Tokyo is a city of dichotomies, lying somewhere between complete chaos and perfect harmony. While fashions and technology evolve at a frantic pace, deep-rooted traditions remain constant. It’s as easy to get caught up in the latest frenzy as it is to lose yourself in the city’s old-world charm.

Old versus new

A group of us from Okinawa set off to experience Tokyo for a few days before our legendary Mt. Fuji trek. None of us had seen anything more than the interior of the international airport in Tokyo before our trip. My expectations for the trip were restrained since we only had two and a half days to explore and had to coordinate traveling with five other people. All I knew beforehand was that I wanted to experience the earthquake simulator and ninja restaurant I read about online.
The trip began most auspiciously as I saw our airplane pull up to the gate in Okinawa. It was a Pokémon plan. I decided that was definitely a good omen.

After touching down in Tokyo in our custom 747, we navigated Tokyo’s public transportation to our hotel. Almost secondary to my excitement over the Pokémon plane was our hotel. As government employees, we can stay at a lovely U.S. government-run hotel in the heart of Tokyo complete with fortress-like walls and guards at the entrance (as if you needed this in safest country in the world). It was almost like coming home to America with English-speaking staff and American prices at the bar!

Busy Tokyo metro

Group effort navagating Tokyo metro
(Photo by Jillian Frazier)

Full of excitement to experience the grandeur of Tokyo, we tossed our bags in our rooms and headed straight to…the hotel bar. This is when we realized we had no game plan at all. We eventually made it to the Roppongi district, the heart of Tokyo’s nightlife, as the sun was beginning to set. After wandering around aimlessly for a bit and getting pointed in the wrong direction a few times, we ended up at an Irish pub. Fred and I chuckled as we recalled the first bar we went to in Kyoto was also an Irish pub. There’s something about Irish pubs in foreign cities that make you feel like you aren’t lost anymore.

Finding ourselves at an Irish Pub
(photo by Sarh Wright)

Despite the outrageously expensive Guinness, the trip to the pub turned out to be a great success. We struck up a conversation with an interesting English-speaking guy. Turns out he was born and raised in Japan, but his parents are American. With slight animosity in his voice, he explained how the Japanese won’t accept him as being Japanese enough, but he feels out of place when he visits America. Once he got all the doom and gloom out of his system, I asked him for suggestions on where to go in Roppongi. He graciously drew me a map of recommended bars on a napkin that served as our go-to reference the rest of the trip.

After spending our first day in Tokyo wandering around aimlessly, we came up with a more concrete plan for the following day. On the itinerary were Meiji Shrine, the aforementioned earthquake simulator and Joypolis at Sega World. Meiji Shrine is a popular Shinto Shrine in Tokyo that was built in the early 1900s to enshrine beloved Emperor Meiji and his wife. Destroyed during WWII, it was rebuilt in the 1950s and is now a popular place for traditional Japanese weddings. We were lucky enough to catch a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos.

Traditional Japanese bride with family

At Meiji Shrine

The gardens of Meiji Shrine are extensive. After wandering around blossomless lilac fields and regal fish ponds, we came upon a group of people waiting in line to see a well. We were instructed to wait in line too but had no idea what was so special about this well. As the line whittled away and we got closer to the well, we witnessed tourists walk down a few at a time, take a picture of the well if they had cameras, dip their hands in the water, look introspective, and then walk away. There was a guard at the well to make sure this process moved along smoothly. When my turn came, I walked down to the well, took a picture of it, dipped my hands in the water, did my best to look like I was contemplating the meaning of life, and then walked away on cue. I’m sure this well holds great significance that I was unaware of.

At the well, pretending to know what's going on.
(Photo by Jillian Frazier)

While Meiji Shrine was beautiful, the real highlight of the day for me was the earthquake simulator. I read about a free earthquake simulator in Ikebukuro that lets you experience a 7.0 quake. There was no question in my mind that I had to do this. After wandering up and down the street in Ikebukuro, we finally realized the simulator was inside a fire station. Fred tried to communicate with the non-English speaking employee to arrange our simulated shaking. Fortunately, a young bilingual Australian came to our rescue. We were guided into a room full of Japanese business men and women getting a serious lecture about earthquake safety. I assumed businesses may make this mandatory training. We pretended to know what she was saying. Finally, she started guiding small groups of people into the simulator room that had a giant conference table and chairs in the middle. The instructions were to take refuge under the table when the quake began and hang on! The first couple groups seemed to survive, but when it was my turn, panic overtook me despite the apparent safety of the situation. I sat half on and half off my chair so I could make a rapid decent under the table when the shaking began. Leave it to the group of Americans to scream wildly during the simulation as starkly compared to the Japanese who quietly sustained the shaking.

After deciding I never wanted to experience an earthquake that severe in real life, we made our way to Sega World’s Joypolis to round out the evening with more simulation rides and state-of-the-art technology. We eventually made it back to the hotel, completely wiped out. Our planning was successful and thought it wise to make a similar plan for the following day. We toured the grounds of the Imperial Palace, took flower moustache pictures in the garden, went to the famous Tsukiji fish market and had freshly caught tuna for lunch, checked out the latest technology at the Sony building, saw Tokyo from a towering observation deck, and ended the day at the famous Shibuya scramble for some Starbucks and photography.

Imperial Palace gardens

Imperial flower moustache


Shibuya was a perfect example of the borderline chaos and harmony that coexist in Tokyo. To the untrained eye it may seem like a completely chaotic cluster of people, noise and traffic. But if you pause for a moment, there seems to be a strange, frenzied order to the whole thing. Even the seemingly over-crowded Starbucks had a quick and efficient system for getting people in and out. There is one door for entry and one door for exit (we learned the hard way). You come in, are directed to stand in line by the official Starbucks line organizer, then you place your order, move down, pay at the register, and stand in the pick-up line where the official Starbucks order-checker systematically reviews your receipt and gives you your drink when it’s ready. Then you are officially dismissed to enjoy your beverage however you choose.

Apparent chaos of Shibuya scramble

View from the Starbucks

For our last night in Tokyo, we headed back to Roppongi to go out in style. My great hopes of visiting the ninja restaurant were shattered when the hotel concierge told us it was far away and really expensive. So instead, we went to Outback Steakhouse. Normally, I would look down upon Americans for visiting Japan and eating at American chains. But since we live in Japan and have abundant access to Japanese food, American restaurants calls to us like beacons in the night.

After an American feast, we spilled out onto the streets of Roppongi. With trusty napkin map in hand, we navigated past the sketchy Nigerian club promoters to the vetted bars and clubs on the map. The clubs had interesting English names like Gas Panic and Heartland. Turns out the clubs were very foreigner friendly and we found ourselves in good company surrounded by international travelers and expats alike. We also found ourselves staying out way too late drinking in preparation for our climb to the top of Mt. Fuji the following day. Not recommended.

Demonstrating what not to do the night before climbing Mt. Fuji

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