This is where it all started.
I had always wanted to travel. I just thought that more than one big trip per year was impossible. I saw people on Instagram traveling all the time. I just figured they had multiple large incomes compared to my single modest one.
I had just gotten out of a 4 year relationship, and you know when you get done with a break up and you just wanna get busy doing something? This was my something.
I had time coming up off from work, and I thought to myself, “I should just pick a place and go.”
I decided to travel somewhere I had never been before, somewhere where I didn’t know a single person, and where English wasn’t the primary language. I picked Tokyo, and it was a winner.
Table of Contents
“Lost in Translation” is one of my favorite movies. Have you seen it? Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannson. So good. Ever since I’d seen it I’d had a thing for Tokyo.
Tokyo is a city that’s capable of being both quiet and introspective and outrageous and spectacular all in the same breath.
And this was my opportunity to go. I figured if I could survive Tokyo on my own, I could survive anywhere.
Arriving In Tokyo
Let me put it this way, just getting to your hotel after arriving in Tokyo all by yourself for the very first time is an adventure in and of itself. Especially when you’re like me and you don’t plan these things out figuring you’ll just be able to wing it when you get there.
Once I got my luggage at baggage claim, I googled how to get from Narita airport to my hotel. I’m guessing a cab ride was too expensive, so I went with option B which involved a 40 minutes bus ride to Tokyo station and then a subway ride to my hotel.
The bus ride was 40 minutes of silence.
Not even the small children made a sound the whole trip. I just stared out the window thinking about how I was on the complete other side of the world from everyone I knew.
When we arrived at Tokyo station that silence gave way to the sound of people. Lots of people. And they were all packing themselves like sardines into the subway.
This was Tokyo station, and now, completely tired and not understanding a word anyone was saying, I had to figure out how to get to my hotel.
I want you to picture a raging sea of asians. No joke. Like thousands of army ants all on a mission. And right smack dab in the middle of them stands a 6’4″ dude from Texas wearing a batman t-shirt with a huge backpack on his back and the expression of “How am I going to do this?” all over his face.
I could see the automated ticket machines but there were long lines and of course everything’s in Japanese and I just wasn’t ready for that yet.
I needed to find a person behind a counter.
Thankfully I found one and he spoke just enough English for us to communicate.
I showed him that I needed to buy a ticket that would get me to my hotel by slowly and deliberately saying “I neeeeeed a ticket to herrreeeeee” while pulling out a folded paper from my pocket with a picture of a hotel on it.
He said something to the effect of “Yes, one moment”, turned around, typed something into a computer, KARATE CHOPPED ME RIGHT TO THE FACE (jk), handed me a paper ticket, and pointed around the corner like he’s done this a million times before for a million other wide eyed tourists.
Now, paper ticket in hand, I turned the corner in the direction he pointed me.
Everyone is racing super fast through the ticket stalls, each of them just scanning a code off their cell phone and racing through.
But I don’t have a cell phone code to scan. I have this stinking paper ticket in my hand and I’m holding it all by myself like some kind of abandoned orphan from the 1920s or something.
I needed to wait and watch for someone else with a paper ticket so I could figure out how to do this.
It didn’t take too long at all. A lady with a paper ticket just like mine put it in the machine where there was a blinking light.
It sucked the ticket in, the little doors in front of her opened, she walked through, then her ticket popped out on the other end of the machine where she grabbed it and went on her way all in one fluid motion like she’d done it a million times before.
Ok. I got this.
I walked into this ocean of army ants. You ever been at a packed concert where people are diving in, crowd surfing over people’s heads, and you’re holding two beers trying to navigate through it trying not to get kicked in the head? That was me.
The massive crowd becomes slightly more organized the closer to the ticket stall you get, but they’re still just zooming through.
And now it was my turn. Was I going to have a thousand angry asians unsheathing their ninja swords at me cuz I had caused a jam in their well oiled machine?
I stuck my ticket in where the blinking light was, watched the ticket get sucked in, the little doors opened in front of me, I passed through, and in a smooth, fluid motion grabbed my ticket as it popped out on the other end like a champ.
I was finally officially on my way to a cozy bed for the night.
A Walking Food Tour
The hotel I stayed at was nice. I stayed in Sugamo at the APA Hotel Sugamo Ekimae.
Tokyo is a massive metroplex made up of all these wards like Shinjuku, Shibuya, etc., and when I appeared at street level in Sugamo after walking up the stairs from the subway station I was only a minute’s walk away from my hotel.
In typical Japanese hotel fashion, my room was extremely efficient; a low to the ground bed taking up 90% of the room, a tiny bathroom, a flat screen tv, and a flat but comfy pillow.
I slept hard.
