Japan is one of those trips that is on a huge number of people’s bucket lists, particularly people who are probably too young to be thinking about bucket lists. It definitely is – was – one of mine. And over a month or so ago, I checked it off.
It’s still rather hard to believe, but at the end of September/beginning of October, I spent two full weeks in Tokyo. Of course, tempering fantasy with reality, it wasn’t non-stop delirium, but ultimately it was a true delight and pleasure just spending that entire time in one city (and what a city!) and being able to explore so many different areas without feeling pressured to have to head off to a specific place all the time. And not only that, being able to make the trip with my best friend Joanna. This made everything more awesome in many dimensions!
I can definitely say that after finally going to Tokyo, it’s still one of the top places I would love to go to (again). In summary, it’s a wonderful city for travelers, and one I would highly recommend to anyone. It’s clean, safe, has riches for everyone (whether you’re enamoured with pop culture, history, food, fashion, shopping, the list goes on …) and there are English signs – and even English announcements – pretty much everywhere you absolutely need them to be. (And for those who think Tokyo will eat up all your money, not necessarily true. My budget for this trip was $5000 CAD for everything, and including my plane fare, accommodations and all my spending, I came in at about $3400 CAD. (We probably could have saved even more on the flight alone, but we didn’t want to consider anything other than a direct route on the weekend due to work and just trying to make the long road getting there as smooth as possible.)
There was quite a lot of stimulation, and I feel like instead of going day by day I should just go through experiences or topics/themes and group them together that way. So over the next while I’m going to try to summarize various aspects of my time in Tokyo, whether it’s by place or by a particular set of memories that feel natural to reminisce about together.
I’ll start with our accommodations: toco. Tokyo Heritage Hostel for Backpackers.
Joanna had found toco in her research online for an affordable, interesting and convenient place for us to stay.
The part that won her over was their rainbow coloured staircase (which you’ll see in a painting I did further on down in this post) – which was actually the staircase to the staff area, so not really something we ended up using too much, haha. We stayed in the twin private room, which offered traditional tatami and futon that we made every morning and every night. Upon opening our paper screen doors, we had a splendid view right into the lovely little garden, which was home to a mini Mount Fuji. As the hostel staff tell the story (which we heard so many times since our room was in such a prime location), 400 years ago people brought rocks from Mount Fuji and placed them there so that the locals could pay their respects.
I can’t say enough good things about toco and its people. From a practical location and amenities point of view, it had pretty much everything we could hope for – great little spot in Ueno near public transit, with a solid selection of stores and restaurants, a shared kitchen, laundry facilities (and walking distance of a laundromat as well), wireless (so important!) and private showers (with showerheads that are even more powerful than my own at home. Dang!).
The staff (Kanako, Kiri, Mina, and – changing throughout our stay – Nao, Koko, Kota and Satoko) were so incredibly kind and hospitable that it was really quite hard to believe at times that this was “merely” a hostel. That is, if it weren’t for the constantly rotating neighbours and individuals livening up the place! With two weeks’ worth of stay, we quickly became the “old” regulars and met a lot of fun and fascinating people from all over the world – all over Japan, of course, and also from Spain, Germany, Korea, New Zealand, the UK, the US … and quite a few fellow Canucks to boot.
We enjoyed great conversations around the dinner/breakfast table, traded stories and tips about places to see, ran into each other on the streets (both near and far from the hostel!), and even met actual hostel neighbours who live nearby and just like to come over and hang out at the bar for some drinks. On our second last day we even got to enjoy a delicious home-cooked dinner with Kanako, Kiri, Kota and Satoko (and delighting Kota when he discovered Joanna had procured some tonkatsu from a local place. Yay for meat!). It was just a perfect place to come home to every night, or even stop by during the day to relax, recharge and get in some watercolour painting (my first painting of Joanna in the toco living room even made it onto their Facebook page :D).
One thing I really appreciated was that the shared kitchen area had a little table dedicated to books, brochures, magazines and maps for travelers, in addition to the staff being so friendly and helpful in suggesting or finding places to check out. I took to picking up a few extra brochures whenever we were in a neat area, just so we could bring the copies home and share them with our fellow travelers through this resource table.
My favourite part is that there were even photocopies of a little 8.5 x 11 hand-drawn map outlining the area around toco, with adorable illustrations and amusing Engrish to boot. (For the rest of the trip we affectionately referred to all bakeries as “bakary”. We had many delicious bakary breakfasts.) I used the reverse of the sheet to list my spending each day, and it became a great souvenir and memento of many adventures.
The map had been drawn by a toco worker a while ago who had since moved on to other things elsewhere, so there were a few updates and new places that the map didn’t include. Before we left, I decided to redraw and update it, with great encouragement from the staff (I didn’t even realize till I got home and was looking through my photos that Kanako had snapped pictures of me tracing streets with my camera, lol). I included new doodles of our wonderful hosts as well some of the backpackers we met.
Hopefully it’s making itself useful on the other side of the planet, a piece of gratitude that is helping to spread more of the fun we were able to experience!