Alex Benasuli dives head first kamikaze style into the Japanese capital, and emerges a total convert to this most exciting and mind-bending of metropoles. Whilst everyone knows that TOKYO is a modern and sophisticated city, complete with some of the best eating and shopping in the world, it is the side streets and residential neighbourhoods teeming with hidden gems that steal his heart.
The views over Tokyo from up above never get old. From the top of the Tokyo Skytree, or one of the many other soaring skyscrapers around town, the scale of the city truly staggers. As far the eye can see, an urban sprawl like no other spreads from Tokyo Bay in the east to the mountains in the west, encompassing a greater metropolitan area of a whopping 36 million people and an economy bigger than Russia. Seemingly infinite clusters of downtowns are visible over incredible distances. And on a clear day, nothing can really prepare you for when snow-capped Mount Fuji deigns to make an appearance, looming over the Japanese capital like a powerful and watchful deity. It is only in the shadow of Mount Fuji that the perspective of this great mega city begins to offer some sense.
At sunset, Mount Fuji is illuminated like one of the sublime screen paintings for which Japan is famous for, making for a spectacular, if not spiritual, vision. However, it is the night time view from up top that gives the real clues as to how to approach this mammoth city. Major arteries of brightly lit thoroughfares convene in multiple urban hubs. Emanating out from these main avenues and city centres is an irregularly formed concentric web of parallel side streets, that increasingly darken and narrow into smaller roads, paths and alleyways. With that understanding (not to mention with the help of Google Maps!), one can quickly discover an off-the-beaten track Tokyo, in addition to the bright lights and big city elements that the world’s most populous metropolis is so well known for.
Like sliding doors that give way to serene inner sanctums, Tokyo like no other city can be a journey from urban density to residential stillness, from commercial activity to intimate charm, and from the seemingly obvious to the virtually undecipherable, all in a matter of moments, and unlocking Tokyo’s mysteries and its myriad of attractions is both highly stimulating and deeply satisfying. Whether a first-time visitor or a seasoned Tokyophile, spending time in this dazzling and cutting-edge capital is a real treat for the senses.
On the ground, Tokyo’s scope can seem daunting. Most foreigners initially focus on Ginza, the city’s longstanding posh district, littered with upscale shopping, entertainment and art galleries. Ginza real estate prices are some of the most expensive on the planet and it shows. The world’s leading luxury brands all have massive flagship stores here that don’t fail to impress. Chuo Dori, Ginza’s main avenue, is like a cross between Fifth Avenue and the Champs-Elysées, with more than generous dashes of neon and bling. A centre of Tokyo wealth since the 1600s (gin in Japanese means ‘silver’ and za ‘guild’), Ginza emerged as a high-end retail mecca in the 1920s and was rebuilt in the 1950s following WW2. In fact, despite the showiness, there is a Mad Men, mid-century modern sensibility still to be found in Ginza, particularly in its side streets and off the main drags.
Though some of Tokyo’s best restaurants and much of the city’s exclusive shopping is to be found here, there is also a decidedly decadent side to Ginza. When night falls, open doors reveal dimly lit bijou sized cocktail and whisky bars full of Japanese business men, their kimono-clad companions and a smattering of foreigners. This discreet yet lively action is just as likely to take place below ground and on the second and third floors as it does on street level.
Most of the time signage is hard to decipher or nonexistent. This secretive and in-the-know manner of going out in Tokyo is reminiscent of speakeasies. While it can be a little off-putting to the uninitiated, there is also something very seductive and sexy about it. And the numerous art galleries and Kabuki-za (the national Kabuki theatre) add enough culture to allow Ginza to take its place as one of the planet’s most elegant yet enjoyable luxury commercial districts.
When one accepts that peeling back the layers of Tokyo’s identity and urban charms can take days and weeks if not multiple lifetimes, then some real exploratory fun can be had. Despite its reputation as a disciplined city focused on the highest standards of refinement in fashion, the arts, modern architecture and technology, Tokyo is also incredibly creative, with a free-spirited side and a strong individualistic streak.
