In the neighbourhood of Harajuku, a woman wearing cat ears pulls a grilled cheese sandwich apart—the cheese spreads like a coloured rainbow. Everywhere you look is colour–mounds of rainbow candy floss on a stick, women dressed in gothic Lolita fashion, or cyberpunk characters posing for photographs, the popular Japanese role-playing video game. Each store front reveals cute and adorable items: fuzzy handbags. Hello Kitty.
Not far away, in the nearby neighbourhood of Jizo, the Kishimojin temple is surrounded by ginkgo trees, some more than 600 years old, that turn a brilliant yellow in the fall. Built in the late 16th century, the temple was home to a deity who used to eat babies before the Buddha hid her child, transforming her into the goddess of children.
Tokyo is a city of contrasts; nowhere else on the planet will you see such extremes of the ancient and modern coexisting. With many distinct neighbourhoods, it’s dizzying trying to do it all.
Instead, a logical place to begin is at the centre of the entire country. The Nihonbashi bridge is the point from which all distances in the country are measured.
The original bridge dates to 1603, when Tokyo was called Edo, renamed Tokyo when the shogunate era ended in 1868. As the city is known for reinventing itself, the bridge was eventually rebuilt to accommodate street cars. Later, in 1945, the area around the bridge was destroyed in the single largest air raid bombing in history.
Called Shitamachi, this area is the former downtown of Tokyo back when the shogun dynasty ruled the city. Today, the nearby neighbourhoods of Asakusa and Ueno have some of the most vibrant and energetic areas adjacent to tranquil and harmonious spaces.
The Ueno Park, known for its spring cherry blossoms (hanami means enjoying the beauty of flowers, notably the cherry blossoms), is a quiet reprieve after a night of walking through Ueno’s network of narrow and crowded alleys and traditional izakaya bars—which are recognizable by two linen cloths hanging at the entrance. In the park, my favourite place for contemplation was Shinobazu Pond on the southern tip; sitting on a bench, I found it easy to daydream watching the elegant pink lotus flowers and swans.
Just a little east of Ueno, Asakusa was an entertainment district during the Edo period; today, it has one of the city’s oldest, and most visited places: the Senso-ji (Buddhist temple) with its nearby massive five storey pagoda, and awe- inspiring red finishes, the temple was originally built in 628 and then rebuilt after WWII. From the steps of the temple, Nakamise Shopping Street is chock full of souvenir and noodle shops. I still regret not buying the coolest souvenir: a sukajan jacket is an American style satin bomber jacket with Japanese embroidery on the back – a dragon, Tiger or even cherry blossoms are some favourites.
It’s a short ride to one of the city’s highest towers: the Mori Tower is the centrepiece of Roppongi Hills in the district of Minato. At 238 meters, the observation deck has a gorgeous panoramic view of skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. The tower itself is full of offices, restaurants, shops and even a museum.
The Mori Art Museum is one of the city’s most fascinating contemporary art museums. When I visited, Japanese performance and installation artist Chiharu Shiota’s work was featured, questioning identity, boundaries, and existence.
In a room the size of a school gymnasium, the ceiling was coated in a red spider web. It took 10 people three days to create the installation called Uncertain Journey. The thousands of knots are meant to reveal the turns of life—it’s one of the coolest things I have ever seen. At least I thought so until I went to Harajuku.
The Harajuku neighbourhood is a dream for fashion-seeking millennials and travellers looking for the unusual. A tour from a local is a good idea to get a sense of the coolness: you want cat ears and whiskers? Stores sell digitally-enhanced pictures that can make you look like your cat. What about a place to squish a bin of plastic toast? The store Moosh offers customers the chance to ‘squeeze’ away their stress.
Takeshita Street is also cool for trendy vintage clothing stores including rock and roll paraphernalia, showcasing Japan’s love for anything Beatles related.
Today, Tokyoites on the move love to stop for a bowl of steaming noodles at a Tachigui, a stand-up-and-eat place near train stations. Or, for a quick nibble, the ubiquitous 7/11 stores sell everything from sushi, mochi (gelatinous rice patties filled with sweet red bean paste) to onigiri, a triangle of sticky rice with a variety of fillings, including salmon or beef.
If you want to slow down and absorb the history of the city, Izuei Honten has served traditional eel, kabayaki, for 300 years through the great Kanto Earthquake, the Pacific War, and the Great East Japan Earthquake. The hut was built during the reign of the Shogun Yoshimune. Seated on the floor, zashiki style, is an intimate way to enjoy the immaculately prepared charcoal grilled eel dipped in soy sauce and traditional sushi. But, like everything, Japanese cuisine is also open to reinvention.
Some helpful tips
- A unique way to see the neighbourhoods is on a bike—there are rentals on the street, or you can go on a tour. The roads are flat and well paved.
- Accommodation options are in abundance. Tokyo has everything from the modern brand name hotels to economical and vibrant pod hotels (similar to a sleeping cubicle). But, for a real Japanese experience, there is nothing like sleeping on a tatami-matted floor.
- Suggestion: In the quiet neighbourhood of Yanaka, Ryokan Sawanoya has the dreamiest earthenware baths and live lion dance performances. Ryokan inns flourished in the 17th century as a place for tired traders and samurai to stay on the road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto’s Imperial Palace.
Explore the magic of Tokyo:
Read more about where to go and what to do in Japan:
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On Our Radar: Artisanal Gin From Japan’s Setouchi Region
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