With a population of over 37 million inhabitants, the greater Tokyo area clocks in as the world’s largest metropolis. While the city itself contains only 13 million people, the outlying areas contribute roughly 25 million more to the population. As a Canadian, the thought of such a high density of people is staggering. After our last census, it seems that Tokyo as a region contains over a million more people than my entire country! All in an area a fraction of the size (about one one-thousandth if you do the math). This area counts for over one quarter of Japan’s entire population and also represents the largest metropolitan economy in the world.
All things considered, it makes perfect sense that you would expect Tokyo to be a cramped, congested city. In reality however, it isn’t; in fact Tokyo is far removed from many of the stereotypes that are typically pegged to major Asian centres. The city is actually a smoothly operated and well maintained machine which works around the clock to care for its streets and citizens. As we’re about to see, Tokyo is a beautiful city full of greenspace, skyscrapers, ancient temples, delicious food and endless reasons never to leave.
Before you continue, this is not a list of things to do while in Tokyo, but rather a narrative of the time I spent there (hence it’s length). I will be sure to come out with a shorter post containing a list of ‘Must See’s for Tokyo in the future, but this article is designed to give you an idea my time in the city itself.
Day 1: Getting There
Getting to Tokyo is time consuming, though only because of the incredible distance you have to travel–the actual transportation is fairly streamlined and efficient. If you’re flying non-stop as we did, flight times leaving North America’s west coast range between ten hours from Vancouver or Seattle, to about twelve hours from any major Californian airport.
Since Tokyo has such a high population density, it’s serviced by several airports, though there are two main international transit hubs: Haneda and Narita. Both of these are first rate airports and although Haneda is practically inside the city, we chose to route through Narita, which is about 70km to the East of Tokyo’s centre and 63km from our reserved guesthouse. The train itself is about an hour and fifteen minutes long (there are faster alternatives which make the trip in half the time, but are pricey) and costs 1030 yen, which at the time of travel was about ten dollars Canadian.
Arriving at Nippori station (in Arakawa district, just a couple kilometres north of Ueno Park), the sun was setting and since it was February, it was cold. A 15 minute walk landed us at the wasabi inn and guesthouse; an affordable and clean nook across from a Japan Rail line, though from inside the building, we never heard the trains. This would be our first experience of paying money to sleep not on a bed, but mats on the floor.
Day 2: Imperial Palace And Kabuki Theatre
Arakawa is an old district of Tokyo which is named for the river which flows nearby. We walked about the twisting streets, enjoying the sights and sounds of an early morning in Tokyo, until reaching a small bakery to buy breakfast. We walked to one of the city’s main motorways, under which we linked up with the metro. As a fan of metro systems (don’t ask me why, I just really like them) I was shocked by the size and complexity of Tokyo’s subway. With the exception of Moscow and St. Petersburg’s beautifully decorated underground system, Tokyo is by far the most impressive example of public transit I have ever seen. With 13 lines and 285 stations scattered across the city, the trains are fast and efficient–and they need to be, since Tokyo’s subway system carries an incredible 8.7 million people every day! If you intend on staying in Tokyo for any amount of time, I really recommend getting a metro pass. Prices vary, but are well worth the money. It’s important to note that with such a pass, you can ride the metro unlimited times but only on specific lines. This isn’t a problem though, as the lines which accept a metro pass service just about every section of Tokyo.
Once we deciphered the spider web of train tracks sprawled out on our map, we boarded the Hibiya (grey) line and travelled to Tsukiji, where the massive fish market can be found. Unfortunately, it was a national holiday and the market was closed. From here we walked Northwest into the highrises of Ginza, an upscale district known around the world for its shopping. We came to a theatre for the performing arts and decided to buy tickets to see one segment of a traditional Japanese play. This style of drama is known as Kabuki, and is Japan’s favourite form of classical theatre. Kabuki is known for having elaborate costumes and makeup as well as complex stage mechanics, such as revolving walls and traps in the floor to rise and lower actors and objects. The segment we saw lasted under an hour, which was enough time for me to feel as though I had filled some cultural quota. Performing arts have never been my cup of tea. Despite my reluctance to see any play, I would have to say that given the age and history of Kabuki, it is a cultural spectacle worth seeing, if only once.
