LET’S NEVER COME HERE AGAIN BECAUSE IT WOULD NEVER BE AS MUCH FUN: Reflections on Tokyo and Japan

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I’m a big believer that your experience of a place depends not only on the place itself, but also on where you are in your life when you visit it. And I got to Tokyo right at the perfect time!

I was never particularly interested in Japan when I was growing up, but when I first started planning my sabbatical it was at the top of my list.

The night I arrived in Tokyo, as soon as I got out of Tokyo Station and started walking to my capsule hotel, I knew this was going to be a great trip. From the start of my trip I loved everything: the bright neon signs, the cute packaging, the quietness of zen gardens and the loudness of busy streets.

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Most people I know like Kyoto better than Tokyo – Kyoto has more of what we expect traditional Japan to be: it has endless amounts of incredible temples and lots of cool restaurants and bars. And although I had a great time in Kyoto, Tokyo for me just doesn’t compare. It is the most incredible city ever.

Tokyo goes forever – I spent 23 days there and I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface. Just walking around, day or night, I’d spend hours trying to soak it all in. From the sensory overload of Shinjuku to the attractiveness of Ginza to the traditional liveliness of Asakusa, Tokyo has it all, and then some.

I’m an urban soul, and I always feel recharged when I’m in a good big city – and Tokyo is the ‘citiest’ of cities.

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THOUGHTS ON JAPAN

I don’t really believe in perfection, but Japan gets very close. Everything works incredibly well, and given how different their culture is from that of Europe, it is amazing how easy things are.

Their famous transport network really works incredibly – and despite how busy it is, you’re really struck by how clean and quiet the trains are.

There are lots of things to make your life easy: the vending machines, convenience stores, products you never knew you needed, toilets with lots of buttons, restaurants where you place your order through a machine – everything is efficient and works.

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Japan also has an interesting dualism, being maximalist and minimalist at the same time. There’s the OTT neon signs, the kawaii cartoon characters on anything from sweets to health & safety messages, the insanity of discount stores filled floor to ceiling with all the tat in the world.

Then there’s the quiet of zen gardens, the simplicity of interior design where nothing is superfluous, the streamlined processes. Japan wouldn’t be the same without both.

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Another interesting paradox is that Japanese society, despite placing a greater emphasis on the collective, actually delivers greatness at the individual level too (of course this doesn’t apply to the exploitation of their workforce).

When you buy something in Japan, no matter how small, the rituals and formality around it always made me feel great about it – things are presented to you like they matter (even if you’re just buying a bottle of water) – and you’re treated like the only customer in the world. I’m a terrible shopper but in Japan I always felt good after buying something. This attention to detail really has a great impact on the individual experience.

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The Japanese people I met along the way were always interested to know my impressions of Japan and asked if I was having a good time – which of course I was. They seemed eager to please and to ensure I had a good experience.

Japanese people are discreet, but they are also helpful – without asking I was quickly shown how to do something or where to go on a number of occasions.

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I had the most wonderful time in Japan. It’s a magical country that is a whole world in itself. After one month, I still felt in awe at the smallest things like the potholes decorated with cherry blossoms or the way things always work.

This was the trip of a lifetime, and I would love to go back, but as they say in Lost in Translation:

“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”

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EATING, SHOPPING, GETTING AROUND: How to plan a trip to Japan (part 2)

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TRANSPORTATION

Japan is famous for its reliable public transport network, and it really works very well.

Metro: In cities the metro and urban rail systems are the easiest way to get around. There are plenty of trains and signage is good. Rush hour (which seems to be from 6pm until forever) is insanely busy, but you can always get on a train as people push themselves in.

Bus: Buses are very good and easy to use when you are on board. You pay with your metro card and there are usually digital displays showing upcoming stops. The tricky thing is to find the right bus to take, as there are sometimes many stops next to each other with only Japanese signs.

Google Maps: I did pretty much all of my journeys with Google Maps, and it worked really well. You get options of different lines and cost of the trip, as well as train times (which is very useful when more than one line stops at the same platform). The only difficulty was with some buses as Google Maps wasn’t very good at showing bus stops. But overall I’d have spent a lot more time thinking of how to get to places if it weren’t for Google Maps.

