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The Neurotic New Yorker’s Guide to Japan

Thursday, June 22, 2023

What I Did… So You Can Do It Even Better

By Zibby Owens

Do you appreciate it when things run on time? When lines are short? When there’s no traffic? Are you sick of streets blocked by garbage trucks? Might you prefer a place with no garbage at all? Maybe a place with no public eating, a place where trains and planes run on time with calm precision? Oh, and do you appreciate cleanliness? Clean floors, organized shelves, and no mess?

Then have I got the place for you.


Japan is like an operational effectiveness case study. Everything works. Everything is perfect. Everything is on time. Clean. Functional. Perfect. Everyone is polite. Everything is easy. There is no daily friction because everything is predictable.

It’s a little slice of heaven for anyone with anxiety. There’s nothing to worry about!

My four kids ages eight to sixteen, my husband, and I just spent six days traveling to and from Japan. We went to Tokyo and Kyoto. We all took turns being overtired and in terrible moods. We never slept past 4:15 am and one day woke up at 2 am. But we survived. And had a blast.

Here’s what I wish I’d known before going and how I planned our trip.

A Few Things You Should Know:

  1. There are no public garbage cans. Most people carry a little plastic bag in their purse or pocket. When they have any garbage, it goes in the bag and they wait to throw it out at home. You have to do this, too!

  2. Dress nicely and respectfully. (We were the only ones sometimes in printed t-shirts. Yikes.)

  3. Bow slightly to say hello to anyone Japanese.

  4. Be aware that gift culture is a huge thing in Japan. In fact, business-related gifts are tax-deductible. You might be given gifts which is the highest honor so act excited.

  5. Taxes for residents are very high in Tokyo which the government puts back into making the infrastructure run perfectly, cleanly, and precisely. There isn’t a lot of income disparity and most people live in condos. And yet the end result is like heaven on earth. Just an FYI.

  6. Although the Japanese might not innovate as much as some of us in the U.S. (said our guide one day), they execute better than anyone in a highly-coordinated, fine-tuned machine of perfection.

  7. Many people bring their own towels so they don’t use paper from public restrooms.

  8. The toilets are all automatic. None are broken. Many flush on their own with Toto-branded restroom creations. They are all perfectly clean no matter where you go.

  9. Trains run on time. To the second. Actually, everything does. Just watch.

  10. It is quiet. Prepare to stop yelling. I mean it.

  11. Get the Google Translate app before you go. If you hold it over Japanese characters, it converts it to English right in the image!

  12. Everything takes 20 minutes to get to.


What We Did (and You Should, Too!):

This is a mirrored floor with hanging flowers at teamLab. See what I mean?


teamLab Planets:

What to know: Book this immersive activity ahead of time. Show up a few minutes before your time slot. Wear shorts, nothing longer-than knee-length. If you wear a skirt, you’ll flash everyone due to all the mirrored floors.

What it is: This is a walk through a museum of touch, feel and sound. It’s a Japanese acid trip meets Disneyland. After waiting on a short line outside, you watch an introductory video where they tell you that you have to take off your shoes. You really do. You can’t wear flip-flops (which I packed).

You’ll be walking through dark hallways full of running water, wading through a knee-length giant ballroom of milky white water with flowers digitally imposed, and plodding across a giant bouncy house-style room. There’s the water route which is first and then, after you loop back through the locker room where you will have deposited your shoes and belongings, you go to the garden route.

Everything smells like feet. The worst foot odor ever. I like to think that the first water corridor had disinfectant in it, but who knows. There are mirrored floors in several places with halls full of LED lights. In the garden path, you wear spa slippers they give you and plod along with knee-height silver balls. Then you crawl on a mirrored floor while hanging orchids come down from the sky. It is quite possibly the most insane experience I’ve ever had. I’ve also never laughed as hard as when trying to cross the bouncy house room. I kept shouting, “I’m down! I’m down!”

Pokemon Center and Cafe:

What to know: Book ahead (or use my random Instagram agent).

What it is: We were lucky enough(??) to visit two different Pokemon Centers in two days. We had lunch at the Pokemon Cafe connected to the Ginza location. I couldn’t book the Pokemon Cafe myself and turned to  Google to find a reseller. Miraculously, it worked. I found an Instagram account that said they could get reservations for a $60 fee. I knew I’d either get a reservation or have my identity stolen, but these are the risks I take to make my kids happy.

It wasn’t until we checked in at the Pokemon Cafe and they nodded and let us in that I let out a sigh of relief. The experience included themed-looking meals, decent food, a wall of Pokemon merch, a visit from Picachu, and a spotless restaurant that made Chef Mickey’s look like a 7-11.

The Pokemon Center across the hall is mirrored, so at first I thought it was endlessly large and panicked about losing the kids before I realized it was essentially the size of a gas station. The other Pokemon Cafe was connected to the Nintendo Center in Shibuya and a bit smaller.

Art Aquarium Museum:

What to know: This is not a true aquarium. I also wouldn’t call it a museum. But it was wonderful. It’s located on the 8th floor of what seems to be the Bergdorf-Goodman or Barney’s of Tokyo in the upscale Ginza area, Mitsukoshi Ginza. Tickets are online but you don’t have to book that far ahead; we got them that morning.

