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Japan, Tokyo

Tokyo Top 10

If you find yourself in Tokyo for the first time and feel overwhelmed by the mega metropolis it is, let the list below serve as a good starting point for what to see and do to ensure you have an authentic Japanese experience.

1. Shibuya Crossing – Visiting a crosswalk may seem like a silly idea. Who wants to watch traffic and people on their trip to Tokyo? But visiting Shibuya, the largest pedestrian crossing in the world, and viewing it from above gives you a sense of just how big the city is and how many people live here. It’s also a perfect example of just how orderly Japan is. Head to the Starbucks on the second floor of the Tsutaya building and wait patiently for a window seat, and then you can literally watch the world go by. See Shibuya Crossing’s craziness here.

Breakfast at the Tsukiji FIsh Market

Breakfast at the Tsukiji FIsh Market

2. Tsukiji Fish Market – Head to Tsukiji for an EARLY morning tuna auction (excellent info on attending the auction is here). If a 3am wake-up call doesn’t appeal, wait until after 9am when you can still walk through the facilities after the tuna auction and fish deliveries are finished.

If you find yourself here between the end of the auction and 9am, watch as fishmongers wiz around on forklifts, picking up fresh fish and carting it to delivery trucks. Then head to the stalls surrounding the market for a breakfast of fresh fish and Sapporo. If you’re lucky enough, you might be finishing breakfast when tuna deliveries are being made to the restaurant.

Looking up at Roppongi Tower.

3. Roppongi Hills – The Rodeo Drive of Tokyo, Roppongi Hills is filled with shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels. Head to Roppongi Tower on a clear day and take a gamble as to whether Mount Fuji will be visible. If not, you will still be impressed by Tokyo’s sprawl. For $16, you will get the lay of the land, as well as exceptional views of Tokyo Tower.

For an additional fee of $5, you can take the elevator up to the open air sky deck. At the base of Roppongi Tower is Roku Roku Plaza, where the famous spider statue, created by Louise Bourgeois, lives.

The largest wooden torii in Japan.

4. Meiji Shrine and Senso-ji – These two top visited sights in Tokyo will help you begin to understand Shintoism and Buddhism and the importance and influence of each in Japan. Meiji Shrine, located near Shibuya, is a Shinto shrine, dedicated to the kami, or divine spirits, of Emperor Shinto and his wife, Empress Shoken. The shrine sits on 170 acres of forest, created by the people of Japan who wanted to commemorate Meiji, the 122nd emperor of Japan.

Be sure to see the Otorii, or Grand Shrine Gate, which is the largest wooden tori in Japan, as well as the barrels of sake, donated by the sake brewing association as a sign of respect to Meiji and Shoken’s kami. If you’re fortunate to be visiting Meiji Shrine on a weekend, chances are high that you’ll get to witness a traditional wedding procession too.

The entrance to Senso-ji, in Asakusa.

Senso-ji, located in the northeast neighborhood of Asakusa, is a Buddhist temple, surrounded by a number of shrines and smaller temples. The main structure, constructed in 645, is Tokyo’s oldest temple, which was built to honor the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. Legend says that two fisherman found a statue of Kannon in a river, and despite efforts to return the statue to the river, it always came back to them. Unlike Meiji Shrine, which sits in a forest, Senso-ji is smack dab in the center of all the action and is surrounded by a number of narrow streets, filled with souvenir shops and food stalls.

5. Sumo Tournament – Sumo, Japan’s National sport, is an art, sport and ceremony all rolled into one. Check the calendar and see if one of the three National Tournaments will be taking place while you are visiting Tokyo. Tournaments are held at Ryogoku

Sumo wrestlers prepare for a fight during a national tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan arena.

Sumo wrestlers prepare for a fight during a national tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan arena.

Kokugikan arena, next to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The day starts around 8:30am, but be there much earlier to buy tickets day of. The fights get more competitive as the day goes on, and the crowd more rambunctious. The actual fight is short, twenty seconds if you’re lucky, while more time is spent stretching, stomping and salt tossing.

