Konnichiwa in Japanese means ‘welcome’ and that’s what our first impression was about Japan as soon as we landed Narita airport of Tokyo. Everyone at the airport were extremely polite, welcoming and followed etiquette of bowing head while greeting and receiving anything with both their hands. Moreover, in this isolated island where most folks speak in Japanese, people were willing to help us using gestures.
Narita airport is 80 kms away from Tokyo city and we chose to travel by train using Japan Rail pass. We boarded the famous Shinkansen (JR operated bullet train) & reached Tokyo in less than an hour!!
Tokyo – the city with many faces
Tokyo is unique among all metropolitans I have visited – it is unique for the things that you don’t see elsewhere and for its bizarre offerings. Moreover, it is truly the city from the future and yet has not forgotten its rich tradition and culture. We spent three days in Tokyo and covered this huge city by foot, by metro, by bus and had myriad of unique experiences. Here are some of the highlights of Tokyo which are etched in our memories:
We were completely bowled over by Tokyo for its futuristic buildings, multiple storeys of highways stacked one over the other and the world’s most sophisticated subway system. As world’s most populous metro,Tokyo is filled with buzzing neighborhoods with skyscrapers and their neon signages – be it Shinjuku, Shibuya or the high-fashion Ginza district. In particular, we were awestruck to watch pedestrians crossing world’s busiest Shibuya intersection in a perfectly orchestrated manner (you can actually make a video while sipping coffee at nearby Starbucks). My wife enjoyed her time window-shopping high-street fashion and eating vegan food at Ginza. Equally enthralling was the bird-eye view of Tokyo’s buzzing night-life from 45th floor of Metropolitan Government Building at Shinjuku.
Each metro/subway that I have travelled in is unique – be it London, New York, Mumbai, Delhi or Chicago. In spite of the huge commuter load Tokyo subway system handles,it is the least chaotic subway system and trains always run on time! Commuters are disciplined and do not rush or cross the line and all stations play soothing sound of birds chirping when the train stops at each station.
Another wonder of modern Tokyo is the huge Akihabara mall packed with multitude of electronic gadgets. Japanese manufactured electronics gadgets although expensive than the Chinese are known for their reliability and hence Akihabara mall is a must visit to buy your next DSLR or video game.
Isolated from rest of the world, this Japanese capital has many quirks and oddities. One of the oddest inventions which we cited was plastic food previews outside every food joint (even candy-stores!). But actually, it was quite helpful for us (foreigners) for whom language is a huge barrier. The hotel rooms are SMALL even by Mumbai standards – I could barely fit into our bed and slept inclined a few nights. And most amusing part – the toilet seats have temperature control & play music to avoid embarrassing sounds.
Tokyo has bizarre themed cafes and restaurants – be it robots themed cafes or ninja, vampire themed restaurants. The most abundant oddity is private Karaoke themed bars and restaurants. Equally noticeable was the unique fashion sense of Harajuku girls at Takeshita street. We visited a Sushi bar where Sushi plates moved on a conveyer belt; where I thoroughly enjoyed eating Sushi with hot tea.
Tokyo at heart, is a culturally rich city gifted with natural beauty. Amidst modern structures, Tokyo has still retained traditional designs and culture. And that is what appealed to us the most. Meiji Jingu located in the heart of Shibuya is austere and serene shrine of Emperor (Meiji) is surrounded by natural beauty. It transported us to a different world surrounded by tall trees and chirping birds. We found the entire experience of stopping outside shrine at the cleansing station to offering our respects with bowing our head and two claps to writing our wishes onto the prayer wall novel and spiritual. We were lucky to see traditional Japanese wedding procession as well!
Another place we visited was the Senso-ji temple which is one of the oldest temples in Tokyo. It is located in Asakusa neighborhood providing old-world Tokyo vibes. The temple has gigantic red entrance with a huge lantern in the middle and is surrounded by hustle-bustle of shops on Nakamise street market. Here’s where we also bought Yukata (dress) for my little niece.
Amidst the concrete jungle, Tokyo has world’s most beautiful parks and gardens and the city has preserved these green spaces as they have preserved culture. And during Sakura, these parks and city boulevards adorn themselves with pink cover of cherry blossoms. Countless of tourists flock to Tokyo every spring for a visual feast of these gorgeous sakuras – Japanese call it ‘Hanami’ which means ‘flower viewing’. Over three days, we visited three parks and each park had a distinct character. Yoyogi Park in Shinjuku is perfect place to entertain yourself watching costumed manga fans or hipsters or open air plays or even dancing with the crowd (!!) while soaking in the nature’s spring celebrations.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is the most beautiful park in Tokyo and as soon as we entered the park, we got transported to altogether different world. We visited different sections of the garden and the most stunning was the traditional Japanese garden with tea-house. On our last day at Tokyo, we visited Ueno park. Ueno Park is Tokyo’s most significant cultural center and is filled with museums, temples, shrines, natural attractions, important institutions and several of Japan’s top schools. We spent most of our time visiting Ueno zoo which is Japan’s oldest zoo and then circling the park admiring natural beauty and architecture of surrounding buildings.
We spent our last moments in Tokyo at Ueno Park strolling along boulevards lit with Japanese paper lanterns. In just three days, we experienced many faces of Tokyo and if there is one face which we have to pick then it will be the kindness of its citizens. Even with the extreme language barrier, every stranger we met has tried to help us and we thank Tokyo for that – Arigato (Thank You!)