At first glance the sheer magnitude of Tokyo's sprawling railway and subway system can be a little intimidating — and by a little I mean a lot. However, have no fear, it is a lot easier than you would initially expect, even if you do not speak a word of Japanese. Huge maps and signs adorn the walls over the machines where you purchase your tickets, one bank of machines is in Japanese and another in English. By knowing where you want to go and finding it on the map, it is easy to see which color line(s) to take and then from there have an idea how much change to put into the machine.

Map of the Tokyo rail lines

First Time / Purchasing A Paper Ticket

  Near the entrance to every station will be banks of ticket machines, one set in Japanese and the other in English. Over each row of ticket machines is a gigantic map laid out in the matching language that will have all the color-coded routes on there as well as the names and locations of each stop along those lines.

My first time standing there I was no clue how the process worked but rather than stand around confused or asking for assistance, both of which would have made me look like a helpless gaijin, I just started pumping ¥100 coins into the machine there with a purpose, just bing-bing-bing, one after another. Looking back, I cannot tell you if it was a conscious or unconscious thought but I certainly approached that ticket machine like I was a man on a mission. Whether that was for my own personal mental comfort or to project the image that I knew what I was doing to the other machine users nearby.

Ticket machines inside Japan's subway system

Finally I paused to look at the machine and saw numbers increasing in value on the screen but no station names. Taking another glance at the map I realized you are supposed to follow your desired route to find the end fare and that is what I was supposed to put in. Another quick scan of the map revealed that I had accidentally inserted nearly ¥600 too much. The ticket that I needed was only ¥320 but I had deposited ¥900.

End result: the machine printed me a ticket good until the last stop of that line, far past the third or fourth stations that I need to get off at. No refunds were provided though, at least not from that machine. I'm sure customer service could have helped but ehhh, it all just sounded like too work of a bother for only a few dollars. Plus in my mind that was an acceptable sacrifice to learn the system and have a clear reminder of how the process works. After all I only spent ¥580 more than necessary, or about $7 USD. Of course Tokyo is so expensive that I was already spending on average $400-500 USD a day if I factored in the rent on my flat, which was roughly $160 a day. Plus when it is a $80-90 USD cover charge just to get Mayu and I into the club and $10 a drink after that, well you tell me now what exactly am I going to need that $7 for? I learned from the experience though. Three months later and that was still the only time I had purchased the wrong ticket. Fool me once hehehe but never twice.

  As I was saying, examine the map to determine your current location and then find where you would like to go, trace your stops and determine what the trip will cost. Once you know that feel free to begin pumping in the appropriate number of coins. The machine will spit out your ticket, just grab it and head for the platform.

  Upon arrival at your desired destination disembark and head for the subway gates with an attached paper ticket slot, which are usually located in the middle section of the reader bank (the outer devices are for Suica cards). If you failed to pay the full fare the machine sounds an alarm and the two swinging flaps close shut a la those classic saloon doors from the old American Western.

That would be a classic gaijin thing to do, so I would advise against it. I heard it happen to someone one day, the alarm at least, but I was in a hurry and had no urge to see how that process works. Having already learned my lesson once from that ticket machine a few weeks back, I came to understand the ways of the JR lines and knew that they would never get the best of me again. So why bother learning about something when I will never ever need that piece of information?

Japanese suica card

Suica Prepaid Rail Card

The vast majority of local residents and commuters have Suica cards that can be preloaded funds that allow them to bypass the ticket machines and head straight to the rail platform. After disembarking head towrds the walk-thru machines on the outer edges, as these are the ones on that have scanners for the Suica cards.

Mayu let me use her Suica card for my final month in town and sure enough it is nothing more than a debit card or toll tag. With each swipe of the card after disembarking your remaining balance is flashed on a small screen, making it a breeze to keep track of your funds. You can also check the balance at any time using the ticket machines. Once your funds have are close to depleted simply swing by the ticket machines near the entrances of every station. After inserting your rail card you can add as much or as little money to it as you would like.

Suica Outside Of Tokyo

The Suica card is a golden pass for everything around Tokyo but still serves a purpose in several other prominent Japanese cities and regions. It is accepted on all JR trains in Sendai, Niigata, Sapporo, Osaka, Okayama, Hiroshima, Nagoya and Shizuoka. However in Fukuoka the Suica card is accepted on trains, subways, and even a few selected buses.

