Hi, I’m Fred. I am a radio and TV personality in Chicago, and I have a thirst to travel the world. I am done with excuses, hesitations and waiting for the “perfect opportunity” to explore. The time is now.
I returned from Tokyo over a week ago, so you may be asking yourself WTF took me so long to recap my trip? Two words: jet lag. While I was not the least bit disciplined about readjusting to Chicago’s clock, the time difference has absolutely kicked my ass. So, I got lazy and posted a bunch of pictures that might not mean much to those who have never visited this veritable amusement park of a city. And I don’t use that metaphor mildly: Tokyo is not a place for the faint of heart. It is a sensory explosion: the abundance of people, the ever-present pops of light and color, the brightness of flavor, the cultural eccentricity and unparalleled energy is like nothing I have experienced. It is not New York City. It is not San Francisco. It is Tokyo, and it’s fucking glorious.
If you been following along then you know I’m on this delayed (perhaps mid-life) explorative rampage. I want to make up for what I consider to be lost time, and regardless of my profile (single, in the throes of a successful career, and only a barely functioning introvert), I set out to challenge myself to see absolutely anything I could. No more excuses—I don’t need a partner or a baby sitter to see the world (a bib or sippy cup for alcohol might be nice). In fact, it was this trip that started it all.
My good friend of 20 years recently relocated from Thailand to Japan for a new professional opportunity, and when I saw him last summer, he reminded me that I missed a lay-up visit to Bangkok, but that Tokyo would be on the table for a couple of years. In a matter of days, I booked the trip. But I knew I needed at least a week to make the extended travel worthwhile, so I committed the first non-holiday week I had available (March 2019), which at the time was months away. It was only then that I went on some other trips, like Iceland and Cuba, and began the process of planning more adventures to follow.
Have you ever tried to use miles to pay for anything? It’s a clusterfuck. My experience thus far had been attempting to use credit card and air miles for trips only weeks away. That’s either not possible or an incredible waste of miles (they assess a high mileage “premium” for “last minute” trips). In this case I had six months to work with, so surely it would be easier? Not really. I called the Advantage desk at American Airlines and we got to work. Well, she did. I just kind of sat there and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the representative was extremely helpful and after trying a variety of dates, airlines and connections…she got me a flight to Tokyo through Hong Kong (fairly out of the way). Oh, and it was only one-way. I forked over the miles for the one-way, found a direct flight home and purchased that, and considered the transportation portion of this expedition complete.
Side note: The layover in Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific en route to Tokyo/Narita was 4.5 hours. I inquired about the longest possible layover and was told it could be as much as 12 hours. I elected for that, got a relatively inexpensive hotel in Hong Kong (The InterContinental, perhaps on the wrong side of the bay for an extended visit but I recommend), and used the time to check out as much as I could absorb between 8pm-4am. I thought some sights, a local meal that wasn’t from an airport food court and a shower were better than the alternative, and I’m glad I did it this way. I got this picture out of the deal! (I also didn’t consider that they would check my bag all the way to Tokyo, despite the layover, so I didn’t have any of my shit. Who cares if I wound up wearing the same clothes for 48 hours? I was 8,000 miles from home and wouldn’t see any of these people again, anyway). It added some transportation logistics and a few more expenses than just sitting in the airport, but I got to experience some of Hong Kong that wasn’t an international terminal gift shop or duty free store full of crap we can get in the States.
ALSO: Those lights on the skyline almost entirely extinguish around 11pm. I’m glad someone at the hotel told me that before I went to dinner, or my awesome selfie plans would have been foiled.
OH, AND: I got hit up for watches and “massages” all over the place. I reluctantly declined both. Who doesn’t want a fake name brand watch and some stress relief? I also didn’t have time to have a custom suit made, which I really regret. I am told they’re cheap by American standards and are good quality.
LET’S TALK TOKYO…and being lost.
With my whirlwind Hong Kong adventure complete, sans a “new” Rolex and armed with deodorant I bought along the way (thanks Cathay for the toothpaste and toothbrush), let’s fast forward to Tokyo.
I arrived at Tokyo Narita airport, which of the two main airports in Tokyo is the furthest from the city. Hey, it was a “free” (mileage) ticket and even that wasn’t easy to come by, so I took what I could get. I pre-arranged for a private transport to my hotel (for peace of mind) only to find when I arrived that it was booked for the OTHER airport. Without a working mobile phone or data, I was left to my own devices. But, I am a grown-ass, intelligent solo traveler and I can surely figure out how to navigate public transit in a far-away land, right? Not really. Despite helpful guidance, the language barrier being significant, I wound up on the wrong train, but fortunately pointed in the right direction.
