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This page was last updated 27 January 2009.
Contents: Electronic Town in Akihabara • Roppongi • Ginza, Shinjuku, Shibuya • Kamakura • Ueno park, Imperial Palace park • Atsugi • Harayuku, Tokyo Tower, Odaiba • Ikebukuro, Yoyogi, Kabukicho • Tsujiki central fish market
This is my second visit to Tokyo. It was actually a two-week business trip, but I had two free weekends, one public holiday, and a few evenings to myself, and I made the most of them.
From Narita Airport I took the JR airport express to Shinagawa, 95 minutes. Checkin at the Strings Intercontinental. After checkin, some time in the evening was left, so I decided to get my first impression of Tokyo in the Electronic City of Akihabara. This is a district where many electronics and toy shops are clustered. Electronics means large crowded stores with millions of cameras, electronic translators, mp3 players, and other gadgets, but also electronic components.
There are alleys with little stores, almost like booths, that sell assorted electronic components like resistors, LEDs, DIP sockets, all imaginable kinds of connectors, tools, LCD panels (and I mean just the naked panel, no housing or controller). One half expects to see pure silicon ingots or bottles of liquid crystals.
|Electric town of Akihabara|
Obviously everything seems turned on at the same time, electronic noise sounds across the streets from hundreds of little stores. Huge billboards in front of the stores list everything the store sells, with prices, and all in Japanese only. It's like an amusement park for geeks. Although, oddly, I didn't see anything I'd want to buy - most of that stuff I would get in bulk online at home. Prices seemed slightly on the high side compared to the online prices I know. In Japan, every advertisement, every price tag, and every soft drink bottle must use every color of the rainbow, and the less spacing there is between them, the better. Also fascinating are the restaurant displays. All the dishes are modeled in plastic; looks quite real. And in supermarkets you see fruit, each individually wrapped in a plastic foam mesh and shrinkwrapped.
|Soda vending machine||Plastic food display|
Got a recommendation to see Roppongi after work. First went down the street to Roppongi Hills, a tower and mall. Nicely done. Went up to the top of the tower to see the Tokyo City View, and the Mori Art Museum, for 15 kiloyen. It was dark, and the view is great, except that they have too much light inside that reflects off the windows. The Tokyo Tower looks great from up here. The Mori Art Museum had a moderately interesting exhibition of contemporary Indian art.
|City panorama at night, with Tokyo Tower||Roppongi mall|
Then wandered aimlessly about Roppongi. The main street, Roppongi-dori, has a raised highway in the middle that blocks the view. Many of the side streets seem residential; small low buildings with a few restaurants. In the more busy sections around Roppongi Crossing, near the Metro station, things turn somewhat seedy - lots of touts want to drag you into their nightclubs, "nice topless sir" - beg your pardon? It's rather annoying. There is another mall development there, the Tokyo Midtown, that is newer than Roppongi Hills and nicer to look at, but doesn't have the view.
At night I was invited to a Sushi dinner at Sushi-sen in Ginza. This is a famous place. Patrons sit on a bench around the kitchen, where the cook prepares sushi (in our case sashimi) by shaping a small portion of rice, adds a light touch of wasabe - the real stuff, not the stuff they export - and puts a slice of raw fish meat on top. Some he lightly brushes with an open flame; a few are marinated, but most are just raw meat. And it tastes wonderful. The meat melts on your tongue, far better than anything you are likely to get in Sushi places in Europe or America. And the little wooden platters don't stop coming, they have over fifty kinds and all are perfect. A wonderful dinner that one can have only in Japan.
Bought a Suika card that lets me use the JR and metro network without cash. Spent about 1000 Yen the whole day. The cost structure of Tokyo's various transportation systems is enormously complicated and basically impossible to predict if you don't read Japanese, so the Suika card saves lots of time.
The Japanese are so organized and disciplined, they line up at the little markers that show where the train doors will stop. Yet, like in all countries I have been in where they drive on the left, there is no hard rule that I could make out on whether you pass people on the left or right. Mostly but not always on the left. Little arrows on stairs sometimes steer you to the right and sometimes to the left side. Almost noone walks against a red light, and everybody stands on the left side of escalators and walks on the right. Very orderly. Everybody is exceedingly polite except when pushing into a crowded metro, then it's all elbows.
