Ahh, Tokyo, the neon city in the heartland of the rising sun. Like a vivid dream, it can take you for the wildest of rides — ceasing to grow crazier and weirder only when you decide to hit the brakes yourself.
At first the sheer number of people — more than 35 million in the greater metropolitan area — will bewilder you. But then, as you become lost in the anonymity of it all, you will begin to craft a series of inimitable Tokyo moments that will come to define the city on your very own terms.
Will you stroll the high-end shopping boulevards of Ginza and Omotesando with Tokyo’s fashion elite? Shall you let your inner nerd fly to grand new heights of geekery inside one of Akihabara’s towering game centers? Nightlife? Not even a question. When the city’s rail system stops around midnight, the young night is only beginning to revel. And when you’re ready to relax, no matter whether you want to take a solitary stroll, lie in the grass with a book and a beer, or simply watch groups of people doing everything from juggling to reenacting great sword battles, Yoyogi Park will welcome you into its vast green acres.
For a first-time visitor to Asia, Tokyo makes for a wonderfully accessible gateway. It’s immaculately clean, incredibly safe for travelers and relatively painless to navigate. North Americans will find Japan remarkably Westernized, yet the sights will be different enough from the norm to keep you excited and engaged.
The city is well networked by the best rail system on Earth. Be prepared to navigate and master the city’s web of trains and subways, as riding the rails is the optimum way to travel around. (Avoid taking a taxi unless you’re ready to part with a handsome sum of yen.) The service of all trains is so punctual you could set a watch to it.
Tokyo has been the capital of Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the area was known as Edo. Over its history, the city has suffered huge catastrophes inflicted by both man and nature. The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 killed more than 140,000. Decades later, nearly half of Tokyo was set aflame when the United States heavily bombed the city in 1944 and 1945. But from the ashes of that war grew a powerful new city, first showcased to the world at the 1964 Olympic Games. Power and wealth grew rapidly in Tokyo, and by the 1980’s Japan was poised to be the dominant force in the world economy, with Tokyo at its helm.
However, that bubble of prosperity burst, and Japan stayed economically stagnant for the better part of the last two decades. And the March 11, 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake didn’t help matters. But while Japan will never be quite the same, for much of the damage of 3/11 is irreparable, it is resilient as ever. Today traveling to Japan and Tokyo is safe. And Tokyo is wide open and ready to win you over.
Shibuya Crossing: At times Tokyo will loom over you, a dense wall of concrete and neon that rises far into the sky. If you’re on your own and exploring, it’s inevitable that you will get a little lost. It’s best to accept and embrace this rather than fight against it. There is no better way to introduce yourself to Tokyo than by exiting the Hachiko gate of Shibuya station in west Tokyo and just letting yourself swim through the sea of people all making their way through the famous scramble crossing. Go at night when the air is electric, people are dressed to impress and the mad dance is at its finest.
Harajuku and Meiji-jingu: A very doable afternoon excursion is to meander the streets of Harajuku and wind up at the Meiji-jingu, a great shrine in the heart of Tokyo. Harajuku is the anchor of trendy urban fashion and outrageous costume play — a great place to gawk. The ultra-dense Takeashita Road is a prime example of Tokyo-style urban crush and commerce. Just across the street, the Meiji shrine offers a contrast to the wild commerce at its doorstep. Its dusty gravel boulevard is lined by an evergreen forest of 120,000 ancient trees donated from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established in 1920. An enormous torii gate leads the way into the shrine itself. The shrine honors Emperor Meiji, who reopened the country to foreign relations and laid the foundations for Japan as it is today.
Ginza: Glossy Ginza is the place to pick up a Rolex or dine in luxury. Built by men seeking power and fortune and then consummately taken over by their wives, Ginza is home to pricey cafes filled with women dressed as if they’re made of money. For the casual passerby, it might be fun to see all the high-end fashion, but if you’re not planning to add a Chanel handbag to your wardrobe, don’t plan on spending too much time here. Two fun and free spots to visit in Ginza are the Sony Showroom and the Apple Store, both of which rise high into the neon sky and offer lots of hands-on gadgetry to tinker with. You can catch an affordable kabuki performance at the newly reconstructed Ginza Kabuki-za theater.
Odaiba: A visit to Odaiba will bring to life all of your ultra-high-tech visions of modern Tokyo. The most practical way to get to the manmade island floating in Tokyo Bay is to ride the automated Yurikamome monorail (great views!). The futuristic centerpiece of the island is the Fuji Television Building, a piece of architecture so distinct that all others will pale in comparison. Be sure to visit the observation deck. Attractions in Odaiba’s Palette Town district include one of the world’s largest Ferris wheels, an enormous Toyota showroom called MegaWeb, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and a Venice-themed shopping mall.
