How To Do Tokyo Solo, By A 6’4″ Vegetarian
Oh, and he doesn't speak Japanese.
Overcoming the arbitrary stigma of doing social deeds in solitude is one of life’s sweetest liberations. Dining, movie-going, casual falconry, overseas travel – all might seem like experiences that inherently demand company, but they’re just as fun – maybe even more fun – on your lonesome.
Japan. A land defined by a weirdly beautiful contradiction between rich tradition and awe-inspiring modernity. Tokyo has a reputation for being an expensive city to visit. It can be, but with a little bit of smarts it can be one of the most thrifty metropolis visits in the world. It does feel wonderfully otherworldly as soon as you touch down in Narita Airport, catching your first high-speed train into the heart of Tokyo.
More bang for your Yen
I managed to swing accommodation each night for around $70 AUD, with a hostel in Tokyo’s Ueno district, a rented apartment in Shimokitizawa plus a hostel room in Kyoto and hotel in Osaka all costing around the same per room per night. You could go even cheaper with shared hostel accommodation.
Travelling alone, it really helps to have a fully functional smartphone. To avoid roaming data bill shock, you can preorder a data SIM card before you travel for unlimited Insty, Facey and Snapchat action (and vital map guidance, I guess).
Do NOT get a taxi anywhere, unless it’s an absolute last resort. They’re heaps expensive, and the rail system is the best in the world, so use it! The subway system might seem daunting at first but it’s incredibly simple once you wrap your head around it. It’s best to pick up a variety of rail pass card and load it with around 2000 Yen ($20AUD), then top up when needed. Also rail guards are super chill so if you’re short on your fare you can just pay the difference on exit.
Seeing sights and neon lights
My first night in Tokyo was in the relatively quiet Ueno district – a slice of a more traditional Japan with easy proximity to many of the city’s museums. The National Art Center was a pretty disappointing excursion, with a loosely curated exhibition largely bereft of information apart from what year the museum found each respective piece (which is pretty pointless info). The Mori Art Museum was more successful, with an exhibition entitled Go-Betweens – a meditation on childhood, rather than Brisbane jangle pop (though there was an Australian touch with Tracey Moffat’s photography). The Mori Art Museum is located on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower, offering sick views of Tokyo from the observation deck.
I spent the remainder of my Tokyo visit in the Shimokitazawa district, a vibrant neighbourhood with a distinctly youthful character. At night, it’s a dense labyrinth of bars, izakaya (bars with food) and live houses (live music venues). It’s difficult to track down specific bars so the best plan of attack is to pop into as many as possible.
When you think of neon Tokyo, you think of Shinjuku. It’s insane at night. Located in Shinjuku’s red light district, Robot Restaurant is a must-see. More robot than restaurant, it showcases mind-blowing technology that serves no point whatsoever. You really have to see it to believe it – just be mindful of the fact it’s in the red light district before you venture in.
Even if you’re not a slavish Sofia Coppola fan, a visit to the bar featured in Lost In Translation is a splendour in itself. The New York Bar is located at the top of the Park Hyatt with ridiculous views and, unexpectedly, not entirely ridiculous cocktail prices. If you arrive before 8pm (7pm Sundays) there’s no cover charge, otherwise it’s a $20 sting.
Vegetarianism is a relatively non-existent concept in modern Japan. This is tough – tougher than I envisioned – for those who don’t eat meat or fish. There’s no real translation to Japanese for “vegetarian”. “Bejitarian” is a loose phonetic Kanji approximation but I found that nobody really knew what I was talking about. I researched a myriad of purported vegetarian restaurants online prior to the trip, but the reality was that most restaurants were long-shuttered in the millions of blog years (around three actual years) since.
It felt absurd to deny the bounty of Japan’s incredible food culture but it made it all the more rewarding upon discovering vestibules to delicious, meat-free cuisine. But you can’t count on deliciousness and you’ve got to get your sustenance where you can.
The best place to start is convenience stores. While the vegetarian meals might not exhilarate – I mainly fuelled the day with lousy soba salads and rice – you get the added bonus of being able to pick up a tall can of cold beer for around $2.40. Breakfast of champions. Plus you can pick up ridiculously tasty grapefruit vodka concoctions for the same price (9 percent alcohol – weekend breakfast of champions). I should mention it’s considered heaps rude to eat while walking down the street in Japan, so park yourself somewhere before tucking in.
While sushi restaurants are out of the question (seriously, do no go into a sushi joint demanding vegetarian options), okonomiyaki is well and truly where it’s at for vegos. As the dish is usually prepared on a hotplate directly in front of you, it isn’t out of line to customise to your liking. It can be tricky outlying the whole “no meat” thing – at Osaka’s deservedly famed okonomiyaki haunt Mizuno, the chef understood my request only to return a minute later and ask “pork?” as if pigs grew on goddamn bushes. They pulled through in the end with a meat-free modan-yaki (okonomiyaki on noodles) which was maybe the best meal of my life. The trouble then was trying to trying to find the words and body language that translated to “I need another serving in my person right now”. Vegos also need to reiterate an aversion to bonito flakes at all times.
You hear about the prevalence of vending machines in Japan but they really are everywhere. Unfortunately for outsiders, recent laws have resulted in beer vending machines requiring specialty ID cards being scanned to allow use (wah) but you can still drop into any convenience store and grab a can. Vending machine ice coffee is pretty great plus the whole lucky dip factor is fun if you want to mix it up a little. Also bins are pretty rare, especially considering how damn clean Tokyo is, so if you see one offload your trash and recyclables into the respective container.
Mind your head
Now I get 6″4′ isn’t exactly crazy tall but Tokyo’s population density has resulted in peak real estate efficiency. It means lower ceilings which means a bit of a learning curve when it comes to navigating indoor areas without instigating an impromptu slapstick routine on a door frame. It took a few days to get accustomed to vertical claustrophobia, instinctually retracting into a hunch whenever indoors. This is terrible for the ol’ backbone so relish the chance to stretch out at any chance. I booked a twin single hostel room in Kyoto only to find the twin single beds were of the bunk variety sandwiched between narrow walls. I improvised with both mattresses on the floor. Luxury.
(Lead image: Trey Ratcliff/Flickr)