Japan. Kingdom of cherry blossoms and geishas, sake and sushi, Pokémon and Toyota. All but a dream within a dream. A somewhat expensive dream.
After traveling throughout The Land of the Rising Sun for the last month and a half, I now feel safe naming myself an expert in all aspects of Japanese culture, history, language and national character. As such, I’ve compiled four of my favorite (and cheap, for all those budget travelers out there) ways to let a lazy afternoon roll one along in Japan’s largest and most famous city, Tokyo.
Formalities aside, let’s begin.
1. The Arcades of Akihabara
What it costs: ¥200 – ¥500
How it works:
While there’s plenty to see walking the streets of Akihabara (Tokyo’s electric town), eventually you’ll tire of being accosted by girls dressed like maids trying to get you to pay to be creepy. Look for one of the many big game arcades (the sign should read “Sega” or “Taito Station”) and head inside.
Let me first note that the money you shell out here isn’t so important. Arcades in general are expensive, and these are no exception. Most games run at ¥100/game, but luckily the spectacle here isn’t the playing itself. Walk around until you find a machine that catches your eye. Like me, you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the games, many having all sorts of doohickeys, whatchamacallits and other gadgets requiring coordination Westerners just don’t possess. My advice? Stick to something that necessitates only the most basic button smashing.
If you can, find a fighting game. Many allow you to play with a human opponent on the other side, and from what I’ve experienced, the Japanese are only too happy to administer a thorough ass-whooping. Your two hundred yen will last upwards of a minute, and you’ll walk away frustrated and convinced that you picked the shittiest Street Fighter character and, oh well, your machine wasn’t working anyways.
You are now ready for Phase Two.
I’m not sure why I’ve divided this into two phases, as Phase Two is quite simple.
Here it is: walk around the arcade. Admire the incredible skill of Japanese teens beating on drums, rocking on “guitars”, and smoking all the while. Akihabara is known for hosting the best of the best in the arcade world and you’ll wonder if perhaps these aren’t robots you are watching. Most of them are (this is all part of the pilot program for driverless taxis). Still, some could be real. Touch them to be sure.
When you tire of trying to calculate how much money these people must spend practicing, head down to the first floor and watch the hopeful crowds try to win something from the insidious claw machines. If you see someone win something in your first three hours of observing, consider it the same as stumbling across a unicorn, a stuffed version of which will likely be the prize. The extra ¥300 I’ve built into the cost of this activity is for when you decide that you of all people can beat the machines and step forward to challenge fate, your heart hopeful and your head awash with visions of glory and giggling, impressed Japanese girls.
2. Get lost in the streets
What it costs: Free – Canned Coffee + Subway Fare Home
How it works:
This activity is self-explanatory, but I’ll write a few paragraphs about it anyway.
Getting lost is a great way to learn any city. You’ll see things you just won’t see from the beaten tourist track. You’ll come across real people living real lives, doing the real mundane things you do when you are back home. You’ll see shrines most people don’t care about. You’ll have your own, unique story to bore your fellow travelers with should you make it home. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet someone friendly and build a truly deep connection. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be raped, murdered, raped again, chopped up into little pieces, fed to a group of unknowing Japanese elders, and then end up as a short Wikipedia entry.
So then, how to do it, how to get lost? The best way I’ve found is to wake up early one morning, put on yesterday’s clothes, tickle your significant other until they wake up only to tell them to go back to sleep, and then go outside. Pick a direction. Start walking. When you get the impulse to turn, go one street further and turn the opposite direction.
When you start to lag, look for the nearest convenience store (you’re probably inside one already) and get a canned coffee. Go back outside. Continue your rambling. It’s likely that some part of you will soon begin to crave direction and purpose. From here on, you’ll have to get creative.
Find an old lady shuffling to nowhere. Fall in step. Better yet, find a cat to follow. They are usually up to something good. If you start to recognize where you are, or the cat decides to take a nap on an enticingly sunny porch, look at the ground and amble aimlessly, taking turns haphazardly and without pattern. Avoid maps, streets signs, and all people who look like they know where they are going.
Once you’ve walked as much as your little 21st century body can handle, it’s time to head home. Fall into the nearest subway hole. As a bonus, if you are so lost there is no subway hole, this is a good opportunity to meet an AUTHENTIC JAPANESE PERSON to ask for directions.
3. Bow battling
What it costs: ¥100 – ¥500
How it works:
The Japanese are a lovely, kind people who find it of utmost importance to show respect to one another. All this activity requires is for you to take advantage of this fact.
Armed with your ¥100 coin, once again find the nearest convenience store (it is likely your hotel is actually one big convenience store, and you are sleeping in a capsule wedged between the sushi section and the robot section). Now go buy something small, such as a candy bar or a ball of mochi.
Approach the cash register. Aggressively slam your item of purchase on the counter. Smile absentmindedly as the cashier greets you and says lots of other words I haven’t made sense of yet.
