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Tokyo is a gleaming metropolis of exciting contrasts, where it’s possible to cross genres from science fiction to samurai, experiencing...

Tokyo is a gleaming metropolis of exciting contrasts, where it’s possible to cross genres from science fiction to samurai, experiencing cutting-edge design and ancient customs as easily as turning a street corner. Mark Bidwell, Destination Specialist for Hayes and Jarvis, recently returned from his dream trip to Japan. This is what he had to say about spending 48 hours in Tokyo.

Where to stay – Tokyo Hilton for style and comfort – located in Central Tokyo a few minutes’ drive from the central shopping district of Shinjuku.

Day 1

10 am – Breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market

Japanese food will form a large part of your experience of Tokyo. Whether walking into one of the local supermarkets, or being tempted by the flavours wafting from various food stalls, to the modern shopping malls with their international menus; you’ll be intrigued and amazed by the food you encounter. So I suggest starting your day with a typical Tokyo culinary experience with breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market. Witness the famous tuna auctions while dodging scooters and trucks transporting fresh produce, before settling down to a meal at the indoor market. Sushi must be eaten fresh so the fish market is the ideal place to get your palate acclimatised to Japanese cuisine.

By the way, if you haven’t tried sake before, you should. It’s a uniquely subtle beverage and quite forgiving the morning after. Try a warm flask of sake with alongside your meal for balance and to complement many of the side dishes you find on the menu. While I’m on the subject, keep an eye out for Sake Kit Kat (white chocolate Kit Kat laced with sake). It may appear unusual at first, but these cultural knick-knacks make perfect souvenirs for the folks back home.

11am – Hama-Rikyu Gardens

After the hubbub of the market you’ll find peace and serenity when you walk off your breakfast in the former private gardens of a Shogun Tokugawa family at Hama-Rikyu in Tokyo Bay. There’s a delightful tea house on a small island on the park’s lake to stop and enjoy an aromatic green tea.

1pm – Sumida River Cruise

From the Hama-Rikyu Gardens head to the nearby pier to take a cruise down the Sumida River, allowing you to experience Tokyo from a different perspective. The ride from Hama-Rikyu Gardens to Asakusa takes approximately 35 minutes and the boldly designed boats with their panoramic windows offer unique views of the city while you glide gracefully along, admiring the stunning architecture along the way.

3pm – Asakusa

Step off your futuristic river boat into Tokyo’s old town, Asakusa. Here you’ll find rickshaws ready to whisk you off to the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple and accompanying Geisha district. Pilgrims have flocked to the temple for centuries so expect to see the traditional dress of monks mingling among Tokyo’s modern families as they shop for souvenirs along Nakamise. Ancient customs are found everywhere, typically as you perform the rite of entry to temples called ‘Temizuya’. This involves purifying yourself at the water fountains (best observed before setting foot into the grounds of any religious building). Wash both hands, along with swishing your mouth and expectorating (spit) before wandering beneath the curling red eaves of the incense-scented Buddhist pagoda.

5pm – Tokyo Skytree

The Tokyo Skytree is situated close by the old district of Asakusa in the Sumida City ward. You can’t miss it – standing at over 634 metres high, it’s officially the second tallest structure in the world. There are two viewing decks offering glorious views of the city to Mount Fuji in the distance. The first observation level at 350 metres is the Tembo Deck while at 451 metres the Tembo Galleria will allow you to properly appreciate the sheer scale of Tokyo. Try to book tickets at sunset for unforgettable daytime and night time views. Plus, there’s a planetarium, an aquarium and a Dome Garden all located within the same complex.

