Being obsessed with Japan for the longest time and reading about its great tradition in various books (“Shogun” being my personal favourite), I recently got the opportunity to visit this most amazing place in the world. While Kyoto is the most serene, peaceful and awesome city in the whole of Japan, Tokyo, on the other hand, makes you feel you are in future era. Even after being densely populated, crowded and situated on one of the most unstable seismic zone, it is by far the cleanest and the safest city I have ever visited. While you can’t imagine my difficulty in writing only about 10 things that you can do in Tokyo, when you go to Tokyo and you must, the following things and places are to be necessarily explored:
- 10. Sumo. Period
- 9. Tokyo Skytree – for bird’s eye view
- 8. Sensō-ji Temple – for finding out your fortune
- 7. Sing Karaoke – for you can’t be in Tokyo and not sing Karaoke
- 6. Tsukiji Market – for Tuna auction
- 5. Sukiyabashi Jiro – for falling into Food Coma
- 4. Shibuya Crossing – for indulging in organized chaos
- 3. Ueno Sakura Matsuri – for watching the most beautiful site on the face of the earth
- 2. Nekorobi Cat Café – for experiencing a calm time in a busy city
- 1. Robot restaurant – for eating (Well almost!) while watching crazy shows
10. Sumo. Period
If you happen to be in Tokyo during one of the three grand tournaments- you can watch some action at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo’s National Sumo Hall. While other indoor sports competitions, like boxing and wrestling, are also held here, Ryogoku Kokugikan mailnly hosts the three major Sumo tournaments- the hatsu (new year) basho in January, the natsu (summer) basho in May, and the aki (autumn) basho in September. This quintessentially Japanese sport is a lot of fun to watch and bouts lasts just for a few intense minutes with the wrestlers locking and twisting the bodies, with a lot of stretching, stomping and salt-tossing in between.
While the tickets are inexpensive at ¥2100 for adults and ¥200 for kids, it’s quite difficult to get hold of one as they are immediately sold out. If you do manage to get your hand on one, I recommend entering the arena early to see the rikishi (wrestlers) parade wearing ceremonial aprons over their loincloths, and if you are lucky enough, you can catch a former champion demonstrate some classic moves.
The sessions start as early as 6 a.m. and are usually over by 8 or 9 a.m. In the arena, you may have to sit on the floor, legs crossed. While you are allowed to take pictures, flash is prohibited. When you walk out of this hall, you’ll be awestruck.
9. Tokyo Skytree – for bird’s eye view
Tokyo Skytree is a brand new observation tower and at 634 metres, it is world’s second tallest tower, only second to Burj Khalifa. Tokyo Skytree replaced the Tokyo Tower in 2010 as the tallest tower in Japan. While Tokyo Tower remains the hotspot for tourists mainly because it stands out as it is painted white and international orange (for complying with air safety regulations), Tokyo Skytree is Tokyo’s newest landmark.
At 350 meters (1,148 feet) and 450 meters (1,476 feet) high, the Tokyo Skytree has the highest observation decks in Japan with unsurpassed views over Tokyo. So if you want to see a great view, Tokyo Skytree is the place to be. To reach the highest observation deck, you can walk up a spiraling corridor that circles the tower and offers dizzying views across the city below. The middle floor of the Tower has a souvenir shop and the Musashi Sky Restaurant, which serves French-Japanese fusion cuisine, while the lowest floor features a cafe and some glass panels on the ground from where you can look all the way down to the base of the tower. As if this wasn’t enough, this tower is earthquake resistant.
The Tokyo Skytree is open every day from 8am to 10pm and charges ¥2000 to visit the first observation deck and ¥3000 to access both observation decks. The entrance is on the 4th floor of Tokyo Skytree Town. Catch a train or a bus (30 minutes from Tokyo Station) to Tokyo Skytree Station or Oshiage (Skytree) or walk across the Sumida River from Asakusa (20 minutes) to catch the breathtaking view of Tokyo from this magnificent building.
8. Sensō-ji Temple – for finding out your fortune
Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa, Tokyo, is the oldest temple in Tokyo.
During World War II, the temple was bombed and destroyed. It was rebuilt later and is a symbol of rebirth and peace to the Japanese people. In the courtyard there is a tree that was hit by a bomb in the air raids, and it had regrown in the husk of the old tree and is a similar symbol to the temple itself.[i]
Although most of the temples in Japan offer fortune telling service, this temple offers to tell your fortune in English. Here, you can buy your own omikuji [ii] fortune by dropping a token of ¥100. You can keep your omikuji if the fortune is good, otherwise, you can tie it on the wire rack kept in the temple to ward off the bad fortune.