The next morning I woke up well rested and ready to go. A few weeks prior I had booked a morning walking tour of Sunamachi Ginza for this day. This was a spectacular excursion and I highly recommend it!
Sunamachi Ginza is a shopping street where I got to eat tons of delicious food while walking through the local street markets. By my side was my lovely guide, a sweet older woman who was incredibly nice and super helpful.
When the excursion ended she even walked with me back to the subway and taught me how to navigate the automated ticket machines!
I really wish I remembered her name. That’s her standing in the picture with me.
I was the only one on the excursion that morning and she really made me feel like a VIP. She shared so many stories of Japanese history and tradition with me, and thanks to her I felt totally comfortable getting around Tokyo on the subway the rest of my stay.
We had a blast during our full morning together and I ate a ton of good food (always a good start to any vacation)!
The rest of the day I took the trains all over the city armed with this mega-confidence now that I knew how to navigate the subway.
I popped in and out of different stations, walked around, people watched, then I’d dive back underground to do it all over again.
I was really doing it. I was in Tokyo, on my own, getting around, and it was legit!
This night would be my first night out in the city, and I had a reservation that evening at the Tokyo Robot Restaurant. Trust me, when you go to Tokyo, the Robot Restaurant show is an ABSOLUTE MUST!
This is a spectacular show and a perfect Tokyo experience. I highly, highly recommend it!
Watch the Video
at the end!
Filled with all the incredible spectacle you’d expect from Tokyo, including explosions, truly bizarre storytelling, live action, robotic dinosaurs, plenty of alcohol, (did I mention the robotic dinosaurs breath fire?), yeah, you definitely get your money’s worth.
I guarantee you, every time I go to Tokyo, this will be a critical part of my itinerary. Too good to miss!
When this show ends you’re on an absolute high. An announcement was made that if anyone wanted to continue the fun (which I obviously did) their sister bar Ren was only a short walk away.
This is where I met the beautiful and amazingly talented Yuki.
The Hottest Girl in Japan
Little did I know that 2 years later I’d take Yuki out on a date right here in Shinjuku. But that’s a whole other adventure.
On this night, I walked into Ren and saw that there were only 5 or 6 people in the whole place. But none of that mattered, because on stage was a 3 piece jazz band, all dressed in white, with Yuki front and center. It was a whole vibe, man.
First of all, just like everything else in Tokyo, it’s sensory overload.
Check out that stage! Lights everywhere, video monitors showing random clips of New York City, the Las Vegas strip, that MASSIVE chandelier above. And in the middle of the spectacular stage singing random Whitney Houston ballads was the hottest girl in Japan.
I’ve already told you that I end up going out with this girl, right, but that’s TWO YEARS in the future.
On this night I didn’t even get a chance to talk to her.
Not my fault, though. While the band was on stage playing, I vividly remember thinking to myself, “Look at where I’m at…”
Here I was, sitting down in a random, mostly empty dive bar in Tokyo, one of only like 6 people inside, listening to 80s power ballads sung live by this beautiful Japanese singer.
And make no mistake about it. She was singing TO ME. I was convinced she noticed me. I mean my chances were pretty good with only 6 people there, right?
I remember they had a special on Heinekens. Why I remember that I have no idea, but I just vividly remember holding that green bottle as I sat and made the decision that I was going to talk to this girl when she was done with her set.
Maybe about 15-20 minutes passed, they finished their song and looked like they were about to take a break. Perfect.
Yuki stepped off stage, waved and smiled at me and then she disappeared backstage.
I asked the waitress if the band was just on a break or if they were done for the night. “They come back for more,” she said. And after another couple of beers, sure enough the trio came back out and started setting up for their next set.
Why is there another singer now?
It’s the same piano player, same bass player, but WHY is there a DIFFERENT singer on stage now?
Where’d mine go?
Why is THE ONE GIRL in this place that I’m wanting to talk to suddenly the ONLY ONE who disappeared?
I ask the waitress about her and she gives me the bad news. “Ohhh, yes, she leave.”
What do you mean oh yes she leave???
So you’re telling me that wave she gave me was a wave goodbye? This. Always. Happens. To me. Unbelievable.
I thought to myself, “You know what? No big deal. I’ll just come back on another night to see her perform again. And if she’s not working when I come back, I’ll just keep coming back until she is working. I could literally come back every night if I wanted. This is a nice spot. I’ll see her again.”
But here’s the kicker. I didn’t see her again.
Long story short, I never got back to Ren the whole rest of my trip. I didn’t get to see this beautiful singer for the rest of my time in Tokyo. I left and returned home to Texas a week later without even knowing this girl’s name.
“WAIT, SO HOW DO YOU END UP MEETING HER AND GOING OUT WITH HER 2 YEARS LATER?” you’re surely shouting to your screen right now.
