Tokyo: Ancient Culture, Modern Wonders

FROM TIMELESS TEMPLES AND MODERN TOWERS TO BENTO BOXES AND BULLET TRAINS, TOKYO BLENDS ANCIENT TRADITIONS WITH MODERN INNOVATION. 

Bernard O’Riordan

In the shadows of Tokyo Sky Tree – the world’s tallest tower and one of Tokyo’s biggest tourist attractions – sits one of the city’s oldest and most revered Buddhist temples, Sensō-ji.

Visiting the temple in the shitamachi (old downtown area) of Asakusa is a crash course in the traditions of the ancient Edo period. It’s also one of the few places in Tokyo where you can still see Geisha in Kimonos with their traditional white make-up.

But peer through the smoke coming from a massive incense cauldron and you’ll catch a glimpse of Tokyo Sky Tree – a modern monolith that hovers high over the city.

It’s an instant reminder of Tokyo’s ability to balance its imperial past with its j-pop present.

That’s the thing about this megalopolis. Throughout the city you’ll find ancient temples, shrines and other historic structures wedged between 7-Elevens and skyscrapers.

You’ll see ryokans and traditional teahouses nestled alongside capsule hotels and robot cafés. And when it comes to fashion, it’s the home of the flashy and outrageous as much as it is the traditional elegance.

But what would you expect of the most populous metropolitan area in the world? It’s a city that is home to 13.5 million people, with another nine million living in its outer suburbs.

The city is also evolving in a broader sense as it prepares to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 summer Olympics. Dozens of major urban developments – including hotels and sports complexes and 45 new skyscrapers – will transform the skyline over the next three years.

For many westerners, there’ll never be a better time to visit the Japanese capital than right now. While it might not be the cheapest destination, it is definitely one of the cleanest, orderly and most courteous places you’ll visit.

You could easily spend a week exploring Tokyo and still only scratch the surface. But if time is short, two or three days will give you a feel for the city.

If you’re after the sensory assault of modern Tokyo, head to Takeshita Street to mingle with gaggles of giggling schoolgirls; throw yourself into the thick of things at the Shibuya Crossing; get a bird’s eye view of the city from Tokyo Sky Tree or indulge in the celebrated national pastime – karaoke – at some of Tokyo’s tiniest drinking dens in Shinjuku.

For those with more of a cultural curiosity, you could visit Tokyo’s most famous landmark, the Imperial Palace and East Garden; Tokyo’s largest ancient Buddhist temple Senso-ji; the Meiji Shrine which is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken; and sacred Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain.

The Tokyo National Museum, within Ueno Park at Taito-ku, is also worth a visit. It offers a unique insight on Japanese samurai swords and battles from the eighth century, pottery from 3000BC and scrolls so delicately preserved you can see fingerprints.

If you’re a first-time visitor, it’s worth noting that good English is generally spoken only at topline hotels and popular tourist attractions.

You will have no problems navigating the Metro train network or shopping in areas like Asakusa, but beyond that you will need to have some patience. That’s the beauty of the pick and point menus in most Japanese restaurants.

One of the most luxurious – and convenient – places to stay is the Shiodome area, previously a down-at-heel dockyard, but rebuilt in 2002. It’s now home to brand new hotels like the Royal Park Hotel, The Shiodome, as well as office towers and shopping malls.

The great thing about this area is that it’s connected by an underground walkway to the Metro railway station, and includes restaurants, coffee shops, gift stores and a couple of western-style supermarkets.

It’s also a short walk to some truly incredible restaurants at Shimbashi, next to the Metro station. Be sure to pick up a Suica travel cardat a Metro station too – it will take the hassle out of trying to buy a train ticket from a vending machine each day.

Here’s a list of sights you must experience at least once on a visit to Tokyo.

Mount Fuji and Lake Ashi

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Catching a glimpse of the snow-capped peak of Japan’s highest mountain must surely be at the top of any visitor’s wish list. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji from central Tokyo (most notably from Sky Tree), but there’s nothing like getting up close and personal.

