Last updated 25 August 2021
I was commissioned to write a story about a few of Tokyo’s neighbourhoods for an airline magazine in anticipation of the 2020 Summer Olympics (also known as Tokyo 2020.) I filed the story exactly 12 months ago. Sadly, since Coronavirus curtailed international travel, the airline is no longer publishing a magazine. So I’ve decided to publish my story here.
With fingers (and toes) crossed the delayed Games of the XXXII Olympiad will go ahead this year, from July 23 – August 8th. Eyes will be on Tokyo, even if they close the Olympics to international spectators, commercial TV will deliver Tokyo and surrounding places virtually.
And being an optimistic travel lover, one day, we will be allowed to tour Japan again.
Breaking down Tokyo one neighbourhood at a time
As the most densely populated urban area in the world, Tokyo is home to a staggering 37 million-plus people. If visiting the inner-city region, you’re moving along with over 11 million people every day. But don’t let those staggeringly large numbers put you off exploring Tokyo. I’ve created a list of the best places to visit in Tokyo and how you can avoid that feeling of overwhelm.
The city wards of Tokyo
When I returned to Tokyo in late December 2020, I was excited about the size of Japan’s capital city but feeling overwhelmed about how I was going to get around. On my first trip to Japan in 2017, I had to observe Tokyo from my Hotel window thanks to the unfortunate ski accident.
To avoid a sense of overwhelm I suggest looking at the large metropolis of Tokyo as wards or districts. There are 23 of them. Knowing each has a peculiar character, style and reputation, you can select a region based on your interests, or even your mood on the day. And the city’s efficient system of underground and overground railways enables effortless moving between neighbourhoods. By investing in a little time planning your day to move from one neighbourhood to another close by, you will cut down on time spent on transport and you’re more likely to enjoy and understand Japan’s multifaceted capital essence of Tokyo – on foot.
You may choose to wander through parks and gardens at a leisurely pace, pay homage at the city’s numerous shrines and temples, shop till you drop in the mega malls or shopping streets, have fun getting lost in the back alleyways of a district discovering bespoke shops selling an eclectic range of traditional goods before wandering through the neon-lit streets of Shinjuku at night and settling into an unforgettable night of Karaoke.
Tokyo has something for everyone.
Shinjuku a blend of modern and old
Four kilometres west of the Imperial Palace Shinjuku is the home of the country’s Emperor. The old-world charm and serenity of the Palace grounds are a contrast to the rest of this modern neon-lit neighbourhood. Shinjuku is busy. But you will argue that all of Tokyo is busy. And this is true. But Shinjuku seems to have more energy and the pace is fast!
Shinjuku Station shoulders the blame for the frenetic vibe. As the world’s most crowded station (certified by the Guinness Book of Records) around three and a half million people pass through the station daily (pre-Covid numbers.) Unless you’re familiar with the Japanese rail network and at ease with moving through a sea of people that to the visitor may feel like a Tsunami, maybe leave transiting through Shinjuku Station until you’re accustomed to traversing Tokyo’s railway system (or at least skip peak hour from 8 am – 9 am and after 5 pm.)
A band of railway tracks splits Shinjuku into two: East (Higashi-Shinjuku) and West (Nishi-Shinjuku.) West Shinjuku is crammed with towering modern skyscrapers containing offices and top floor restaurants delivering commanding city views. The 48-storey Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, designed by one of Japan’s beloved architects, Kenzo Tange, has some of the best free views of Tokyo (2-8-1 Nishi-Shinjuku.) On a clear day from the 248-metre high observatories on top each of the twin towers, glimpses of Mt Fuji can be viewed.
Since the opening of Shinjuku Station in 1885, East Shinjuku has been the partying area, luring city workers to enjoy a night-life interlude before making the commute home to the suburbs. There are over 200 exits in Shinjuku Station. If you take the west exit and turn north, you’ll find a series of narrow lantern-lit alleyways called Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane.) Below elevated train tracks, these narrow alleys are crammed with food stalls. If you cannot find the street, use your nose. Cooking aromas and smoke from open barbecues mingle with the night air. This is where office workers congregate, to wind down from a day’s work, relaxing with a beer while snacking on yakitori (skewered chicken) or oden (Japanese hotpot.) The menus are in Japanese but if your local language is languishing, pointing to pictures will usually suffice to get you a meal.
“Tokyo is the perfect place to get lost in the vastness of where you are.” Australian travel writer, Ute Junker.
Tucked discreetly in one of the six narrow and dimly lit Yokocho (alleyways) of Golden Gai are almost 300 bars. Inside the area’s diminutive drinking dens – some accommodate only three to four people, local workers (mostly suited businessmen) come for a nightcap, shedding their shy façade to happily converse with patrons. I don’t wish to generalise, but there seems to a segment of the Japanese population who don’t mind a drink or three. And if you’re not prepared for your evening to end in raucous often untenable discussion, I suggest you leave before they do. Even though the Japanese businessmen have work to go to the next day, they don’t seem to be concerned about nocturnal drinking. If you’ve ever taken a light night train back to your hotel or apartment, I’m sure you’ve observed one or two of those inebriated businessmen, who have nodded off to sleep on their journey ‘home.’ Harmless, but I always wonder if they wake up at their station.
