There is a geography of Tokyo that exists in the imaginary spaces of Western pop culture, where neighbourhoods and districts are detached and decoupled from the topography of Tokyo Bay and elevated into the global pop consciousness like few other cities on earth. Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara are as recognisable as Tribeca, the Mission, and the West End, and they loom large in the collective dreaming and defining of Tokyo as a world city. Over the next few days, as I criss-crossed the most populous city in the world, what once belonged to the imagined Tokyo would, one by one, be planted firmly in the soil of my travel reality.
As mentioned in my previous post, I divided the city into 7 areas or concentrations of sites, categorized by colour on the above map, with the idea of covering at least 2 or 3 areas per day. The number of sites per area was distributed unevenly, ranging from as few as 1-2 to as many as 9, and some areas had higher priority than others. In deciding which sites to put on my map, I found the Tokyo City Guide from Japan-Guide.com to be very helpful, and most, if not all, of the places I visited were sourced from that website. On my first full day in Tokyo, I decided to focus on the Blue and Red areas in the northern parts of the city, making my way down to some of the Green sites if I still had time before dinner.
With my trusty PuPuRu mobile WiFi brick and the Tokyo Subway Navigation app on my phone, I hopped on board the trains at Roppongi and made my way up to the northeastern district of Asakusa, where the famous Sensō-ji temple complex is located. Guarded by the imposing Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, Sensō-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo, dating back to 645 AD, though the current structure was built after World War II.
I stumbled into Sensō-ji through a side street, walking down the Nakamise-dōri to find the Kaminarimon on the southern end, before doubling back on my way to the inner complex and the main hall to the north. The Nakamise-dōri is the main thoroughfare between the Kaminarimon and the Hōzōmon, the gate to the inner complex, and is lined by shops selling snacks and all sorts of souvenirs from one end of Sensō-ji to the other. Families with young children and students lugging matching blue backpacks strolled up and down the grey pavement stones, modern pilgrims wandering from shop to shop, while old men sat and rested in the morning shade of the temple gates.
On the other side of the Hōzōmon, the inner complex held the main structures devoted to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, including a five-story pagoda and the massive Kannon-do Hall. A small crowd was gathered around a stone cauldron of smouldering incense in the courtyard, wafting the pale smoke around their bodies as a symbol of good health. On the steps of the Kannon-do Hall, a steady stream of petitioners to the goddess who “perceives the cries of the world” made their way slowly to the entrance of the building, laying their hopes and dreams on a wooden platform underneath a giant red lantern. As the silhouetted faithful performed their various divine transactions, the fragrant haze of the courtyard incense drifted in wisps and curls into the cool grey morning.
I made my way back to Asakusa Station and hopped on the westbound metro for Ueno Station and the nearby Ameya Yokocho, a shopping street more commonly referred to as Ameyoko. I’m not much of a shopper, but I’d seen pictures of the outdoor market running alongside the elevated train tracks, and I was curious about the integration of local commercial spaces and the disruptive environment of a heavily-used railway. Ameyoko stretches from Ueno Station to Okachimachi Station, though it isn’t immediately obvious where along the railway it begins. In the years following World War II, Ameyoko was the site of a flourishing black market, specializing in cheap American products. Ameya Yokocho itself means “Candy Store Alley”, a reflection of a later evolution in the market’s history.
I wandered down one of the alleys running alongside the track, passing by salarymen finishing up a late breakfast at one of dozens of small restaurants tucked into niches and hidden corners. Many of these establishments were built into the very foundations of the elevated track, and I wondered about the effect of passing trains on ambiance and glassware, or if the regular vibrations were a part of the ambiance after all. I eventually stumbled across a quiet Ameyoko, the slow morning errand-runners lacking the hustle and bustle of shoppers during peak commercial hours. Many of the stores were still unloading their morning deliveries, and men in white and tan uniforms methodically unpacked and folded the dozens of cardboard boxes stacked in small towers along the street. After a cursory glance at the shops and wares, I made my exit and headed back in the direction I came, towards Ueno Park. I didn’t have enough time in my schedule to see much of the park itself though, merely skirting the eastern boundary to get to the neighbourhood of Yanaka.