A shrine within the Japanese Garden at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

6. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden- Big city leaving you needing some green space? Have no fear. Tokyo has plenty of places to relax, unwind and breathe in nature within its city limits. The best place to do all three is at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

Pick up a map at the visitor’s center and pay your 20 Yen entry fee, and then amble the paths which lead you to Sycamore Lane, parallel gravel walking paths lined with Sycamores; the Japanese Garden & Tea House, where you can stop for green tea and a snack; and the Greenhouse, which is home to 2700 plant species from all over the world. The garden sits on 58 acres and will leave you feeling revitalized for an afternoon of city sightseeing.

7. Conveyor Belt Sushi – Japan’s cuisine is considered by most world renowned chefs to be the best and their own personal favorite. Sushi seems to be most commonly associated with Japan, and hence Tokyo does have the world’s largest fish market, you can be rest assured that you are getting the world’s BEST sushi. And, what better and more

Sushi circles a conveyor belt at Tokoy's Pintokona restaurant in Roppongi Hills.

Sushi circles a conveyor belt at Tokyo’s Pintokona restaurant in Roppongi Hills.

novel way to enjoy it than at a conveyor belt restaurant? Belly up to the belt for front row action – chefs preparing all types of sushi rolls and sashimi, some for the conveyor belt and some to fulfill diner’s requests. Take your pick of what is rolling around, being sure to note the color of the plate, as that is how you know how much the specific item will cost. Plates, once cleared of food, are stacked to one side, and then tallied up at the end of the meal to calculate your bill. Yet another efficient Japanese system! See sushi circle here.


8. The Shinkansen – A trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a ride on the Shinkansen, the iconic bullet train. Trains reach up to speeds of 200 mph and can have you clear across the country in a matter of hours. High speed trains not your thing? Don’t worry, the Shinkansen has a clean track record (pun intended).

Colorful Shinkansen, Japan's bullet train, parked at Tokyo Station.

Colorful Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, parked at Tokyo Station.

Snacks and beverages are served during your journey and hostesses and conductors bow as they enter and exit each train compartment. By far, the best way to see more of Japan than just Tokyo is by train. Check out my blog post on the Japan Rail Pass, and learn why you need it and what it entitles you to within Japan. Click here for a view from inside the Shinkansen.

9. Capsule Hotel – Whether on a budget or not, the capsule hotel experience is worth it for at least for one night, (as long as you’re not plagued by claustrophobia). These hotels offer very basic accommodation- literally a bed, a towel and slippers- at a rate much cheaper than that of Tokyo hotels.

Inside my capsule at Oak Hostel Cabin.

Inside my capsule at Oak Hostel Cabin.

Originally created for Japanese businessmen who might have overindulged on Sapporo and can’t make it home, these capsule hotels are now becoming popular with budget travelers as well as Japanese who find themselves unable to afford climbing city rents. Capsules can be booked for about $25 a night. While most capsule hotels only used to be available to men, most now offer separate men and women’s wings.

Inside an izakaya in Tokyo’s Kayabacho neighborhood.

10. Izakaya- Originally set up to serve businessmen their sake, izakayas have grown to offer much more, including beer, cocktails and an array of Japanese food items. In some izakayas, you can literally sample all types of Japanese cuisine, from sushi to sashimi, yakitori to okonomiyaki, so definitely don’t leave Tokyo without a visit to one.

Some izakayas are small, standing room only spaces, others offer tatami mat style seating, and some have rooms separated by partitions so groups can sit together in private. If you’re in the latter, when you enter, you will remove and lock up your shoes and be led to a room. Items are ordered at your leisure and groups usually share everything – tapas style.

Be sure to try the okonomiyaki – a traditional Japanese savory pancake usually served with scallions and an aioli-like condiment- and the yakitori – a plate of grilled chicken parts, including wings, liver and hearts.