Riding The Lines

On-board the railcars television monitors highlight the route as well as the upcoming station with visual maps in addition to speaking aloud, once in Japanese and the following time in English. Simple enough.

The JR Yamanote Line is the main one that goes in a circle around the heart of Tokyo, including many notable districts such as Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Roppongi, and numerous others. Over a dozen other lines are easily accessible via the Yamanote, making practically every destination around Tokyo quickly reachable.

  First time in Tokyo or on the Yamanote? I suggest riding the full JR Yamanote circle, which you can see in the center of the subway map. It only takes an hour, give or take two minutes, but covers 34.5km and passes through a grand total of 29 districts in 9 different wards. It is not the most exciting but will give you a great initial view of the city and help illustrate the varying aspects and distinctions between districts.
  For more info on the districts:   In Tokyo, The District Makes The Difference

Map of the Tokyo Yamanote line

Signifant Statistics

  Tokyo has had trains running through the city since the 1880s so the modern JR Yamanote line may not be quite as new as you think — it actually dates back to 1956. As a matter-of-fact only earlier this year did JR get approval to build its first new station in over 40 years! Although construction is not expected to commence until 2014, it has already been decided that the new addition will be placed in the middle of what is currently the longest unbroken stretch in the loop, the 2.2km 3-min span between Shinagawa and Tamachi stations. This will increase the total number of stations on the JR Yamanote line from 29 to 30.

  Currently an estimated 3.7 million passengers ride the single-lined JR Yamanote every day of the week, making it one of the busiest railways in the world. That is for one single line with a mere 29 stops, which means the Yamanote is also arguably the most transversed single line rail system in the world. By comparison, the infamous NYC subway carries 5.0 millon passengers a day but that is spread out over a whopping 26 lines and 468 stations. London Underground provides daily service for 2.7 million people on 12 lines and serves 275 stations.

  Shinjuku Station is the most popular stop on the JR Yamanote line, as well as the single busiest rail station in the world as certified by Guinness World Records. As the main rail traffic hub between central Tokyo and the western suburbs the station offers nearly three dozen connections and sees nearly four million people pass through it on a daily basis — but even those stats are five years old. Shinjuku district itself is a commerical powerhouse and home of the Tokyo government, making this area one of the busiest and most important districts in all of Tokyo.

  How were your experiences aboard the Japanese rails? Share your comments below!

Published in Japan

You Don't Have To Like Fashion To Love Harajuku!

Harajuku Girls
In this wild district absolutely
"anything goes" fashion-wise!

Harajuku is located in the northern portion of Shibuya ward and even though I don't care for fashion or shopping, this is still is one of my favorite districts in all of Tokyo. Two things I appreciate most while traveling are uniqueness and art. If you had to describe Harajuku in any two words except for the obligatory 'fashion' and 'shopping,' well it would undoubtedly be those.

The district, its' spirit, and of course its' original and indescribable street fashion is why the area is known worldwide as being not only the fashion capital of Tokyo but also the world. Countless ideas have sprung from Harajuku and numerous now-prominent designers proudly trace their inspiration to this humble little district.

Given the district's obvious status as a fashion-Mecca, it should be no surprise that Harajuku is also renowned for its clothes shopping. The area has two main shopping streets, Takeshita-dōri (Takeshita Street) and Omotesandō. Takeshita-dōri caters to youth fashions and has lots of small stores selling Gothic Lolita, visual kei, rockabilly, hip-hop, and punk outfits. If arriving via Harajuku Station you will most likely recognize the iconic entrance of Takeshita-dōri, located just a few feet from the station.


Upon exiting Harajuku Station visitors are greeted by the hallowed Takeshita-Dori

During my first visit to the district I arrived relatively early in the morning, anticipating a brief trip. The plan was to have a quick look around and then continue on to Yoyogi for more explorations there. As it turned out I was so impressed by the area and its unique spirit that I completely lost track of time. It was only when noticing shadows start to creep up the buildings that I realized the sun was setting and had spent my entire day in Harajuku.