This is my Tokyo downtown day. First went to Asakusa to see the Senso-ji Shinto temple. There is an extensive tourist shopping street network there. The temple is large and quite packed. It has a large gate building, followed by a courtyard with a tub and an incense kettle, and a five-story pagoda. People come here to pray - first clean their hands, then wave some incense smoke in their faces, walk up to the main shrine, throw some coins in the offering box, hold their hands up and bow to the shrine. All very orderly with appropriate lines. Like so many temples in Tokyo, it was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt.
|Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa|
Next I took the metro to Ginza, Tokyo's most famous shopping street. Like the Champs-Elyséés in Paris, except that the buildings here are all skyscrapers. And they have those large intersections with pedestrian crossings on all four sides and both diagonals turning green at the same time, flooding the whole huge intersection with people in seconds. Several streets were pedestrianized that day, and people put tables and chairs in the middle of the very wide road, with people walking everywhere. The shops are not too remarkable though - the same international chains one finds in every major city. The most remarkable thing about the Ginza is its size.
|Ginza shopping district||Pedestrian crossing, Ginza|
After I got tired of craning my neck, I went northwest a few blocks to see the Imperial Palace. There isn't actually much to see here - a statue, a few gates at the moat, and a small section of the park. The rest is closed to the public. Unfortunately the park closes very early (15:30) and I came too late.
Next was Shinjuku. It's a shopping district like Ginza, but far more crowded and packed with tall and not so tall buildings, neon advertising displays running up the facades, people, and shops. Ginza is elegant; Shinjuku is chaotic.
My last stop that day was Shibuya, a mellower version of Shinjuku. Not so tall buildings here, narrower streets, but still plenty of neon signs. It really deserves more than two sentences but it was late, I was getting tired, and headed back to the hotel.
Tokyo is a very modern city, I have seen very few historical buildings and most of those are reconstructions after WWII. Since Kyoto and Nikko are very far away, two hours by Shinkansen and local trains, I decided to visit Kamakura. That is a quiet residential town one hour west of Tokyo, that has several dozens of old temples dating back to the seventh century AD. Kamakura's great time was from the end of the twelfth to the middle of the fourteenth century, when it was the cultural center of Japan at a time when Zen Buddhism was reaching Japan from China. All of Kamakura can be walked, although it's quite a lot of walking - the temples are scattered over several square kilometers.
It's kind of easy to get lost in Kamakura, even with a GPS unit. Or should I say especially with a GPS unit, until I realized that like so many Japanese maps, the tourist map they hand out at the information center at the train station does not have north pointing up. My first stop, the large Shinto temple compound that houses the Kamakura Museum of National Treasures is hard to miss - follow the narrow "shopping street" with its many tourist trap shops until it turns into a lampion-lined path in the middle of the road, straight to a long stairway to the gate building and the museum behind it. Very large and impressive, and quite packed with tourists on a Sunday morning.
Next I went to the Shinto Raikoji temple. Direction signs exist but are a little spotty. Usually it helps to follow the other tourists but few people wanted to see Raikoji, which is very small, and closed to visitors, but has a beautiful little cemetery on the top of a hill.
The Buddhist Kamakurago temple is larger and scenically located in front of a hill. The almond tree next to it was blossoming - in the middle of January! I also went further to the Buddhist Sugimotodera and Zuisenji temples. The latter is a short way up a hill with a beautiful garden with various small outhouses. There are lots of temples here, mostly Buddhist; I visited maybe half of them.
From Sugimotodera I went back, past the train station, to the Yuigahama beach. The town of Kamakura wraps around a large bay open to the Pcific ocean, and many people are bodysurfing here, on rather low waves, in full-body drysuits. It is, after all, January. I took the long way back to see the Buddhist Hasedera temple, a large complex with a great view over the beach and the city. There is a short trail leading up the hill; many tourists line up there to take pictures of the beach and the town.
By then, the sun started setting, so my final temple that day was the great Buddha of Kotokuin (Daibatsu). It's a huge statue that is now Kamakura's main attraction - mention that you have been to Kamakura and you'll be asked, did you see the Buddha? You can go inside and climb up to two large windows that open up incongruously on the Buudha's backside, but the line was enormous so I skipped that. Once again, Japanese tourists amazed me when they took their obligatory pictures with their cell phone cameras that aren't much larger than a grain of rice. Surely this Buddha deserves more than that.
