There are two major holidays in Korea: Chuseok and Seollal. Chuseok usually falls in September or October and is considered “Korean Thanksgiving,” where many Koreans journey home to eat tons of food spend time with family. For non-Koreans, this traditionally means vacation time. Finding airline tickets becomes a race against time against the ever-rising prices. People everywhere debate where to go. A few of my friends locked me in a battle: I wanted warm sandy beaches and time frolicking in the sea. They wanted a mix of Taiwon, Singapore, and Japan. After much debate and disappointment over the cost of flights to Cebu, I decided to go to Tokyo with a friend.
With high nerves, we booked a flight on a cheap carrier airline, hoping that our flight wouldn’t be cancelled due to the rainy season in Japan. At 2:50 am, we boarded the flight and I promptly fell asleep until we landed and moved through customs, then found a wifi egg and exchanged some money to yen. Just as we finished all this, the first trains began to run and we navigated through the complicated system of subways in Tokyo (it’s much more intimidating to hear about than it actually is to use—coming from Korea, though, it was inconvenient to have to think through how to get to a destination while remaining with the same subway company). Our airbnb was set along a winding back street with tiny bars bearing only a single table and quiet ramen shops.
Wednesday: Meiji Shrine, Harajuku Shopping, Shibuya Crossing
Running on nothing but fumes of excitement for the city, we bustled out of the apartment to find a brunch spot in Shinjuku—only to come up short. Little did we know, like South Korea, Japan woke up a little later than we did. Instead, we tucked into a small coffee shop and munched on breakfast sandwiches as we admired the ostentatious lights glittering even in the morning outside a ramen shop. With all the stores around us still closed and a beautiful morning upon us, we decided to walk to the Meiji Shrine through the winding streets of Tokyo.
By the time we arrived, it was maybe around 9:30. Two tall, wooden entryways loomed ahead of us to mark our entrance to a park filled with trees as long and wide as could be. All along the path, giant lanterns lit the way. Small pockets of tour groups dressed in hiking gear marched towards the center of the quiet woods, so far removed from the bustle of one of the largest cities in the world. Really, it was eerily quiet. But, by the time we converged to the entrance of the shrine, we joined what seemed like two hundred other tourists who wanted to be “early birds” too (I use the term early loosely).
Outside the shinto shrine sits a water fountain with cups where some people choose to participate in the shinto-style cleansing. We walked straight up into the courtyard of the shrine, so quiet and restful in its plain colors and green roofing. We snapped pictures and observed people write prayer plaques before moving out to Harajuku to spot Lolitas and get some vintage shopping in.
Just to warn you, the price of vintage band shirts is insane. Expect to pay no less than $100 if that’s what you’re looking for (which I was, and I didn’t buy any). However, I will say this. A lot of the band t-shirts were rare ones that I had never even seen before for some of the bands. There was an insanely cool Beastie Boys one that was nearly $600. The salesman literally laughed when I asked to see the price tag because he knew what my reaction would be.
After a disappointing lunch at a pasta restaurant, we walked to the Shibuya Crossing and came across more cool stores and neighborhoods. That’s the thing about Tokyo that’s wholly different than Seoul. If you walk a bit, you’ll happen upon somewhere cute. I don’t find many Korean architectural choices “cute.”
By the time we arrived at the famed crossing, the sun was just beginning to set and the crowds were fierce. I’ve never seen so many people attempting to cross a street from so many different directions. We must have spent thirty minutes waiting for the lights to change so we could walk again. People stood in the center taking stop-time videos. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder if the reason the crossing was so busy was because… well, everyone wanted to see how busy it was.
Loads of people hung out in the area as there is more shopping to be found here, but by this time our feet ached and we were ready to head home.
Thursday: Tokyo Disney Sea
The day started abysmally. It clearly rained during the night and sprinkled through the early morning as we trudged with on through the drizzle to the subway station and into an empty car to the resort. My friend bore an unhappy frown on her face as we got to the last station stop of the line—but there was no resort and none of the promised buses able to take us there. As we blankly wandered through the crowd, we realized we were on the wrong line. We had to transfer to a different company at the station to get to the stop with Tokyo Disney Sea. So we made our way back into the station and finally arrived—only to take another subway line to get to the park. They really get your money that way.