The next stop was central Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. You can’t get into the palace itself, as that is off limits for all but the royal family, but a huge portion of the fortified island (land surrounded by a moat, really) has become a park. Since it was sunny out, and we were all jetlagged, we had a nap atop one of the fortifications. The area, despite being surrounded by urban sprawl, is really quite placid with historical buildings and stonework hidden amongst the trees. It’s so calm here in fact, that you can quite easily forget that you are in the largest human centre on the planet; and for that reason alone, I would suggest going.
Day 3: Tsukiji, The National Museum And Shibuya
Today was not a national holiday, so we reattempted yesterday’s failed trip to the fish market. Words have a hard time depicting the size of the place, which I would bet contains more species of marine life than most aquariums. Walking down the alleyways between stalls you’ll watch large tuna being filleted, wriggling octopus in shallow tubs, giant prawns and more fish than you could ever hope to count. Since the whole place is divided up and separated by narrow walkways, it is difficult to capture with a camera just how large the market really is. One thing is certain however; after witnessing the sheer volume of each day’s catch you honestly wonder how there can be any life left in the sea.
Next stop was Japan’s national museum, which was well worth the trip. The building is located at the north end of Ueno park, which is one of my favourite locations in Tokyo, particularly at night when Shinobazu pond (at the south end) and its quiet temple are backlight by dozens of towering buildings with their branching neon signs and glowing offices.
The museum is by far one of the best I have visited, displaying cultural artifacts from all over the world (including an interesting exhibit on the middle east) and walking us through the complex history of Japan as a nation. For those of you who prefer to understand the culture and historical background of the places you visit, the national museum should be at the top of your list of things to do while here. Bring an international student card if you have one, and you’ll pay less to get in.
Soon it was time for dinner, and since my father was leaving the next day, we thought it best to find a bite to eat in the liveliest part of town: Shibuya. From Ueno station we hopped on the Ginza (orange) line, which was Tokyo’s first subway beginning construction in 1925, and headed all the way to the terminus. Shibuya is situated to the west of Tokyo’s centre and is best known for its scramble crossing, an intersection which pulses between inundations of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. One building overlooking the crossing contains the world’s busiest Starbucks, which occupies several stories just to accommodate the throngs of locals and tourists constantly pouring in. Incidentally, the coffee shop is one of the best places to view the somewhat tide-like hordes of shoppers, sightseers and businessmen going about their day en masse. As a cautionary note, if you are up there for the view rather than the coffee, you’ll be politely asked to leave.
Like its famed intersection, the rest of Shibuya’s shopping and nightlife-oriented centre is bustling and chaotic. Bright colours flash from signs at every angle and the drone of thousands of night-time merrymakers on their way in and out of pachinko parlours is deafening. Ducking out of the main drag, we headed into a quieter but more congested market complex. Passing delicious-looking menus and advertisements left and right, we eventually had to stop exploring and sit down to eat.
The stall was deep but narrow, with the only available space at the far end. As we shuffled sideways between businessmen on bar stools and the wall (like I said, it was narrow) the air became thick with the smoky flavour of frying meat. Once seated, we ordered a few dishes and shared them amongst ourselves. The food was excellent but when it came time to pay the bill, there was an extra twelve dollar charge added on for the edamame beans which had been set out for us upon arrival. We had assumed that these would have been free for patrons, but apparently not. Although this seemed a little dishonest, especially when we were being charged such a high price for what were essentially brined beans, we chalked it up to our own ignorance and paid; making sure to be aware of this practice in the future it if was in fact a Japanese custom.
