Oh, Tokyo. I knew going in that four days wouldn’t be enough to see such a huge, historic, and diverse city. But this just wasn’t going to be the time for a deep exploration, and I hoped I’d at least be able to scratch the surface and get a feel with an eye towards an eventual return. Plus, candidly, I was a bit intimidated by the language barrier and cultural differences.
And really, for this trip, four days was about the right length. Another week or two would have been a better experience; another day or two probably wouldn’t have.
In those four days, I toured the city pretty extensively, both by foot and by rail. It turns out that my hotel was located between Akihabara and Ueno in an older and quieter neighborhood, which was fine, except it meant a 10 to 30 minute subway ride to get to most destinations.
Among those destinations, I visited:
Shibuya, the huge shopping district. While some of the stores were local, most of the stores were familiar. Even Tower Records, long gone from most places in the U.S., had a huge store. This is also the spot with the very famous huge intersection that is swarmed by hundreds (thousands?) of people every few minutes. It’s completely insane, but kind of fun.
Tokyo Tower. Described by Lonely Planet as “something of a tourist trap” but “still worth seeing,” and I don’t think I can do better than that. This Eiffel-inspired tower offers a great view of the city, and a certain amount of kitsch. If you do visit, be sure to spend the extra money for the “special” observation deck; it’s a lot better view than the larger and lower deck. Plus, the second elevator that you go up has a somewhat scary lurch partway up, and a reassuring recording saying “this is perfectly normal.”
Rikugien Garden. All my life I’ve been going to Japanese gardens, and sure enough, they have ‘em in Japan. Rikugien Garden is absolutely huge, and I wandered around for a couple of hours. The weather wasn’t great; it pretty warm, and raining with varying intensity. But the garden had lots of huge trees and for me the most part I stayed dry while exploring.
Tokyo DisneySea. I hadn’t been planning this, but when I found myself with nothing in particular planned for an evening and saw a promotion for US$30 tickets after 6pm, I figured I might as well. Per Disney’s standards, the landscaping and theming is really incredible; the Tokyo version of Tower of Terror is an incredible building, and the volcano and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” area is an amazing work of art. Sadly, there just aren’t that many rides, and the ones that are there are either near-identical to the California parks (Tower of Terror, Indiana Jones) or not that interesting (Sinbad’s Voyage).
Akihabara. Wow. Pretty much what you’d expect from reading about it, but still wow. It’s a crazy, interesting place, full of electronics and comics stores and costumed and interesting people. Akihabara was about a 20 minute walk from my hotel, so I generally went that direction when wanting to get out and walk around.
Roppongi. Here’s an interesting place – sort of like San Francisco’s Tenderloing district crossed with an upscale mall and museum district. The area’s undergoing urban renewal with the addition of two large mall / residential / office complexes, so there’s an interesting mix of people and signage. In particular, I really enjoyed the 21_21 Design Sight museum, which was hosting a very cool interactive exhibit about privacy and society. Highly recommended!
In addition to my solo explorations, I have to thank Segun DeSilva for hooking me up with a couple of people he knows in Tokyo. Max Hodges, who runs the very cool White Rabbit Press and White Rabbit Express businesses, took me to a couple of places in Shibuya and Roppongi that I would never have found on my own. He showed me a neat little mini-district full of tiny, tiny bars — maybe six or eight seats each. And then a top floor bar with a great view out over Shibuya.
Yumi Matsmoto, who spent her Saturday showing me around Asakusa, Harajuku, and Ueno – again finding things that I would never have discovered on my own. Among other things, we found an incredibly gigantic pond with lotus plants, and some tasty ice cream. She introduced me to soba (interesting, not sure what I think), and helped navigate the Sumida river fireworks festival, which really has to be seen to be believed. It’s not a fireworks show in the traditional sense so much as a multi-hour continuous demonstration of different fireworks. It goes on, and on. Amazing stuff.
So yes, Tokyo. An interesting place, and I totally get why people love it and return. And that’s without even getting to the surrounding areas and more rural areas of Japan, which also sound great. I’ll definitely be back to Japan, and next time I will spend a couple of weeks to explore in greater depth. But for a couple of quick days, this trip couldn’t have been better.