Over a year ago now, before this whole adventurous journey began (thirty some countries and counting), if you had told me that I had to choose only one country to which I could visit, without batting an eye, I would have strongly stated my choice to be that of Japan. It’s difficult to put my finger on what aspects attracted my fascination with the Japanese culture — whether it be the intricate and subtle cuisine, the attitude of isolationism that existed only until a few hundred years ago, the pop culture touch points like anime or manga, the ideals of honor and respect shown towards all things, the drive and search for beauty in simplicity, or the interesting fusion of traditional values set amongst a hyper-modern backdrop (I’ll be honest, it was probably the food). Regardless, you can imagine my excitement upon finally touching down in the country that I’ve long dreamed about visiting. And so far, I’ve been enjoying my time here so much so, in fact, that I have to think that there is a rumor going around town about who this gigantic gaijin is who has been walking around the city with a huge, cheesy smile on his face.
As a point of entry into Japan, I chose to first visit the neon-clad mega-metropolis that is Tokyo. The city – originally known as Edo – first began as a small fishing village located at the mouth of the Sumida-gawa River. Due to its fortuitous and strategic location, however, in the early 1600′s, it was used as a base for Ieyasu Tokugawa military-based government, and grew in both size and reputation ever since, eventually throwing open its doors to foreign visitors, taking on the moniker Tokyo, and growing to be one of the largest metropolitan areas on the planet. Although it hasn’t forgotten its traditional roots, it has now fully embraced the advance of technology to the degree that it is widely recognized as the most modern, futuristic city on the planet, one that boasts a long list of -est accolades (largest, tallest, busiest, etc.), where ultra-efficient trains whisk the many citizens to virtually any point in the city, and where neon-lit signboards climb the sides of the office towers like ivy on a neglected building.
Due to the extreme size and extensive sprawl of the city, however, it is almost impossible to speak of the city in the terms of a single, unified “Tokyo.” In fact, the city is divided into many smaller, neighborhoods, each a mini-city in itself with its unique characterists and atmosphere. So just as a novel needs a first line to get the story going, we’re in need of a starting point for our exploration. And as such, we’ll begin with one of the first areas that visitors often explore (and where I’m staying, coincidentally): that of the Asakusa district. The area is known for its traditional feel, where in days long past, merchants and artisans plied their trades — though I’ll readily admit that amidst the modern surroundings and constant redevelopment of real estate, this comes off more as an artificial facade maintained for the sake of the tourists than a breath of fresh air from the times past. Regardless, it is still a great area of town to wander around and take in the scene:
Another of the iconic images that comes to mind when speaking of Tokyo is that of the famous Shibuya crossing — what is purportedly the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. Whereas watching the scene from a nearby cafe can be a mesmerizing experience, the Shibuya neighborhood offers far more than just the maddening rush of commuters passing through. With an energy level that pulsates especially strong at night, Shibuya has become the epicenter of youth culture, where teens and 20-somethings flock to check out new trends, sing karaoke and carouse in dive bars, indulge is chain fast foods stores, and generally let loose:
One of my favorite areas of Tokyo is that of Shinjuku, an eclectic mix of office towers, upscale department stores, scenic parks, microscopic bars, and shabby restaurants — a great microcosm for Tokyo itself. During the day, the Shinjuku station is one of the busiest train stations in the world, but for me, the area really came to life at night. The area is home to both the Kabuki-cho – or entertainment district (often referred to as the red-light district) – where one can glimpse various shady-looking up-to-no-good-ers stalking the sidewalks in their shark skin suits, and the Golden Gai area, which is a series of tiny alleys filled to the brim with even tinier bars, most of which are more closets than bars and can only contain 5-6 people at a time (but more on this in a later post).
Another famed district in Tokyo is that of Harajuku: one part shopping mecca, one part fashion show runway, and one part international destination — all with a relaxing park and beautiful shrine thrown it for good measure. The highlights include the Omote-sando-dori, a tree-lined shopping street; the Meiji-jingu, the largest Shinto Shrine in Tokyo; and the absolutely can’t miss Takeshita-dori, a veritable breeding ground for new fashions and the epicenter for the alternative trends such as French Maid Chic and Gothic Lolitas (yes, you read those correctly):
Tokyo Sky Tree:
A relatively new addition to the Tokyo Skyline is that of the Tokyo Sky Tree, on the Northeast side of the city, and at 634 meters (2,080 feet), it is the tallest tower and the second tallest structure in the world (next to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). Its primary function is that of a broadcasting tower, however, as of a few months ago, it also gives visitors the opportunity to ascend the tower — either to a 350 meter or 450 meter platform — to take in views of the never-ending urban sprawl that is the Tokyo metropolitan area (and trust me, the city is big enough that you need to reach that elevation to have any hope of seeing all of Tokyo). Enjoy the view:
Marunouchi and Ginza, Tokyo:
In the dead center of Tokyo lies the Marunouchi area, home to many of the most stunning architectural landmarks in Tokyo and the massive Tokyo Station (the busiest station , in terms of number of trains, in the world — and another -est), but the big draw is the area is the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, given that the palace is the home to the royal family, it is closed to the public all but two days a year – and my visit, unfortunately, didn’t coincide with either of those two days. The gardens on the Eastern edge of the grounds, however, are open to the public, which at least gets you close to the palace (although you still can’t actually see it). Additionally, just East of the palace, on the other side of Tokyo Station, lies the ritzy Ginza district. This high-dollar area is home to many of the top-end designer stores — making it roughly the equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue — as well as some of the most elaborate and extensive department stores anywhere in the world (of which I’ll be showing you around the food sections in another post).
So as not to continue on with an endless photo-parade of the city’s various neighborhoods and districts, I’ll wind down this post with one last area, that of Roppongi. Notorious for being somewhat controversial, as it is the most foreigner-friendly area, stocked with street after street of bars and nightclubs, and with a tough-to-shake image of being one of the seediest and less-reputable areas of town, I had to make my way to see what all the fuss was about. And as expected – given that this is Japan – the rumors about the grit were largely unfounded, though the touts outside the bars can be pretty pushy. It does, however, have another tower that you can ascend, this time for views at night!
I’ve got a few more days left in Tokyo still — with a day trip or two planned (ideally) and a few other iconic areas of the city still left to explore — so I’m sure I’ll have another post up soon. Plus, I’m working on what is going to be the first of likely many food posts on the cuisine here in Japan, as this is a particular favorite of mine, so break out the sushi and sake and get ready for a feast. I’ll end with a few additional random photos that didn’t really fit in above, but that I wanted to post anyway. Enjoy, and Kampai from Tokyo!