Last week we decided to take a long weekend off and visit Tokyo for 3 days. At first, I panicked a bit. Knowing that we will only have 3 days to explore one of the biggest cities in the world (35 million people), I wasn’t sure if I’d get to see much of it. But it turns out that we did plenty of stuff in 3 days, in fact I would say that this is the ideal time-frame for getting the most out of the city. That is if you travel at a more alert pace, like we did, hopping from one place to another.
Tokyo is one of the most exciting and lively cities I’ve visited so far. Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is a paradox of modern, hi-tech lifestyle and quite unexpected, old-fashioned living. It feels like there are different cities packed in this one city. While utterly crowded in some places, a few streets away it can get so quiet that you feel like whispering instead of talking. You get out of the small, homey restaurant where you’ve just finished eating your udon standing up, only to find yourself surrounded by skyscrapers and huge neon signs.
But I found Tokyo just a tiny bit disappointing. Having read so many articles about its eccentricity and having seen Lost in Translation some years ago, I expected to feel…well, lost like Bob, in a city that is constantly moving. Not being able to understand the language, expecting to see a lot of weirdos on the street or bizarrely clad women walking around. But it wasn’t like that. There were some strange and funny things I noticed, like slot machine emporia spreading out on several floors, fully packed with people at almost any hour of the day (strange), the flying sushi restaurants where your food gets zipped around on conveyor belts (both strange and funny) or the people who nap on trains in unusual poses (funny). All in all, Tokyo is as easy to enjoy and feel part of it as New York or Hong Kong are.
So what did we actually do and see in those 3 days?
I think of it as a more funky Tour Eiffel. Located not far from Roppongi Hills, standing at 333 meters, the tower offers a nice view of Tokyo. And it gets even more interesting at night, when the lights are on and the tower lights up the landscape in bright, electric orange.
It’s an elegant district with its landmark Roppongi Hills, an immense real estate complex that includes several shops, restaurants and an art museum. It was worth passing by on our way to the Tokyo Tower. You can take a look at the famous Spider sculpture called Maman by Louise Bourgeoise and spot some funky fashion characters.
Oh, and if you’re lucky, you can happen upon cute little schoolgirls, wearing the same uniform, quickly filling up the streets on their way home.
Tsukiji Fish Market
It’s the world’s largest fish market and it’s not to be missed. They say you can find anything that swims in the sea. One show in itself is the tuna auction that starts early in the morning at 5 a.m. There are only 120 spots available for spectators and the queue starts to form at around 4 am or even earlier. Some of the tuna here is sold for about $10k (the exquisite maguro, or Bluefin tuna). We missed the auction, but we enjoyed a walk in the market, taking a long look at all kinds of strange sea creatures. I couldn’t name half of them even if I tried.
Hama-rikyu Onshi-teien garden
I loved this garden because of the unique mixture between the peaceful atmosphere inside and the tall, modern skyscrapers outside. Usually, gardens in Japan are located in more secluded parts of town, clearly separating the tranquility from the noise of the city. But mixing them together creates a surprising, enjoyable feeling.
Strolling through Shibuya district
Shibuya is one of the most famous parts of Tokyo because of its nightlife, great shops and crazy kids. It’s also famous for its uber crowded crossing, featured in almost any movie set in Tokyo. They say that as many as 1000 people cross here at every green light, though we sat in the Starbucks outside for half an hour, and never counted more than 500.
Meiji Shrine and Harajuku
Once you’ve had enough of Shibuya madness, you can just walk for a few minutes and end up in a wonderful forest that shelters the Meiji Shrine. Once you get to the shrine, you can buy a small wooden tablet (ema), write a wish and hang it under the great tree in the middle of the courtyard. The monks will mention it in their morning prayers. I wrote a nice message to my parents and emailed them the picture. They loved it! :)
Just a few minutes outside the shrine you step into Harajuku, the center of hip Japanese street fashion. This is where I expected to see the craziest outfits, the young Lolitas wearing manga clothes, the mad hairstyles. But sadly, beside a couple of eccentric outfits, I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen before in NY. Maybe I wasn’t that lucky that day. Nevertheless, Harajuku remains a nice place to walk around and enjoy the small boutiques and cafes spread all over. It’s also the crepe capital of Tokyo, where you can sample such diet-busters as crepe filled with banana chocolate cheesecake and whipped cream on top.
Omotesando’s backstreet alleys
Perhaps my favorite part of Tokyo, Omotesando’s small streets form a minimalist area featuring cosy cafes, hair salons, bars and all kinds of colorful boutiques. Here we discovered the best espresso in Tokyo at Omotesando Koffee – a tiny coffee shop in a traditional Japanese house. The guy who makes the coffee wears a white coat (like a scientist in a lab :) and he really makes the best cappuccino I’ve had in Japan. They also have a lovely small garden just outside, where you can sip your coffee in peace. Perfect and quiet.
Shinjuku seen from the Government Building
An alternative way to see the business district, Shinjuku, is to go up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It’s free and the view is great, especially at night when you see all the buildings around lit up (the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is especially beautiful). And on a clear day, you can also spot Mt. Fuji.
Tokyo National Museum
And finally, if you still have energy left to get up, Tokyo National Museum is worth spending a couple of hours. You learn some the interesting things about Japan’s art and history and as the exhibits are not overcrowded, you won’t get tired like in other Western museums. And if you want a break, you can walk to the garden behind the museum, and sip a cup of matcha.