This was the title of a recent feature on CNN’s website. It’s a good feature, and the recommendations are fine, but they’re the same ones you’ll find in guidebooks and travel features everywhere.
Yes, you should see Tsukiji fish market, ride a bullet train and take in a sumo match. Karaoke in Roppongi is as good as karaoke anywhere, and the area is interesting, though once you get inside the booth it’s irrelevant. You should definitely go local for food (at least occasionally) rather than sticking to familiar international staples. But a true ‘insider trip tip’ is something you won’t find in every guidebook. Here are my recommendations for five Tokyo experiences you won’t forget.
1) Working-class Tokyo
Take the JR line to Nippori station and walk downhill through Yanaka Ginza. Until a few years back, the station was a gorgeous 60s mix of old news-stands and a fabulous little cafe. Now it’s modern, clean and featureless, but thankfully that can’t be said for the shitamachi, the blue-collar district where you can get a look at everyday life away from international corporate glitter and tourist trappings. It’s packed with working shrines and temples, old stores and unpretentious eating houses. Yanaka Cemetery is well worth a visit. There are museums too, including the fascinating Shitamachi Museum where you can get a feel for the life of the old town between 1860 and 1960. Just past Suwa Shrine there’s a street called Fujimizawa, or Fuji-viewing-slope – and yes, you can still see Fuji-san if the weather is clear. You can also start from Nishi-Nippori and go uphill, and if you want to use the subway Sendagi station is at the foot of the Yanaka Ginza hill. There’s usually a big stray cat population here, well fed by local residents and extremely camera-friendly.
2) Nezu Shrine
This is my favourite Tokyo shrine, edging out all the big names. It’s in the shitamachi, just a short walk from Yanaka Ginza near Nezu subway station. I love its simple beauty. The local population seems to treat it like an old-fashioned English village church, using it with everyday familiarity as a dog-walking area, playground, meditation site and spiritual resource in the widest sense. It’s as venerable as many grander shrines, with six of its structures designated as Important Cultural Properties, but it doesn’t parade its status. Said to have been established over 1,900 years ago in Sendagi by legendary priest Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, it was moved down the road to Nezu by the 5th shogun, Tsunayoshi, in the 1600s. This is another place to get a sense of the everyday life of Tokyo. I can spend hours here just watching the carp in the moat, walking the torii avenue on the hillside or reflecting at the fox-shrine.
3) Tokyo Big Sight
What would an alien battlecruiser look like if it landed in Japan? Like Tokyo Big Sight. The island of Odaiba is rich in amazing architecture, and Big Sight holds its own. It’s an otaku mecca as the site of many anime, manga and doll collector events, most notably the twice-yearly megamart Comiket when over half a million people flood its halls to buy fan-created goods. It also hosts a wide range of trade and public exhibitions including Robotech, the Japan robotics fair, the International Tokyo Toy Show, Wireless Japan 2010 and the Japan International Fashion Fair. It even has its own range of merchandise. I like to take the Yurikamome monorail from Shimbashi station to Kokusai-tenjijo-shimon, but you can also take the Rinkai line from Oimachi or Shin-Kiba to Kokusai-tenjijo.
The home of Tokyo’s used book trade, Jimbocho is a wonderful place to rummage. Most of the shops are small and privately owned – Sanseido is the only big bookstore – and you’ll find everything from foreign books to used manga, old cinema brochures to learned tomes. For a bibliophile the walk along Yasukuni-dori from Jimbocho station (subway – you can also get there by railway at Suidobashi) is the path to paradise. Where Yasukuni-dori crosses Meiji-dori there’s a good kaitenzushi place, where you choose your sushi from a conveyor belt topped up by the chefs working in the centre of the restaurant, but there are plenty of other places to eat. You’ll need to keep your strength up to carry all those bulging book bags back to your hotel.
Collecting like it used to be! Shimokitazawa is for those who prefer not to have their collectibles produced in quantity and packed in neat plastic bags or bright boxes. A short hop from Shibuya or Shinjuku by rail, it’s Tokyo’s local collector town, a nice change from Akihabara where it sometimes feels impossible to avoid one’s fellow Westerners. It’s packed with little shops selling music (on vinyl,) used clothing, Showa era artefacts, old toys and every other fleamarket category. Some items are tagged with eye-watering prices, but you can still find bargains aplenty. The streets are dotted with cafes, bars and live music venues, and it’s a great place to spend a day – or night. Catch it while you can because locals are fighting a road-building scheme which would divide and, they say, destroy the neighbourhood.
Ask someone else for their unmissable Tokyo experiences, though, and you’ll get five different answers. Tokyo is such a diverse city that it’s almost impossible to narrow its list of unique experiences down to five. What are your five unforgettable Tokyo experiences? Or, if you haven’t been there yet, what are the five must-see entries on your travel plan?