But we purchased our tickets soon after park opening and were met with crowds of people already heading in. The drizzle all but stopped, but a chill still clung to the early fall air as we stopped to take some pictures in front of the globe at the center of the entrance like all good park-goers.
Finally we pushed past people to our first stand of Mickey ears, but I didn’t find any I wanted. All were fancy Minnie Mouse ears, but I wanted the classic Mickey ears without the Fantasia 2000 magician’s hat. Giving up, we rounded a corner and I grew excited.
“It’s the Toy Story ride,” I told my friend— it’s supposed to be a good one. The fast past tickets were all but gone by the time we got there. We ran back to the Hollywood Tower and I grabbed a fast pace before we headed to the line.
The ground was slick with rain. The line wound around two hours back. Grudgingly we stood in it and made small talk.
“I’m not really feeling this,” my friend confessed as we creeped our way forward.
But we didn’t move and kept going through until we were inside of one of the most elaborate line set-ups I had ever seen. Huge monkeys-in-a-barrel, Toy Story characters, cards, and toys filled the cavern-like room. The line started moving faster until we were on the next car.
And it was the massively fun. The entire premise of the ride is that you are essentially doing target practice and shooting a laser gun through the entire ride. And you’re also in competition with the other people in your train to get the most.
We giggled and whirled around for the duration of the ride, and by the time we spilled back out into the park, the sun shone and the water on the sidewalks dried. We giggled and started to make our way around the park.
Eventually we found our way to a store and each bought a pair of Minnie Mouse ears and tubs of fun-flavored popcorn. On our trip, we tried: black pepper, cappacunio, caramel, and curry. After that ride, things really picked up for us.
We utilized the fast past system and managed to go on all the rides we could. Indiana Jones was a fun one, along with Journey to the Center of the Earth. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea could have been more entertaining. We saw some the shows. We watched as a too-in-character Cruella deVille attempted to kick a pigeon as she walked to her show. We munched on alien dumplings filled with flavored puddings and posed for pictures in Agrabah.
By 6:30 we were exhausted but determined to see the big finishing show, Fantasmic! over the water and volcano in the center of the park. We caught the tail end of the morning show but thought it would be better to catch rides while the massive crowds were distracted. This time we had two hours before the show and asked an attendant where the best place to sit would be.
He pointed us to a alcove on nearly the opposite side of the lake near where the gondolas frequented.
We set up shop quickly. An attendant stood over the area, which was a half-circle with a large seating area and some terraced steps going up. He marked a line across the front of the half-circle where people could sit and where they couldn’t. A few people already began to sit in the front.
We started on the steps, then decided we would rather sit in the front row and plopped on the ground to rest our aching feet.
Over the course of the two hours, the area filled to the max. We took turns going on popcorn runs and getting drinks. When the sun set behind the volcano—which would really shoot fire at random times—the show began.
Boats glided through the water with the evil characters on them. A battle—happening primarily in Japanese so I couldn’t begin to tell you the details—took place between them and Mickey. There were lights and fireworks and explosions until the end. It was… well, fantasmic.
We were absolutely exhausted and wanted to try to get one last ride in at Journey to the Center of the Earth, but the line was too long, so we headed back to our airbnb.
Day 3: Sensoji-ri, Sumo
At around 5:30 am, our alarms went off.
Blurry, we pulled ourselves out of bed and hauled out the door in order to follow my friend’s aunt’s advice on getting one-day tickets to sumo events: get there early.
By the time we got off the subway and navigated the streets to the sumo stadium, already a small line had formed. We got in the back of it as they set up the ticket booth. One ticket per customer, they told us, and you had to be in the line in order to get your ticket.
The actual roped line to get in wouldn’t begin until 8:30, so people plopped down onto the sidewalk. We took turns going to the convenience store to get breakfast and drinks, making light small talk with the other English-speaking foreigners in line to get tickets.
Finally, the line moved up and we purchased our tickets—then promptly went home to shower and nap before moving out again. The professional matches wouldn’t begin until 5:30 pm, and those were the ones that we were interested in.
