Tips for 24 Hour Layover/Shinjuku in a New York Min
When I saw a layover in Tokyo as an option for one of my flights, I jumped on it. Was I going 7 hours out of my way to get home? Absolutely. My flight was 400 dollars cheaper and provided me an opportunity to briefly explore a city I had been dying to get to.
I think of long layovers like an appetizer. You want alllll the food, but you can't have it all, because more is coming later and it's probably going to be better and a larger portion and way more fulfilling. Instead of dwelling over what the main course will be like, savor the appetizer as much as possible. Acknowledge that you won't get to see everything and that's okay because you'll be back for the main course with a clearer sense of what you want. WHOA, side tracked and now I'm hungry.
Anyway, since I knew I couldn't see it all, I decided to stay in one specific area and explore around there. I picked Shinjuku because of it's proximity to both of the airports, train accessibility, pedestrian friendly areas, quick access to food, bars, sights, and it's reputation for staying up late (I had 24 hours, no wasting it!). Here are some areas to keep in mind when you are loosely planning your long layover.
1. Transportation: Pick an area that will be easily accessible, whether it's by foot, train, or shuttle.
My plane landed in Haneda and I needed to get to Shinjuku. I was so worried about a language barrier or annoying people with my inability to figure out the train. There was a woman at the airport, whose sole job is helping you get on the correct train. #Huzzzaahh! The train is absolutely worth a little hassle, slight embarrassment, and a longer ride because taxis are expensive and so are Ubers...and I mean expensive. I checked out an Uber from my hostel to the airport and it would have been about 200 US dollars, in comparison to 580 Yen for the train, which is about 5 USD. The walk from the station to the hostel was about 10 minutes. #Thanksgooglemaps
2. Be flexible, find a place to stay that suites your flexible ways: Find a place that will work with your schedule. Some hostels offer day tours, ask when you check in to see if it's possible to join in on one. This was also the last leg of my trip, so I was pretty broke. One of the reasons I booked Imano was because breakfast and coffee were provided in the price and you could upgrade for a more fulfilling breakfast, inexpensively.
My flight left Singapore around 1:50am and landed in Tokyo at 9am. It was seven hours long. My journey to Imano Hostel was about an hour and I couldn't check in until 2pm. They allowed me leave my luggage, while I explored around for the morning. Imano Hostel, is fairly new, but had great reviews for location, cleanliness, price and it's cafe. I grabbed a cup of coffee from the cafe in the hostel and recharged my phone. I hadn't eaten since the night before, so I began to research where to go. I was hardcore craving Udon, found a place within walking distance and booked it to queue up. That leads to tip #3.
3. Food & Drink: Long layovers, might not be the time you get to dive into every single dish you've been dreaming about. Think about what that area is known for and ask around for people's favorite spots. The people at my hostel were so wonderful about pointing me in the right direction of their favorite places to chow down. I asked loads of people along the way, where they liked to go, and was given more recommendations than I could handle this last trip. Now I have something to look forward to in the future. On this trip I had an idea of what I wanted to eat (udon, ramen, sushi, yakitori, okonomiyaki, shabu-shabu, to name a few). Whichever popped up along my route would be more than wonderful!
My first food stop of the day was to-
Shin Udon- When I arrived at the restaurant, I was super unsure if I was in the correct spot. Google maps got me about as far as it could. I wandered around the block and down an alley and noticed a few people standing in front of, what to me, looked like a tiny entrance to a house. I was so hungry by that point, that I didn't really care what I was going to eat and figured if there was a line, they were waiting for something good. I chit chatted with the woman in front of me, who assured me that I was in the right spot. VICTORY!
The great thing about Japan is that when people are going to eat, they really are just going to eat, not sit around for 15 hours talking story, like I usually do. The line moved fast and before I knew it, I was inside the tiny restaurant. I ate up at the bar, which gave me a full view of all the happenings.
The other awesome thing about Japan is that it always seems like an appropriate time to drink. Everyone was there on a lunch break and everyone was drinking a beer or sake, so of course that's why I joined in. I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough. The noodles were so thick and chewy, made fresh in house. The broth was cold and infused with lime, making it citrusy and refreshing. I opted for a dash of plum and a veggie and shrimp tempura pancake. The pancake began to soak in the broth, and I literally just looked up flights back to Tokyo to see how expensive they are so I could relive this meal.
I walked around this part of town a little bit longer, grabbed a coffee, caught the end of a cool neighborhood celebration, and began to head back to the hostel for a short nap and shower. When I woke up, it was time to get serious about what to eat next. I did not want to leave Tokyo without eating sushi, so I asked for recommendations and began the 15 minute walk over to The Standing Sushi Bar, or, Uogashi Nihon-Ichi.
