4 May 2017
It’s rare that I sleep well in hostels, so despite the comfy beds of Hostel bedgasm and the bleariness of 3 cocktails at New York Bar the previous night, I was dressed and out the door before 10 am, ready for my second day in Tokyo.
When I travel, I strive to make my excursions well-rounded, a good balance of famous sites and local haunts. Tokyo has countless museums, documenting anything you could imagine, and so I wanted to go to at least one during my brief stay. For this first visit I picked the Tokyo National Museum, which turned out to be a great choice. It’s a huge museum, and the main collection is filled with every cultural Japanese artifact you could imagine: samurai swords, tea and sake containers, Buddhist art, textiles and kimonos. It’s a great jumping-off point to Japanese culture, and although I’ve been in Japan now for 6 months I found it really valuable to see some history of this place I’ve been calling home. I especially enjoyed the kimonos, a garment I find endlessly fascinating, and the intricate, delicate gold leaf work on lacquer boxes and cabinets. Plus, the museum is cheap at only ¥600 (¥400 with student discount) and is located in leafy Ueno park, which was crowded with families for the Golden Week holiday period when I visited.
From the museum I walked through the park and over to Yanaka, an older area of Tokyo that is less metropolitan and has a more nostalgic, old town atmosphere. Yanaka is filled with cafes and shops from the 1930’s and 40’s, new art galleries and workshops, and old temples. Needless to say I loved exploring this neighborhood, but I was sad that the line for a vintage coffee shop I wanted to stop at was just too long for me and that a lot of galleries were closed for the holiday period. I did however, enjoy a peek inside Yanaka Cemetery, a vast necropolis where a lot of notable Tokyo residents have been laid to rest and which boasts some impressive carved tombstones! But the most famous part of Yanaka is Yanaka Ginza, a narrow shopping street crammed with stalls and shops and brimming with shitamachi, “old town” ambiance. That day, it was crowded with tourists, but still fun to see, and there were still lots of local characters about, eating yakitori and drinking beer on milk crates next to the stalls.
By this time, it was mid afternoon, and I was actually pretty tired from walking nonstop in the sun for the past several hours, so I went back to my hostel for a rest. My hostel in Tokyo, Hostel bedgasm, was amazing, and a new favorite of mine. The beds were comfy, the location was good, and the price was reasonable, but what really makes a hostel for me is the staff, and the three hostel owners, a Japanese guy, a Korean guy, and a Thai girl, are all amazing good people. You can see the love they have put into this place and how dedicated they are to their business. The best hostels usually have a good common place to hang out and meet folks, so after my rest I went down to the hostel bar/lounge, and spent the next few hours drinking and making friends with the owners and other travelers. Luckily, I found a few other folks, an Australian guy and a German guy, who were just as keen for exploration as me, and around 22:00 we headed out into the night to see what kind of trouble we could get ourselves into.
High on my list of things to see was Golden Gai, aka Piss Alley, a uniquely Japanese nightlife spot. Golden Gai consists of a network of tiny alleys with tiny bars, all with a different theme or vibe going on. Some are locals-only, and most charge a cover fee, but we managed to stumble upon Asyl, an amazing whiskey bar located up a narrow flight of stairs with no cover. Abe-Chan, the eccentric proprietor, is passionate about whiskey and music, and his bar is low-key and funky, with graffiti covering the walls. We each described to him what kind of whiskey we liked, fruity for the German, smoky for the Australian, and bourbon for me, and from the array of bottles on the bar he picked a different local, small label for us to try. His taste was spot-on; that whiskey was some of the best I’ve ever had! The bar sat 6 people at most, and besides us there were also 2 other Americans gents that we chatted with.
In Tokyo, the last train is at midnight, so if you have a Cinderella moment and miss it you have two options: take an expensive cab home or stay out all night. It was 1:30 when we left Golden Gai, so clearly our choice had been made for us, and we talked the Americans into going clubbing with us. We went to Womb, a famous Tokyo nightclub, which probably is amazing on a weekend but on a Thursday night in Golden Week was a bit strange. While there were Japanese folks there, clearly the locals were staying away that week, and the crowd was mostly foreigner, with a lot of people standing around, not dancing. I really don’t go to clubs that often (I can probably count the total amount on one hand), but the only reason I would go is to dance, and miraculously I found myself with 4 straight Western guys who felt the same. Fuck it, your fun is what you make yourself, so even if everyone else was going to be lame, our crew danced up a storm and took over the basement dance floor where an amazing girl Japanese DJ was spinning some house and electronic music. When we stumbled out at closing time, 4:30, we were amazed to see the sky growing light over the city. We had some ramen, as you do after staying out all night, and took the first train back to the hostel, where I threw myself into my bunk for a glorified nap before checkout in 5 hours.
Next time, Day 3: Vintage stores and cafes, the madness of Harajuku, and the elegance of Omotesando.