One concentrates on districts in Tokyo rather than buildings and monuments of which there are few, because, despite hundreds of years of history, there is nothing of any permanence left in the city, apart from the Imperial Palace which you can only look at from the Imperial Gardens. The lack of permanent buildings and monuments is because the houses burnt down regularly as they were traditionally made of wood, and because frequent earthquakes made the use of stone too dangerous.
Tokyo’s districts, however, are many and varied and it is a good idea to know what you want to do and see before setting off to explore. Each area offers something different, but if you like a frisson of naughtiness, then maybe keep Roppongi for nighttime.
Akihabara– Electronics town – is what the name implies. It’s heaven for gadget freaks, where thousands of square metres are given over to nothing but electronics, from wide-screen televisions to electronic toilet seats, through all beauty products, kitchen appliances, cameras, ‘phones and games. Hard not to spend money in a place like this especially when you see, and covet, the latest model of camera or ‘phone, maybe 3 years ahead of when we’ll see it in the West.
Fortunately, it’s so easy to do a ‘phone check on prices these days wherever you are, and we found, much to our surprise, that most of the goods in Electronics town were priced higher than they were in our own country (possibly to do with the currency fluctuations) so prices were a disincentive to buy. We did succumb, however, to one or two items unavailable to us at home: I defy anyone to walk through this store or the next on my list, the Sony Building, without buying something, even if it’s only a camera case!
The Sony Building is another Mecca for electronic-mad visitors. All the trend-setting Sony stuff is laid out on six floors and you can have hands-on fun with the latest games, listen to car stereos, see a demonstration of the future of television and even have a meal. On the ground floor, there is an English pub where the food, wines and spirits are pretty good. Japanese beer, Asahi, can be recommended.
Mother photographs laughing daughter at Senso-ji Shrine
Asakusa District is said to retain much of the atmosphere that existed before the Second World War when it was Tokyo’s hub of popular entertainment. You’ll see fewer businessmen here with briefcases, few banks and few high-rises but there are interesting small shops and craft stalls, and you can climb to the viewing platform of the Tokyo Skytree – the World’s tallest tower at 634 metres – for panoramic views over the city.
If hot spring baths are your thing and you are not planning a visit to one of the Ryokans where you usually have your own volcanic spring on your balcony, then the Jyakotsuyu Onsen (hot spring) at Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0032, will give you the authentic experience.
The Red Lantern at Senso-ji Shrine
Asakusa also houses the oldest and most impressive temple in Tokyo, the Senso-ji, one of the city’s most treasured temples. The Thunder Gate dominates the entrance with the red lantern immortalised in Hiroshige’s early 19th-century woodblock print still dominating the entrance. Beyond the gate lies a bustling street where 54 shops line what is one of the oldest shopping streets in Tokyo, and which leads to the temple buildings with their heavy lead roofs.
A Young Couple Check out the Fortune Slips
The temple grounds are incredibly busy with sightseers, people praying, shopping and taking selfies of themselves and their families, and those seeking a look into the future. For 100 yen your future will be foretold but should it not be what you hoped for, them you simply tie the fortune ticket to the nearest wire tree and it will remain forever within the temple grounds. And then you buy another, hoping that this time, your luck will be better.
Incense blows from the great bronze urn in front of the main hall and men and women dive into the smoke and stroke it over their heads (for clearer thoughts? more hair?) while others light their incense sticks and just pray.
Bathing in the Smoke
Ginza District is famous for its up-market shopping and the range of designer shops that line the street. It’s a great place for admiring the window dresser’s art where the placement of a purse with a belt and a scarf is like a modern still life. All the top designer names are here.
Louis Vuitton in Ginza
Budget-conscious shoppers should head for the Uniqlo store which offers floors of trendy designs at cheaper prices. Both men and women are catered for here and although the music is loud, the staff is cheerful and helpful.
Roppongi District is where the Japanese go to let their hair down. It could be called sleazy in some senses, raucous and tasteless in another, but it is undeniably what a lot of people want as you will see if you venture into this Vegas in Japan area where behaviour you don’t see anywhere else in the city is tolerated.
Kagurazaka was once a 200 strong Geisha town which was razed in the 1945 bombing and there are still some 20 Geisha here. If you take a stroll down the cobblestone alleyways of the town you may meet some of the ghosts that they say still haunt the place.
On Tokyo Bay
And when you want to have an hour’s rest, take the boat trip on Tokyo Bay, which gives you a totally different look at this fabulous city, as well as a comfortable ride in a well-ventilated boat with large picture windows on either side. Once at the end of the trip, you can, if you wish, continue on to Odaiba island complex and ride the Big Eye for another view over Tokyo.
Night time Tokyo
Shinjuku District is considered now to be the heart of the entertainment area, especially adult entertainment where nothing seems forbidden. Bars, restaurants serving food from every nation, and discount shops abound with street entertainment on every corner. If any place in Tokyo might be considered slightly unsafe, this would be it, so beware of pickpockets and don’t go into any bars with unlisted prices. Check it out during the day before venturing into it at night.
Shinjuku Ni-chrome is a couple of blocks away from the centre and is the gay and lesbian nexus of Tokyo.
Outside the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo is an intersection where it is estimated as many as 2,500 people cross the street every time the light changes. It handles over 2 million people a day but you won’t be pushed or jostled, the Japanese are much too polite for that. It is the beginning and end of two main subway lines and during the day or at night when the neon is crackling all around you, join the surge of people at the famous crossroads as the cacophony of music, horns, tannoys and talk assault your ears.
Worth checking out.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building comprises two huge towers each 248 metres. From the viewing level on floor 45 of either building, the views of the city and surrounding areas are stunning. In the winter (because of the clarity) you can usually see Mt. Fuji on the horizon.
The writer with a Sumo Wrestler met on subway
If it isn’t the season for the Sumo tournaments and you’d like to see them in action, then head for their stables at Arashio Beya 2-47-2 Nihonbashi-hamacho, Chuo-ku 103-0007 (1 min. walk from Hama-cho station on the Asakusa line, and usually from about 7 a.m. – 10. am. Many consider these practice sessions even better than the tournaments as they are constant. Make sure you follow the rules of not pointing your feet at the wrestlers (bad luck), no flash photography, no tripod, don’t stand up to get a better shot, and don’t bring food or drink.
Tokyo may seem weird but it is a fabulous city, a glorious hotchpotch of lights, noise and incredibly well-behaved people who stand patiently at the lights waiting for them to turn green when there isn’t a car for miles around. It’s fun whether you take it in during daylight hours or nighttime.