Greasers dancing in Yoyogi Park, central Tokyo.
On sunny Sundays, late morning and afternoon, there is a visual feast in the Harajuku, Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi Park triangle, with martial arts, bands and individuals playing music, masses picnicking, and maybe greasers (rockabillies?) and 50’s style girls dancing.
Next door elaborate weddings processions can be seen in magnificent Meiji shrine while a hundred metres away is perhaps Tokyo’s hippest street – Omotesando. These days the street has been overcome by brand name stores but the quirky shops have shuffled nearby into an adjacent dead-end road, Cat Street, which may be locally known as dead cat street.
Tokyo does not offer tourists an easy-to-find, lively city centre (there’s no Manhattan or Leicester Square here). Instead the city sports at least five distinct action zones that are not within easy walking distance of each other – apart from Harajuku and Shibuya.
However, the rail transportation system is superb, clean, reliable and partly in English – if somewhat complex, totally packed at times (avoid the rush hour!) and not cheap.
The Yamanote line, for example, runs a circular route including some of Tokyo’s favourite haunts and popular tourist destinations such as Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, Asakusa, Ueno Park and the Imperial Palace. Get there at 8.00am and trains arrive every 15 seconds and they still need white-gloved hands to cram you into the trains!
• The Imperial Palace Gardens are in Maranouchi though regular tourists only get to see the monstrous old Edo Castle walls, moats and gardens. It’s more or less in the centre of the city and free of charge but beware, it’s free, spacious, green and tranquil – yes, but full of fascination, revelation, palace views, historical artefacts and sightings of the Emperor – No!
Best in early April or autumn for tree magic, the Imperial Palace Garden is fundamentally a walk in the park, albeit a park with serious walls.
Chidorigafuchi, a section of moat located northwest of the Imperial Palace in cherry-blossom time, early April. Photo by Arashiyama
Omotesando hugs in Harajuku, still Tokyo’s hippest shopping street.
• Yoyogi park area, near Harajuku and Shibuya, is not just a vast green space but for flea markets, free live music and plenty of weirdness at weekends, if it’s not raining enough to blow the amps, both towns are great for shopping.
• Sumo wrestling, Tokyo National Museum? Disneyland? Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo Bay) with excellent shops, open space, beaches (don’t swim!) and virtual reality playgrounds courtesy of Sega.
• Tsukiji Fish Market (the world’s biggest wholesale fish and seafood market and one of major and the best sushi dining places)
Lucky travellers may catch a Shinto wedding ceremony at Meiji-Jingu, is a favoured shrine for traditional Shinto weddings. Photo by Peter Van den Bossche
The Meiji Jingu (Shrine) is perhaps not the oldest, nor the most impressive religious edifice that Tokyo has to offer but it is peaceful, exceedingly green and extremely convenient to get to. It’s easily accessible from the Yamanote line’s Harajuku station or Chiyoda line’s Meiji-Jingumae stations.
Furthermore, any tourist serious about Tokyo sightseeing, shopping or youth culture will want to visit the fashionable area of Harajuku, shop in Omotesando or cruise the street music scenes and gawp at Japan’s young tribal groups around Yoyogi park at the weekend.
Meiji Jingu was finished in 1920 (though partly rebuilt after WWII), a memorial to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who ruled Japan from 1868 to 1912 and oversaw the modernisation of the country.
Note that the entry route from either direction is quite lengthy.
Sumida River fireworks display and Tokyo Skytree, one of the world’s tallest structures and a new landmark in Tokyo. Photo by Sherry Sakuraba
For city overviews try the spectacle from the 634m Tokyo Skytree. It is the Kanto’s (Eastern Japan) prime television and radio broadcasting site which replaced Tokyo Tower as it is no longer high enough to support digital broadcasting.
Tokyo Skytree draws huge numbers of visitors so high prices and queues are inevitable. You can book admission tickets, though only for halfway up the tower, up to two month in advance online here (why only in Japanese?). Opening hours can be subject to the weather but no worries, it is earthquake resistant!
Note that the Skytree is close to Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s best tourist places with the famous Senso-ji shrine, old buildings and ninja on Denbouin Street, and Sumida River walks and cruises nearby.
You also get a brilliant view from the 333 metre-high Tokyo Tower, the second tallest tower.
OR check the FREE view from Shinjuku’s Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No.1, 45th floor, with the added excitement that it sways 7m side-to-side in an earthquake.
Alternatively Mori Tower in Roppongi is pricey to enter but offers perhaps Tokyo’s best views along with some comfortable seating.
Harajuku’s Omotesando shows off plenty of super-modern, chic brand name stores but manages to retain a little tradition, some humour and a lot of teen madness.
Shopping in Japan and particularly Tokyo is sensational – product quality is world-beating, creativity and variety are expansive while prices range from very competitive to pretty silly.
For trendy shopping, eating and drinking try Harajuku (Omotesando street in particular), Shibuya (unusually within walking distance of Harajuku), Shinjuku (set design for Blade Runner was inspired by this nightly neon-frenzy) and Tokyo’s Shimo-Kitazawa suburb offer way better value and style. For the classy stuff or global brand, head to Ginza or Aoyama.
Roppongi? Hmm, traditionally a culture-free, after-dark watering hole with plentiful mating opportunities, but art and design businesses have moved in and the district is changing its tone, one art at a time. Roppongi Hills is an interesting but labyrinthine city-within-a-city topped by a terrific tho’ busy Observation Deck.
One of Ginza’s main streets.
Not our idea of a good time but window-shopping in Ginza may be amusing. If you are seriously into branded goods we feel that Omotesando offers the same goodies but with more panache, in a more comfortable environment and with other interesting places to see in the immediate vicinity.
