Japan Trip Part 1: TOKYO (Shibuya, Harajuku, teamLab Planets, Hedgehog cafe)
As I’m typing this, I am sitting on the Shinkansen bullet train headed back to Tokyo Station, where I’ll be transferring to Narita Airport and leaving to Taiwan.
Traveling to Japan alone was an absolutely incredible experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. Before going on this trip, I was really nervous (to the point of insomnia) that I would mess up and get lost in Japan (lose my passport, etc.). This was my first time ever traveling alone abroad, and especially in a country where I don’t speak the language. But by God’s grace, I had a very smooth and successful trip—I got to do most of the things I had planned in my itinerary. I was also surprisingly calm throughout the trip and didn’t feel too stressed at all. In order to keep the memories alive, I’m going to document my trip here, with posts for each city I visited (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka-Nara).
Part 1: TOKYO
Day 1: Shibuya, Tokyo
Upon arriving at Narita airport, I hurriedly got my JR pass (Japan Rail pass), SIM card for unlimited data, Japanese yen from the ATM, and Pasmo metro card. I then boarded the Narita Express to get to Shibuya, Tokyo, where I would be staying for my first night in Tokyo. After an hour-long train ride, I arrived at Shibuya station, and I attempted to use Google Maps to navigate my way to my hotel (just a 10-minute walk from the station). However, I soon found that lugging a heavy suitcase through the crowded streets of Tokyo on a Friday night, up hills and staircases, is not a good idea. So I found my way to a random hotel and asked a poor taxi driver to take me to my (very close) destination.
The hotel I stayed at was called the Shibuya Hotel En, which has pretty decent reviews online and perfectly located smack in the middle of Shibuya. At the hotel, the staff were extremely kind and accommodating and I got to my hotel room without a fuss. My room was very small (by U.S. standards), with a queen sized bed stuffed next to a small shower and sink. I quickly showered, unpacked, and forced myself to go out into the city. It was my only night to explore Shibuya, as I had a packed schedule the following day in other parts of Tokyo.
Unfortunately, by this time (around 9pm at night), many stores were already closed (like Shibuya 109), but the streets were still very crowded and many restaurants were still open. My hotel was conveniently located near the central part of Shibuya—Shibuya crossing. As I got closer to the crossing, I noticed the Mega Don Quijote to my left. Before my trip, I had done my research online and read that Don Quijote is one of the best stores to shop in Japan—it’s essentially a big discount store that sells EVERYTHING: food, snacks, cosmetics, supplements, tech gadgets, you name it. They are also open 24/7, making it a great place to shop as a tourist. I immediately made my way into the store and spent a good thirty minutes filling my shopping cart with high-quality Japanese cosmetics, face masks, and other goodies. (They also have a tax-free section for tourists with foreign passports).
After my stop at Don Quijote, I kept walking towards the crossing. Above is what the streets looked like on my way there. Many of the streets had been blocked off for pedestrian use only, and they were bustling with people—many locals but also a lot of foreign visitors.
Soon, I arrived at Shibuya crossing, perhaps the most famous intersection in the world. Below is what it looked like from a street view perspective. I looked behind me and found the Starbucks where you can get a really nice birds-eye view of the crossing. I took the escalator upstairs and sat by the window for a good 10 minutes to admire the view of people scrambling across the intersection (called the “Shibuya Scramble”). It was surprisingly cathartic to watch the intersection getting filled and empty and filled again.
After taking some good shots of the scramble, I looked on Yelp for some restaurants nearby. I found one called Genki Sushi that is very popular among tourists. I walked a couple minutes and arrived at the store. The staff were quick to seat me and I realized to my surprise that this was an automated sushi bar (so cool!). It requires zero human interaction, as all you need to do is order the dishes (appetizers, sushi, drinks, desserts) on an iPad in front of you and minutes later they are delivered neatly to you on an automated belt.
I wasn’t too hungry, so I had a few rolls, some miso soup, and a glass of red wine (because thats ALWAYS a good idea, jk). After dinner, I walked back to my hotel. It was around 10-11pm at the time and the streets were still packed. Many restaurants and bars were still open, but most of the clothing stores/department stores were closed (most close at 8 or 9pm).
And that was the end of my first day (or night) in Japan! I got back to my room, changed into the provided loungewear and slept like a baby.
Day 2: Harajuku, teamLab Planets, Hedgehog Cafe
The following morning, I got up at around 6am (thanks to jetlag) and got dressed and headed downstairs. My hotel was nice enough to provide a free breakfast (orange juice, coffee, mini croissants), so I munched on some food before heading outside. I then walked to Shibuya station (right next to Shibuya crossing). I noticed that the streets were fairly empty compared to the night before, and most stores were still closed. Many restaurants/stores open later in the day (at 10am). However, when I got to the station, I was swamped by the crowds of people rushing to make their trains. One thing you should know about Japan is the insane early morning rush hour (7-10am), when people are taking trains to get to work. The trains are usually packed to the brim during this time. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury of waking up later (I wanted to maximize my time as much as possible), so I was swallowed up in the crowds. I sometimes got weird stares when I would stop in the middle of the station to check Google Maps (because I became somewhat of a roadblock in the middle of traffic). People move super quickly in the stations, so watch out!
I couldn’t leave before taking a quick picture of the statue of the legendary Hachiko, a Japanese dog that waited for his deceased owner at Shibuya station every day for over nine years. :’( This is why I love dogs, man.
My first stop that morning was bills Omotesando, located in Tokyu Plaza in Harajuku. Bills is a popular Australian breakfast place that I discovered while researching breakfast places that serve fluffy pancakes (my absolute favorite breakfast food). It was one of the only pancake places that was open that early in the morning (they open at 8:30am). It’s a little difficult to find, as the mall that it is located in opens at 10am. You have to take a side elevator up to the 7th floor. By the time I arrived at the restaurant, there was already a line outside the door. They seated me in the side section, where I was alone. I ordered the famous banana ricotta pancakes (the only flavor of pancakes that they serve!). Minutes later, another single was seated next to me. When he noticed me with my camera, he nicely offered to take pictures of me if I wanted. We then started chatting and I learned that he was also from the States, a second year law student at Yale (:O) who was traveling during one of his breaks (before he gets busy post-graduation). He had been in Tokyo alone for five days and was leaving the day after. He kindly insisted on taking insta-worthy pics for me and I accepted his offer. After my pancakes arrived, he took a series of amazing candids of me eating (see below for one). Thanks again David if you’re reading this!
My next stop after bills was teamLab Planets. I had discovered teamLab Planets while researching places to go in Tokyo. It’s this amazing art museum that actually immerses you IN the art! The museum consists of four exhibition spaces and seven works of art. On its website, it states that the museum is organized so that “the boundaries between the viewer and the work become ambiguous.” And let me tell you—it was AMAZING. It was one of the most out-of-body experiences I’ve ever had, and I truly felt like I was transported into another gorgeous dimension.
Before going to the museum, I had to pre-purchase a ticket on the online website. It was fairly easy to purchase because there is an English version of the website. However, the ticket is only for a specific slot of time during the day. You are only allowed to enter the museum during that specific time slot. My time was 10-10:30am, but I arrived slightly after 10:30am (it wasn’t a problem though because they still let me in!). After cueing up outside, we were shuffled into the locker room area, where we had to take off our socks and shoes (because many of the rooms contain water) and store our possessions. We were only allowed to bring in our phones and cameras, nothing more.
As I entered into the exhibition, I walked up a semi-steep incline with water flowing down it. It was a soothing and therapeutic experience. There was also soft ambient music playing in the background, making it a truly immersive experience. The first room was filled with soft beanbags (but softer than your usual beanbags) that you had to trample through to get to the second room. The second room was possibly my favorite room of them all. The entire room was filled from ceiling to floor-length lights (sort of like curtains). The lights would change colors continuously, glistening. The floor and walls were entirely covered in mirrors, making a trippy experience. The light changes corresponded to the music playing in the background. People around me would literally gasp as the lights shot down from ceiling to the floor, matching the water-dripping noises in the background. Words do not do this justice. You really have to be there to experience how incredible this room was.
It was also a little tricky getting pictures in the room. There are loads of people trying to get insta-worthy shots with the lights. I took a few selfies and asked a nice girl to take a picture of me. It can also be hard to get good lighting, as the lights are constantly changing in the background. Here’s the only decent picture I got in the room (to the right)—slightly burry, but it’ll do.
After spending a good half hour in the light room, I walked to the next room, which was completely filled with water that went to my mid-calve. The water was warm and comfortable, and lights projected flowers and koi fish on the surface of the water. There was also a pleasant, flowery scent that filled the room. The walls were covered in mirrors, making it easy to take a selfie in the room (see below). This was another one of my favorite exhibitions, as it was surreal to be standing literally in a piece of artwork!
The two major rooms after this one were: one room filled with massive inflated balls that you could play with (the balls would change colors periodically), and another room with a dome ceiling and lights projected on the dome depicting colorful floating 3D flowers floating (you can lie down on the floor and admire the flowers above).
After the final room, I exited out into the locker room to retrieve my things and put on my shoes and exited outside. I then walked 15 minutes to the nearest metro station (after going into the wrong station the first time), and took the train back to Harajuku to visit Takeshita street and a cute hedgehog cafe.
Before going to Takeshita street, I made a quick stop at an udon/soba shop near the station. There was a line outside so I guessed that it had to be pretty good. I ordered the tempura soba combo meal, and it was SO DELICIOUS. I actually had to google “how to eat soba” because it’s been so long since I last had it. Apparently you need to first mix the sliced onions and wasabi in the provided dipping sauce, and dip the soba noodles into the sauce before eating them.
After eating, I walked through the very crowded Takeshita street (it’s a small street filled with dessert shops and clothing stores), I walked to Harry Hedgehog cafe. Side note about Takeshita street: I personally found it a bit overrated and would recommend going to Shibuya for your shopping needs instead! It’s gets really stuffy walking through the street and I didn’t think the shops there were the most authentic (a lot of them were Korean).
Harry Hedgehog cafe is an animal cafe that features adoptable hedgehogs that you can hold in the palm of your hands. I got to the cafe (which occupied the upper floor of a building in Harajuku). When you get into the cafe, you insert a bill into a vending machine thing-y and select an option (either 30-minutes or 1-hour with the hedgehogs). I selected the 30-minute option with a snack (for the hedgehogs). Each one comes with a free drink (just a regular drink from a vending machine). After getting the drink, you get seated in front of an open tank with two hedgehogs. You are required to wear gloves before holding the hedgehogs.
The hedgehogs were veryy sleepy and would crawl into a ball and nap in your hands after you pick them up. They weren’t as active as I had imagined (probably too tired from being held all day). The cafe claims to treat the hedgehogs ethically, and alternate them out into rest stations periodically. All of the hedgehogs are also up for adoption! They were super adorable though…
After leaving the cafe, I went back to the hotel to get my luggage and took the metro to Shinagawa station, where I transferred to the Shinkansen bullet train to go to Kyoto station for the next leg of my trip in Kyoto. Stay tuned for my next post on my Kyoto adventures (spoiler alert: it was AMAZING).