Probably the most populated urban area in the world, people who come to Tokyo for the Oriental experience get a rude awakening. One of the most modern and technologically advanced cities in the world, Tokyo has very little traces left of its traditional past, although one can still find such places if you know where to look.
The first thing anyone entering the city is bound to notice is the immense mass of people. 10 percent of Japan’s entire population lives in Tokyo—that’s over 12 million people residing in just 2100 sq km area of space. There is just about 4.5 sq m of space available per capita as compared to 45.7 sq m available per capita in Washington, D.C! Land is far more valuable than gold in this part of the world and to combat that situation high rises are cropping up at every inch available.
Despite the sheer number of people struggling to find a space for themselves in the city, it is an overall harmonious and safe place to live. It has been in the forefront of technology and innovation…the Japanese have improvised and improved everything from kitchen appliances to computers, cars and audiovisual equipment.
Before 1868, Tokyo was a small obscure town known as Edo, meaning ‘the mouth of the estuary’, and Kyoto served as the Japanese capital. With the Meiji Restoration, this town was made the capital and renamed Tokyo, or the ‘eastern capital’. The credit for this goes mostly to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Emperor Meiji who made Edo their base, making it the political, economic and imperial capital of the country.
From then on a parliament, called the Diet, was elected, a prime minister and cabinet were appointed, a constitution was drafted and many advisors from Western nations were appointed to help transform the country into a modern society with an effective railway and postal system. From here onwards started Tokyo’s craze for modernization—fashion, food, architecture, the way of life, everything was imitated from the West.
In the first half of the 20th century itself, the city was almost destroyed twice. The first calamity struck in 1923 when an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale hit the city followed by a tsunami. It was known as the Great Kanto earthquake disaster killing thousands and leaving the city in ruins. The second event that left a mark on the city was the second world war that killed countless residents and almost destroyed the city again.
But like the phoenix, the city emerged from the ashes of defeat. They started their efforts to rebuild the city and its economy. A new democratic constitution was adopted and a parliamentary system of government was set up. In 1947 he first general elections were held. The city in its current avatar is a testimony to the sincerity and dedication of its people to progress and develop leaving behind them a dark past.
Getting there and around
Tokyo is a place for all seasons, although most foreign tourists visit it during summer time. Japan has four distinct seasons and the people here place much emphasis on them. Attire, utensils, etc all change according to the seasons and most festivals are related to seasonal rites.
During Japanese holidays like the Golden week that falls between the months of April and May, and summer vacation in July through August, Tokyo is relatively empty as most of the urban population go for vacations outside the city. However, in February, high school students from all over the country converge in Tokyo to compete in entrance exams for the city’s top universities so hotel rooms are mostly booked. Also, if you are planning to visit the city around the new year, be prepared to find almost the whole city on a holiday and enjoying the festivities. Most museums and restaurants also remain closed during this period.
Narita International Airport and Haneda Airport are the international and domestic airports respectively that service Tokyo. Narita is about 66 km outside Tokyo and the stretch in between is far removed from the urban madness of the city, with bamboo groves, pine forests and paddy fields.
Americans, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, British and Irish citizens traveling to Tokyo need only a valid passport to gain entry depending on their length of stay. Other nationals require a visa. Foreigners are required to carry with them their passport at all times.
It is said that in Japan, all roads, rails, shipping and air routes lead to Tokyo, such is the importance of the city. The main mode of commuting for most Tokyo residents is the railway system, both, subways and surface lines. Given the overcrowded streets, this is the most economical and fastest way to travel. It is one of the most extensive and efficient urban railway systems in the world. Shinjuku station, with over 60 exits leading out of the station, handles the most train and subway passengers—over a million people a day.
Other ways of commuting are the public and private buses with stops at major railway terminals for local, regional and national travel. Expressways link the capital to other parts of the region. Taxis are available in the city but due to its high cost and the congestion on the roads, it is not the best means of travel. Ferries carry passengers and cargo to the islands nearby.
Given the traffic conditions, Tokyo’s working population spend on an average 180 minutes commuting to and from their workplace. But they would all agree that there is no where else in the world they would rather live or work.
What to do
Shopping for antiques and souvenirs is a must for every tourist and Tokyo offers many such opportunities. The Oedo Antique Fair is held on the first and third Sunday of every month in the courtyard of the Tokyo International Forum. The Shibuya and Ginza areas have the best collection of department stores which are all huge, spotless and filled with gadgets and goodies you never knew existed. You can shop for the latest in electronics and technology and at the same time for traditional crafts and mementos like dolls, lacquer ware, ikebana accessories, silk, ceramics, swords and many such items. The choices offered will leave your head spinning. The Akihabara Electric town, as the name suggests, is a paradise for gadget freaks. It offers many products that are not even available anywhere else in the world. It is also a good place to pick up a few manga (Japanese comic books) and anime. Nearby there are two important shrines, the Yushima and Kanda which were destroyed in the 1923 earthquake and were then rebuilt.