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The best way to pay for your trips is to use a metro card (Pasmo or Suica) which you can get at ticket machines. Journey prices vary depending on the distance, but with a card you just top up a few thousand yen and recharge when you run out (they even have machines inside the barriers in case you run out of credit during a trip).

TOKYO TRANSPORTATION

Tokyo has an intricate metro and train system, but it’s not too difficult to navigate. The stations are often huge (Shinjuku receives 3 million commuters every day, making it the busiest station in the world), with lots of shops and restaurants both in and outside the barriers.

Most popular areas will have a few metro stations, and the JR Yamanote line is a circular line that goes around many of the main areas of Tokyo. The city is very flat so you can also cover a lot on foot, which is a great way of discovering little streets off the beaten track.

There is no weekly or monthly pass covering all types of transportation, so topping up a metro card is the easiest option.

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JR PASS

Buying a JR Pass is the best option for those travelling around Japan. It is a train pass that covers all Japan Rail (JR) trains, some Shinkansen (bullet trains) and some urban trains. There are options for 7, 14 or 21 days. I bought the 21-day option at £387 because I was doing two long Shinkansen trips and that in itself already covered the cost of the pass.

I also used it in shorter trips and lots around Tokyo (it covers the Yamanote line which is very useful). It is definitely a good thing to buy if you’re doing any Shinkansen trips.

You need to buy it before you get to Japan (although at the moment they’re trialling selling it in some places there), and you exchange it once you get there. It’s very easy to use an you can find all the info here.

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GETTING ONLINE

Having a data plan on my phone from the moment I arrived in Japan made a huge difference for my trip. You can buy different plans on arrival at Narita Airport.

I bought the Docomo SIM for Y6500 for 30 days including 5GB, and for me that was a good option. There are many kiosks with different offers so I kind of chose randomly, but there’s a good guide here.

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Some hotels and Airbnbs give you portable WiFi devices which are also an alternative, but from my experience these aren’t always reliable so I was happy to have my own data plan as a backup.

Tokyo stations, large shops and convenience stores often have WiFi spots.

Because Japanese addresses are tricky to understand, if you’re looking for specific places such as restaurants you definitely need reliable access to the internet, so I wouldn’t risk going without to save money.

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MAKING LIFE EASY: CONVENIENCE STORES, VENDING MACHINES, COIN LOCKERS

Given how different Japan is from Europe, they really make it easy for you to do things.

Vending machines are everywhere (most selling soft drinks), as are convenience stores – locally known as combini – which are great places to find unusual snacks and drinks. They are open 24h and sell everything you may need. After a while you start to prefer specific snacks from specific shops (Lawson, 7 Eleven and Family Mart are the most common).

Coin lockers are another great Japanese ubiquity. Available in most stations, it is the simplest way to store your luggage (or shopping) while you explore the city.

All of the above can often be paid with your metro card, which is a nice and easy thing to do.

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MONEY

Japan is famously expensive, but you actually don’t need to spend that much to do things once you’re there.

My main expenses were plane tickets (cheap at around £450), my rail pass (21 days for almost £400) and accommodation (between £20-£35 per night, which is not a lot but I did stay there just over one month). So I spent most before I actually got there.

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On the day to day I found things pretty cheap: a metro ride will cost less than £1.50, entrance to temples and museums is usually around Y500 and food is cheap at combini or restaurant chains. Things to buy are also usually cheaper than in the UK.

Tokyo Cheapo is a great website with lots of tips on how to save money and free things to do.

I spent a lot of my time in Tokyo just walking around and taking it all in, which doesn’t really cost anything. So I found that Japan wasn’t a particularly expensive country and you can definitely save money – but of course there are plenty of options to splurge if you want to.

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SHOPPING

Japan is a shopping paradise, and even though I’m not one for shopping, I still visited tons of shops, bought some things (mostly pens and bath salts) and was fascinated by the insane amount of things to buy. You often walk into a shop only to discover it actually covers many floors.

