There is nothing more gratifying than a top notch toilet. And when it comes to fancy toilets it is fairly common knowledge that Japan leads the pack. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other innovative features. Their proper name is bidets, although many locals refer to them as washlets.

At first glance these washlets can be a little much for foreigners to take in. For example, in America if you sit on a warm toilet seat it means some other backside just vacated that spot only seconds before. Not the most appealing sensation, to say the least. I've even moved one stall over, for a cold seat (like that one was any more sanitary). Yet warm toilet seats are preferred in Japan, especially during the colder months. For many Westerners this definitely takes some getting used to.

But the surprises do not stop there. Another aspect is that every model is slightly different, so there can be a bit of a learning curve. Luckily most of the important bidet functions have icons.

Bidet Control Panels

Hands-Free Cleansing!


Here is an instructional sheet complete with translation.   Click to enlarge photograph.

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

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These control panels are what transforms the mere toilet into a sophisticated bidet, which is the technical term of a fixture intended for cleaning the genitalia. Using the appropriate buttons a warm sanitizing spray will gently clean all your important areas, one for the males and another for the ladies. Many inside flats and private residences include the ability to adjust the temperature of this cleansing spray. Some even feature a strategically positioned blow dryer to be used afterwards! Have no fear if not, all it takes is a single square of paper to dry off and you're set.

The Toilet Paper Holder

These things are awesome! They have a lightweight flap that overhangs the toilet paper roll and has a downward curve along its front side that features perforated teeth. Thanks to gravity and a slight upwards tug this handy little device tears off individual t.p. square for you.

But the fancy features don't stop there. Rather than have a cylindrical mount that runs through the toilet paper tube and requires 5+ seconds to reload, Japanese toilet paper holders feature one-inch plastic prongs that flip out on either side to hold the roll in place and can be changed in literally one second. (Some Westerners will recognize these as being very similar to the paper towel holders which some people have in their kitchen.)

To remove an empty roll you simply flip up the overhanging flap and lift the old tube straight up. New rolls are loaded from the bottom, it's pure genius! It is simple yet effective innovations like that which make visiting Japan an unforgettable experience. Ask anyone who has ever visited.

HoliDaze Tip   These one-of-a-kind toilet paper holders can be purchased individually at department stores throughout Japan and make amazing gifts for friends back home because they are 1) useful on a daily basis, 2) unquestionably unique, and 3) great conversation starters. Trust me on this one.

Bathroom Noises


Example from a public restroom.   Click to enlarge photo.

We've all been there, whether a culprit or the audience. Admit it. After all, sounds have a tendency to be audible to those in the adjoining room thanks to thin walls and doors without insulation. But many of these Japanese bidets combat this by featuring a type of audio masking that is designed to cover any sounds generated by the user. Some are triggered by a button or hand-operated motion sensor, others simply by exerting pressure on the toilet seat, but they all sound exactly the same: like flushing water.

After making a comment about this to Mayu I learned that apparently this feature is referred to as Otohime, the Sound Princess. Custom models even have the ability to play bowel-relaxing music instead of the flushing water sound, to help you "loosen up" -- if you so desire. When it comes to Japanese toilets the only limitation is your imagination!

Flushing

This varies greatly between models. Often it is a button without an icon. Other times it is a drop-button built into the basin itself. Sometimes it is even a traditional Western-style one-directional knob, although usually if it is a knob it rotates both directions, one for small flushes (小) and another for larger passes (大).

Toilet Slippers

At the entrance of every residence there is a front landing that is used for removing shoes, as well as any outwear or umbrellas. However inside each bathroom there is a separate set of toilet slippers that never leaves the confines of that space. Bathroom visitors slip them on as they enter the room and remove them on their way out. These keep everyone's feet and socks clean.

The Bathroom Sink

When traveling around Japan you will notice that many of the washlets in flats and private residences have the sink built into the wash basin. The logic behind this is fairly simple: after each flush the washbin has to refill with water to prepare for the next flush, so why not first use that water to wash your hands. Besides the obvious water-saving factor, another upside is that you are filling up the washbin with water which has a slight soapy residue to it. This helps to keep the toilet clean.

The water runs for about twenty seconds, a perfect length of time for washing your hands. Plus there is no need for hot or cold knobs as the water is already the perfect temperature.

{artprettyphoto path="images/countries/japan/bathrooms" thumbnailPath="images/countries/japan/bathrooms/t" /}

Ever since I purchased my house last year I have been trying to have one of those fancy Japanese toilets installed. I don't care about the bidet functions but I really do like the built-in sinks. Of course that has not been an easy task. They just don't sell them in the States. The only current option is to buy a bidet toilet seat and swap out the seats on your Western toilet. (The next time I go to Japan the top item on my to-do list is to purchase an authentic Japanese toilet and have it shipped back to the US, where I can have a plumber install it once I return.)

However not all Japanese toilets have this built-in sink. Many look like the one below and feature a separate, traditional sink. These are common in public, high traffic areas such as airports, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.


Example from a hotel room.   Click to enlarge photo.

 

Can't Forget The Squat Toilets!

No article on Japanese toilets would be complete without mentioning squat toilets. Although these are not a Japanese invention, they can be found throughout Japan. As such it is best to familiarize yourself with them.

The first experience can be a little strange but some people argue that this method is actually healthier and more efficient. To read more on that debate, I was recently surprised to find that Wikipedia even has a page on Human Defecation Postures.

 

Have you seen any interesting Japanese bathrooms? Did I leave anything out?

Published in Japan

One of the best things about foreign travel is the knowledge that invariably comes with it. It provides the opportunity for each of us to learn more about the world and its' many diverse cultures, as well as a little bit about ourselves. Another bonus is the chance to see which technology, trends, and practices are popular in the local region.

Think back and I'm sure you can recall a few things that made you go "Why don't they sell these back home?" or "Damn, why aren't we doing this at home?" even "Look at that, how awesome!" Most often those thoughts and semi-rhetorical questions are soon enough forgotten. But for me, at least in the case of Japan, not a day goes by that I don't miss all the great things about that country.

Japan is full of innovative ideas, futuristic technology, impressive customs, and other things that make you say WOW. Don't believe me? Take a look below and feel free to add your suggestions after the post.

Those Fancy Japanese Toilets

Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Many people already know that these crappers are in a league all of their own. I wrote an entire article about fancy Japanese toilets and other bathroom innovations. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other impressive features. Be sure to read that post for more intriguing info.