Day 4: A Bird’s Eye View
As it was my father’s last day in Tokyo, we headed out to the another stop on his bucket list. Shinjuku Station services three lines: Odeo (magenta), Shinjuku (light green) and Marunouchi (red), which makes getting there a real ease. From the station, we walked up to the surface and around a few corners to stand under the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
The tower is massive, standing 48 stories tall, it reaches up nearly 250 metres. At the 33rd floor, the building separates into two prongs, which stretch up for the next thirteen floors. There are two observation decks near the top of each prong, which look out onto he rest of the city. Sitting at 202 metres in the air, you can see all the way to Mount Fuji if the weather is clear. The view from these decks is astounding, and it won’t be long before two very distinct characteristics can be noticed:
- You can’t see the end
- There is no traffic
It’s true, you can see Fuji off in the distance, but the city might as well stretch all the way there. In all directions, if there is land, then you can’t see the edge of the city. Standing up here, it’s easy to believe that the greater Tokyo area houses more people than the entirety of Canada. Similarly, the traffic is practically non-existent. Where there is traffic however, it flows smoothly through the city at a rate that is very pleasing to watch. Unlike North America (I’m talking to you Los Angeles) where traffic congestion is often horrific, Japan seems to do just fine. This is not only thanks to their glorious metro system which takes a few million potential drivers off the road daily, but also because Japan has less vehicles per person than us. In 2014, Tokyo had less than 0.5 cars per household. Compare that to the US, which in the same year had about two cars per household, and you’ve got yourself an answer. There are four times as many cars per house in the United States than in Tokyo. Furthermore, people don’t drive giant SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans in most other countries for the very sound reason that they take up too much space. Add these factors together and you can’t help but feel jealous of Tokyo’s roadways.
I later returned to The Metropolitan Government building with my friend Laura whom I had met at the museum earlier. She is from France, and was taking a year off from university to live in Japan and then South Korea. Some of the pictures I’ve shown here have come from her camera. Tokyo at night is one of the prettiest skylines I’ve seen and the MGB is definitely the place to see it, especially since it’s free.
Shibuya around 9:00pm gets even more wild. The pachinko parlours are louder (to the point where you actually can’t hear anything else), the lights are brighter and the people are crazier. We found a karaoke booth after a great deal of searching and released our inner rock stars, only to realize the walls were thin enough everyone could hear us outside the door. Back out we went, and to our surprise the hordes of partygoers were all staggering out of Shibuya rather than in, heading home to get some rest before work the next day. People were singing and dancing, laughing and waving to their friends as they parted. There is something quite funny about seeing the normally stoic Japanese let loose and if you enjoy people watching, this is definitely the place to do it.
Day 5: Asakusa
To the East of Ueno Park sits Asakusa, an old district riddled with temples and shrines amongst apartments and businesses. It’s another example of the old-meets-new aspect that crops up so often in Tokyo. Walking about the streets is a real treat, and many of the buildings are some of the oldest in the city. This of course isn’t saying very much, since most of Tokyo was destroyed during wartime bombing. Carrying on, we reached the beautiful Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon who in English is usually referred to as the Goddess of Mercy.
Within the temple complex there were a surprisingly small amount of tourists (perks of travelling in February), though many locals had come to pay homage to their faith. I watched from the steps of the main temple as spiritual visitors washed themselves in smoke from a large pyre burning incense and wood. Someone later told me this act was to bring good fortune to the visitors. The temple complex also houses an impressive five storied pagoda, which at night glows bright gold in the temple lights.
Further to the east is the Tokyo Skytree, a large spike similar to the CN Tower in Toronto. Unlike the Metropolitan Government Building, the Skytree is removed from downtown Tokyo, and costs money to enter. My mother and I decided not to go up, though we did visit the aquarium in the tower’s base.
For the rest of the day, we ambled down back alleys and narrow streets of Asakusa and around Ueno Park. It’s truly amazing how quiet the city is. At one point we passed by a construction crew doing roadwork and it wasn’t until I was beside them that I realized the large machine they were using to cut through the concrete was as it turned out, running.
Day 6: Until Next Time
The last day was filled with a quick stroll about the houses around our guesthouse. Between Ueno Park and Nippori Station (to the north) there is a neighbourhood filled with graveyards. Unlike typical western graveyards, these are filled with stone monoliths and decorated wooden sticks, both of which are called stupas (foolishly thinking I knew what a stupa was, this confused me for some time until I read about it here) before grabbing a bite to eat at a local bakery and boarding a train to Narita.
In a later post, I will be sure to come up with a definitive list of things to do while in Tokyo, which once written, you will be able to find here.