There are countless articles and videos about where to buy stuff, but my favourite shops were:

  • Tokyu Hands and Loft: both had tons of all sorts of products and particularly great stationery supplies;
  • Muji and Uniqlo: even though you get these in the UK, they have different products in Japan (Muji has lots of yummy snacks) and are worth a visit.

Discount shops such as Daiso and Don Quijote are good for the prices, but they are often very busy and chaotic – not the best shopping experience.

Things are overall reasonably priced and good quality, and you can find lots of interesting things to buy.

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FOOD

I knew that Japanese food wasn’t going to be veggie-friendly, so I did a lot of research in advance. The fact that Japan is also full of amazing restaurants, street food and cafes makes it harder – it’s just not a place that lets you forget about food.

Restaurants in Japan often specialise in one thing, so a sushi restaurant may really only serve sushi – which means it’s best to look for places that specialise in something which usually has veggie options.

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Self-catering was a huge help, as were Happy Cow’s recommendations. We did find quite a few great options for veggie places all over Tokyo and Kyoto, and although they weren’t particularly expensive as compared to the UK, these were not everyday options.

Some cheap restaurants do have a few veggie options: Coco Ichibanya, a popular Japanese curry house have a full vegan menu (curries for about Y700); Saizeriya, an Italian-ish family restaurant has veggie pizza and pasta for as little as Y299 and a small glass of wine for Y100; Tenya Tendon has veggie tempura (a bit greasy) for around Y500.

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Combini have plenty of veggie snacks (but not many meals), including onigiri (rice balls) which are often labelled in English and a good selection of baked goods. I also found that Muji had a great selection of yummy snacks – a bit more expensive than at combini, but also better quality.

One thing about buying snacks is that in Japan you’re not supposed to eat in public transportation or while walking – so you need to find a place where to sit and eat your food too.

Also useful was Google Translate, which gives you the option to look up images and translate them, which allowed me to check ingredient lists with a good success rate.

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But despite Japanese food not being particularly veggie-friendly, I did find they had an enormous amount of options for coffee and pastry places – from cheap cafe chains to fancy bakeries. These are great for a break and were reliably good, so I preferred to look out for dessert places.

A great find was Milk, that has a stall at Shinjuku station serving the creamiest soft-serve (for Y500). I also tried itayaki (a fish-shaped sweet pancake filled with custard or bean paste) and mochi (a sweet made of rice flour filled with different flavours – the traditional ones like red bean paste are vegan). And Harajuku is full of sweets and snack places.

So although veggies and vegans do miss out on some of the impressive array of Japanese food, doing some research makes it easier, and you definitely get to try a good range of different things.

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SOLO TRAVEL AND A CAPSULE HOTEL: How to plan a trip to Japan (part 1)

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Despite travelling a lot, I felt I needed to do lots of research before going to Japan, and I definitely think that helped. I bought an old Lonely Planet guide, and also used Japan Guide and Tokyo Cheapo a lot, as well as watching LOTS of youtube videos (I really like Abroad in Japan).

I really think the research I did helped, particularly with logistics around transportation, money and understanding how some things work. It was also good to get some inspiration, and the Monocle guide book for Tokyo has the best recommendations, many of them off the beaten track.

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GETTING THERE:

Booking flights in advance is essential for getting a good deal on a trip to Japan. BA sales offer direct flights from £620 but tickets are limited and you need to be flexible with dates.

I flew with Turkish Airlines (which is often the cheapest company for long haul), and got a great price around £450 from Gatwick airport. With a stop in Istanbul, the total time of my journey was around 16h.

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ITINERARY PLANNING:

There’s a lot to see in Japan but I really wanted to experience Tokyo life, so I decided not to do much travelling. I spent 23 days in Tokyo, 6 days in Kyoto and 3 days in Nara. I also did a day trip to Kamakura and Yokohama.

To me this was the right balance as I got to see lots of Tokyo – although I still feel I could spend months there and not see it all! I also had plenty of time in Nara and Kyoto, which was good as I didn’t want to rush anything.

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I’d love to go back to Japan and travel some more – Osaka, Hiroshima and Nikko would be at the top of my list – but I would also come back just to stay in Tokyo again.

Travelling around Japan is easy so if you’re planning a trip across the country you can cover a lot of ground by train.