Ueno Park attracts people with its countless cherry trees. It is a great place to just relax and watch the world go by as residents take a lunch break, or kids playing and some even singing karaoke, a national obsession in Japan.
The Kiyomizu-do kannon temple overlooking Shinobazu pond is one of the oldest temples in Tokyo. It is dedicated to Kosodate Kannon, the protector of childbearing and child rearing women. Women leave behind dolls as symbols asking for the goddess’ mercy and protection.
Do not miss the opportunity to see the big boys whilst in the city. Sumo wrestling is ‘big’ here and the wrestlers, most weighing over 300 ponds, are a sight to behold as they throw each other around in the ring.
For the museum buff there are countless options. The Tokyo national museum is te largest museum of Japanese art in the world. On display are Samurai amour, lacquer ware, kimonos, etc. The Edo-Tokyo museum chronicles the fascinating history of the city. Tokyo’s highest museum, the Mori Art museum on the 53rd floor of Mori tower offers spectacular views of the city along with works of emerging and established artists from all over the world. The Open-air folk house museum in the neighboring town of Kawasaki is in a village setting with traditional houses and historic buildings making it a pleasant change from the city atmosphere. There are many other museums in the city to choose from depending on your topic of interest…from the Beer museum to the John Lennon museum, its all there for you to explore.
This city packs in a lot of punch. There are many things to see and do here. Get the catch of the day and watch the action at the Tsukiji fish market early in the morning which is the largest one in the country and sample the freshest sushi you’ll ever have; go to the observatory at the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office and get a bird’s eye view of the city and on a good day, of Mount Fuji; walk around the Imperial Palace and the attached East garden especially in springtime when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom; see the Meiji shrine; go for a stroll in one of the many gardens the city has to offer, Hama Rikyu, Koishikawa Korakuen and Shinjuku Gyoen to name a few; and attend a Kabuki play at the Kabukiza theatre and admire the stunning sets, elaborate costumes and a thrilling tale unfold.
Just when you thought you’ve seen enough of the city, and are ready to head back home, you realize you need to extend your trip for a few more days to visit the Tokyo Disneyland or Sanrio Puroland home to so many Hello Kitties to last you a lifetime; take a leisure boat ride on the Sumida river; soak in a sento, or public bath; and after a full day’s sight seeing, get the famous shiatsu pressure-point massage.
The relaxing massage will recharge you for the rest of the evening’s entertainment. Trendy nightspots are spread throughout the city, most famous being the Ginza, Kabuki-cho and Roppongi areas. Shibuya is considered to be the most happening place in town and needless to say, also the most crowded. Even if you are not the partying kind, just walking through the streets and absorbing the electrified atmosphere revs you up. The typical geisha bars are relatively high-end where trained women entertain male customers by talking to them, singing, dancing and playing musical instruments…nothing more than that.
Where to stay
With the space crunch in the city, trust the Japanese to come up with an innovative alternative to expensive hotel rooms. Capsule hotels are the rage among business travelers on a tight budget…that is if you are not claustrophobic. For others budget options are also plenty like the Sakura hotel or the New Central Hotel. To get the total Japanese experience, you could also stay in ryokans, which are traditional Japanese inns that offer a sample of the simple Japanese way of life. For longer stays you could even book a weekly-mansion where you could rent a flat. For those willing to splurge, there are hotels such as the Century Hyatt Tokyo, Hotel New Otani, Marunouchi hotel near Tokyo station and the Imperial Hotel.
What to eat
The most popular Japanese cuisine known to the rest of the world is sushi, which is rice topped with fresh seafood, often wrapped in seaweed. Have sushi and sashimi with the pungent wasabi…it will be an experience you won’t soon forget. Start with a nice bowl of soup and move on to the many varieties of snacks and main dishes. Rice and noodles are the staple diet of the region. And to wash it all down, a nice cup of sake, or rice wine completes the meal. Be adventurous when it comes to trying out the local fare here and bring your appetite with you.
The Japanese have a distinct sense of honor and duty and you need to be aware of their customs lest you offend them. They are strict followers of etiquettes and customs. The main form of greeting in Japan is bowing instead of the handshake. You need to remove your shoes before entering a Japanese home, temple, shrine or a Japanese style restaurant or inn. And never show up at your hosts’ house empty-handed. It is well to note that smoking is banned in all public areas in the city, including train and subway stations and office buildings.
The Japanese tea ceremony is a unique experience. It was developed to achieve inner harmony and the ritual takes years to learn. The simplistic movements and the tranquil setting where the tea is served are meant to bring you peace. Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, is also a similar art meant to bring harmony into your life.
Expect a mix of urban madness and traditional tranquility in this fast paced city. It never ceases to surprise its visitors.