Love big cities? They don’t come much bigger – or more interesting – than Tokyo, writes Frances Quinn
When you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, you read a lot about how big it is – but it’s only when you stand on the 45th floor of the city’s Metropolitan Building that you understand.
Stretching to the horizon, in every direction, is a sea of buildings, punctuated by soaring skyscrapers and patches of green; only the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji in the distance tells you it doesn’t go on forever.
But geographical size is only half the story – when you get down on the ground, what really makes Tokyo feel huge is the sheer number of people. Over 13 million live here, another two and a half million commute in for work, and if you find yourself on the tube in rush hour, or in the nightlife area of Shinjuku after dark, you’ll know about it.
If you hate crowds, it’s not for you – but if you’re someone who loves the buzz of a big, bustling city, it’s somewhere you really ought to see.
There’s no point dipping your toe in gently, so when you arrive, head for the bright lights. The shopping district of Shibuya is a blinking, twinkling mass of neon-lit skyscrapers and gigantic video screens, thronged with people, that feels a bit like being inside a giant video game.
I can’t think of any other city where a zebra crossing is on the must-see list, but Shibuya Crossing is something else – when the lights change, up to a thousand people cross at a time, from eight different points, and it tells you something about Tokyo that it’s achieved without a cross word.
Japanese politeness is legendary and it’s what makes this packed city feel so liveable; you can’t successfully squash that many people in together unless they behave well, and they do.
Shop staff are so respectful you wonder if they’ve mistaken you for Madonna, waiters display saintly levels of patience with Westerners who don’t understand a word on the menu, and if you stand still with a map for 30 seconds, someone will always ask if they can help, and often take you where you’re going.
Even in the ultimate modern city, there are still glimpses of the past. Asakusa is the ‘old town’, a warren of streets full of little shops and restaurants. It’s a lovely place to wander, or take a rickshaw ride – the English-speaking driver-guides are great and there are set prices so no fear of being ripped off.
If you want to get in the mood, you can rent a kimono to stroll around in – and, if you’re lucky, you might spot the elderly gentleman who walks his kimono-wearing dog.
Another must-see here is Senso-Ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. The buildings are spectacular, and, in the grounds, you can cure ills by wafting smoke from a giant incense burner over the relevant body part, and have your fortune told by the gods – drop a 100 yen note into the slot, shake a stick out of the silver canister, and match it to a numbered drawer to read your fate. I got 78, ‘the highest, most excellent fortune’.
Green spacesTokyo’s parks and gardens are the lungs of the city, and with most people living in tiny apartments, they’re their back gardens, too. Even in the heart of the most built-up areas, you find beautiful spaces, like Hama-Rikyu, an oasis of manicured trees, lawns and lakes.
It’s ringed by skyscrapers, but when you’re sipping green tea in an old teahouse in the middle of a lake, they seem to belong to another world.
But for the ultimate Tokyo experience, visit Yoyogi Park on a Sunday morning, where you’ll see people practising dance routines, doing yoga, rehearsing plays and dressing up as Elvis. And, if you missed Asakusa’s kimono-wearing pup, Yoyogi has dogs in tutus, dungarees, leather jackets and sunglasses, and even on skateboards.
It’s weird and crazy, but it’s strangely lovable – just like Tokyo.
Great for culture vultures
The National Museum of Modern Art is one of the best I’ve ever seen – a concise journey through Japanese modern art, with some stunning pictures and informative captions that display a refreshing lack of the pretentious ‘artspeak’ you often find in modern art museums.
Great for independent explorers
The Fukagawa Fudo-Do temple isn’t as much visited by tourists as the bigger ones like Senso-Ji, but it’s worth finding. Inside the stunningly elaborate main hall, you can watch a fire ritual with pounding drums and hypnotic chanting (everyone’s welcome), and, outside, there’s a pretty courtyard and a bustling little shopping street.
Great for food lovers
The food halls in Tokyo’s big department stores are a must-see for foodies – vast basements with dozens of counters offer everything from handmade sweets and cakes that look too beautiful to eat, to fresh fish, exotic mushrooms and sparklingly fresh sushi.
They’re a great place to shop for edible souvenirs and there are often samples to try as you walk around.
Flights to Japan start at around £450. The most popular time to visit is spring, when the cherry blossoms are out, and everyone walks and picnics in the parks and gardens, but hotels and flights are expensive then, and you’ll need to book well in advance. Autumn is also a good option, with fine, warm weather, and stunning displays of gold and red in the parks and gardens.
Woman’s Weekly travel offer
Japan – Land of the Rising Sun. 13 days from £2,999pp. Departures from Aug to Nov 2017. Includes return flights, transfers, four-star hotels with breakfast and three meals. Plus aerial gondola and bullet train ride. All escorted by a tour manager. To book, or for a free brochure, call 01283 742 396 or visit escorted.womansweekly.co.uk