Many of the ticket-buyers headed straight in to watch the semi-pro games (I think they may have wore themselves out early, but to each their own).
After feeling more energized for the day, we headed to the nearby temple, Sensoji-ri, possibly the most famous—and crowded—in Tokyo. As soon as we made our way into the shopping center that surrounded the temple (thankfully covered in places), it started to pour rain. We managed to find a ramen shop with vegetarian ramen before heading to find umbrellas.
Having secured two, we made our way down the main street to the shrine. Despite the rain, there were people everywhere. Girls dressed in pretty kimonos huddled under umbrellas for selfies whilst others bowed respectful inside the temple area. Incense burned from the sides of the temple. Off to the side, a garden complex remained widely empty and we spent a chunk of our time taking pictures there, far away from the crowds before it was time for sumo.
The aunt of my friend attempted to convince us that it was only important to go to her cousin’s match, but we wanted to see more. We practically ran to catch the open ceremonies, where scantily-clad wrestlers paraded their sponsors on giant banners around the stadium to cheers and chants.
Finally they all gathered in a circle around the ring to perform the finishing rites of the ceremony. Sumo is heavily tied to Shinto-ism and this is displayed in the ceremony.
A few more than ten pro matches were set up for the event, with her cousin being at the end. Never having watched sumo, I had no idea what to expect—but I certainly didn’t expect for how lightening-fast a round could be.
Each wrestler gets one shot to win their round. The winner of the tournament is the one who won the most matches over the course of the tournament. There was no telling how long a round could go. When both participants step up to the ring, they powder their hands and attempt to intimidate the other in a crouching position.
The commonly held picture of the stomping of one foot then another before lowering into a squat is part of this intimidation act. Often times, one wrestler would get up and go to the side because of nerves before it was time. Sometimes, they would do this multiple times. When both were finally ready, the referee would ring the bell and the match would go.
Some of the wrestlers were big—really big—but it wasn’t just size that counted. Each wrestler had his own technique and there are only a certain number of legal moves a sumo wrestler can use. When the bell finally rang, the wrestlers would ram at each other. The first to set a foot outside of the ring lost.
Tensions were high for the cousin’s match.
“Is it weird to see your cousin for the first time in what is basically underwear?” I asked my friend.
She spared me a glance. “I’m trying not to think about it.”
Her aunt explained to us that she tried to remain quiet during the matches so reporters wouldn’t try to talk to her. Her tiny friend had no such qualms and would yell things in Japanese loud enough for the entire stadium to hear. Whoever says that the Japanese are a quiet people have never been to sumo or a kabuki show.
After 10 minutes of the intimidation act, the two wrestlers sprung at each other, grappling at each others bodies and shoving hard. Finally one stepped out of the ring—the opponent.
We yelled and screamed over the magnetic win before the aunt ushered us quickly out of the stadium.
“We’re going to try to catch him for pictures before he must go.”
Let me tell you, there is nothing more intimidating than coming face to face with a pro-sumo wrestler.
They have stone-slab faces that reveal no emotions while dressed in yukatas with their managers with similar facial expressions walking beside them.
They are tall. They are huge. And they don’t stop for pictures.
Which means that when his mother made him stop to take pictures with us, the onlookers were amazed—and we ended up in the majority of their pictures to. Other than to take pictures with us, he spared no glance to the onlookers and continued on his journey to the van.
His aunt made us run ahead to reach the white van first and the three of us piled in the back. I felt like we just defied one of the first rules of any sort of stranger-danger I had ever been told: never get into vans with strangers.
Finally, amid cameras flashing and tiny women asking for his autograph, he piled into the van along with one of his managers.
“We’re taking him to his sports massage,” his aunt told us as we drove around Tokyo in somewhat awkward silence for an hour.
On reflection, I think this was one of the oddest experiences of my life. Riding around Tokyo in a stark white van, in silence, with a pro-sumo wrestler.
We dropped him and his manager off at the sports massage and made our way for a classic Japanese dinner: Denny’s. She had us promise to come the next night to get some more pictures and memorabilia from her, which we agreed to.
