Where do I even begin with this insane city? I don’t think I’ve ever walked down a street anywhere else and felt the same kind of shock/astonishment/surprise as I have wandering the streets of Tokyo. There’s a sort of ‘anything goes’ attitude existing here and it makes every day an adventure in itself. Sure, it’s absolutely fine that there’s a 40 year old Japanese woman dressed as Cinderella as a genuine outfit for the day; no worries that every arcade is packed with people, young and old and middle aged, passing the time at any hour; and you want a pancake the size of a pillow and sushi at 4am? – this is the place.
I’d be lying if I said it stole my heart immediately. To be honest, the sheer size of it overwhelmed me to begin with, and considering that it’s the capital of one of the leading technological countries in the world, I was surprised by how difficult getting from A to B could actually be. All that being said, this place stole my heart a little bit more with every minute that passed. If it doesn’t have you immediately, it’ll have charmed you by the end of the week.
Tokyo has two airports served by local and international flights, as you’d expect. They’re both a fair distance out of the city so allow plenty of time. If you’re traveling around Japan then getting into the city by rail is incredibly easy, whether it be on the Shinkansen or on local trains.
Tokyo’s main station, where most lines lead to, is easily connected to buses and the subway, it’s just a case of finding out where you need to be and how to get there. As a city, I actually found Tokyo less straightforward than most other big ones that I have visited and I like to think I’m pretty savvy at getting around nowadays. There’s a lot of swiping in and out, buying new tickets to get on different lines because it’s with a different company and overall just quite large stations that encourage confusion and general loss of direction. Also you have to take into account that to describe this city as mindboggingly large is somewhat of an understatement, so getting from one area of the city to another can take a hefty amount of time.
Top tip: Getting yourself an IC card – Pasmo or Suica – will make your navigation adventures much easier.
Top tip: Taxis here are geared towards people who have more money than sense. For people who do have sense, even if they do have money, avoid them. The prices will cripple you.
What to do
The charm of Tokyo lies in exploring all the different districts. You’ll be impressed by how different they all are and I imagine, as there was for me, there will be one that makes you think ‘yes, Tokyo is *******brilliant!’ Of course, besides getting lost in its streets, there are a couple of places to tick off the travel checklist.
Tsukiji fish market and Ginza
Tokyo’s wholesale fish market is in fact the largest in the world – that’s reason enough to visit anywhere I think. If it’s the biggest, you should probably tick it off the list. Every guidebook you read will tell you to head here early in the morning and eat the freshest sushi and sashimi you can possibly imagine, and I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendation, because it really is some damn good fish. The part where you have to head here at 4am is completely unnecessary though. You can if you want, but any time in the morning and you’ll still be able to sit down for a bowl of delicious food. After heading for your healthiest breakfast ever no doubt, then it’s only a short stroll to Ginza, which stands in a rather stark contrast to the atmosphere of a wholesale fish marker. Ginza is the type of area to go window shopping unless you’re one of those people that has lots of money and no taste. Regardless, it’s an area of Tokyo that requires at least a walk through.
Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s busier districts and most famous for its crossing outside of the Haichiko exit of the station where pedestrians on every corner flock across the road. It sounds like it would be a somewhat boring experience to just stand and watch people cross the road, or even participate in said crossing, but actually you’ll find it interesting enough to watch at least three times. The district is otherwise home to shopping, restaurants and some of Tokyo’s best nightlife.
If you like to be amongst very cool, interesting and out there people then this is probably the place that will suit you very nicely. It’s widely reputed to be the most stylish area in Tokyo and is home to lots of independent boutiques and countless thrift stores, so if you want to have a revamp of your wardrobe then make sure you bring an extra large suitcase for your return flight/train ride back home. Besides being a good place to shop, it’s a great neighbourhood to waltz around and grab a coffee or edgy Japanese snack. This area was actually the one that convinced me Tokyo was a place I was most certainly on board with. Wandering around these streets with my partner in crime felt like being back in London’s coolest neighbourhoods. Nearby is also Yoyogi park, well worth a stroll around.
Queue the home of the busiest station in the world. For whatever reason, Tripadvisor wacks it up there as one of the top things to do in Tokyo, but let’s be honest, at the end of the day it’s just a really busy and structurally unimpressive station so I guarantee that the first thing you’ll actually want to do is get out of it. But, upon doing that you’ll stumble upon one hell of a buzz. The area is home to some of Tokyo’s tallest buildings, seediest bars and brightest neon. Make sure you head to Golden Gai on an evening for a very unique nightlife experience. Once the home row upon row of brothels, these little rooms have now been converted into hundreds of little bars that can house no more than about 6 people at a time.
Top tip: Within Golden Gai is the most amazing ramen shop, Nagi Golden Gai, with a broth made from baby sardines. It’s open all night so have a few drinks, go experience how the Japanese party, and stop by on your way back home. It’s delicious – the proof being that in the week I spent in Tokyo, this little shop was visited no less than three times.
Following that, along Shinjuku station’s tracks there are an abundance of little eateries worth checking out. This area is more commonly known as ‘piss alley’ – charming, but worth it.
Most famous for the many museums situated here, including the National Museum and Tokyo Art museum, Ueno Park is a particularly popular spot. Besides this however, the park is a beautiful place for a stroll around, particularly in Cherry Blossom season.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of Tokyo, I think neon, anime and manga. The reason is largely due to this district because that is precisely what this district is – neon, anime and manga. It’s also the place to go in Tokyo if you need any kind of electronic device. What may or may not have happened here is passing the time in arcades with the locals because it’s a highly enjoyable activity to play MarioKart at the age of 23.
Asakusa is definitely a more traditional Tokyo, you’ll notice immediately that there’s a substantial amount less neon lining these streets. The area is pleasant to walk around but most people head here to check out Senso-ji temple, an old 7th century Buddhist temple in the heart of the district.
Close by to Asakusa is the Tokyo Skytree, the city’s tallest building. It’s one of Tokyo’s few landmarks and, providing the weather is good, is a great way to begin to wrap your head around just how huge this city is. On a very good day, you’ll also get a view of Fuji.
Make sure you munch on:
Tokyo is one of the most innovative places in the world for food. People here aren’t afraid to try new flavours and you shouldn’t be either because most of the time, they hit the nail on the head. So if you happen to come across something that sounds a little strange, then give it a try. Of course, Japan’s cuisine is one of the best in the world and Tokyo does it well so try the usuals – sushi, ramen, soba, tempura, anything matcha, yakatori and everything else that you can get your hands on.