Around 300,000 tourists scale Japan’s national symbol every year – and the easiest way to get there is by joining a guided tour.

Most day tours to Fujisan (as the locals call it) collect you from your hotel and include a traditional lunch and a short boat cruise on Lake Ashi. Then you take an aerial tram ride to the top of Mt Komagatake, Mount Fuji’s 5th Station, located at 7,545 feet (2,300m) or halfway up the mountain.

Be sure that the tour you choose includes the option of return trip to Tokyo on the Shinkansen, or bullet train. It’s quite the experience.

Traditionally, the climbing season in July and August is said to be one of the best times to visit. Personally, I prefer the cherry blossom spring months of April and May, when visibility is decent. Although I’ve also visited in February when it was snowing, and still managed to get up close.

Imperial Palace, Chiyoda

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Tokyo Imperial Palace is located on the former site of Edo Castle, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the heart of Tokyo, a short walk from Tokyo Station.

It is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan, and so most of the 3.4 sq km complex is off-limits to the public.

The Imperial Palace East Gardens (Kōkyo Higashi Gyoen) are a part of the inner palace area and are open to the public. They are the former site of Edo Castle’s innermost circles of defense, the honmaru (“main circle”) and ninomaru (“secondary circle”).

You can see the old remnants of where the Edo Castle once stood, old samurai guardhouses, beautifully manicured Japanese gardens and exhibits of Imperial treasures.

Free guided tours are held twice a day from Tuesday to Saturday. And now visitors can register for the tours on the same day that they visit – previously you had to book a month in advance.

To register go to the Kikyomon Gate of the Imperial Palace, near Tokyo Station.

Tokyo Sky Tree, Sumida

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If you want to gaze over Tokyo’s mind-boggling urban sprawl and even catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji on a clear day, then head for Tokyo Sky Tree.

At 634 metres high, Tokyo Sky Tree is now the world’s second tallest structure (and the world’s tallest free-standing broadcasting tower).

Since opening in May 2012, it has also become one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.

There are two observation decks – the lower one at 350m high has shops, cafes and a restaurant, while the upper observatory at 450m has an outer walkway surrounded by glass. There’s also an aquarium and theatre inside the tower.

Shibuya Crossing

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Most of us have probably always had a stereotypical view of what Tokyo is like, and it’s all thanks to the world-famous Shibuya Crossing.

Shibuya Crossing is the busiest intersection in the world with around two million people using the crossing every day.Screenshot at Jun 08 13-41-02

It has featured in movies and television shows. And this heaving, weaving mass of humanity is also one of the most upload images on social media, so it’s worth visiting just for the photo opportunity.

With huge screens blasting out advertisements on buildings all around them, pedestrians here cross in every direction, including diagonally, all at the same time

If you’re interested in fashion, head to nearby Shibuya 109, a big shiny mall with more than 100 boutiques.

Shibuya is also the epicentre of one of Tokyo’s most popular crazes – cat cafes. A cat cafe is just a space people can go to have a coffee and a cuddle (and sometimes even adopt a feline).

You’ll find an array of small cafes in Shibuya (usually hidden away in high rise building) where cats roam free, climbing over lounges and under tables.

One of the more fashionable cat cafes is Mocha. It costs 200 yen for every 10 minutes you are there, while bar drinks cost around 350 yen.

Ueno Park, Taito-ku 

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Ueno Park is one of Tokyo’s most significant cultural precincts. Spread over more than 120 hectares, it’s home to museums, temples, shrines, natural attractions, important institutions and several of Japan’s top schools.

Among its most popular attractions are the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science and Ueno Zoo – Japan’s oldest zoo which opened in 1882.

There are four spectacular shrines or temples at Ueno Park including Kaneiji Temple, Kiyomizu Kannon Temple, Toshogu Shrine and Bentendo Temple. They are beautifully decorated, well-kept, and there is always someone there paying their respects to the shrine.

Down the hill from Ueno Park is JR Ueno Station where the surrounding streets are packed with wine bars, restaurants and cafes.