By the time dinner finished and we were dropped off at home, we were both exhausted and giddy from the odd experience. Definitely an unforgettable one.
Day 4: Hie Shrine, Imperial Palace, Pachinko, Tokyo Sky Tree, Random Festival
Not quite as early as our previous days in Tokyo, we woke up leisurely and walked from our apartment to the Hie Shrine. From my research, the Hie shrine was one of the places with the red-wooden gates like those found in Kyoto, so off we went.
It was a beautiful day and we got to see much of Tokyo on our leisurely stroll. The shrine was delightfully uncrowded compared to much of Seoul, a structure of red and gold. We came in from the front, where a tall stairwell led to the shrine. Some things looked the same as the Meiji Shrine, with the purifying water to the side, though this structure was much brighter in color.
Inside the temple, a young bride and groom posed for pictures with their families in traditional clothing. Some people went to pray, while off to the side were various prayer rooms.
Around the back of the temple was a smaller stairwell with the iconic red gate posts climbing around the stairs. While they were blessedly uncrowded, there was still sometimes a wait for photos.
From there, we decided to take another leisurely stroll to the Imperial Palace before heading to see the aunt about the sumo products. We ended up traversing through the entire gardens trying to find the palace before we came to another security guard post. Fun fact: when entering the gardens, you must take a wooden marker and when you leave the gardens, you give it back. I think this is how they keep track of how many people enter so it doesn’t get too crowded.
The gardens themselves are very pretty and very non-Western style. Mostly, there were long expanses of grass that people picnicked on and lots of trees. Finally, we found our way to the gate where you could just make out the palace in the background on a hill and a very lovely bridge.
Overall I was disappointed with the palace compared to the accessibility of Korean palaces. Basically, you couldn’t really explore the grounds around the palace at all, only catch a strange glimpse. And then there was an awkward moment where an older Asian gentleman (I believe from China), who asked us to take a picture of him with the palace in the back… and it was only after we said okay that we realized he wanted a picture with me.
I wasn’t trying to have him go back home and tell his friends that he met a western girlfriend. No way.
By this time, we mostly saw a lot of the things we planned on seeing in Tokyo. Unfortunately, due to lack of visibility, a trip to Mt. Fuji wasn’t available. But I swear that I’m going to go back for it! So, we headed back to the sumo stadium and grabbed coffee to take stock of our trip before meeting her aunt.
We also stopped into a pachinko parlor. If you don’t know what this is, it’s a Japanese style of slot machines. The rooms are incredibly loud–I literally couldn’t even hear myself think over the sound of alarms and bells going off through the room. One of the attendants attempted to teach me how to play, but all I ended up doing was losing $10 in about 5 minutes. Which I didn’t mind because I wanted to escape the incredible amount of noise.
A few matches early—because we had to be there on time in order to get the merchandise or they would leave—we waited outside the stadium. To the side, an area was set up with street food for sale and people gathered around a small television to watch the matches.
We gathered with the people, cheering on the wrestlers and getting excited for another one of her cousin’s match.
As soon as it finished, we rushed to where the crowds gathered to greet the stoic sumo wrestlers. Eventually, her cousin emerged and her aunt rushed us amid the crowds for pictures. Then, it was like sharks circling a fish. And that fish was her cousin. Cameras flashed from every direction as night descended.
I felt overwhelmed before the aunt made us get into the van again to drive us around the block to give us the items before another one manager helped point us in the direction of the subway (which we already knew how to get to, but he was very kind for showing us how to get there). When we were sure they were on our way, we ended up taking a walk from the stadium into the direction we knew the Tokyo Skytree was.
The weather was cool and crisp and we ran across fun things, like a reasonably-priced English used bookstore (a rarity in Korea, if not in Japan). Then, just as we turned onto the main street we would use to eventually come to the Skytree, we heard the thick pounding of a drum. A glance down an alley across from us revealed some men hefting a large box down the paper-lanterned streets to the beat.
With hardly a doubt, we had to walk down most of the street to the nearest crosswalk before doubling back.
