Neon Lights, Giant Lanterns, and Urban Sprawl in Tokyo

The Three Rivers: Fukagawa, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and displayed in the Tokyo National Museum

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.

Asakusa, Tokyo:

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:

The streets of Asakusa

The famed Kaminarimon Gate, which greets passersby on their way to the Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple, the heart of the Asakusa neighborhood

A common practice at shrines is to purchase wooden blocks — known as ema — upon which you then inscribe your prayers or wishse in hopes that the gods, or kami, will grant them

The five-storied pagoda peeking out from under the roof of the Sensoji Temple

Shops and storefronts are designed to invoke memories of the Edo days of Tokyo

A festival in progress outside of the Asahi Building, with the Tokyo Sky Tree standing tall in the background (more on that later)

Shibuya, Tokyo:

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:

The Shibuya Crossing — even though I visited earlier in the day, the crowds were still out in full force

The Shibuya 109 building, the hot spot in this part of town

Shibuya Center Town, a side-street full of cheap eats and clothing boutiques

Shinjuku, Tokyo:

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).

The Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower acts as a beacon for the Shinjuku area

The brightly-lit streets as seen from above

Pure, unadulterated sensory overload in the Kabuki-cho

The Shinjuku crossing near the station, lit up at night

Harajuku, Tokyo:

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):

The streets of Harajuku

Abstract reflections of the city

The crowded catwalk that is the Takeshita Dori (and people back home complain about New York being crowded)

An example of some of the trends on display

The tree-lined Omote-sando, invoking images of Barcelona’s La Ramblas or Paris’s Le Champs Elysees

On the quieter side of Harajuku is Yoyogi Park, a refreshing green space that offers a retreat to those weary of the concrete jungle

The giant cedat Torii Gate that marks the start of the parth towards the Meiji Jingu Shrine

At the center of the park is the shrine itself, one of the largest Shinto shrines in Japan

Sake barrels lining the entrance to the shrine, laid out as offerings to the deities enshrined within the grounds

Water laid out for washing and purifying before entering the shrine

The interior of the Meiji Jingu Shrine

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:

The Tokyo Sky Tree as seen from street level

It’s a long way up to the top (and obviously, I opted to wait the additional time necessary to make it all the way of the highest platform)

Looking out from 450 meters in the air certainly gives you a proper perspective on the true size and scale of the city

Looking back down through the windows

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).

The ancient walls and moat surrounding the Imperial Palace, set against the backdrop of modern skyscrapers

A view of the Eastern Gardens of the Imperial Palace

The main drag in Ginza

Telllllll me all that you know, I’ll show yooouuuuu…….snow and rain

A side-street in the Ginza area

Roppongi, Tokyo:

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!

The streets of Roppongi at night

Personally, I think many of the rumors about unsavory character of the neighborhood is a subtle psychological response to the menacing spider sculpture the looms ominously over the area

If you’ve been following my exploits so far, you’ve probably realized that I’m a fan of bars in the sky (see my posts on Singapore or Bangkok, for example). And as such, I had to seek out yet another high-up hot spot — this time in the Roppongi Hills building

This one unfortunately wasn’t an open air bar, but alas, I guess I can go without just this once…

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!

Jyomyoin Temple, near Ueno Park

Further exhibits from the Tokyo National Museum

The streets of Shimbashi at night, an area of virtually nothing but bars and cheap eats, so stay alert as you’ll need to dodge the drunk salarymen

Folks looking for relief from the summer heat near Yoyogi Park in Harajuku

The JR Kanda Station at night

And finally, the sun setting over Asakusa

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

20 Responses to “Neon Lights, Giant Lanterns, and Urban Sprawl in Tokyo”

  1. Cool pictures!! Made me feel like I was right there with you on the trip!!
    Cheers,
    Sumithra.

  2. Loved the “You are here” part of the sign for floor 450. “uh, yea, I can tell I am really high up, but thanks…”

    • Ha ha. I really wish is would have said something like, “You are here. Seriously, you’re really here. You should probably turn around and look at the view instead of this redundant sign.”

  3. I really enjoyed reading your descriptions of all of Tokyo’s most famous districts. This post really gave me a better idea of what we can see in the city.

    • Thanks! I tried to hit all of the big districts with this first post to get them out of the way. In the next one I’ll try to take a tour around some of the lesser known spots like Ikebukaro, Akihabara, Kichijoji, and Kagurazaka to get another side of the city.

  4. Wow, we’ll done!

  5. Just LUUUURVE Tokyo and all its pulse!!!!! More please 🙂

    • I couldn’t agree more. Eventhough it may be premature to say this, Tokyo has quickly vaulted up the list to be my favorite city of my entire trip so far. I’m going to be sad to have to leave in a few days!

  6. Awesome photos! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Brings back great memories, really jealous that you got to go up the Sky Tree, it hadn’t opened when I was there in April. I had to make do with the Nori Tower and the Tokyo Government Building Observatory in Shinjuku.

    Tokyo is such a great city.

    • I didn’t realize until I arrived here that the viewing platform for the Sky Tree was newly opened. Unfortunately, my luck didn’t go so far as to save me from the incredibly long lines to get in. Augh. And yeah, you’re right, Tokyo is an amazing place.

      As a side note, I love the picture of you hanging by the Taj Mahal as your avatar. Nice.

  8. Great blog, and a benchmark for would be bloggers! Brilliant.

  9. Reblogged this on Kansai-Ben's Japan Blog 関西ベンの日本のブログ and commented:
    This blog showcases Tokyo really well. A benchmark standard indeed. Thanks Temporarily Lost 😉

    • Thanks for the reblog — it is an honor. And I was only trying to do the amazing city of Tokyo the justice that it deserves. As a bonus, I’ll have another post up in a day or two looking at a few of the other areas and things to do, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for that!

  10. I LOVE Tokyo, everything about it. I think about going back there all the time, did you check out the areas just outside Shibuya? Dikanyama, Shimokitazawa, Nakameguro, gosh i need to stop.

    • Unfortunately, I ran out of time before I could check out some of the other neighborhoods. But I’m not too sad, as that only means that I have to come back to see what I missed! Thanks for reading!

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