The great gorilla of Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan

The streets of Harajuku, Tokyo, are always busy

While the vast majority of clothing and accessories here may not be a perfect fit to your style, that does not diminish the enjoyment of strolling the streets and browsing the stores. Everything little thing is incredibly interesting and so appealing that each second can only be described as a gift to your eyes.

  Yes, Harajuku is indeed a fantastic area for capturing great photographs. However when walking down Takeshita-dōri it is important to be polite and focus pictures more on the street as a whole and not single out any of the individual clothing stores. A vast majority of these stores have prominent English signs which read 'No Fucking Pictures' and 'Want Pics? Fuck Off!' and other colorful variations along the same theme.

Condomania, your one-stop-shop in Harajuku for all your condom needs

Progressing south from Takeshita towards Omotesandō the shops begin to transition from the gothic and youth-trendy independent shops into more upscale places aimed at the slightly older — or at least wealthier — shoppers also wandering the district. It begins gradually with Puma and Adidas and other brands along that tier but quickly becomes exclusively luxury stores. All the big names you would expect are there, such as Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton to please all you ladies, but I was happy to see my personal favorite was also here: Burberry. (Touch is my scent after all)

Random old shrine in Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan

Although the prices along Takeshita-dōri were reasonable, the same cannot be said about the luxury stores of Omotesandō, which had clearly been built to satisfy local demand rather than entice visiting foreigners. None of these brands stock any extra mechandise that is unique to Harajuku. Instead their shelves are piled high with the same items found in their Western counterparts except at inflated prices, to reflect Tokyo's high cost of living. Keep that fact in mind as you shop and explore throughout the rest of this metropolis and be sure not to purchase anything that can be found at home for cheaper..

Turning down Omotesandō street the area steps up its level of quality by adding a small but soothing stream that runs lengthwise underneath the sidewalk and features regularly-spaced openings to highlight the flowing water. Following it will lead towards Omotesandō Hills, a mall with a decidedly unique and almost triangular shaped architecture. Inside the building several floors line the outer walls at a slight angle, allowing you to slowly circle your way up or down the structure, still passing each and every store along the way but without ever being obligated to transverse the optional staircases located in the middle of the structure. Although the architecture of this mall is quite intriguing, it is a shame that the same cannot be said about its' stores. The majority were aimed towards women yet none seemed to have anything really exciting.


Small corner coffee shop

Another notable section of Harajuku to explore is called "Ura-Hara" and its located off the main streets, in the alleys of the northeast. Ura-Hara is essentially just a collection of small, independent clothing shops with much more reasonable prices then the stores along the more prominent parts of the district. I found myself stopping in nearly every one of the shops I passed, mostly because everything was from Japanese manufacturers and no two had the same items.

The majority were fairly small — not quite as small as the bars in Nonbei Yokocho though — and they were definitely directed at a more youthful crowd then the shops of Omotesandō. The bulk of items for sale were still clothing, as with all of Harajuku, but this specific area was decidedly more about trendy t-shirts and other hip items more suitable for college students.

Regardless of which subsection you may be wandering, the shops of Harajuku are a wealth of clothing possibilities, even to those who may initially be skeptical of the style or worried items might clash with their wardrobe back home and never get worn. Given the large number of one-of-a-kind stores and their wide assortment of clothing, accessories and jewelery, finding a few fresh items to compliment your style is just a matter of recognizing the underlying potential of what you see. Being open to new ideas never hurts either.

Worth pointing out is that despite Harajuku's notoriety outside of Japan, the clothing sold here is targeted towards the locals and sizes offered are much better suited for people of a slightly smaller frame and stature than myself. Here is an easy rule of thumb: If you notice while walking the crowded Tokyo streets that you are significantly taller or wider than the folks which surround you, well I apologize for being the bearer of bad news but that unique Harajuku clothing just was not designed to fit you.

  What I Learned Clothes Shopping Along Takeshita-Dōri
  Female visitors will have a much easier time and more successful shopping experience thanks to the high number of stores specializing in ladies apparel. They also fare better at being able to fit into the limited range of sizes found here.
  Guys hoping to pick up some new clothes here will have a slightly tougher time, primarily due to their restrictive size. I would advise individuals taller than 6'1"-2" or with a waist size larger than a 32, you not to get your hopes up. Same goes for anyone with large biceps. Japanese shirts feature very narrow sleeves, several of mine became unwearable after the first wash.
  Even if the clothing hunt is not a complete success, everyone will still get immense pleasure and enjoyment from the scenery and sights while strolling through Harajuku.
  The near-endless supply of jewelery and accessories also sold in these shops is a great source of souvenirs for friends back home.

