to go and what to do. One day I was scrolling along and spotted a photo of the most relaxed person sitting in an outdoor hot tub. Upon further investigation, I found that this photo came on my scroll from #tokyo but the photo was taken in Hakone, a region 2-3 hours away from Tokyo. The guy in the photo was not in a hot tub, but was in a onsen. If you know me at all, you know that I love water of all kinds – but I talk about hot tubs all of the time. Hakone is known for its onsen – a natural hot spring with mineral water that’s supposed to amazing. There are group/public onsens but you can also get private onsens. After very minimal research, I decided I wanted to go to Hakone instead of Kamakura – I WANTED THOSE HOT SPRINGS!
Because I am the worst travel planner ever, I did not book my airbnbs until 2-3 weeks before I left. When I went to book the Airbnb for Hakone, I couldn’t find any reasonably priced with a private onsen. I booked a “whatever Airbnb” and decided that I would find a public one. As my departure date got closer, I was doing more research into onsens and what to do in Hakone and I learned that public onsens in Japan do not allow people with tattoos. Tragedy. Some articles mentioned that I might be able to find one that would allow tattoos.
After doing a deep dive into this onsen man’s Instagram feed, I learned that his name is Brad, he’s from Atlanta, and a photographer living in Tokyo. He looked cool af. I reached out about a photoshoot while I was there. His prices were a lot less expensive than anything else I found, so I booked a shoot with him for my second day there. More on that later.
Brad also has tattoos, so I just planned to ask Brad when I got to Tokyo where I should go and I would be fine. When I did ask Brad, he told me that his hotel room had a private onsen and he didn’t know the name of one that would allow tattoos. But throughout our day together, Brad mentioned how difficult the travel was to Hakone. He said he couldn’t have navigated it without his girlfriend who spoke fluent Japanese. I started to doubt that Hakone was a good idea.
The night before I am supposed to check out of my Tokyo Airbnb and head to Hakone, I headed to a coffee shop and did some research. I looked for an hour for a hotel with private onsens, but all of the low-medium budget hotels were booked (of course). After an hour or more of research, I decided to go with Marie’s plan (should have listened to her in the first place). I started to look for Airbnbs in Kamakura. There wasn’t a ton, but I did find a place for $60 a night in Hayama, another, smaller, seaside town in the Kanagawa Prefecture. The place looked close to the beach and I did some research on how to get there via public transportation and it didn’t look terrible (two trains and a bus), so I booked it and cancelled the Airbnb in Hakone (losing $70).
I met Brad for our photoshoot near the Shinjuku Gyoen park, a huge park filled with cherry blossom trees, and walked there together. Brad is super cool. He’s been living in Tokyo for about two years. He was really helpful and friendly. It was a great shoot. Afterwards, he was kind enough to invite me to eat raemen with him, where he taught me how to use chopsticks, a skill I’ve never been able to grasp.
Shinjuku Gyoen park was absolutely gorgeous, albeit packed. Hanami means the viewing of beautiful flowers, almost always referring to the cherry blossoms.
Initial Observations on Tokyo
The city is so, so clean. Like shockingly clean.
I’ve only been encountered a few toilets without a bidet. And really nice bidets, i.e. front and back.
I love that how many convenient stores are around the city. Many open 24 hours a day. It relieves a lot of anxiety I have when I travel to have available stores where I can get food in the middle of the night or get little things that I forgot to pack like moisturizer. Bonus: these stores usually take cards. Most importantly, they have the best treats, i.e. pancake tacos filled with crème, dozens of ice cream on the go solutions, dozens and dozens of coffee drinks, packaged hot dogs with the bun, ketchup, and mustard on it, and yes, I tried that, it was okay.
Cabs are so expensive, and apparently Uber is more expensiv. I heard that this is likely because the public transportation is so good. I’ve been here for about a week and I have yet to take an Uber or cab, which is my usual mode of transportation when I travel abroad, to cut down on my anxiety and confusion. But with some help from Brad, a lot of googling, and even more pep talks to myself, I figured it out. Japan, and especially Tokyo does have a great public transportation system, and once I figured it out, I really enjoyed using it. I am going to post a guide to public transportation later.