Belize, Canada, Cuba, England, Japan, Portugal, Tasmania, Travel Wishlist

My 2014 Travel WishList

Ah, the joy of a New Year. Almost a year ago to the day, I wrote my 2013 Travel WishList and I would have never believed you if you’d told me I would walk across Northern Spain and sip wine in Slovenia. There are 350 days left this year… I’m excited to see where I end up and I’m embracing the unknown!

Below is my 2014 Travel Wishlist. Unless I win the next Mega Millions drawing, I probably won’t make it to all of these locales, but I will hit a few – that I’m sure of. And a few surprises will crop up too. Following my reasons for wanting to visit each country is a link to a selection of highlights from AFAR Travel Magazine’s online community… Follow the link to browse what fellow travelers consider to be the must-sees in each of these places:

Japan – I am so completely intrigued by Japan, and despite spending a lot of time in neighboring countries, I have yet to make it here. A few friends have traveled to Japan and told me of the peacefulness of this country… Ok, Tokyo might be a bit like sensory overload, but after a few days in the fish markets, karaoke halls and kimono shops, imagine strolling through the Bamboo Forest of Kyoto, then learning the rituals of a tea ceremony at the ancient chashitsu, or tea rooms, or testing your luck at spotting a real Geisha in Gion.

Tokyo’s Fish Market, Photo: Rod C

If you’re a nature enthusiast like me, you may consider a trek up Mount Fuji, so long as you’re legs aren’t still wobbling from the high speed train journey there. Or, if nature, with less of an adrenaline rush is more your speed, then the shrines and temples west of Tokyo make for a more peaceful day trip.

Mount Fuji, Photo:

It seems like I would need an endless number of days in Japan, as this itinerary only covers the central main island of Honshu. On the Southern most part of this island, you can visit the Hiroshima Peace Park before heading to the island of Kyushu, for hot springs and the history of Nagasaki. Or alternatively, head north to Hokkaido for National Parks and winter ski resorts. Japan has something to entice any type of traveler, and is number one on my 2014 travel wishlist.

My AFAR Wanderlist for Japan:

England/Great Britain – Born, and raised for the first five years of my life, in England, I can say I know the country quite well… parts of it that is. Hence the reason I want to spend some more time here. I feel the need to better acquaint myself with the place I hail from.

Abbey Road
Yorkshire, Photo: Andrew Montgomery

I’ve never been to Liverpool, and I want to walk across Abbey Road and tour The Beatles’ old haunts. I’d then take a train from Liverpool up to the Lake District and spend some time on the walking routes here, maybe even climbing a mountain or two. I’d like to see the Yorkshire Moors Emily Bronte told me about during my Senior English Class and sip tea in an old Victorian B&B .

Pembrokeshire, Photo: Spila Riccardo

I’d then head South to my favorite part of the country… the English Seaside. I’d stop in Devon and Cornwall, places I visited during my childhood Summers, and then head further south to Penzance before taking a boat ride 28 miles out to sea, arriving at the Scilly Isles – the Southernmost point of England. And for good measure, I’d head to Wales and walk the rugged Pembrokeshire coastline and Anglesey’s pebble beaches ending up in a local joint to savor fish and chips.

My AFAR Wanderlist for England/GB:

Lisbon, Photo: Lonely Planet

Portugal – Sample the day’s best catch in the ancient fishing village of Ericeira, sunbathe on a crescent beach surrounded by limestone cliffs in the Algarve, try to decipher between tawny and ruby at 16th-century port houses in Porto, and rumor has it, sample the best sangria in the world… Portugal has been creeping up on my list for the past couple of years, and when I learned there was a Camino that started in Lisbon and meandered north through the quaint villages of this country, it got a secure spot on this years list of places I want to go.

Algarve Photo:

Since Portugal’s entire Western and Southwestern borders meet the ocean, it seems like the perfect Summertime destination for the vitamin D junkie that I am. But if the promise of sand and sun doesn’t have you throwing your bikini in your backpack right away, fear not… Portugal has plenty to offer.

Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, seems to be packed full of restaurants, wine bars, cafes, museums and shops. A ride on the free tram, (#28) will get you acquainted with the layout of the city and save your legs from some steep climbs.