Japanese toilets are top-notch toilets and the best Japanese innovation ever!

  Photo Gallery: Japanese Toilets 101

Underground Bicycle Garages

These things are pretty neat, Mayu showed me how to use one. Basically you just hop off your bike and roll it onto this platform. Insert your card and the machine will automatically stow your bike in a huge underground cylinder. This keeps it safe from both thieves and natural disasters while also reducing the amount of clutter at street level. To retrieve it simply re-insert your card into the attached machine and it will spit your bike back out in around ten seconds.

In areas without the Eco Cycle storage it is not uncommon to see hundreds of bicycles crammed together as part of a makeshift bicycle lot (a trend which I hope has died out since my last trip to Japan).

I don't have any personal photos, unfortunately, but I did find this  

Underground bicycle garages in Tokyo, Japan

Automated Vehicle Garages

An enlarged version of the bicycle garages, these things are amazing! They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are pretty wild to watch in action. Some are drive-thrus that slide the vehicle off to the side. Others in the basement of high-rise buildings feature a circular pad so that the vehicle can be rotated 180° and driven out in the opposite direction it was driven it.

Automatic underground car parking garage in Tokyo, Japan
Ramps down to these underground garages can be seen all over the big cities

Other models are individual lifts that hoist one vehicle up into the air so that a second can be driven in underneath it. Walk past people's homes in the evening and it is not uncommon to see two vehicles stacked atop each other.

Astonishing Array Of Vending Machines

In the big metropolises of Japan you are never more than two blocks from a vending machine. They are usually found in pairs but sometimes also in long banks of a dozen or more. They sell all the traditional items you would expect such as refreshing beverages (soda, water, tea, milk, juice, beer...essentially everything liquid) and cigarettes (requires scan of a Japanese ID to dispense product) to other more unconventional items including ramen, electronics, umbrellas, even underwear and ties.

Vending machines in Japan sell everything from drinks to cigarettes, electronics, toys and even panties -- both new and used. Yes, seriously.

Automatically Opening Taxi Doors

This one is essentially self-explanatory, I don't know what more I can write about them. They are controlled by a button up front and swing open really fast. Oh and they are twice as great when its raining out.

Japanese taxis have automatically opening doors

Touchscreen Menus At Upscale Restaurants


These reduce the number of (and stress on) restaurant employees. Expect to see more in the future.

Pachinko Parlors That Nearly Induce Seizures

Anyone who has ever walked past one of these has undoubtedly heard the noise and flashing lights blaring out. They are basically like arcade halls combined with casinos, some being multiple levels and taking up entire blocks. I never played myself but did wander through a couple of them.

Japanese citizens love these things and have been know to spend hours playing in these giant parlors, like the stereotypical American Grandma glued to the Las Vegas slots. Not very popular among foreigners though due to the constant flashing lights and never-ending din of bells, chimes, tings, tongs, pings, and general noise of hundreds of people gambling.


Japanese crack

Love Hotels

Love hotels are plush yet discreet hotels that rent rooms either by the hour, a several-hour "short stay" period, or for the entire night. Each room has different themes with the fanciest being compared to a brief stay in paradise. These swanky rooms would undoubtedly fit right in with some of the classy hotels of Las Vegas or Dubai.

When I say the theme varies greatly between rooms, I cannot stress that enough. One could be Egyptian theme, the next dungeon-themed, another a retro-hippie love-nest, etc. I highly recommend you check out a love hotel, especially if you've met a cute little Asian girl at the club that night.


Impressive, huh? Love hotels are common in neighborhoods with lots of clubs and an active nightlife.

Other Unique Types Of Japanese Lodging  

White-Gloved Helpers...Everywhere

A variety of businesses have staff that are ready and waiting to help you at a moment's notice. For lack of an official term (that I know of) I jokingly refer to these people at the white glove crew. Whether standing next to the trash cans in McDonald's waiting to take your tray from you and dispose of it themselves or inside the elevator, eager to take you to whichever floor has what you need, these people always have a smile on their face and white cloth gloves on their hands.

The railway attendants are dressed similarly and also sport the white gloves. However, they don't always have a smile on their face -- especially not during rush hour.

Drunk Female Attendants At Clubs

It's not what you may think. Big clubs in Japan frequently stay open until sunrise. Many even have an employee on hand who's sole job is to care for the ladies that have had way too much to drink; other employees that are walking around the club will bring these women down to him. Not only does this prevent them from getting taken advantage of or robbed, but it also leaves their boyfriend free to keep partying (guilty, I'll admit it).

This employee is even armed with rubber bands and miniature black trash bags for -- you guessed it -- tying up their hair and puking. This "drunk person attendant" is located near the entrance, making it easy to retrieve your drunk person on the way home. Hope you saved money for a cab because they will not be fit to walk!

Now that is a level of service that is hard to match. Unfortunately I never thought to get a photo.

Clubbing In Tokyo  

All The Paper Currency Is Perfectly Crisp

Now this isn't so much a Japanese innovation, but rather a testament to their level of perfection. Every bank note is impeccably crisp, whether receiving it from an ATM or as change from the local corner store. No bills are ever raggedy, torn, of limp, as other countries currency often is. I suspect that the banks simply rotate out worn bills at an increased rate. Whatever it is the fact remains that this simple little thing is surprisingly easy to get used to.


Image coutesy of Japan Scene

100¥ Stores

Based on the American dollar stores, Japan revamped these into stores that offer products that are not utter crap -- even fresh food -- and people are not shopping at them because they are poor.


These stores take the embarrassment out of bargain shopping

Designated Smoking Areas Cubes

Although you can smoke inside restaurants, clubs, and a variety of other places in Japan -- basically everywhere except grocery and clothing stores -- many cities have restrictions on outdoor smoking. For example outside railway stations and airports there are sporadic smoking areas. Some are merely painted rectangles on the ground but others are actually fully enclosed cubicles with high-powered ventilation to combat the smoke, as pictured below.


Indoor smoking area at an establishment that had recently banned smoking

(Almost) No Homeless People In Tokyo

Given the fact that Tokyo is the most populated metropolis in the world (36.9 million people, over 10 million more than #2, Mexico City) I initially expected there to be a lot of homeless people as well. After all, I was born in NYC. I'm familiar with homeless people.

There is nothing more depressing than walking around a big city only to pass underneath a bridge and realize you are walking through someone's home. And damn, now I've got to keep smelling this God-awful smell until getting out from underneath this bridge and several paces away.

