Tokyo is a city that can be perceived and enjoyed in numerous ways, depending on your interests as well as the amount of time you have at your disposal. While spring keeps you enthralled with cherry blossoms, or Sakura, and Hanami (Sakura festival), autumn and winter give completely different perspectives of the city. It is definitely not possible to experience the history as well as the modern, vibrant culture of Tokyo city in just 48 hours. However, being hard pressed for time, I decided to make the best of it. My small travel group devoted Day 6 and 7 of our Japan tour covering the must-see places in this iconic city.
Day 6 found us very excited as we walked towards the station, luggage in hand, to take the Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo. It was a free ride (without seat reservation) with our JR Pass. In just two and a half hours we covered a distance of around 400 km to reach Tokyo.
We were floored by the ultra-modern city the minute we stepped out of the train station. Tall skyscrapers with giant-sized billboards and LED displays, advertising the latest anime or manga, took us by surprise. We spotted many youngsters sporting the hairstyle of their favourite anime character. The shades of hair colour ranged from electric pink, blue and purple to shiny grey and green! We came to know they were actually Otaku (geek or a nerd) – a term referring to people obsessed with manga and anime and making that the center of their lives. It was all very new for us.
We took a metro to our hostel using ICOCA card to pay for the tickets (valid in Tokyo too). Leaving our bags with the reception, we set out to explore the capital of Japan. The famous Sensoji temple by the Sumida river bank was closest to our hostel, so we made it the starting point of our city tour.
First, we came upon the ‘Thunder gate”, or Kaminarimon, which was the outer entrance gate of the temple. Almost hidden behind cherry trees in full blossom, the gate transported us back to ancient Japan. After entering Kaminarimon gate, we came across a long and busy shopping street (I later learned that it was called Nakamise-Dori), teeming with tourists, on the way to the temple. From piping hot hand-made noodles and tempura to sushi, traditional sweets and dumplings, the eateries had plenty to offer to visitors. Traditional curio shops sold a variety of goods ranging from Japanese lanterns, religious bells, kimonos, Japanese fans, and Japanese wood-block prints – popular since ancient times – to utility items like mobile covers and straps, printed t-shirts, toys, miniature dolls, good-luck charms and much more. The whole street was a riot of colours and aromas attacking all five senses at once!
At the end of the shopping street was another gate called Hozomon Gate that opened to the temple’s main hall. There was a five-storied pagoda in this hall. We walked up to the purification fountain decorated with stone dragons, and washed each hand by pouring water with the other using one of the ladles kept in the fountain. We also sprinkled some water on our face and then began to walk towards the temple. After getting shoved and pushed a few times by the large crowd of tourists and local pilgrims, we reached the bottom of a set of staircase that led to the main prayer hall.
Inside the prayer hall, we found an enormous golden shrine of Kannon-sama, the goddess of compassion and benevolence, separated by a glass wall. Only priests were allowed to enter the shrine. The ceiling of the prayer hall was covered with vivid paintings narrating scenes from the life of the goddess. We paid our homage to Kannon-sama and exited the temple.
Since Japanese stationery is considered among the world’s best, we decided to check out one of the largest general bookstores in Japan – Maruzen Marunouchi. The fact that we had a stationery lover among us also helped reach this group decision faster 🙂 After checking on google map, we took the metro on line 3 Ginza from Asakusa to Nihombashi Station. From there, we transferred to Tozai line to go to Otemachi station. The bookstore was about 300m from the station.
Maruzen Marunouchi Main Store was huge and looked like a ‘book museum’. Similar to a museum, the store had art-floor like displays on each floor. In addition to books and stationery, we were amazed to find eyeglasses and watch corners, a cafe on the third floor, and a small art & craft gallery. We took time exploring the entire store and then picked up notepads and a few beautiful doll-shaped paper bookmarks as souvenirs.
With the intention of familiarizing with Tokyo’s manga and anime culture, we decided to cover a few of the places frequented by anime lovers. My first thought was the Ghibli Museum, but, when we were planning for our Japan trip, we had learnt that tickets had to be purchased online several months in advance during holiday season due to very high demand. Instead, we headed for Tokyo Anime Center – the hub for anime marketing – before proceeding to Akihabara district – a haven for Otaku.
Walking back to Otemachi station from the bookstore, we took the metro on Tozai line to Iidabashi Station. From there, we transferred to Namboku line and caught the metro for Ichigaya station in Shinjuku. Tokyo Anime Centre was inside DNP Plaza located just outside this station. The center opened a whole new world of anime to us, showcasing the commercial side of this thriving industry. We had a glimpse of the latest news and exhibits from the anime world and enjoyed video promos of latest releases. All the anime characters looked so adorable!
In the evening, we headed towards Akihabara (or Akiba in Japanese) Electric town – a major shopping center for electronic goods, video games, manga and anime merchandise, and computer accessories – known as the mecca of Otaku.
