When it comes to edgy sophistication, many would agree that Tokyo has some pretty wicked style up its proverbial kimono sleeve. The enigmatic land of the “Gothic Lolita” is also the avant-garde fashion capital of Asia, with hyper-modern and sleek 100-story high-rises and glimmering architecture. Furthermore, first-time visitors often wonder at the complex darker side of Tokyo, where pop culture meets high design, and where the technology-saturated world that inspired Ridley Scott‘s futuristic Blade Runner weighs in at every corner.
I was fortunate to live in Tokyo for close to six years, and my time there turned out to be a truly humbling, incredibly rich and formative experience. I fell in love with this captivating city of contrasts, with its rich history, and complex architecture. As a place to visit, Tokyo has so much on offer in terms of its rich heritage and culture. The transport system is excellent, and easy to figure out. However, the best way to view the city remains the oldest way: on foot, walking the streets, taking in the multitude of sights and sounds on your way. You’ll be sure to find plenty of unexpected treasures, from little temples on side streets, to the warm welcome of a local shopkeeper. Honeymooners often come to cultivate romance amidst the cherry blossoms, shoppers will discover exactly what they’re looking for and plenty on top of that, and even backpackers can find a way to take in the culture without breaking the bank. And despite the fact that sightseeing in Tokyo with its animated billboards and the buzz of a densely packed and highly energetic population can bring about a sensory overload, one thing’s for certain, you’ll never cease to be mesmerized.
Top 10 things to do in Tokyo:
1. Tsukiji Fish Market – If you love seafood, and are an early riser (or alternatively, if you like to go clubbing until the wee morning hours), then this is the place for you. It’s the biggest wholesale fish and market in the world, and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Located near the Tsukijishiko Station, it opens at three AM when the fish come in fresh from the sea. Bidding then occurs for professional bidders at around four or five AM and the market closes every morning at seven. This is as fresh as seafood can get, and the market offers more varieties of fish than you could ever imagine.
2. Sumo Wrestling – Forget kabuki, sumo is better theatre. If you happen to be in Tokyo during one of the three grand tournaments – 15-day events in January, May and September – you can catch some of the action at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo’s National Sumo Hall. Bouts, scheduled throughout the day, usually last for just a few intense minutes (bodies lock, twist, ripple, drop) with a lot of posturing (stretching, stomping, salt-tossing) in between. Try to be inside the arena at the start of a new round, when the rikishi parade into the arena wearing ceremonial aprons over their loincloths, and sometimes a former champion demonstrates some classic moves.
3. Wacky Fashion in Harajuku – When you exit the Harajuku Station on the Yamanote Line, you will face the entrance to Takeshita Dori, the famous shopping street in Harajuku. Sunday is the big day on Takeshita Dori, where you can see many traditional Harajuku Girls dressed in elaborate costumes and anime. If you want to see Japanese fashion at its strangest then look no further. This narrow street is lined with shops to explore as well as Japanese people dressed as characters from video games and anime (Japanese animation). It is hard to imagine a place that is stranger for tourists, so do yourself a favour and take a look.
4. Meji Shrine in Yoyogi Park – This Shinto shrine in Shibuya is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. It’s easy to get to and walking around the park will be a nice change from the busy streets. Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths that are wonderful for a relaxing stroll.
5. Meet a Real Geisha – Previously in the “flower and willow” world it was necessary to have an introduction or one couldn’t get into a geisha teahouse. Discovering how to meet geisha could seem an impossible task, especially on a budget. Now you can book easily from your hotel, and Geishas can be hired for private parties and personal entertainment, but that can be prohibitively expensive. Another option – one that is far less costly – is to buy a ticket for a Geisha show. Many tourists are unaware of this entertainment option, but it exists. Geishas perform traditional Japanese dances and play instruments. The best Geisha show in Tokyo is at Azuma Odori in Shimbashi. There are daily performances and shows last about sixty minutes.
6. Experience Hanami – If you had the foresight, or were just plain lucky, to time your trip during the spring (March to May) you could watch the Hanami (Cherry Blossom Festival) and the Japanese Plum Festival in all the parks and gardens around the city. The blooming of the Sakura flowers (cherry blossoms) has long been one of the main attractions for tourists from all over the world.
7. Imperial Palace – The palace is home to the emperor and his family and is situated in the centre of Tokyo. The palace is surrounded by a water-filled moat and tree-covered grounds – a precious taste of nature within the bustling metropolitan city. Kokyo Gaien (Imperial Palace Outer Garden), Kokyo Higashi Gyoen (Imperial Palace East Garden) and Kita-no-maru-koen Park are all open to the public free of charge. If you wish to visit the area around the palace itself, you need to make reservations in advance.
8. Akihabara – which is also called the Electric Town, will satisfy even the geekiest gadget guru in the world. It’s home to one of the first stores that is completely devoted to personal robots. Specifically the Electric Town area is a strip of what can be coined ‘geek’ paradise also known as the “Gamer’s Mecca” and has in recent times become strongly identified with anime/manga (cartoon) subculture, with the legions of otaku geeks coming down on weekends known as Akiba-kei.
9. Shibuya – Has one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world, which is also called the Shibuya Scramble because traffic is stopped at all sides allowing pedestrians to cross through the intersection at whatever direction they choose. Wait for the walking light to turn green and see the magic happen. With all four crosswalks going green at the same time, it truly is a scramble for people to get from one side to the other.
10. Sensōji Temple – As Tokyo’s oldest and most colourful temple, no matter how many you have seen before it, Sensōji is definitely worth a visit. Completed in 645 AD the temple was built for Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Legend has it that the Kannon statue was found by two brothers in the Sumida River. Make sure to enter through the Kaminarimon outer gate, which leads to the picturesque Nakamise Street, lined with cute souvenir stalls and local snacks.