City Parks: If you judge a city by the quality of its parks, then Tokyo will rank at the top of the class. For a place filled with so much concrete and neon, there is a remarkable amount of green space in the city. Tokyoites flock to the city’s parks, as they’re a great respite to the crammed railways and close-quartered living space that residents must contend with daily.
Any day is a fine one to visit Yoyogi Park, but it’s is at its best on Sundays, when it’s filled with clubs and groups of people practicing just about every skill imaginable — including sword fighting, extreme bartending and break dancing. Also on Sundays the park’s resident rockabilly gang, clad in leather and rocking ostentatious coiffures, congregates at the east entrance and jams out to 50’s American pop.
It’s worth the entrance fee for a chance to stroll through the immaculately maintained gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen, arguably the most beautiful park in Tokyo. The garden area of the park offers visitors three distinct garden styles: Japanese traditional, French formal and English landscape.
One of the most desirable areas to live in Tokyo is called Kichijoji, and its proximity to the great Inokashira Park undoubtedly adds to that reputation. The park is built around a large lake surrounded by extensive walking paths. All fashions of street performer entertain passersby. Inokashira Park is a great place to take in the beautiful colors of autumn and the famed cherry blossoms in the springtime. Also of note in the park is the Ghibli Museum, which features artwork from the famed animation house Studio Ghibli. Fans of the films “Spirited Away,” “Ponyo,” “Princess Mononoke” or any of the other Ghibli works will enjoy a stroll through the museum, even though all the signs are in Japanese.
Ueno itself is rather mundane neighborhood in east Tokyo and most people come through only as a point of transit. But do know that just outside Ueno station there is a huge park featuring a zoo, several important museums and vast cherry tree-lined boulevards. So if you’re passing through the station, consider exiting to give Ueno Park a wander.
Tsukiji: Larger than 43 football fields and processing or handling an astonishing one of every five fish caught on the planet, Tsukiji Market rightfully holds its place as the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. While it is arguably the most famous tourist destination in Tokyo, do ensure that you are in a proper state of mind before going. Foreign tourists have given themselves a bad reputation at Tsukiji. (Imagine a drunk British man licking the head of a tuna on auction and you’ll be on the right track.) Don’t forget that Tsukiji is a workplace, not an attraction built for tourists, and visitors are no longer allowed in the auction area. If you do decide to visit, plan on making a very early start to your day. Tsukiji is busiest between 5 and 8 a.m.
Sumo: If you are in Tokyo during one of the three grand tournaments — held in January, May and September — definitely allow time in your itinerary for some sumo. The 15-day tournaments are all-day affairs but tend to be most exciting in the evenings when the champions have their bouts. Securing tickets for general admission to the Ryogoku Kokugikan (where the Tokyo bouts are held) is easy and affordable. For better seats, plan your schedule well in advance, as ring-side and box seating sell out quickly. Also in the area of the Ryogoku are numerous chanko-nabe restaurants operated by retired sumo stars. Chanko-nabe is a protein-rich stew eaten by sumo wrestlers to help them pack on the pounds. Even if you’re in Tokyo when no matches are scheduled, your chances of rubbing elbows with sumo types are high if you eat at one of these restaurants.
Tokyo Sky Tree/Tokyo Tower: Though it only opened to the public in May 2012, Tokyo Sky Tree has been a prominent sight in Tokyo for the past many years. Topping out at 2,080 feet, it is currently the tallest building in Japan and the tallest tower in the world. Next door you’ll find Skytree Town with numerous shops, restaurants, an aquarium and a planetarium. While Tokyo Sky Tree also houses an observation deck and restaurant, the Sky Tree’s main function is broadcasting. The same is true for the Tree’s now over-shadowed older brother, the Tokyo Tower. While only half as tall, Tokyo Tower will also gladly welcome you into its upper strata. Go at night, when you can watch the city glow from above.
Yokohama: There is no iconic photograph of the Tokyo skyline, for the entire city is a vast sea of skyscrapers. If you’re looking for that picture-perfect image, then head to Yokohama, an easy 30-minute train ride from central Tokyo. Yokohama’s harborside development, Minato Mirai 21, will provide photobugs with plenty of great shots featuring the Landmark Tower, the sail-shaped Intercontinental Grand Hotel and the Cosmo Clock 21. Many folks go to Yokohama for the views, and plenty of bars and restaurants are perfectly situated to provide patrons with a picturesque evening. Other draws include a rather famous Chinatown, plenty of brand-name shopping and a quaint amusement park.
