As I think my last post made clear, there is an overwhelming number of things to see, do (and of course eat) in Tokyo. But answer me this: when I tell you to conjure up an image of Paris, what’s the first thing you imagine? How about London? New York? Sydney? There’s a good chance you thought of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Times Square and the Opera House respectively. Now, how about Tokyo? Not so easy, is it? My point is that Tokyo as a world city is unique for not having a singular image that is powerful enough to represent it. Perhaps in time the Sky Tree could come to represent that, but having only been completed in 2011 it’s going to take time.
For the average tourist, this means taking in the sights of Tokyo is a unique experience. Tokyo isn’t littered with famous historical sites at every turn that can all be reached within walking distance of one another – the unique mini-city nature of Tokyo as well as the fire bombing of the city in World War Two saw to that – and despite the packed list of last week, I’m confident that one could comfortably see all of the most important sites within two days, with plenty of spare time for shopping. Kyoto’s the place to go if you really want to be immersed in the cultural and historical heart of Japan.
What Tokyo really represents to the tourist is an opportunity to really throw themselves into the urban scramble of the biggest megapolis in the world. As scary as it might seem, simply taking a walk around a neighborhood of Tokyo – both a neon-embossed district and a quiet suburb of backstreets – is a truly enrichening experience, with the reassurance that you’re in a famously safe country, and you’re never too far from a train station or convenience store. With a maps app on your phone you’ll be good to go. My recommendation would be to walk from one hub district to the other, for example from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku. Not only can you use the Yamanote line train tracks as a guide, but you will get a feel of Tokyo at its most frenetic and its most peaceful. And as always, experiencing this at day or night are two wildly different experiences, and both are well worth it.
But what truly surprises a lot of tourists comes back to that point of what Tokyo truly is. True, the area in and immediately around the Yamanote Line is Tokyo’s downtown, but the full range of Tokyo is so much more, stretching out west into what is known as ‘The 23 Wards of Tokyo’. Travel far enough westward on the Chuo Line out of Tokyo and in under an hour you will be in leafy mountains steeped in shrines, temples and hiking paths, all while remaining in Tokyo. The most recommended mountain climb is the most renowned, Takao-San (高尾山). At a gentle 599 metres, the peak affords excellent views of Mount Fuji with opportunities to hike deeper into the wilderness, such as on to Jimba San (陣馬山). It’s quite the feeling to be stomping across high ledges, peering down steep ravines and seeing nothing but nature in every direction and remind yourself that, yes, this Tokyo: a city which is almost a byword for urban.
Tokyo’s riches sent stocked up in tourist attractions as one might expect, but spread evenly across the city. You’re going to want to see as many of the places I listed in Part One as possible, sure, but Tokyo is a place where you simply cannot go wrong. Don’t underestimate the value of leaving the tourist guide behind along with any idea of a plan, and just heading out there and seeing where you end up.