This article first appeared in the October 2018 print issue of PAX magazine.
A city that’s quaint and futuristic in equal measure, Tokyo is a megalopolis whose unique charm never ceases to amaze.
It’s a place unlike any other in the world – a sprawling provincial city whose mosaic is so heterogeneous and vast that it’s sometimes difficult to familiarize oneself with it. Tokyo is five times larger than the island of Montreal alone, with an urban metro map that’s so complex it’ll make you dizzy.
Tokyo is best explored by taking a closer look at its suburbs and neighbourhoods, a way of dividing the city that makes it easier to discover on a distinctly local scale.
From its ultramodern city streets to its Edo temples and charming bakeries rooted in the hermetic Japanese tradition, the Land of the Rising Sun’s capital presented me with some very pleasant surprises. Here are three of Tokyo’s 23 districts that had a big impact on me during my stay.
It’s mainly known for the so-called busiest crossroads in the world, marked by thousands of onlookers, students and professionals crisscrossing in the type of orderly chaos only Japan is capable of. However, Shibuya is also noteworthy for its massive flashing neon signs, shopping centres and advertising campaigns, appealing directly to the commercial tastes of Japanese adolescents.
The Harajuku district and its famous Takeshita-dõri alley are located here, with both notable for the weird and wonderful array of clothing and food on display. It’s here that you can sample huge portions of rainbow cotton candy amidst hordes of young Japanese dressed in purple (including hair!) – an experience you won’t soon forget. With its blazing lights, restaurants using robots as servers, deafening J-pop and lively arcades on show at all hours of the night and day, Shibuya is the epitome of the futuristic technological style that modern Japan is famous for.
Dominated by its dizzying five-storey pagoda, this district is distinguished by its old-world charm, far from the hallucinogenic facades of Shibuya.
First stop: the Senso-ji temple, the capital’s oldest, whose origins date back to the year 628. With its scarlet tones and enormous lantern, the Kaminarimon gate dedicated to the god of thunder is particularly noticeable, standing at 12 metres in height. Behind the pagoda lie green, bucolic gardens.
Another part of the ancient Japanese heritage is located in the shadow of the temple: the hanamachi of Asakusa. While wandering the narrow alleys lined with old wooden houses, I caught a glimpse of real geisha; witnessing these venerated, graceful women in their finery was a true privilege.
Wanting to gain an authentic experience of Tokyo and Tokyoites, I followed the advice of a local resident by heading to Ueno and Yanaka.
Stopping occasionally along the way in a traditional tea shop (Jin Ji Yuan) or a charming bric-a-brac frequented by a crotchety cat (Kaiun Yanakudou), I continued my journey to a bakery, Usagiya. Here, local dorayakis are served; these delectable treats are sweet cakes filled with red bean paste. It made the morning that much sweeter, despite the oftenwide language barrier, and it helped me to discover a friendly and genuinely endearing Tokyo.
Passing through the art galleries on Kototoi-dori, I crossed the entrance of the famous Ueno Park, whose NorthEast zone hosts the eight pavilions of the National Museum of Tokyo.
It contains the largest collection of Japanese artifacts in the country. Make sure to stop at Ueno Toshogu and Shinobazunoike Bentendo temples, located on the edge of a beautiful and peaceful pond.
Before you visit
Before you visit, make sure you familiarize yourself with local customs and best practices. Here are a few pointers to help you out:
- Japanese is the dominant language, even in Tokyo. It's a good idea to keep a pocket dictionary on hand in order to converse with locals. Don't worry, though, as most residents are extremely obliging and eager to help regardless of the language barrier.
- Transportation in Tokyo is an experience in and of itself, from crowded subway cars to swan-shaped pedal boats, and immaculate taxis whose doors open automatically.
- Capsule hotels are not for everyone. While they theoretically sounds whimsical and quirky, several have restrictive operating hours and scarce bathroom facilities; not to mention that the vast majority only cater to men.
- ATMs rarely accept international debit or credit cards, making it laborious to withdraw cash on location. Plan ahead and exchange plenty of yens at your local bank before you go.
- Travellers with asthma be warned: smoking is still allowed in most public areas, including bars and restaurants.
- Free Wi-Fi is hard to come by as most Japanese have very generous data plans on their mobile phones. Get a wireless router for a small fee; rent and return one easily at the telecom company counters at most airports.
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