September – October, 2017
Tokyo, a tantalizing mix of modern living in a decidedly Asian environment, is unlike any city I have ever visited. The densely populated metropolis boasts a transportation web that will make your head spin until you realize just how easy and efficient it is. Multistory shops neatly cram retail goods into narrow rows with a greater selection that you can find on Amazon. Neighborhoods mix sky scrapers and glitzy neon with traditional shrines and peaceful parks. The crown jewel, the Tsukiji Fish Market, is a Japanese masterpiece. The world’s best fish flow through this enormous yet efficient transportation hub. If you are looking for a safe urban adventure, Tokyo is the city for you.
If you do nothing else in Shibuya, make a quick stop at the famed Shibuya crossing – the busy intersection just in front of the main entrance to the train station.
There is view above from the station or the best seats are at the Starbucks across the street. Better yet mix it up with the locals. When the light turns green pedestrians flood the intersection from 5 major streets.
Tourists posing and snapping phots mix with the myriad locals going out on the town or just trying to get home. It’s a scene a worth the stop.
Shibuya is also a good place to wander the streets for great people watching and big city lights.
Just 3 stops further on the Yamanote JR line is the more subdued and a little more grownup Shinjiku, although it does have a Godzilla towering over the Imax theater that comes to life at 6PM screeching with machine gun fire blazing from his mouth.
While Shinjiku is another great destination for people watching and city lights it also has a couple of particular highlights.
A short walk from the massive train station is the Golden Gai, a collection of over 200 eclectically decorated very small bars and restaurants laid out in a grid.
Although primary a drinking destination, albeit an expensive one, it’s a fascinating walk through the dimly lit narrow alleyways.
In the opposite direction is Shinjiku Gyoen, a well-manicured botanical garden with an extensive network of paths that link the traditional Japanese garden, the English gardens, the French garden and the greenhouse.
Imperial Palace Gardens
Located in the center of the city this is an easy and peaceful stop on a Tokyo itinerary. While there is not much to see from a historical perspective, the vast gardens are a pleasant place to stroll on a pretty day, especially when the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring (mid-March to early April).
Entering the gardens is free. Check the hours and days of the week as they do change based on the schedule. The garden is normally closed on Mondays but when Monday is a holiday the garden is open on Monday and closed on Tuesday.
Kitanomaru National Gardens
The Tokyo National Museum located at Ueno Park is a good introduction to Japanese art and artifacts. The Highlights Collection – selected pieces from throughout Japan’s long history, from Buddhist sculpture and paintings to Edo-period kimono fashions – is particularly accessible and informative.
The museum does not overwhelm you with endless pieces with tiny descriptions, but rather chooses a few good ones with descriptions in both Japanese and English. There are swords and armory as well as ceramics and calligraphy collections.
The regular admission to the museum also includes entrance to the Asian Art building next door. Although the large collection covers China, Korea, India and even the Middle East, a good portion of the works are Chinese.
The well thought out collection can be overwhelming just after visiting the Japan Art Building. I’d start with the Japanese art and see how you feel. They also have frequent special exhibits requiring an extra fee.
There is a restaurant next to the Asian Art Building with an upscale but quite good selection of Japanese lunch sets.
National Museum of Modern Art
A fun selection of Japanese works from the late 1800s and onward alongside examples of western works that may have influenced them. The main collection is on 3 floors.
The works, mostly paintings, are well spaced and many have good English descriptions.
While I wouldn’t put the museum in the same class as the top museums of Europe it’s a good introduction to modern Japanese painting and sculpture.
Tsukiji Fish Market
This was our second visit to this gigantic fish market. On our first visit in 2011, just before the tsunami, I was blown away by the size of the market and the quality of the seafood at the local eateries. Click here for details.
Although the market is scheduled to move, at the time of this writing it is still at its original location. According to friends the move has been delayed for security reasons.
It was much busier on this visit both in terms of the number of tourists and the activity within the market. They now don’t let tourists in until 10AM, making the outside market even busier and creating a rush when visitors are let in to the main working hall.
Still impressive is the quantity of Styrofoam containers and the size and quantity of fish. Although a lot of the fish cannot be seen there are still workers fileting, cleaning and cutting fish.
Mostly at this time of the morning the workers are cleaning up, i.e., icing and boxing up the remaining fish, hosing everything down (watch your shoes and camera) cleaning and sharpening their knives ,etc.
The fruit and vegetable market across the way is not as interesting, mostly a large warehouse of stacked cardboard boxes. Very little produce is visible.
The exterior market is lively and crowded and could be fun if you are in the mood. By this time in the trip I’m getting a little weary of crowds and just couldn’t face the multitudes this morning.
There are lines of people waiting to get into the sushi bars closest to the market.
We stopped at a quieter place about a block away and got two bowls of uni and maguro (sea urchin and tuna). Very fresh but probably not the best deal as the slices of fish were on the small side. Still it hit the spot as I have had very little uni, my favorite, on this trip.
For more information on sights, see the following posts from our 2011 trip.
Chilling in Tokyo
Visit to the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa and the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. Korean restaurant in Akasaka.
Tokyo’s Ginza Shopping District
Visit to the Ginza shopping district, including the food department of the Mitsukoshi department store and the Ginza Sky Lounge. Ordering noodles through a vending machine in Akasaka and eating ramen in Ripongi.
Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market
A visit to this world famous market two weeks before the devastating earthquake.