In the morning I went to the Ueno Park that had been recommended to me. The park is fairly large but it seems that every corner of it has been put to a use. There are many very wide paths and squares, all asphalt, that sometimes make the trees look like an afterthought. A large section to the southwest is a lake with a shrine in the middle. They advertise boat rides but the lake is completely overgrown with reeds. For the first time, I saw homeless people, sleeping near a fountain, and a little garbage bag tent village behind a children's amusement park.
Ueno has its share of shopping streets, but they completely lack the elegance and luxury chain stores of Ginza. Especially the one along the raised railway tracks beginning at the southern end of the park almost looks like a flea market. It's quite pleasant to walk there and watch the people and the little shops.
|Shrine in Ueno Park||Emperor's park|
Next I went back to the Imperial Palace to see the park there. It's enclosed in strong walls, but little is left to protect. Apart from some (closed) guard houses and a tea house, nothing remains of the old palace. It's a very pleasant park, very carefully landscaped, with a small pond with Koi carp. They also have a little museum of pottery made by members of the royal family. Not at all fancy, just some small glazed pots; it's more the human touch than the huge golden ornaments that one might expect from the imperial household.
|Emperor's palace||Samurai statue near Emperor's palace|
The weather had become uncomfortable and we got a bit of snow, so I decided to go to Ginza again instead of Shinjuku Park. I saw the Camera Bic department store - electronics on seven large floors, not only cameras but also computers, DVD and audio players, "Bru-rays", watches, translators and other assorted gadgets, and washing machines. There are electronics megastores in Europe too, but not anywhere as crowded, chaotic, and packed with huge lurid advertisements as this. The prices are not very attractive.
And you see many people holding up signs and trying to pull you into a specific section; not only in stores but also outside. I saw two guys vaguely made up like manga characters holding signs, or should I say leaning on their signs hoping to not freeze to death, advertising some pachinko parlor next door. (Pachinko parlors look like office floors packed with as many deafeningly loud Pachinko game machines as will fit in the crowded space. Looks like a Las Vegas slot machine hall but without the fake glamor.)
|Electronics store in Ginza||Invitation to Pachinko parlor, Ginza|
Visited Atsugi. Atsugi doesn't have anything like Tokyo's distractions, it is the gateway to hills and lakes. The even have a cable car. Unfortunately there was no time to explore those. We got to Atsugi on a train called "romance car". Nothing romantic about it; it's an express train with a conductor cabin above the passenger cabin, so it's possible to sit in front and watch the tracks and the city passing by.
The Meiji Jingu park near Harayuku station is different from all the others I have seen. It's large, old, serene, and peaceful; huge trees forming avenues to the Shinto shrine of Meiji Jingu park. The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, who opened Japan to foreigners in the late 19th century. The shrine is very large, and although reconstructed, feels very authentic - no modern materials here. Like in other Shinto shrines, there are large coin boxes in the inner courtyard where people donate coins, and pray and bow deeply.
|Meiji Jingu Shrine|
Outside the main gate a couple was preparing for a wedding. They were dressed in traditional wedding gowns, and the bride had her hair made up in the traditional style. A photographer made pictures, and I made pictures too.
I also went to the Tokyo Tower near Roppongi. This is a large steel tower reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but painted bright red and white. The flyer is careful to point out that at 333 meters it is 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. I rode up the the observation deck at 150 meters; the view of Tokyo from here is fantastic. The picture at the top of this page was taken from there. They also have a small section where the floor is made of glass, so you can look all the way down. The section is too small to be scary though.
They also have another observation deck at 250 meters, but I didn't go there - the line was too long, and from up there it all looks like from an airplane window.
Finally, I went to Odaiba. That's an island in Tokyo Bay, connected to the mainland by the Rainbow Bridge. The Yurikamome monorail train from Shimbashi to Odaiba that runs on the Rainbow Bridge. Aomi station is a good place to stop. Everything in Odaibu seems to be over the top - there are gigantic Toyota car showrooms, so large that they have indoor roads for test driving, and various exhibitions. When I was there, there was a kind of fashion event where teenage girls attended in the most outrageous, and apparently homemade, clothes.
