Our final night in Japan was spent in Tokyo. Because Kyoto was our last destination in Japan and just far enough away from major airports, an overnight stop in Tokyo before leaving the country helped to bypass any scheduling mishaps that had the potential of occurring. We boarded the Shinkansen in Kyoto at 11:30 a.m. and arrived in Tokyo around 2 pm.
Tokyo is vast. I realized that booking a hotel in a different part of town could give us multiple perspectives of the city and it did. Downtown Tokyo has its own unique vibe. As the commercial center, we were surrounded by businesses that catered to the “salaryman”, the Japanese word for businessmen. Our hotel was an example, geared towards clientele traveling for business rather than for families. Efficient and clean with limited amenities, Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyobashi has a café/bar and small rooms. Just a 5-minute walk from Tokyo Station, we easily navigated the distance with our luggage in tow. Additionally, the Narita Express, a train dedicated to the airport with gate and flight information scrolling across computer screens inside its cars, left from Tokyo Station. This worked well for us the next morning.
With no itinerary to follow, everyone was on their own this time. The boys took the JR(Japan Rail) to Akihabara to make last-minute purchases. My husband and I explored the Imperial Grounds nearby. An underground pedestrian tunnel ran near our hotel to the railway station. We explored it discovering that it was filled with retail shops and restaurants.
The afternoon wound down nicely with no schedules to meet. We agreed to regroup at the hotel for dinner and found a small Italian restaurant a few blocks away. I was reminded that we were not in a touristy area because English was used less frequently. This became apparent at my first restaurant choice. I had not experienced an Izakaya, a Japanese pub/restaurant. The one we tried to enter was filled with local businessmen. The only way the hostess could tell us that there were no seats available was by crossing her arms into an X across her chest. At the Italian restaurant, Taverna Gustavino, the staff had to search for someone among them who spoke English. His English was way better than our Japanese!
Later that night I reflected on my love of travel and how it enriches our family. Faced with communication challenges and cultural differences, whenever we reached out for help, we were received with a kind gesture. In tourist spots, there was inevitably someone who could speak English. Our Google Maps kept us on course as we walked around the cities with the use of a pocket wifi. My kids learned that they could manage traveling on their own in the most challenging of situations. They had the opportunity to develop their own opinions about Japan and appreciate their own resourcefulness.
Even though my oldest son had inspired this trip with his desire to visit Akihabara, I was mindful to incorporate other interests that would appeal to the rest of the family. My youngest son enjoys theater. I Googled “kabuki theater” and discovered that we could fit in an afternoon matinee in Ginza at the oldest Kabuki theater in Tokyo. What an experience! My husband, a civil engineer, couldn’t help admire Japan’s efficient transit system, stopping to take photos and video with his phone. And I, well, I enjoyed everything.
Traveling independently has its challenges and its rewards. We did get lost a couple of times, boarding a wrong train, walking in circles to find a restaurant that was tucked away in an alleyway in the basement of a Highrise. As a first time visitor, it was going to happen.
For me, however, the best moment in the trip was when my youngest son came up to me and said, “mom, thanks for putting this trip together. It is the best vacation ever.”
May your travels inspire you!