Asakusa for history and old neighbourhoods
Located in Tokyo’s northeast adjacent to the Sumida River this popular neighbourhood was home to the city’s merchants and artisans during the Edo Period (1603 – 1867) when Japan was closed to international contact. Asakusa (pronounced ah-saku-sah) became the centre for culture and arts when the ruling Tokugawa Shogun outlawed frivolous activities within the city.
Asakusa’s focal point is Tokyo’s oldest temple, the Sensoji. Constructed in 645AD, Sensoji is one of the most religious places to see in Tokyo. It was destroyed in the bombings of WWII but was reconstructed between 1951 and 1958. Also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple, the entrance is via the striking Kaminari-mon gate (means Thunder Gate.) No matter which exit you take from Asakusa station they all lead to the gate with the enormous lantern, with the two deities on either side, the God of Wind (on the right) and the god of thunder (on the left.)
It is customary for visitors to stop beneath the gate and take a picture standing near the giant lantern (weighing 670 kilograms.)
To the east of the main temple is a smaller hall, the Asakusa Shrine, built in 1649 and miraculously surviving the bombings of WWII. The co-existence of a Shinto shrine within a Buddhist temple is a physical example of the Japanese acceptance of two religions – their indigenous Shinto religion and adopted Buddhism.
Before the entrance to the main hall, I watch worshippers place incense at a large bronze urn, then draw the smoke over any perceived ailing body parts. As they approach the shrine, the tradition is to bow twice, clap your hands twice, make a wish, and bow again. If this is not your religion it’s not necessary to take part in this ritual, and the Japanese, as welcoming as they are, will not frown on you if you do indulge in the ceremony.
Near the right-hand corner of the building, in front of the vermillion doors of the western wall, near a closed-in water fountain, a group of ladies wearing traditional kimonos congregate for photos. They smile shyly and demurely bow their heads for pictures. My eye is drawn to the ornate decorations – a mix of sakura blossoms and delicate origami -pinned in their styled hair.
Whenever you visit a Shinto temple or shrine in Japan you will notice most of them will have an area, usually off to the side of the temple’s entrance, with a water fountain, or a basin filled with water. These are called Chozuya or Temizuya, (Shinto water ablution pavilion.)
Near the fountains will be several wooden or metallic ladles which worshippers use to scoop the water up them to purify themselves before entering the Temple or Shrine. You can wash your hands, but do not drink the water or allow the water or ladles to touch your lips. (I observed many worshippers flicking the water over their shoulder.)
In the back streets behind Senso-ji Temple is the retro Hanayashiki Amusement Park. Operating since 1853, Japan’s first and oldest amusement park has a roller coaster that winds through residential backyards, operating at a maximum speed of 42 kilometres per hour. A sedate pace for all ages!
Step away from the busy temple to find in the quieter back streets many stores selling traditional artisan-made goods, like Edo-period-style cut-glass whisky tumblers and sake glasses. This area has escaped urbanisation which has transformed much of Tokyo into a modern-day metropolis. In this little pocket of yesterday, you will not be overshadowed by any towering skyscrapers. In Asakusa, the buildings are a fascinating blend of traditional and modern architectural styles. In the outside alleys, I spy a traditional two-storeyed building and awning that leans against a streamlined building of modern design – not at all out of place in Asakusa.
The headquarters of one of Japan’s biggest beer producing companies, Asahi is in Asakusa. The two ‘distinctive’ buildings were designed by French industrial architect, Phillippe Starck. The taller building (100 meters) is covered in golden glass with white top floors – meant to represent a gigantic glass of beer. The shorter and most iconic is the Super Dry Hall, with an enormous 360-tonne golden ‘object’ perched on top of its black granite façade (locals have infamously nicknamed it the golden turd!)
When the Tokyo Sky Tree opened in 2012, at 634 metres it was the world’s tallest ‘free-standing tower.’ But Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (or Burj Dubai) took that moniker in 2004. The view of Tokyo from the two observation decks at 350 metres (the Tembo deck) and 450 metres (the Tembo Galleria) during the day or at night is memorable. As is the ride between the observatory platforms in the glass elevator. Once the views and photos are done, head to the base of Sky Tree, to the shopping centre Solomachi, Shops on the fourth and fifth floor offer a wide selection of Japanese-made souvenirs.
And just on the off-chance that Japanese drum history takes your fancy, you might want to visit the Taiko Drum Museum, where you will find around 800 drums from around the world including several traditional Japanese Taiko drums. Drums are said to connect people with each other and with the gods.
Ueno for the open space
One of Tokyo’s largest open spaces, Ueno Park next to Ueno station was originally part of Kaneiji Temple, constructed in 1624 by the second Tokugawa Shogun. After the 1868 Battle of Ueno, the victorious forces of the new Meiji Government converted the grounds into a public park. A statue of one of the generals from the Battle stands at the Park entrance.