In my many months of wandering around Tokyo at all hours of the day and night, I only recall seeing a single homeless person. I'm not saying that they do not exist, just saying that thanks to the strong principles of the Japanese culture, homelessness is not near the problem there that it is in many other countries.

There is plenty more that makes Japan a fantastic country to visit, but you'll just have to experience it yourself and see what you find!

  What are your thoughts? Have any additions to this list?
Published in Japan

Every Country Has Hotels And Hostels...

What Does Japan Do Different?

The best way to learn about a country is through firsthand experience with some of the things which make that location unique, whether food, festivals, transportation options, or even lodging. Japan, being a country that is simultaneously rich in history but also at the forefront of modern technology and innovation, certainly offers up a seemingly countless supply of unique facets that make visiting the country a must.

Just because Japan is constantly looking towards the future does not mean they have forgotten about the past. Quite the opposite, in fact. One of the things I love most about the country is how they have smoothly and perfectly blended the old with the new, seemingly with such ease. In the big cities it is quite common to see ancient temples and historic structures preserved amongst the modern highrises and transportation systems.

Speaking of history, what better place to start than with one well-known type of lodging that is exclusively associated with Japan -- the ryokan.

 

Ryokan in Takayama

Traditional Ryokan

These are probably the most iconic of all the Japanese structures. If you have ever seen a classic Samurai movie you will immediately recognize these structures, known for their paper walls and sliding doors. While the cost and demand of space has made them less common in many of the big metropolises, they are still a big hit in the countryside, especially in regions near hot springs. You can usually count on them to have spectacular views of the surrounding landscape as well.

Half the fun is in the lodging and room itself, but the other half is in the food. Ryokan in TakayamaDo not pass up any of the meals offered at your ryokan. The food is always amazing and presented ever so elegantly!

In my opinion one of the best cities to stay in a ryokan is Takayama, long known for its skilled carpentry. Not only is the area gorgeous but also filled with traditional streets and shops that are a joy to stroll through, even if you are not planning on purchasing anything.

 

Love Hotels

Another [in]famous type of lodging in Japan is the love hotels, sometimes referred to as fashion hotels, which can now also be found in other Asian countries. For those of you who have never heard of these, this will blow your mind. These hotels will be located only in areas with lots of late night clubs and offer luxurious intimate rooms available in "rest periods" of one to three hours or, for an increased price and provided it is after 10pm, the entire night.

The rooms all have widly different themes but are all done up exquisitely to make you forget where you are and give the happy couple a few hours in paradise. Think of it like a brief stay in a luxurious Vegas suite. However you tend not to spend much time absorbing your surroundings, except in the final few minutes before leaving.

A love hotel room in Tokyo

They are very discreet as well. Rather than booking a room like at a normal hotel, at the love hotels there is a screen with pictures of each of the themed rooms. If the room is available then its picture is illuminated; If not it will be dark.

No worries about having to make eye contact with a judgmental hotel clerk either -- the front desk is more like a movie theater ticket box. You pay through a small slit in a heavily-fogged glass window.

Believe it or not, these places are incredibly packed, at least when I was there back in 2008 and 2009. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays, if it is past midnight good luck finding an open room at one of the nice love hotels.

 

Capsule Hotels

For those on a budget

Many parts of the big cities offer what is referred to as capsule sleeping, and it is exactly as it sounds. The hotels are full of double-stacked pods and offer a very unique form of no-thrills lodging. You literally rent out a six-foot rectangular cube, crawl in and pull down the drape.

These are mostly geared towards over-worked or inebriated Capsule Hotelbusinessmen who missed the last train home, although a 2010 news article reports that due to the ongoing recession some capsule hotels are reporting that up to 30% of their guests are unemployed or underemployed and were renting capsules by the month. I know that sounds exciting, but don't count on renting one just yet; they are very uncomfortable and I did notice that some have a tendency to discriminate against gaijin, immediately saying they are fully booked or some similar excuse. Even towards the end when I went back with my Japanese girlfriend, she tried to get me in for a night but still without any luck.

Staying For A Longer Visit?

Furnished Apartments Are The Way To Go

While this may not be that different from any other country, I spent the bulk of my time in Japan in a flat I rented in Tokyo. There were many upsides to having a fully furnished apartment but probably the biggest was being in amongst the locals, right in the heart of the action. It is not like staying at the Hilton, which you can count on being full of traveling businessmen and tourists -- precisely the types of people I try to avoid during my adventures.

With very distinct and diverse districts and wards in Tokyo, it took a considerable amount of research for me to determine where I wanted to call home during my leave of absence from the cubicle life. I chose Shibuya, a ward that is home to several noteable districts including Harajuku, the fashion capital of the world, Yoyogi, famous for Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine, and Ebisu, proudly referred to as the area Tokyo locals love to live. And at the center of it all was the aptly named Shibuya district, a shopping hotspot during the day and party mecca come nightfall. That is why I was really there ;)

I had expected to interact with my neighbors more, but it turned out they all worked and were quite reserved, as is the Japanese way. Regardless, having the flat to bring new friends from the bar back to and otherwise slip into the same life as the local Tokyo residents, that made all the difference in the world. That and the fact the flat came pre-wired with super highspeed wifi, which was convienent even though I hardly made use of it. Oh and can't forget about the maid, which came by once a week.

To top it all off, my key was waiting inside of my mailbox, which was located on the main facade of the building next to the front door and accessible via a code I had been given prior via email. (No need to deal with any bothersome staff.) And when I checked out a couple months later? Simply returned my key to the mailbox.

Below are pictures of my flat. Browsing my remaining photos it was surprisingly hard to find pictures of it and not people...but back then I was not thinking about being a travel blogger.

{artprettyphoto path="images/countries/japan/flat" thumbnailPath="images/countries/japan/flat/t" /}

Have you experienced these or any other different/unique forms of lodging during your travels? Tell us about it!

Published in Japan

Translated as "Drunkards Alley" or "Alley Of The Drunkards," Nonbei Yokocho is two parallel alleys in Tokyo that contain a grand total of somewhere around 50 miniature bars, although sometimes it is mistakenly cited as having 200-250. However I certainly did not count anywhere near that many.

What do I mean by mini bar? Well, each one measures at most ten feet by ten feet, hardly enough room for more than a small bar with bartender and 4 or 5 barstools. Many actually feature a narrow staircase and an upstairs as well, which will hold a couple tiny tables to fit a few additional (skinny) people.

The best bar in Nonbei Yokocho, Tokyo!