Alongside the elevated railway line you’ll also find Ameya Yokocho Market, one of the world’s great open-air markets with around 500 market stalls and noodle bars.

Cherry Blossom, Ueno Park

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Late March and early April is cherry blossom (sakura) season in Tokyo and it’s possibly the best time to visit. For about three weeks, the city floats on a cloud of pink-and-white flowers.

Cherry blossom, is afterall, the country’s national flower and is considered a symbol of renewal and hope.

More than three million people visit Japan each year for a glimpse of the cherry blossoms in full bloom. It’s also the time of year when people get together to sit in parks for hanami, or flower viewing.

One of the best places to see cherry blossoms is Ueno Park, which has around 1,000 trees. However, it does attract tens of thousands of people over the three-week period, so prepare for it to be crowded.

Other spots in central Tokyo to admire the cherry blossoms are Shinjuku Gyoen, a 10-minute walk from Shinjuku Station; Kitanomaru Park, part of the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace; Yoyogi Park, a five-minute walk from Harajuku Station; and Sumida Park, near Asakusa Station.

Unlike the nation’s famed public transport system, the cherry blossoms are not as punctual as tourists might like. Some years they arrive early thanks to warm weather; other years, chillier temperatures make them late or downpours bring an early demise.

According to the nation’s revered cherry blossom prophets (aka the sakura forecasters at Weather Map sakura.weathermap.jp), the first bloom of 2018 is due to arrive around March 26 in Tokyo.

Senso-ji, Asakusa

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Senso-ji, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, is one of the most famous sightseeing spots in Tokyo. The temple was founded around 645 AD and enshrines a golden image of kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy).

Legend has it that two brothers fished a statue of Kannon out of the Sumida River. Even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. As a result, Senso-ji was built nearby for the goddess.

Visitors first approach the temple through the Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate. You’ll notice gigantic deities sit on either side of the gate – Fujin-sama (the god of wind) and Raijin-sama (the god of thunder and lightning).

You then walk down a shopping street called Nakamise, a street that is itself centuries old, before arriving at the second gate, the Hozomon.

Close to the main temple there’s a large incense cauldron (pictured above). It is custom for visitors to rub the smoke into their bodies through their clothes to bring good health.

Many Buddhist and Shinto followers, before entering the Main Hall, will purchase a bundle of incense that they light and then extinguish by waving it in the air. It is then placed in the main burner and they wave the incense smoke over their body to symbolise healing.Screenshot at Jun 09 07-58-56

Another purification process you’ll notice at Senso-ji is the water cleansing. To the right side of the Main Hall is a fountain of water where followers rinse their hands and mouth with the pure water to symbolise cleansing.

You’ll also see people buying O-mikuji – random fortunes written on strips of paper. One omikuji (pictured right) at Senso-ji costs 100 yen.

The main attraction, the Five Story Pagoda (Guju-no-To), is said to contain some of the ashes of Buddha. It’s 53 metres high and is especially picturesque at night when all lit up. From here you can also see Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance.

It’s worth mentioning that the pagoda is currently being renovated and is expected to be covered in scaffolding until at least September 2017. But it is still open for visitors.

Golden Gai, Shinjuku

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Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district is perhaps Tokyo’s coolest bar precinct. It’s a hugely atmospheric warren of narrow alleyways packed with around 200 tiny drinking dens.

The ramshackle bars here are truly shoebox size with many only capable of fitting five customers at a time. Others can take up to 30 people.

Some bars will turn you away straight away, preferring to save their limited seating for regulars. But don’t be put off. The best thing to do is walk in, smile politely and see what reaction you get. It’s really pot luck.

Each bar and eatery has its own unique concept and theme from the quirky to the downright odd. There’s a place called 8-Bit Café, where customers play old Nintendo and Sega games  while consuming drinks.

Further along you’ll find Bar Plastic Model, a tiny bar with small plastic toys from Japan’s early-80s boom. Have a look at this Youtube clip to get a better feel for Golden Gai.

Chuo Dori, Ginza

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If you’re in the market for designer brands, luxury goods or well-known fashion labels, Ginza is the place for you.