Kamakura: Kamakura has a rich and complex political history that has filled volumes of scholarly text, but its main draw today is its many temples and shrines of great significance, all of which are located relatively close together. Only about an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo, Kamakura is an easy day trip from the city. Highlights include several important Zen temples and Shinto shrines, a gigantic sitting Buddha, and a lovely (if crowd-prone) beach.
Nikko: Perhaps the most popular day trip from Tokyo is a visit to the small city of Nikko, which lies at the foot of Nikko National Park in Tochigi Prefecture. Tokugawa Ieyasu, arguably the most important ruler in Japanese history, is entombed within the Toshogu shrine. Originally just a simple mausoleum, the Toshogu was enlarged to the lavishly decorated shrine complex with more than a dozen Shinto and Buddhist structures. Some may find Toshogu to be gaudy and overcrowded. Fear not; a trip to the Nikko National Park just up the hill will reward you with spectacular views of waterfalls, idyllic marshlands, hiking trails and a hot spring resort.
Tokyo DisneySea: Plenty of countries can offer DisneyLand, but only Japan can offer DisneySea. The nautical-themed Disney resort is the most expensive theme park ever built, with an astonishing price tag of more than $4 billion. You can see where all that money went, down to the most minute detail; everything inside DisneySea is beautifully crafted and immaculately maintained. DisneySea and Disneyland can both be found at the Tokyo Disney resort in Chiba, less than an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo.
The Japanese take their food very seriously, and skipping out on a meal would be met with great resistance by any Japanese person. So while in Tokyo, act as if you’re Japanese and enjoy a bite whenever the fancy strikes you. Seasonal foods play a large role in Japan’s culinary culture, with each month being known for a particular specialty. Presentation is also taken seriously. Expect even a cheap boxed lunch from a convenience store to be packaged and presented with attention.
Tokyo rivals New York, Paris and London in terms of first-rate international cuisine, and boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else on the planet. But one of the best things about being in such an edible city is being able to have a great meal at even the most unassuming of places. You’ll find eateries tucked into every corner of Tokyo, some of them cheap holes-in-the-wall with standing room only. What follows is by no means definitive or inclusive; it is merely a few ideas for a meal in a city of endless culinary possibilities.
If the one-hour-plus queues to get a spot at Daiwa Sushi are any indication of the quality of the product, then you might as well get in line. Probably the most famous sushi restaurant in the Tsukiji Central Fish Market, Daiwa has an incredible reputation for quality. Don’t expect much atmosphere, just the freshest sashimi you’ve ever put in your mouth. And don’t plan to talk about how good it was. Guests are expected to leave as soon as they’re finished eating.
The double-height dining room of Gonpachi is known as the inspiration for the izakaya massacre scene in the film “Kill Bill.” Be assured, the only massacre that will take place when you visit Gonpachi will happen on your plate as you devour the extensive menu of soba, yaki-tori, tempura and sashimi. Izakaya are traditional Japanese bars that happen also to serve great food. They are ubiquitous in Tokyo, and many offer set all-you-can-drink-and/or-eat courses. If you can’t get a table at Gonpachi, another izakaya with good food and seats to spare can be found on just about any street in town.
In Japan, where presentation is taken into consideration even in the cheapest of eateries, kaiseki-style cuisine takes presentation to the level of high art, with unprecedented attention given to even the most minute detail of the meal. The humble kaiseki restaurant Ishikawa (Takamura Building, first floor, 5-37 Kagurazaka Shinjuku-ku) was propelled to the gastronomical stratosphere in 2009 when it was awarded three Michelin stars. It has kept that ranking ever since by serving up traditional Japanese cuisine with gourmet twists. The cuisine is seasonal and the menu changes regularly. There are only four tables and seven counter seats, so reservations are essential.
The maid cafes of Akihabara were once a weird underground phenomenon, but these days a maid cafe is about as common as a game center in this district. The gist of a maid cafe is that the staff wear French maid uniforms and speak to you in incredibly honorific Japanese. The maids will chat with you and make you feel at home. @Home has several locations throughout Akihabara, each of them a little different. They are accommodating to foreigners, and @Home in particular is known to be a good entry point for those new to the maid cafe scene. The food is typically mundane cafe fare but prices are high; dining here is more about the experience than anything else.
