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Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Tokyo, Japan

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ShinjukuTokyo is a massive, hyper-modern metropolis with a million and one things to do, and reams of articles could be written about it.

In fact, entire guide books could be written about stuff that isn’t in the guide books. But we’ve got a few experiences that you’re unlikely to stumble across while you’re reading a brochure.

And remember, when in Tokyo, be sure to do some exploring on your own. It’ll be worth it.

Ramen Museum

What? A museum dedicated to ramen? If all you’ve ever eaten is the pre-packaged version sold in the U.S., we’re sure you’ll question the sanity of this idea, but ramen is an art form in Japan and this museum treats it that way.

OK, so maybe the displays on matchbooks and curtains from ramen shops are a bit silly. However, the theme park inside the museum, which replicates a street scene from 1958 and includes a whole bunch of shops serving various regional ramen variations, is undeniably cool. Our sources tell us that this isn’t the best ramen in Japan, but the concept is interesting enough to deserve attention.

To save money, check out Finding Free & Cheap Travel Activities in Expensive Japan. For more: Cheapskate Confessions: Japan on a Budget.

The ramen museum (its full name in Japanese is Shin-Yokohama Ramen Hakubutsukan) is located close to the Japan Rail Shin-Yokohama station. Admission is 300 yen. Unfortunately, a bowl of ramen is not included in the price.

Kirin Beer TokyoKirin Factory

If you know Japanese beer, you know Kirin, but did you know that you can take a tour of the factory? They’ll show you how the beer is made and then let you taste it for free. You can’t beat that. The tour lasts about an hour, and reservations are required. Note that the tour is conducted only in Japanese, but we believe beer transcends language. The factory is located near Namamugi station in Yokohama.

Ghibli Museum

If you’re an anime fan, a visit to the Ghibli Museum is a must, but even if you’re not, you’ll still enjoy this mazelike, interactive house of wonders dedicated to the works of Studio Ghibli, responsible for Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro, among other titles.

Inside the museum, you’ll find a mock-up anime studio and exhibits related to many of Studio Ghibli’s films. The exhibits really aren’t the most interesting part of the museum, though. There is no fixed route through the structure and visitors are encouraged to explore its spiral staircases, causeways, ledges, bridges, and twisting, narrow halls. Plants grow from the outside walls of the building and a giant robot stands tall atop it.

The Ghibli Museum is located in Mitaka (go to Mitaka station on the Chuo line). Note that tickets must be purchased in advance. The travel agency JTB (www.jtbusa.com/enhome/) would be glad to sell you one.

TokyoDistrictWhat Kind of Otaku Are You?

Hardcore anime and manga fans already know what the term “otaku” means. The closest English equivalent is “fanboy.” The word refers to somebody who’s so deeply burrowed into a particular niche, be it stamp collecting, video games, toy trains, whatever, that he or she fails to lead more than perfunctory existence in the real world.

Akihabara, Japan’s main electronics district, is known as the computer/video game otaku capital of the Planet Earth. Akihabara’s main drag is essentially a huge heap of electronics shops and nearly nothing else. Akihabara is a cool place to visit, but it’s definitely on the brochure because tourists like to go there to buy cameras.

Here are a few other places with shops catering to a particular niche that are less likely to pop up in your guidebook. These sorts of districts are part of what makes Tokyo unique, and there are a number of them to be explored.

Don’t miss Asian Culinary Vacations: Noodling Around in the East.

Jinbocho is to used books what Akihabara is to electronics. If stacks of musty old paperbacks really make your day, you must go there. You’ll find book upon book in shop after cluttered, dusty shop. Don’t look for this place in Lonely Planet – just hop on the subway and make your way to Jinbocho station if you’re interested in checking it out.

Ochanomizu is to the guitar what Jinbocho is to used books. There, you’ll find what must be the world’s densest collection of guitar shops. There are stacks of Fenders and loads of Les Pauls. You won’t find any Japanese traditional instruments there, and you won’t find any violins or any oboes, just guitars.

Acoustic guitarOkay, there might be some drums, basses, and keyboards hanging around as well. Once again, if you’re interested in checking it out, just make your way to Japan Rail’s Ochanomizu station. The guitar shops are easy to find. Just follow the young guys with purple hair.

If you get excited by the idea of a couple hours spent wandering through William-Sonoma, visit Kappa Street, also known as “Kitchen Town.” The street is lined with stores selling all kinds of kitchen wares– this is where the restaurants of Tokyo get their supplies. You can find deals on unique pottery, plates, teacups and sake sets, as well as bring home a Japanese vegetable knife, or usuba hocho. These knives can be difficult to find in the U.S., but a medium to good quality knife on Kappa Street can run from $40-$100.

There are even whole districts devoted to particular foods – for instance, Tsukishima, which is known for its overwhelming multitude of monjayaki shops. Monjayaki is a Tokyo specialty that somewhat resembles the more popularly known okonomiyaki. It is essentially a type of pancake/omelet which is cooked in front of you on a griddle. There are truly a mass of monjayaki outlets in Tsukishima, a district of the city built on a man-made island. Just get off the train at Tsukishima station and follow your nose.

Fun at Yoyogi

Tokyo’s locals tend to be quiet and reserved, perhaps by necessity (do you really want to have a conversation with the person whose elbow is digging into your spine on a rush hour train that’s crammed to the gills?). If you want to see them cutting loose, go to Yoyogi Park, located near the fashion district of Harajuku, on a Sunday.

You’ll find drum circles, people dancing, punk bands blasting out loud music, and so on. Just about anything crazy that anyone has ever done on a city street is acted out there each week. It is truly something to see.

Yunessun and Mori No Yu

WaterfallingIf you’re ready for a respite from Tokyo’s pulsing neon and bustling crowds, take a day trip to the much smaller and quieter city of Hakone, which is about an hour and a half by train from Tokyo. Why visit Hakone?

Well, there are tons and tons of onsen (hot springs) there. Often, an onsen is a place where people bathe together nude in very hot water, but if the idea of getting naked with strangers makes you a tad uncomfortable, don’t worry. Hakone’s Yunessun is an onsen theme park which is mostly nudity-free, and a number of the baths there are very unique. For instance, there’s a Dead Sea spa with a sodium content so high you’ll float, a sake spa which we think probably won’t intoxicate you (but no promises), a green tea spa, and so on.

If you don’t mind shedding your skivvies, that kind of hot spring is also available at the nearby Mori No Yu facility, which is dedicated to outdoor baths in beautiful settings. Admission to Yunessun alone is 3500 yen; Mori No Yu alone is 1800 yen; both together will run you 4000 yen.

There’s a hotel onsite if you feel like making this more than just a day trip. Since the location is a bit out of the way, we recommend following the directions on the Web site (http://www.yunessun.com/english/index.html).

Rush Hour

If you want to have a truly authentic Tokyo experience, try riding a train at rush hour. Maybe you’ll even meet with one of those guys in white gloves who comes around to push the flailing mass of people into the train so the door can close! Go between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. for the optimum rush hour experience. The Saikyo, Keio, and Chuo lines are highly recommended.

By Mike Day for PeterGreenberg.com.

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