Day two, I gave up on trying to live off WiFi. One, because I found that WiFi is not as ubiquitous in Japan as I thought. Two, because walking around is tough. Some of the signs are in English, but the vast majority of the street signs are not in English (i.e. written in Japanese letters), making it very hard for me to navigate. Usually in big cities, I can kind of walk around and return home using an internal compass but for some reason I can’t do that here and Im not sure if it’s because the streets are more twisty and turny. Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping Google Maps on, but GPS doesn’t work very well here. Especially the closer you are to the city center. The GPS gets confused, then I get confused, and have to stand on the sidewalk whisper-screaming “Fuck you” to my phone.
Some things I have noticed about Japanese culture. Note, that this is just my experience, I’m certainly not an expert on Japanese culture or an expert traveler. And by no means are any of these things are meant as criticisms. I’m just taking note of things I noticed that are very different from living in the U.S. or even traveling to places like Europe.
I was so surprised at how many restaurants are cash only. Brad mentioned that it might be because of something related to high taxes. I fully anticipated Tokyo to be tech friendly and a part of that image in my head was a city that took cards everywhere, like a chip in our eyes that you can screen, or some Black Mirror story.
This custom is not like it is in Europe, where the rules are less clear. Granted, Europe is a huge place with a lot of different cultures but I’ve heard everything from tip 10%, to tip nothing, to ‘we appreciate when you tip us but you don’t have to’. But in Japan it is a straight NO TIPPING. It’s thought of as rude and will likely be returned to you.
The strict adherence to the no tipping rule makes a lot of sense to me now that I’ve been here for about a week. That’s because I’ve noticed that Japan is full of rule and order. Societal norms are not casual suggestions here, which has been really interesting for me considering I think of everything as a suggestion. Here are some interesting examples:
Jay walking: I haven’t seen anyone do it. People do not cross the street unless it is at a crosswalk and the light is green – even if there’s not a car in sight.
Walking on the left side: This is huge. It’s not like in the US (or anywhere else I’ve been) where we typically walk on the right side, but it kind of doesn’t matter, unless someone is in our way and we bitch about them in our head on our way to work. Walking on the left side is important. And when you’re on an escalator, everyone will line up on the left to stand, allowing walkers on the right.
I walked into a Starbucks (the smaller coffee shops don’t often have outlets and wifi) to get some work done and an employee approached me right away and asked if I was staying or taking my order to go. I told her I wanted to stay and she said that there were no chairs left, and I understood that I should leave. When I went to the restaurant next door, I was seated at a table; a few minutes later an employee came up to me, not to take my order, but to say that they would need the table at 5:30 (75 minutes from that point). I said that was fine. But five minutes later, no one had taken my order yet, and the woman returned to say that they would actually need the table at 5:00, at which point I just decided to leave. The rules and clear expectations were starting to give me anxiety.
The most important thing I can say about traveling in Japan is that the people are a level of kind that I’ve never encountered before. It’s not just a lot of the people either. It’s everyone! They are so eager to welcome me and help me. All of my Airbnb hosts have insisted on meeting me at the location, which I don’t think has ever happened to me before, to show me around the place and give me tips on the neighborhood. All of my servers have been really sweet and kind too. The other day, a man sitting on a bench saw me walking around taking photos and gave me a Tokyo Visitor Guide pamphlet. Just because!
Not long before I left, I read Amber Fillerup’s blog post about visiting Japan a few years ago because she also did a photoshoot in the cherry blossoms and wanted some inspiration. In her blog post, she mentioned how nice the people were and that a cab driver even returned her husband’s backpack full of $15,000 worth of camera equipment after he left it in the cab.
Almost everyone speaks a level of English but not everyone’s is super fluent. This is by no means a criticism, I think it’s amazing that anyone can speak any level of English, especially when I literally know two words of Japanese (hello and thank you). But I’m sharing this to let you know if you come here, be prepared for this. Again though, the people are so incredibly kind and eager to help that they will go out of their way to communicate whatever is needed, i.e. give you directions, communicate some societal norm, etc. - so it always works out.
I am having a great time so far and it’s wild that I only have a few days left, this trip has gone by so fast. I will be sharing a lot more throughout the next few weeks.