I felt better when I met a 20-something attorney from San Francisco who was in the same situation. Perhaps seeing the perplexity in our eyes, a very helpful Japanese man who didn’t speak a word of English offered to help. Not only that, but he literally walked us to the exact place where we needed to be in a semi-confusing subway station, even though it was out of his way. I heard this would happen and it did—while I found the locals quiet and reserved, more than once I was assisted and offered kindness that well extended what I’ve done for visitors to my home in Chicago. I was grateful and will take a lesson from their hospitality. The next time someone in Chicago asks me how to get someplace, I won’t gesture in a general direction and keep walking…
SEMI-PRO TIP(S): Don’t take a cab from any of the airports in Tokyo, as it could cost you upwards of $350. Utilize the train for a tenth of the cost and potentially a lot less time. Also, either suck it up and pay for an international data plan/roaming, buy a Japanese SIM card or rent a hotspot either before departing the US (they available online) or at the airport. I kind of never got around to this and it made certain aspects of my trip inconvenient. I didn’t need to get emails or texts from home while on the go, but Google maps will give you precise, step-by-step guidance for public transport, for example, and that is clutch!
I was a little anxious about accommodations in the planning stages. This is a massive fucking place and cabs are really expensive. There is a very comprehensive public transit system, but I still wanted to be as centrally located as I could be. I searched the usual travel websites, Google’d reviews and checked out other blogs but was overwhelmed with information. I also asked my friend where to stay and he made some suggestions. I wound up searching for a travel agent who had some experience and stumbled upon Natalie at Travel Leaders 365 (firstname.lastname@example.org). I gave her my budget and some parameters, and she was really helpful. I settled on The Prince Park Tower Tokyo.
The Prince hotels are a “brand” in Japan and this is their flagship property. Full disclosure, I did not skimp on this hotel. It was on the upper-end from a price standpoint, but this was a special trip for me and I spoiled myself. That said, I also visited Tokyo during cherry blossom season when rates are as much as double what they might be, typically. There are more affordable hotels and familiar brands to choose from.
I will say that the service at the hotel was incredible! While the location was pretty good and the hotel itself was well appointed, the people made my experience. Everyone was extremely accommodating, and the concierge service made achieving my trip objectives really easy. They made dinner and show reservations for me in Japanese, had recommendations for restaurants and experiences, and helped me strategize how to most efficiently see everything I wanted to experience. I am VERY grateful for the people at The Prince Park Hotel.
WHAT TO DO, HOW TO DECIDE?
I asked my friend if a week in Tokyo was enough, and he believed it was. Could I have filled a week or three in Tokyo seeing, experiencing and eating? Absolutely! For me, was a week enough time? It may have been too much. If I had it to do again, if given 7 days in Japan, I would have spent 3 full days in Tokyo and taken some “day trips” to other parts of the country. Am I unhappy with the relatively relaxed pace with which I saw Tokyo? Not at all.
I will admit that my pre-trip research consisted of perusing some travel blogs and websites, fingering through a few books, and perhaps most importantly, reviewing anything Anthony Bourdain had to say about Tokyo. At the very least, I wanted to do everything he did (minus the chicken sushi), and I accomplished that and so much more. I fucking love that guy, and I wanted to walk a day in his shoes. While anyone who has visited Tokyo could dispute the points I’m about to give you, I was satisfied with what I experienced. It started with this detailed, handwritten checklist of items and expanded from there:
In rough chronological order (there was a fair amount of alcohol consumed along the way, and I while I did take notes…well, I was drinking), here were the highlights of my week in Tokyo:
Sushzanmai: SO fresh. The toro melted in my mouth. I don’t typically like a wide variety of raw fish but items I normally wouldn’t care for were delicious (not an uni or octopus/squid guy, for example, but I’d eat it here all day). I learned here that the real secret to the sushi is the rice… Is your mind blown, yet?
Geronimo’s: This bar was my introduction to Tokyo nightlife. It’s on the second story of a building in Roppongi Crossing. From what I remember it’s an expat bar (I sat next to some Marines stationed there), and if you bang the drum hanging above the very small bar, you to buy shots for the entire place (which at the time contained around 25 people, with a max capacity of around 60 REALLY crammed drunks). They tally the monthly high totals of shot purchases of regulars, and naturally, my friend was atop the list at the time at 290+ shots (and it was mid-month). I believe the all-time record was around 5,000 shots in a month. You do the math… At some point we broke into a Backstreet Boys melody, I recall?
Some Udon noodle place at 5am in Roppongi: (I will add this when I can confirm the name of the place, but this bowl of food was debatably the best thing I have ever eaten.)
Omoide Yokocho “Piss Alley:” I am not sure I’d choose to hang out, not to mention EAT at a place like this anywhere in the U.S., but this was SO much fun. Imagine a very narrow pathway with tens if not hundreds of small stalls containing individual food stands/restaurants. I ate oysters at one and yakitori at another (meat and vegetables on a stick, grilled over a small, specialized stove). These were the biggest oysters I have ever seen, easily 8 inches across, and some of the best grilled food I’ve put in my mouth. This is a MUST see.
Golden Gai: Bourdain inspired this one. This area contained literally hundreds of small bars, some with as few as 3-4 stools, aligned along 6 VERY narrow alleyways. The largest I saw may have had room for 8 people. Pick one, any one, and you’re sure to meet new friends. I hit one called “Bar Blaster,” and met people from Panama, Australia and Northern California. Had I sat there long enough, there’s no telling who may have walked in. The drink of the night was a highball: Japanese whiskey and club soda.
