It’s huge, it can jangle your nerves and it tends to be expensive, but for an experience that feeds all of your senses and leaves you wanting more, go to Tokyo and go now, before the construction insanity gets even worse as the city ramps up to host the 2020 Olympics.
It is not an “easy” destination….that’s not to scare you off, but so you’ll know that standing around feeling like a complete idiot (and usually a lost idiot who can’t determine north from south) is TOTALLY normal for a visitor to Tokyo. The good news is that the transportation system is superb and you can get anywhere you need to go via prompt, clean trains and buses. You’ll never be thirsty, either, thanks to those well-stocked drink vending machines on every corner.
Here is what I recommend for a first-timer’s trip:
1) The Asakusa neighborhood and a stroll up Nakamise Dori to the Sensō-ji (Kannon) Temple. Some sections of Tokyo feel “glass-and-brass” generic to me, but Asakusa (pronounced a-SAK-sa) is still human-scaled and very Japanese. Ogle the giant Kaminarimon “Thunder Gate” red lantern at the entrance, then wander in and out of the little souvenir shops that line Nakamise Dori (street.) Don’t be alarmed at the proprietors shouting “Irrasemase!!” when you walk in; they are just saying “Welcome.”
Step up to the cauldron in front of the temple….the smoke is supposed to help cure what ails you, so waft some towards your face (to make you pretty) and rub the smoke on your head (to make you smart.) It hasn’t worked yet for me, but I’m ever the optimist.
Close by the temple is Kappabashi Dori, THE place to buy cool plastic restaurant window display food if you’re into that (you are, aren’t you?)
2) Sumida River boat ride to Odaiba. After your time in Asakusa, walk over to the Sumida River by the Azuma Bridge to pick up a Suijo-Bus boat; the swoopy silver futuristic-looking craft will take you for a ride down the Sumida to the riverfront entertainment and shopping complex at Odaiba, which is quite a contrast to Asakusa.
There are restaurants, video arcades like none you’ve ever seen, tons of shopping, lots of manga-related places and every Gundam reference you can imagine.
By the time you’re ready to leave Odaiba it’s probably night, so for some great views hop on the Yurikamome unmanned monorail. It will take you from Odaiba across the Sumida under a dazzlingly bright Rainbow Bridge, ending with some Blade Runner-ish scenery as you are deposited at the Shiodome subway station.
3) Shibuya. If you’ve seen photos or video of an insanely busy intersection with mobbed crosswalks packed with surging pedestrians, you’ve probably seen Shibuya. It’s a madhouse and it never gets old to watch it.
The buildings around the intersection have restaurants, manga-kissa, coffee shops and stores on every floor going way up, so for the best elevated photos and views go into one of them and see if you can squeeze into a window seat. Afterwards, take our Brain Spencer’s recommendation and enjoy some stand-up sushi nearby.
4) Edo-Tokyo Museum. Want to know what it was like in shitamachi (old) Tokyo, centuries ago? Go to this museum, built to resemble an elevated kurazukuri warehouse of the Edo period.
Magnificent displays, tons of interesting details; it took me a lot longer to absorb it than I’d expected. There is a nearby open-air Japanese architecture branch of the museum as well.
5) Experience both a Japanese department store food court and a meal under the train tracks. The major swank stores have extraordinary basement food courts called depachika with Whole Foods-worthy displays of produce, meats, breads and sweets, so stop into one of them: Mitsukoshi, Isetan, Daimaru, Takashimaya and Matsuya are five of the best-known.
For a more downscale but still yummy meal, head for Yakitori Alley where enterprising food stalls sell every kind of food-on-a-stick, plus plenty of beer and atmosphere under the same tracks that carry the elegant Shinkansen bullet trains.
6) Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. You can visit the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo’s western suburb of Mitaka to see a spectacular facility dedicated to the wonderful art of Miyazaki’s hand-drawn animation.
Opened in 2001, it gives you a peek into the mind of the reclusive Academy Award-winning artist.
Miyazaki calls it “the kind of museum I want to make….a building put together as if it were a film.”
In addition to the imaginative, playful storybook architecture of the building itself, there’s a theater with Museum-exclusive short Miyazaki films (in Japanese but I assure you, it doesn’t matter) exhibits and displays about art and animation, the Straw Hat cafe, a toddler playroom with a giant plush Catbus to jump on and the “Mamma Aiuto” gift shop that requires sumo training to handle the large, polite but persistent crowds.
Admission is by dated, timed tickets, so if you’re in Japan, order them at any Lawson’s (a Japanese convenience store similar to 7-Eleven.) You can also purchase them from travel agents; this page on the Ghibli site explains ticket purchasing.
7) Yokohama’s Raumen (Ramen) Museum. Escape to seaside Yokohama, an easy 30- to 40-minute train ride south of Tokyo. There’s the nice walkable Minato Mirai waterfront with its Cosmoworld amusement park, and shopping in Landmark Tower or (to me, at least) the more interesting Akarenga Red Brick Warehouse. Yokohama also has the largest Chinatown in Japan.
Best of all, though, is the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.
Once you pay a small fee to enter, you are transported back to 1958 Tokyo (the year the first instant ramen was invented) right down to the advertising signs, street performers, little toy and sweet shops and nine different actual ramen restaurants, each serving different styles of the warm, brothy noodle bowl, at very reasonable prices.
Some of the museum street performers tell Japanese adventure tales to children using special painted story-boards. Watch their technique of building up to an exciting point in the story and then quickly showing a new picture: this is one of the cultural foundations of today’s anime styles.
The gift shop has noodle-related knick-knacks including Naruto, who is a very popular manga character; his name comes from the traditional small decorative egg item with a swirl that is placed on top of bowls of ramen.
8) Meiji-jingu Shrine and Harajuku including Takeshita Dori. This Shinto shrine is very different from the Buddhist temple in Asakusa – less frenetic, very calming – partly because its lovely green wooded setting next to Yoyogi Koen Park makes you forget that you’re in one of the most crowded cities in the world.
Running into the hordes of kids and costumed cosplay people in the nearby hip Harajuku neighborhood is a delicious contrast to the decorum of the shrine.
What did I miss and what would you recommend for a first visit to Tokyo? The comments are open!
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