8pm – Shinjuku’s Robot restaurant

Some Tokyo attractions defy belief. Don’t take my word for it however, pop into one of the city’s themed cafes and bars. Grab a coffee at a maid bar (where you’ll be served by waitresses dressed in pseudo-Victorian servant attire), or unwind in a cat café surrounded by lots of moggies circulating among the cat-themed menus and drinks. But for a really unique neon-lit experience try the Robot Restaurant in the Kabukicho district of Shinjuku for kaleidoscopic entertainment featuring mock battles with robots and manga dinosaurs. You’ll be left speechless and wondering exactly what it is you have just witnessed. And that’s half the fun of visiting Tokyo – combining unusual and traditional attractions into one crazy, urban adventure. 

Day 2

10am – The Imperial Palace

Ease yourself gently into the day with a visit to the home of the Emperor and Empress of Japan at the impressive, turreted Imperial Palace. Although it’s mostly off-limits to the public, it’s well worth exploring the East Garden Park and the remains of the old Edo Castle that it was built upon. Remember to take pictures of Nijubashi Bridge as it arcs gracefully over the moat. Furthermore, if you time your holiday right you could witness the trees burst into colour during the cherry blossom season in April.

1pm – Harajuku

One of the best places to experience the infectious culture of Tokyo is the Harajuku district located between Shinjuku and Shibuya. On Takeshita Dori (street) immerse yourself in the extreme-teen fashion styles, and shop among unique boutiques and vintage clothes stalls. But there’s another side to Harajuku: you’ll find one of Tokyo’s major Shinto shrines here, Meiji Jingu, nestled by the wide lawns and ornamental ponds of Yoyogi Park. The Ota Memorial Museum and the Nezu Museum located nearby provide further insights into Chinese, Japanese and Korean art, including the world-renowned ukiyo-e paintings.

4pm – Akihabara

Fans of manga, gaming memorabilia and electronic gadgetry will adore Akihabara. This is Tokyo’s so-called ‘nerd district’. You’ll believe you’ve wandered onto the set of Blade Runner as you stroll between towering buildings featuring vast amusement arcades and adorned with flashing signs. Exhausted from marvelling at the bewildering array of lights I suggest you sit down at an ‘izakaya’ (Japanese-style pub – if such a thing exists) to order food and drinks from the electronic screens on your table; now relax and fully appreciate how often Tokyo dares to be different.

7pm – The Golden Gai

While Tokyo is famed for its cutting edge skyscrapers and fascinating architectural designs, it’s also possible to wander into districts that feel like they haven’t changed in centuries. To enter the Golden Gai (Golden District) is to step back in time into the narrow alleyways of Shinjuku to rub shoulders with locals unwinding from the serious business of work in tiny, enigmatic drinking dens. If you don’t mind jostling with your nearest neighbour for space, chances are you’ll make new friends in what appears to be the dowdiest part of the city – but never judge a book by its cover. The Golden Gai is also one of the most enchanting districts of the city and an evening spent here will leave you thinking modern Tokyo was just a figment of your imagination. In this tiny fragment of the city it’s as though the twentieth century never happened – plus if you don’t like the bar you’ve stumbled across, there are almost 200 others to choose from literally a few metres from your current position. I couldn’t think of a better place to end your adventures in Tokyo.

Where to next:

It would be a pity to fly all the way to Tokyo and not see more of Japan. I suggest you combine modern Tokyo with the ryokans, kaiseki dining and Geisha society of Kyoto to take part in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, explore Nijo Castle and to travel by the sleek Bullet Trains.

Or why not visit the sake brewing community of Takayama. Nestled high in the mountainous Hida alpine region, the town developed its own unique culture which can still be experienced today. Stay in ryokan accommodation, and sleep on tatami mats with shoji rice paper sliding doors and slip into onsen (hot spring) baths.

Tokyo was everything I expected and more. There is so much to discover and unlike many other cities worldwide it doesn’t rely on iconic landmarks such as the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower to put it on the map. It’s at street level that you’ll find this gem of the Far East most attractive, from Shinto shrines, to cat cafés and its colourful youth culture. If you’ve always dreamt of discovering this amazing country then visit our Japan pages for inspiration. I’m already planning my next trip. 

Written by: Mark Bidwell
Posted in: City slickers

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