  Do you like people-watching? Perfect, Harajuku is one of the best places in the world to do it!


More Harajuku Girls

This is a district where crazy costumes, extreme hair and strange accessories are all just part of daily norm here, making the simple task of people-watching here unlike anywhere else. Local residents have long been recognized as possessing a great sense of style but that alone is not enough to stand out in Harajuku anymore. Individuals must also be highly-creative and fresh-thinker if they hope to stand any chance at designing a look that is worthy of representing Harajuku. And finally they must be able to pull it off. You never see anyone out here bring anything less than their A-game, especially on Sundays.

It has become a kind of rountine for local youths and cosplayers to come out every Sunday dressed to impress. Some outsiders may consider this gathering to be a simple or even silly social event and escape from reality, but to those involved it is often much more than that. Most are also quite proud of their costumes and treat these sundays as an opportunity to demonstrate their creativity and bold sense of style. After all, in a metropolis of nearly 37 million its no surprise than so many strive to be unique.

Visitors taking photographs of the weekly gathering and its participants are acceptable, although its advised to ask permission first (either verbally or with hand gestures) prior to snapping close-up shots of individuals or couples, as not all are comfortable being the center of attention. This is especially important with individuals encountered along the streets on normal weekdays.

The "Harajuku Girls" have always been my favorite and while most love posing for pictures, a few are still too shy. I've always been curious how many hours some of the have to spend getting all dressed up. Some of the hairstyles alone appear to have required hours of preparation!

  What do you think of the Harajuku style? Seen any wild fashion trends during your travels?

Published in Japan

Let's Get The Basics Out Of The Way First

Tokyo (東京) is one of the 47 prefectures of Japan and ilocated on the eastern side of the biggest of Japan's 3,000 islands, Honshu. Home to 36.9 million people, it is not only the most populous city in the world but also the seat of the Japanese government and the Imperial Palace, as well as the home of the Japanese Imperial Family. This great city is comprised of 23 special wards, each of which governs itself. One of those wards is Shibuya, the inspiration and namesake of my original site, Shibuya Daze, which would eventually become the HoliDaze.

Shibuya Crossing
The famous (and busy) Shibuya Crossing

Each of those wards are in turn divided into separate districts, many having a dozen or more. But the Shibuya ward, the one I chose to call home for a couple months, is the only one that also includes a district of the same name. I found that normally when there is talk of Shibuya, it is usually referring to this particular district and not the ward as a whole. It is one of the busiest of the districts, crammed full with people, stores, restaurants, markets, hotels, arcades, even soccer fields atop at 20- and 30-story skyscrapers.

Not only is Shibuya one of Tokyo's most colorful and busy districts, but the ward as a whole is also birthplace to many of Japan's fashion and entertainment trends. Most of the area's large department and fashion stores belong to either Tokyu or Seibu, two competing corporations. In addition there is also a very prominent nightlife in Shibuya, yet another factor in making this the most popular area of Tokyo among the younger generations.

Yebisu, the best Japanese beer
Japan's oldest and finest beer

The other primary districts of Shibuya are Daikanyama, Ebisu, Harajuku, Hiroo, Higashi, Omotesando, Sendagaya, and Yoyogi. Ebisu (pronounced 'yebisu'), the area where I had my flat back in 2008-09, is proudly referred to as "the area Tokyo locals love to live." It is conveniently located next to Shibuya and was — believe it or not — founded and developed around the Japan Beer Brewery. Yebisu Beer, introduced in 1890, has long been a local favorite. There is even a famous beer brewery and museum and tasting bar you can visit. I did. Fun stuff.

Ebisu is also home to many quirky restaurants and bars, but without the late night intensity and noise of Shibuya; in other words, it is perfect to come home to. Top it off with trendy neighboring communities like Daikanyama and Hiroo, which offer high-class boutiques, vintage stores and hip patisseries all within easy walking distance from Ebisu station. And there is also Yoyogi, home to one of the largest parks in all of Tokyo, Yoyogi Park.