Other than the fortune attraction in English, you get to see the dominating gate at the entrance of this temple called “kaminari-mon” or Thunder Gate. Within the temple is a contemplative garden kept in the distinctive Japanese style. The surrounding area has many traditional Japanese shops selling souvenirs, kimonos, traditional dishes, etc.
7. Sing Karaoke – for you can’t be in Tokyo and not sing Karaoke
It’s hard to imagine Tokyo without Karaoke (considering it’s a favourite pastime for roughly 50 million people across the country). Even if you are on a short trip, take time out to enjoy a karaoke night. While there are various karaoke clubs and bars, if you have limited time, experience the less obvious, the weird places to sing your heart out.
While “Rappongi Lovenet” offers a variety of themes, “Aqua Suite” stands out. You can sing loudly all the while staying in an oversized bathtub. The lobby is decorated with a huge pile of champagne bottles and glasses. Swimsuits and towels are available for rent (charges extra). The Aqua Suite will cost you ¥25,000 an hour. Although this is the epic of all themed karaoke according to me, there are still others like the Houseboat Fukagawa Fujimi which sails from close to Monzennaka-cho Station on the Tozai Line. You can see Tokyo Tower, Rainbow Bridge and Cherry blossom (if you are there at the right time and you’re lucky enough). This awesome boat is equipped with karaoke machine. Tatami mats and optional kimono-clad ‘companions’ (charged extra) create a traditional vibe, and menu includes fresh sushi and sashimi. Prices depend on the size of your group and length of your party, but figure ¥10,500-21,000 per person for two and a half hours of unlimited hooch and harmony. Some staffs are English speaking.
6. Tsukiji Market – for Tuna auction
The Tsukiji Market, supervised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Your visit to Tokyo can never be complete without paying an obligatory attendance to this Lord of sea food market. One of the reasons for visiting this place is to attend the tuna auction. The auctions start around 5:20 a.m. and ends at around 7 a.m. Bidding can only be done by licensed participants. If you can get up in the wee hours of the morning, you may get to see this renowned auction as the auction is limited to 120 guests a day. After watching the tuna auction, how can you not have sushi there! After all, this place is only one of its kinds. Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa are the most popular sushi restaurants at the fish market and people wait patiently in queue from as early as 6 a.m. and the wait is usually for 3-4 hours. However, if you are not the type to wait, you can wander about and have sushi in any restaurant that you find a place to sit in as any restaurant in this market is as good. You can also buy fresh produce, tea, kitchen utensils and kitchenware, pickles, and food like tamago and unagi at the stalls.
Tsukiji Market is expected to be moving to Toyosu in March 2015 to make room for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. So, if you are going to Tokyo before that, you must pay homage to Tsukiji market.
5. Sukiyabashi Jiro – for falling into Food Coma
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a sushi restaurant hidden in a basement attached to the Ginza Metro Station in Tokyo. It is owned and operated by sushi master Jiro Ono. The Michelin Guide has awarded it 3 stars. French chef Joël Robuchon says that the restaurant taught him that sushi is an art.[iii]
While there are various other amazing sushi restaurants in Tokyo, this Michelin Star restaurant is perhaps the most commercially successful of them all. To enjoy sushi here, you have to make a reservation 3 months’ in advance and the entire course of meal including different varieties of sea food and dessert costs around ¥30,000 plus tax. Any cancellation of advance booking attracts a penalty of ¥15,000. So if you can spare that kind of money, this place is worth every penny you spend on the mouth-watering sushi that they serve directly from the Tsukiji market to your plate. Happy Eating!
4. Shibuya Crossing – for indulging in organized chaos
It’s only when you stand at the Shibuya Crossing that you realize the madness in the air of Tokyo. Shibuya Crossing is one of the busiest in the world. It is one of the coolest intersections. When the signal turns red, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides. For better view of this gorgeous chaos, you can observe this scene from the second-story window of the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the crossing’s north side. You can see from up above, people walking in all directions, blazing neon lights and enormous video screens, which sometimes display live videos of the street scene below.
The statue of the dog Hachiko who died at the Shibuya station waiting for its dead master to return (made famous by the movie “Hachiko”) also stands in the middle and is a common meeting place and it almost always crowded.
