The first thing you’ll notice when reaching Tokyo is the size. It’s huge. One third of Japan’s population lives in the vast Greater Tokyo Area, a part of the Tokyo Metropolis. Next, you’ll notice its intricate, complex train system comprising of subways and above ground railways connecting to every part of the city and beyond. It’s easy to get where you need to go once you figure out how. This differs greatly from automobile-centric cities in North America, and personally I prefer the clean public transport in Tokyo. City planning in other cities definitely could learn a couple of things from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. And it’s true! Vending machines are everywhere! As well as stamping stations at each major site for a collection.
Tokyo used to be called Edo, and that was when the capital was Kyoto. That of course changed, and now Tokyo is now the capital and is one of the biggest metropolises in the world. Tokyo has various wards, cities, districts; some of them have their own unique flair. You can find anything in the urban jungle: delicious food, biking trails, beautiful parks, ancient culture and architecture, arcades, museums, and trains to take you out for day trips to hiking trails and actual jungle.
I spent a little more than a week exploring the area with my boyfriend. This was my first trip to East Asia as I was going to be moving to Taipei, Taiwan right after. Tokyo was our not-so-little pit stop (and also the last time I’d see my boyfriend for about 5 months). Traveling around wasn’t too difficult because my boyfriend and I have a basic grasp of Japanese. There are many places that have signs in both English and Japanese, though sometimes it can be tough to find someone that speaks English.
Coming from Toronto — the biggest city in Canada, I still had immediate culture shock. Toronto does not even compare to size and grandness of Tokyo. Everything was huge and different and awesome. After getting to our Ryokan (traditional inn) in Ikebukuro by taking the train from the airport, the first thing I realized was that I was drenched in sweat. The humidity in the beginning of September was immensely harsh. The colder and drier summers in the Greater Toronto Area are nothing compared to the overbearing heat and humidity (even in the night) of Japan. It was a nice warm-up before heading even more south for a year in Taiwan, I guess.
So everything was huge. The buildings tower over everything with flashing bright lights in the dense urban sprawl. I felt like a little ant walking beneath the buildings, I kept looking up at the neon. At city level, it was different. The sidewalks were adequately large enough so crowds of people could walk comfortably, with lots of hidden alleys and lanterns hung about the many shops and food stalls. Artwork on the manhole covers, art on the streets, there were too many things to observe at once. All my senses were in overdrive and I felt so alive.
I loved all of the coffee shops. Sitting in the light of dawn, drinking a hot cup while the morning sun rises, watching the busy people walk in every direction out in the streets while others also sat and chatted to bossa nova music. After dinner, we spent the rest of the night petting rabbits and drinking delicious matcha at a snug second floor cafe in Shimokitazawa. We sipped our tea and watched cute bunnies eat hay and take naps away from busy streets below.
There were many places we visited in our time in Tokyo. Of course we visited the iconic Tokyo Tower and went to the top at night. We had a view of the extensive cityscape shining brighter than the stars above. We went to Akihabara and geeked out by visiting so many arcades and anime and manga shops. We spent so much money trying to win cute stuffed toys playing with the UFO Catchers, but never succeeded. We went to Shibuya and crossed the street at the famous crossing. We saw the Hachiko dog statue and took a picture with it (hopefully it’ll be good luck for our relationship, haha). Harajuku has adorable shops for clothes and small modern art galleries run by local students. Ikebukuro, where we stayed, has the famous Tokyo Pokemon centre and tons of other high-rise shopping malls. Visiting the Pokemon centre was already a dream come true!
The more peaceful times in Tokyo were spent at the Shinjuku gardens among the beautiful flowers and many types of plants. It was quiet, serene, and there are tea houses in the garden overlooking the ponds too. We decided to go to one to enjoy a rest from the hot sun and mosquitoes to eat sweets with hot matcha tea. In the backdrop of the garden you can see buildings rise up in the horizon. Beautiful trees and green spaces are also in Yoyogi Park and Ueno Park if you like that kind of appeal, but I wouldn’t recommend Ueno Zoo. The animals are not properly cared for and it’s quite depressing. The imperial palace is also a large green space with old style architecture for the castle. It’s also an interesting site to see.
Another peaceful place to visit is Meiji Shrine, one of the more famous Shinto shrines where weddings are often held. It is a large shrine hidden away in a forest with numerous trees and small streams that run through. It’s amazing how well-planned the city was to allow for nature and urban city to coexist. The walk to the shrine is lovely enough! And when you get to the gates, before entering any shrine, wash your hands (and mouth) at the purification trough. At the offering box, you can throw in a coin, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, and bow deeply once more then pray. If there’s good luck in need, whether for studying, traveling, fertility, or anything else, you can also buy a little charm to hang on your bag or key chain. If you have a wish, you can write an ema (a wooden block) with your prayer and hang it up on the designated scaffold. If there’s still more spiritual guidance that you’re in need of, you can also get your fortune told. It’s called O-mikuji, and for another offering you can get a piece of paper with a fortune. They can range from extremely good fortune to extremely bad.
Tokyo has so much to offer right outside of the dense concrete jungle as well. There are mountains all around, many close enough for day trips and hikes. The most famous mountain is of course Fuji-san, which is also an active volcano. The hike up to top of that is usually a two-day trek in order to see the sunrise, with the night spent sleeping on the mountain. Unfortunately my boyfriend and I didn’t have time to climb up that one; instead we visited Takao-san and Mitake-san for our hiking needs.
In part 2, I’ll talk about my hikes and all the awesome food I ate. And trust me, I ate a lot. Tokyo has some of the best restaurants and snacks in the world. Yum! I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Thanks for reading!