Is it true or am I imagining it… that Tokyo has an impression of being only about temples, gardens and museums? That it is no place for the young, and it’s only for those who love peace and calm and serenity. Read as ‘for the twilighters?’
A friend of mine who’s been following my blog posts on Japan got excited about planning a trip to Japan this summer. But, his teenaged daughter was certainly not! So, this is a big shout out for those who think Japan is boring…
Hey! Thats so not true. Tokyo is a very cool place. It is a beautiful city that bridges the gap between the traditional and modern with an attitude!
Yes, there are hundreds of shrines and temples here, but they keep the Japanese anchored to their roots and traditions. The gardens here belong to another world. And the museums!… The museums here will change your perception of museums.
And, of course, like any modern city there are also the sky kissing tall structures and free-wheeling flyovers and expressways and swankiest of cars zooming past.
Food!! Did you know, Tokyo has the pride and honour of having the highest number of Michelin star restaurants?! And alongside the gourmet restaurants you will also be spoiled for choice with the sheer number of Izakayas you will find along every corner of Japan.
An Izakaya is… you can call it inexpensive Japanese dhaba or beer bar that serves alcohol with a menu of light snacks. It’s almost a ritual for the Japanese to head for a bar, be it an Izakaya or a pub-kinda place to wind down after work till late evenings. Oh yes, the Japanese can party like bottomless barrels 🙂
Here’s an extreme trivia… If you want to splurge on your food, you could order for a gold leaf wrapped sushi.
Or if you want to drink to your wealth… well you could order for a Diamond is Forever martini at the Ritz Carlton.
You read that right… opulence can’t get shinier than this…the finest vodka is poured over a one-carat diamond to make you see stars with every sip! It would only get you about 1,800,000 Yen poorer (approx. INR. 1,17,000 a peg)
So exactly, this place is a land of extremes and eccentricities… and there is never a dull moment in this maximum city.
In the next few episodes I will walk you through some of these crazy or extreme places, and elaborate on the experiences that make the place special.
Temples, Gardens and Museums
On the traditional side, Tokyo is brimming with Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines. We didn’t visit too many of them but did go to the famous Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya.
The shrine was built as a homage to Japan’s Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Some 100 years ago, more than 100,000 volunteers planted 100,000 trees donated from all parts of Japan to create a sacred forest for the new Meiji Shrine. So, located in the bustling Shibuya area, in the middle of Tokyo with the ultra modern areas of Harajuku and Omatosando one one side and the hip Yoyogi park on the other, the shrine provides a respite from the concrete monsters of the metropolitan. It is one of the most peaceful places in Tokyo.
The path leading up to the shrine is lined with beautiful wooden barrels of old and prized Sake gifted to the Emperor by prominent Sake brewers. There are also old and expensive wine barrels gifted to the ruler by other rulers and kings from all over the world. In the central area there are two camphor trees called the wishing trees.
The trees represent man and his woman who have seamlessly fused into one, So, couples pray to the trees for blessings of eternal togetherness. We did too.
Museums: Tokyo is also a curator’s delight. You will find museums of all kinds here, from Art and Photography to History and Science, Zoos and Aquariums to Transportation and Commerce. Why, there is also a Doraemon museum and the Ghibli museum. If you head towards Ueno Park, you can visit some of the important museums in one go, like the Tokyo National Museum, The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Science Museum, etc.
I love museums and would have loved to visit the Ghibli museum (the Ghibli studio is a famous TV and film production house of Japan which has created some of the most loved animated TV series, which are as popular in Japan as Bollywood films are popular in India) or the Samurai museum, but museums don’t rank too high in my daughter and husband’s To-Do list, so we skipped them.
Japanese gardens… it is common knowledge that the Japanese have taken gardening and landscaping to a level that is unattainable by any other country. The Bonsai (the art of stunting plants in the most artistic manner, the Ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement) the cherry blossom festivals all come alive in their gardens all over Japan.
Tokyo too has so many interesting gardens, like the Yoyogi park, the Imperial Palace gardens etc. But if you are short of time, you may be inclined to skip the gardens, because they are so big, so beautiful and so spread out…
But I would recommend you do visit these gardens and for special reasons…
The Shinjuku Gyoen (Gyoen means garden): In the middle of the hustling bustling Shinjuku and Shibuya areas lies this huge green patch, something like an oasis in a desert. It is the biggest garden in Tokyo city. What’s special about the garden is it has three unique types of gardens within. One is the traditional Japanese garden. With big ponds and small typical bridges over it. Little islands of artistically sculpted plants and shrubs and pebble stone pathways taking you across different parts of the garden.
It also had a couple of tea houses.
Now what’s a tea house? In Japanese tradition, they have an elaborate ceremony where the hostess prepares and serves Japanese Green Tea, Matcha. The Tea ceremony as it is called, is one of the most revered rituals which showcases the hostess’s hospitality towards her guests. The entire process of making the tea, serving it in the special crockery, laying the table, offering traditional Japanese sweets along with the tea to balance the bitter taste of the matcha is done with such graceful and heartfelt movements so as to make the guest feel very special.
So there are these tea houses in the garden where one can get lucky and be privileged to be a guest of the occasional tea ceremonies held there.
The other two gardens are the French garden and the English garden, which has typical landscaping and plants and trees from the European countries.