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WHEN TO GO:

I spent the whole of October in Japan and that was a good time to go. Summers are supposed to be really hot and spring can get very busy because of cherry blossom season. Autumn temperatures are perfect for exploring at around 15-20 degrees, although I did get over 27 degrees in Kyoto! You also get to see the autumn tints, and particularly in Kyoto that is really nice.

Tokyo is very rainy, which is evident by the amount of umbrellas on sale everywhere and stands where to leave your umbrella when you go into a shop. I did get a particularly bad week when it rained a lot (it was typhoon season), but in general the weather was good. I’d definitely visit in October again.

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TRAVELLING ALONE:

I spent one month in Japan, and most of that time I was by myself – my husband joined me for one week. I have no problem with travelling alone in general (only exceptions would be places considered unsafe for women), but Japan is actually a great place for solo travel.

Firstly, Japan is very safe, so I never needed to worry about walking alone at night or anything like that. But the best thing about Japan is there people there seem to do a lot of things alone, so it feels very normal to do things by yourself. This is most evident in restaurants and cafes which always have individual tables and no one thinks it’s weird to get a table for one.

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And everywhere you go, from shops to museums to gardens, there are lots and lots of people by themselves – so even though I’m happy to do things alone it made me really aware that doing things solo is a much bigger part of Japanese rather than European culture.

This made me more at ease, as I knew that I could go anywhere by myself and would be just one more in the crowd of people doing things by themselves.

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STAYING IN TOKYO:

For the first few nights on my stay in Tokyo, I decided to book a capsule hotel. I spent four nights at Oak Cabin (£18 per night), which was cheap and centrally located.

The capsule itself was nice and cozy, and the facilities were great: there was a big lounge and kitchen area, spotless and well-equipped showers and bathroom. The downside was the noise during the night – many people arrive late or are jet-lagged, so there’s always some noise (earplugs are essential).

All in all I enjoyed the experience – it’s not very different from staying in a hostel, and it’s a good option if you’re alone in Tokyo.

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After I got back from my Kyoto trip I spent 20 nights at an Airbnb. Accommodation in Tokyo can be expensive if you’re travelling alone, but you can find good options on Airbnb.

The key thing is to decide at which area you want to stay – I wanted somewhere close to Shinjuku and the place I chose was only a short metro ride away. I found that facilities in Japan are generally of a high standard, and every place I stayed at was very well-equipped.

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QUIET PONDS AND MANICURED TREES: Exploring magical zen gardens in Tokyo

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Traditional Japanese Gardens are great places to relax in Tokyo. They’re usually not very busy and visited mostly by locals.

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KIYOSUMI GARDEN

I decided to visit this place as it was close to where I was staying. What a wonderful surprise!

This is a picture-perfect XIX century Japanese garden, and you can spend a couple of hours taking in the manicured landscape, watching tortoises and carp laze about and having a picnic with a view (tickets Y150). This was the first Japanese garden I visit and one of my favourites.

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KOISHIKAWA KORAKUEN

I visited Koishikawa Korakuen Garden (ticket Y300) at the end of my Japanese adventure, and it was one of my favourite places!

This is a massive Japanese garden full of little gems – waterfalls, red bridges, lakes, fruits trees etc. I visited on a beautiful sunny day in early November, when you could catch the red tint of autumn leaves which made it the perfect time for a visit.

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The place is pretty big, so you can spend an hour or two exploring and having a snack enjoying the view.

Japanese gardens are always amazing, but this one was probably my favourite!

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RIKUGIEN

Rikugien Garden (tickets Y300) is inspired by scenes in Japanese poems. It is a large garden full of little places to explore, including a human-made hill with great views over the garden and a little waterfall.

It’s located in a quiet neighbourhood but definitely worth the trip.

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HAMARIKYU 

Close to Tsukiji Market, Hamarikyu is a nice green area in central Tokyo (tickets Y300). The place is really big, with many ponds (filled with water from Tokyo Bay), traditional buildings and cafes.

As it covers a large area, it’s more like an urban park than a garden, and as you take in the quiet atmosphere you also see the contrasting skyscrapers nearby.

