Mention Japan and the first thing that comes to my mind is food – Sushi, sashimi, ramen, teppanyaki and the list goes on. Japanese cuisine is varied and always delicious, its popularity evident in the fact that it can be found in many parts of the world.
There’s really nothing bad to say about Tokyo as well (except maybe the tiny apartments). The capital city is clean, modern and the whole place runs like clockwork. And even though downtown Tokyo is a mass of people rushing around, the Japanese never fail to put on a smile and point you in the right direction when you need help.
Small apartments – functional and cosy
Like many other major cities, land is a prized possession in Tokyo and so, hotels and homes are tiny. At my friend’s apartment in Tokyo, the hallway was just wide enough for an average-sized person to walk through. But trust the Japanese to come up with ways to work around the space limitations. There were ingenious nooks and crannies that doubled as storage and many pieces of furniture did double duty. The end product was a functional and cosy abode, although I’m not too sure how well the space would work for claustrophobics.
The old, the new and the eccentric
While space seems to be a luxury item in Tokyo, we found lots of it at the Imperial Palace East Gardens. As the name implies, this is the residence of the Emperor of Japan. But we didn’t have any luck running into him or any other royalty, as the main palace grounds are closed to the public.
The sprawling grounds of the Imperial Palace East Gardens. Perfect for a picnic and stroll.
Built on the site of the old Edo Castle, the East Gardens are free to enter and are huge enough (210,000 m2) that it didn’t feel crowded. It is centred on a huge lawn and surrounded by massive stone walls and a moat that goes around it. Within the grounds, there are also other attractions such as the Museum of the Imperial Collections and the Suwano Tea House. All in all, it’s a tranquil space a world away from the incessant buzz of downtown Tokyo.
A “heartening” sight on the main lawn.
If there is only one temple you’ll visit in Tokyo, it must be Sensō-ji. An ancient Buddhist temple and the oldest temple in Tokyo, it is also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple and is dedicated to the goddess of mercy.
The imposing entrance to Sensō-ji with its eye-catching big red lantern…
As we approached from the street, the temple beckoned to us with its massive red lantern weighing some 700 kg at the Thunder Gate. After walking through it, Nakamise-dori presented itself – a 250 m stretch of small shops selling traditional snacks and souvenirs. With about 90 shops in all, we nearly got lost in the kaleidoscope of merchandise before we even reached the temple proper.
And the Nakamise-dori with an eye-boggling array of goods just beyond it.
Fortunately, we did make it to the Treasure House Gate and were rewarded with the view of the impressive five-storey pagoda and the stately main hall beyond it. We left just before sunset to head for dinner, but if time allows, stay past daylight and watch the temple light up in brilliant splendour.
The Treasure House Gate at the end of Nakamise-dori leading into the temple’s inner complex.
While we didn’t visit the Tokyo Tower, its presence could be felt and seen all over Tokyo. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower’s design, it stands 333 m tall (that’s 13 m taller than the Eiffel Tower) and is the second tallest structure in Japan after the Tokyo Skytree.
The beacon of light that is Tokyo Tower as seen from Roppongi Hills.
Roppongi Hills, on the other hand, had a fairly more upscale feel compared to the likes of Shinjuku and Shibuya. Its centrepiece is the 54-storey Mori Tower, which houses various shopping, dining and entertainment options. This is also where you’ll find the Mori Art Museum and the Tokyo City View observatory where you can catch panoramic views of the city, including the Tokyo Tower.
If you don’t feel like paying the entrance fee for the Tokyo City View like us, head over to the free option at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku instead, though you won’t get to see the Tokyo Tower from there.
The panoramic city views from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan
Government Building observatory.
Shinjuku may be the administrative centre of Tokyo but it is also a shopping haven with many of my favourite Japanese department stores, such as Isetan and Takashimaya. And with them conveniently located within the vicinity of the train station, we didn’t have to walk far.
Tall buildings surrounded us right out of the Shinjuku station exit.
We also found some quieter corners in Shinjuku, like at the Hanazono-jinja. A Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of fertility and worldly success, Inari, many businessmen come here to pray for successful business ventures.
The facade of the Hanazono-jinja in Shinjuku…
And its tranquil grounds for a bit of respite in busy Tokyo.
We visited Harajuku as well, or rather, tried to visit. As soon as we exited the train station, there was a mass of people on either side of the road leading into Takeshita Street, the main thoroughfare of Harajuku and the shopping mecca of Japanese teens.
Right from the Harajuku station exit, the whole place was packed with people.
Entering the street was a challenge. It was so packed full of people one might think a festival or fun fair was happening. At about 10 m in, we decided to abort the mission and make an about turn. We reckoned that even if we did make it in, the crowds would make navigating the shops next to impossible and getting out would be another challenge.
A sea of heads was all we saw of Takeshita Street in Harajuku.
Lucky for us, Harajuku isn’t the only shopping option in Shibuya; there’s plenty of it around Shibuya Station as well. And then there’s the Shibuya Crossing, which we crossed back and forth just for the fun of it. A product of housing two of the busiest railway stations in the world, the Shibuya Crossing has the reputation of being the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Every 2 minutes, cars stop in all directions and it is said that up to 3,000 people scramble across this junction each time. Have your eyes on your destination as you cross, or you might get lost in the scramble.
Shibuya Crossing is another place that is full of people. At least it’s not as claustrophobic here.
Food, glorious food!
While there is no lack of quality restaurants in Tokyo, one particular restaurant stands out with its “Ramen Focus Booth” dining concept. Yes, I’m talking about Ichiran, the famous ramen shop. According to its website, the Ramen Focus Booths allow customers to focus on the flavours and textures of the ramen and concentrate on purely enjoying the ramen in a relaxed manner free of unnecessary distractions.
My dining booth and delicious ramen at Ichiran.
Don’t be surprised if you don’t see/talk with another human being throughout the entire meal (that’s the whole idea actually). We first made our ramen selection and paid for it at a vending machine. Then, we selected a booth and filled out an order form to customise our ramen. Once the food was served, the kitchen staff lowered the blinds to cover the serving slot and left us to eat in peace. It is not only perfect for days when you crave a good ramen, but also for days when you don’t feel like interacting with another fellow human being or making aimless small talk.
Another place we didn’t make it to (this time we couldn’t get past the sleep monster) was the Tsukiji Market, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. By the time we arrived there at 8am, the tuna auctions were already a done deal and queues were already forming at the surrounding sushi restaurants.
The wholesale market has since moved to Toyosu Market in 2018, but the outer retail market and surrounding restaurants at Tsukiji are still in business. You could watch the chef slice up the tuna in front of you or get a taste of the catch of the day; this is the best place to come if you are looking for the freshest seafood. With some 460 shops selling everything from snacks, dried goods to kitchenware, you might find yourself staying for lunch too. Evidently, I was too busy shopping and eating to reach for my camera, which explains the lack of photos.
There’s plenty more to see in Tokyo itself and I’ve barely scratched the surface with this article. But there are also gems to be found outside of Tokyo. To find out where I went, stay tuned for the next article.