Four days or four weeks, there’s no lack of things to do and see in Tokyo but if your stay is short, here’s some ideas to capture the essence of the uniquely Japanese city. David Agnew, a freelance travel writer based in New Zealand, serves up some fantastic ways to experience this seriously cool city.
DAY ONE. Shinjuku and surrounds
Go to the Shinjuku subway station and watch a Japanese commute they said. What ensues is the most orderly rush hour of all mankind and there’s a strong argument to set your alarm clock to see it.
After the sensible stampede of suits, squeeze onto a carriage and venture one stop to the free observation deck at the Tokyo Metro Building. On a clear day, 360 degree views show you the sheer sprawling expanse of the city and help you orientate yourself by landmark. Oh, and the mountain you can see is Mt Fuji.
A night out in Shinjuku and an amble down the slim walking lanes of the old city (Golden Gai) are a must at dinner time even if you choose not to dine there. Little nook restaurants and bars crammed together only seat a handful of people each but around the corner, modern Shinjuku is a surreal maze of neon colour where everyone from businessmen to eccentrically dressed youngsters swarm. This is Tokyo as you probably imagined and the choice between a themed robot dinner with dry ice and a staged fight or a quiet meal is upon you.
DAY TWO. DisneySea and karaoke in Shibuya
Get up early but late enough to avoid the commuters and make your way to the Disney precinct. Nautically designed with the older child or inner child in mind, DisneySea still attracts hordes of grown Japanese men in their Mickey Mouse shirts not yet ready to give up Goofy. The traditional Disney magic is alive and well at the offshoot and whilst not extreme, there’s plenty of rides for schoolkids upwards.
As evening nears, find your way on the subway back to the one of the social hubs of Tokyo which doubles as home of youth fashion and culture. Also continuing the commuter theme, Shibuya, a few stops shy of Shinjuku is the scene of the busiest pedestrian migration one could hope to see. Thousands of people (it seems) cross the Hachiko intersection as if they are changing shifts. Local knowledge will help, but finding a restaurant or karaoke outlet in a seemingly domestic apartment block is one of curiosities of Shibuya, and of Toyko. After a few hours of sounding awful you feel like David Attenborough again, the mass migration reoccurring around 2am as the wailing sirens sound to tell the teenagers to get on the last train.
DAY THREE. Imperial Palace and Sumo Wrestling
After the intensive shock of the youth ‘culture’, the moated and manicured residence of the Japanese Emperor built in 1888 is hard to miss in amongst the bulk of governmental high-rises in Chiyoda. Public entries are extremely limited but from the outside the size of the cultivated stone blocks used for the construction boggles the mind as do the perfect gardens of the adjacent park that appear to be trimmed and cast using nail clippers. In Tokyo at least, this is a taste of the old Japan and how important the Emperor is to the people.
If you are lucky enough to time it right, an afternoon out at the Sumo is captivating and completely foreign viewing. While the polite crowd wait, the two giants in their ceremonial mawashi (belt or loincloth) work through their pre-bout ritual which builds up the anticipation. Admittedly, most fights don’t match the pageantry in length or spectacle but the odd one deserves admiration.
DAY FOUR. Harajuku and Akihabara
Finished with one day of traditional ‘culture’, it’s back to modern day Japan and between Shinjuku and Shibuya is the most colourful and bizarre of style parades. Harajuku is the nucleus of all the strangest fashion fetishes where the young people take the kooky and outlandish to a new level. Harajuku isn’t all fluoro though and is oddly home to historical sites and, by Tokyo standards, conservative shopping. You’d be forgiven for thinking the pink army was a spontaneous protest.
After a settling period, there’s the small city of shops in the Ginza district of Akihabara known for selling electronics but more so lately as the domain of the otaku, manga and anime cultures. Diehard fans of these endemic genres are joined by those in search of robots, maid cafes, video games, tax free shopping and vending machines selling oden — a one pot winter dish featuring boiled eggs and fishcakes. Tokyo is not like any other city.