Read an Excerpt
By Beth Reiber
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-4322-9
Chapter OneThe Best of Tokyo
Describing Tokyo to someone who has never been here is a formidable task. After all, how do you describe a city that-as one of my friends visiting Tokyo for the first time put it-seems like part of another planet?
To be sure, Tokyo is very different from Western capitals, but what really sets it apart is its people. Approximately 12 million people reside within Tokyo's 1,288 sq. km (800 sq. miles), and almost one-fourth of Japan's total population lives within commuting distance of the city. This translates into a crush of humanity that packs the subways, crowds the sidewalks, and fills the department stores beyond belief. In some parts of the city, the streets are as crowded at 3am as they are at 3pm. With its high-energy, visual overload, Tokyo makes even New York seem like a sleepy, laid-back town.
And yet, despite its limited space for harmonious living, Tokyo remains one of the safest cities in the world, with remarkably little crime or violence. No matter how lost I may become, I know that people will go out of their way to help me. Hardworking, honest, and helpful to strangers, the Japanese are their country's greatest asset.
With Tokyo so densely packed, it comes as no shock to learn that land here is more valuable than gold, and that buildings are built practically on top of each other, shaped like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to fit the existing plots of realestate. More than perhaps any other city in the world, Japan's capital is a concrete jungle, with a few parks but not many trees to break the monotony, and it stretches on and on as far as the eye can see. Fires, earthquakes, wars, the zeal for modernization, and the price of land have taken their tolls on the city, eradicating almost all evidence of previous centuries. It's as though Tokyo was born only this morning, with all the messy aftermath of a city conceived without plan and interested only in the future.
Thus, first-time visitors to Tokyo are almost invariably disappointed. They come expecting an exotic Asian city, but instead find a megalopolis Westernized to the point of drabness. Used to the grand edifices and monuments of Western cities, they look in vain for Tokyo's own monuments to its past-ancient temples, exquisite gardens, imperial palaces, or whatever else they've imagined. Instead they find what may be, quite arguably, one of the ugliest cities in the world.
So, while Tokyo is one of my favorite cities, my appreciation came only with time. When I first moved here, I was tormented by the unsettling feeling that I was somehow missing out on the "real" Tokyo. Even though I was living and working here, Tokyo seemed beyond my grasp: elusive, vague, and undefined. I felt that the meaning of the city was out there, if only I knew where to look.
With time, I finally learned that I needn't look farther than my own front window. Tokyo has no center, but rather is made up of a series of small towns and neighborhoods clustered together, each with its own history, flavor, and atmosphere. There are narrow residential streets, ma-and-pa shops, fruit stands, and stores. There's the neighborhood tofu factory, the lunch-box stand, the grocery shop, and the tiny police station, where the cops know the residents by name and patrol the area by bicycle. There are carefully pruned bonsai trees gracing sidewalks, women in kimono bowing and shuffling down streets, and wooden homes on impossibly narrow streets. Walk in the old downtown neighborhoods of Asakusa or Yanaka and you're worlds apart from the trendy quarters of Harajuku or the high-rises of Shinjuku. Neighborhoods like these make Tokyo lovable and livable.
What's more, once visitors get to know Tokyo better, they learn that you can't judge Tokyo by what it looks like on the outside, for this is a city of interiors. Even those concrete monsters may house interiors that are fascinating in design and innovation. In the basement of that drab building could well be a restaurant with wooden beams, mud walls, and thatched ceiling, imported intact from a farmhouse in the Japan Alps; on its roof could be a small Shinto shrine, while the top floor could house a high-tech bar or a sophisticated French restaurant.
And beneath Tokyo's concrete shell is a thriving cultural life left very much intact. In fact, if you're interested in Japan's performing arts as well as such diverse activities as the tea ceremony or sumo, Tokyo is your best bet for offering the most at any one time. It is rich in museums and claims the largest repository of Japanese art in the world. It also gets my vote as the pop-art capital of the world, so if you're into kitsch, you'll be in high heaven. I can't imagine being bored here for even a minute.
