TOKYO DELIVERS SENSORY OVERLOAD
Huge and varied in its geography, with over 2,000 square kilometres to explore,tokyo Metropolis spans not just the city, but rugged mountains to the west and subtropical islands to the south. But that’s hardly what you’ll notice as a first-time visitor. Instead, the one thing that hits home is the sheer size and scale of the concrete jungle which you’ve just entered. You could stand atop any of the enormous skyscrapers, and all you’d see in every direction is more skyscrapers, stretching to the end of the horizon.
Tokyo is vast: it’s best thought of not as a single city, but a constellation of cities that have grown together. Tokyo’s districts vary wildly by character, from the electronic blare ofakihabara to the Imperial gardens and shrines of Chiyoda, from the hyperactive youth culture ofshibuya to the pottery shops and temple markets ofasakusa. However, the advantage to this is that, if you don’t like what you see, you can simply hop on the train and head to the next station, and you will find something entirely different.
The sheer size and frenetic pace of Tokyo can intimidate the first-time visitor. Much of the city is a jungle of concrete and wires, with a mass of neon and blaring loudspeakers. At rush hour, crowds jostle in packed trains and masses of humanity sweep through enormous and bewilderingly complex stations. Don’t get too hung up on ticking tourist sights off your list: for most visitors, the biggest part of the Tokyo experience is just wandering around at random and absorbing the vibe, poking your head into shops selling weird and wonderful things, sampling restaurants where you can’t recognise a single thing on the menu (or on your plate), and finding unexpected oases of calm in the tranquil grounds of a neighbourhood Shinto shrine. It’s all perfectly safe, and the locals will go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to help you if you just ask.
Indeed, the majority of the locals don’t speak a word of English, but they’re all too happy to help any lost tourists. It’s not uncommon to see small groups of Japanese residents pointing and miming for confused visitors in the hopes that they’ll be sent in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to make
contact with locals, as, in our experience, they’re as friendly as can be.
You probably will need to ask for help at some point during your visit. To get around, there’s no better way to understand the city than by taking the trains and subways. However, the mass transit systems are highly confusing—little signage is in English, and the sheer scale of the system makes penetrating it that much more difficult.
The defining rail line in Tokyo is the JR Yamanote Line, which runs in a loop around central Tokyo; being inside the Yamanote loop is synonymous with being in the core of Tokyo. You can think of it
almost as an enormous version of the London Underground’s Circle Line. Almost all inter-regional JR lines and private lines start at a station on the Yamanote, meaning that it’s a good reference point for exploration to all the various sites.
In terms of the sites, to get into the cultural spirit of Tokyo, it’s best to opt for the temples of Asakusa, the gardens of the Imperial Palace and the Meiji Shrine. All are often packed to the point of bursting, so it’s best to turn up early to avoid the queues. However, they’re certainly worth experiencing as they’re so at odds with the man-made metropolis outside. Within these temples you get quiet havens of serenity, and interesting insight into Japanese culture and tradition. The city is also dotted with museums, large and small, which centre on every possible interest from pens to antique clocks to traditional and modern arts.
Tokyo has many commercial centres for shopping, eating and simply wandering around for experiencing the modern Japanese urban phenomenon. Each of these areas have unique characteristics, such as the dazzling Shinjuku, the youthful Shibuya and the upmarket Ginza. These areas are bustling throughout the day, but they really come into life in the evenings, when the neon lights come into force and dazzle the senses.
For yet more sensory overload, be sure to visit one of the numerous viewing platforms around Tokyo, which provide astonishing views of the city. Tokyo Tower is probably the most famous, but if you’re going for the highest point of the city, opt for the viewing platform in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. Other top viewing spots include the World Trade Centre Building at JR Hamamatsucho station, which offers great views of Tokyo Tower itself, as well as the city’s waterfront.
There’s plenty else to see and do, and it would take a lifetime to complete the ultimate bucket list in a city as vast as Tokyo. Other highlights include a trip to a local sento, or public bath. And, if you visit at the right time in spring, you might be lucky enough to experience a picnic in the park during the cherry blossom.
These are all distractions, however, from the main event, which is the incredible vastness of Tokyo itself. You can make a trip to the city into anything you want, but just be sure to revel in the madness of the hustle and bustle of life in one the world’s densest cities.