36 Hours in Tokyo

36 Hours in Tokyo

J and I were able to get away by ourselves last week, just the two of us. Miss E was out of town on a school trip, so we found ourselves with a couple of days to do whatever we wanted. Rather than spending it relaxing at home, we decided to hop on the Shinkansen (aka the bullet train) and spend that time in Tokyo! We ended up having only 36 hours in Tokyo, but we were up for the challenge.

36 hours Tokyo travel itinerary

Returning to Tokyo

This wasn’t the first time I had been to Tokyo. We actually stayed in Tokyo on the day arrived in Japan, before traveling on to Nagoya. I don’t know that I really count that as a “visit to Tokyo” because we were kind of a mess and weren’t in any condition to experience the city.

We landed late in the afternoon, took a train from the airport to Tokyo station, and then took a taxi from there to our hotel. If it had been up to us girls, we would have called it a night and face planted into our beds. But since that’s the #1 worst thing you can do when attempting to combat jet lag, J dragged us we ventured out. And we were cranky, hungry and on sensory overload. So much so that after a mini-meltdown (I’m not going to say whose meltdown it was), we ended up eating dinner —our very first meal in Japan—at….McDonald’s. Yep. Judge away.

My second time in-Tokyo-but-really-not was this summer when Miss E and I took a last-minute trip to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. It was a last-minute trip: I happened to check the crowd calendar one day in June only to find that later that week would be the only (yes, the ONLY) week during the summer that the crowd levels would be under 50% capacity – and so off we went. And it was an awesome girls trip! But since we didn’t actually make it into the city, I don’t really count that as a trip to Tokyo.

So, third time’s a charm, yes?

Because we had already been to Tokyo before, there are some pretty obvious stops missing from this itinerary. We did not visit Shibuya Crossing, the Tokyo Sky Tree, Tokyo Tower, Sensō-ji Temple, just to name a few. I will cover those in future posts, but if you are trying to plan your first trip to Tokyo, those definitely need to be on your list.

Tokyo Trip: Day 1

We took off last Wednesday afternoon, and after a quick 90 minute trip on the Shinkansen we made it to the city. We made our way to our hotel, dropped off our bags, and headed out to dinner.

Ramen at Afuri

We made up for our first meal in Japan by visiting a nearby ramen restaurant, Afuri. We were able to sit right down at the counter after purchasing our meal via the vending machine located right inside the restaurant’s entrance.

The ramen was so different from ramen varieties we had previously tried. The chicken, fish and seaweed-based broth was served with pork, seaweed, an egg, and yuzu (a type of citrus fruit) peel, which sounds a little strange but ended up being delicious.

As we sat at the counter slurping our noodles, the restaurant filled up, making us glad that we got there when we did! There was a line about 7 people deep when we left — a pretty good indicator of a great restaurant in Japan. We would definitely go back again.

Afuri Ramen Tokyo

Tokyo Trip: Day 2

Since we really only had one full day to spend in Tokyo, we wanted to pack as much activity in as we could on Thursday. Our plan was to do a few of the super touristy things (especially the things Miss E probably wouldn’t enjoy) so that we won’t feel need to do them the next time we visit:

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji market is one of the largest markets in the world. It is a wholesale market; whole fish and other goods are bought at auction in the early morning hours and are then cut up and packaged to be sold to restaurants, catering companies, and the public afterward.

Each morning, a small number of tourists are allowed to witness the tuna auction, which happens to be the most famous. Reservations are not available in advance; If you want to witness it you need to wait in line and hope you’re one of the first 120 people there. Each group is taken to see the tuna auction for about 25 minutes. We decided to forego the tuna auction on this trip because we didn’t want to be up at 3:00 AM for the 25 minute experience.

Even though we missed the earlier auction, the market itself was quite an adrenaline rush! Everyone is buzzing around, the energy palpable. You can both hear and feel the the motorized vehicles as they sped by. It is important to listen for the sound of a vehicle backing up in case you happen to be in the exact spot it needs to be in. Don’t forget that there are actually people working and shopping at the market — not just gawking at the scene. You have to constantly watch where you step, because there are puddles of water and…other stuff…everywhere.

We were most definitely in the way no matter where we walked or stood, and I couldn’t help but think about how annoying it must be for the people trying to do their work and shopping with all of us clueless tourists in the way.

Tsukiji Market Tokyo

Kappabashi Street

One of the items on my Japan bucket list is to invest in Japanese knives. I did some research before we left and found that the best place to find a knife in Tokyo is Kappabashi Street.

