Japan - Getting to know Tokyo
Of all our city destinations in Asia, Tokyo is the most urban, not to mention urbane. Sit by the window in a 40th floor Shibuya sky bar, and you’ll see 5,000 square miles of dense metropolis reaching away beneath you, until - right on the horizon - shadowy hillsides finally contain the sprawl.
Tokyo City’s landscape isn’t broken much by green space; its wooded parks and gardens are small (although several contain historic shrines). You have to look westwards for a sight of natural wonder - 80 miles distant, ultra-prominent Fuji dominates the skyline - and even old Fuji-san is getting wifi. Hence perhaps the popularity of Tokyo Bay, with its calm open waters, sweeping bridges, wooded islets and (ok, they’re artificial) pleasure islands like Odaiba.
In the streets below, there’s an extraordinary filigree of modern over ancient; Japan’s fame for ceaseless reinvention is justified, but the new doesn’t displace the old - it grows all over it, like bright neon flowing around the structure of a solid old building. In the traditional old restaurant where you’re eating dinner, it’s still shoes off, sitting on the floor, plants growing around the door, despite your afternoon spent marvelling at robots in the ‘emerging science’ museum. There’s a lot to take in, for sure, but the message throughout all of it is the same - feast your eyes, sniff the air and plunge in - Tokyo will saturate your senses.
Getting off the trail in Tokyo
- In spring, enjoy a riot of cherry blossom on a riverboat trip to Asakusa, a 6th century entertainment district with a 1,350 year old Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, and a 350 year old Shinto shrine, as well as plenty of good things to eat and drink.
- Get out of town to Kamakura, a popular seaside city with a long sandy beach, washed by beginner-friendly breaks that roll in from deep Pacific swells. Apart from its cheerful surf culture, Kamakura is home to a great many ancient temples, and the 44 foot tall Daibutsu, which is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. The little city is about an hour by train from Shinjuku station in Tokyo, and small enough to be explored on foot.
- Visit Nikko National Park, which contains the Toshogu Shrine complex and mausoleum - Japan’s most extravagant display of religious architecture and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area has been a focal point of Shinto and Buddhism for centuries, and is full of intriguing buildings, but the jewel in its crown is the lavish 400 year old Toshogu shrine, which is covered in ornately carved, beautifully painted scenes and patterns, and surrounded by atmospheric forest.
The language barrier can be extreme without a Japanese-speaking guide - and it’s not just the spoken language, but the way you read the civic layout. Like written Japanese, Tokyo’s buildings are vertically jam-packed before you even think of looking further down the street. Lofty cocktail bars float above hotels over department stores above scores of office floors in Shibuya’s glassy towers; in trend-spawning Harajuku, venture up wooden steps to cool indie boutiques that overlook bustling narrow streets full of punky basement shops. So, to get the most out of this city - look up.
What to do in Tokyo
- Play outside after dark. Tokyo is notoriously safe. Our favourite for an evening out is Shinjuku, home to one of the biggest nightlife districts in the world.
- Step back in time: this hypermodern city has history at its core. The Emperor’s palace is slapbang in the middle of the city, in the biggest patch of greenery for miles around, and there are several historic districts to explore.
- Go shopping: there are entire streets dedicated to one product, like Kappabashi-Dori, which just sells kitchenware, and streets in Asakusa that sell nothing but kimono. Elegant Ginza is the place for haute couture, Harajuku for indie, and Akihabara’s colourful façades are a manga strip of electronics, video, cosplay and everything ‘otaku’.
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Tokyo isn’t the legal capital of Japan
...no city is! It’s just a tradition.