Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Japan after the Pandemic

I have first cousins, second cousins, and lots of extended family in Japan, so I used to go every year.  Then the pandemic happened, and Japan closed its borders until October 2022.  I finally made it back in August 2023.  Some of my favorite places had gone downhill but some were as good as ever.  So here is my brain dump on how to have a good time in Japan.

Before You Arrive

If you plan to travel around Japan, get a JR Pass.  You buy a voucher from the Japan Travel Bureau, and exchange it for the actual ticket once you get to Japan.  Make sure the name on the voucher matches the name on your passport.  In Tokyo, you can exchange the voucher at the JR Travel Service Center in Tokyo Station or Ueno Station.

Be sure to enroll in the Visit Japan Web app.  Make sure you have 2 separate QR codes for each traveler; one for passport control and one for your customs declaration. 

Arriving in Tokyo Narita

When you walk out of customs, look for the escalator down to the train station.  I usually take the Narita Express, a one-hour express train to Tokyo station that runs twice an hour for about 4000 yen.  You can use credit cards in the JR Ticket Office.


If you are in Tokyo, you can use a JR Pass to ride the JR Trains.  The JR Yamanote line runs in a circle around the city.  Most cool places are near one of the Yamanote line stops.  The JR Chuo line runs through the middle of the city from Tokyo station to the fashionable western suburbs.

In addition to the JR Trains, there is also the subway system.  If you are a tourist, you can buy a 72 hour unlimited subway pass for 1500 yen, which is one of the biggest bargains in Japan.  The subway is newer than the JR Lines and much cooler in the summer, since the subway stations are underground.

You could spend months in Tokyo and never run out of things to do. My favorites:


In Asakusa, everyone goes to Sensoji temple and the little Shinto shrine next to it.  You can visit the temple anytime, but the shops on the street leading up the temple are good too.

There are great restaurants in Asakusa.


The Akihabara Electric Town is a famous place to buy electronics, anime stuff, comic books, etc.  Because of all the nerds who make pilgrimages here, it also has a ton of ramen shops and maid cafes.

The two big electronics chains are Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera, and they both have flagship stores in Akihabara.  They sell everything here from liquor to electronics to toys.  If you need a SIM, this is the place to go.  Also, the toy / model kit / computer gaming sections are awesome.  Don Quijote ("Donki") is another Japanese retail chain with a 24 hour flagship store in Akihabara.  Donki is famous for their costume section for cosplayers.  They also have a decent luggage section.

If you are into vintage toys, go to Mandarake Complex.  It's like a toy museum where everything is for sale.  You can also just wander around and walk into any store that looks interesting.

In the last trip, we went to the Owl Cafe Fukurou.  They don't actually serve any food.  You just pet owls.  It was really cool.  Note: you must book in advance since space is limited.

Okachimachi / Ameyoko

One stop on the Yamanote line from Akihabara is Okachimachi.  Between Okachimachi and Ueno Park is the Ameyoko open air market.  Ameyoko is on the west side of the train tracks north of Okachimachi.

This is one of my favorite places.  Go there in the evening to do some shopping and then find a seat at an open-air cafe for dinner.  The tables are small and the people sitting next to you might become your best friends once everyone gets liquored up.  The Japanese are like that.


Yurakucho is a cluster of small eating and drinking places south of Tokyo station and east of the palace.  It is most famous for the yakitori bars in the little tunnels under the JR tracks.  But pretty much all the food is good here since their target market is Japanese sararimen.


The main sites here are the scramble crossing and the Hachiko statue.  But as Akihabara is to the nerd, so Shibuya is to the fashionista because of the Shibuya 109 shopping center.  There are a lot of stores there and I've spent a lot of time holding Tracy's purse while she tried on various things.

The only thing that could get her out of Shibuya 109 is a sushi bar. My favorite in Shibuya is a standing sushi bar. They had to downsize during the pandemic, and they didn't have whale (kujira) when I went, but the selection is decent and the fish is fresh because of the high turnover.  Pay attention to what the OGs order and order the same if it looks good.

Harajuku / Omotesando

Two other fashionista centers are Takeshita Street in Harajuku for young fashion, and Omotesando for designer stuff.  Our favorite vintage kimono store, Gallery Kawano, was off Omotesando, but it closed during the pandemic.  Harajuku is also near Meiji Shrine.

Sushi in Tokyo

Sushi, as we know it, was invented in Tokyo.  The sushi bar market is so competitive that any meal at a Tokyo sushi bar for 5000 yen will be better than anything you can get in North America for 5 times the price.  So don't be sad if you can't get a seat at Jiro.

The fish market has moved from Tsukiji to Toyosu but there are still lots of sushi bars there.  Sushi Zanmai is a reliable chain with excellent fish.  They have several branches in Tsukiji, as well as other places. The owner of Sushi Zanmai always buys the first tuna of the year as a PR stunt.  

One of my business colleagues loves Sharaku Akasakaten so we eat there whenever we meet.  They had the best whale of the trip and are as good as they were before the pandemic, if not better.

If you really want to splash out, get a private room at Kyubey Ginza, and tell me how it was.   I had an amazing business dinner there in the early 2000s and the sushi chef told us how Bill Clinton ate there during a state visit in the 1990s and how the secret service had to shut down Ginza for Clinton.