The Rainbow Bridge, another landmark of the city, suspending across nortern Tokyo Bay between Odaiba waterfront and Shibaura Pier in Minato-ku. Photo by Cors.
– Odaiba beach, shopping and Fuji TV headquarters on Tokyo Bay’s massive island of entertainment and romance, built on water from garbage.
Eating and Drinking
Ordering in a hi-tech sushi bar in Tokyo
Tokyo is one of the greatest cities in the world to offer not only authentic Japanese cuisine but also high quality and diverse dining experiences. Whether in supermarkets, cafes or restaurants of top quality but nevertheless reasonably priced, just be very wary in places such as some sushi joints – and notoriously little old bars in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district – where prices are not displayed and you could get a big surprise at the end of your visit. Pay attention now…only eat and drink in places where you can see prices posted!
The easy route to comfortable eating for gaijin (foreigners) is to choose establishments where plastic replicas and prices are displayed outside.
Japan, especially the big city like Tokyo, the fast foods or ready-meals are excellent, from ramen or soba (noodle) to sushi, from gyu-don (bowl of rice topped with beef scrumble-egg) to all sort of lunchboxes for train journey.
Price in some of the top sushi chef restaurants is perhaps out of your budget but to taste a good quality, authentic sushi is not difficult in Tokyo. Ask any locals for a favourite sushi diner, they know a good one or two. Try popular sushi bars around Tsukiji fishmarket, though bear in mind that you have to queue up for hours in the dawn for the breakfast or lunch. Otherwise have a fan at one of the fast sushi restaurants with fresh and speedy serving system. Order on the tablet in front of you, a plate of freshly made sushi comes along the automated line on the table in 60 second!
Asakusa Sanja Matsuri, Senso-ji. Photo by Torsodog.
Japan does festivals as well as it does high quality manufacturing, and though the Kyoto and Nara region may offer the best fests Tokyo plays host to several celebrations that can be easily enjoyed by foreign tourists, not least early April’s Hanami, or Cherry Blossom Viewing, an event that celebrates the transient beauty of both nature and life. This is not a costume or procession festival, more of a life attitude display as Japanese people enjoy micro-moments to the full.
Sanja Matsuri is held in May in Asakusa is one of Tokyo’s biggest festivals, with one hundred Mikoshi (divine palanquin or portable shrine), each carried by 40-50 people. Sanno Matsuri (one of Japan’s three prestigious festivals) and Kanda Matsuri, Kanda, Tokyo, both shinto rituals, take place each in alternate years.
The Sumida River’s annual fireworks display in late July, believed to be originated in Edo time, is Japan’s biggest summer spectacle and a good tho’ crowded viewpoint is beside Asakusa.
Kawasaki, a name that normally resonates ‘motorcycles’ is a town less than an hour from Tokyo by train and a place that resonates with ‘genitalia’ in early April when a local Shinto shrine holds a colourful and hilarious one day festival to pray for safe sex – the Kanamara Matsuri or ‘Festival of the Steel Penis.
Classic big-eyed girls tempting the geeks into action other than gaming, Tokyo.
Tokyo’s Akihabara, sometimes known as Electric Town or Akiba, is traditionally the place to go for low-price hi-tech, a zone loaded down with massed lights, colour, noise, electronic toys….and now, Otaku.
These obsessive nerds (though actually Otaku means your house in Japanese) have been coming to Akihabara for years to acquire the latest inventions or work in local shops but soon realised it was easier to live there than commute to Akihabara (commuting anywhere in Japan and especially Tokyo, is a squeezee business and geeks do not like being exposed to humanity).
Visitors will be surprised to see young women dressed as maids. They are marketing shops, cafés and so on (to geeks) and are generally schoolgirls. They do not like their pictures being taken! Presumably since what they are doing is not exactly legal.
Furthermore, tourists who venture into the higher reaches of fantasy game stores can find aisles full of assorted female body parts. No, not a pathologist’s paradise but the sad solution to the classic geek inability to find a girlfriend. Instead, they buy and build their fantasy girl to their personal taste – hair, nose, legs, eyes etc. Perhaps picking up variations monthly, clothes too! Another reason that Japan has a critically falling birthrate, along with overwork and low sex drive. My theory is that a generation of high testosterone Japanese males died during the Pacific War leaving the current species a bit short of ultra-active males.
Kamakura, on the coast and about an hour from Tokyo by train is one of Japan’s oldest capitals (but hardly even a city now) dating from the 12th – 14th centuries. This ancient and attractive town, generally jammed with tourists, is scattered with more than 70 well-preserved Buddhist shrines and temples including a famous Big Buddha.
Getting Around Tokyo
A night view of the historic Tokyo train Station in Marunouchi, a business district. Photo by Toshinori Baba.
One great thing about Japanese public transport is being always on time. In fact, everybody would panic if the commuter train is late even for 5 seconds and platform staff will apologise
Tokyo Metro goes almost anywhere in the capital including greater Tokyo. You buy tickets on a single-ride basis but instead of having to buy different tickets for different train and bus lines, two universal money storage cards (refundable) are available that simply need to be touched onto a blue illuminated sign to permit entry.
Sapica is the easiest pass to buy, with English instructions available on the machines and fillable in ¥1,000 units. Many shops will now accept payment via Sapica.
To get a reusable Sapica travel card from a Tokyo – or any other – ticket machine, press ‘English’, the number of travellers and days required, insert that amount (or more), and get a multi-trip travel card.
Taxies are equipped with meters and the price is reasonable. Remember, the doors open and close for you automatically so don’t try to open or close it yourself.