Tokyo, Japan’s capital. The most populous metropolis in the world, rich in history, culture and culinary wonders. By day a city of consequence, with impressive high rises, palaces, cavernous shopping malls, well nurtured gardens and cherished temple. By night the vast cityscape shines with neon luminescence, the trains at rush hour quite literally packed, there are themed bars, clubs, restaurants and karaoke to sing your heart out to. Naturally it can be a bit confusing trying to decide just where to start and what to do when there is so much on offer. Here a few pointers for your first visit to Tokyo.
When flying into the city you’ll land at either of Tokyo’s two main airports, Haneda or Narita. Once you’ve cleared customs you’ll want to get a PASMO card which you can use for Tokyo’s train and bus services (much like an OYSTER). You can get them from the tourist information post or from a ticket machine and cost￥3000 with￥2500 pre-loaded. Haneda is the nearest and easiest to travel from, here you can simply get on the underground from the arrivals terminal. Narita takes a bit more time and attention. Located on the outskirts of Greater Tokyo you have to take the Skyliner, a train service that links you to the main stations such as Nippori and Ueno. Skyliner tickets have to be purchased separately, once you’re at one of the main stations in Tokyo you can start using the PASMO.
The underground itself is the best and most efficient way to get around, with services starting from 5AM and finishing at 12PM. The only thing to really avoid (if you like your personal space) is travelling during peak rush hour. There are guards whose job it is to pack people into the trains and make a sardine tin look spacious. Politeness is something passengers pride themselves on and will not play loud music or make phone calls during their journey. Don’t get worried if you don’t know any of the language. There are station guards everywhere to ask for information and announcements are often made and displayed in English as well as Japanese.
Once you’ve got a grasp on how to get around there are plenty of places to visit. Shibuya is home to the iconic crossing you may have seen used in films like Lost In Translation. At night it shines bright with neon signs over ahead and loud advertisements on huge screens adorning the towering buildings around you. As an economic centre Shibuya is one of the more bustling places in an already busy city. There are pubs, clubs and restaurants galore to choose from here, bring an appetite. With designer and low key shopping spots this is somewhere you can treat yourself and find some souvenirs. It’s also home to a number of love hotels where you and a partner can have some privacy for an hour or two or even the whole evening.
Shinjuku is a lot like Shibuya, a booming economic centre, boasting one of the busiest train stations in the world, loud and colourful, with places to eat, shop and drop. It also has one of my personal favourite spots; Golden Gai. This is one of the quirkier parts of the city and stands out because it doesn’t. In this small segment of Shinjuku there aren’t any bright neon lights or high rises, instead you’ll find two story, unassuming, shanty style bars with more character than seat space. This is one of the few spots in Tokyo that hasn’t been redeveloped. These bars can cram from five to thirty people inside where you can make quick friends. The mix of punters ranges from Japanese business men to travellers and professional gaijins. None of which matters when you’ve all sunk some Sake and someone starts playing Wonderwall. Some are just for locals but if you politely venture inside and find yourself turned away there are plenty more to explore. Some have themes, some do karaoke and food. All are worth exploring.
Harajuku is great if you want some animé style cosplay gear. Here there are a teaming series of ally ways to get some alternative shopping done. There is some seriously weird and wonderful fashion on display here not just in the shop fronts but on the shoppers as well. It’s a hotspot to let your quirky sense of style shine out. There are number of animal cafés where you can eat and have drinks in the company of owls, dogs and cats. Then just the other side of Harajuku’s main station is the Meiji Shrine. The buildings themselves are located within a 170 acre forest, a bit of a contrast when stepping out of a metropolis like Tokyo. The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji who reigned from 1867 to 1912 during a period of rapid industrialisation for Japan.
Asakusa is the place to go hunting for souvenirs, especially down Nakamise Shopping Street. This open air market has everything, food, sake sets, lanterns, chopsticks, Godzilla figurines, kimonos, artisanal knives. The list goes on. At the top of the street is Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of the most visited in Japan, the pagoda is particularly grand when lit up at night. Around the corner from here is the workshop of David Bull. David is a Ukiyo-e craftsman, a 400 year old wood carving and printing tradition. Having had individual success, despite no formal training, David has now teamed up with American illustrator Jed Henry. Together they take modern animé and video game characters and put a Ukiyo-e twist on them, a highly interesting fusion. I couldn’t resist and bought a couple of prints myself. If you want to know more about David and Jed’s work watch the documentary Ukiyo-e Heroes.