Thirty minutes by taxi from Ginza, or a handful of metro strops away, lies Harajuku. Though the more gritty and counter culture days of Harajuku as the centre of Tokyo’s youth scene have gone more upmarket, it remains one of Tokyo’s most exciting and eclectic neighbourhoods in terms of fashion, food, culture and people watching.
Bounded on one side by verdant Yoyogi Park and Tokyo’s most important Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu, and connected to affluent Aoyama on the other via tree-lined central boulevard Omotesandō, Harajuku is a bustling, eclectic hive of commercial and residential activity that defines modern, easygoing Tokyo like no other.
While classic Harajuku girls still abound, with their signature interpretations of a fashion look that straddles school girl, Hello Kitty and goth in the pursuit of Kawai or “cuteness”, Harajuku has grown up. The recent arrival of the big box luxury stores has transformed Omotesandō, especially towards the eastern end, into a more relaxed yet no less luxurious rival to Ginza.
However, it is the tangle of side streets on either side of Omotesandō where the more creative spirit of Harajuku is alive and well. Here, better known niche international brands coexist cheek-to-cheek with local labels, individual ateliers and some excellent vintage stores. Trendy noodle shops, bistros and cafés abound. Showcasing craftsmanship and creativity in boutiques that run the gamut from sprawling but more likely to the intensely intimate thrives in Tokyo. Nowhere is this more evident than Harajuku, so exploring and experiencing this colourful retail hub is a must.
When a break from the urban bustle of Harajuku or Tokyo is needed, a visit to nearby Meiji Jingū beckons. Tokyo was basically destroyed twice in the past century – the first time in 1923 as a result of the Great Tokyo Fire, and again when the city was bombed in March 1945. Accordingly, most of Tokyo’s architectural past has been wiped out. Though rebuilt after the war, Meiji Jingū retains a deeply spiritual atmosphere and is one of the most important historical shrines in Tokyo.
The woods that surround Meiji Jingū are surprisingly dense, especially considering its location in the middle of a mega city. Sheltered pathways – shaded from the canopy of soaring trees – offer a moment of relaxation and respite from the urban mélange. The shrine’s oversized classic Torii gates and massive wooden temple complex provide a pertinent reminder of the strong traditions upon which Japan and its capital are built.
Shintoism, along with Buddhism, co-exist as the dominant religious traditions in Japan. Shintoism celebrates, amongst other things, the spirit that is found in everything, including man and animal kind, nature and even objects. This respect for nature and the spirit world is a fundamental characteristic of the Japanese psyche, that is directly reflected in its emphasis on detail and design. Even amidst the most urban jungle areas of the city there will be a front garden, or perhaps a single tree or hedge, whose meticulous care can be interpreted as a spiritual offering or celebration of the divine. In fact, it is because of the overwhelming urban nature of Tokyo, that the city’s green spaces appear so precious.
On the other side of Harajuku from Meiji Jingū is the gem that is the Nezu Museum, which is an excellent place to further appreciate the country’s artistic traditions, and escape into nature from Tokyo’s streets. With its gorgeous entrance of reddish wood, black stone and a bamboo forest, its modern architecture and historical Japanese fine arts collection, Nezu Museum is an ideal reflection of Tokyo, which is inherently a modern city with subtle yet important nods to the past. The real treasure at the Nezu is its extensive Japanese back garden, replete with water features, moss-covered paths and stone shrines, and filled with trees and shrubs that transform into riots of colour in the spring and autumn. As a visitor to Tokyo, once you know what to look out for in terms of pockets of beauty and calm, you will quite literally notice them everywhere.
Tokyo’s other historic and spiritual heart, is the Sensō-ji temple, located across town and a world away in Asakusa. Originally built in the 7th-century and rebuilt many times, this Buddhist temple is Tokyo’s oldest. Whereas Meiji Jingū is nature filled and contemplative, Sensō-ji is incorporated slap bang in the centre of town and has a more crowded and commercial feel. This yields its own charms and is perhaps more reflective of 21st-century Tokyo that moves and shakes.
From the outer gate to the inner gate of Sensō-ji temple complex, 200-metre Nakamise-dori is a shopping street of low-rise stalls that is reminiscent of what Tokyo must have looked like 100 years ago. It’s an excellent place to buy souvenirs (of tremendously varying quality and price points) and eat local food in traditional surroundings.