Some of the tastiest Japanese eats come off the streets. Whether it’s a plate of fried soba noodles from a standing cart at a festival or some fried chicken on a stick from a street vendor, these cheap eats are the some of the best in Japan. The walking boulevard that connects Yoyogi Park to Shibuya is a sure bet to find some street food any day of the week. And if you happen to stroll through the area on a weekend, there will likely be some sort of festival at the adjacent plaza, raising your chances of scoring some delish street food.
While day-old hot dogs and nacho cheese vending machines are the norm in North American convenience stores, Japanese convenience stores, or conbini, are of a different breed. Expect fresh salads, sandwiches, decent sushi, baked goods, a variety of edible sundries and an amazing variety of onigiri (rice balls) stuffed with anything you can imagine. Almost always open 24/7, Japanese conbini are great choices for those feeling peckish or for anyone who needs to stock up on snacks for the road.
Perhaps the easiest option to please picky eaters and foodies alike is to head to a depachika, the food floor of a department store. Usually located at the basement level, these eateries will display their entire menus in convincing plastic molds behind glass at the storefront. Simply walk by the many restaurant displays until you see something you like. (Trust us, you will.) Isetan in Shinjuku is known for the best displays. Other notable depachika are Takashimaya in Nihonbashi, Mitsukoshi in Ginza and Tobu in Ikebukuro.
Travelers wishing to have a bite of something familiar will have no problem in Tokyo, as Western-style eateries are just as plentiful as their Eastern counterparts. If you’re just wanting a quick burger, forgo McDonald’s and instead visit Mos Burger. One bite and you’ll never want to see a Big Mac again. Hub, a chain of British pubs, is a solid bet for good beer and fish and chips. Both Hub and Mos Burger have locations throughout the city.
Mexican food is one of the most difficult things to find done well in Japan, and it’s the first thing American expats want to eat when they visit home. By far the best Mexican joint is JunkAdelic, where the dark atmosphere and Mexican wrestling movies projected onto the wall give the place a secret underground vibe.
Shopping in Tokyo
Shopping is a certifiable pastime in Tokyo. At all times of day, in every corner of the city, people are buying, buying, buying. Ten years ago, paying with a credit card would have been a difficult thing to do, even in Tokyo. Even today, while plastic is becoming more common, it’s still advisable to carry cash with you wherever you go. Tokyo is incredibly safe and travelers should not hesitate to carry large sums of cash on their person, as this is what the locals do as well. Using an ATM can be a little tricky in Tokyo, as most Japanese ATM’s don’t operate on the Cirrus or PLUS cash networks most major ATM and credit cards are linked to. A sure bet is to use an ATM at a 7-11, for these are widely known for accepting foreign cards, and (unlike many Japanese ATM’s) are open 24 hours.
A good way to get your head around the commercial way of life here is by meandering through one of the cavernous department stores located at all of the city’s major train stations. One of the best is Daimaru, located in Tokyo station.
Akihabara is the place to go to get your hands on some quality Japanese electronics. Here you’ll be confronted with sheer city blocks full of gadgety retail, offering everything from space-age toilet seats to vintage Nintendo games. If you’re looking to pick up a new camera or some cheap memory cards, this is the where it’s at. Haggling is the norm in every Asian country except Japan, where the sticker price is what you pay. Akihabara is the one place that makes a caveat to the no-haggling rule, with discounts of up to 10 percent sometimes negotiable.
For trendy and weird clothes, Harajuku is the place to pick up all sorts of great stuff. Lots of eclectic and specialist boutiques offer good window shopping at the very least. Just down the street from Harajuku station is the famed boulevard of Omotesando, where you’ll find a hub of luxury retailers.
Ginza is where you should go for high-end fashion. While many of the major designers have stores in other parts of Tokyo, the flagship stores of the big brands are in Ginza, where posh and luxe are run of the mill.
Want a lesson in Tokyo girl fashion and J-pop culture? Shibuya 109 is a learning experience, for sure. You might not see anything you would care to buy for yourself in the famed mecca of Tokyo girl fashion (think oversized sunglasses, fox tail accessories and purple suede stilettos of miraculous proportions), but gawking at all the young fashionistas cashing in on the latest trend is a fun experience. Shop girls work their booths, heavily made up with cartoonishly false eyelashes and crazy bejeweled fake nails, luring in shoppers by screaming welcome greetings until they’re hoarse.
Check out the various shops leading up to the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa for a great selection of Japanese souvenirs. The temple, Tokyo’s oldest and most significant, is reason enough to come to Asakusa, but the boulevard leading up to the entrance is a major attraction as well, full of small souvenir stalls offering everything from bizarre edibles to a sake set you can take home to Mom.
–written by James A. Foley