“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.”

When I asked Theo if I could take his photo, he insisted that I be included in it.

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!

Tokyo National Museum entrance.
Reflecting pond outside the Tokyo National Museum complex.
Samurai armor owned by Tokugawa leyasu, 1543-1616, samurai warlord who united Japan under his rule. The helmet is adorned with a double-edged sword, a Buddhist symbol of wisdom that “cuts” through evil and ignorance.
Black-lacquered samurai sword from the Kamakura period, 1192-1333.
Sacred scroll…a sutra that was part of Hōryūji Temple’s Buddhist canon.
Bronze bell, tomb sculpture warrior and deep vessel.
Paintings from the Daisen-in Temple depicting fruits and vegetables associated with good fortune – persimmons, pomegranates, loquats and lotus roots.
“Bridge with Willow Trees and a Waterwheel” screens from 16th to 17th centuries.

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.

Ueno Park on an autumn morning.
Statue of Hideyo Noguchi, Japanese bacteriologist who in 1911 discovered the agent of syphilis as the cause of progressive paralytic disease. He later studied yellow fever in Africa and died of the disease in 1928.
Statue peeking through the trees at Ueno Park.

Ginza

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.

The Wako department store building, with its Seiko clock tower, is a Ginza landmark.

Ginza Itoya

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!

And in the basement…calendars!

Mariage Frères

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.

Suzuran-dori.

Shibuya Crossing

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.

Herb purchases our tickets.

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!

Hachikō, the extraordinarily devoted dog.

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.

Green light at Shibuya Crossing.

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.

View of the Shibuya Scramble from the l’Occitane Café.

First Impressions

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.

Nightfall over Tokyo. View from our hotel room, Tokyo Hilton Shinjuku, 26th floor.

20 Comments

  • I absolutely can’t wait for more of your impressions of japan! We are on Regent in April, 2024 going from Tokyo to Vancouver. Prior to the cruise (and pre cruise) we are taking a 10 day land tour that includes Tokyo, Hokkaido, Central Japan, and Tokyo/Nara. Our group will fly out of Osaka and we will take the bullet train back to Tokyo.

    This is a special trip as I lived in Japan for four years as a teen. This was over 50 years ago so I’m sure some things are very different and some things are not!

    • Wow, Jennifer, that sounds fantastic! I can’t begin to imagine all the emotions that will be swirling about when you return after so many years. I’m delighted to fuel the excitement and hope these stories and photos will offer a bit of insight into the “now.” I’m certain you are right that some things will be different and others will remain just as you remember them.

  • I was delighted to see this post pop up in my reader today. We loved Japan when we were there on the world cruise and plan to do a fall/winter land trip at some point. We totally agree with your first impressions. It’s an amazing country.

    After our first day in Japan, we added a bag in which to carry our bits and pieces of trash. It was an interesting BYOB(ag) concept.

    Looking through your photos from the museum, so many of them are similar to the ones I took as well, including the reflection shot of the complex. An amazing museum where I could have spent a couple of days … will definitely return to it

    We didn’t spend too much time in Ginza … primarily because by the time we got there, we were truly worn out from exploring on foot all day. Since we were in Tokyo overnight, perhaps we should have stayed in the city instead of returning to the ship so we could do Tokyo by night. Oh well … we will do that when we return for our land-based trip.

    I laughed when you mentioned the foldable mesh stands. When we went to the restaurant in Kobe for our “Kobe beef lunch”, they placed these stands behind our chairs. What a brilliant idea … but, of course, it would only work in a country like Japan where “stealing brings bad luck.”

    Like you, we didn’t join the long queue for a photo with Hachikō when we went to Shibuya Crossing. Thanks for the tip on another place from which to check out the crossing now that the Starbucks is closed. We too felt that it was a very orderly crossing. But we weren’t there during rush hour, so I have to wonder how it might feel then when everyone is rushing to get to/from work. That said, the Japanese are so polite that I doubt it’s mayhem.

    • I loved reading this, Erin! Many thanks for sharing your experiences and observations. We definitely have similar impressions of this fascinating country and culture. The bag storage stands are truly brilliant, and you’re right that they undoubtedly wouldn’t work in other parts of the world. And the Hachikō statue…I never imagined there would be a long line just to get a photo with him! You will have a great time on a follow-up land trip, I’m sure. In the short week we were in Japan, I felt so much more knowledgable and at ease and would love to return as well.