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Located just north of the bustling Shibuya station and lined against the eastern side of the train tracks to Harajuku, this neighborhood was built over 50 years ago but quickly became a prostitution hotspot. Businessmen would take the edge off with a drink or two in the lower level before making their way upstairs to the "tatami room," where their lady of the night was waiting. Nowadays the area has long since done away with the working girls but the bars not only remain, they have even developed their own one-of-a-kind charm and an almost cult-like following.

  Despite the proximity to the rest of the action in Shibuya, this area has been overlooked by many a Tokyo resident. Interestingly enough, it is fairly common for a visiting foreigner to be the one taking their Japanese friends to Nonbei Yokocho for the first time, rather than vice versa. How come? Because legend of this unique and hallowed nighttime location has permeated the world wide web. Any traveler who does even cursory research on Shibuya will undoubtedly stumble across the Alley Of The Drunkards. After all, this is the type of place which you never stop telling others about once you've experienced it for yourself.

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

After trying a couple dozen of the bars, a few charging "seat fees" and others decided anti-gaijin, my unquestionable favorite in all of Nonbeiyokocho was the aptly named Non. Without a doubt this cozy little establishment takes the gold medal all around, not just for atmosphere but also because we consistently met the absolute best people here. And trust me, we did a lot of exploring and experimenting with every new place we saw. That is one of the best things about this city: there is just so much of everything, you can constantly keeping trying new bars and clubs and restaurants and never have to repeat anything. It's simultaneously both fantastic and even a little overwhelming for some. Only the places which truly impressed would be deemed worthy of repeat visits, such as Club Atom and ShibuyaNUTS. Yes, this little bar indeed earned a large place in my heart. We would stop by usually three to four times a week, believe it or not. Most often our visit would only last an hour or two tops before moving on, but a few nights were spent entirely up and down Drunkards Alley. It was the best starter spot, without a doubt. Ridiculously close to my flat too ;)

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

It was not that this one bar was fancier or offered anything that its' neighbors did not -- I mean just look at the photos below...it is so small! Much of the conversation actually happens in the alley itself and not the bar. However the one thing that this particular bar was never in short supply of was the hands-down best patrons. All of the interesting people we met and became friends with were initially introduced there. Everyone. There was Austin, the 20-year-old half-Japanese half-French local we became good friends with; Suzuki, the guy who owned his own jewelry design business and shop (which he had recently expanded to Hong Kong and New York); Isao, a local actor; the two cougars that Jared and I hooked up with, Mayu and Yuka; the Swedish fashion designers; the Canadian video game creators; several local businessmen and Yakuza guys we partied with; the list goes on and on.

Non was an impressive and unmatched hot-bed of friendly, out-going, and fun-loving people.

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Even the bartender, Yoshi, was laid-back and unbelievably talkative. He made you feel appreciated and as such it was always very difficult to leave. That is probably a good part of the reason he always Tokyo friends, including the ones mentioned above, our first encounters with each all happened on different individual nights -- wild, huh? Amazing that such a little place could pack such a big punch.

The restrooms at Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Finally, no article on Nonbei Yokocho would be complete without discussing the restrooms. Due to the fact that the bars are so small they do not have any individual bathrooms, there simply is not any space. Instead both customer and yes bartender alike must exit the bar and head to the most northern part of Nonbei Yokocho, where the two main parallel alleys are connected by a small perpendicular sidestreet, similar to an upside-down U. It is on this narrow connecting street that you will find a male restroom, three side-by-side urinals behind a pair of swinging doors a la American-Western style, as well as two locking female restrooms, of which each bar has a copy of the keys to.

And yes, the bartender does abandon his post and leave the customers alone if he must use the restroom. However as Japanese society is very polite and honest I never once saw anyone abuse this momentary lapse of freedom.

  Oh and a heads-up note for the ladies: it is best to familiarize yourself with squat toilets before visiting Nonbei Yokocho, lest you have a drunken learning experience you won't soon forget ;)

  And if you really want to experience all that the Tokyo nightlife offers, the local clubs are spectacular!

  Have you been to Nonbei Yokocho before? Curious to visit it now? What are your thoughts?

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

This "Cool" Bar Puts A Shiver Of Satisfaction In Your Spine

Have you heard of the Ice Hotel in Sweden, or any of the subsequent ones that have opened in nearly two dozen other countries?

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Well this is the same idea, only located in Roppongi, the infamous tourist district in the Minato ward of Tokyo. It is a warehouse kept at -5° C because the entire interior is made of ice sculptures.

The bar, the chairs and tables, the artwork, even the cups, all of which are handcarved and actually imported from the Ice Hotel in Sweden. You are even bundled up in an authentic Ice Hotel jacket; upon paying your cover charge the staff graciously helps you suit-up. From there you proceed through a intermediary room — kind of like when entering a shooting range — kept at or below 10° C.

Ice Bar Tokyo

This was definitely a cool ass place, no pun intended. The drinks were small and a little expensive though, but obviously you are paying for the scenery. It was ¥3500 cover just to get in (roughly $45 USD, but that is a normal Tokyo cover charge), and drinks were ¥1200 each ($15 USD). And yes, they were ridiculously small! Even though the ice cups are physically big chunks of ice, there is only a narrow hole drilled at the top of it, about an inch in diameter and maybe four inches down — basically nothing more than a Texas-sized shot. And you are forced to re-use your cups, as they are all imported from Sweden at great cost. The first one comes free with the first drink but after that, if you need a new glass due to melting or breakage you are charged ¥800 for the glass plus ¥1200 cost of the drink. If you keep your gloves on, you should be able to get about a half dozen drinks out of your ice cup before heat from your lips have melted it to the point of needing a new glass.

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the Ice Bar Tokyo is owned by Absolut Vodka and as such you only have a choice between about a dozen-and-a-half to two dozen varying drinks, all containing a multitude of flavored Absolut vodkas mixed with assorted juices. Regardless of the fact I hate vodka now (too much of it when I was a younger), it was intriguing enough to spend an hour and a couple hundred dollars there in the freezing temperatures. It was also interesting to see how frequently the bartenders would swap out with the front stay, so that they could warm up briefly.

Derek Freal at the Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Derek Freal at the Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Yes, Tokyo's IceBar is one of those places that you only go for show. Now that I went once, I have no urge to go back. Its going to be exactly the same, the initial thrill is gone now that I have seen it. But it has visitor appeal, you know, its a fantastic place to take someone who is new to the city or never seen anything like that. Just be prepared to shell out a hundred thousand yen at the absolute minimum.