1 Frommer's Favorite Tokyo Experiences
Strolling Through Asakusa. No place better conveys the atmosphere of old Tokyo than Asakusa. Sensoji Temple is the city's oldest and most popular temple, and Nakamise Dori, the pedestrian lane leading to the temple, is lined with shops selling souvenirs and traditional Japanese goods. As in days of yore, arrive by boat via the Sumida River. See "Walking Tour: Asakusa" on p. 183.
Catching the Action at Tsukiji Fish Market. Get up early your first morning in Japan (you'll probably be wide awake with jet lag, anyway) and head straight for the country's largest fish market, where you can watch the tuna auctions, browse through stalls of seafood, and sample the freshest sushi you'll ever have. See "The Top Attractions" in chapter 6.
Viewing Treasures at the Tokyo National Museum. It's a feast for the eyes at the largest museum of Japanese art in the world, where you can see everything from samurai armor and lacquerware to kimono and woodblock prints. If you visit only one museum in Tokyo, this should be it. See "The Top Attractions" in chapter 6.
Sitting Pretty in Shinjuku. On the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (TMG), designed by well-known architect Kenzo Tange, an observatory offers a bird's-eye view of Shinjuku's cluster of skyscrapers, the never-ending metropolis and, on fine winter days, Mount Fuji. Best of all, it's free. See "Spectacular City Views" in chapter 6.
Time Traveling in the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Housed in a high-tech modern building, this ambitious museum chronicles the fascinating and somewhat tumultuous history of Tokyo (known as Edo during the Feudal Period), with models, replicas, artifacts, and dioramas. Guided tours in English are available for free. See "The Top Attractions" in chapter 6.
Hanging Out in Harajuku. Nothing beats Sunday in Harajuku, where you can begin the day leisurely with brunch, stroll the promenade of Omotesando Dori, shop the area's many boutiques, take in a museum or two and perhaps a flea market, visit Meiji Shrine, and then relax over drinks at a sidewalk cafe watching the hordes of teenyboppers parading past. See "Walking Tour: Harajuku & Aoyama" on p. 188.
Escaping Big-City Life in the Temple Town of Yanaka. With its many temples, offbeat attractions, sloping hills, and peaceful narrow streets, the neighborhood of Yanaka makes for a wonderful half-day escape from the crowds of Tokyo. See "Walking Tour: Yanaka" on p. 196.
Walking the Imperial Moat. It's an easy, 4.8km (3-mile) walk around the Imperial Palace moat, especially beautiful in spring when the many cherry blossoms are aflame. Don't miss the attached (and free) East Garden. See "The Top Attractions" in chapter 6. Taking Part in a Festival. Tokyo offers a myriad of annual festivals, ranging from processions of portable shrines to ladder-top acrobatics. Be ready to battle good-natured crowds, as festivals can be unbelievably packed. See "Tokyo Calendar of Events" in chapter 2.
Strolling a Japanese Landscaped Garden. There's no better escape from Tokyo's urban jungle than a stroll through one of its landscaped gardens, especially in spring, when irises, wisteria, peonies, azaleas, and other flowers are in bloom. Top picks are Hama Rikyu Garden, Koishikawa Korakuen, Shinjuku Gyoen and-in nearby Yokohama -Sankei-en Garden. See "Parks & Gardens" in chapter 6.
Viewing Cherry Blossoms at Ueno Park. Ueno Park is famous throughout Japan for its 1,000 cherry trees, attracting multitudes of company employees and organizations. It's not, however, the communing with nature you might think, as everyone drinks, eats, dances, and sings karaoke, seemingly oblivious to the shimmering blossoms above. Observing Tokyoites at play here is a cultural experience you won't forget. See "Parks & Gardens" in chapter 6 and "Walking Tour: Ueno" on p. 192.
