Destination: Tokyo, Japan
THE quintessential eastern capital, Tokyo is overwhelming, and first-time visitors expecting an Asian version of New York City are in for a surprise. There’s a kind of commercial energy and enthusiasm here that you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s best to just surrender yourself to the smash high fashion, neon lights and pop culture that pervade the central districts.
Visitors are subject to the urge to do too much, but there’s a kind of sublime undercurrent in Tokyo for those who slow it down and absorb the entire scene in pieces. You’ll find Shinto down alleys behind your hotel; wood-block prints that hint at modern Manga; and, occasionally, a traditional wooden home stuck sideways into a side-street neighborhood.
A Day in the Life
It’s hard to do justice to this city of 12 million people in a single day. If you’re feeling ambitious, plan on getting up well before sunrise.
Tsukiji Fish Market is a good place to start, in part because it’s teeming with life long before the rest of Tokyo has started the daily commute. Daily auctions start at 04:30. After you’ve seen enough, sample the freshest sushi you’ve ever had at an onsite restaurant like Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai.
Later in the morning, you might embark on a Sumida River cruise or take a walk through the traditional neighborhoods of Nakamise Dori. Pick up a few inexpensive gifts at the pedestrian market and then walk on to Sensoji Temple. This 7th-century temple welcomes 20 million devotees each year.
From here, you’ll need to make use of Tokyo’s brilliant public transportation. You may visit the Imperial Palace or Meiji shrine, or skip the sightseeing altogether and head over to Ginza’s up-market shopping complexes.
Best of the Rest
Spend a few days in Tokyo, and the city really starts to open up. Part of the joy of living here is the occasional glimpse into traditional life. Begin this quest at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which follows the journey from 16th-century Edo to 21st-century Tokyo.
After a day or two in Tokyo, a lot of visitors like to explore the surrounding area by day, retiring to the dining and clubbing districts of downtown Tokyo after dark. Kamakura was capital of feudal Japan the 12th century, and its beaches, shrines and temples make for a great escape from the city.
Another solid daytrip destination is Mt Fuji, looming more than 3,700 meters over the cityscape. Visit Hakone National Park and do some hiking around Fuji, whether it’s a leisurely stroll in the lowlands or an ambitious hike to higher ground.
But you don’t have to scale Mt Fuji for sweeping panoramas of Tokyo. Tokyo Tower is 333 meters tall, and it operates two observation decks. Other buildings like the World Trade Centre have a similar setup.
Traditional Japanese bathhouses (sento) were once central to local communities. These days, private apartment units have their own baths, and community sentos have lost a little ground. If you have even the slightest interest in taking a traditional soak in a bathhouse, look around the community where you’re based, or ask the hotel staff. Some sentos separate genders, while a few allow mixed bathing. It’s supposed to be a soak, not a bath, so make sure you’re clean before getting in. You’re likely to need your own towel, too.
Hotels in Tokyo are secure and neat, and the majority offer spot-on service. The trade-off, if one exists, is size. The rooms are usually small, especially those that offer the most affordability. It is worth noting, however, that Tokyo is known for its downsize living spaces so hotel rooms do tend to be smaller than in other large cities.
Hotels in Tokyo are also universally new. You won’t find many historic inns housed in 16th-century houses, though it’s possible to book a room in an atmospheric hotel that at least carries on those old-world traditions. This kind of colloquial atmosphere is available in mid-range hotels throughout the central districts.
The cheapest hotels are in outlying districts and aren’t always convenient. In many cases, the money you save by taking yourself out of the city center isn’t worth the time (or added expense) of commuting to sightseeing districts every day.
First-time visitors are surprised to learn that ‘budget’ accommodation still costs a hundred dollars or more per night. Any indignation quickly wears off when you see the truly deluxe hotels in key districts like Shinjuku or Shibuya. With lots of space and a full set of five-star amenities, rooms in these giants cost three to four times as much.
Find accommodation in Tokyo to suit your budget at Agoda.com
Tokyo at night
If you arrived in Tokyo by day, you’re in for a surprise. What looks to be drab, urban jungle transforms into a wash of colors and neon lights after dark. One of the world’s most talked-about night scenes is here, but it’s not focused in any one district. Choose from every kind of themed bar you could imagine, along with dance clubs, swanky lounges, hostess and geisha clubs and beer gardens.
Roppongi is the rowdiest night scene, popular with tourists and young Japanese. A few expatriate communities are located on the fringes of Roppongi, so there’s plenty of international restaurants and a few quieter pockets of activity where people that live here go for drinks and conversation. Tokyo’s red-light district is north of Shinjuku Station in Kabuki-cho.
The other major night scene is Shibuya, where affordable watering holes attract office workers and students. The really posh scene is in Ginza, with its fine-dining restaurants, executive hostess clubs and sophisticated performance venues.
If there is anywhere that could truly claim shopping as its ‘national pastime’, then there’s no question Tokyo would be at the helm. Cutting-edge electronics, up-to-the-minute fashions and traditional folk art are favorite purchases. Be advised that, while many of the gadgets you buy at home were conceived in this city, they’re not necessarily any cheaper here. Some of the best purchases for visitors are antiques and handicrafts at the Oriental Bazaar.
Ginza is a dazzling and up-market commercial district. Dozens of department stores and designer boutiques are here. It’s popular with the moneyed and mature, especially on Sunday when the streets are only open to pedestrians. Harajuku caters to teenagers with its colorful, sometimes bizarre, fashions, while nearby Omotesando draws in their parents with designer boutiques.
Getting there & away – Tokyo’s Narita International Airport is one of the most important transport junctions in the world. It operates two terminals and offers every traveler service imaginable. Haneda Airport is closer to town and only operates domestic services.
Tokyo is connected to other cities in Japan by train. The network of railways and carriers is admittedly daunting for first-time users, but clear English signage takes some of the stress out of traveling. Shinjuku and Shibuya both have major railway stations.
Getting around – Tokyo’s metro is an attraction in itself, and it covers more ground than any mass transit system in the world. The above-ground Yamanote Line circles the city center, while a labyrinth of subway lines connect to stations across the interior. If you plan to make the most of Tokyo’s excellent public transport, consider purchasing a discount ticket like the ‘Holiday Pass’. It’s only available on weekends and national holidays, but allows unlimited access to practically every mode of transport in the metropolitan area.
Otherwise, passengers buy a prepaid card that can be recharged when needed. If your card runs out of credit while you’re in transit (i.e. the trip costs more than you thought), you can pay the difference when you exit.