23 Wards Of Tokyo
Image Credit: Wikipedia

More On The 23 Wards Of Tokyo

The special wards (特別区, tokubetsu-ku) are 23 municipalities that together make up the core and the most populous part of Tokyo, Japan. They vary greatly in both area (from 10 to 60 km²) and population (from 800k) plus some are expanding as artificial islands are built. Setagaya has the most people, while neighboring Ota has the largest area. For the full list of wards and districts, see below.

Eventually, as I catch up on my writing I hope cover a good chunk of these areas.

The Wards Kanji The Districts
Adachi 足立区 Ayase, Kitasenju, Takenotsuka
Arakawa 荒川区 Arakawa, Machiya, Minamisenju, Nippori
Bunkyō 文京区 Hakusan, Hongo, Yayoi
Chiyoda 千代田区 Akihabara, Iidabashi, Kasumigaseki, Marunouchi, Nagatachō, Ōtemachi, Yūrakuchō
Chūō 中央区 Ginza, Hatchōbori, Kachidoki, Kayabachō, Nihonbashi, Shinkawa, Tsukiji, Tsukishima, Tsukuda
Edogawa 江戸川区 Kasai, Koiwa
Itabashi 板橋区 Itabashi, Takashimadaira
Katsushika 葛飾区 Aoto, Tateishi
Kita 北区 Akabane, Ōji, Tabata
Kōtō 江東区 Aomi, Ariake, Etchūjima, Fukagawa, Kameido, Kiba, Kiyosumi, Monzennakachō, Shirakawa, Sunamachi, Tōyōchō
Meguro 目黒区 Jiyugaoka, Meguro, Nakameguro
Minato 港区 Aoyama, Akasaka, Azabu, Hamamatsuchō, Odaiba, Roppongi, Shinbashi, Shinagawa, Tamachi, Toranomon
Nakano 中野区 Nakano
Nerima 練馬区 Hikarigaoka, Nerima, Ōizumi
Ōta 大田区 Den-en-chōfu, Haneda, Kamata, Ōmori
Setagaya 世田谷区 Karasuyama, Kinuta, Kitazawa, Setagaya, Tamagawa
Shibuya 渋谷区 Daikanyama, Ebisu, Harajuku, Higashi, Hiroo, Sendagaya, Shibuya, Yoyogi
Shinagawa 品川区 Gotanda, Osaki, Shinagawa
Shinjuku 新宿区 Ichigaya, Kagurazaka, Ōkubo, Shinjuku, Takadanobaba
Suginami 杉並区 Asagaya, Kōenji, Ogikubo
Sumida 墨田区 Kinshichō, Morishita, Ryōgoku
Toshima 豊島区 Ikebukuro, Komagome, Senkawa, Sugamo
Taitō 台東区 Asakusa, Ueno

 

Each District Is Distinctly Unique

Despite all being part of the metropolis that is Tokyo, the districts here are more akin to a couple hundred small, separate, and unique towns squeezed right next to each other. Each one comes with its own distinct atmosphere and feel in style, shopping, and businesses. Many vary greatly from their surrounding neighbors and have evolved into areas specifically known for one or two things.

One of the most internationally well-known districts is Harajuku, the fashion capital of the world. If you are a sumo fan, Ryōgoku is the district you should visit. Electronics more your thing? Visit Akihabara, the hotspot for electronics, computer, anime, and otaku goods. For international business, Shinjuku is the place to be. And the tourist district? That is Roppongi, probably the only district in Tokyo where you need to watch your wallet/purse.

Yes, the wealth and diversity offered throughout these districts is unparalleled anywhere else in the word. I spent countless hours exploring the city and trust me the joy found in wandering these streets never ceases. The variety does however make it important to do a little research when deciding on where to stay. My choice was Ebisu, home to an abundance of sophisticated upscale bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. This area has the kind of quality nightlife preferred by the 30-something crowds. It was also only a quick five-minute walk to Shibuya, the major local party scene of the 20-something crowd and stocked full of huge clubs, love hotels, and all night eateries.

  Have you ever visited Tokyo before? Which distrcit was your favorite and why?

Published in Japan

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