T is for Tokyo (Part One)

It’s time for something a little bit different here on the A-Z of Japan. As frequent readers know I tend to look at Japan a little bit more in-depth than the average tourism guide.  For today’s T, though, we come to Tokyo. Such a megapolis cannot be covered in one post, hence the ‘Part One’, so to kick off let’s start off from a touristy standpoint. Next week, we go deeper…

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They always say that Tokyo is a city of juxtaposition, where contradictions rub shoulders on a daily basis. And they’re right: step off of the neon-lined main streets and you’ll find yourself in quiet suburbs specked with tiny shrines in moments. This supercity of millions points bravely towards a space-age future yet fails utterly to provide even a whiff of wi-fi.

But it also confounds the visitor in unexpected ways, too. What IS Tokyo, exactly? Where is the centre where all of the tourist sites are clustered? Well, that’s where attempts to equate Tokyo to other world cities fail. Tokyo isn’t a singular city: rather, think of it as six or so mini-cities joined together in a circle by the Yamanote Line (not even this is technically Tokyo, either, but more on that next time). Those six ‘cities’ are: Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, Shinagawa, and Tokyo proper. A solid case can be made for Tokyo station  being the most boring of the six, really: you have the European-style facade of the train station (which won’t do much for you if you’re, well, European), the posh Marunouchi shopping mall, and that’s pretty much it. You might pass through Tokyo station to catch a Shinkansen bullet train, but trust me: you aren’t missing much if you don’t alight here.

Let’s go around the Yamanote note clockwise from Tokyo. Before we arrive in Shinagawa, take note of Yurakucho station. This is the jumping point for Ginza, Tokyo’s very own Oxford Street/5th Avenue and a mecca for Tokyo’s more refined shopaholics. We also pass Shinbashi, the watering hole for many an exhausted Japanese office worker. The savvy revelers head to Shinbashi on the weekends when it is quiet and there are special offers to entice you in to establishments.

Next up is Shinagawa. Aside from the fun aquarium there isn’t much in the way of attractions here, though there is a solid chance that your hotel will be here, and thus there’s a wealth of restaurant and nightlife options here.

Things really start getting interesting as you come around the bottom of the Yamanote line and head up the west side of Tokyo. Ebisu is a charming area with the beer gardens of the titular brewing company, but party-mode really kicks into full gear at Shibuya. The sight of the Shibuya scramble crossing surrounded by flashy signs and shops perched high on towers is one of the most ubiquitous images of Tokyo: visiting here at night is a must.

Sandwiched between Shibuya and Shinjuku is Harajuku. The name alone is a byword for outrageous fashion, and you’ll certainly see plenty of it here as you step out of the ticket gates and stare down Takeshiba Dori, but even if that’s not your thing you’ll still want to stop by Harajuku anyway to visit Meiji Jingu, Tokyo’s biggest and most important shrine.

Shinjuku is even more supercharged and overwhelming on the senses than Shibuya, if that were possible. If Tokyo were to have an entertainment and pleasure hub, it would be a battle between Shibuya and Shinjuku that I feel Shinjuku would just about win. Indeed, you may recognize some of the sights of Shinjuku as quintessential modern Tokyo, particularly around the Kabukicho and Golden Gai areas. You’ll especially want to come to Shinjuku to see the verdant gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen and to scale the free observation deck of the government towers in West Shinjuku.

Next up is Ikebukuro. Ikebukuro is often the butt of jokes for many Tokyoites, but the simple fact of the matter is that Ikebukuro offers up just as many eating, drinking and shopping options as anywhere else while being less crowded. It may not have any sights to speak of but Ikebukuro is a perfect place to visit if you just want to soak up modern Tokyo while still being able to find a chair at a cafe afterwards.

The next hub brings us back to Tokyo’s east side: Ueno. You’re going to want to stop here for Ueno Park and the famous zoo, but don’t forget to take a wander down Ameyoko-cho, the rough-and-ready marketplace that is perfect for scouting out souvenirs and bargains.

Ueno is also the staging post for accessing what is arguably Tokyo’s two most famed attractions: Senso-ji temple and the Tokyo Sky Tree. Senso-ji a must see: the temple is a vast sprawling complex and is a fine way to get your first taste of temples in Japan no matter how crowded it can be. Be sure to step away from the main street at some point: the maze of backstreets are equally fascinating. Tokyo Sky Tree, visible from nearly anywhere in Tokyo, cuts a fine skyline if you view it from the Sumidagawa riverside, and it’s well worth heading over to check out the vast shopping complex at its feet as well as scaling the Sky Tree itself for Tokyo’s best views.

This brings us full circle on the Yamanote line, but by now you’re probably wondering what exactly lies at the heart of this circle. A glance at a map of Tokyo provides a clue: a vast green spot in the heart of the city houses the Emperor’s Palace. As exciting as it sounds, you can skip this: the green grounds are pleasant enough but nothing special, and the palace itself is out of bounds, only viewable by peeking over the wall from the moat. Check out the neighbouring Yasukuni Shrine instead: the controversial shrine is forever making headlines for what it stands for (in honor of the war dead), but you needn’t worry about that: it is a beautiful shrine with verdant Japanese-style gardens at the back.

Tokyo Tower, the Eiffel Tower mock-up, is something of a retro symbol for Tokyo. You’re getting the best of the tower by just looking at it: there’s no real need to venture to Tokyo Tower unless you want another viewpoint aside from the Government Towers.

Let’s wrap up with one of the most overlooked neighbourhoods of Tokyo:  A short but fun monorail journey from Shinbashi takes you over the wonderfully named Rainbow Bridge to this manmade island. Odaiba is dedicated to all things leisure, from the vast shopping malls to the sweeping boulevards to the beaches. Yes, beaches: it’s quite the experience to sink your feet in sand while looking over the bay to a megapolis skyline.

We are far from done with Tokyo. Next week, we go deeper…

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