As one of the most visited sites in Japan and spiritual centres in the world, you definitely won’t have Sensō-ji to yourself, but there are pockets of calm within the complex to allow for some relative peace. The ponds filled with red carp, five-storey pagoda and incense wafting around massive temple buildings will almost certainly transport you to another world. The temple’s local neighbourhood of Asakusa is more local and down to earth than Ginza, Harajuku and others, and a good place to experience a more real Tokyo. Nearby, you will also find Kappabashi-dori which has become the go-to street for Japanese kitchen knives and ceramics.
If you visit Tokyo expecting to see Blade Runner-like neon-lit futuristic urban canyons, you won’t be disappointed. The areas around Shinjuku and Shibuya (two major transportation and commercial hubs) make New York’s Times Square look tame. Shinjuku and Shibuya are also home to two of the busiest train stations in the world, while famed Shibuya Crossing, with its rushing rivers of pedestrians heading in a myriad of directions, is also said to be the world’s busiest. Whether in the thick of it at street level or observing from the second floor of Shibuya station or a nearby café, nothing captures modern, busy Tokyo more than Shibuya Crossing.
Meanwhile, Shinjuku is an interesting mix of upscale department stores and downright seedy watering holes, offering a real diversity and an opportunity to let one’s hair down. Love it or hate it, Golden Gai (“Golden District”) is an area of Shinjuku comprising narrow roads and alleyways where salary men, expats and tourists mingle in tiny neon-lit bars which often accommodate no more than four or five people at a time. If you are open for an adventure and a taste for the bizarre, and don’t much care how the night will end up, an evening in Golden Gai could be a match.
Beyond Shibuya, within walking distance or a short taxi ride away, the charming and über cool neighbourhoods of Daikanyama and Nakameguro emerge. Long established as the haunt of the affluent creative classes, and popular with expats, Daikanyama has only recently come onto the tourist radar. It is an area filled with smart boutiques, trendy restaurants and bustling cafés, comparable to Le Marais in Paris or New York’s West Village, except hardly anyone has ever heard of it.
Daikanyama T-Site is the de facto hub of the area. This upscale bookstore, lounge and gift shop has won global design awards and is an excellent place to watch the boho-chic locals and just imagine, for a few moments, what living in Tokyo might be like. As is typical for the capital, once you leave the main streets the scale of the city immediately becomes more intimate: the roads narrow, twist and turn; vehicles are replaced by bicycles, and retail offerings get cozier and quirkier.
Just a stone’s throw from Daikanyama, a few streets away and down a hill towards Meguro River (which is really more of a canal), is the even more bohemian Nakameguro, one of Tokyo’s hippest neighbourhoods. Both sides of the canal are filled with artisanal bakeries, coffee shops and low key but fashionable shops. During spring, the cherry tree-lined canal bursts into bloom, making it one of the favourite places for locals to witness this quintessential of Japanese experiences. At night, the area becomes quite lively, as its many bars and pubs fill with regulars and tourists in-the-know. The canal as Nakameguro’s defining feature, along with its low key, creative vibe, reminds one of Amsterdam. Neighbourhoods like Daikanyama and Nakameguro, and many more like them, offer a charming and inviting alternative to the Tokyo of the usual leisure and business visitor haunts.
There comes a point when visiting Tokyo when it is best to accept that you will never fully get it. There is simply just too much ground to cover. When that moment comes, allow yourself to be sucked into the side streets, hidden passageways and sliding doors of this compelling city. Explore the bright lights but also the quieter neighbourhoods to discover a depth and richness that seemingly has no end. Ribbons of over and under passes suddenly become bike lanes. Skyscrapers give way to low rise street scapes. Tiny, carefully tended gardens emerge out of the concrete jungle. Michelin-starred restaurants abound but so does scrumptious street food.
Tokyo’s incredible urban tapestry, where in the blink of an eye you can go from forward thinking, busy and brash to traditional, peaceful and measured; where there is always something new to discover and uncover; and where refinement and luxury are equally paired with simplicity and humility, makes the city one of the planet’s most captivaling capitals.