On a recent trip to Malaysia to check out Malaysia Airlines’ new direct flight from Narita, Japan to Kota Kinabalu, we met expat Nadia Sobehart on a day trip though Narita. Living in a city many travelers view as bewildering to navigate (Lost in Translation, anyone?), she sheds light on the saying “get lost to find yourself” Tokyo-style.
Getting lost in Tokyo is one part easy, one part frustrating, and two parts memorable. No voyage in the big city is complete without the transforming gift of misadventure. When you lose your way in a country that shares commonalities – familiar street signs, a similar language, comparable gestures – the next step is predictable, and the destination is as expected. However, Tokyo wanderings are of another nature, and once you experience the excitement, you will never again want to return to the place from which you began or find a straight line to your path’s end.
This is not a guide to wandering around Tokyo. It is not a “how-to.” Rather, this is a strong recommendation to “GET LOST!”. Of all the adventures I have accomplished in the nation’s capital, my absolute favorite ones have been a combination of accidental discovery, serendipitous moments, and sheer luck.
Relying on the general kindness and helpfulness of Japanese people and the relative safety of the city, visitors have little safety concerns about getting lost in Tokyo. North to south, east to west, every small neighborhood and larger ward is a collection of modernity and tradition, curiosities and similarities, and adventures waiting around the corner.
Let’s begin with an imagined itinerary and see just how much better your day can become when you take a misstep.
Proposed Tokyo Itinerary
- Breakfast in Daikanyama.
- Walk toward Shibuya to see the crossing.
- Go shopping in the department stores there.
- Head toward Harajuku’s famous Takeshita Street.
- Have lunch in the area.
- Take a stroll through Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine.
- Shop some more.
- Dinner and back to the hotel.
Getting Lost in Tokyo Itinerary
Now let’s take a wrong turn.
You exit Daikanyama station to the left, heading toward Nakameguro. There, you encounter the lovely Meguro River, and though it’s not cherry blossom season yet, the leafy trees add a touch of nature to the concrete jungle. Here you find a small coffee shop and step inside. The waiters welcome you and take your order with a spattering of simple English words. You’re pleased and comforted with a warm, homemade meal.
You walk toward the main street, as pointed out by the café staff, and hop on a train to Shibuya Station. Here, the signs are more reliable, and you have no difficulty locating the landmark, Hachiko the dog, and the large intersection notable in pop culture. You weave through people, taking in the energy of the crossing and everyone traversing it. You spot a Starbucks straight ahead (it’s unavoidable really) and decide on another dosage of caffeine with the added bonus of an incredible view of the crossing from above.
After fighting your way to a seat in the crowded café, you are able to spot a few curiosities and stores to explore when you descend onto street level again some 20 minutes later. As you make your way to the department stores, a few smaller shops catch your eye, and you are drawn inside. Trinkets and pop culture references you don’t understand make for great souvenirs, and you find yourself pouring over the many items on offer. As you follow the small roads and alleys, you realize you don’t know where you are, but does it matter?
You continue on and follow the crowds toward a larger, main street. Here you whip out your map and ask a stranger standing on the corner waiting for the same traffic light. Harajuku? You point. The woman explains in a flourish of gestures, pointing, and incomprehensible words to you (unless you speak Japanese, of course). As you go the way she pointed out, you find many more tiny shops of interest and find your time whittling down, inversely proportionate to your escalating hunger. Lunch time!
You choose a small café hidden amid tall buildings and savor a delicately prepared dish. As you stroll toward Harajuku (the center for extreme fashion on display by Japanese youth), a display catches your eye, and like following a trail of gumdrops, you find yourself weaving from shop to shop filled with interesting fashion and items particular to the area.
Bag slightly heavier, wallet a little lighter, you eventually stroll to the giant gate of Meiji Shrine and find serenity in the calm beauty of the main shrine. Out towards Yoyogi Park, a path you follow leads to back gardens and sports fields, and you sit a while to take in the sights and sounds of life.
A lady asks you to take her photo, and next thing you know, you’re walking together to a café. Who would’ve thought you’d run into a Japanese woman visiting from near your hometown? Coffee becomes a 3-hour chat fest, and dinner is her treat. You walk back to the hotel with a little more baggage and experience, a little less cash and energy, and with the promise of a blossoming new friendship and memories to last a lifetime. You’ll never miss the itinerary that could’ve been.
Voyage Vixens™ Editorial Note: this type of “getting lost” may not be advisable in every city in the world where there are real dangers and neighborhoods that would be unsafe to be lost alone. However, during the day in a place like Tokyo, you can safely do as Nadia did, and essentially let go of the planned itinerary and leave yourself open to discovery and chance meetings! As we advise for any travel, anywhere in the world, be aware of your surroundings, be smart about what you wear and how you behave, blend in, be respectful, don’t leave cash, electronics or passports hanging out of your bag, keep purses zipped and pockets fastened, and trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
About the Author
Nadia Sobehart (in photo above in front of the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple with her own paparazzi!) is a full-time graduate student passionate about writing, traveling, music, and adventure. After finding her way to Japan twice as a teenager, she decided to move there on the JET Program to teach English in a rural town on the Sea of Japan. After two years of exploration, surprise, and misadventure, Nadia knew it was time to resume her studies, this time transitioning from business to media design, in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. Nearly a year and a half later, she is still scouting the city for festivities, experiences, and cute cafes in which to learn and pleasantly pass the time. Nadia balances her time with thesis research, pursuing a career in music and entertainment, and writing for JTB USA and her private blog, Tokyo Doll.
Photos 1, 3 and 4 are courtesy of Nadia Sobehart.
The rest are © Voyage Vixens.