The box-toting men were gone, but the drumming remained and we followed it to a street intersection in the neighborhood. On one side, people sold food and paper goods. In the center of an intersection was a large, wooden platform elevated with a large drum hanging on the side of it.
A man with a white cloth wrapped around his forehead, sweating profusely but having fun, banged on it in beat to a stereo system playing old Japanese songs. As they played, women dressed in both street clothes and in kimonos danced in a circle around the platform with children weaving in and out of them. They all knew the steps and turned, smiling and laughing, urging their friends to join in.
Every ever so often, the drummer would change and so would the style of the song. Some drummers preferred high-energy songs, others languidly hit the drum to a slower beat.
We appeared to be the only westerners watching the festival and when it seemed like we had seen enough—and neither of us felt comfortable joining the steps with the locals—we continued on our way to the Skytree.
Which we ended up not going up. The price was extremely expensive and the wait was long. Instead, we grabbed Halloween-themed ice creams from Cold Stone Creamery (Yes! There is Cold Stone in Japan!) as we walked around the mall portion of the tower until we felt it was time to leave.
Day 5: Kabuki-za, Harajuku Shopping, leaving
Early in the morning on our last day in the city, I woke up to make my way to see an act of a Kabuki play. I was the only one who wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure about seeing an entire play. I knew nothing of Kabuki. But, I read online that the top tier at the theater was for people who purchased their tickets the day of and I read up on which acts were most suggested to see.
Like when we went to see sumo, I assumed that I should plan to arrive before the suggested line-up time, and I was right. Off to the side of the theater was an area for those buying day-of tickets, though when I arrived the line was only about a dozen people. I crossed the street to a convenience store to buy breakfast before heading back over.
I ended up being extremely glad to be there early. The first thirty or forty people got to wait for the theater’s opening on benches. The ones that came after had to stand the entire waiting time, which was a couple of hours.
A man came by handing out programs, and the two Japanese women sitting next to me giggled over how handsome one of the young actors was—at Kabuki, the entire cast is male, much like in Shakespean times. I, too, had taken a glance at the photo and couldn’t help but spare a laugh and playful nod along to the women.
That set them off, giggling and playfully pushing me. Through the rest of the time there, they made sure I got a copy of all the handouts and after purchasing the tickets and heading up on the escalator, made the group wait for me so I could have my choice of a seat.
Another benefit of being early, then is you could choose your seat. I sat in the front, but if I ever went again, I might pick a middle row.
Kabuki itself was interesting, though I didn’t find it quite enjoyable myself. It was quiet. Emotions and plot points were represented in the color clothing or in the way things were said and while I appreciate the subtlety and the symbolism behind these things, it didn’t particularly strike my fancy to go again.
But I am glad I went to see it. Something interesting about Kabuki is it’s quite common for the audience to interact with the actors, yelling things at them throughout the play. I got a translator, which was helpful, especially when seeing other foreigners around the play without them looking quite lost.
The story I saw was about a general whose wife’s father wanted to have him killed as a rebel. Everyone was spying on everyone else, there were sword battles (done extremely slowly and with no actual hits), and attempts to out-drink each other.
When the act ended, I went to a steak restaurant (and thoroughly freaked out the waiter with my lack of Japanese skills, though he did perfectly well with his English, before meeting my friend once again in Harajuku for some last minute purchasing.
It takes me a while to decide if I want something. From this, you can guess that it took my a week to come to any decisions.
We went on a wild search for crazy-flavors of Kit Kat bars and I managed to get my hands on a reasonably priced Instax camera and got a great deal on film.
Exhausted and ready to be back home, we headed to the airport to wait for our much delayed 4 am flight back to Seoul.
It was a great vacation and I’m happy with what we did. I didn’t come away from Tokyo wishing that I could have done something more in the city. While I would have loved to see Mt. Fuji, that would have been a day trip anyway. If I make it over to Japan again, I would like to go to Kyoto or maybe even a more traditional area.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Tokyo was all the things we stumbled upon. I wrote a post about things I learned in Tokyo, but I think the it was fun what we were able to stumble into just walking around. And we really did walk most of Tokyo. We found festivals, attempted to fish for goldfish. While language barriers existed, I found that there were moments of connection with people.