“Be a traveler, not a tourist.”
It’s a sunny November morning outside a banquet room at the Tokyo Hilton Shinjuku, where tour director Theo is sharing stories about life in Japan. Tours weren’t departing until 9 a.m., but people had been dribbling in for more than an hour, having succumbed to jet lag’s unwelcome 2:30 a.m. wake-up calls.
Herb and I had arrived late in the afternoon the previous day and were filled with that heady combination of adrenaline rush and time-change fatigue. This was our fist time in Japan, and I was hanging on to every nugget of information swirling around the room. Theo had worked in tourism all over the world, most recently in Sweden, and was one of those people that you immediately take to – funny, kind and welcoming, with a warm smile and generous personality.
First there were a few travel tips:
- Carry your trash with you; Tokyo does not have garbage cans, and locals keep a bag with them for depositing trash and bringing it home; a new take on the phrase BYOB, I thought.
- Do not talk on the metro; it is considered impolite.
- Transfer your backpack to your chest when traveling on the metro to keep from bumping into other passengers.
- Do not worry about theft: Japanese culture considers stealing to bring bad luck.
- Streets are safe at all hours, even for children. “Children are our national treasure.”
- Sumimasen is a handy phrase that can be used as a thank you or to get someone’s attention or to apologize if you accidentally bump into someone.
And then there was this:
“The difference between a tourist and a traveler is that a tourist expects that everything will be the same as home, and a traveler is an open vessel.”
Tokyo National Museum
Our Tokyo tours were part of a pre-cruise excursion arranged by Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Tours were offered in the mornings, with free time in the afternoons. Guides provided commentary as buses traveled to various destinations, but once we arrived, we toured on our own. Herb and I were assigned to a group led by a woman named Mitty, who spends her days as a Tokyo tour guide and her nights moonlighting as a jazz singer.
Our first stop was the Tokyo National Museum, the oldest museum and largest art museum in Japan. Founded in 1872, it’s one of four museums operated by the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage and focuses on ancient and medieval Japanese art and Asian art along the Silk Road. Tokyo National Museum overlooks a tranquil pond in Ueno Park, a city oasis of museums, Japan’s oldest zoo and 8,800 trees.
The museum has an old-world feel, reminiscent of The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, minus the typewritten exhibit descriptions. There are scrolls and screens and samurai swords, paintings and pottery and ancient Buddhist sculptures. It’s the kind of place that sets a mood and surrounds you with historical culture and context. This is Japan, it seems to say…jump in!
After wandering through the exhibits, Herb and I walked across the street and took in the autumn scene in Ueno Park. Locals were relaxing by a fountain-filled pond, school children wearing uniforms were playing in a forest-like area off the main path and a street performer was entertaining a crowd by juggling rings while balancing on a narrow teeterboard. Leaves had turned shades of yellow, and although we’d been told the unusually hot weather of the past two months had made autumn’s arrival later than usual, it was clear that a feeling of fall was in the air.
Back on the bus, we headed to Ginza, Tokyo’s renowned shopping district known for its lavish department stores and boutiques as well as cafés and restaurants. Herb and I opted to have more time in the area rather than return to the hotel with the group. It would be easy to spend hours in Ginza – exploring the department stores with their enticing food displays in an adventure in itself – but “hours” was something we didn’t have. Instead, we arrived armed with a plan that zeroed in on two stops.
While doing research on Ginza before the trip, I’d discovered a shop that sent my heart soaring: Ginza Itoya, Japan’s oldest stationery store, founded in 1904. Twelve floors of writing, art and paper-related products. Floor number twelve is a restaurant called CAFÉ Stylo, a perfect place for lunch, I’d imagined, and a chance to work our way down through the various floors.
The entrance to Ginza Itoya sits under a giant-sized red paper clip logo. We rode the elevator to the twelfth floor, took a seat by the windows at CAFÉ Stylo and settled in. It’s a casual, bright space decorated in a simple modern design. The first thing I noticed were foldable mesh stands with canvas bottoms sitting next to each table. I was confused until I looked around and realized they were meant for stowing purses, backpacks and shopping bags, keeping them clean and off the floor. We would later find variations of these clever storage bins in restaurants throughout the city.
The menu described foods in both Japanese and English, and we communicated with our server by pointing to the items we wanted. We ordered sandwiches and salads and finished quickly, ready to take on Itoya floor by floor.