The entire menu was in Japanese, so through lots of back and forth hand motions, we kind of came to the conclusion that I would eat anything he put in front of me. The fish was super fresh and my experience there was really enjoyable. A tip if you happen to be traveling through Japan- Get money changed at the airport. Most places are cash only and even if they do take card, most seemed to prefer cash. This was really helpful for me, because it helped me stick to a necessary budget.
My next stop is a good example of Food & Drink, as well as-
4. If there is a chance to get to an iconic place, do it!
When I saw Harajuku was within walking distance of Shinjuku, I knew I had to get over there. All I knew about Harajuku is from Gwen Stefani, which is kind of embarrassing, so No Doubt I was ready to learn more (womp womp). Spoiler Alert: I ended up getting a little drunk, so I didn't learn that much at all, but I had a great time, thanks for asking. My first stop was to check out a sweet record shop/bar combo (best combo ever!) called Big Love Records.
I thought I would hang out at the shop for a drink and then head out, but I was so wrong. Not only did they continue to play epic music video after music video, their beer was local and awesome! I sipped on an IPA and an Ale and was just all around loving life, perusing records and listening to tunes for almost two hours! The vibes were super positive and throughout my time there, several other people came in to grab drinks too. Plus the bartender kept giving me snacks, sooooo...do I live here now?
Going back to Tip #2 of being flexible, this is one of the reasons I love traveling with loose, loose plans/no plan, plan. Giving yourself time to actually hang out and spend time places is so awesome! There's no need to feel guilty about where you choose to spend your time. Big Love ended up being one of my favorite parts of the entire trip! Being open to interesting opportunities can totally change your travels. Finally, I finished my beer and dragged myself away to head off to wander through more streets and shops in Harajuku.
I loved seeing everyone dressed in costume, hitting up crepe stands, taking in the colorful, graffiti decorated buildings, and looking in thrift shops. Harajuku is a lively, funky place to spend an evening walking around. Around 12am, everything seemed to be coming to a close. I started to walk back towards my hostel, just enjoying my surroundings.
When I woke the next morning, I had more of a clear itinerary in mind and a time crunch. I needed to leave for the airport around 2pm and didn't want to waste a moment. I ate a quick breakfast at the hostel and left for a long stroll through the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. My flight was going to be about 12 hours long and I wanted to walk as much as I could before subjecting my restless body (but really the people I would be sitting next to) to that.
The gardens cost about 2 US dollars to enter and includes a map. This morning stroll was breathtaking and full of Japanese gardens, tea houses, green houses, ponds and just acres of picnic space.
This park is prime for exercise and napping. Pick your poison! (Napping, obviously)
My goal after this was to get to a famous pancake eatery, but unfortunately the wait was over 2 hours (NOOOOO!) and today my time was fairly limited. With a semi broken heart, I skipped on towards the Hanazono Jinja Shrine.
Not only was the shrine beautiful, there was an entire market set up around it. Local merchants were selling old Japanese relics, ceramics, art, and handmade clothing.
From there, I headed over to the Samurai Museum and ended up being accidentally right on time for an English tour of the museum. The English tour is included in the museum fee.
Touring through the Samurai Museum was AWESOME. I was blown away by the history, as well as the artifacts they had on display. Our guide was incredibly knowledgable and encouraged questions.
Realizing that I had been able to see, just about as much as time would allow, I began to think about my last meal. I wandered around and wandered into this shop simply because of the smell wafting from it's tiny doors. This was hands down the best decision I might have ever made in my life because it resulted in this:
After I devoured my ramen and refilled my bowl with tears of joy, I booked it back to the hostel. I was kind of cutting it close on time and basically grabbed my bags and started to run to the station. Remember, this was the END of my trip and my bag had gotten significantly heavier. Lucky for me, it was the hottest day of the entire trip, so I was nice and sweaty and burned by the time I got there.
I got in line, ordered my ticket, and was told my station was across the street and my train was leaving in 4 minutes. I sprinted across the busy intersection and ran up to the conductor in what I can only imagine was a "startling" manner, asking if this was the right train. He was very jovial and unconcerned about my state and directed me to the right car. My train was direct from Shinjuku to the Narita, all in all, about 1.5 hour journey on the speed train.
When I got to the airport, I was obviously a sweaty mess, which is the absolute best way to get on a 12 hour flight, if you want everyone to hate you. Narita offers nice, clean showers starting at 10 dollars for 30 minutes. In my case, it was beyond worth it. I left feeling refreshed, bought myself a soft serve ice cream and a beer (I'm on vacation, bro), and sat down in the terminal to reflect on this whirlwind of a layover.
Be flexible, pick a centrally located spot, see what you can, eat what you want, but always leave something to look forward to for the next time. Most importantly, make it your own!