Tokyo, capital of Japan and the most populous metropolitan area on earth. 845 sq miles accommodate an urban world swimming in dichotomies: ancient architecture and traditions stand the test of time alongside towering skyscrapers and visions born of science fiction. Truth be told, statistics and second-hand accounts do the city’s reality no justice: one simply has to visit in order to understand its universal appeal. Until then, consider this entry in the Nippon Dreamz library a humble appetizer.
“Tokyo”, or eastern capital, is actually one of the 47 prefectures of Japan. It was known as Edo for centuries until the Emperor moved the seat of Japanese government there in 1868 during the Meiji period. Seeing as Tokyo is both a city and a prefecture, it has a diverse geographical layout. Everything from bustling urban centers to quiet mountain side towns is easily accessible by one of the most competent rail systems in the world. People have said that so many areas of the city resemble a “downtown”, which is a testament to the fact that Tokyo is actually a hive of cities that has grown together, merging over the years. The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, as it’s called, is separated into 23 special wards, which constitute the area most associated with “Tokyo”, 26 towns and small cities and finally numerous islands and national parks. This article will focus on the highlights of the 23 special wards leading to more exploration of the various cities and towns throughout the year.
The special wards are informally separated into Central Tokyo, Shitamachi, or “downtown”, and the suburbs. Central Tokyo is graciously connected by Japan Rail’s ever dependable green Yamanote line as well as numerous metro trains. The area is dominated by such internationally renown pop juggernauts as Shinjuku and Shibuya. Shinjuku is home to the busiest train station in the world and populated by a sea of luxury hotels, karaoke bars and the questionable Kabukicho district. Refusing to be left behind, Shibuya shines as an amalgamation of design and consumerism. Where else can one join hundreds walking the largest crosswalk in the world under luminous giant screens?
Harajuku is one stop away on the Yamanote line and is the home of Tokyo’s youth culture. On a Sunday, keep an eye open. Sifting through the crowds of cosplayers, you may or may not come across a little Bo-peep or two in heavy mascara and baby doll curls. If possessed by all things anime and electronics related then Akihabara can’t be missed. The area is lost in the golden age of arcade culture that has waned elsewhere and most anything that runs on electricity can be found in the maze of discount shops. Odaiba is a future wonderland, an artificial island reached by an automated, driver-less train. Here, structures like the Fuji TV building and the Venice themed “Venus Fort” shopping mall are reminiscent of the surreal visions of caffeine fueled design students I knew in college. The giant Gundam mecha only further solidifies that. Maybe the fever dream is getting too intense? Ginza stands tall and dignified with its posh department stores and well-to-do couples in furs and Lexus sedans on their way to the newly renovated Kabuki-za theatre.
To the north and east lie the old town, Shitamachi. If you ever need to slow down on the futurism and glitz of central Tokyo, head here to experience lingering traces of old Edo. Sumida, known for its annual fireworks show, is also home to Ryogoku, or “sumo town”. Here it is commonplace to see the wrestlers themselves strolling the narrow alleyways clad in yukata. A sumo match at the Kokugikan is an experience I have yet to witness, but I do recommend a visit to one of their training dojos called a beya. It is possible with a little research and planning, just make sure to show the proper respect, maintaining a calm demeanor, believe me it helps.
Head over to Ueno and step back into post-war scenery as the many small buildings and open air markets evoke the quaint charm of 1950’s Tokyo. More of a time warp lies in Tokyo National Museum, located inside Ueno Park across from the station exit aptly labeled “Park Exit”. Facilities are numerous, housing antiquities dating back to prehistory. If a bit of living history is what you desire then Asakusa is a great mix of authentic architecture and antiques mixed with well-meaning souvenir shops. Keep heading north from the station past Sensoji Temple’s red lantern and the amusement park to find one of Tokyo’s last surviving hanamachi geisha districts, Kannonura. You can’t go far without bumping into a knowledgeable rickshaw driver ready to spirit you around the town.
There is much, much more that simply cannot be explored in one article so come back all this year to uncover the hidden gems and new shades of well-known pop culture in Tokyo and throughout Japan. Hope to see you soon, sayonara!