The French garden has this amazing rose garden with huge blooms in the most beautiful colours and a canopy walk of maple trees, which is a sight to behold in the autumn.
There is also a lovely glass house /green house that has a huge collection of rare plants.
If you are lucky to visit Japan in the cherry blossom season, this garden is unmissable with 1500 cherry tress in various stages of blooming shaded in pink and white all over.
Another garden I would recommend is the Hama Rikyu garden. It is built alongside the Tokyo bay. And has lovely sea water ponds, whose water levels rise and fall as per the tides. Of course, it is beautiful like all other gardens, but there is a practical reason for visiting this garden too.
The garden is also one of the boarding points for the lovely Tokyo Cruise along the Sumida river. You could plan your visit to the Asakusa temple along with the Himarikyu garden so that’s one stone two birds.
Now let’s veer towards the extreme ends of Tokyo…
Tsukiji, largest fish market in the world
For starters, Tokyo has largest fish and seafood market in the world! Tsukiji, pronounced as (Skee-Jee), sits on a 56 acres plot and imports seafood from 60 countries around the world, selling more than 480 kinds of seafood.
You can find anything here from an octopus, barracuda, whales, sharks, eels, salmon, lobster, the list is endless. The high quality and rarest fish are auctioned at prices that would probably shame a Sotheby’s or Christy’s art auction. For example, the most expensive auction in the year 2018 which has just begun has been of the famous Blue fin Tuna fish weighing 405 kg, sold for 3,23,000 Yen at 90,000 Yen a kilo!! In apna rupiya it means approx. Rs. 194000 for one fish! Go fish!
Tip: if you want to see an auction in action you need to reach there really early, there’s already a long queue from 4.30 am. Yes, that early!
The Tsukiji market, though a vegetarian like me may feel queasy strolling through, is one of the biggest tourist attractions of Japan. With fish being sold and bought at high speed – by afternoon, the stock is over! ..the place is not smelly and, it goes without saying, it’s not like our macchi market, its clean organized and tourable. You can call it the Big Fish Mall!
The Shibuya Crossing: Where the world intersects for one moment in time
Shibuya is one of the most prominent localities of Tokyo. There are so many things to do in Shibuya, that it is impossible to give it a miss on your trip to Tokyo.
But the thing that gives Shibuya its iconic status is the famous Shibuya crossing. Just outside the Shibuya station’s Hachiko exit, you will see a large intersection of several high streets. This crossing, my friend, is touted to be the busiest intersection in the whole world. (I know, we in Mumbai would have loved to think that the busiest would be at CST, but it isn’t)
When the traffic lights go red (and all the lights go red at the same time) you will find a swarm of people going and coming across the roads from all directions. In peak hours there are at least a 1000 people criss-crossing at the signals. It’s a sight to behold. It’s an experience to enjoy. Get into the thick of it.
We, like hundreds of other tourists like us, made a joyride out of crossing at the intersection. It’s so much fun to wait for the red and then get lapped up by the waves of people in the sea of humanity as you cross over to the other side. And then cross back. And do that all over again J
And you know the wonder of wonders?? You are among the 800-1000 people crossing together but not one soul will brush past you or ‘accidentally’ rub shoulders with you. With a practiced agility every man, woman and child reaches the other side without climbing over anyone else 🙂
Another fantastic way of enjoying the Shibuya crossing is from a window seat at Starbucks on the second floor of the Q-front building which is right there at the intersection.
Hachiko, the most loved dog of Japan
One of the exits of the big Shibuya station is called the Hachiko exit. When you come out of the station you will find a big bronze statue of a dog. The dog is Hachiko. In Japan, Hachiko is a national hero and is regarded as the symbol of loyalty!
Hachiko is not some imaginary or abstract symbol. He was a real dog. The story of Hachiko is so beautiful and emotional, it will melt any heart and bring tears to the eyes.
It’s a must for all tourists coming to Tokyo to get clicked with Hachiko. And what’s more, there’s a cute cat these days who comes visiting Hachiko several times in the week and cuddles herself up in the space between Hachiko’s bronze feet. Happily posing with the tourists and purring with the attention.
Fashion breeders of the world
In Tokyo, you will find the craziest, trendiest and funkiest fashion in the world. The youth sport such different fashion styles and fads, that even the most fashion conscious will have trouble keeping pace from season to season.
Shibuya is known to be the teen-fashion capital with shopping arcades and malls and boutiques cramming up the streets of Shibuya. The iconic building, Shibuya 109 in Center Gai of Shibuya is the first place you could head to to see floors and floors dedicated to shoes, clothes, accessories and beauty products.
Head to the neighbouring area of Harajuku for cute small boutiques selling kitschy merchandise that the teeny boppers go bonkers over.
Or you could just go to the Tokyu Plaza mall in Harajuku to admire the kaleidoscope like entrance.
The hip and suave brands street of Omotesando could well replace the status enjoyed by 5th Avenue of New York or the Champs Elysees of Paris.
The zelkova tree lined street with dedicated buildings of top world brands like Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton exhale luxury and style that you will not find anywhere else in the world. It’s no wonder that one of the biggest Apple stores in the world too is located in Omotesando.
If you add tho these the 1 km long shopping street of Chuo Dori in Ginza, which has the most international and glamorous collection of shopping options, you have the probably the biggest shopping district in the world!
I will let you mull over this, while I come back to you with many more extremes and eccentricities of Tokyo in the next episode.