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SHINJUKU GYOEN NATIONAL GARDEN

Gyoen Garden (tickets Y200) is another place to escape the madness. It’s a quiet garden right by Shinjuku with lots of different areas, including a traditional Japanese garden. It’s the perfect place to recharge with a picnic.

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Tokyo doesn’t have many green areas, but its gardens really are the best!

HANGING OUT WITH TOTORO AND A TEMPLE FOR CATS: Tokyo off the beaten track

Tokyo has lots of different areas, but many visitors don’t get to explore much outside the tourist trail. These are some cool places I went to in Tokyo:

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GHIBLI MUSEUM

Even before I went to Japan I knew I wanted to visit the Ghibli Museum, but it was still better than I expected!

The museum is located in a park in Mitaka, and even from the outside the place already looks great. Inside, over three floors there are a range of exhibits about the different Studio Ghibli movies, as well as a cool shop and a cafe.

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There’s also a cinema where you watch a short film (in Japanese, but you understand the story from the context). The building is really cool with lots of little nooks and an architecture that brings the displays to life and replicates the atmosphere from Ghibli films.

Tickets cost Y1000 but need to be purchased well in advance on specific dates via this website. They sell out really quickly, which means staying up until 3 or 4am in Europe to get them when they first become available.

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DAIKANYAMA AND SENDAGAYA

I decided to follow the walking tour directions from my excellent Monocle travel guide.

Daikanyama is a cool upmarket neighbourhood full of shops and cafes. The best thing there is the flagship branch of Tsutaya bookshop – two huge floors of inspiration with books (many in English), design objects, a music shop, lounge and lots of sitting space where you can read a book with a cup of coffee. It’s a great find.

Sendagaya is an unassuming area not far from Shibuya. Here you can find little independent shops and many restaurants.

Both areas were good for seeing a chilled side of Tokyo off the beaten track.

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SUMIDA HOKUSAI MUSEUM

I was planning to visit the Edo Tokyo Museum but it was closed for refurbishment. Luckly, there was a sign nearby with directions to the Sumida Hokusai Museum, so I decided to check it out. This is a small but well put-together space, focusing on Hokusai’s life in the area around Sumida, the river that inspired many of his works (tickets Y1200 including temporary exhibitions).

TSUKISHIMA

Built with reclaimed land in the XIX century, Tsukishima is an island in Tokyo Bay. The area is full of cool cafes and restaurants, and little alleyways where locals live. It’s a great place to wander around for a bit, and off the beaten track.

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GOTOKUJI TEMPLE

Gotokuji is a nice and fun temple to visit in Tokyo. It’s not as impressive as some other temples, but it’s located in a quiet neighbourhood so it’s a good place for a break. The best thing about it are the many Menekineko (cat figurines) displayed around the site. This popular luck amulet is said to have originated here and has become its symbol.

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AIN SOPH SOAR

There are a few Ain Soph restaurants in Tokyo, and we visited Ain Soph Soar in Ikebukuro. This is a cool restaurant serving international food and it’s fully vegan.

We had cheese fondue, pasta and their signature pancakes for dessert, and all of it was great. Their Moscow Mule was really delicious too (dinner for two including drinks for Y6300). It’s a great place to visit for a special meal.

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FISH MARKETS AND BIG WHEELS: Tokyo diaries part 4

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TSUKIJI MARKET

One of Tokyo’s most famous attractions is the Tsukiji fish market. People can visit the auction in the early hours of the morning, but I decided to visit the outer area of the market later instead.

Very close to the market is Tsukiji Hongwanji, a Buddhist temple which is not super-impressive but worth a quick stop.

Reaching the market you get to experience the kind of Asian street food you see on tv. You can try fresh sushi, taste local fruit and sample mochi, the famous rice sweets. There are lots of unusual vegetables for sale, although these can be very expensive. Even for a veggie, it was a great place to visit, with lots to see.

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SKYTREE

There are many places to see Tokyo from above, and the Skytree is one of the most famous. I decided not to enter (I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is free instead), but spent some time exploring the area around it.

There’s a huge shopping centre under it, with lots of shops selling anything from traditional Japanese handicraft to Hello Kitty merchandise.