When the cashier has finished ringing you up, they’ll likely ask if you need a bag. Shrug your shoulders and look confused, then say a random string of words in your native tongue (my go-to choice: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog”). She (or he) will hand you the bag, and hold her hand out for your money. Place it towards the back of her palm where it is difficult to reach without using her other hand. She will drop it into the register, bring her hands together, look at you solemnly, thank you and give a slight bow. Thank her and return her bow.
Prepare yourself, for the battle has begun.
When you’ve bowed back, she’ll feel obligated to bow back, bending slightly lower, and will thank you again. Repeat your bow. She’ll look confused, but will bow again. No matter what, just keep bowing. Each time bend a little further. Keep this up for as long as you can stand.
When it gets to be too much, or when a line has formed behind you, bow deeply one last time. When she next bows, her head should bend below the counter. As soon as eye contact is broken, run out the door.
Cross the street, enter another convenience store, fish out your second ¥100 coin, and find your next opponent.
(Note: this game can be extended almost indefinitely by buying the individual candies near the cash register instead of full priced candy bars. Each candy is roughly ¥30.)
4. Sipping sake in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
What it costs: ¥200 for garden entry + ¥200 – ¥700 for alcohol
How it works:
Item #4 is the most expensive activity on the list, but also the most enjoyable. Shinjuku Gyoen is the pride of and joy of Tokyo’s gardens, and when mixed with alcohol, makes for a most forgettable afternoon.
But first, a quick aside on the history and layout of Shinjuku Gyoen:
Built in the late 1700s, the gardens first belonged to some important lord in the Edo period. After the Edo period ended and the Meiji period began, the gardens were converted into an experimental agricultural center and then into some fancy imperial gardens in 1879. Towards the end of WWII in 1945, the gardens were completely destroyed by the air raids on Tokyo, but were rebuilt after the war and opened to the public in 1949. The current layout hails from 1906.
Shinjuku Gyoen spreads over roughly 58 hectares and is a blend of three distinct styles of garden: French formal, English landscape, and Japanese traditional. Geographically speaking, that makes them vaguely Russian. There are over 20,000 trees in the garden, made up of about 17 million different species.
Okay, enough of that. Back to our activity!
Before you head into the park, take a break from the convenience store you work at, and pick up a few bottles of the alcohol of your choice. If you are really strapped for cash, or you just like seeing how low you’re willing to go for a fix of the good stuff, I suggest bottom-shelf sake. For ¥150 to ¥200, you can get a 200 ml cup (That’s right: cup. For your convenience, god bless the Japanese.) at 14-15% ABV. In case that’s not enough, you can also find 20-25%ers nearby on the shelf. This last suggestion comes with a warning though: the high-octane sake tastes like something your deadbeat dad just threw up.
Grab as many bottles as you need and waltz on over to the park (Tip: buying anything anywhere is always a good opportunity to take part in a quick bow battle!). Pay your ¥200 entrance fee, and follow the same directions that come with activity two on this list: get lost. As you wander, surreptitiously crack open one of your sake cups and glance around furtively as you take a quick gulp. Down the first bottle as fast as you can and start the second one before the first has time to kick in. About midway through the second, you’ll notice the world take on a fascinating, lurid glow.The sky will grow brighter, the people will seem friendlier, babies will wink and old men will nod knowingly. Are those deer frolicking amongst the trees, or are they just stumps that happen to be looking at you funny?
Keep drinking. About now is a good time to look for an open field. Fight your way through that goddamn hedge and kick off your shoes. Breathe in the pure air. If a soccer ball ventures near you, boot it with all your might. Pick a spot on the green, green grass, half in the sun, half out, and plop yourself down. Crack open the third sake.
Drum your fingers on your leg and remember that concert you went to years before where all the music spoke so deeply and you were sure it was written just for you. Laugh and mumble one of the meaningful lines. Take a big gulp. Look around every so often with one eye closed, the other straining to see. Smile at a dog. Do a handstand and fall onto your back and laugh, breathless. Try to picture what the future could possibly hold and then think back to ten years prior and marvel at how wrong you would’ve been about today. Watch a beetle amble through the grass. Play with the notion that gravity means your friends and family across the world are technically upside down from your point of view. Envision what they might be doing in their upside-down lives. Remember some old high school flame and cradle one of your many painful, happy memories. Give thanks that everything has changed. Picture today’s love, and send a quick heartfelt sentiment to her somewhere across the universe. Finish the third sake cup and lay back to watch the clouds.
When you wake up, it’ll be closing time and the sun will be setting. Collect your strewn-about belongings and stumble on out of there. Nod at the gate attendants and pretend all is normal. Congratulations. You did it. Now go home and take a much-deserved rest.
Naturally, you can always visit the gardens sober and walk through the beautiful landscapes having only spent ¥200, but why limit yourself? Why sightsee when you can sightfeel?
The above four suggestions were written specifically for Tokyo, but can be applied without much adjustment most anywhere in Japan. For those outside of the country, look to numbers two and four for your key takeaways. What I mean to say is, if you aren’t having fun, get drunk and get lost. Something interesting is bound to happen.