Travel Story Quirky shopping and Shinto shrines: Tokyo equals exhilaration

Photo of Vanessa Williams

Move over, New York — there's another city that never sleeps.

It’s 4.30 in the afternoon and already the sun has begun its descent into the night, slinking behind the concrete jungle of high-rise buildings that dominate Tokyo’s thriving inner-city pockets.

Having arrived in Japan’s most-populated city several hours earlier, I’m exhausted and in desperate need of a good night’s sleep.

But instead of flopping into bed and calling it a day, here I am exploring Tokyo’s bustling tourist district of Shinjuku after sunset.

A cluster of illuminated billboards and flashing signs looms large above me, casting colourful pools of light that dance across Shinjuku’s lively warren of pedestrian only streets.

Just like a scene out of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, I find myself in a trance, drawn deeper into Shinjuku’s endless network of streets like a moth to a flame. 

Welcome to Tokyo; the city that never sleeps but has plenty to offer, even for the most discerning tourist.

Come 6pm, we can no longer ignore the pangs of hunger that have caused our stomachs to rumble as loud as an earthquake, so we decide to make our way back to our accommodation in nearby Shibuya-ku, about a 25-minute walk from Shinjuku.

As seasoned Airbnb travellers, we decided against staying in a hotel for our first five days in Tokyo.

Instead, we opted for a neat and cosy two-bedroom apartment leased out by an Australian couple who have been living and working in Japan for several years. 

Situated adjacent to Hatsudai Station, which is connected to the private Keio New train line, the apartment is just one stop from JR Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest transport hubs in the world. It’s so busy that it has garnered a Guinness World Record, which is no surprise given more than 3.6 million commuters pass through it every day.

We weren’t quite game enough to brave Tokyo’s overwhelmingly hectic train system for the first two days but given the apartment’s convenient location, we were able to explore nearby attractions by foot.

After gulping down a delicious dinner at one of the many restaurants tucked along the bustling road in front of our apartment building — this comprised a variety of dishes including ramen noodles, gyoza dumplings, edamame beans and takoyaki octopus balls, all for less than $15 — we crawl into bed, having made our plans for the following day.

Despite visiting Tokyo in the peak of winter — where daytime temperatures hover between 5C and 7C, dropping to as low as 1C come nightfall — the following day we’re blessed with clear, sunny skies. 

It’s perfect weather to explore nearby Shibuya, a buzzing tourist centre famous for its hectic four-way pedestrian crossing.

Although there’s a bus that stops outside our building, which can take us directly into the heart of Shibuya, we decide to head there by foot, using Yoyogi Park as a scenic thoroughfare. 

Much like New York’s Central Park, Yoyogi Park is one of Tokyo’s largest inner-city parks and bustles with locals and tourists at weekends, particularly on Sundays.

After a leisurely 30-minute stroll through the park, we find ourselves back in civilisation, again confronted by high-rise buildings and crowded city streets.

It’s not hard to pinpoint the whereabouts of Shibuya Crossing; like sheep, we follow a sea of people who somehow manage to dart in and around each other with grace and precision, unlike the panicked, wide-eyed tourists who gawk at the crowd that charges towards them. 

Just outside Shibuya Station via the Hachiko Exit, is the famous Hachiko dog statue.

According to legend, Hachiko would greet his master, university professor Hidesaburo Ueno, at Shibuya Station every day following his daily commute to and from work. 

When Uneo died suddenly during a lecture and failed to make his way back, Hachiko would still wait outside the station. 

This was something the loyal pooch did for nine years up until his death in 1935.

Gaining profound respect for his unshakable loyalty, Hachiko was immortalised into a statue, which is positioned in the very spot he was said to wait for his master. Given its popularity, we found ourselves having to wait in line just to take a photo alongside the beloved canine; a scenario that is commonplace not only in Tokyo but across Japan. 

Indeed, the Japanese are so orderly and courteous that you can expect to line up for anything and everything, and to jump the queue is frowned upon immensely. 

Not far from the Hachiko station is an underground food court that offers a feast of Japanese cuisine, from yakitori (chicken skewers), takoyaki and gyoza to sashimi, sushi and an array of baked sweets that look too good to eat.

As it is frequented by business men and women during breakfast and the lunch hour, there are no tables and chairs to be found. 

