We finally made it to Japan in November 2014! This one has been on our bucket list for a while and there is no better time to go. The yen is at a historic low relative to the U.S. Dollar which means you can travel around this notoriously expensive country for 20-30% less than you could even a year or two ago. We started out in Tokyo which we discovered was a city of neighborhoods. Here are our impressions of Tokyo in 10 unique neighborhoods.
We stayed in Shibuya which is known for its famous crossing. The intersection just outside the train station floods with people every couple of minutes all surging in six directions to get to their destination. High rise buildings and flashing signs greeted us as we exited the train station. This neighborhood is centrally located for exploring Tokyo and we enjoyed our stay at the Shibuya Tokyu Inn. The room was small (no surprise) but quiet and the staff were extremely friendly greeting us with ohayo goziamasu! when we came down in the morning and konbanwa! upon our return each evening. Shibuya is also good for department store (depāto) shopping and cheap eats.
2. Roppongi Hills
Known for being a bit upscale and posh, Roppongi Hills is home to a number of multinational companies. Many, including my own company, have offices in the iconic skyscraper, Mori Tower, that dominates the skyline in this part of town. Even though we were on vacation, we popped into the office to visit an old friend that I worked with in Dublin. We emerged from the train station onto a grassy oasis lined with a park. I jumped when I rounded a bend and was confronted by a giant spider...a sculpture of a giant spider. We also took the elevator to the top of Mori Tower. There is a helipad and viewing platform that you can reach for a rather steep fee (2000 yen per person = $17 at the time of writing). Hey, you only live once, so we paid the fee and had a look around. We also enjoyed the manga and other art exhibits around the tower. There was one where you could go into a room with a green screen and then draw virtual graffiti on a board in time to music. The result was pushed to Facebook.
We also checked out the art museum at the top of the tower. There was an interactive exhibit on entitled Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation - Seeing, Conversing, Gift-Giving, Writing, Dining and Getting Connected to the World. My favorite part was the bed of flowers set out on a table. You could select one and take it with you but only if you promised to (a) leave a different way from whence you came (b) give it to a stranger on the street. After a couple failed attempts, I gave mine to a little old Japanese lady on the street in Roppongi. She smiled and tucked it into her bag. She didn't speak English and I don't speak Japanese but I made myself understood and she made herself understood in return.
Asakusa is a neighborhood of contrasts. A lot of Japanese restaurants have displays of perfect looking 'food' in their windows to describe and tempt you without words with what's on offer. Well, that 'food' has to be bought somewhere! Walking over from the train station, we marveled at the array of plastic food shops lining the street. It was also quite expensive with a small piece of plastic sushi going for the equivalent of about 8 USD. Further into Asakusa there is a strip of establishments shouting out in bright flashing neon. We stopped at Don Quijote, an inexpensive department store/supermarket to look for interesting local souvenirs. We also stopped into our first pachinko parlour which was one of the loudest, most over-stimulating places I've ever been to. More on that in a future post. Interestingly, just a few blocks away in Asakusa is an oasis of calm in Sensō-ji temple. We took some time to wander the grounds, waft some incense over ourselves for luck and to explore the shop stalls set up just outside the temple walls.
Tsukiji is famous for its fish market; the largest in the world. We were out late playing pachinko the previous night so decided not to get up and go for the 4 am tuna auction. Instead, we arrived around 9 am which is when the 'floor' of the food market opens up to visitors. We strolled aisle after aisle of fish, dodging lorries and fish guts as we went. It's a fascinating place to visit. There are plans to relocate the market from its current location to Toyosu. In fact, the move was supposed to be complete by the time we visited but lucky for us, we got to see the fish market in its original spot. In the 'outer market', you can wander a warren of alleyways lined with retail shops and food stalls selling sushi and more. This part of town is definitely worth a look.
By day, Shinjuku is all business. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building features two viewing platforms, one in each of the twin towers which can be accessed for free.
At night. Shinjuku is Tokyo at its most stereotypical craziest. The flashing neon lights are so bright they are almost blinding. Risque performances (the level varies) run up and down the street. This is where you'll also find the world famous 'Robot Restaurant'; an over-the-top show featuring scantily clad girls riding larger-than-life fighting robots with loud music blaring in the background. We were intrigued by this video we found on YouTube before the trip but were torn about going given the high price tag (was it really worth 50 bucks a person?). In the end, the choice was made for us because the show was sold out on the night we were in town.
Home to Japanese 'Cosplay', Harajuku is the place to go to see locals decked out in fantastical costumes. It was late and raining when we visited so we didn't see anything too wild but the shops give tantalizing suggestions of what we might find on a good day. Apparently, the Cosplayers shop for their outfits here too.
Akihabara is known as the electronics district of Tokyo. We were expecting huge department stores selling all manner of gadgets. To be honest, there is more of that in other neighborhoods like Ginza. Akihabara has almost limitless small shops selling everything from random cables to LEDs. This also seems to be maid-cafe-central. On nearly every corner, girls in fantastical French maid outfits try to entice passersby in for a show that seems a bit like a cheerleader's convention from this glimpse I got through the window (see video clip below).
Ginza is known for shiny high rises and posh shopping. It's also adjacent to Tokyo Station and ideal when heading to Narita airport which is why we decided to stay here on the last night of our trip. After suffering through an afternoon of rain, the sun emerged and put things in a whole new light. We even discovered an Okinawan grocery store as we whiled away the time on our last day in town.
One thing that surprised us about Tokyo was the fact that there are so many respites of calm in this otherwise crazy city. We had a great time exploring the park at Ueno. Here we found a temple where visitors were feeding frenzied carp. I also loved the marshy wetlands with skyscrapers beyond. It was possible to take a quiet moment and reflect on the vibrant, humming city in the distance.
10. Rikugien Park
Rikugien Park is another oasis of calm in Tokyo. It's also known as an amazing place to see Autumn foliage. We got there just a bit too early and didn't see the peak colors. Still, we really enjoyed strolling along the lake watching the ducks luxuriate in the water.
We love variety when we travel which I think is one of the reasons we liked Tokyo so much. It was simply a matter of hopping on the subway and entering a whole different world each day. I hope you enjoyed these vignettes about ten neighborhoods we explored in Tokyo.