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TOKYO TOWER AND ZIGOJI

Tokyo Tower is another famous observation deck. The structure looks a bit like the Eiffel Tower, but in red and white. I chose not to climb it either, but on a sunny day the view is supposed to be really good.

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The Zogoji temple is a great place to visit if you’re going to the Tokyo Tower, as you get a nice contrast of old and modern with the temple right in front of Tokyo Tower. There are also lots of little statues with bibs that are really cute and cool.

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ROPPONGI

A popular area for going out, Roppongi is a nice neighbourhood full or bars and restaurants. It’s also home to Roppongi Hills, which hosts a massive shopping cenrtre and the Mori Art Museum (ticket Y1000), a modern art museum with lots of cool exhibitions. As it’s located on the 52nd floor, you also get amazing views over the city.

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Not too far from Roppongi is Asakasa, an upmarket office area which also has some shrines – I visited Hie Shrine which was very nice.

ODAIBA

By Tokyo Bay, Odaiba is an area with lots of shopping centres and some local attractions. The shopping centres are what you’d expect, but the massive Gundam statue in front of them is worth a visit.

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The Miraikan – National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – is a fun place to visit (tickets Y620). There are lots of interactive scientific displays, which are exactly what you’d expect of Japanese innovation. But the main attraction is definitely Asimo, the Honda robot that can hop on one leg.

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Odaiba is also home to a Ferris wheel which was the tallest in the world when it was built. At 115m high it really is huge, and on a sunny day you get amazing views over the bay (tickets Y920).

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You can also get great views over the impressive Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Bay from the promenade next to Aqua City, which aside from the views also has an inexplicable replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Odaiba is not a must see in Tokyo but it’s worth the visit if you have many days in the city.

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NEON ARCADES IN AKIBA AND BUSY TEMPLES IN ASAKUSA: Tokyo diaries part 3

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UENO

Ueno is home to a large park (Uenoonshi) where street artists entertain the crowds. It’s also where you can find many different museums. It was a rainy day, so I visited the Tokyo National Museum (ticket Y620), which has a great collection of Japanese artefacts.

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In the same park is also the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, which hosts a range of free and paid modern and contemporary art exhibitions. I visited a calligraphy one which was interesting.

Near Ueno station is Ameya Yokocho, a pedestrianised market street where stalls sell lots of food and souvenirs. It’s a lively area and good for a walk.

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AKIHABARA

Not far from Ueno, Akihabara (also known as Electric Town or Akiba) is a paradise for anime and electronics fans (I am neither). It’s a weird area full of girls dressed as maids inviting you to one of the many maid cafes around (I don’t think so) and buildings covered with manga on the walls.

There are lots of electronics shops, such as the massive Yodobashi, selling all sorts of stuff.

One fun thing to do around Akiba is going to an arcade (there are many around). You can play new and old video games (I played Super Mario World), try your luck in a prize machine to get a plush toy or manga-ify yourself getting decorated photo stickers. It’s a fun thing to do for a couple of hours.

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YANAKA

Not far from Ueno is Yanaka, an area off the beaten path which is most interesting because it’s one of the few areas of Tokyo which weren’t destroyed in the war. The place has a completely different feel from most of the city, and it’s definitely worth checking out. Yanaka Ginza is the main street, with lots of little shops and bars.

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ASAKUSA

It was dark when I crossed the Sumida river over to Asakusa, and I got amazing views of the Skytree, Asahi Beer Hall and a full moon.

Straightaway I knew Asakusa would be just my kind of place – lots of traditional-looking streets with little shops selling food, handicraft and souvenirs. The place is full of life and you can easily spend hours losing yourself and taking it all in.

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Nearby is the impressive Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. The place is really impressive, and it was great seeing it at night with all the lights on, even if it was already shut. You can get your fortune for Y100, which is a fun thing to do.

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I decided to go back and explore some more during the day, and it was also great. The area gets really busy, as there are lots of shops and food stalls around, but it’s fast-moving and not too crowded. I tried itayaki (Y154), which is a pancake shaped as a fish with a sweet filling (the traditional one is red bean paste, but I chose custard instead).

Senso-ji Temple is also busier during the day, but there’s more to see as everything is open.

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