  Have you experienced this ice bar or any of the others? Share your comments below.

Derek Freal at the Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

[ UPDATE ] Regretfully as of September 30th, 2011, IceBar Tokyo has closed their doors as part of the effort to control energy consumption in the wake of the earthquake is eastern Japan. With so many other businesses and families working hard to control their power usage, it is unjustifiable for IBT to waste such vast amounts of energy freezing a warehouse and maintaining such cold temperatures. Please visit the IceBar Tokyo official web site for more information on when they will open their doors again.

  Other notable cities around the world with ice bars: Monterrey, Mexico City, Panama City, Orlando, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Barcelona, Athens, Seoul, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Saint Petersburg, New Delhi, and Dubai.

Published in Japan

Tokyo Clubs Far Surpass All Forms Of American Nightlife

Wow. That's all I can say. You cannot even begin to imagine what the clubs are like in Tokyo. They are absolutely incredible, like nothing we have over here in the west! It figures that as much as the residents of Tokyo love to drink, they should have some damn cool places to do it.

Clubbing in Tokyo, Japan

For starters, the biggest difference is the sheer size of the clubs there. Every single one is designed to span several floors, usually with different themes and different styles of music for each. Rather than have one DJ per floor there were usually multiple, sometimes as many as six or seven DJs will constantly rotate out while all sorts of lasers flare and animation is projected onto the walls, plenty of fog machines working at full blast, countless girls dancing up on various stages...but that really does not even begin to describe the scene or do it the least bit of justice.

Let's do this instead: Picture the best rave you have ever been to here in the States or even in Europe, you know back years ago when they were GOOD. Next take everything from it, the lights, sound, fog, lasers, music, the essence, every single last thing except for the plethora of designer drugs. Now drop that mass of madness into the middle of a skyscraper in the heart of Shibuya, let's say spanning across the third thru sixth floors, and well then my friend you have yourself a bonafide Tokyo club.

Most of these clubs are located either a couple floors below-ground or a couple floors above-ground, occupying a few of the lower-level floors of a commercial high-rise. All the floors will be linked by a bank of elevators but also a set or two of stairs. There is just so much going on and because often each floor is distinctly different in both decoration and music, the best way to experience it all is to keep moving around and mingle your way through one floor before heading on to the next. And repeat.

Clubbing in Tokyo, Japan

These amazing clubs do come with a price, however. The minimum cover charge you'll ever see is ¥2000 (roughly $25 USD; i.e. crappy show) and although most are between ¥3000-4000 ($35-48 USD), I did occasionally see some shows advertised with covers of ¥4500-5000 ($55-60 USD). Its not all bad though. Most of these clubs hand you a token after paying your cover, which you can then redeem at the bar for one free drink. That way you won't feel so bad about just spending $90 to get you and your girlfriend in LOL. ;)

The tokens themselves are fairly simple, usually nothing more than pieces of plastic or coins with the club name or logo on it. I brought back several of these with me actually...now if I could figure out what I did with them...

  One important tip though, at least for all you alcoholics: Through "painstaking" personal research I found out that if you display your free drink token up front, often the bartender will pour you a weaker drink, whereas not revealing it until your drink is fully mixed ensures a perfect pour. You're welcome!

Here is a handy feature and something which I am shocked is not more common elsewhere around the world, especially in regions with temperatures that vary significantly throughout the year. Every decent club in Tokyo that I explored is equipped with an enormous bank of small rental lockers immediately past the security checkpoint. Simple and traditional gym lockers, they are only big enough for a purse, a jacket or two, and maybe a set of shoes -- perfect for when the missus wants to wait till the last minute to slap on her heels or ditch them before the long drunken walk home. The cost is only ¥100 but offers a full refund if you make it back out in less than three hours. (Plus since you left early and didn't close down the club that night, you've saved even more LOL)

Not only does that make things more convenient in the winter by not having crowds in think bulky jackets trying to squeeze into an elevator pass through a thick crowd on the dance floor, but it also will help prevent anything from being stolen, misplaced, or even drunkenly left behind -- something that we have all been guilty of at one point or another. The solution is cheap, effective, helpful in multiple ways, and given how easy it is to install and implement, I am surprised that more places do not have a similar system in place.

The Sheer Level Of Service Provided At Some Of These Clubs Was Impressive!

Clubbing in Tokyo, Japan

They actually have numerous staff members who walk around occasionally looking for those super drunk girls, who are passing out while leaning against the walls or trying to lay down on the floor. The employees proceed to take them all out to the front entrance, where the entry staff is located. Out there is one guy whose sole duty is to take care of and watch out for the ladies that have had too much to drink and are completely FUBAR. He is proudly armed with roll of small black plastic bags, package of paper towels, even rubber bands to tie their hair up for them if they should happen to start heaving.

Can you ever imagine that here in the States?!? You would never see anything close to it! No one, regardless of their salary, would want to be the "throw-up guy" stuck taking care of the sick chicks all night, every night. It would just never happen. I believe that most Americans are too grossed out to help a stranger throw up in a small black plastic bag, let alone tie a knot in it for them and then toss it into the nearby throw-up can. Yes, that's right, there is a trash can for throw-up only.

But those guys at the clubs in Tokyo are all over it and I'll be damned if they don't always do it with a smile! Even if the boyfriend showed up to check on his lady, like I did one night when I noticed Mayu had been gone for too long, that proud little throw-up man would not let me help, insisting he had everything under control and to 'go back to the dance floor until I was ready to claim Mayu and leave.' It was fantastic! I pondered it for all of about half a second before saying thanks and making my way back past the lockers and towards the elevators. After all, might as well let Mayu rest and get through the worst of it downstairs while I reclaimed the buzz that I'd lost a few minutes before while hunting for her.

Now is that amazing or what? Have you ever seen or heard of service like that before? Where I come from, and everywhere I have been, its just unheard of to be that nice to strangers. But that is just one of the hundred reasons that Japan is my favorite country!

  Would you accept a job as the throw-up man? Share your thoughts below!

As I mentioned before the clubs don't open until 11pm or midnight so most do not start to get fully packed until 2am or 3am. But that last start frequently keeps the clubs open until 6 or 7am. As long as it is profitable, they won't close until the party is over. You can literally dance, drink, and party until the sun comes up. How fantastic! I would advise everyone who enjoys an active nightlife to check out the party scene in Tokyo for a week or a weekend -- but do it while still young so that you can actually hang!