Kappabashi Street, or Kitchen Town, is an area in Tokyo where you can find any type of restaurant or home kitchen equipment: dishes, cookware, display cases, uniforms, the plastic food you see outside of every restaurant in Japan, and so much more. We walked up and down the street, ducking into a store here and there. But I was on a mission to find a knife so we didn’t spend too much time browsing.

Kamata Knife Shop

I ended up buying my knife at a store called Kamata. The store was packed with shoppers when we arrived. The woman who helped me choose my knife was very attentive and patient while I went back and forth trying to choose. She was able to give good suggestions in my price range, and she spoke near-perfect English. I probably held about 10 knives before finding the right one.

I ended up choosing a santoku knife, which is a Japanese-style, all-purpose knife that is most often used in home kitchens. It is made from Damascus steel with a polished wood handle. And it’s gorgeous. After I made my decision and paid for my new knife, they engraved my name — in Japanese — on the handle.

Kamata Knife Shop Kappabashi

Sushi Lunch

For lunch we stopped in a random sushi restaurant. We had grand plans to have a sushi breakfast while we were at Tsukiji market earlier, but we weren’t hungry and the lines were pretty insane. The good news is that even a random sushi place in Tokyo is pretty awesome. We each got a sushi set and split a small bottle of sake.



After lunch, we did some more exploring. We ended up in Harajuku, and decided to take an afternoon break at Double Tall Cafe. The coffee I had was perfect. I haven’t found great coffee in Nagoya yet, so it tasted especially great. The cafe also had outdoor seating on the second level overlooking the main street, which was perfect for people watching. While we didn’t see any stereotypical Harajuku girls (worth a Google), we did see some pretty great fashion. Miss E would have been in her element for sure. I can’t wait to take her back to check it out!

Yoyogi Park

After our afternoon dose of caffeine, we walked over to Yoyogi Park. It wasn’t very busy since it was a weekday afternoon, but there were some people out and about. Yoyogi park is known for attracting some interesting characters. It’s a great place to sit and do some people watching. We watched a bartender practicing his tricks and a group of kids rehearsing a dance routine. It was a beautiful fall day, perfect for enjoying some green space in the middle of the city.

After that we were ready to stop back at the hotel to unload our purchases and freshen up a bit. All of our exploring had worn us out…and we were starving!

Yakiniku Dinner

We headed out on foot to find some dinner. Armed with a recommendation and a map from our hotel, we went in search of a yakiniku restaurant. Yakiniku is a Japanese word for the style of cooking small pieces of meat and vegetables on a tabletop, often charcoal, grill. I hadn’t tried it before, and it was actually pretty fun!

Our dinner was delicious, especially the beef. Besides some chicken, pork, and vegetables, we also ordered a set plate with various cuts of wagyu beef. The beef was a splurge, but it was worth it. We left full and happy.

Tokyo Trip: Day 3

The next morning we slept in and ate breakfast at our hotel. Since we had been so busy the day before, we took our time checking out and getting to the train station. We found a storage locker for our bags and then bought our tickets for our afternoon train before venturing out again. We didn’t have much time, but we wanted to fit at least one more attraction before leaving Tokyo.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

The TMGB has free observation decks that give you a view of Tokyo (and beyond) from 45 stories up. It really is incredible to see just how enormous the city really is. I mean, it’s pretty obvious when it takes a 30 minute ride on the subway to get from one part of the city to another, but to actually see it from so high up is really, really cool.

I’m sure the view isn’t as great as the Tokyo Sky Tree, but we decided to save that for the next trip. We only ended up with one non-blurry picture from up there, but you can still get an idea of the size of the city. You can also see the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Burgers for Lunch

We only had about two hours left until we needed to get on our train and head home, so we went on a mission to find some lunch.

We headed back towards Harajuku to hunt down a burger place that seemed to get great reviews online. Sadly, the burgers ended up being pretty disappointing. I don’t think we realized how spoiled we were while we were living in Texas, and apparently we have become pretty picky when it comes to burgers.

In our experience, the beef that they use for burgers here in Japan just isn’t great. And adding interesting toppings it doesn’t change the quality of the burger much. It only took us six months of trying to hunt down a great burger in Japan to figure out that it’s just not worth it to us. Lesson learned. Another thing to add to the list for when we’re back in the US!

Heading Home

After lunch, we started back to the station to catch the Shinkansen. Less than two hours later we were walking in our apartment door, about 20 minutes before Miss E got home. Perfect timing!

