I like contrasts so it should come as no surprise that I booked a five-star, $600 per night hotel for our weekend in Tokyo and then spent the weekend searching for free things to do. This wasn’t hard given Tokyo’s plethora of immaculately kept public city parks and gardens. Tokyo IS the First World, folks. The United States has a long ways to go to catch up to Japanese efficiency, cleanliness and orderliness, which can be found in abundance throughout city parks, the subway system, restaurants, shops and public bathrooms, and that’s just the beginning. Even Tsukiji Fish Market wasn’t as gross as you would expect considering all the vital organs getting tossed about. New York City has a lot going for it, but Tokyo buzzes with 13 million people and yet I didn’t see a scrap of food or an emptied condom wrapper lying on the sidewalk or along the train platforms (I have nearly stepped on both along the Jersey Shore). Let’s put it this way: I won’t wear flip-flops in New York City, but I’d walk barefoot around Tokyo. I could gush senselessly about Japan’s toilet technology–their porcelain buses are superior to American cars. Even public bathrooms had warmed seats.
We stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel near Shinjuku Station not because a decade earlier that’s where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson filmed Lost in Translation, but because the hotel has one of the best pool views in the world, according to Travel and Leisure. I’m a hotel pool junkie and base hotel choices not just on price or location, but on the quality of its pool. The 20-meter “sky” pool at Park Hyatt Tokyo was amazing, although you can’t see Mount Fuji while swimming in the water. You need to get out of the pool and, bam! there’s Mount Fuji staring you down from about 60 miles away. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of this magnificent mountain. The only other people I saw at the pool were middle-aged Western male executives getting in a workout while I did a half hour worth of strokes in my bikini. Total bliss.
While enjoying five-star amenities (we get what the fifth star stands for–unparalleled awesomeness), we sought free family-friendly fun around Tokyo. Five words: public parks and window shopping. Neither costs much except the squeaky-clean subway ride to get around, and both yield plenty of cultural stimulation. Our hotel and a nearby playground provided a lot to see and do without going very far, plus even our room had a view of the great mountain, which made the hotel even more worthwhile. After poking around the hotel area, we ventured farther afield to a number of parks and shops.
Tokyo Tower and the aquarium in its “basement” below the foundation aren’t free, but adjacent Shiba Park costs nothing. Statues of “Jizbosatusu,” said to protect the souls of stillborn children, line the grounds. It’s spooky, yet peaceful and pretty, like many cemeteries even though no one is buried here (that we know of). The statues are decorated with knitted caps and baby clothes, and many hold pinwheels that spin in the breeze. Zojo-ji temple, a Buddhist temple, stands near the rows of statues and gardens. Walk in, make a donation, light incense and say a prayer. We did.
Ueno Park is Tokyo’s oldest public park, created in 1873. It is near Ueno Station and home to temples, ponds, water fountains, nearly 9,000 different types of trees, hundreds of plants and flowers, and several cultural institutions including art, science and natural history museums. Ueno Park embodied Japanese austerity and botanical whimsy, with cherry blossom boughs waving to people from everywhere. You could easily spend a day there, but since we only had three days in Tokyo, we breezed through Ueno Park and Tokyo National Museum in about two hours, plus our feet were sore. We perked up with ice cream for about $3 USD that came in cool Japanese flavors, like sweet potato, cherry blossom, and green tea, in addition to traditional chocolate and vanilla.
Around downtown Tokyo…not sure how dreamy this shop is for ladies since it was closed.
Everyone’s favorite mutant lizard can be found in another hygienic city park near a Starbucks and a bridal shop selling white Western-style gowns.
There’s plenty to look at around Tokyo, especially the people watching and fashion. Shopping opportunities are boundless. When it comes to priorities, it’s “shopping for clothes, food, and then paying for housing,” says a friend of Mike’s, who has been living the ex-pat life in Tokyo for the past decade. You can wander all over Tokyo, not spend any yen, and return feeling visually overwhelmed, from the colorful, never dull Tsukiji Fish Market…
…to posh department stores that are equally colorful.
You will find tons of color as well as funky mushrooms at KiddyLand toy store, a strange, hypnotic, noisy place.
And, of course, Hello Kitty, hawks everything from doughnuts to attitude, because next to Godzilla, she rules.