WHEN one thinks of mega cities, Tokyo always appears near the top of the list. I’ve always been fascinated with this bustling Asian hub because it showcases the best of the best from this side of the world, going head to head with New York, London, Paris, and Sydney in terms of cutting edge technology, style, culture, sophistication, and modernism. Tokyo excels in so many things, from food to fashion, that it’s hard not to feel a bit jealous and overwhelmed when you visit—especially when you’re trying to cover as much as you can in just a few days! I happened to be lucky enough to make a trip there a couple of weeks ago, and here are my absolute favorite things about this Japanese gem of a city:
1. Food. You can’t leave Tokyo without going to the Tsukiji Fish Market for a super fresh meal. Be there pretty early, like 9-10 a.m., to line up at the popular restaurants inside the market and so as not run out of food. Prepare to wait in line at least an hour, and for the dishes to spoil you for life—because after this, Jap food at any other restaurant will never taste the same! Another must-try is Ichiran, which I now fondly call “antisocial ramen.”
You line up, place your order via vending machine, choose your preference for flavor, and sit at a tiny cubicle for one. Then the window opens, your ramen comes out, and that’s that. It’s so efficient and so good! You don’t even need to say a word to anyone the entire time—perfect for hungry travelers.
2. Shopping. Japan is known for several world-class brands like Onitsuka Tiger, SuperDry, Royce chocolates, Mikimoto pearls, Muji, Seiko, Uniqlo,
Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and (surprise!) Comme des Garcons. Stock up on your favorites here. And as far as shopping centers go, can anything be better than Takashimaya? If outlet stores for branded items are more your thing, go to Gotemba and shop to your heart’s content, with the majestic Mt. Fuji in the background.
3. Monuments. Despite the general look and feel of the city being ultra modern, it has plenty of preserved culture and tradition over centuries. Go to the Tokyo railway station, built as early as 1914, and take in its beautiful architecture. A short walk away is the Imperial Palace and the lush garden that surrounds it. Also check out the Meiji Jingu Shrine, a Shinto shrine lovingly dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. You’ll see barrels and sake and wine offered to these deities, and a line of people waiting to have their turn to worship—with a ceremonial bow, two claps, and another bow. Lastly, if you have more time (because I wasn’t able to), go to the Sensoji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo’s oldest (at 645AD) and most significant Buddhist temple.
4. Modern Marvels. You won’t run out of these here. First off, head over to the Shibuya scramble (right outside the Shibuya station where the Hachiko statue is located), where you’ll see massive crowds of people all rushing in several different directions. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen and gives you a real “hustle and bustle” feeling that can only come from a huge city. On a clear, beautiful night, go see the glowing Tokyo Tower peeking over Ropponggi Hills. For cosplay fans, you must hang out at Harajuku, where all the kooky costume folk make an appearance. The Japanese transportation system is also in itself a modern marvel—arriving on the dot, down to the last minute, and getting you everywhere quickly and super efficiently. You can even cross over to different cities via the Shinkansen bullet train.
5. Natural wonders. In my opinion, the very best thing you can do in Tokyo is to go see Mount Fuji. It is absolutely stunning, snow-capped tip and all. If you’re lucky, you can see it from the airplane window shortly before landing in Narita Airport, or from the window of your train ride to and from Tokyo. You’ll need to arrange a guided tour for better convenience, or go on your own via bus or train from Shinjuku station. This mountain can be quite elusive—winter is apparently the best time to go because there is hardly any precipitation to block the view, but be prepared for super chilly weather and very strong winds! I actually lost my glove trying to take a shaky selfie and did not know if I’d make it back inside the building without getting (literally) blown away, but it was so worth it. There are five lakes surrounding Mt. Fuji, and all of them can give you a breathtaking vantage point. You can do a cruise on a pirate ship over Lake Ashi, or take a cable car from a viewing station in Hakone—either way it’s bound to be unforgettable.
6. Nightlife. Oh, you’ll have a lot of choices in this department. There are a lot of restaurants and bars around Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ropponggi, and Ginza. My favorite was a little place in Shinjuku called the Golden Gai, where there are clusters of little bars and taverns where locals hang out for a drink after work. Have an Asahi beer or a Suntory whisky highball (what yummy discovery with cola or ginger ale), eat a bunch of takoyaki balls, and chat with new friends.
7. Seasonal activities. There are different things you can do depending on the changing seasons in Japan. In the spring, of course, everybody goes nuts over the cherry blossoms that bloom in full color all over the country. One of the best places to see this in Tokyo is the Shinjuku-Gyoen National Park—and there happened to be a few blossoming trees towards the end of winter! It felt like they came out just for me, and I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. In the fall, parks around Japan transform from green to gorgeous reds, oranges and yellows; it’s quite a sight to behold. In the winter, a popular activity is to go to an onsen, which is a hot spring bath. You can also go ice skating or take a look at the magnificent winter illuminations in Marunouchi, Yoyogi park, Shiodome, etc. These people sure know how to create a winter wonderland!
8. People. The Japanese are consistently the most polite, accommodating, pleasant people I have ever come across, and not in a pushy, fakely warm sort of way. They ensure you are comfortable, they give you the best directions they can manage (and even accompany you to the place sometimes just to make sure you get it), they are quiet and efficient and go the extra mile in their work. And although the average person on the street may have a little trouble speaking English, their smiles more than make up for it.
It is for these reasons, and many other beautiful memories, that I will always love this city. Till next time, Tokyo!