Japan had long been on my must-see travel list so when the chance for a brief three-day stopover on the way to Thailand arose, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. At the same time, I realized that a scant two and a half days wouldn’t give us much time at all, but at the very least it would serve as a nice introduction to the country.
Our home base in the city was the beautiful Ritz Carlton, located next to the Midtown Tower in Roppongi. This turned out to be the perfect location, adjacent to a large mall and subway station with plenty of restaurants and shops within an easy walk. The hotel also boasts the best views in the city, thanks in part to its location and in part to having the honor of being the highest hotel in the city. We called the Ritz Carlton home for three nights and their service and expertise helped make our introduction to the city a wonderful experience.
The first day was spent on a day trip out to Mt. Fuji, which I’ll cover in a separate post. The trip was a great way to see a small part of the Japanese countryside before plunging headfirst into the madness that is Tokyo. We were also lucky enough to be there during the height of the cherry blossoms, adding a certain springy magicality to the trip. That single day helped temper the images of a frenetic, fast paced country so many of us have when we think of Japan. It gave me an appreciation for the country’s subtle beauty.
On the second day though, we got up early and started a no-holds barred self-guided tour of Tokyo. Tokyo is huge, immense really which isn’t surprisingly since it’s the largest metropolitan area in the world. The world. There are more than 32 million people living in the Tokyo metroplex, a figure I can’t even begin to wrap my number-phobic brain around.
Some people may say that “Sure, it’s large, but it doesn’t seem like it.” Well, they’re misguided. It does feel like it, all the time, no matter what you see or do, but that’s ok. That’s part of what makes Tokyo, Tokyo. [Note: I could do without the crushing number of people boarding the trains at rush hour however.]
Our day in Tokyo was a mix of the old and the new, tradition and technology. Our primary morning focus was the Asakusa neighborhood, one of the oldest in Tokyo. It’s important to point out that this part of town is decidedly touristy, but it’s also a busy part of town for the locals. Walking down the Nakamise Dori pedestrian street I smelled just about every food imaginable and for shopper’s there was something for everyone, even your dog. Then, all of a sudden, the stalls disappeared and the Sensoji Temple appeared in front, like a beacon in the storm of shoppers. This is where I saw more locals than anywhere else that morning, visiting the temple for religious reasons and to offer prayers for family members past and present.
The combination of the cherry blossoms, the traditional Japanese shrine architecture and the scent of incense filling the air created the postcard perfect image of Japan. THIS is what I expected from Japan. All I needed to see were some women in kimono and sumo wrestlers eating sushi and it would have been stereotypical brilliance. The best part of the morning was just experiencing it all, soaking in the city and meeting it for the first time.
Oftentimes travelers are like dogs, we learn about new places first through smell, then the rest of the senses help fill the void. That’s how I decided to meet Tokyo, and it was the smartest thing I ever did.
Later in the day it was time for the other senses to start working, so we planned to visit a place not usually included on anyone’s “Tokyo in a day” lists – the Panasonic Center.
The Center is home the massive technology company’s interactive showroom and where it entrances the public with technological offerings from the near future. It was a hassle to reach, but the largest 3-D TV in the world, new smart phones and cutting edge cameras helped temper the annoyance we had in eventually finding the center. It was a lot of fun to walk around and just play with gadgets, seeing how things work and thinking about what new and cool devices will be in our homes within a few short years.
So, what did I think about Tokyo after just a couple of days? Well, first let me separate Tokyo from Japan. I loved what little I saw of everything outside the mega-city and can’t wait for the day when I get to explore the rest of the country. I’m fascinated by the culture, people, and history; everything really about the Japan. Now for Tokyo.
Overall, I think I mostly liked Tokyo, although as a tourist it was frankly a bit of a challenge to get to know the city. I really didn’t want to walk around dozens of temples and shrines and traipsing through endless parks frankly didn’t interest me either. What’s left is a smattering of museums and miscellaneous sites. It’s not like Paris or London with a defined list of famous, iconic sights that end up on people’s bucket lists. There’s no single monument that says, “Yes, I’m in Tokyo.” Although, that’s not quite fair. I think I did have that moment, at the Shibuyu Crossing during rush hour with several hundred other people under the bright lights and blinding neon. I think at that late moment I realized I was in Tokyo and frankly, that’s a pretty appropriate moment for Tokyo.
So while Tokyo may not have its version of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, it has its personality, its way of life to offer on exhibition. More so than a cold building of stone or steel, I think that may be the best kind of offering for those of us who visit the capital city, a more personal one. It allows visitors who may only have a day or two to firmly shake the city’s hand and to leave saying that they got to know the city, if only briefly.
Have you been to Japan? What did you think of it?