We got off the plane after the 11 hour flight from LAX and made our way through customs. It was one of the easiest customs experience I’ve ever had. Everything is streamlined for maximum efficiency. No visa application needed and within 25 minutes of getting off the plane Athena and I had our first stamp good until the 9th of January!
As soon as we were through we headed over to the tourist information center and bought a Japanese SIM card with 8 days of unlimited data usage for ¥3500. We’d heard there was WiFi all over japan but a lot of places require a Japanese SIM card to get on it. That and a google maps crutch was reassuring for me traveling in a country where, I thought, I wouldn’t be able to read anything (more on that later).
We got train tickets for the Skyliner to Nippori station and we were off! I know this was no bullet train but holy hot cakes it was cruisin. We were both beat after the 28 hours of travel with a 5.5 hour nap in the middle, but my brain was working full tilt to take in as much as I could as I practically got whiplash swinging my head back and forth at high speed. A quick 40 minute ride later and we’re in Tokyo!
The hostel we stayed at was about a half mile walk from the Nippori train station so we decided to stretch our legs a bit and take a walk. A minute from the station and we were walking through tiny back residential streets and the first thing we both noticed was….it’s soooo quiet. Sure it was residential, but I grew up in a similar metro residential area in Boston but here there was NO hustle bustle of the city. There was the occasional clip-clop of a train passing but other than that…silent.
We got to the guest house and checked in to our “capsules” and took a shower. The dormitory capsules were stacked 2 tall and about 5 long down each side of the room. A really cool concept on hostel beds. After cleaning up a bit we decided to take a little walk and after a bit of googling I realized we were about 30 minute train ride from the real there there on Tokyo. We were both dead tired and Athena was trying to beat the last bit of a cold that struck right as we left Boston, so we decided to stay local and talk a walk around the neighborhood.
Capsule rooms with your head at the ladder
Bunk style capsules
It was now about 5pm local time so we grabbed some food on the go and people watched as business men made their walks home from work and mothers picked their kids up from daycare and ran errands on specially designed electric bikes that could carry 2 kids and the nights groceries. I don’t know what I was expecting to find but here are a couple of the quick things I noticed in my first few hours in Toyko.
1. There is no unused space. Houses are practically on top of each other, but simultaneously there high rises are few and far between. Rooftops of low rise apartment buildings have netted areas that my masterful powers of deduction have concluded are used for some kind of exercise. Even in the residential areas like Nippori there is a vast mix of residential and warehouse/industrial intermixed and on top of each other on the small back streets. Parking lots are barely the size of the buildings around them but all have elevators to stack cars 2 to 5 tall. Gas stations in the heart of the city feed from the roof so pump stations don’t take up excess space. This amazed me and brought me some funny looks from locals at the weird guy taking lots of pictures of the gas station.
2.Cars are tiny. Like comically small boxes with 10in wheels, but anything bigger wouldn’t fit down many of the narrow one way back streets that zig and zag every direction.
3.Bicycles are everywhere. Makes sense in a tight city where parking is expensive and hard to find but the shear number caught me off guard. Walking past these strange kiosks a man came up to me and explained they are bicycle storage elevators that go underground and can hold UP TO 600 bikes!!
Underground bike storage at metro stations in Tokyo
Bikes built to last are everywhere!
4.Vending machines are on every other corner. And they sell anything you could think of from your favorite soft beverage to cigarettes.
5.It is sooo freakin quiet!
We passed out by 7pm to get a good nights sleep before getting up the next morning to head down to Fujiyoshida hopefully to get a glimpse of Mount Fuji!
Waking up early wasn’t hard and we packed our day bags for a night as we planned to spend a night in Kawaguchiko and come back the next day. We stopped at 7-11 for some snacks for the road and oooh my god I’ve fallen in love. 7-11 in Japan actually has some pretty decent and cheap food. Rice balls of all different flavors make a great snack but my favorite thing by far were these mini pancake sandwiches stuffed with butter and maple syrup that are DANGEROUS!!
Headed over to the train and made our way to Tokyo station. Remember how earlier I said I though I wouldn’t be able to read/understand anything. Well almost all the signage was also in English and in the one instance were we got completely lost transferring trains, people were more than friendly and helpful in pointing us back in the right direction. But once again, it is silent. The trains were stuffed to the brim with commuters and everyone is lessening to their music or reading manga on their phones (seriously sooo many people) but there is not a sounds. When we made it to Tokyo station got off the train and entered the mass that is the central connection point for most of the trains and busses in Tokyo the only noise you could hear was the thunderous clomp of shoes on the floor. No street performers. No conversations in passing. No advertisements or even announcements. Just shoes. After wandering back and forth in what I thought was the right direction we finally found the JR bus ticket office and 10 minutes later were aboard a bus headed to kawaguchiko. We got onto the highway heading southwest and for the next hour we were still in the sprawling urbanization that is Tokyo proper. Then through a tunnel and suddenly we were surrounded by green!
Our original plan had been to come down to Fujiyoshida and take a relaxing day soaking in a traditional Japanese onsen overlooking Mount Fuji. But as I’m sure we’ll figure out soon, travel plans rarely are what ends up actually happening. The journey there was pretty and green but as we approached there were some dark angry looking clouds in the sky. But more importantly from about 15 minutes away Athena recognized something she loves arguably more than soaking in hot water….roller coasters! In the distant loomed Fuji-Q Highland, Japan’s favorite theme park at the base of a mountain. We continued on to our stop deliberating on what to do with our day. Getting off at Kawaguchiko station we walked past our hostel, 5 minutes away to familiarize ourselves with the area and decided, Fuji-Q here we come. It was a quick 25 minute walk again through small gravel back roads barely a tiny-cars width wide but here in between houses were scattered small local gardens. It was amazing how in that short walk from a main bus terminal to a large amusement park you could feel so instantly like you were in the country.
We got to Fuji-Q and it was awesome. Cheaper than any amusement park I had ever been to in the states with half the lines and just as many wild rollercoasters.
It seemed like every ride there boasted the steepest drop in the world, or most spins in the world. We even took the Ferris wheel and for a moment in there the sun broke through the clouds and we could see the top of Mount Fuji. It was an unexpectedly awesome way to spend the day. Sure the weather wasn’t spectacular but even so the surrounding mountains and hills around Fuji are beautiful with the natural Grey clouds rolling over their peaks. That and now I know I just have an excuse to come back and hike to the top of Fuji when the suns out and I can really see the valley for what it is.
After a day in at the amusement park we walked back to the hostel and got checked in and man what a cool place that was. If you’re ever in the Fujiyoshida area I highly recommend checking out the Kagelow Mt Fuji hostel. It’s got a modern industrial shic vibe with its own restaurant and lounge and operated by the nicest group of guys. We asked one of them his favorite local place for food and his words “well if I’m going to eat out around here of course it’s going to be sushi”. And he pointed us in the right direction. It was still a little early so instead we walked down to the lake front and hung out in a park that overlooked the lake and rising mountains beyond. After a bit we decided it was time to head back and try our first sushi in Japan!