What it is: This installation — the size of the women’s sportswear floor — is a multi-room, one-level experience that uses actual goldfish of all sizes, shapes and breeds (yes, there are apparently many) to create a visual masterpiece. There are giant vases, short square vases with water filled to the top, and containers of all types. It’s another “wow” experience with the simple beauty of swimming fish mixed with a light show, falling hydrangeas, flowers, design, and more. Afterwards, you’re right in the department store again. Definitely go all the way down to the food hall where you’ll find all types of Japanese delicacies plus many sweets like the Plaza food hall in New York.

Mitsukoshi Ginza Department Store:

What it is: The Barney’s, Saks or Bergdorf’s of Tokyo located on what is like the Fifth or Madison Avenue.

What to know: There’s a fantastic, gorgeous bookstore next to a Starbucks on a lower floor. Definitely pop in and check out the Japanese magazines, books, art installation and more. We got a book on sneakers, one of the only English language books we could find.


Aqua City Odaiba:

What it is: This area across the bay has a Toys ‘R Us, Lacoste, and other shops in a mall that’s connected to the waterfront with, surprisingly, an almost life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty. Walk through, use the bathroom, then walk across the overpass to the breath-taking views of the bay. It’s incredibly bright and sunny in this neighborhood. The Joypolis and Lego Discovery Center are in the giant kids structure but we were too overwhelmed and time-limited to go into that part. The waterfront was definitely worth a pop-out-of-the-car-or-train to see.

What to know: This area is like the Brooklyn of Tokyo meets the fun of MetLife Stadium amusement parks in New Jersey. In Odaiba, Aqua City is a big mall. Great quick stop.

Owl Village Cafe Harajuku:

What it is: One of the many cat, owl, dog and other animal cafes around Tokyo, the owl cafe just off Takeshita street in Harajuku is terrible! A tiny cafe room connected to a viewing room the size of a bathroom hold several owls just flying about in the low-ceilinged room. There are also about 15 other owls in the “viewing room” with ropes chaining them to bars.

The whole thing is on the fourth floor of a building that looks like it had last been inspected in the ninja era. The elevator was ricketedy, carpeted and terrifying. There was a line up the steps to get in because, like everything, you have to be on time or else miss your slot. There is no food in the owl cafe. If you’re afraid of birds flying close to your body, which I am, this is not your place.

What to know: This is a must skip. Head to Takeshita Street instead.

This is me ducking when an owl flew too close to me and trying to escape.

This is me ducking when an owl flew


too close to me at the Owl Village Cafe.



I tried to escape!!

Getting rainbow cotton candy on Takeshita Street.

Takeshita Street in Harajuku:

What it is: This is a three-block stretch similar to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or even stretches of Little Italy in Manhattan complete with overhead decorations, both sides of the street lined with theme shops, and a crush of people. We got the rainbow cotton candy and the candy covered strawberry sticks because they were all over Instagram. It’s fun and worth walking through but also sensory overload.

What to know: Only plan on stopping in here for about 20 minutes.


Shibuya Crossing:

What it is: A crowded intersection in the Times Square of Tokyo (the most traversed in the world) but without as many lights and screens. The Shibuya area is filled with convenience stores, shops both high and low end, and endless crowds.

What to know: Don’t spend more than an hour or two in the Shibuya area unless you’re inside eating a meal — and there are lots of restaurants here. It’s very crowded, hot, and a bit like heading down 42nd Street. You should go to Shibuya Sky. We didn’t realize we needed tickets and they were sold out when we got there so book ahead if you want to go to a high-up rooftop for city views. Walk across the Miyashita Park which looks like the Highline in New York. And stop into the Nintendo/Pokemon center (see above). Right next to Shibuya Crossing is a statue of Hachiko, the dog who waited 10 years at the train station for his owner to get back from commuting from work until the dog passed away. It’s a symbol of loyalty and punctuality. So Japan.

Shibuya Crossing early in the morning.

Zauo Shibuya:

What it is: A restaurant in Shibuya in which you catch your own fish with tiny fishing rods right when you walk in and then they cook the fish in whatever style you want and bring them to your picnic table up the steps.

What to know: There is a huge gong that goes off any time someone catches a big fish which two of my kids did. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Also, the whole experience made me not want to eat fish anymore. Seeing the flapping, struggling fish with big hooks in their mouths was terrible — and then they were our meal. It’s easier to eat fish in the abstract, not after you’ve looked them in the eyes.

They also had vegetable tempura, salad, and other non-fish options. Even, randomly, French fries. It’s loud, festive, and fun and good for kids. One of my kids actually slept on the bench beside me the entire time and no one cared. A relaxed, casual vibe with a unique experience.

The Hyatt:

What it is: An indoor mall attached to a hotel with many restaurants, fun shops, and more. We went to a casual sushi restaurant that was good for kids called Roku Roku but almost got stuck at another restaurant lower down in the mall (Keyakizaka) which gave us aprons when we sat down to cook our own food in multiple, fancy courses. No thanks.

What to know: Pop in for a quick, casual meal and browse the shops for a more American-like experience in Tokyo with people who speak English. Note: this is not the Park Hyatt which I thought it was. That’s where “Lost in Translation” was filmed.

The Aman Hotel, Tokyo: