Taking Time in Tokyo's Top Attractions
Japan, Nippon, Nihon, The Land of the Rising Sun. Call it what you will, Japan is one of the strangest yet most wonderful countries you can visit. Cutting-edge modernity and ancient traditions and culture sit side by side like nowhere else. So what do you think of when considering Japan? For many, it will be its food - sushi, sashimi, ramen. For others, temples, mountains, cherry blossoms and gardens. Others still will think of sumo wrestlers, geishas and strange music. Others, karaoke, computer games, manga, J-pop and cosplay. Electronics and cameras. A trip to this faraway country can be a way to get a little closer while enjoying its indisputable beauty and variety. Cities like no other and remarkable countryside await. This time, we will spend time in and around the capital, a very special city.
Tokyo is where most visitors arrive in the country. Narita International Airport is situated 60 km east of central Tokyo and is connected to the city by fast trains on the Narita Express line which takes between 55 minutes and an hour. Usually, this is a non-stop service apart from the rush hour when it includes a few stops. Slower train, bus and taxi services are also available.
MEIJI SHRINE (明治神宮)
A major attraction in Tokyo, for both locals and visitors, is the Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji who reigned from 1867 to 1912, and his wife, Empress Shoken, both regarded as gods by Japanese believers of the Shinto religion.
Built between 1915 and 1926, the original shrine was destroyed in World War II bombing raids but rebuilt in 1958. The Emperor is not buried here as many thought; his grave is near Kyoto. The shrine is located in a 70-hectare evergreen forest with over 100,000 trees from 365 species and has two main areas. The inner area, known as the Naien contains the main shrine buildings including a museum holding the Emperor and Empress's treasures. The outer part, the Gaien has the Meiji Picture Gallery documenting the lives of the Emperor and his wife in 80 large murals. Also here are two major sporting venues, Meiji Jingu Gaien Stadium and the Tokyo Olympic Stadium. The Meiji Memorial Hall (Meiji Kinenkan) is today mainly used for Shinto weddings.
Asakusa district has been an entertainment and tourist district for a long time, beginning in the Edo period in the early 17th century. Asakusa too was heavily bombed during the war with only two buildings surviving, so almost everything you see here today are reconstructions built after the war, but no less stunning for that.
Senso-ji in Asakusa is one of Japan's oldest and most important Buddhist temples. Although a temple to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy has stood on this spot since the year 645 AD, the present building only dates to 1958. The temple is the world's most visited religious site with over 30 million visitors each year. So, it gets busy, especially on weekends and public holidays. The temple is open 24 hours a day, so choose a nighttime visit when it is quieter and the temple buildings are illuminated.
To visit the temple, one first pass through the Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate. This 11.7 m tall and 11.4 m wide gate was originally built in 941 AD, but was destroyed by a fire in 1865. The present structure was erected in 1960. At the front, there are two statues of Shinto gods: Fujin, the god of wind to the east and Raijin, the god of thunder to the west.
At the center of the gate is a 3.9 m high, 33 m wide red lantern or chochin made of silk and paper on a bamboo frame, and weighing 700 kg.
Having passed through the gate you find yourself on the Nakamise-Dori, a 250-long, centuries-old street full of small shops selling souvenirs and local snacks. This, in turn, leads to the two-story Hozomon or Treasure-House Gate, the inner gate to the temple itself. Here you again find the statues of the Nio, the guardian god of the Buddha as well as three more chochin lanterns.
Through this second gate, you finally reach the actual temple, consisting mainly of two buildings - the Temple Hall and besides that a five-story pagoda. Nearby is a small peaceful garden for meditation and reflection.
Near the main temple building is the Asakusa Shrine, built in 1649 by the Edo shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu. This is one of the only two buildings to have survived the bombs of WWII. The Shinto shrine honors the three men who are said to have been responsible for the founding of Sensō-ji. There is an old legend that two brothers, fishermen named Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, found a statuette of Kannon caught in their fishing net on May 17, 628 AD. They threw it back, but it kept reappearing. A rich landlord named Haji no Matsuchi heard about this and converted the pair to Buddhism. Between them, the three built a small temple and consecrated the statuette here, then spent the rest of their lives preaching Buddhism. That small temple was the forerunner of the Senso-ji Temple now.
Asakusa Shrine and Senso-ji Temple are also the scene of Japan's most important Shinto festival, Sanja Matsuri or Three Shrine Festival, held to honor the three men responsible for the temple. Held on the third weekend of May every year, the three-day festival attracts up to two million visitors, both locals and visitors. There are parades of mikoshi which are portable shrines believed by Shinto followers to hold the gods when moving from place to place during festivals etc. On Saturday, around 100 small mikoshis are carried from shrines around the city, some by women and children, to be blessed by Shinto priests at the Asakusa Shrine. Apart from the parades of shrines, there are dances, and performances by geishas and many people wear traditional Japanese clothes for the event. Many food stalls are set up in the surrounding streets which become car-free zones for three days.
Related Post: 7 Most Unusual Festivals Found Only in Japan
On Sunday comes the highlight. Three main mikoshi, belonging to Asakusa Shrine, made from black lacquered wood, decorated with gold sculptures and painted with gold leaf are paraded around the district. Each weighs approximately one ton and cost ¥40 million (USD $290,000) to make. It takes around 40 people to carry each of these three shrines on long poles. Up to 500 people take part in carrying them, working in shifts, while visitors cheer and shout. It gets rather wild as the shrines bounce around and the porters struggle to clear the crowds of excited revelers, find their way and avoid damaging anything. If you are able to visit Tokyo in May it is not to be missed.
IMPERIAL PALACE (皇居)
Tokyo is also home to Japan's Emperor and his family. The Imperial Palace, rebuilt in the 1960s, after the original was all but destroyed by Allied bombers in 1945, lies in a moated and walled park area near the city center and most are not usually open to the public. Only on January 2nd and February 23rd each year is the public allowed to enter the inner palace grounds to celebrate the New Year and the Emperor's birthday respectively. On those days, Emperor Naruhito, his wife Empress Masako and other family members will appear on a balcony and give thanks to the crowds.
The eastern part of the palace grounds, however open to the public for free. They form the Imperial Palace East Gardens and are a favorite and peaceful attraction. The number of visitors at any one time is limited, so the gardens are never overcrowded. Here, there is also the Museum of Imperial Collections, which displays some of the thousands of artworks owned by the imperial family. The gardens are open Tuesday to Thursday from 9 am. Closing time varies throughout the year, but is usually between 4 and 5 pm.
The Imperial Palace East Gardens
To the north, but separate from the palace is another park, Kitanomarn Garden which contains the Science Museum and the Modern Art gallery, as well as being the location of the famous Budokan Hall, originally dedicated to the Japanese martial arts, but today is better known as a music venue ever since the Beatles were the first to play there in 1966, to the disgust of traditionalists who deemed it close to sacrilegious to have noisy pop groups anywhere near the place!
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
Tokyo is well known for its shopping! From fashion to electronics, computer games and cameras, kitchen equipment to gourmet food, there is little you can't find here. Ginza is perhaps the most famous shopping district. Home to all the international big-name fashion and luxury goods stores as well as smaller boutiques, department stores, restaurants, jewelry stores and more. Shinjuku is the area centered on the world's busiest train station, Shinjuku Station and is one of Tokyo's main commercial districts. Omoide Yokocho is to the northwest of the station and is an area of small lanes lined with tiny restaurants and cheap bars. Sushi and ramen and yakitori (grilled chicken) shops are very popular night stops for both locals and visitors. Many shops don't open here until 3 or 4 pm, but most remain open until at least midnight or even into the early hours of the next morning. Akihabara, beside the station of the same name, is the go-to place for modern culture and electronics. This is a computer game, anime and manga heaven for those who like such things. You may be interested in one of the many so-called maid cafés here. These bizarre cafés feature young waitresses dressed as housemaids who act like they are personal servants waiting on their customers' every need. They mainly serve coffee and desserts, but some also serve omelet rice. Note that photography is usually forbidden in these cafes, but you may be able to pose with "your maid" for a small fee in some places. Kappabashi is nicknamed "Kitchen Town" and is full of everything you need in the kitchen apart from the actual food. Knives, crockery, silverware and ovens through to restaurant tables and chairs and more are all to be found here.
The famous Tsukiji fish market closed in October 2018 and moved to a new location, but the outer market remains open with shops selling kitchen tools, groceries and fresh seafood. There are also several restaurants including many specializing in sushi. The wholesale market is now located at Toyosu Market which has three halls, two for fish and the other for fruit and vegetables. Visitors are not permitted to attend the daily fish auction but can observe from the floor above. The market opens at 5 am, so going along is something to do if you can't sleep due to jet lag! It officially closes at 5 pm, but all the real action is over long before that.
All over Tokyo are '100-yen shop' selling cheap novelties and household items. They can be great places to pick up amusing or interesting items as souvenirs or gifts.
Note: Unlike in most Asian countries, bargaining is not normal in Japan.
While in Tokyo, many visitors combine touring the city with a side trip to see the nearby, iconic Mount Fuji. Lying about 100 km southwest of the city, the 3,776.24 m high volcano is still classified as "active", but last erupted in 1708. On a clear day, it is visible from Tokyo, but for the best views of the peak, I recommend visiting Lake Ashi and taking one of the many boat trips available. There are also hot springs here as well as a number of attractive natural and historical sights.
BEST TIME TO VISIT TOKYO
When is the best time to visit Tokyo? It depends to some extent on what you want to see. Obviously, if you want to be there for the Sanja Matsuri, you have to be there in May, but for most travelers, the climate is the biggest deciding factor. Spring (March to April) and Autumn (September to November) are generally the best times in that respect. Temperatures are not too hot, as they can be in the summer and this is, of course, the time to see the famous cherry trees blooming. Autumn is also comfortable and the Autumn colors are equally beautiful, if different. Summer is the peak season for Japanese tourism so it can be very crowded at that time. It is also often very hot and humid. What's more, hotel room rates are at their highest in summer. Winters can be chilly to cold and of course, with less crowd and low price.
So, this has been a brief guide to Japan's always fascinating capital city, but of course, there is much more to the country. I'll be back soon with some of my other favorite places in this wonderful country. Watch this space!
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