Originally, I had just over a ten hour layover in Tokyo (Narita International Airport) before my final leg back to New York City and the conclusion of my 2015 summer vacation. Unfortunately, a series of thunderstorms in Hanoi, Vietnam kept me stuck in the airport for an extra four hours before finally boarding and continuing on to Japan. As a result, I had considerably less time to explore Tokyo.
Arriving at Narita International Airport
I arrived in Japan at 9:35 a.m. local time on a Thursday. In my typical fashion, I blasted right through the people on my flight. I also followed a person who was late due to the delay and was being rushed to his gate. All of the airport staff thought that we were together, and I was able to bypass a few lines. As a result, I quickly made my way through immigration & then customs. My only brief delay was because I was not aware that I needed to complete an additional form at this checkpoint that was not issued on the plane during the flight. We were not given this form on the airplane. I was the only person there, and it took seconds to fill out, so there was no issue, but it’s something to be aware of especially if the lines are long and it’s a busy day at the airport.
Then I made my way to the Delta desk and asked to get my seat swapped from a middle aisle seat to a window seat. I was not about to spend a dozen hours crushed between two people in a middle seat if I could prevent it. Winner! They easily moved my seat. Next to the Delta desk was the tourist information desk. After a brief discussion with a receptionist, we assessed that I only had 6 hours of free time before I needed to make my way back through Japanese immigration and customs lines. Whatever I was going to choose, I had to make a decision quickly.
There were three options available to me. The first and least interesting option would have been to just stay in the airport and find ways to kill time. I didn’t see that option as productive considering I was somewhere I’ve never been before. At the same time, I was sick with a cold, so hanging around wouldn’t have been the worst thing for my body, but that wasn’t a concern at the time. Second, I could have stayed in the area of the airport and found a museum or something else to do in Narita. I had wifi at the airport and there were a few options, but my mind was made up well before I landed in Japan, and I wasn’t going to let the delay stop me.
Instead, I chose option three and pushed my way into Tokyo as quickly as possible. I had some some tips from a friend I traveled with in Myanmar who lived and taught in Tokyo. He helped me develop a loose single day plan, but it called for an additional 2.5 hours: time that I lost due to the storms in Hanoi. Looking back, it should have stopped me in my tracks, but I don’t ever know when to quit.
Navigating My Way to Tokyo
The receptionist at the tourist information center was able to direct me to train station. There are many train options, but I was looking for the bullet train going directly to central Tokyo to save as much time as possible. The receptionist told me that I’d need to take the J/R line. The train was leaving in 5 minutes, so I rushed down to the railway station, bought a ticket (with assistance) and caught the 10:15 J/R Narita Express Train from Narita Airport to Tokyo with a minute to spare. The ticket cost a pricey 3,220 yen, but time was of the essence.
Once I got on the train, the first thing I thought to myself was the air conditioning in Japan isn’t very powerful. Yes, it was a humid and rainy day. Sure, I was basically sprinting for the last few minutes, but I was hot the entire ride. Despite the lack of a proper cooling system, the train is very modern and extremely clean. I easily found my seat and plopped down hoping to briefly nap during the trip. At first I tried taking some pictures, but it was so rainy that once the train started hitting top speed, I could barely take a clear photograph. There was wifi available, but even with the English translation, I couldn’t get onto the network. No one spoke English or could help me, so I put my phone away and crashed for the ride which took just under an hour. Better luck to the next person, but I would guess the issue was that I still needed a SIM with available data.
I arrived at Tokyo Central Railway Station at roughly 11:15 a.m. I thought it would be wise if I purchased my return ticket to get back to the airport before I left the station. I needed to depart by 3:00 pm so that I could pick up my connecting flight at 4:55 p.m. I’m glad I decided to do this. The machines were confusing, and I couldn’t find anyone to help me, so I made my way to the ticket counter. There was a relatively long line, but at least it was constantly moving. That process took another 15 minutes. At that point it was already 11:30 am and I had to return on a 2:00 pm train back to the airport.
I toyed with the idea of hoping on the Tokyo Metro and going to Shibuya, but since I was unfamiliar with the subway system, I decided to just explore the area outside the Tokyo Central Railway Station rather than spend more time on the train or possibly get lost wasting even more precious moments.
It would have required me to spend the time to purchase additional tickets, wait for the train, travel to my next location, and more of the same on the return trip. After looking at a local area map in the train station, I determined there were a few options within walking distance. I mapped out a walking path and made my way out of the station, which was an impressive architectural structure in its own right.
