Written by Kat Mackintosh
Tokyo is about contradiction and comparison. Temples nestle in between high rise office buildings and colourfully buzzing shopping districts and workers visit for a quick prayer in their lunch hour. Days here can reach into your soul as well as into your wallet and the best days do a bit of each.
Assuming you wake in Tokyo with bright, ready to go eyes and feet, a common ‘first sight site’ is the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which sounds like the most important site in the city. What most people fail to realise is that it’s not open to the public and you have to book a place on a Japanese speaking tour if you want to get further than the bridge across the moat. If you do book a place on the tour, which you can do through the Palace, they’ll provide you with a pamphlet in English.
The other thing about the Imperial Palace is that to get there you almost have to walk though Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most famous shopping districts. So you’re already facing up to the conflict of bright, materialistic lights and shiny surfaces against carefully coiffured trees and ancient, dark wooden gates of the fort like palace. A palace visit should be matched with a stroll though the Imperial Palace East Garden, on the site of the old Edo Palace where the famous act of mass samurai hari kari took place – refereed to romantically as the Tale of the 47 Ronin; and a Ginza visit should go hand in hand with popping into Mitsukoshi, one of Japan’s most famous stores. Make sure you go downstairs for a look at the gleamingly wonderful treats of the food hall.
After embracing the past and the present, head for the Yasukuni Shrine for your first taste of the other important facet the Japanese life – religion and honour. This shrine is for Japanese War dead and is located next to the Yūshūkan Military Museum – which has a zero fighter and a train from the Burma Railway on display in its foyer which you can see for free. From there a walk though Tokyo’s booksellers district will lead you to the less controversial and more brightly decorated Kanda Myojin Shrine, conveniently located for several streets of inexpensive looking noodle bars.
Get up early on your second day to catch the best of the catch at the Tsukiji Fish Markets. Don’t worry about getting breakfast at you hotel – you can get some down there amongst the gargantuan tunas, curled up octopuses and sturgeons turned inside out to reveal their prize of roe.
After the lively pace of the markets the Edo Tokyo Museum will take you back in time to a no less lively period – just presented in a more peaceful setting. When you enter the main museum hall on the sixth floor there’s a desk to your right where you can arrange a free guide for yourself who will be able to give you a bit more information, both about the museum and local life.
The Edo Museum is in the heart of the Sumo district, beside the big stadium, Ryōgoku Kokugikan, so you can pop in there for an evening of big men fighting gracefully if there’s a match on, or have a look though the museum if there isn’t.
If sumo isn’t you bag, the Senso-ji Temple is a few stops away on the underground. Tokyo’s oldest Temple, a lane of markets is arranged along its approach, now more for the tourists, but you can still find some delicious treats and traditional style gifts, and the temple itself is decorated in bright colours and carvings, and when the sun goes down, bright lanterns. The gates are guarded by some fearsome characters, but the main relic of the temple is a statue of Kannon found in the river by two fishermen in the 7thCentury.
Start your third day by enjoying a view over all of Tokyo from the Tokyo City Hall. No point going before you’ve been to any of the sites and by the third day you’ll have some points of reference as the city lays out before you. The Town Hall is conveniently located near Shibuya, the famous shopping district bordering the red light district of discrete love hos (short stay hotels) and overt bars. You can skip the red light district on your walk towards the calm forest grounds of the Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo’s most beautiful shrines, but you can’t skip the shops if you’re on foot.
The Meiji Jingu is a wonderful place to gather your thoughts and think about what’s really important in life before swinging back to the opposite end of the scale by exiting at the gates which border Harajuku for more shopping and youth culture – it’s like going shopping at a fancy dress party? Finish your day and your stay with a drink at the Park Hyatt, where you can get the Lost in Translation feeling in the bar where the film was shot – though after the last three days you’ll be much less lost and ready to catch the Shinkansen to your next Japanese destination.
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Kyoto lets you back into the world of old Japan, of religion, royalty, commerce and nightlife. Gion’s streets beckon warmly after a day of gazing in awe at Kyoto’s thousands of temples and shrines-proving there is still life in the beautiful old girl