It’s really Japan’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue and is home to international brands like Giorgio Armani and Tiffany as well as Uniqlo and H&M.

You’ll also find Japan’s oldest surviving department store chain, Ginza Mitsukoshi, which was founded in 1673. It sells everything from women’s wear and men’s fashion to toys and food. There are also restaurants on the 11th and 12th floors.

My favourite time to visit Chuo Dori, Ginza’s main shopping street, is weekend afternoons when the road is closed to traffic and pedestrians take over.

From October to March its open to pedestrians only between midday and 5pm while from April to September it’s car-free until 6pm.

When the department stores close and the shoppers go home, the area takes on a second life as an entertainment and theatre district. The side streets and alley ways have plenty of quiet dining bars, fine restaurants and remarkable cafes.

Takeshita Street, Harajuku

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One of the most popular places to visit in Tokyo has to be Harajuku, the shopping street synonymous with some of the most outrageous styles in the fashion world today.

The heart of Harajuku is Takeshita Dori, a narrow street containing Japanese teen-style clothes, crepe stands and a 100-yen shop (similar to a dollar shop).

It’s also where you’ll find Lolitas: a fashion sub-culture that The New York Times once described as “a cross between Alice In Wonderland and the Addams Family”. And that pretty much sums it up.

With their dramatic eyelashes, makeup and wigs, Lolitas are girls who typically dress up in wacky Victorian-style dresses (or alternatively Goth) just for the attention.

On Takeshita Dori you can buy everything from earrings and jewellery, boots and t-shirts.  There are dozens of themed shops, including one that sells every kind of wig imaginable.

For a more grown-up experience, be sure to also check out nearby Brahms Lane, a quiet strip just around the corner that’s a world apart from Takeshita Dori.

It’s often described as a secret lane, probably because it’s so easy to miss. With a European feel, it’s home to some trendy cafes and upscale boutiques.

Tsukiji Fish Market > Toyosu Fish Market 

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The 83-year-old Tsukiji Fish Market – the world’s largest wholesale seafood market – closed on October 6, 2018, and has moved to a gleaming new location at Toyosu, about 2km away.

The charming old fish market was one of Tokyo’s top tourist attractions, especially for those craving a fresh sushi breakfast or keen to catch Tokyo’s famed early morning tuna auction.

The new fish market, close to Shijomae Station on the Yurikamome Line, will take some getting used to, but there are already noticeable differences. It’s a lot cleaner and more efficient for one.

But sadly, the wholesale areas are now off-limits to visitors and can only be observed through a large glass window. The new site also lacks the dining options of the old site.

We are assured there are plans to introduce restaurants, shopping and a rooftop garden over the next few years.

Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

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The Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed bullet train, is not just a mode of transport – it’s an experience in itself. And the good news is: you can ride the bullet train without even leaving Tokyo.

Simply take the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Odawara, the gateway to Mount Fuji. I actually find it’s easier to do the reverse trip – from Odawara Station to Tokyo Station after visiting Mount Fuji. Many organised day tours include this in the package.

It costs about 3,000 yen and takes less than 30 minutes, but it’s a truly memorable Japanese experience.

Mitsukoshi, Ginza

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I’ve never experienced department stores that prides themselves on good service quite like those in Tokyo. At exactly 10am, the doors at Mitsukoshi are flung open, and as you enter you are welcomed with a line of graceful bows.

It’s common across most department stores in Tokyo, including another favourite, Daimaru at Tokyo Station. If only we were treated like that every time we shopped at home.

Mitsukoshi – Japan’s first department store – is connected to Ginza Station and is home to some of the world’s finest foods and fashions.

The ground floor (depachika), as with most department stores here, is a culinary wonderland of fresh produce and speciality sweets while the top two floors are home to elegant fine dining restaurants.

If you need a translation service, head to the 2nd floor of Mitsukoshi’s Annex building and look for the Foreign Customer Service Counter.

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Updated October 2018 to reflect closure of Tsukiji Fish Market.

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