And as great as it was to get away, it’s even better to come home! I’m glad we were able to spend a couple of days enjoying Tokyo, but spending so little time there makes me just want to go back!


Reflecting on Expat Life: 6 Months

This week marks six months since we left the United States and moved to Japan. It is strange to realize that I have been an expat for 6 months already. 6 months feels like an eternity, but also like it went by in the blink of an eye.

expat life 6 months

Before moving here – during all of the planning, packing, and goodbye-ing – I spent very little time thinking about what it would mean for us to finally step onto that plane – to leave behind our life, our family, our dog, and everything we were familiar with. I spent approximately 0% of my time thinking about the fact that walking through that airplane door would actually change the trajectory of my life and the lives of my immediate family members.

Instead of thinking about the magnitude of stepping onto the airplane, I focused on the details: the passports, the tickets, the visas, the packing, the hotel reservations, etc. I distracted myself with those details so that I wouldn’t think about the rest.

The First Weeks as an Expat

Like any move, the first weeks were all about checking off the most necessary of tasks. We found a place to live, we enrolled our preteen daughter in school, we bought cell phones, we picked out furniture, and we navigated our new city’s transportation system. Those tasks acted as a nice little distraction from the big stuff. There’s no time to question whether or not you’ve made a huge mistake when there is an apartment to furnish!

We spent our first month living in a hotel, another distraction. Hotel living certainly wasn’t terrible; it was a most welcome distraction that came with English-speaking staff, executive lounge access, endless food and champagne, and laundry service. This wasn’t our new life, it was too comfortable. It was the in-between of our previous life and our new one. But when you uproot your life and transport your family to the opposite side of the globe you learn to cling to any comfort you can get. Especially in the form of laundry service. And champagne.

In reality, I needed the distractions in those early days. After those first few weeks – filled with travel, jet lag, and mini-tantrums – the magnitude of this change would start to creep in.

We are expats.

We are living in Japan.

Holy shit.

Expat Struggles

The distractions were fading away, and the discomfort came roaring in to fill the void. The struggles came in many forms…like not being able to read labels at the grocery store.

…and not understanding that the person at the checkout is asking you if you need a bag, so you just say in your terrible Japanese that you don’t understand (because you definitely do know how to say that) while trying to look repentant.

…and having to play a game of charades in order to buy tickets to a baseball game.

Embracing Discomfort

If I had to choose to share just one thing I have learned during my first six months as an expat it would be this: that discomfort is necessary. In fact, I would argue that it is actually good for you. It has been my experience that living life in a near-constant state of discomfort tends to cause a person to get used to it. And when you start to feel okay with feeling uncomfortable, you begin to take risks. When you spend your days doing things that scare you, you actually end up doing some pretty amazing things.

And perhaps the best part is that once you are so used to your life being uncomfortable, then you actually take notice when things start to become a little bit comfortable again. The day you don’t shed any tears in the grocery store is a momentous occasion. You notice the first time you are able to ask the train attendant if the train you’re about to get on is actually going where you need to go, and the first time you leave the house and return without getting lost is cause for celebration. I have found that spending my days being grateful for the things that seemed insignificant before is actually leading me to become a happier, more grateful person.

The First 6 Months Will Make or Break You

I have heard that how a person handles the first six months of an expat posting will make or break the overall experience for them, their spouse and/or their family members, and their coworkers.

Many companies, my husband’s included, will send their overseas employees home for visits each year…but not before that six month mark. The belief is that if you go back “home” before that six month mark there is a pretty good chance that you may not come back. I had read about it and knew that was the case, but I never really understood it until coming here.

It Hasn’t Always Been Easy (and it Still Isn’t)

I will admit that there have been a few times when, if someone had slipped a one-way ticket to the US under my door, I would have been on the next train to the airport. But I am extremely glad that that didn’t happen. Because getting on that Japan-bound plane a second time when I knew what was waiting for me on the other side would have been more than I could handle. I also wouldn’t have known that it would get better than those early days and weeks if I hadn’t gone through it and come out (mostly) unscathed. I wouldn’t have known that I could be okay with being uncomfortable. And I certainly wouldn’t have known how amazing it feels to be comfortable again.

So here we are. Six months in. Life is becoming more comfortable each day, and in turn, we are feeling more grateful than ever before. We’re feeling (mostly) settled in our Japanese apartment; eating our Japanese food from the neighborhood market; paying our Japanese bills with Japanese yen; learning this new language — some of us more quickly than others.

The homesickness comes and goes, and the culture shock is a real bitch sometimes. But I couldn’t be happier with where we are at this moment.

Here in Japan.

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