The first thing that caught our attention on exiting Akihabara station was the trendy AKB48 cafe*. On entering the cafe, it became clear to us that it was a popular J-Pop girl group themed shop. The name AKB48 is actually a combination of Akiba – where the pop group’s theatre is located – and the group’s 48 members (the largest pop group in the world!). Huge screens inside and outside the cafe were playing the latest concerts of the pop group. Besides dine-in facility, the cafe also featured a gift shop where one could buy stationery items, cookies in different containers with the group’s photos, and few other branded keepsakes. It was a fun place to be, especially for pop music lovers. It was too crowded though, so we just moved on.
*Note: AKB48 cafe closed down permanently in November 2019 due to renovation work in the area.
We were quite taken by the deep-rooted manga and anime culture reflected in the icons displayed prominently on the shops in the area. The multi-storied Yodobashi Camera Multimedia electronics store looked quite imposing from the outside, its walls lit up with signage of all known electronic brands in Japan.
Although we were planning to check out Akihabara Radio Kaikan – the iconic 12-storied store catering to the needs of J-pop and anime lovers – rain spoiled our plans and we rushed inside Yodobashi Camera instead. Once in, we were far from disappointed! The 9-storey electronics store didn’t just offer consumer electronics and accessories, cameras, computers and video games as we initially thought. We were amazed to find toys, bikes, home appliances, eyeglasses, fashion wear, shoes, bags, CD and DVD collections, and even musical instruments.
We found listening stations near the music collection for prospective buyers to sample the music before purchasing it. There were dozens of small restaurants on the 8th floor, and even a golf practice range on the 9th floor!
After exploring Yodobashi camera, it was time to check out the popular discount store, Don Quijote, also home to AKB48 pop group located on the top floor of the building.
Don Quijote – consisting of eight floors – turned out to be a shopper’s paradise! From food & liquor, grocery & household items, medical supplies, and multi-brand cosmetics to toys, souvenirs, leisure goods, CDs/DVDs/Blu rays, sports & workout equipment, and electronics & accessories – the store seemed to offer everything under one roof!
What’s more, you could actually shop for as long as you wanted since the store was open 24/7! We picked up a few cosmetics and face masks and were told they were duty-free. Now that’s called sweetening the deal!
On the fifth floor was a unique anime-themed cafe called ‘maid cafe’, or meido cafe in Japanese. Such maid cafes are very popular in Japan, featuring waitresses in maid cosplay costumes bringing anime characters to life. We gave it a miss though, and headed back to Akihabara station to catch a metro back to our hostel.
While in Japan, 7-11 stores were like lifesavers as we could find fresh ready-to-eat meals at affordable prices and avoid the hassle of cooking after a long day of travel and sightseeing. However, it is extremely difficult to find off-the-shelf vegetarian meals which leaves vegans and vegetarians with little choice but to cook something in hostel kitchens.
Also read: Day trips to Kyoto and Nara from Osaka
On Day 7, we continued to explore Tokyo. The cherry blossoms were finally quite apparent in the city, so we decided to visit the popular parks to enjoy the blossoms in full glory. But, first we wanted to soak in Edo history and culture. Tokyo was, in fact, formerly known as Edo.
I was quite familiar with the story of 47 Ronin (Ronin means “leaderless samurai”), the 47 loyal samurai of the lord of Ako (Ako Gishi) who avenged their master’s wrongful death in the 18th century. We headed for Sengaku-ji temple where the 47 Ronin were buried. The place turned out to be a peaceful haven, much revered by the locals.
Next, we made our way to the Fukagawa edo museum, popular for its life-size reproduction of a Tokyo neighbourhood from the final years of the Edo period (around 1840). The museum’s light and sound effects made the period come to life as we walked through the ‘streets’ passing from one exhibit to another. We covered shops, houses, a theater, tavern, boathouse, and a fire tower depicting the lifestyle of people in that era. The museum is a must-see if you want a glimpse of day-to-day life in premodern Japan.
After walking through history, it was time for celebration. We headed for the venue hosting the season’s most important event – Hanami in Ueno park. After all, this was why we were in Japan during spring season in the first place!
Needless to say, right from the point of entry, Ueno park was crowded to its fullest capacity. While locals were partying with family and friends, enjoying the holiday season, visitors were busy taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Right from the traditional dancers in their colourful kimonos to the wide array of modern and traditional food, the open-air carnival under the cherry blossoms was quite entertaining. Despite the crowd, we were immersed in the season’s celebration.
In the evening we headed for yet another popular entertainment district -Shibuya – to enjoy its nightlife.
Although rain played truant once again, we continued to make our way through a mass of open umbrellas at the famous pedestrian crossing known as ‘Shibuya Scramble’ to one of the flashy pachinka parlours, Japan’s popular form of gambling. The parlour was quite an eye-opener. Multiple floors were filled with engrossed players hooked to their gaming stations lined up in neat rows across the rooms.
After a walk-through, we continued towards Nonbei Yokocho, a back alley lined up with tiny bars and restaurants that dated back to the 1950s. The restaurants served authentic traditional udon that was simply out of the world!
The cherry on the cake was the late evening walk in Sumida park against the backdrop of a beautifully illuminated Tokyo Skytree. The park being close to our hostel, it didn’t take us long to finally settle for the night after the stroll.
There was so much left to explore and we were just getting started!