Our Japan Rail Trip – Part 1: Cool Tokyo Neighbourhoods

Before launching Japan Rail Planner, we (the Japan Rail Planner co-founders) travelled around Japan using the Japan Rail Pass. It was an amazing trip and inspired us to make this website to help others plan their perfect trips to Japan. In this multi-part blog series, we’ll tell you all about our trip. We started in Tokyo, popping up to Nikko before heading west to Hiroshima via Osaka, Nara, and Kobe. We then headed back towards Tokyo, stopping off in Kyoto, Nagoya, and Takayama. You can retrace our steps using this template of our route. Along the way, we had delicious meals (with a diet consisting mainly of ramen, katsu curry, and sushi), saw beautiful sights and landmarks, went on scenic hikes, and met some fun people!

This first blog post covers our initial stay in Tokyo, where we focused our exploration on the city’s fashionable western neighborhoods, such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku.

Tokyo: The Western Neighborhoods – Days 1-3

After landing at Tokyo Narita Airport in the morning, we headed straight to our hostel to drop off our bags. As we were staying near Shibuya, we lined that up as the first area to explore. Shibuya is a popular area to hang out, with lots of options for eating, drinking, and shopping – a great place to be introduced to the bustling streets of Tokyo! We had a fun experience joining the masses of people making their way over the famous Shibuya crossing, which is rumoured to be one of the busiest intersections in the world. We then found our first ramen of the trip in the pedestrianised area known as Center Gai.

In the evening, we had our first Katsu curry at a well-known Japanese chain called CoCo Ichibanya. Although it’s a chain, it seemed very authentic and was delicious! You could choose all sorts of ingredients to have with the curry sauce and rice, including scrambled egg – yum. You also have to choose a level of spiciness – anything above a 3 out of 10 is quite brave for Western palates. (We found this out by naively choosing a spice level of 4.)

To soothe our taste buds, we headed to Nonbei Yokocho (aka Drunkard’s Alley), which is an alleyway full of small bars. There are a few spots like this in Tokyo, the most famous being the Golden Gai, which I’ll come onto later. In Nonbei Yokocho, we went to a trendy but tiny sake bar – and when I say tiny, I mean there was just a bar with 4 stools. The sake was served in a large shot glass within a wooden rice box, and was overpoured so that the liquid spilled out of the glass and into the rice box. As we drank, we topped up the glass with the contents of the rice box. It was a fun way to drink!

The next morning, we set about exploring more of Tokyo, starting with Harajuku where we explored the famous Takeshita and Cat streets. Cat Street was the more chilled of the two, with low-rise, modern buildings housing shops from global brands. The street was bordered by a pedestrianised area that featured some nice-looking restaurants and the ever-popular bubble tea shops (you rarely saw one of these without a queue). Takeshita street was probably the busiest street we experienced in Tokyo, lined mainly by sweet treats and tourist tat. It was quite an intense experience for the senses, with music blaring, massive crowds, and strong scents of fried dough, but it’s an experience worth having.

For a more peaceful vibe, we walked to Shinjuku via the Gyoen National Garden, a huge park with towering trees, lovely landscaping, and picturesque little bridges. After leaving the park and making our way into the centre of Shinjuku, we sought out an Izakaya, which is basically a Japanese pub serving food. Everything was in Japanese, so we put our faith in the staff to choose us some food – the dishes were puzzling but tasty.

Shinjuku, like Shibuya, is a lively area to spend the evening. We went to the Golden Gai, which is a larger version of Drunkards’ Alley from the previous evening. We crawled around the small alleyway bars (again, none had capacity for more than 10 people), making friends with Japanese locals and other tourists alike. The stand-out bar was one that initially seemed full up, until they pointed us to a mini attic balcony area up a narrow staircase and overlooking the main bar. Sitting on the floor of this attic balcony, we called down to the bar for beers to be passed up to us whilst a local have us an education in Japanese pop music using the attic’s aux cable. It was a great night! We don’t know the name of the bar, but we do know that it was waterfall themed, so look out for a sign with a waterfall if you find yourself wandering down a Golden Gai alleyway.

The other thing to note is that, whilst tipping is frowned upon in Japan, a lot of bars have cover charges and these can be quite expensive in the Golden Gai, so keep an eye out for bars with no cover charge. The other Golden Gai bar experiences consisted of trying out the very popular yuzu sour drink, being affectionately nicknamed Jack Bauer from 24, and going to a bar that was ‘Not suspicious’ from the outside but became ‘Very suspicious’ after you had entered. The Golden Gai is a part of Tokyo nightlife not to be missed!

Our third day in Tokyo had a relatively late start (understandably) and we thought we’d try out the Japanese burger chain Mos to cure our hangovers. It was okay, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it. We continued our exploration of Tokyo’s westerly neighborhoods with a walk to Shimokitazawa, a low-rise hipster village with trendy cafes, bars, restaurants, and clothing shops. It also has a few arcades, so we stopped off in one to shoot some hoops – as our trip continued, we realised that the basketball game was a very rare arcade game to have found. It’s a cool area to wander round – it has a different, more chilled out atmosphere compared to the other neighborhoods we visited. We found some deliciously spicy ramen and located some craft beer bars to while away the evening, before heading back for a good night sleep ahead of our journey to Nikko – and using our Japan Rail passes for the first time!