may 2018

A year ago, I visited Tokyo for the very first time. It was my second time in Japan (the first time was a very short side trip to Kansai from Taiwan), and I went with my family for a weeklong trip. 

Tokyo is one of those places where you can’t help but go in with preconceived notions. People tell you about Tokyo, movies tell you about Tokyo. Everyone has an idea of what Tokyo is, what Tokyo should be. An idea of what one should do when one visits Tokyo. But, like most cities that suffer from a larger than life reputation, Tokyo is not what they say it is. I mean, it is, but it is that and so much more. 

For one Tokyo is huge. Like, even tall buildings aside, it makes Los Angeles feel compact. It makes Taipei feel cute. It’s like if New York City was multiplied out to the size of LA, and then some. And with that size comes so many nooks and crannies to explore. Every neighborhood brought a change in atmosphere, a breath from where you were, and from where you’re going. It’s an interesting city, a place where you can never be bored. There’s so much surrounding you at all times, and everyone there seems to be living their version of Tokyo while you discover yours.

I can’t wait for the opportunity to come back and see more of this beautiful city. For now, I’ll settle for some fond memories.

We stayed at an Airbnb in Shinjuku for the first few days. It was a good location to explore, easy to get to from the airport, and easy to get around the city by being walking distance to the train station. 

The very first day, shortly after arriving from the airport, we walked over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where they have a free observatory to overlook the city.

Akihabara is, I think, what the West’s fever dream of Tokyo should look like. Sensory overload everywhere you look. Signs screaming at you. To be honest, it wasn’t my favorite part of the city. Sure, it scratched that itch of ogling at the deliciously foreign side of Japanese pop culture, but I think a short walk through the neighborhood was enough for me.

If Akihabara was overwhelming, the Imperial Gardens was decidedly underwhelming. I guess I was kind of expecting Tokyo’s version of the Osaka Castle, but it was more of a sprawling park, a lot of lawn lacking a major landmark. Although, who can blame them? Their landmark was destroyed, and what’s left is little more than a platform upon which no one more royal than a tourist stands. If you shift your perspective and think about it as a park though, like Tokyo’s Central Park, a generous splotch of green in the midst of a bustling city, you do appreciate the sense of peace.

My favorite neighborhood? Easy. Omotesando. It’s like the luxe of Beverly Hills (which, for the record, I actually am not particularly fond of), with the pace of Santa Monica’s Montana Ave (which I do adore). It’s like Tokyo’s Marais. Perhaps not the most famous landmark or bustling commercial district, but it’s the subdued glitz that makes it attractive. A.k.a. it’s not as tacky as Rodeo Drive… It feels like local people would actually go there, if not to shop, then at least to patron at one of the many cafes and restaurants tucked in the small side streets and alleys.

I could probably spend a week just wandering through these alleys, popping into shops, drooling over the architecture and pretending to be local at the coffee shops. It’s everything I love in a city, but a Japanese interpretation, which makes it that much better. 

Speaking of understated tourist attractions, the Nezu museum is an absolute gem. It was actually fairly crowded when we went, but there definitely were more Japanese visitors than foreign. It’s a small museum, but it’s all about the garden. The beautiful beautiful garden that manages to maintain a sense of tranquility even when there’s a constant stream of people walking through. 

On the other hand, Roppongi Hills is tourist central. But honestly, we all know we’re here for the gram, and the 360 view of the city from the observatory is unbeatable. On a clear day, you can even spot Mount Fuji off in the distance. I, for one, was kinda into the lines of the windows and the motif of silhouetted tourists against the endless cityscape.

Ah, shopping in Tokyo. That in itself is a delightful idea. And I’m not even much of a shopper. It’s like shopping in Paris. You buy into this romanticized idea of shopping, you dress the part, you act the way you think one should act when shopping in Tokyo, and it doesn’t even matter if you actually buy anything. The point is, you’re shopping. In Tokyo. I dream of a day when I can actually just pop over to Tokyo for a shopping trip.

A little tradition goes a long way. I remember when I visited Kyoto (a day trip from Osaka), it was like temple after temple after temple. And don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoy religious landmarks because I think, no matter what the religion, they have the most beautiful architecture. But when you pack it all into a day in Kyoto, it feels a bit like a marathon. 

Meanwhile, Senso-Ji was the only temple we visited on this trip, and it was delightful. Of course, since it was Golden Week, the entire area was unbelievably packed. A sea of people, with towers rising majestically above. But despite what felt like crowd cutting in a Taiwanese night market, it was nice to get a difference pace from city life. A healthy dose of more traditional Japanese culture. 

And then there’s Tsukiji Market. I didn’t realize until going there that I was visiting the original Tsukiji Market in its final hour. Just a few months later, the historic fish market would be moved to a new location. I guess it’s more of a feeling though. After all, we pretty much only visited the outer markets (by the time we got there, most of the wholesale was closing shop), which remain there as a tourist attraction. But the inner market is now about a mile and a half away in Toyosu Market. 

Tokyo is insane. Like, to have so many things in one city is absolutely insane. And we are so lucky to live in a world where a place like this exists. It’s more modern than any American city, and also more traditional and historic than any American city (though, that’s not saying much). It’s crazy busy in many parts, but also oddly peaceful in others. It’s filled with people from around the world who call it home. Living a city life that must be so special. Again, I can’t wait for my next opportunity to visit.

[ Last Edited: May 2019 | Last Visited: May 2018 ]

see also

a tale of two cities
osaka v taipei
and an illustrated tale of two others