They also have a huge pachinko hall with countless machines, plus all sorts of other amusements, including the most absurdly elaborate pinball machine I have ever seen. I bet some people have smaller homes than this thing. It's enormously loud, and fast food vendors line the walls.
|Odaiba Dream Bridge||Venus Fort mall in Odaiba|
The Venus Fort shopping mall is built to look like an old Italian village (not anything like Venice though). It's actually quite well done, within the constraints of a mall, including a fake sky. If you accept that Italian villages look like ancient Rome, have a quite uniform architecture with all roofs on the same level, have huge display windows and indoors escalators, and a parking garage above the sky. Oh well. It feels absurd in an amusing way.
Still had to do some gift shopping, so I combined that with a visit to Ikebukuro, a district with two enormously large department stores, Tobu and Seibu. Nothing here is labeled in English, but the guide leaflets are provided in many languages. These are quite generic department stores, except that what the Tobu guide so plainly labels "bakery" is a gigantic confectionary with pastries in every conceivable form and color. I have not seen anything comparable in Paris.
The Seibu department store is on the other side of the tracks and a little difficult to reach. Their main parking garage entrance is manned by five guards who watch the traffic and protect pedestrians.
Ikebukuro is otherwise unremarkable. Several large and small shopping streets cluster around the train station. Once again, I have seen transients with their cardboard boxes in this otherwise so clean city.
In the end I got my gifts - where else - in Akihabara's Electric Town.
Next on the itinerary was Harajuku again, at the Yoyogi stadium. At the entrance of the park, several groups of Elvis Presley impersonators were parading their unlikely hairstyles and leather outfits, dancing Rock'n'Roll with girls in skirts to loud music.
Nearby, on the bridge between the park and the station, other girls were engaged in "cosplay", costume play, with wild hairstyles and makeup. Some brought large suitcases with accessories. The girls were on one side of the bridge and the tourists with their cameras on the other. A very long telephoto lens is a great way to pick out faces from the crowd.
|Elvis lives! In Tokyo.||Costume play in Yoyogi|
Finally, I went to Kabukicho, north of Shinjuku. A large part of this district is residential, with long narrow streets lined by small two-story houses, with almost no space to park cars or bicycles, and no car traffic. Very quiet. Then I got to a part of Kabukicho with a very large number of small hotels, more than one would think would be useful here. Suspiciously, they distinguish "stay" and "rest", and finely distinguish the prices for the time of the day and the number of hours you wish to "rest".
Then follows a veritable red-light district. Roppongi might have a few clubs with loud pushers, but here there are plenty of pornography shops, "gentlemen's clubs", hookers, and adult video arcades. One has a sign that says "Japanese only", I wonder what kind of different pleasures it offers. It's all very gaudy and in no way discreetly hidden like in Roppongi.
My last day. Early in the morning, at five o'clock, I took the Yamanote train to Shimbashi and walked ten minutes to the Tsujiki Central Fish Market. This is where the 20 million people in Tokyo get their fresh fish. It's absolutely huge, packed with stalls where vendors offer their fish and seafood in styrofoam containers in endless aisles. Some of the fish is cut and diced here; there are fish that must weigh over a hundred kilograms very carefully and very deftly cut by men with enormous knives. Other large fish, perhaps 30 kg, are frozen, and they have electric saws to cut them. The very best pieces of fish, doubtless the kind that went into my sushi dinner a few days ago, are sealed in plastic boxes and chilled on ice or in open refrigerators.
|Tsujiki Fish Market|
Between all this, small electric and hand-pushed carts carry fish containers between the market and the surrounding loading docks. The place doesn't smell like fish at all, it's all scrupulously clean and fresh. Here you have a huge hall full of dead fish (well, a few things still move) and there is no smell. In most other Asian countries I have visited such a place would reek. You have to watch out for people emptying water buckets on the ground though, this is not a place to wear your best clothes. I went here early in the morning because that's when all the action happens; the market shuts down completely at 13:00. There are very few tourists.
Find more pictures in my Tokyo web gallery.
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