Places To Visit In And Around Shibuya

The Clubs In Tokyo Will Make Your Jaw Drop

While exploring Shibuya I managed to find dozens of phenomenal clubs, cool little bars, amazing restaurants, and excellent places to shop. By day I got in my shopping and saw the cultural sights, but come nightfall I entered drinking mode. Every night I would hunt for a new club or bar to test it. I was not always successful, sometimes I would be lured in by previous haunts, but either way I got a lot of drinking done! A multitude of those venues are on the map below, for anyone who might be visiting Ebisu/Shibuya in the future.

While experiencing the nightlife of Tokyo be sure to also visit some of the big clubs in Shibuya, which are utterly amazing and very much worth investigating, despite their high cost. Club Atom is one of the clubs that I definitely recommend. We went there almost every weekend while Jared was in town visiting. It is located six stories up in this skyscraper, covers three independently-themed floors each with multiple bars, and is always packed full of cute local women! Club Harlem right next door is nice as well, but harder to get into on the weekends. The list goes on and on...

Nonbei Yokocho (Alley of the Drunkards)

And of course you cannot forget my favorite area Nonbei Yokocho, which translates as "Drunkard's Alley" or "Alley Of The Drunkards." I stumbled upon this place online and had to check it out for myself. Turns out that Nonbeiyokocho is just a few feet north of Shibuya Station. It is comprised of two parallel alleys that are home to around 50 miniature bars, usually only about 8 or 10 feet square with nothing more than four or five bar stools and a single bartender inside. Check out my photos from Non to get a better idea of just how small these bars really are.

There are a couple that are unfriendly to gaijin (durogatory term for a foreigner), but you will know those instantly as they will either not even serve you or hand you one beer but say that is all because "they are closing" or some similar excuse. If that should happen to you, no worries, just walk down to the next one and try again.

Nonbei Yokocho became like a second home to me while I was there. If I ever had a night where I was not sure what to do, I would start it at Non and before you know it the night would manifest itself. All of the best friends I made and best times I had originated from Nonbei Yokocho.

  For even more clubs check out the map below. Also marked cpl good restaurants and a universal ATM.


View Useful Places Around Shibuya in a larger map

 

Yep, the clubs over there are something else. Check out my article on the different locations around Tokyo for a better idea of just how much Tokyo varies from district to district. Below is a snippet from my old drunken ramblings on the original Shibuya Daze blog, provided for your amusement or, more likely, complete lack thereof:

...for any of y'all that have ever been to a rave, that is probably the closest thing I can compare it to -- but even that does not do justice to these kick-ass clubs. Let's try something: Imagine a rave, complete with a DJ, light-show, and fog machine, but now up the number of DJs to half-dozen and through in more lights and more fog machines. Take away all the people doing drugs and replace it with people getting drunk; Not too drunk though, most people here know when to stop. Now, still imagining, forget all the drama and arguments / fights that come up at raves and replace those with people all smiling, laughing, and telling stories. Now, still imagining, throw in a few huge bars offering great drinks at great prices, staffed with cute Asian ladies that refuse to take tips, and don't forget to add a couple more cute Asian women dancing up on the bar or stage. Then take this image that you have in your head, and put it on steroids, to really knock it up another few notches. That, my friends, is what all the clubs over here are like. It is unbelievable to say the least.

And, you know, while I was writing that I realized something else: in all the bars and clubs that Mayu and I have been to, we have not seen so much as one dispute or argument between people, not the slightest thing, whether it be between couples or just friends. Does not happen here. There is no drama whatsoever. Its the exact opposite of clubs back home, where there is always some drama or a fight about to break out, usually due to some drunken idiot. I am still amazed that with a city this size, and with that many people partying, that nothing happens. At least on the surface.

  Have you partied in Japan? Still thinking about a job as the throw-up guy? Apply below!

Published in Japan

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

Alcohol consumption is a popular social activity in a variety countries all over this world, however few cities take it to the level that the residents of Tokyo do. From hard liquor sold around-the-clock in corner stores to clubs whose closing time is not until "the last person leaves," this mega-metropolis has a decidedly care-free attitude toward drinking. Just as the local citizens love their cigarettes, it should come as no surprise that they also love their fermented beverages -- more so than any other country I have seen in this corner of the world. Take China, for example: drinking is not immensely popular among the locals, and their big holiday, Chinese New Year, is a time most often spent with the family, not an excuse to go out drinking.

Gigantic, Multiple-Floor Clubs Lure In The Young Local Crowds

The Tokyo club scene rocks!
No, this isn't the party...just the pre-party.

The same cannot be said about Japan. They love their spirits be it holiday, weekday, or weekend! Beer, sake, wine, liquor, all are enjoyed in ample quantities. That fact is further re-inforced by the single biggest difference between drinking in Tokyo and drinking Stateside... Are you ready for this one? There is no official closing time! Forget that 2am cutoff we have in the States, that is usually just when things are getting good but then ol' Johnny Q Bartender just has to go slap on the ugly lights as he gives you the ol' "You don't have to go home but you can't stay here" line.

Sail past the 4am alcohol-cutoff that NYC residents love to brag about as well, none of those early nights here in Tokyo. As the bulk of large Tokyo clubs do not open their doors until 11pm or midnight, it will often be 2 or maybe 3am before the place really gets packed. Add in the fact that the majority of these venues stay open as long as there is a profit to be made and that frequently results in it being 5-6-7am before you stumble out into the morning sun, momentarily confused as to why it is so damn bright in the middle of the night. It is only the sobering sight of hordes of businessmen dressed in identical black suits scurrying along every which direction that makes you realize that you are now a part of the Tokyo morning rush-hour. Trains are running again and packed full of individuals en route to work alongside others desperate to crawl into bed before the hangover hits. But the night does not always stop here...

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Another key difference regarding alcohol laws was not initially apparent until you find yourself leaving one of these clubs at sunrise with no desire to end the party. This is what I dubbed the memory-maker — or for some it was usually more of a memory-eraser.

