I had finally arrived at my last destination abroad before returning to the USA: Tokyo, Japan. At 6:35am, I got off my connecting flight from Bangkok with a clear mission. I was going to spend the next several hours shopping in Tokyo.
I would need to minimize my time spent on public transportation in order to maximize the time I had between my flights.
Although I felt a bit rushed at times, I think I did a pretty good job planning my day. In 9 hours time, I managed to find out where to drop my luggage, board the right trains to get to the optimal shopping neighborhoods, and find the stores that would carry gifts for my game-loving, anime-loving family members back home.
What To Do With Your Luggage
At Narita Airport, I left my backpack in a coin-operated luggage locker. The lockers are available after you go through customs before you take public transport.
It's pretty cheap to leave your luggage in the lockers (less than ¥1000) and it will free up your hands for all the shopping bags you'll collect!
If you ever use one of these luggage lockers, keep in mind that you will have to bring your luggage back through customs when you return to the airport. Leave plenty of time for this! When I returned to the airport, there was one of the largest lines I had ever experienced in all my travels to get through security.
Trains From the Airport to Tokyo City
Unfortunately, Narita Airport is about 45 miles away from Tokyo City. This is not ideal considering the limited time you usually have during a layover.
I had about 9 hours to drop off my luggage, travel into Tokyo, shop around, travel between neighborhoods, shop some more, and then get back in time to get my backpack through security and board my flight.
For example, you'll take Skyliner to go to Akihabara and Narita Express to go to Shibuya via Tokyo Station.
Don't take the local trains directly from the airport or you'll be adding an extra half hour to an hour or more to your travel time. That's precious time you could be shopping or sight-seeing! Only take the local trains between neighborhoods. Google is quite helpful and accurate for figuring out what trains to take a how long it will be.
For example, I went between shopping districts Shibuya and Akihabara by taking the orange G train. To get back onto the Narita Express train, I had to return to Tokyo Station from Akihabara on the JR line.
When in doubt, I always asked a train clerk or a local commuter. I held my ticket up to the booth windows of the subway station clerks and they usually pointed me in the right direction if they couldn't speak in English.
If you're not certain about which train to take or at which stop to get off, ask someone on the platform or in the subway car next to you. A 20-something year old Japanese man literally walked me off the train and boarded a different train with me to help me find my way! He went 15 minutes out of his way for me—so nice!
Where I Went Shopping
This district has all of the typical nice shopping for tourists and locals in Tokyo.
Right outside Shibuya Stations is the famous "Times Square" of Tokyo called Hachikō Square. It's also considered the busiest pedestrian crosswalk in the world. It's super fun to hang out here and people watch.
At night is when all the fun urban young people come out to loiter around and meet up to go out.
If you're only in Shibuya to shop, be sure to check out PARCO. It's a big multi-level conglomeration of stores especially popular with youth and fashion crowds. You can get all your usual department store type of goods here as well as gifts and souvenirs to bring back home.
If you're an Anime fan, the 6th floor of PARCO is especially good.
Mugiwara/One Piece Store
One Piece fans will be delighted to know PARCO's 6th floor has the one and only Mugiwara Store.
One Piece is my brother and his fiancé's favorite anime. I spent a lot of time here talking to the adorable Japanese staff to pick out the perfect Christmas gifts for them. I don't know much about the TV show, but I still had a ton of fun checking out everything they had in stock.
As a non-fan, my personal favorite part about the Mugiwara Store was the signs posted stating "No Selfie Sticks." Ha!
This district, aptly nicknamed "Electric Town," has all the electronics and media shopping you could ever ask for.
Akihabara is also known as the "gamer's mecca" for its various gaming stores and arcades. The Sega tower is here and also "Hey Arcade" which has entire floors dedicated to gaming.
This doesn't mean everything in Akihabara is about video/PC games, however. There's also "Gamers," a store that has tons of Anime/Manga books, DVDs, artwork, and accessories for sale if you're into that. Gamers is a great way to get acquainted with the anime/manga culture in Japan. I'm not a huge anime/manga fan but I really love and appreciate the artwork!
Plus, there's a few great tourist attractions here such as Tokyo's Animation Cente. It's easy to find as it's one of the two large skyscrapers within view from the station.
If you're lucky enough to be in Akihabara on a Sunday, take a stroll down the main street, Chūō-dōri. No vehicles are allowed through on Sundays turning the whole street into an unofficial hang-out for cosplayers and musicians to show off their best!
My favorite gamer shop in Akihabara is called Super Potato—a retro gaming heaven with an old school arcade on its upper level.
You'll find some original gaming systems, video games, and accessories for sale at Super Potato. My most prized finds were figures of the hero characters from Mother 2 ("Earthbound" in the USA), a Street Fighter arcade game, and Chrono Trigger.
On-The-Go Cheap Eats
I barely had any time to eat while I was running around shopping. There was too much to see and do before I had to get back to the airport to catch my trans-pacific flight.
I regret not taking a few moments to grab a classic Tokyo treat, like a ¥100 (<$1) cup of noodles located all over or rice balls for just ¥630 (<$6) at Kyosuzu in Shibuya.
If I had more time I would have gotten some sushi off a conveyor belt at Ganso Zushi in Akihabara or sat down at one of Tokyo's famous themed restaurants like Alcatraz ER, a weird prison hospital/zombie themed eatery in Shibuya.
I only had time to grab an iced tea from one of the many vending machines around to quench my thirst before returning to Narita.
Hello and Goodbye
It seemed I departed Tokyo as quickly as I had arrived! After only a few hours, I was already on my way back to Narita airport, Christmas presents in plastic bags slung around my wrist.
I knew I would need to come back to Tokyo one day. I had only scratched the surface in terms of the gamer and anime culture. And I would love to return to explore more of the city in general—especially the nightlife! I want to do karaoke, check out some sumo wrestling, dance to j-pop in a club, and eat all of the things!
I also want to return for Japan's many attractions outside of Tokyo, like the cherry blossoms in the spring and views of snow-capped Mt. Fuji.
There's tons I want to do! But I'm glad I had the chance to see this snapshot of the city through my layover shopping spree.
Reflections on My Last Stop Abroad
On the Narita Express back to the airport, I thought about Tokyo as I watched high-rise apartment complexes and billboards pass by my window. Tokyo is much like many other big cities in the world: A concrete jungle of tall buildings and lots of people going about their business very quickly and without much interaction with each other.
With a pang of sadness and a bit of nerves, I realized this fast-paced, city lifestyle where people forget to stop and smell the flowers was about to be my reality again when I would land back in New York.
I spent a lot of time during the previous 15 months shaking the "city girl" out of me. This meant adopting a slower pace (I literally walk slower now), seeking out beauty and finding it in the extravagant and the mundane, and taking the time to ask strangers questions, listen to their answers, and really see the world around me.
I knew I would have to resist backtracking. I would have to be strong in my persistence to continue this way of being and deviating in my life back in the states.
Before arriving in New York, however, I was going to be spending a few days in San Francisco with my best friend, Erin. The Bay Area is familiar to me but still foreign enough to help ease me back into life back in the States. Turns out, it was an even easier transition than I expected! Find out why next time!