And this is the awesomeness of my adventures. When I travel, things have a really weird way of working out for me.
So how did I manage to get in touch with her? How did we go out on a date when neither one of us even spoke the other’s language? It’s actually totally impossible, but it happened.
And that, my friend, is a story for another day. You can check it out in my Tokyo 2018 blog post. (Coming soon! You’ll love it!)
So let’s quit skipping ahead and get back to 2016, and how the very next morning I got LEFT BEHIND on a full day bus tour excursion after just the very first stop.
Yes, this is my existence.
Left Behind in Tokyo
My next day in Tokyo was an amazing day of sightseeing. I booked a full day excursion that took me all over the city and surrounding areas. From Tokyo Tower to Happoen Gardens, to Mount Fuji to an amazing boat cruise on Lake Ashi, to a once in a lifetime view from atop Mount Hakone, this was an INCREDIBLE day.
This first stop of this full day excursion was the Tokyo Tower. Imagine a replica of the Eiffel Tower, only smaller and bright red.
Tokyo Tower had one of those really cool observation decks at the top where you’re standing on glass and can look straight down. Have you stood on one of these before? They’re pretty cool.
The tour guide told us we would have about an hour or so here, and that the bus would leave for the next destination at 10 am sharp. I just didn’t realize how sharp she meant by sharp.
After taking lots of pics and video from the observation deck she told us we had some time, maybe 15 minutes, to go to the gift shop if we wanted to.
I never get souvenirs. It’s just not my thing. I feel like it’s impossible to get stuff for everybody and I never know how I’d even bring them back.
But for whatever reason, on this day, maybe because it was my first solo travel, I don’t know, I decided the gift shop was a good idea and followed some of the rest of the my group to check it out.
What did I even buy, though? I’m seriously looking around my house right now as I type this searching for any Tokyo souvenirs and I see nothing.
I do remember standing in line at the register and taking a casual look around the gift shop.
Why do none of these people look familiar anymore?
This was the beginning of that feeling of impending doom. I looked at my phone. 9:56 am.
It’s ok. I got 4 minutes.
I finished up at the register and started making my way down to the 2nd floor where my tour guide said we’d all meet.
I look at the clock again.
I take another look around. WHY DO I SEE NO ONE FAMILIAR?
You know what? No reason to panic. I’ll just go down to the parking lot to the bus itself. If I’m at the actual bus, there’s no way it can leave without me, right? In fact, everyone’s probably walking down there right now cuz it’s almost 10. I’ll just make my way down. No big deal.
I go down to the parking lot and YES! There’s the bus! And as I start walking towards it, there it goes.
There. It. Goes.
The wheels on the bus go round and round driving away from the 6’4″ dude in the parking lot who’s obviously part of the tour group CUZ HE’S HOLDING BAGS OF MYSTERY SOUVENIRS, PEOPLE!
Didn’t anyone on the bus see me? Like hey maybe we shouldn’t leave this guy behind cuz he’s obviously with us? I wasn’t a football field away. I was right there.
Look at my souvenirs! STOP DRIVING AWAY FROM THE TALL GUY WITH THE SOUVENIRS!
And as the bus rides off to the next destination (by the way, I have no idea where that next destination is), I’m just standing there in the parking lot. What do I even do?
Nowadays, it’s pretty common to have digital tickets for your excursions on your phone, and on that ticket with the QR code there’s phone numbers, etc.
But back when I was just starting my travels, I wasn’t a pro yet. I wasn’t prepared for the off chance of being completely left behind on a tour.
There I was, an orphan again.
All I had besides my bags of souvenirs was a paper ticket for the tour bus that said “Sun Tours”. I remember seriously thinking, “Do I just go home? Call it a day?” Cuz think about this: I had no idea who to contact. I bought this excursion weeks ago online on Expedia. I have no idea where the bus was going next.
I decide to go to the front desk of the Tokyo Tower and try to explain my situation.
And now here comes an amazing example of the Japanese culture being so completely accommodating it was unreal.
As I try to explain what happened to the staff it’s apparent that they understood enough of what I was saying to show sudden alarm on their faces.
And I mean it, like true alarm.
As I’m explaining everything, calm as can be, one of the female staff literally SPRINTS out the door.
I hadn’t even finished explaining myself. Was she gonna chase down the bus or something? Meanwhile, another staffer asked me me if I remembered the tour guide’s name.
You know what? I did.
You know those first moments when you get on a bus for an excursion and the tour guide grabs the mic and says, “Ok, good morning everyone. Can everyone hear me alright? Welcome to Sun Tours! My name’s ‘so and so’ and I’m your guide.”
Somehow I remember her name from that intro.