I was prepared to be dazzled by the array of stationery products, but I wasn’t prepared for just how dazzled I would be. Dazzled as in overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of selection of every imaginable item. Dazzled as in overwhelmed by the crowds of people who were shopping in every department. Each floor is a store unto itself, organized by catchy themes with names like Office, Travel, Color, Craft, Letter and Home.
I must have seen every brand of pen I have ever heard of – and many more I haven’t – as well as every possible swatch of paint color in existence. The second floor even features a “Write & Post” desk where shoppers can write cards or letters and then mail them, although I wasn’t sure where you could buy stamps. I kept thinking that this would be a great place if I were shopping for something specific, but as a traveler hoping to find a unique treasure to bring home, I came up empty-handed – except for the wonderfully over-the-top experience of being in a twelve-story stationery store!
Our other Ginza destination was Mariage Frères, my beloved favorite French tea that I’ve written about here before. Paris is home to the Mariage Frères flagship store and café as well as a number of smaller shops throughout the city, and it turns out that the Japanese also love this brand of French tea.
We left Itoya and Ginza’s main shopping area and headed down Suzuran-dori, a narrow street that feels more like a passageway than a route to somewhere else. A familiar yellow-and-black sign called out in the distance, and soon we found ourselves in the upstairs tearoom, ordering a pot of Tokyo Breakfast and tea-infused madeleine cookies. I surely will never be able to try all 650 flavors of Mariage Frères tea, but drinking a cup of Tokyo Breakfast in Toyko was an incredibly special moment.
Back outside, we found our way to the Metro’s Ginza Station. One of my “must-sees” in Tokyo was not on our tour schedule, so Herb and I planned to get to the Shibuya Crossing on our own. Before leaving home, we watched YouTube videos on how to purchase tickets and navigate the Metro. It seemed a bit daunting from our living room, but once we were there, it wasn’t terribly different from using trains in European cities we’d visited.
The key was designating starting and ending stations when purchasing tickets – the machines have an English language option – and knowing to take your ticket from the turnstile after entering the Metro. The ticket must be reinserted at the destination turnstile in order to leave the station. Machines accept Japanese yen only; U.S. credit cards cannot be used for short-distance fares.
Shibuya Crossing is billed as the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection, with as many as 3,000 people per green light crossing every two minutes. Located outside the Hachikō exit, the crossing stops vehicles in all directions to allow pedestrians to make their way across the intersection.
But before we entered the crosswalk, we stopped by the statue of Hachikō, an Akita dog who waited by the station every day at 3 p.m. for Professor Hidesaburō Ueno of Tokyo University to return from work. Ueno died in 1925 while at the university and never returned home. As the story is told, Hachikō continued to visit the station every day until he passed away ten years later.
Hachikō’s story of devotion is a popular tale in Japanese lore, and the courtyard where his statue resides is packed with visitors. We didn’t wait in the long line to take a photo with Hachikō, but I stood off to the side to quickly get his picture before anyone jumped in the frame!
Doing the “Shibuya Scramble,” as it is called, wasn’t nearly as chaotic as I had imagined it would be. In fact, it was almost, well – orderly. We crossed the intersection several times and never felt rushed or uncomfortable. We stopped to take a quick selfie, and Herb captured a video on one of our crossings. The magnitude of where we were was almost more impactful than the experience itself.
We’d planned to get a bird’s-eye view of the crossing from Starbucks’ infamous second floor viewing point. But after trying in vain to find it, we turned to Google and discovered that Starbucks Shibuya had permanently closed a week earlier. Undeterred, I spotted windows above a l’Occitane store where people seemed to be watching the crossing, and we headed inside and up a line-filled staircase to the shop’s café. We weren’t able to snag a table by the windows, but it didn’t matter. Customers were milling around, taking photos over the people seated at window tables and watching the crossing below. The dessert, it seemed, was almost an afterthought.
That night I received a text from my friend Mary, wanting to know my “first impressions” of Tokyo. It’s a phrase I never think much about when arriving in a new city. I typically take everything in and allow time to reveal the impressions it wants me to understand. But Tokyo seemed different. The impressions were immediate and powerful and specific.
I wrote to Mary and then jotted a few thoughts in my notebook: “Quiet; polite; crowded but orderly; no blaring car horns; helpful people; rule followers; clean and pristine – from the streets to the buildings to the cleanest public restrooms imaginable, some complete with toddler seats attached to the walls of individual stalls; so many parks; in many ways a throwback to another time, with department stores and a vibrant city scene, and yet oh-so modern.”
I was enchanted with this new city I found myself in, and I couldn’t wait for the next day to begin.