Tokyo is a megalopolis of more than 37 million people crammed together in a space no bigger than Los Angeles County. It’s a kaleidoscope of the past, the present and the future existing together in what seems to be perfect harmony. It’s a city that doesn’t sleep; mornings are quiet but busy while nights are mysterious, tempting, glamorous, even dangerous…depending on what you choose to do.
That is always the question: what will you do? There is a plethora of tourist attractions that you can visit, but that’s not all. As you delve deeper into its history and have more conversations with people who have lived there, the more complex the city becomes.
We stayed in Tokyo for four days. Having friends who are from the area helped us dig deeper than the casual traveler, but it feels as though we barely scratched the surface. In this post we will tell you the Tokyo attractions we visited and all that we learned, so you can build on our knowledge and create an even better, more immersive experience there.
Asakusa: Travel Back in Time
Asakusa is a district northern Tokyo famous for its Edo-period buildings and temples that look like the pictures in history books. In much of the 20th century, Asakusa was the entertainment district of Tokyo. Plenty of theaters, geisha houses and local shops emerged as a response to the accumulating wealth of patrons who hung out in the area. Asakusa was damaged by U.S. bombs during World War II but was rebuilt shortly after. It never returned to its former status as Tokyo’s entertainment hub; Asakusa passed on the title to Shibuya/Shinjuku, retired gracefully and became Tokyo’s number one historic neighborhood.
There are many shops and markets in Asakusa but don’t blindly purchase everything you see! The main streets offer mostly mass-produced items for a higher price. You will find more unique products in smaller streets and quieter areas. We saw a store selling hand-painted masks, a cart of miso soup made by a family in the small city of Ashikage and a booth boasting handmade leather key chains. The food we had in Asakusa was among the best we had in Japan, so definitely try out the restaurants and food carts.
As tourists in Japan, we had to visit the famous Senso-ji Temple. It was beautiful. The garden was lush and green even in winter, with koi fishes swimming in the ponds. While visitors are invited to take pictures and explore the temple, remember that it was and still is a religious place. Wash your hands at the designated area, don’t litter and respect the shrines!
Shibuya: Day and Night Attractions
Shibuya is the new entertainment center of Tokyo. It shared the position with Shinjuku, its northern neighbor, which is known for being more risqué (we did not get the chance to visit, as we have our younger sister traveling with us). Shibuya is home to huge shopping districts, trendy cafés and countless bars and clubs, all of which draw in visitors at all times of the day. The Shibuya Crossing is a testament to its density, its never-ending rush and its mass of attractions, both to locals and tourists (hint: there are up to 2,500 people walking the Shibuya Crossing at any given time…it’s the busiest intersection in the world!).
During the day, we suggest visiting places that will be closed in the evening. We planned to visit two ‘day’ places in Shibuya but we spent too much time in Meiji Shrine that we didn’t get the chance to visit Yoyogi Park.
Meiji Shrine is located in a forest spanning 70 hectares. It’s accessible by train but we had to walk to the shrine complex, surrounded by a wealth of nature and lazy mid-morning sunlight filtering through the foliage. The ground glittered a lovely shade of gold, a simple beauty we just couldn’t capture on camera. Moments like this make us forget where we are from; we belong in the moment and it’s impossible to rush anything.
So we strolled. When we reached the shrine complex, it was already noon. People crowded the altar, tossed coins into the saisenbako offering box, rang the bell and, with a hand-clapping-and-bowing ritual whose beauty and discipline astounded us, finished their prayers. Young monks helped pilgrims write their wishes on ema, or wooden wishing plaques, and tie it on the shrine grounds. Girls with traditional red-and-white garments brought long bows almost twice their height, ready for practice in the woods. That morning was amazing and peaceful, giving us a good rest for the night to come.
Shibuya at night is hectic. People from all over Tokyo, done with school and work, flood into the Shibuya Station and out into the streets, where they meet friends for dinner, drinks, karaoke…you name it. After a lovely dinner with a friend who lives in the area, we stopped by the Hachiko statue. Travelers from all over Japan, indeed, all over the world, come there to pay their respect.
For those who don’t know the story, Hachiko was an Akita dog that belonged to a local university professor in the early 20th century. It would greet the professor at the Shibuya station every day when he returned from work. After its owner’s death, Hachiko continued to make a daily pilgrimage to the station for not one, not two, but nine years before it died. For its loyalty that inspires and moves the heart of many, a bronze Hachiko statue was erected at the spot where it used to wait.
Akihabara and Harajuku:
Akihabara and Harujuku gave us a glimpse into some of Japan’s alternative lifestyles. Believe us when we say that both places are crazy fun and just plain mad. Read about our experience here.
Ginza: Shop ‘Till You Drop
After a long day of exploring, what better way to wrap up the night than to shop at one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world?
Ginza was a small marshy town that burned down in the 19th century and was rebuilt by the government as a model of modernization. Its humble origins are lost between the skyscrapers, upscale department stores, spacious streets and crazy light displays (at night, Ginza just glowed).
Whatever your personal fashion style is, you can find something to suit your taste here. Huge bedazzled complexes house luxury brands like Dior, Chanel and Bvlgari (the latest had a gigantic Bvlgari Serpenti coiled around its seven floor tower). The 12-stories UNIQLO store welcomed those trying to find affordable winter coats that won’t fill up space (the brand gained its popularity for its cutting-edge heat-generating coats that are much thinner than regular coats). Boutique shops sell clothes, shoes and accessories so unique that you will have to stop, marvel and run inside for a closer look.
We also visited the Tokyo Shiodome to view its winter light show. Even before we saw the lights, we heard the music they played like a siren song calling us to it. The show told a story that we couldn’t quite understand but the feelings came through…one moment, it was peaceful, the next dangerous. It was the perfect way to end the night.
We know that we are talking about a lot in here, but let’s face it…Tokyo is a lot to handle. Let us know if you have any questions and concerns! Tell us about your own experience and how you will improve ours. We look forward to reading your comments!
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Athena Lim & Alysta Lim