On the way to the Imperial Palace (Edo Castle) I walked past the Wadakura Fountain Park. It is a part of the nearby Kokyogaien National Gardens. It “was built to commemorate the royal wedding of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan in 1961. The Fountain Park was then reconstructed in 1995 with the postmodern theme of ‘Continuity and New Development’. The reconstruction celebrated the wedding of the Crown Prince and Princess. Four canals connect the new fountain to the old fountain and symbolize the Royal Weddings of two generations.” Unfortunately, the fountains were not functioning. The park contained a number of large sculptures, but nothing was so spectacular that I would go out of my way to visit. Other nearby attractions included the Naka Dori, the Tokyo International Forum, the Brick Square Marunouchi and the Ichigokan Museum. Combining some of these may make for an interesting day.
The History of the Tokyo Imperial Palace (Edo Castle)
The Tokyo Imperial Palace is located in the Chiyoda ward in central Tokyo. It is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan and members of his family. There are a variety of buildings on the grounds including the main palace, residencies, an archive, administrative offices and museums. In total the property is 1.32 square miles (3.41 square kilometers) in size including the gardens, but is actually much smaller than its historical predecessor.
The Tokyo Imperial Palace was built on the site of Edo Castle. The original grounds covered an area that includes present day Tokyo Station and the Marunouchi district. Also referred to as the Chiyoda Castle, this fortification was first constructed in 1457 by Ota Dokan. He was a samurai warrior, poet, military tactician and Buddhist monk who served as a vassal of the Ōgigayatsu branch of the Uesugi clan, but is most well known for his role in the design and construction of the Edo Castle.
In 1590, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu took control of Edo Castle following his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara. From that time forward, Edo Castle became the epicenter of the Tokugawa regime. In time, it expanded, and by 1636 had a perimeter of 16 kilometers. Unfortunately, in 1657 the inner donjon was destroyed by fire and was never rebuilt. With the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate came the restoration of the Emperor and imperial control in 1868. Beginning with Emperor Meiji, Edo Castle became the new Imperial Palace and has remained so since that time. Disastrously, another fire in 1873 was responsible for burning down many of the castle’s original buildings. Despite the damage, visitors will still be able to see a number of historic structures that made Edo Castle so significant to Japanese history and continues to make it so important in contemporary times.
The castle grounds are surrounded by imposing stone walls and moats that were used to defend against invading forces. The Edo Castle’s main gate, Ote-mon, and the original stone foundations of the first donjon remain intact. The same can be said for the Hirakawa-mon Gate, which was used as the main gate to the Sannomaru of Edo Castle. Many of the other gates have required more extensive restoration projects in the past making them more modern reconstructions than relics of the past.
Presently, Edo Castle now contains both Higashi Gyoen and Kitanomaru-Koen Parks. Located in Kitanomaru Park is the Budokan, the Science Museum, Crafts Gallery and the National Museum of Modern Art. Located in Higashi Gyoen Park is the Fujimi-yagura, a three story tall watchtower built in 1659 in order to protect the southern side of the main keep. Again, whether you are interested in the 15th century or the 21st century, there is something for everyone at the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
Exploring the Tokyo Imperial Palace
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the majority of the Imperial Palace grounds are off limits to the public. I first encountered a sign at the Kikyo-mon Gate that indicated it was off limits to non-government workers. I later found out that with the exception of the Eastern Gardens and the Imperial Household Agency, the palace is more often than not closed to the public. The only exceptions of note include New Year’s Day and the Emperor’s Birthday.
When I first approached the palace I was so in awe that I started snapping photographs and didn’t see the sign pointing in the direction of the One-man Gate and the Eastern Gardens. I began by walking towards the Kikyo-mon Gate, but was not allowed in. I made a hard left at the closed gate and made my way to the Sakashitamon Gate, which was also closed. I continued along until I reached Nijubashi Bridge along with a small army of tourists fighting for the best angle to photograph it from. Again this gate was closed. The pattern was clear, so I attempted to go to the nearby museum, but it was closed due to renovation work. Just my luck!
I wrapped around the property passing the Kokyogaien National Gardens on my left until I made my way to the Sakuradamon Gate, which was open but did not allow me to access any more of the palace than a small area past the gate. By the time I finished walking around it was 12:30 p.m. and was so far from the Ota-mon Gate and Eastern Garden that I decided to start making my way back. Funny that on my return trip I saw the sign leading to the Ota-mon Gate sticking out like a sore thumb.
After walking around the exterior of the Tokyo Imperial Palace I decided to follow some signs to the nearby Hibiya Park. Somehow while exiting the palace I missed a statue of Kusunoki Masashige that was listed on one of the directional maps outside. I thought it was on the way, but may have been separated by the moat, explaining why I did not find the statue. It only took a few minutes to reach the park.
There were some sculptures and rock formations throughout the park, but basically I just walked around for a little while until I determined there was nothing to see of any significance. There was a pond and garden area that a very beautiful feature. Looking back I probably should’ve left the area and done something else, but without wifi I was somewhat helpless. At that point I was starving and just wanted to grab some lunch before heading back to the train station.