Watching the Fat Guys Wrestle. Nothing beats watching huge, almost-nude sumo wrestlers, most weighing well over 300 pounds, throw each other around. Matches are held in Tokyo in January, May, and September; catch one on TV if you can't make it in person. Great fun and not to be missed. See "Spectator Sports" in chapter 6. Getting a Massage. After a hard day of work or sightseeing, nothing beats a relaxing massage. Shiatsu, or pressure-point massage, is available in the privacy of your room at virtually all first-class and most medium-range Tokyo hotels, as well as at a number of clinics in the city, many of which offer acupuncture as well. See "Five Unforgettable Ways to Immerse Yourself in Japanese Culture" in chapter 6.
Soaking Away your Cares. Tokyo now has its own hot-spring spas, thanks to drilling that released therapeutic waters from deep below the surface. Top on my list is Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, a theme-based spa that emulates bathing houses of yore with its Feudal Period replica architecture, shops, restaurants, indoor and outdoor baths, massage rooms, and more. See "Five Unforgettable Ways to Immerse Yourself in Japanese Culture" on p. 165.
Appreciating the Beauty of Ikebana. After seeing how flowers, branches, and vases can be combined into works of art, you'll never be able to simply throw flowers into a vase again. You can learn the basics of ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, at several schools in Tokyo. Exhibitions of ikebana are held regularly at Yasukuni Shrine and department stores. See "Five Unforgettable Ways to Immerse Yourself in Japanese Culture" in chapter 6.
Experiencing the Serenity of the Tea Ceremony. Developed in the 16th century as a means to achieve inner harmony with nature, the tea ceremony is a highly ritualized process that takes years to learn. You can experience a shortened version at several Tokyo hotels. See "Five Unforgettable Ways to Immerse Yourself in Japanese Culture" in chapter 6.
Browsing the Electronics Shops of Akihabara Electric Town. Even if you don't buy anything, it's great fun-and very educational-to see the latest in electronic gadgets in Japan's largest electronics district, which offers many products unknown in Western markets. See "Shopping A to Z" in chapter 8.
Hunting for Bargains at Flea Markets. You never know what treasure you might find at one of Tokyo's monthly outdoor flea markets, where vendors sell everything from used kimono to antiques and curios. Go early, and be sure to bargain. See "Shopping A to Z" in chapter 8.
Getting the Royal Treatment at Department Stores. Tokyo's department stores are huge, spotless, and filled with merchandise you never knew existed; many also have first-rate art galleries. Shibuya and Ginza boast the greatest concentration of department stores. Tobu, in Ikebukuro, is the city's largest-a virtual city in itself. Service in a Japanese department store is an unparalleled experience: Be there when it opens, and you'll see employees lined up at the front door, bowing to incoming customers. See "Shopping A to Z" in chapter 8.
Shopping for Japanese Designer Clothes. Japanese designer clothing is often outrageous, occasionally practical, but always fun. Department stores, designer boutiques in Aoyama, and secondhand shops in Ebisu are the places to try on the digs-assuming you've got both the money and the figure. See "Shopping A to Z" in chapter 8.
Feasting on a Kaiseki Meal. Although expensive, a kaiseki feast, consisting of dish after dish of artfully displayed delectables, may well be the most beautiful and memorable meal you'll ever have. Splurge at least once on the most expensive kaiseki meal you can afford, and you'll feel like royalty. See "Tips on Dining, Japanese Style," in chapter 5.
Rubbing Elbows in a Yakitoriya. There's no better place to observe Tokyo's army of office workers at play than at a yakitoriya, a drinking man's pub that also sells skewered grilled chicken and bar snacks. It's fun, noisy, and boisterous. See "Tips on Dining, Japanese Style," in chapter 5. Attending a Kabuki Play at the Kabukiza Theater. Kabuki has served as the most popular form of entertainment for the masses since the Edo Period. Watch the audience as they yell their approval; watch the stage for its gorgeous costumes, stunning settings, and easy-to-understand dramas of love, duty, and revenge. See "The Performing Arts" in chapter 9. Taking a Spin Through Kabukicho. Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho has the craziest nightlife in all of Tokyo, with countless strip joints, porn shops, restaurants, bars, and the greatest concentration of neon (and drunks) you're likely to see anywhere. It's a fascinating place for an evening stroll.
Excerpted from Frommer's Tokyo by Beth Reiber Excerpted by permission.
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