  • I have to admit I was disappointed when I went to Japan last April that I couldn’t find any thing on your blog about it. I treasure your insights, advice and travel tips. I’ll be going back next May with the youngest daughter, so I am thrilled to share this experience with you. I usually dislike cities, but Tokyo is truly an exception !

    • What a lovely comment, Rebecca…thank you! You really made my day!😊 I love sharing travel experiences, and knowing that they are appreciated means so much. Tokyo was a big surprise and completely won me over. How wonderful that you will have another chance to experience life there. I will have more stories about Tokyo and other places we traveled in Japan in the coming days. Perhaps we will be traveling the same path!

  • Fantastic observations! If you are planning to go to Osaka, Kyoto or further west, I may have some suggestions for you, if useful.

    • Thank you, Josh! I may need those suggestions for a “one day” future trip! We are home now, but we did make it to Kyoto as well as several other places in Japan. Blog posts are forthcoming, so please stay tuned.

  • So excited to read this!! We are on the Explorer next April doing round trip Tokyo and then Tokyo to Vancouver. I have read so many negatives about the Vibrant Tokyo experience that your review is a breath of fresh air! Can’t wait to read about the rest of your trip.

    • Nancy, I’m so happy to know that our experiences will be helpful for your upcoming travel plans! The “Vibrant Tokyo” pre-cruise was really great and not at all like some of the reviews we’d read. For me, the key was understanding that the tours were not guided in the traditional sense, but rather, offered transportation to various places with helpful commentary along the way. I liked that we had plenty of time to explore on our own and were able to weave in other places we wanted to visit around the planned itinerary. Thanks for reading…and welcome aboard!

  • I so enjoy all your initial impressions of Toyko. As a novice calligrapher and paper artist, I am in love with Ginza Itoya! Thank you for all sharing! Jealous for sure! 🙂

    • You would love Ginza Itoya, Deb! I don’t think I could get you out of the store! 😊 Glad you enjoyed the Tokyo impressions…it’s one of those places that stays with you long after you’ve moved on – and maybe it always will.

  • Mary- your curiosity and descriptive imagery is amazing! And a window to the world. Forwarded your blog to Ron to read about your Tokyo update as he used to work there 35 years ago- and never mentioned having to carry his garbage at the time! Glad you and Herb had a great trip! Gretchen

    • Great to hear from you, Gretchen! I love that phrase, “window to the world” – Thanks so much for the kind words. I will be interested to hear if Ron’s memories are similar to our experiences, excluding the garbage-toting requirements! Sending you lots of love and Happy Holiday wishes! ❤️

  • Mary, as you can probably imagine, I have spent a great number of hours in that Itoya store and could move in for a week and still not feel I’m done with it!! Wonderful place! I love reading your thoughts about Tokyo and consider Theo’s travel tips to be the best – spot on, every one of them. Best of all, I’m thrilled that you were as delighted by the experience as we are. It’s a very special place, unlike any other for sure. Thank you for taking me there with you!

    • Moving into Itoya for a week…what a great idea, Gill! I did think of you when we were there and figured you surely had discovered it on one of your many Tokyo trips. Thank you for all the info on your blog and on Cruise Critic about taking the trains. It gave us a real confidence boost! I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about our first day there as well as Theo’s travel tips. What a captivating city!

      • Mary, we went to Tokyo for the first time so many years ago, thinking that we’d just “tick Japan off the list”. Yet we always seem to be planning our next visit and never tire of the joy our visits bring, from BYOB to places like Itoya, where even the simplest items become exquisite. I love hearing stories from friends who discover those joys too!!

        • Gill, I completely understand your love of Tokyo and Japan and desire for return visits. Like you, I thought it would be an interesting place to travel, but never imagined that I would be so taken with everything we experienced. Although I’m not much of a returner when it comes to travel, preferring to explore places I’ve never been, I would make a very large exception to that philosophy when it comes to Japan! 😊

  • A fantastic blog, going on Regent Explorer April 1, 2024. I have been to Japan on work related trips 7 previous times, the last one in 2000. Can’t wait to be there again. You really can get caught up with the Japanese culture. This trip will be different this time as I will be a tourist without work related distractions. Looking forward to your future articles.

    • Ron, thank you so much! I’m really happy to know that the blogs will be helpful with your upcoming travels. I completely agree with you about getting immersed in the Japanese culture. It’s such an interesting and unique way of living, and I found it really refreshing and different from anywhere else I’ve traveled. Have a great time planning your trip, and please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the cruise.

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