Harajuku: This block or two of streets was by far the busiest and least respectful of my personal space of anything I experienced in Tokyo (except for maybe a couple of subway rides). It was PACKED. Here you will find the most colorful expression in the city, I believe. There were apparel and cosplay stores galore, and the personalities and wardrobes to match. If you’re seeking eccentricity, this is your place.
The Owl Coffee Shop: This place is just as the title suggests: a coffee shop with owls. There are a few of these types of places: one with cats, another with hedgehogs, and one with rodents of some kind? This one wasn’t that easy to find and upon discovering it (up an elevator to a random commercial unit on the third or fourth level of a nondescript building), I was disappointed. There were a couple of tables with some people drinking coffee, and a separate room had some owls on pedestals that it would appear they would usher you through with which to have limited contact. Perhaps this would have made for a cool Insta photo, but I didn’t make a reservation. This is one example of a few that I found where the Instagram community made something ordinary at best seem “must see.”
Old Fish Market (Tsukiji): Apparently the fish market has moved, but the previous location is no less of a tourist attraction. You have to check it out. It’s a spectacle of fresh fish, produce, spices, and all kinds of other shit. I ate sushi at a restaurant within the market and it was undoubtedly the freshest and most obscure sushi I’ve eaten (admittedly, I am not the most adventurous eater). While you could just order tuna and salmon (in Japan “salmon” is trout, but tastes amazing) and whatever elementary sushi I might typically gravitate towards in the US, I opted to allow the chef to select my lunch and everything tasted as fresh as it was—just hours from the sea. This was a time to be adventurous and I was! I couldn’t identify half of what I ate and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tokyo Dome for a Giants game: Baseball is king in Tokyo, and because I didn’t plan ahead, the best I could do to even get in and check out the spectacle was a “general admission” ticket. What this really became by game time was upper level, standing room only. And I mean they PACKED ‘em in for this. I bought a beer, watched an inning or two, and went outside to ride the rollercoaster I saw on the way in (The Thunder Dolphin). It was fun, but not worth the wait.
Ichiran Ramen: I waited in a long line, ordered my ramen at a vending machine outside, and was then escorted into a hallway lined with stools in front of individual partitions. This was the “dining room.” A small compartment opens, you provide your ticket to the hands which become visible (that’s all you can see) and your food is slid across. Then you eat the most delicious bowl of ramen on earth. I trust those hands.
Shinjuku and The Robot Bar and “Restaurant:” Shinjuku is Tokyo’s red light district, and taking residence in the middle of it all is The Robot Bar (it also says restaurant, but all I saw was popcorn and candy?). This is yet another Bourdain stop and it hard to describe. Watch the video. Is it worth the $80 admission? Not really, but I am so glad I went. The 90-minute spectacle pays homage to much of what the Japanese find engaging: anime, robotics, loud music, bright color and lights. The “warm up” consists of humans masquerading as robots while singing and dancing. I never taken LSD, but I imagine its effect is something like watching this thing.
Kobe beef: I wanted to try Japanese kobe and the hotel suggested Seryna. This is a traditional teppanyaki restaurant on the 52nd floor of an office building in Roppongi. It was expensive, but this 8-course meal was delicious and the service was top notch. The view from the bar was spectacular.
Don Quijote: This is the most insane version of Walmart one can imagine. Think about a CVS, Target, department store, sex shop, grocery store and jeweler in one 8 level intensely compact space. That is this store. Sensory overload to say the least. I bought a lucky cat and some green tea Kit Kats here to take home.
Lawson’s: Again, another nod to Bourdain. He raved about this place, which is really nothing more than a 7-Eleven. Tony loved the egg salad sandwiches, and I have to admit I refrained on this one. They also sell cheap white button down shirts and ties here for the business people who don’t make their trains home and imbibe all night.
“Lucky Cat” and other shrines and temples: There are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of shrines and temples in Japan, I visited only a couple.
The first was Gotojuji, where the waving lucky cat is said to have originated (this is highly debated). A cat with a lifted left paw invites success in business, while a raised right paw is for protection at home.
Later in my trip I checked out the Hie Shrine, with stairs lined with red torii gates. It resembles the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto. This shrine is known for the divine favor of love know, marriage and easy delivery of children. At least two out of three are of interest to me…
ARE YOU READY FOR TOKYO?
This is a must-do adventure for my fellow explorers, and I hope I’ve inspired you with a few ideas from which to start. I suspect you’ll find the culture fascinating and the people kind and accommodating. Bring your appetite, any anxiety meds you take for potential claustrophobia, and download the Google translate app (it will save your ass). Don’t walk and eat (the place is extremely clean and trash cans are difficult to find!), always have cash on hand, and don’t worry about tipping (it’s actually viewed as an insult in this service-oriented country). DO prepare yourself for a surreal experience—one with the potential for the best kind of sensory overload.
YOU READ ALL OF THAT?
I’m impressed you got this far! Thanks for reading! Check out the gallery for all of my photos and my YouTube page for more video (and subscribe): https://www.youtube.com/user/brofroradio/ . There’s more on my Insta as well, @FredOnAir.