Tokyo is more a city to experience than to see. Where there is no dearth of modern buildings with flashy lights, there are quiet trails with wide roads and greenery all around. The residential areas have several small coffee shops that serve fantastic coffee with cookies and snacks. The train stations are like cities by themselves and are very easy to get lost in and while there are restaurants everywhere, you may still have to stand in line to get inside one. People walk fast and look busy, but will happily stop to help you if you can explain in sign language what you want. Finally, it is hard not to be taken aback by the extent of the crowds, there are people everywhere! Enough to make some of the Delhi crowds feel like wilderness. Even in these crowded streets, there are hidden gems that will defy imagination.
Getting out of the airport was a charm and armed with my activated JR pass, I walked into the Narita express, the airport train that would take me straight to the Shinjuku Station. This isn’t a bullet train, but fast enough that you get to Tokyo in less than an hour. Then you have a lot more time to navigate the central Tokyo train stations – some of them are nothing like anything you have seen before – especially Shinjuku. In most countries, it would be about 15-20 metro stations but here in the lovely city of Tokyo, they just chose to make a single station. It has about 200 exits and on a weekday drives a footfall of over 3 million people – about the population of the city of Chicago. I did manage to figure out this station’s layout on my last day in the city, I felt proud! Well, I did find my way out and took a 500 meters stroll to my hotel. The lobby and the facilities seemed amazing, though the room was comfortable but tiny.
The street was packed with people, lots of lights, fancy signs, and some very alluring pictures of food outside of the many restaurants. Most of the walk happened to be in a traffic-free area, which was nice. Traffic-free didn’t mean empty, it just meant that you were in a pedestrian traffic jam, of sorts. I was keen to shower and come back out to these streets for a bite. I took a nap as well to make up for the crooked angles in the red-eye flight but then I was out with full enthusiasm for a late lunch. The first full meal in Tokyo was at this small local place and included some smoked chicken, soup, liver, and some sticky rice – delicious. I spend the first day just walking around Shinjuku and the commercial streets, a fascinating place.
The best way to get around the city is to take the metro trains and while the map can be intimidating to look at, it is one of the easiest metro systems to navigate. Each line on the metro is donated by a color and the stations are designated a letter (unique for each line) and a number (starts at 1 at one end of the line) – easy peasy. Though managing the crowds is just another story. If you have seen videos of these uniformed and gloved men pushing people into a train – that does happen in Tokyo. The good news is that it happens on some busy train lines and only in rush hour. So if you are a leisure traveler, it is not likely you will experience it unless you feel like going for a stroll in the office district at 8 am.
Among things to see in Tokyo, there are 4 that stand out – the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Meiji Shrine, the Imperial Palace, and the best of the lot the Sensoji temple. Besides these, there are markets to walk through, the Ginza district, Shibuya crossing, and a couple of towers with observatories on top. The first day I took the customary half day city tour, just to orient myself and get a feel of what I wanted to come back to.
The tour included the Tokyo tower, which is a replica of the Eiffel tower, only a little bit taller and build with a lot less steel – that is Japanese efficiency. The observatory on top offers some stellar views of the city, though some parts of it are under renovation to prepare for all the tourist influx for the 2020 Olympics. I was told that on a really clear day one could see Mt Fuji as well. It wasn’t a clear day then.
The major attraction covered on the tour was the Meiji Shrine. It was more culturally significant than spectacular, especially because the roof was under repair, again to prepare for the 2020 Olympics, which are now 2021 Olympics. It was a long beautiful walk to the Shrine, surrounded by greenery, a flower exhibition, and some empty sake barrels used as decoration. Most impressive were the surrounding lawns and just seeing a lot of people in traditional Japanese attire, especially kids. There is a tradition that the kids come here in full Japanese attire when they turn a certain age. I found out that there is a ritual of asking for a wish in the shrine and quite an elaborate one at that. After I washed my hands the right way to enter the shrine and then made a donation, clapped, and bowed in the correct order, I realized I hadn’t thought of a wish. An important thing to remember is that you have to make the donation before you start the process of asking for a wish. On the happier side, just 5 yen is mostly enough. The other discovery for the trip was on how much the Japanese believe in amulets as ways to be granted a wish.
In a city full of Shrines and temples, the one that stands out is the Senso-Ji temple. Like most places in Tokyo, it is a short walk from a train station. The best time to visit is just before it closes around 5 as the blue hour will make it look even more spectacular. It has beautiful architecture, vibrant colors and all this is surrounded by a pretty nice local market with a lot of small local things to eat. It is priced for the tourist, so be careful about what you buy. You can buy a lot of local wares, from home decoration items like lamps to household things like slippers. There is also a huge variety of food including these pastel-colored sweet balls, which let us just say tasted weird.
The last attraction we ended up at was the imperial palace. While the grounds and the palace themselves are serene and beautiful, the stories associated with the royal family and how the country holds the king in such high respect are even more amazing. The fall colors made the grounds look stunning but we had ended up at the palace on the one day of the week it is closed. So we did get to see the lawns and all but not all of the area.
The Tsukiji market is more to experience that to photograph. It is crowded with people and has extreme fish smell but it still is one of a kind. The best time to visit is at 4 am when the Tuna is auctioned but that was a little too much for me, so I stuck to the lunch hours and had my first ever bowl of raw fish and rice. Most fish they serve is raw but you can get some pretty good grilled eel and different forms of sushi. What stands out, though is their tuna and the salmon roe – delicious!
I actually spent a lot of time just walking around the city. I came across wonderful cafes, including some funky concepts like an owl cafe. You can actually sip your coffee in the company of a number of owls. I don’t get why, but it is considered to be therapeutic. A lot of restaurants at train stations had these amazingly tempting displays of food and desserts. I found these amazing Ramen bars where you ordered and paid into a vending machine-like device but the food was served to your table chef-made. At night I would be hounded by men trying to lure me into a “girl bar”. I did look them up but never went to one – paying to talk to a local girl seemed quite a sad thing to do. Exploring around would also lead me to the ‘busiest crossing in the world’, outside of the metro station of Shibuya. It is like a sea of people moving against a backdrop of LED screens and some seriously in your face lighting. That, in fact, is the essence of the city.