Japan has always fascinated me in ways that not even another Asian city could. Barring Australia and New Zealand, it’s about the farthest I can be away from home, and its culture and visual appearance have always been kind of otherworldly to me. Back in 2010, when I was in Shanghai visiting the World Expo, I was ever so slightly annoyed when I found out that the Land of the Rising Sun is actually only a short hop away. So this time, in early 2017, I decided to give its capital the 3 day treatment!
I arrived in Tokyo Station at first light on a rather chilly January morning, greeted by the occasional snow flurry. On the western Marunouchi side, the station, which also contains a hotel, looks like a beautiful brick building, and appears strangely out of place amidst the glass and concrete of its high-rising neighbours. This is Chiyoda, the least populous of Tokyo’s wards, and for the most part it is filled with large office buildings, wide roads or boulevards, upscale shopping opportunities, and the Imperial Palace. Parts of the grounds surrounding the Palace are open to the public, and having a stroll in serene Kokyogaien with Tokyo as a backdrop is definitely worth it. Just across the street is Hibiya Park, a little oasis filled with trees, shrubs, tennis courts, roads and tracks to wander around, and catch a breath before heading off to rockier waters.
Those rougher seas could be Akihabara, Tokyo’s ground zero for everything that is electronics, anime and manga. The dense crowd is quite eclectic, ranging from geeky nerds, to nerdy geeks, to cosplay adepts and just plain normal people. And me. Actual shopping there is a bit of an experience — large and small shops alike are crowded, noisy and all the signs and ads can easily lead to information overload and a desire to go and get a bite.
Finding something to eat in a huge city like this is not all that hard, and one of the things to try are ramen noodles. Obviously there are oodles of places to find your fix, but particularly noteworthy is Ippudo on the basement floor of Marunouchi Brick Square — a bowl of goodness for less than 1000 JPY.
East of Tokyo Station (Yaesu Exit) lies Chuo, Tokyo’s commercial heartland and probably best known for being the ward in which you’ll find Ginza. There are two ways to experience Ginza. One is to go there on a beautiful sunny morning, about an hour before the shops start to open, and observe the rising energy as more and more people start to flow in. The second one, obviously, is to go there and shop till you drop. My everlasting memory of Ginza however is the hour that I lost trying to find Sukiyabashi Jiro. 😉
North of Ginza, in the slightly less neon-filled district of Nihonbashi, there is more of the same, but somehow it feels cosier and newer. It is also where we find Takashimaya, a widely popular department store in Japan and other parts of Asia, and its amazing food area on the basement floor. One can debate about whether you should buy sushi in a department store (I say nay), but the chocolate, pastries, bento boxes and fresh fruits are to die for.
About twice the size of Chiyoda or Chuo, Minato is also more diverse — apart from it being dotted with embassies, it is also home to Roppongi, and Tokyo Tower (in the Shibakoen district).
Roppongi Hills is the dominating development project in its namesake district, and is comprised of housing, shops, restaurants, parks and the likes. The architecture, both on the inside and outside, is wildly interesting, but much harder to navigate than a maze. Only a short walk away, and technically not in Roppongi but in the Azabu-Juban district, we find Gen Yamamoto, one of Tokyo’s most lauded cocktails bars. The neighbourhood feels strangely relaxed and has a small town kind of feel about it — it is partly residential, has local shops, some of the streets are narrow and even paved, and everything seems to move a tad bit slower than the rest of Tokyo.
Tokyo Tower (and I swear I’ve seen something similar in Paris) is the remarkably less high alternative to the Tokyo Skytree for people why don’t like queueing. The views are spectacular, and on a clear day, it is possible to see Mount Fuji! The neighbourhood itself is rather upscale, although it is not really evident why. Apart, maybe, from the rather stunning collection of supercars that drive by every now and then.
The entry point for everyone wanting to visit the area is the eponymous Shibuya Station, and by taking the Hachiko Exit or West Exit, one arrives at its two main attraction points. Right outside the station is Hachiko’s statue — a sculpture of a loyal dog that kept waiting for its owner long after the poor man had passed away. It’s really a work of art, and also much larger than I expected. In the same immediate area is the famous Shibuya scramble crossing, which shamelessly features in about every movie or picture gallery of Tokyo, and you need to get through it anyway if you want to reach the other side of the street.
The rest of the district, however,… is not really my cup of tea. The whole area is literally inundated with people, signs, neon and shops, and feels like any city’s shopping mecca on the first day of the first sales period of the year… times ten.
North of Shibuya is Yoyogi Park and Harajuku — the latter is not really a district as such, but rather the area east of Harajuku station. It is more edgy than Shibuya, and not less crowded, but just going with the flow in and around Takeshita Street or Cat Street is what makes this a rather enjoyable area to be in. Yoyogi Park, which is west of the station, is another one of Tokyo’s impressive green lungs, where some of the denser parts really feel like a forest. Near the south entrance, kind of sandwiched between the Yoyogi Gymnasium and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), you will find Earth Day Market. Its main theme is sustainability, and it’s a great spot to stroll around, relax and have some food and drinks from one of the stalls.
Tokyo is a massive city, and figuring out how to go from A to B can be a bit of a challenge. I would highly recommend just buying a local SIM card (at Bic Camera, for example) and relying on your favourite map app to guide you. Once you get used to it, and you find a way not to get lost in some of the larger stations, the mass transit system a pure bliss. Quite contradictory, maybe, I also found it a very walkable city — more often than not, I just walked to where I wanted to be, and found some interesting sites along the way. On one occasion, while stuck in Minato without cash to buy a subway ticket, feeling cold, and too lazy to find an ATM, I just fired up Uber, and waited for my white-gloved uniformed knight in shining armour to arrive, who coasted me effortlessly to Shibuya in a rather majestic Toyota Crown Royal (and I could even charge my phone).
The people in Tokyo really are as good as they come. Yes, it is true — unless they work in a hotel, or in an upscale shop, English proficiency is admittedly a bit poor (apart from maybe the youngest generation), but no worse than in other parts of Asia. They make up for it though with their kindness and willingness to help. From Mr. Yoshi, the duty manager of my hotel, to the shop assistants at 7-Eleven; from the waiter trying to figure out how I wanted my noodles boiled, all the way to the lady at Hermes who turned wrapping a small bottle of perfume into a form of art — everybody is just as friendly and accommodating as you’ll ever want them to be.
I full well realise I haven’t even scratched the surface of this amazing city. I haven’t visited a single shrine or temple, and I’d love to explore some areas a little more thoroughly. It is also a great place to explore with someone you love — I’ll make a bold statement here, but Tokyo is probably more romantic than Paris. So I’ll be back!