Instead there are benches that rise to waist high to cater for those who want to “eat and run”.

After a quick lunch, we hit the pavement again, this time with a map in hand sourced from the nearby tourist information centre.

Our next pit stop is Meiji Shrine.

Tucked within Yoyogi Park, entrance to the shrine is located near Harajuku Station, which sits on the circular JR Yamanote Line.

Built in 1920 as a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor of Meiji and his Empress Shoken, Meiji was sadly obliterated during World War II and had to be rebuilt. Thankfully, this has done little to dull its splendour. 

After arriving at the shrine, we partake in a cleansing ritual that involves scooping water from the designated water wells and washing hands and mouth. 

The shrine itself oozes a subdued architectural elegance; unlike the often showy shrines or temples you’d expect to see throughout Japan, Meiji blends in with its natural surroundings. We watch with interest as people scribble on pieces of paper and then tie them to a prayer wall adorned with thousands of “wishes” before following suit. 

Harajuku’s eccentric Takeshita Street is a stone’s throw away from the shrine, so we decide to brave the crowds and walk down the chaotic shopping strip. 

At first glance, Takeshita Street is the epitome of Japanese quirkiness — it abounds with funky stores and shopfronts that sell everything from trendy fashion, jewellery and accessories, vintage clothing, make-up (be sure to check out the monstrous two-storey Etude House store), toys and cutesy bits and pieces.

While we weren’t able to visit Takeshita Street at the weekend, Sunday is when you can expect to see hordes of hip Japanese youngsters dressed head-to-toe in brightly coloured outfits or cosplay.

We return to Shibuya Crossing later that evening, having heard the area transforms after dark.

The vibrant, chaotic buzz of Shibuya is certainly intensified at night, and is well worth a visit, more so than during the day. 

On our third day, we finally decide to brave Tokyo’s complex but highly efficient train system. 

Given we only plan to use the trains in Tokyo, we didn’t feel the need to acquire a JR pass (which will set you back about $700 but provides you with unlimited travel on all JR lines across parts of Japan for up to three weeks). 

Having done my research, we instead acquired a Pasmo card (much like Transperth’s SmartRider cards), which gave us access to both the JR and private lines that are interconnected throughout Tokyo. 

Pasmo cards can be purchased at Shinjuku Station from the automated machines and instructions on how to do so are in English, which made it relatively easy.

In addition, Pasmo cards can be used beyond the train system — they are accepted in some convenience stores and restaurants, provided you have enough value on your card.

While staying one stop away from JR Shinjuku Station came in handy, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the myriad exits and underpasses that weave in and out in all different directions.

It takes at least a day of navigating the train system to get a grasp of how it all works but thankfully there is an abundance of signs in English which guide you to where you need to go. 

On our fourth day, we hop on a train destined for Tokyo Dome City, a multi-level shopping centre-cum-theme park adjacent to the famous domed stadium, which is home to one of Japan’s most popular sports, baseball.  

A short walk from the Suidobashi Station on the JR Chuo line, Tokyo Dome City has it all: shopping, restaurants, amusement rides and, for those seeking a little R&R, a fancy day spa complete with a luxurious onsen. 

After another busy day, we retreat back to our little home away from home for what will sadly be our last night in Shibuya-ku. 

Having researched countless hotels before our trip, we decided Shinjuku Prince Hotel was our best bet. 

Across the road is a sushi train restaurant, a 7Eleven and a McDonald’s, while a number of department stores, shops and eateries are scattered within a 2km radius of the hotel.

A giant Godzilla statue jutting out of a building can also be seen from our hotel window.

A quick Google search tells me that Japan’s pop culture obsession with Godzilla was born in 1954 when filmmaker Ishiro Honda released his iconic movie of the same name.

Also within walking distance from the hotel is the famous Robot Restaurant, which sadly we didn’t experience due to the limitations of having a toddler in tow. 

Given we had ticked off most of the sites and attractions on our must-see list, we decide to explore more of Shinjuku during our last two days in Tokyo. 

Leaving Tokyo was like saying goodbye to a friend.

It made you feel welcome, it took you to many amazing places that epitomised Japan’s warm, hospitable and eccentric culture, but you left knowing that one day you’d be seeing it again.

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