If you’re a fan of animé and manga you’ll want to go to Akihabara. By night this is one of the brightest districts of Tokyo (and that’s saying something). This is an area that has been shaped by Otaku culture and is decorated all over with iconic characters from animé and manga universes. Along with the decorations and building designs you’ll see cosplayers walking the streets giving you the feeling that you really have stepped into a different world. Akihabara also has a large number of maid cafés where the waitresses dress in over the top costumes, sing and dance while they serve your food and drinks. You might not have a clue what’s going on but they’re worth going into just for the experience.
Ueno is where to head to if you’re looking for a walk in a park and to soak up some history and culture. Home to Ueno Park you can take a stroll here past Buddhist temples, ponds and fountains. The park is especially popular in April when the cherry blossoms come into bloom. There are many museums in the area such as The Museum of Nature and Science and The Metropolitan Art Museum. For me The National Museum stood out with it’s collection of significant historical art pieces, archaeological finds, Buddhist manuscripts and examples of armour and clothing throughout different periods in Japanese history.
Near to Iidabashi station is Koishikawa Korakuen, one of Japan’s best loved gardens. Started in 1629 they are amongst Japan’s oldest. Containing, in miniature, examples of both Japanese and Chinese landscapes it is one of only three remaining Daimyō gardens in Japan. This is a place where you can find some peace and tranquility within Tokyo, away from teaming streets and busy roads. Like Ueno Park the gardens are especially popular in April when the Sakura come into bloom. If you happen to be in the gardens while a game is being played at the near by Tokyo Dome you may even think the ancestors are cheering you on your discoveries. Part of Tokyo Dome City, a huge entertainment complex, the dome itself hosts baseball games, concerts from home grown and international artists, martial arts contests and even monster truck events. Within the rest of the complex is a shopping mall, amusement park and Onsen spa. Iidabashi itself has plenty of restaurants to choose from. With the park to roam, rides to make you scream and plenty to eat, you could easily spend a day here.
The Imperial Palace, also known as the Imperial Residence, is located a short walk from Tokyo Station. The official residence of The Emperor and surrounded by a huge moat the nearly half a mile area boasts some of the most valuable real-estate in the world. The East Gardens around Old Edo Castle itself are freely accessible before 5PM. For a tour of the Palace and surrounding buildings you can book online with the Imperial Household Agency. Alternatively you can show up at the Kikyomon Gate before tours start at 10AM or 1.30PM (except Mondays and Sundays), though you are not guaranteed a spot on a tour. Tours usually last an hour but routes can change due to Residence and Court activities.
Apart from all of these places there are some other experiences on offer in Tokyo that really should be taken in. Taiko is the Japanese tradition of playing a drum or drums usually in a group. There is something truly affecting, powerful and unique in these performances and something that connects you directly with the heart of Japan. Though groups like Kodo come and go through Tokyo with a bit of online detective work you should be able to track down a show or even a workshop where you get to try your hand.
Karaoke is a new experience here, this isn’t someone killing you softly down the pub. There are whole tower blocks dedicated to it. This really must be done as a group activity. You get your own room, with a phone to call for drinks and snacks, a tablet computer with an array of songs to choose from and some very low budget video accompaniments that are oddly charming. You might get your own instruments to bang along with and sometimes there’s fancy dress. This really is something fun to try out.
Like any major city Tokyo can put a squeeze on a tight budget but don’t let that stop you from getting around, the underground is very affordable. If you are on a budget avoid taxis, the rides are always pleasant, it’s just the bill at the end might that cause you some discomfort. On first arrival this sprawling metropolis might be a bit intimidating, especially if you don’t know the language. Everything starts making sense pretty quickly though and you’ll soon find yourself enthralled by the bright energy here. Tokyo is one of those places that you could visit time and again and still find something new and wonderful. If you’re finding it hard knowing where to begin these are great places to start your adventure.