Tawny port, Photo: Jon Sullivan

North of Lisbon is Sintra, a city that will appeal to the history buff inside of you. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage sight in 1995, this place has Moorish castles and royal palaces to spend a couple days exploring.

And Porto, or Oporto, well, the name says it all…

My AFAR Wanderlist for Portugal:

Photo: Fodor’s

Cuba – Cuba seems like a little secret to me. Growing up in the US, I quickly learned that it’s a country many consider off limits, unless you make the extra effort to fly via Mexico or Canada. However, having a British passport makes me feel I shouldn’t waste any time getting here. When I think of Cuba, a few stereotypical things come to mind… Cuban cigars, Che Guevara, old cars, rice and beans, old men sitting outside an even older bar playing chess, rum, Fidel Castro, the Embargo. So why do I want to go here?

Cuban Mojitos, Photo: JaketheSnake

I have a fascination with culture, specifically with rich cultures that have yet to be totally diffused or diluted by Western influence. Pair this with a rich, if tumultuous, history, and the intrigue is here. This place is practically in my backyard, and I can’t wait to explore the city of Havana, the beaches of the Southern coastline, and acquaint myself with the people of this island country.

My AFAR Wanderlist for Cuba:

Peggy’s Point, Nova Scotia

Canada – From what I have seen and researched, and from what my beloved Canadians who I have met on the road have told me, I have come to the conclusion that I will LOVE the coastlines of Canada. Every person I have ever met from British Columbia has basically convinced me to move there within minutes into a conversation. A mountainous coastline, world-class skiing, hiking, and yoga are all on offer here.

Then, I spend a few minutes researching the rugged coastline provinces of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, and they tease me to head east first. This opposite coastline looks idyllic and seems to have a serene beauty about it. I would love to spend time exploring both seaboards but there’s a lot not to be missed in between as well.

Prince Edward Island, Photo:

The Rocky Mountaineer offers a 15-day coast to coast train ride that also allows you to explore Kamloops, the Canadian Rockies, Toronto and Montreal. Train travel stirs up a sense of nostalgia in me, and it would be a nice departure from my normal backpack and hostel routine. But the $5,000 price tag means I may be saving for a while before this dream is fulfilled.

My AFAR Wanderlist for Canada:

Glover’s Atoll, Photo:

Belize- A good friend recently graduated from PA School. She talked of doing a trip before making a commitment to a 9-5. We talked of locations and criteria: somewhere warm, somewhere we could get to quickly, easily and on the cheap, and somewhere that wouldn’t break the budget. She said Belize, and I began to do the research. I scoured AFAR’s highlights, was immediately sold on the locale, and began planning a week -long trip.


I’m not going to lie, it’s the middle of January, and despite being in Atlanta, the lows are dropping below 20. My bones are cold, I need some sunshine and Vitamin D. Belize won’t break the bank… I imagine it to be a good mix of fun and sun, with just enough culture to make it less hedonistic than perhaps it could be. It’s nice to know the ruins are there, but show me to the beach-side hammock and hand me a pina colada please…

My AFAR Wanderlist for Belize:

Wineglass Bay, Photo:

Tasmania – All it took were a few pictures on a friend’s Facebook page to seal the deal here. I want to go to Tasmania and I want to go NOW! This place looks other-worldly. Not only are you surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen (online), it seems like you can do it all here – hiking, fishing, kayaking, river cruising, biking, dining, wining, surfing…

Cradle Mountain Hike

This Australian island 11 hours from Melbourne packs it all in. You can even get a glimpse of the Tasmanian Devil (yes, it does exist) and a wallaby. You can cover the entire country by car in about two days, but with stops, 10 days seems to be a fair amount of time to really see Tassie. 

My AFAR Wanderlist for Tasmania:

All this talk of travel gives me itchy feet. I find myself between Kayak and Skyscanner, scoping out one-way tickets….Maybe I’ll kill two birds with one stone and just find a job overseas…Not a bad idea!