Tourists are flocking to Japan right now to visit the beautiful cherry blossoms as the Sakura season has just begun. Not just the Ikebana fanatics interested in flower arrangements, but anyone interested in ever visiting Japan tend to come this season as it’s arguably the best time to visit.
Cinephiles among you probably have a preconceived impression of Tokyo––whether it’s the fast and frenzied “Tokyo on acid” take in Enter the Void or the bluesy, languid vibe reminiscent of Lost in Translation. It would be a mistake, however, to place Tokyo in a box, especially if you haven’t personally experienced its organised chaos.
This guide is not intended to ease you into the crazy world of Tokyo, but to dig right into the belly of the beast before moving on to the more tranquil places of interest for you to come out of this craving for more.
From the dizzying, the glitzy, to the outlandish, Tokyo pulsates to various moods.
Soak in the wonderful weirdness of Japan at Akihabara and Harajuku. Akihabara is Tokyo’s otaku and electronics haven––basically a geek’s paradise. You can get your fill of video game parlours, anime-themed outlets, restaurants, maid cafés, and porn. The basic rule of having a blast in this city is to expect the unexpected.
On Sundays, Akihabara’s streets are closed off so shoppers and tourists can mill around freely. Even if you’re no anime or manga fan, this district is endlessly fascinating and packed with great finds and man-boy deals. You would be remiss if you didn’t stop by.
Harajuku is the center of cosplay wonders. Eccentric does not even come close to describing the fashion choices in the district. Cosplayers come in droves to the northern exit of Harajuku station, ready to be the center of adoration for enthusiastic shutterbugs.
Then there’s the classic Shibuya crossing scramble where you can people-watch to your heart’s content. As traffic lights all go red at the same time around the crossing, you’ll witness the phenomenal sight of throngs of pedestrians criss-crossing the street. Of course, if you don’t want to drown in a sea of people, secure a seat by the second-floor window of Starbucks in Tsutaya Q-Front building. If the café is full (and it usually is), another good place to witness this fascinating view is on the bridge that connects Shibuya Station to the Shibuya Mark City complex. Retail therapy is always available at the next turn in Shibuya, Tokyo’s shopping paradise.
While in Shibuya, make sure you drop by Ichiran Ramen to sample one of the best ramen in Japan. The place isn’t about ambience or aesthetics, it’s about offering every ramen-lover a satisfying belly-warming experience. The set-up is sparse and well-thought-out with booths for privacy, so you don’t have to be self-conscious about eating. The little shop has only 20 seats, but you won’t regret joining in the queue for a taste of its flavourful, slurp-worthy ramen.
Pro-tip: As tempting as it is to think of Tokyo as a city that never sleeps (especially when you’re in a boozy haze), note that the trains stop operating at midnight and doesn’t run until 5am. Hence, try not to party too hard or you’ll end up sleeping on the streets or paying an arm and a leg for a cab ride.
When you’ve had enough of Tokyo’s incessant buzz and dazzling lights, it’s time to kick back and discover the city’s relaxed side. While you can’t expect empty streets and wide open spaces in this beast of a city, there are places whose pace is markedly slower than the rest of the city.
At the intersection of Odakyū Odawara Line and Keio Inokashira Line, you’ll find the reigning hipster haven of Shimokitazawa, or Shimokita, where quaint cafés and trendy boutiques abound. As Shimokita is at risk of being demolished to make way for a new station, some residents are seeking out other places for their ventures. Places of interest with the same casual atmosphere as Shimokita are the Koenji and Kichijoji areas.
Around the Daikanyama area in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, walk around and lose yourself in exquisite vintage shops, trendy stores, quirky cafés and stylish boutiques. Likewise, a stroll from Ebisu station to Nakameguro will reward you with an array of chic shops, über-cool restos and quirky boutiques.
If you’re an early riser and like to take things slow, here are places that offer a dose of Zen early in the morning.
For some quality spiritual time and an opportunity to offer prayers away from the crowd, head to the Meiji Shrine. Located near the Harajuku Station, this Shinto shrine has several shrine grounds surrounded by gorgeous foliage and a lush forest where you can explore through its footpaths. It’s open daily from sunrise to sunset. Admission is free.
Alternatively, you can be in the good company of Tokyo residents at Yoyogi Park. Featuring grassy fields, sparkling ponds and verdant woodlands, this is one of the city’s biggest and most picturesque parks. It’s little wonder that people love coming here to exercise, picnic, do sports or play their musical instruments. If people-watching at the Shibuya crossing is too much for you, then settle down on Yoyogi’s lawns with a good book. The park opens at 5am.
A trip to Tokyo wouldn’t be complete without the ultimate gastronomic experience. The best place to pamper your taste buds is at the famed Tsukiji Market.
As the fish market is set to move to a new location in the Toyosu district of Tokyo’s Koto Ward this November, don’t miss your chance of experiencing the hustle and bustle of this historic fish market on its original site. The Kachidoki gate opens at 3:30am and this is when you should be making a beeline for its legendary tuna auctions. With the ability to admit only 120 people on a “first come, first served” basis, make sure you grab a seat as early as possible. If you were to wander in at 5am, chances are you’d have to go back earlier on another day. Missed an opportunity to see the tuna auctions and need some comfort food? Head over to Uogashi Yokocho where the freshest, melt-in-your-mouth sushi breakfast awaits you.
There’s no better way to cap Tokyo trip than to catch a glimspe of the city’s prominent Mt. Fuji at one of the many observation decks. The observation deck at Bunkyo Civic Center is uniquely positioned to offer a stunning panorama of the famed mountain against a backdrop of Shinjuku’s glistening skyscrapers.
Entrance to the observation deck is free and it’s open from 9am to 8.30pm. The Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka delivers a more unobstructed view of the mountain. When the Shinkansen is approaching Shin-Fuji Station, position yourself on the train’s right side to bask in Mt. Fuji’s full glory.
Bustling, flashy, eccentric, chaotic, expensive… Tokyo has been variously described. Love it or loathe it, one thing is for sure––it’s never boring.