Eat at Kitchen Station
Unfortunately, on the walk back from Hibiya Park, I was unable to find any restaurants or street food stands to grab something to eat. The entire area between the park and the Tokyo Central Railway Station was very corporate. There were a few restaurants, but they were much more upscale than I was looking for. I felt as if I was walking in Manhattan’s Financial District, but even there you can locate tons of places to eat. Rather than explore on my own or ask around, which was more difficult than I thought it would be, I decided to find somewhere to eat in the station.
There were a number of restaurants in an area of the station referred to as Kitchen Station. I couldn’t really distinguish one restaurant from the other with the exception of a sushi restaurant. All of the places I checked did not have menus in English. I was trying to be simple. All I wanted was something cheap (that took credit cards) and tasty. Two places had a number of westerners in there and one restaurant had nothing but locals. It was packed, but the kitchen looked like they were moving fast. In my typical follow the locals fashion I decided to eat there after I determined they took credit cards. If I could tell you the name of it I would.
They had no English menu and the waitress spoke barely any English, but she did her best to help me order. Fortunately, every dish was accompanied with a photo of a prepared dish. I pointed to one that I saw had shrimp tempura across the top of a bowl of noodles. She said beef and I said fine I’ll take it. That took a few minutes just to get through. I was really pushing my time limit at this point. To make matters worse it took longer than I typically would expect to wait to receive my food.
Once my food came I pounded though my meal. It was primarily two dishes for the price of $10 USD. The first was tempura battered food with rice. There was the shrimp I saw in the picture, as well as pieces of octopus tempura and sweet potato tempura. The other dish was a shredded beef udon noodle soup. Both dishes were very good. I made a good choice in deciding where and what to eat. If you’re in a rush in the Tokyo Central Railway Station make sure to check out Kitchen Station.
I made it to the train with ten minutes to spare. Finding my way was quite easy. The signs lead me directly to the entrance I needed. I was nervous because upon arrival all of the directions seemed to only be in Japanese, but signs to the airport were everywhere and it was easy to navigate my way to the express train to Narita. Fortunately, there were signs in English and the best English speakers I encountered were all train employees who were all very polite and helpful. My bullet train arrived precisely at 2:03 p.m. to head back to the Narita International Airport and brought me back to the airport in just over 45 minutes.
Once back at the airport I easily made my way through security. The immigration line was sizably larger, but moved quickly enough. I made my way to Terminal #1 and spent the remainder of my time at the duty free shops and Japanese souvenir store. I bought some small knickknacks and a promotion in one of the stores got me a sizable discount on a bottle of sake. For some reason the wifi kept cutting in and out. Apparently, my gate was a virtual dead zone. I ran to grab some medication, drinks & Pocky sticks for the half day flight ahead of me. By the time I returned the line was nonexistent and I easily boarded the plane. The second I made it to my window seat I took my meds and passed out. By the time I woke up, we were almost across the Pacific, and after 7 weeks of traveling I dreaded going home, but all good things must come to an end.
Fish Out of Water Theory
Looking back, I don’t even know why I pushed myself to go to leave Narita International Airport and make my way to central Tokyo. Considering the multi-hour delay in Hanoi followed by the limited amount of time I had to begin with, I’m not quite sure what I was thinking. Actually I do! When I have my mind set on something, it is very difficult to change my mind, especially when I am alone and without the opinions of friends or fellow travelers. It’s amazing how much more I could have gotten done if I didn’t get delayed. With the brief period of time available I definitely could have made better use of the hours I did have at my disposal.
My first mistake was that I did no research and without wifi it made navigating much more difficult. I was also not aware that many ATMs in Japan do not accept foreign debit cards. After 4 ATMs at the airport didn’t work, I decided I would just put everything on my credit card. The lack of cash did prevent me from purchasing a few souvenirs that I had to overpay for at the airport. I didn’t know that going to a 7-11 would have easily solved my problem. Oh well this is life! Finally, I was under the impression that more people would speak English. Well with the exception of the help desks at the airport, train and tourist information centers there was basically no one who spoke enough English to help me. I truly was a fish out of water.
If you have an extended layover at Narita International Airport heading into Tokyo might not be your smartest option. If you have over 8 hours you may attempt to push the pace, take the bullet train and see a few sites, but 10-12 hours would be a better time frame. You could cover the Tokyo Central Railway Station, Tokyo Imperial Palace and a few of the other attractions I mentioned. You’ll probably have the time to head over to the Shibuya crossing and explore the ward. If you have 8 hours or less you might want to consider just staying in the airport. Going to the city of Narita may be your best option to get a glimpse of authentic Japanese culture. So in summation, traveling to Tokyo alone, without any understanding of Japanese or someone to help me in just about 6 hours was not a smart idea. Don’t make the same mistake I did. The only silver lining is that this brief excursion to Tokyo has inspired me to revisit Japan this coming summer. Happy Trekking!