Tokyo-based architecture professor Julian Worrall has said Shibuya Crossing is “a great example of what Tokyo does best when it’s not trying.” Shibuya Crossing is immortalized in various movies including “Lost in Translation”, “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” and “Resident Evil: Afterlife”. If you happen to be in Tokyo, don’t forget to visit this gorgeous mess of chaos.
3. Ueno Sakura Matsuri – for watching the most beautiful site on the face of the earth
The cherry blossom festival marks the end of harsh winter and the arrival of spring. Cherry blossoms can be enjoyed only for roughly 2 weeks in the entire year and therefore, it is must for people visiting Tokyo during the month of March-April.
Ueno Koen Park is the most popular Sakura spot in Tokyo. It has a history of 400 years and is often represented in the Ukiyoe printing. This park has as many as 1100 cherry tress all around the park and Shinobazu Pond. During the festival, 1000 lanterns, which were originally intended for nighttime security, illuminate the park and invite people to celebrate the arrival of spring under a night sky. Located in the precinct of Toeisan Kaneiji Temple where the Tokugawa Shogunate family is buried, the park expects several hundred thousand visitors daily to come for the blossom viewing during the season. [iv]
While Ueno Park is crowded with tourists who come to watch Sakura, it has various other attractions. So, once you are done watching the beautifully lined cherry blossoms (Warning: You can’t get enough of them), you can head to various other attractions within the park including Tokyo’s oldest National Museum, zoo, Kaneji Temple and Tokyo University Campus.
2. Nekorobi Cat Café – for experiencing a calm time in a busy city
In the densely populated metropolitan city of Tokyo, apartment dwellers are often prohibited from keeping pets. This has led to the rise of various animal themed cafes where you can cuddle with them by paying a fixed amount per hour. While curiosity might have killed some proverbial cat, the curiosity to visit such café will only awaken you up. One such café is the cat café called Nekorobi, in the Ikebukuro area of Tokyo.
The moment you climb to the third floor where this café is located, the cats will start noticing you through the double glass doors. There are elaborate rules and regulations that you need to adhere to before entering this café including disinfecting your hands and donning a specially provided pair of slippers. Nekrobi is decorated in wicker and burlap and boasts having a Nintendo Wii as well as cats. Most of the cats at this café were once strays or turned into shelters by their owners. By paying ¥1,000 for the first hour, then ¥300 per 15min, you can surf the web and enjoy drinks, all in the company of cats.
When you enter, you can see the cats just wandering about, some asleep, some climbing around or being fed, while others being groomed by staffs, some hiding (perhaps to sleep) and others switching (sleeping) positions. It’s the most relaxing and calming experience.
Nekorobi takes you away from the fast paced city of Tokyo and into the lap of the most peaceful time.
1. Robot restaurant – for eating (Well almost!) while watching crazy shows
There are almost tons of weird crazy themed restaurant in Tokyo but there’s nothing like the Robot restaurant. When you go here, don’t care much about the food, that you can have at Jiro’s. The drinking menus just go as far as canned beer, chu-hai and bottled tea. Visit this place for its sci-fi cabaret madness. The experience is almost as if you are on an acid trip. You can watch a bunch of dancing girls on neon tanks, ominous narration, a light show, pole dancers, an all-lady marching band, monkeys driving tanks, samurais, panda ninjas, glow sticks, robots, robots in rainbow clown wigs, giant robots driven by scantily clad women, dinosaurs, tigers, cavewomen, lasers, motorcycles, and more.
You will be charged an entry fee of ¥5,000 per person, which would include a bento box. But you shouldn’t worry about how good the bento box is! The crazy on-screen graphics, the restrooms, the excitement of the audience, the seriousness of the stage, almost everything will sweep you off the floor. It’s not for everyone, and definitely has some mild sexuality to it, but it’s flat out awesome. This restaurant shows you the other side- the more fun loving, bizarre side of Tokyo. It’s open from 7 p.m till 11 p.m. I can go on and on about this place, why don’t you go there yourself and be stunned.
It’s important to learn a few chief Japanese words and while in Tokyo, it’s always better to use public transport or go riding about on bicycle. Japan takes you to a different world altogether and if you’re in Tokyo, you’ll feel as if time machine has brought you 100 years ahead in time. As far as I am concerned, I’m in absolute love with Shogun’s land and wouldn’t mind going there again and again, after all the most pleasurable things in life are worth repeating endlessly.