metro tour can be the best way to take in the sprawling Japanese capital
Tokyo is a huge city (845 square miles) and for the newcomer, initially daunting. The trick is to master the transport system, starting off with the subway and the JR (Japanese Railways) lines, particularly theYamanote line, from which point the metropolis suddenly becomes far more manageable. This tour starts at one of its oldest spots – the Imperial Palace in the center of the city. It takes its name from the fact this has been the home of the Japanese emperor since 1868, though Edo Castle occupied the area for centuries beforehand. The current emperor, Akihito, and his wife still live in the palace, though you are unlikely to spot them, not least since the general public are only allowed into the Imperial Palace Grounds on Jan. 2 and Dec. 23 (the emperor’s birthday), two dates universally unpopular for business travel. Still, depending on the weather, you can wander around the outer gardens, take pictures of Nijubashi bridge, and then head off towards the high rises for your whistle-stop tour of the city.
Take the southbound Marunouchi line and get off at the next stop, Ginza station. The Sony building is a Tokyo landmark and, inside, the many staircases, bewildering layout and sheer volume of products on display make it a must-see. For anyone keen on electronics, its eight floors offer more than enough to while away an afternoon, and the fourth floor is the tax-free shopping zone. 531 Ginza; sonybuilding.jp
Leave the Imperial Palace Gardens to the east and you’ll be in the shopping and business district of Marunouchi. An easy-on-the-eye introduction to Tokyo, this isn’t the neon bustling futureopolis that you may have been expecting, but long, straight streets filled with offices, the odd fivestar hotel and international brand shops. For visiting bankers, it will be a home away from home, but assuming you can resist the lure of the shopping, it’s the renovated Tokyo station you are heading for. It looks deceptively western, though apparently the guidebook story of it being modeled on Amsterdam’s Centraal station isn’t true. Still, with the adjacent Tokyo Station hotel having been refurbished and reopened last year, you are seeing it in all its unique glory for the first time in decades.
Be exploratory, and enter the station via the hotel. Walk through the lobby and out into the station itself, then head to the metro (Tokyo) to buy tickets for the rest of this tour. Buy a pack of 11 coupon tickets (¥1,900/$20) to cover you for all metro journeys up to 7 miles. marunouchi.com/e/, thetokyostationhotel.jp, tokyometro.jp/en
You’ve been to the geographical center, now find the city’s real center – the Senso-ji Temple in the Asakusa district. From Ginza station, take the northbound Ginza metro line to Asakusa station. The temple is a living, breathing place where rituals are still performed, and everyone from local students to old ladies comes to ask for good fortune.
Consider arranging a guide before your trip – Via Japan can help, and can provide simple instructions on how to negotiate the city, along with notes on what you are seeing. A guide will explain that holding opposites in dynamic tension is the Japanese way of doing things, hence the stunning juxtapositions of ancient and modern you will see in the city. The approach to the temple provides yet another contrast – small stalls selling traditional gifts and the ancient Kaminarimon Gate set against the backdrop of the striking Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre and Asahi building. The latter’s design, by Philippe Starck, is a celebration of the beer, with the strange golden wave escaping from one side symbolizing the Asahi flame.
If you have a preconceived notion of the Japanese having a strange affection for science fiction and fantasy dolls, Kotobukiya is the place to have those ideas confirmed. To reach it, hop back on the Ginza line and travel south, change at Ueno, and take the Hibiya line to Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronic district. This one-of-a-kind store has everything from Star Wars to Godzilla and Howl’s Moving Castle. Many are collector’s items, including painted resin Fine Art Statues, Bishoujo (pretty girl) Statues and One Coin Mini Figures. Step outside and check out the food vending machines where you can pick up complete meals. kotoeu.com
Take the Hibiya line back to Ueno, then take the Ginza line westwards to Shibuya, a couple of minutes’walk from Omotesando Hills. High-end shopping malls aren’t in short supply in Tokyo, but this is something special. Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s design gets around the fact that the mall is on a hill with an ingenious series of ramps, escalators and stairs, which really enlivens the place. Shops include Escada, Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers, and Dolce and Gabbana. After dark, the façade acts as an LED advertisement. omotesandohills.com /english
Via Japan Holidays specialises in bespoke programs to Japan for single travelers or small groups. Tel +44 (0)20 7484 3328; viajapan.co.uk. BT