Yanaka is not the Tokyo of glass and neon, nor is it the Tokyo of brightly coloured temples and festive pilgrim crowds. Instead, its aged wooden structures and leafy residential streets offer a glimpse of what Tokyo once was. What a city preserves as part of its historical narrative and record should extend beyond the palaces and the temples and other monumental feats of architectural extravagance. Oftentimes, you may even find that the streets and neighbourhoods in the shadows of greater things have stories just as integral to the overall imagining of the city. Post-colonial and post-World War II cities in Asia such as Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Shanghai have seen explosive growth in the last several decades, as glass towers and glitzy modern architecture sprouted from ancient soil like bamboo groves in spring. The muddy hills and disease-ridden neighbourhoods of my parents’ generation are now among the leading cities of the 21st century world, and the struggle of government bureaucrats, city planners, and cultural preservationists in all of these cities is what to keep, and what to throw out. Yanaka is a nostalgic throwback, a reminder to the city itself of where it came from, and, if nothing else, a very pleasant walk and respite from the buzzing metropolis all around.
From Yanaka, I took the westbound metro from Nippori Station to Komagome Station, in search of the Rikugien Garden. Created in the late 17th century, during the rule of the 5th Tokugawa Shogun, its name unravels marvellously in Japanese to “Garden of the Six Principles of Poetry”. I found the main entrance on the eastern corner of the garden, forking up the ¥300 entry fee to wander its forested trails and find some semblance of serenity along its calm waters. A complete circuit of the park takes about an hour in order to appreciate the 88 miniature re-creations of scenes from famous works of poetry. I didn’t stay nearly that long, though the garden was very lovely. The afternoon sunlight was beginning to wane, and I thought I could squeeze in at least 2 or 3 more places before nightfall.
For the remainder of the afternoon and early evening, I made a loop around northwest Tokyo down to Central Tokyo, seeing places and things that I was mildly curious about, but didn’t need to invest much time in. My first stop was Sugamo, a shopping street north of Rikugien that caters to a more senior crowd, earning it the moniker of the “Old Ladies’ Harajuku”. From Sugamo, I went further west to Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s busiest city centres and a popular hub for electronics and female otaku culture. After a quick walk around the block, I took the train southeast to Iidabashi Station and the fashionable neighbourhood of Kagurazaka Slope. In centuries past, it was one of the leading entertainment districts in town, and its gently inclined main street of Waseda-dori is still a magnet for the young and hip to window shop or grab a bite to eat. Finally, just a short 20 minute walk from Kagurazaka Slope, I ended my day sitting on a bench in front of the Tokyo Dome, home of the legendary Yomiuri Giants. Tired and sore after a full day of sight-seeing, I sat and dreamed about one day watching a live Japanese baseball game, before dragging my cement legs back to the train station to meet Ashley in Roppongi.
One of the top dinner recommendations we received was for Manten Sushi, an omakase sushi joint in the Marunouchi district in Central Tokyo. Before we left for Japan, we had tried making a reservation over the phone, but we were unsuccessful in navigating the language barrier. Fortunately for us, our friend Sam, who had spent last Christmas in Taipei with us, had just recently moved to Tokyo for work, and she was able to make a dinner reservation in Japanese for that night. In addition to Sam, we were joined by Jean, a friend of a friend who was doing a temporary work assignment in Tokyo for a few months. Together we sat in a cozy corner by the sushi bar in the basement of Marunouchi Brick Square, eagerly anticipating the meal to come.
This was, without a doubt, the greatest sushi meal I have ever had. Each morsel was lovingly crafted and pieced together with the utmost skill and precision. Tuna, salmon, sea urchin, and a dozen other varieties were gently placed on our plates, one at a time, allowing us to enjoy and savour the different textures and flavours. In between, they provided a few different palate cleansers to prepare our tastebuds for the next piece. The entire meal was ¥6000 yen each, a steep price at first glance, but actually an incredible value when considering the quality and amount of sushi provided. I’ve recommended this restaurant to all my friends with travel plans to Tokyo, and I’d definitely go back if I found myself back in town. We stumbled out of the small restaurant space, drunk on flavour and already lost in the recent memories of the meal we just finished. I couldn’t think of a better way to cap off my first full day in Tokyo.