Tokyo—the land where tradition, fashion, food and fetishes are all taken very seriously—is a place I’ve always wanted to see for myself. For some reason, I had the idea that once I arrived, every corner of the city would be like iconic Shibuya where I’d have to elbow my way through noisy crowds and shield my eyes from blinding LED signs; but it was the opposite. Even while on subway from the airport, there was a hush in the atmosphere. The Japanese value of harmony orders society into such calm that it almost leads to a sense of sterility. Still, I didn’t mind because it gave me the feeling that Japan would be a wonderful place to live.
Being the good tourist I am, I picked up a PASMO card and prioritized visiting Asakusa. Here the pedestrian walkways leading to the temple are packed with those noisy crowds I thought I’d find!
Locals and tourists poke in and out of shops brimming with trinkets and sweets; but if you can push your way past them all, you’ll find yourself at the footstep of a ginormous Buddhist temple called Sensoji.
Here, a guide or book is necessary to explain what’s going on. Otherwise you won’t realize why people are burning paper and wafting the scent to their noses; clasping their hands and stopping on every step before entering the temple; putting yen in a slot and opening a drawer or shaking a stick out of a canister; or rubbing buddha’s bald gold head.
After sensory overload, I sought out Jakotsuyu for one of the most traditional Japanese experiences: bathing in an onsen. An onsen is a traditional communal Japanese bath, with separate rooms for each gender. With a steam room, sauna, hot baths and cold baths, it differs from American gym spas in that the baths are filled with mineral-rich “black water” that is pumped from miles beneath the earth’s surface. This water is naturally occurring in certain regions—such as the mountains outside of Tokyo. The health benefits of this water make the visit worthwhile. Standing in front of the hot tub jets was relaxing; and if you’re a daredevil, try the bath with electric shocks too! Oh—take note that if you have a tattoo, you might not be permitted to enter.
For another quiet corner of the city, head to central Tokyo and visit the Imperial Palace.
Though it sounds like it might be a building plated in the finest of metals, it’s actually more like a park where locals jog the perimeter and tourists walk the undulating paths to get some fresh air. The complex features a token Japanese garden.
Indulging in Japanese cuisine is reason enough to travel to Tokyo. Between ramen, katsu curry, donburi, shabu shabu, gyoza, tempura, udon, soba, hibachi, bento, pastries and street food, you’re guaranteed an amazing meal. Don’t forget mochi or crepes filled with fruit and ice cream for dessert!
And of course…enjoying sushi and sashimi is a must! The freshest is at Tsukiji Market where tuna auctions start at 5 AM.
A few of Japan’s charms:
Locals love vending machines—even using a similar system for ordering in restaurants. Vending machines are mostly for beverages and can be found outdoors on the side of the street. The beverage selection (teas, coffees and more) in these machines and in convenience stores is always rich; and you’ll even find a “hot” section in the refrigerator case!
Many toilets—even public ones—are outfitted with a bidet to keep you squeaky clean.
Also, I was endeared to the daruma doll, a token of good luck. Instructions tell you to draw in one eye when you set a goal and wait to draw in the other eye until you have achieved your goal.
I enjoyed practicing Japanese customs—greeting and thanking others with a bow, as well as extending and receiving items (even receipts) with two hands instead of one.
Without a doubt, my favorite place in all of Tokyo is the Meiji Shrine, a contemplative corner in an enchanted forest. I visited on a rainy day (note that it rains often in Japan!). The temple offers serenity and a sense of unity as you read prayers on placards, written in the mother tongues of visitors from around the world.
This haven is in sharp contrast with nearby Harajuku, the go-to street to spot adolescent girls in ostentatious doll-like dresses. Perhaps Shinjuku is more your style, where designer shops line the main promenade. There’s free wifi on that street too! That is worth mentioning because it is rare to find a shop or restaurant with free wifi in Japan; there just isn’t demand for it among locals. If you need free wifi on-the-go, your best bet is to register and activate a free wifi account with 7-Eleven, Family Mart or Starbucks before you leave home. (Sounds far-fetched, but I’m not making it up.)
Even with strong displays of traditional culture throughout the city—such as women in kimonos working in museums or walking around—there’s plenty to enjoy about present day culture such as what you’ll find in Roppongi, an entertainment multiplex. I was lucky enough to visit during the 26th Tokyo International Film Festival where snagged the very last ticket to see “The Tale of Iya”, a film shot in some of Japan’s last untouched regions.
Roppongi is also home to the impressive Mori Art Museum. I most enjoyed the modern art collection, as well as the panoramic city view from Mado Lounge on the 52nd floor.
Even if you’re a “city person” like me, I learned that a visit to Japan isn’t complete without an escape to the countryside. With more time I would have traveled to Nikko, just two hours from Tokyo by train. The town boasts temples and a riverside path lined with hundreds of buddhas, plus a bus that can take you to visit waterfalls of a nearby national park. Next time!