Yes, believe it or not in Tokyo you can purchase alcohol 24/7 — that's right, beer, wine, even hard liquor! The easiest place to purchase it is from Lawson corner stores that are located on nearly every block. Walk fifty paces, grab a little tray of fresh sushi, maybe some ramen too, oh and what else did I need..? Ahhh yes a liter of 12yr Yamazaki, Japan's premiere whisky. (Japanese whisky is most similar to Scotch whisky and therefore contains no 'e')

Cheers in Tokyo

Although it may sound as though Tokyo and its' nightlife is a sort of alcohol-heaven, make sure that your wallet can take the hit as nothing in or around the city is cheap. Since Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world to call home, it should be no surprise that everything else in the city is expensive, including the clubs. As with most things you get what you pay for and none of these clubs disappoint, just do not be surprised to see the club cover charges are ¥3000-4000 (roughly $35-45 USD) just to step foot in the door. Drinks cost an average of ¥800-1000 ($10-12 USD). Most venues include a token for one free drink upon paying the cover but I quickly learned one important thing: when redeeming the free drink token, do not wave it around when placing your drink order or you may end up with a weak drink. Instead wait until the bartender places the drink in front of you to reveal the token.
  Curiosity piqued yet? It should be. Read more~   the dazzling Tokyo club scene

I Do Believe There Is A Bar Every 40 Metres Or Less!

Beer, wine, and mixed drinks at the bars are generally slightly less expensive than inside the clubs, not to mention there is no hefty cover charge. Another financial upside is the fact that since tipping in Japan is actually considered very offensive, need to worry about adding in a ¥200 tip with each drink. It is almost like saying that you are above the person being tipped and thus implying that they are inferior and need your assistance. Besides, as the cost of living in the city is anything but cheap, employees in Tokyo are already paid well-enough to free them from any reliance on tips. This proud self-reliance and unwillingness to accept hand-outs is deeply entwined with their culture and I believe helps explain the almost complete lack of homeless people. It is also pretty damn admirable, if I do say so myself.

Good friends and good drinks in Tokyo, Japan

There is only one place which I can recall that may have had a tip jar on the bar was ShibuyaNUTS — and because I know you are curious, 'NUTS' stands from the Next Underground Techno Scene. Every few weeks I would pop in for a couple hours during NUTS' weekly Sunday night ReggaeFest and it wasn't long before I had made friends with one of the young bartenders. Realizing that I prefered my whisky half-and-half with 7Up (never Coke), he made sure to start pouring my drinks with a wicked heavy hand. In return I never bothered to take my change. Whether it made it into his pocket or the tip jar that may not have even existed, I haven't the faintest idea and nor do I care. All I know is that being a young cat (or whatever the reason may have been) he certainly not offended in the slightest about accepting extra cash from me.

The Classic Charlie Brown Football Gag
Replace poor Charlie Brown's body with mine and
swap Lucy out for the lower portion of that staircase

Yup, that's exactly how it happened!

(And a good reason why I need a cameraman to follow me around)

But this much I do remember: one night that bartender got me so damn drunk that I took not one, not two, but three nasty falls during my drunken stumble back to my flat. On the positive side two of these falls were quite hilarious, if I do say so myself. Luckily this was while Jared was in town, so he was able to get a couple pictures of my injuries.

  Remember the classic Charlie Brown football gag where Lucy lifts the ball up precisely as Charlie goes to kick it and his momentum causes him to fly up into the air, feet up over head before slamming back down to the ground?

Well that my friends is exactly what happened to me. That night after leaving ShibuyaNUTS I was descending rain-covered steps on the far side of a pedestrian walkway over a busy intersection when one of my feet slipped due to my rapid multiple-steps-at-once pace combined with — c'mon, let's face it — my high level of inebriation. As that foot flew past its anticipated step my forward momentum carried me out off the stairs and forward thru the air, both feet rising up nearly level with my head as I continued to sail past the last remaining eight or so steps. My spine hit the sidewalk first followed a split-second later by a resounding thud as the back of my head bounced against the concrete a mere couple inches from the lowest step on the staircase.

  Jared took photos of my injuries after we returned to the flat. I still have those scars to this very day, too.

Derek Freal got injured while drunk in Tokyo

Thankfully I was considerably drunk and did not initially feel much pain. After struggling to my feet I managed to follow that spectacular show up with two more subsequent self-induced falls in as many minutes. One was chest-first (resulting in cuts to my right hand, wrist, and arm) and the other a second blow to the back of my skull yet again. As you can see in the pictures, rather than clean my wounds I decided to pass out bleeding. Not my brightest idea, especially considering the wound on the back of my head. I had to throw away that pillow the next morning.

Whisky from the depression era!

Personally, I had never before in all my life and certainly never since done so much daily drinking over not just a week or two but multiple months. The month that Jared was here visiting me was the worst, out in the clubs all night and then grabbing a bottle afterwards to continue the party with local friends. But even once he left and I hooked up with Mayu, my Japanese cougar, we started to frequent the more sophisticated and upscale places which she was used to. Despite the prices increasing dramatically that did little if anything deter our alcohol consumption. She and I From fancy restaurants owned by Japanese celebrities and random upscale bars, many of these were places I would never have found or never been able to gain access as a lone gaijin wandering aimlessly. One of the upscale whisky bars we visited in Hiroo even had a bottle of whisky from the Prohibition-era. That is me with said bottle on the right.

I firmly believe that anyone who enjoys a good night out on the town should consider visiting Tokyo while they are still young and able enough to survive an entire night of drinking. Go for the full experience and trust me, you will have a memorable time.

Ready For Another
Unexpected Surprise?

Despite the relentless drinking that many locals engage in, never once in my three months did I observe a single fight or even any minor disagreements between friends or lovers. Nothing even remotely close. Not like back Stateside, where disputes or fights occur with an all-too-common frequency at the slightest provocation. Of course a couple friends have recently pointed out the fact that my Japanese is limited at best, so how can I accurately judge what I heard? Regardless of the language, words themselves are but a mere 10% of the actual act of communication. The real message lies not exactly with the wording but in the body language, pitch, tone, and general context of the speaker, and to a lesser extent in the reaction of the listener. In all my people-watching never once was there anything resembling animosity. Talk about refreshing! Even random strangers are friendly and respectful, albeit sometimes a little shy. What an amazing culture! I love everything about you Japan.

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan
Drunkards' Alley is actually two parallel alleys jam-packed with
dozens of miniature bars, the biggest only about 10'x10'

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

No matter where you may be in Tokyo the ambiance is always pleasant. Streets are clean and every public trash can is divided into sections for recycling and compost. Even the tiniest bars are clean and well-maintained, another stark contrast to the US. And believe me, I did plenty of drinking in these hole-in-the-wall bars. I even found a full neighborhood of nothing but miniature bars! It was so amazing that I would end up at least popping my head in for a few minutes on an almost nightly basis as a sort of warmup before our nightly loop along the drinking circuit. The neighborhood is called Nonbeiyokocho and is also known as Drunkards' Alley or the Alley of the Drunkards (pictured on the left).