Inside the park are many museums. The prestigious Tokyo National Museum established in 1872, houses an extensive collection of Asian antiquities, including Japanese art, Buddhist sculpture and samurai swords.
The National Science Museum distinguished by a life-size statue of a blue whale on the grounds has interactive displays and some English language explanations. Look out for the taxidermy body of Japan’s canine hero, Hachiko on the second floor. A bronze statue of Hachiko sits outside Shibuya station, at the spot where the dog would wait for his master to return home from work (he did this for a decade after his master’s death.)
The recently renovated National Museum of Western Art houses works by Rubens, Tintoretto, Jackson Pollock and an original cast of one of the world’s most famous sculptures, Rodin’s The Thinker.
Also located inside the Park is Japan’s oldest zoo, Ueno Zoo established in 1882. A mixture of animals including gorillas, bears, and lemurs (the Japanese love ‘cute.’) But the big drawcard are the two pandas from China, Ri Ri and Shin Shin.
Three different districts that make up Yanesen
Within walking distance of Uneo is Yanesen. This quaint precinct hugs three downtown neighbourhoods, Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi – collectively known as Yanesen. Another of Tokyo’s historical areas, this ward has buildings that survived the Great Earthquake of 1923 and then the ravages of WWII. Somehow modern development has skipped the streets of Yanaka and instead, there remains many nostalgic examples of the Japan of yesteryear. Vintage wooden buildings and a pedestrian street – Yanaka Ginza are lined with shops that have maintained their mid-20th century aesthetic. You won’t see many modern convenience stores on Yanaka’s street corners. Shop owners have politely refused to succumb to the modernisation of other wards.
Bunkyo Ward where old and new comfortably co-exist
Northwest of Ueno Park, wander into the Bunkyo Ward where old and new comfortably co-exist. Bunkyo boasts one of Japan’s oldest surviving shrines, the Nezu-Jinja Shrine dating back to 1706. It is the final resting place for the Edo period’s first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. And the best part about this shrine is it’s less crowded than other religious shrines around Tokyo.
(Five minutes by foot from Nezu Station on the Chiyoda Line and Todaimae Station on the Namboku Line.)
Above the main Shinto shrine is a small series of tunnels of vermillion coloured Torri (gates.) If you’ve been to Kyoto’s famous Torri at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, these miniature versions will look familiar. A pathway lined with lush greenery and carp-filled ponds leads to the secondary shrine, the Otome Inari Jinja. According to history, the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Tsunayoshi, moved the shrine from its old location in nearby Sendagi to celebrate choosing his successor, his nephew Ienob.
The gardens have 3,000 azaleas. And if you’re visiting in spring, during late April and early May the park is awash with pink and red blooms, making for a beautiful photographic moment.
You can enter the shrine and make a wish in front of the main building of the Nezu Jinja. My wish didn’t turn out as I had planned – so I hung it on the fence in the hope it may bring ‘better’ things.
(Maybe that wish was a sign of things to come. Look at what unfolded in the world after my January visit in 2020!)
Bunkyo City is also home to the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome City, quirky museums, like the Japanese Football Museum for fans of all things soccer. On a quiet side street between Nezu and Todaimae stations, in front of the University of Tokyo, Hongo campus, are two museums (side by side.) Two connected galleries combine the Yayoi exhibit the collection of Kasho Takabatake, a book illustrator. The Yuemji Museum showcasing the work of a Japanese poet and painter Takeshima Yumiko. The gallery displays 250 works by Yumeji and they are mostly of beautiful Japanese women. This gallery is the only museum in Tokyo representing Yumije’s work.
Each Tokyo neighbourhood can very easily consume a full day of your time, but you will be rewarded with an appreciation for the nuances of this fascinating city. And like me, who in four days only covered a handful of Tokyo’s city wards, you’ll be left wanting to discover more.
I hope my story inspires you to explore further.
(I will be sharing my Top 10 things to do in Tokyo and some travel tips I found helped me navigate Tokyo. Watch this space.)
Book a local insider expert in Tokyo
I would also like to acknowledge how fantastic it was to have an expert guide from Inside Japan Tours on my last day in Tokyo. With a one-on-one guide for a day, showing me the places I was keen to see meant I wasted no time wondering how to get from ward to ward (no getting lost!) And with Mike Reddy (my guide) speaking fluent Japanese, I had a more immersive experience with someone who knew Tokyo like the proverbial “back of his hand.” I would never have discovered the hole-in-the-wall ramen restaurant in Nakano Broadway where we had lunch!
He even helped me with my bags to get onto the Narita express! Thanks Mike 🙂
Imagine having a personal travel planner like Mike guiding you around Japan?! If you are after a small touring company offering bespoke immersive experiences I highly recommend you take a look at Inside Japan Tours website.
Anyone can book a flight to Japan, book some hotels and walk around Tokyo and Kyoto visiting the tourist sights. But the insight that you get from our guides and local experts really elevates a trip and makes it such a better experience. And you can pack so much more into a day.Harry Sargant, Inside Japan Tours