I gave them her name and the ticket stub that said “Sun Tours” on it and that was enough for one of the staff behind the desk to make a phone call and literally 5 minutes later hand me the phone with the tour guide on the other end whose name I remembered!
(Did that girl who sprinted out the door ever come back?)
[Me on the phone]: “Hi! Yes! It’s Eric, I got left… yeah, here at the Tokyo Tower… Ok… Great, yes, I can do that… Happoen?… Happoen Gardens? Ok… Yeah, ok, I can get a taxi… Yes… Ok… Thank you so, so much, I’ll get a taxi and meet you there… yes, ok… I’m very happy too… thank you. Bye!”
The millisecond I said “taxi” another member of the staff, no joke, sprinted out the door and hailed one. They all rushed me outside and threw me into this cab which was the cleanest taxi I had ever seen.
Now, this taxi cab driver spoke ZERO English. But as I said “Happoen Gardens” the semi-confused look he gave me was at least a start. Miraculously, he got me there and it’s like I hadn’t even missed a beat. My tour guide greeted me when I walked in with a hug and we had a laugh.
Guess who’s side I never left the rest of the excursion?
Suddenly the other passengers are all interested in my well being. “Hey you! Where’d you go? We were wondering where you went? How’d you catch up with us?”
I was suddenly Mr. Popular and that lasted the rest of the day. Probably out of guilt.
And what an incredible day this was! I’m so grateful for the awesome staff at the Tokyo Tower for reuniting me with my group and for that girl who is possibly still sprinting out there somewhere.
I would have missed all this. Just look at these pics! When you watch this part of the video at the end of the post your jaw will literally drop.
The Tequila Party
As I write this, it’s dawning on me how ABSOLUTELY FILLED with adventures this first trip was! So far all this happened in 3 days. We’re not even close to done yet.
The next night exploring Shinjuku was especially fun.
You know how New York City has its boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, etc)? Tokyo’s the same way with its wards. Each ward has its own vibe.
One thing that’s a constant is that there’s people EVERYWHERE.
Tokyo’s home to around 28 million people. And with the amazing lights and skyscrapers of the big city, it’s a ton of fun venturing out at night.
I found this really cool English style pub to hang out in. You can’t go wrong with a pub. It had a Guinness sign in the window calling my name, so I went in.
I walked straight to the bar to order a beer, but was then politely shown that you don’t just order from anywhere at the bar like we do back home. In this bar, there was a specific spot where you ordered.
Asian people are EXTREMELY polite and non-confrontational. I was very politely and respectfully guided to the “order spot” where I placed my order and then received my perfectly poured Guinness.
Now it was time to kick back and people watch.
“Tequira party!” said a grey haired asian gentleman with a heavy Japanese accent as he stood next to me at the bar.
He and his young blonde companion were having a great time. He was buying her shot after shot after after shot of tequila and she was downing them all like a champ.
I seriously watched her take like 6 tequila shots in 2 minutes. I don’t know how she was still standing.
Right around this time I see a couple of guys being very respectfully guided to the “order spot” at the bar just as I had been minutes earlier.
“Same exact thing happened to me, “ I said.
They were two brothers from London. They joined me and soon we all had eyes on joining in on this tequila party going on next to us.
“You two have room for 3 more in your tequila party?” I asked.
“Sure! I come back with more tequira!” the asian gentleman yelled out.
These Tokyo pubs are an instant party. Everyone has the same mindset, everyone is getting along, and in any given pub there’s a global crowd inside with people from all corners of the map.
“You know he’s trying to get you drunk, right?” I said to the blonde as he went to get more shots.
“He better be!” she said with her English accent.
Turns out she’s also from London and is now living in Tokyo as a teacher. The older asian guy is from China and works with her.
She had apparently decided he was going to get lucky that night, and the tequila was helping her to confirm that decision. The two London brothers were there on holiday, and I rounded out our group hailing from Texas.
The older asian guy came back with enough shots for a small army, and yes, this is where all the fun began.
Now, I’m no rookie to drinking. But I tend to stick to beer. I’ll drink every beer on tap from lagers to stouts and porters to IPAs and double IPAs.
But tequila… good god tequila is a sworn enemy.
That being said, if I’m out on vacation I’m not going to turn down opportunities like this. When do you have a chance to have a tequila party with strangers 5 minutes after walking into a Tokyo pub, right?
Shots went down and drinks went bottoms up. The London brothers started ordering these ginormously tall beers, so I did too. (Watch the clip below!)
More people started joining us. It was now myself, the two London brothers, the older Chinese guy, his blonde London date, a husband and wife from the UK and Thailand respectively, and a couple Japanese guys who were locals and understood enough English to join our party with us.
And the best part about having the local Japanese guys in our party was that they could be used to bring in local japanese girls into our party.