  If you are eager to enjoy a beer in one of the world's smallest bars or looking to meet some great people and make new friends, well then this is the spot! I cannot stress that enough.

I have been informed by several individuals over the years — although I have yet to confirm this one personally — that if you get too drunk and happen to pass out on a street corner during a cold night, someone walking by will take off their jacket to cover you before continuing on their way, sans jacket. Now c'mon, is that not incredible!?! Where else in the world would someone, especially a stranger, demonstrate such compassion for an unknown individual? Not just a stranger but a passed out drunk person that could well be a vagrant. Nowhere but Japan! That is but a small part of what makes this such a unique and unparallel country. (Kind of wish I had tested it during my injury night and just passed out laying there on the sidewalk, bleeding)

Drinking with friends at a darts bar in the Ebisu ward of Tokyo, Japan

Included below are some random pictures from an assortment of my many drunken nights in Tokyo. Photography is strictly forbidden inside all the clubs, so all my photos come from various bars. However, just below this paragraph you will notice a large photofrom inside of random Shibuya club. Towards the end of my trip I met this fantastic local "businessman" at Non. Despite the fact he would never elaborate any more about his work, he was still a very worldly person to spoke with and we had a lot of great conversations. We also went to a lot of fun clubs and parties together on a variety of different nights. Not only did this mysterious gentleman always get us into the clubs via the back door — no cover charge, no security search — but the staff also kindly looked the other way whenever Shige would break any of the rules, such as taking flash photos inside.

Shibuya friends
Oh man this picture tells a thousand stories...if you know how to read it ;)

Our mysterious friend is at the forefront alongside the Japanese wrapper whose private, closed-club birthday party we were currently attending (I cannot believe I have forgotten his name!). On the far right is one of the dudes from the rapper's posse, in the back middle is my drunk ass, and on the far left is my sometimes traveling buddy Jared.

Even more impressive than backdoor access to everywhere when with him was the fact that regardless of where we went, steady streams of people were slowly yet continuously approaching Shige and bow to show respect. Unfortunately because any exchanges would be spoken quickly, quietly, and in Japanese, I was never able to pinpoint why everyone respected him. The plot thickens... One evening Jared and I had accompanied Shige to one of his flats in a dark corner of Shibuya, where among other things he showed us a collection of enlarged photographs featuring him with Hugh Hefner and three bunnies. Others photos were with a variety of American and European celebrities, mostly actors. There was even one photograph with him and the old man from Orange County Choppers, so I would be willing to wager a bet that stashed somewhere in this great city Shige also has a custom NY chopper.

Lots of beer on tap in Tokyo, Japan

After returning to Tokyo from the Philippines was when Jared flew back home and I began dating Mayu. One evening I brought her along for dinner with Shige. Big mistake. Mayu behaved strangely and was quite hesitant to join in our conversation. Despite the limited time I had known her I could tell she was being uncharacteristically silent. Only later that night did I find out the reason why: she squeeked out something about him being Yakuza and then would never speak another peep about it or even join me if she knew that my "Japanese father" would be there. Uncertain of Shige's reaction, I never asked him myself — although that certainly would have explained a whole helluva lot!

And That My Friends Is Tokyo — A City Where Anything Is Possible!

  Been to Japan? What did you think about the culture, the nightlife? Share your thoughts below!
  Maybe you even recognize the rapper from my photo or possibly know his name? I feel like that could even possibly be it on his hand...?? If you know, please let me know. Thanks!

Even Once The Party Is Over, Tokyo Still Leaves You Impressed

Besides Booze, The World's Most Successful Metropolis Is Also Host To An Abundance
Of Other Surprising And Often-Unexpected Features, Especially For First-Time Visitors

Given that Tokyo is home to a staggering 36.9 million residents, it should be downright shocking that the world's most populated metropolis does not suffer from those key issues plaguing nearly every other metropolis with a multi-million population: crime, pollution, trash, traffic, a homeless population, sections of deteriorating infrastructure, even a public disdain for strangers or the inability of the local government to properly streamline important functions such as emergency medical services or public transportation. However I am proud to say that amazingly Tokyo has all of those items well under control. The only one that could even remotely be considered to have room for improvement is the traffic, and that is debatable.

Drunk Derek Freal always knows how to wow the ladies, even in Tokyo, Japan when he doesn't speak the language

Due to the efficiency and reliability of the Tokyo metro system, combined with the high prices and taxes for personal vehicles, only the wealthiest of businessmen drive. As such often the only cars on the roads alongside the taxis and delivery drivers are sparkling new Audis and Mercedes that appear to have just rolled off the showroom floor only minutes before. The miniscule proportion of private commuters in local traffic is just not a serious issue -- I've sat through worse in dozens of cities, including my hometown of Austin, Texas — and the population of that entire greater metropolis region is not even a paltry 4% of Tokyo's. Further illustrating the significance of these amazing achievements is evidenced by the fact that Tokyo has a harmonious, realitvely efficient, and overall smooth-running city despite the fact that the region is not only located in an earthquake hotspot and plagued year-round but also boasts a population that is a whopping 75% greater than even its closest competition, Delhi. That is an extra 15 million people more or the entire population of Beijing!

Drinking in Tokyo, Japan

Toss in some of the best cuisine anywhere, a one-of-a-kind fashion industry, amazing shopping, diverse districts that are home to never-ending sights, and a vibrant, respectful, and deeply historic culture...

Well now that my friends that is my beloved Tokyo! You would be hard-pressed to find a better all-around combination of technology and efficiency anywhere. On the depressing day three years ago that I said goodbye to my flat in Ebisu and moved back Stateside I swore to return once I had traveled the globe to the point of exhaustion and start a family there.

  I made this map while in Ebisu to help familiarize myself with my new home and the local neighborhood. Includes are mostly clubs and bars in the Shibuya/Ebisu area, making it a perfect fit with this article. Plus there are also a few extra shopping locations, the closest 24/7 ATM that accepts all foreign cards, and maybe even a hidden restaurant or two. Oh yes, and the ex's flat. Don't go there.


View Useful Places Around Shibuya in a larger map

  So let's hear it! What are your thoughts on Tokyo? Could you keep up with the local rate of alcohol consumption without getting cirrhosis of the liver? Share your thoughts below!

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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