Japan’s capital, Tokyo, is a city like no other, home to the weird and wonderful, the hectic and the tranquil, the ancient and the modern. Beautifully manicured gardens are surrounded by bristling skyscrapers, vending machines on street corners sell everything from umbrellas to underwear, and hotels vary from tiny pods stacked one atop the other, to the ultimate five-star luxury retreats. The best of Japan travel starts here.
It’s not a place to visit if you are looking for relaxation – the massive population and buzzing nightlife put paid to that – but it’s a brilliant city if you are looking for distraction and immersion. Despite being hectic, it’s surprisingly clean, and the public transport is so efficient you needn’t worry about having to get taxis anywhere; everywhere is simply a ride and a walk away. Here, we have gathered together some of the highlights of what to do when you travel to Tokyo, whether you’re a food-lover, a culture vulture, or simply after a new experience.
What to see
Arriving in a new city can be baffling, and never more so than when there’s no specific centre to speak of. Tokyo is a prime example of this, being made up of numerous distinct neighbourhoods rather than built around a particular hub like many European cities. This, however, makes it all the more fascinating to explore, with each neighbourhood having something different to offer, whether that’s fantastic food, historic shrines, or theatres and galleries.
Tokyo National Museum
If you only have time to visit one museum, then make it the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, which is bursting at the seams with the world’s largest collection of Japanese art. Gaze with awe at impressive displays of samurai swords, admire the intricate details of silken kimonos, and marvel at the craftsmanship of Japan’s ancient pottery. It’s also worth checking to see whether the garden is open (it is usually accessible in spring and autumn), as here you can find several vintage tea houses in which to while away some time in a rather more relaxed atmosphere than in much of the rest of the city.
Shintō shrine, Meiji-jingū
For a more spiritual experience, but no less spectacular, visit Tokyo’s grandest Shintō shrine, Meiji-jingū, in Harajuku / Aoyama. World War II air raids raised it to the ground and it had to be rebuilt in 1958, but great care was taken over the detail, from the main shrine to the wooden prayer plaques. A towering torii gate marks the entrance, and the shrine itself takes up only a small part of the grounds, which were once imperial land and include a spectacular iris garden. Be sure to visit in June if you want to see the Irises in bloom.
Many would argue that a trip to Tokyo wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the frantic bustle of Tsukiji Market. While it sells the fruit, flowers and meat that you might expect at a regular market, the main focus of the whole setup is seafood – over 2,000 tonnes of it is traded every single day. Much of the excitement happens in the early hours of the morning (often between 3am and 5am) but you can turn up later and still get a general feel for it.
Tuna auctions are one of the main attractions and have limited spaces for onlookers (you have to get there early to nab one), but it’s equally worth wandering the rest of the market to get just as good an experience. Stalls can be found around the edge selling souvenirs and small restaurants serve dishes made from fish at its very freshest! Tourists can’t purchase any fish while visiting, but if you’re looking for fresh foodie fare away from the market, Tokyo isn’t lacking.
Where to eat
Tokyo is a nirvana for fans of food, with more Michelin-starred restaurants within its boundaries than any other city in the world, beating even Paris. That said, you don’t have to break the bank when dining there, as you can find plenty of brilliant little restaurants and bars scattered around the various districts, serving all sorts of mouth-watering morsels, from ramen to sushi.
The best way to negotiate the streets of Tokyo is by subway or train, and this has led to stations becoming hubs of activity, meaning many of the best value eateries can be found near them – it’s always worth poking your head around the corners once you have disembarked, just in case you find an undiscovered gem. If you’re interested in immersing yourself in the local dining culture, then you should also head to Shinbashi (a.k.a. Shimbashi) to have a little insight into the “real” Tokyo, where tiny eateries and bars are packed together beneath the skyscrapers, perfectly located to be hangouts for the local office workers. Perch on stools side-by-side with business men, ties loosened, as you slurp on fresh noodle soup and knock back semi-frozen sake.
Ginza should be top of your list if you are looking for rather more high-end fare. It is home to the three Michelin-starred restaurants, Ginza Kojyu – which serves a seasonal menu that continues to keep the critics on cloud nine – and Sushi Yoshitake – where it is stipulated that the diner must eat their sushi within 30 seconds of being served in order to enjoy it properly.
Of course, the other Michelin-starred restaurants of Tokyo are equally worth a visit, and each have their own unique quirks. One insists that you keep cologne and perfume to a minimum so as not to disrupt the flavours of the food, while another is so hard to find in a warren of streets that the staff venture out to meet you and lead you there.
Where to relax
After exploring all the chaos of the thronging streets, fascinating though they may be, you will most likely need a break and be craving a bit of open space. Surprisingly, Tokyo can actually provide this, and you don’t necessarily need to hot-foot it to Japan’s countryside to feel in touch with nature.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Instead, venture into the depths of the 144-acre Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden where you can find pristine lawns, tranquil ponds and (in spring) some breath-takingly beautiful cherry blossom. The garden is made up of three different styles on the whole: traditional Japanese, formal French, and (perhaps surprisingly) one inspired by typical English landscape gardens. A large greenhouse shelters many tropical and subtropical flowers, and you can also visit an art gallery if you so choose. The traditional Japanese area is arguably the most enchanting to visit – wind your way along paths bordered by perfectly manicured shrubs, cross bridges between islands over ponds mirroring blue skies, and lose yourself in hidden corners.
Imperial Palace East Garden
The Imperial Palace East Garden is also incredibly beautiful. If you’ve been lucky enough to get a slot in one of the tours of the palace, then a wander in the gardens is the perfect way to conclude it. The palace was once Edo Castle, and the moats, walls, entrance gates and guardhouses still exist. The garden is in the centre of all of the defences, and its traditional Japanese style is picturesque to say the least. Admission is free which is an added bonus!
This is Japan travel at its most cutting-edge.
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