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?
16 thoughts on “Tokyo Recap and What I Thought About Japan”
Love your photos of the city. We really want to get to Japan some day and I’ve often wondered how it would be in Tokyo as a visitor. Just looking at guidebooks and information on the city, it sounds like there is so much to do. Hopefully we could get several days there.
There is a lot to do, but as I wrote the best thing to do is to just soak it all in :)
Awesome photos! Glad you enjoyed your brief time there!!!
We had a similar layover in Tokyo on the way home from Thailand. While we had high expectations, I think that the image that we had of Tokyo in our minds and the reality of it didn’t match up. It just did not feel like a welcoming city to us, and my husband was particularly put off by this. While getting around was pretty easy (the subway system was relatively easy to figure out), finding places to eat was tough for us.
I am not the type of tourist that expects that everything will be nicely translated into Japanese for me, but given the huge number of English speaking visitors that come to Tokyo, I would expect at least a little sign on the outside of the restaurant that they welcome English speaking visitors.
Perhaps more time to spend in Tokyo would have helped (we only had two days), but I think that when we go back to Japan, I would like to get out of Tokyo and see some other parts of the country first.
I agree with much of what you have to say and actually plan on writing about the challenges of getting around without speaking Japan. it certainly isn’t easy.
It’s the nature of the people and their fear of not being correct or proper with English mostly I think. Also part of why it’s regularly recommended to tell the few who do that their English is very good.
Japan has 2 big advantages though. Lots of restaurants have plastic versions of the food outside or you order from a ticket vending machine. As long as you have some familiarity with what things look like it’s not hard to find a meal. And I promise they don’t look at you funny if you run out to take a picture of the plastic bowl of ramen and bring it back in to show them what you want.
You’re absolutely right and the plastic food was mostly helpful, if we knew what it was. :)
great read, thanks matt! going there next month, so getting as much information before i leave is always a treat. thanks for sharing!
Tokyo and Japan has long been on the top of my must see places. I find the diverse culture fascinating. Glad to see you got to see a snapshot o the country and sharing it with the rest of us. it makes me want to go even more now. Nice photos as well, you get a real sense of hustle and bustle.
My last trip to Tokyo was actually to see their version of the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower. And my next trip will be to see the Tokyo Sky Tree. I guess I’m just drawn to the stone and steel. That city is just amazing at night from dozens of stories up. The picture of Sensoji is gorgeous. All I really remember about that temple was the last vendor selling bananas on sticks and by the time I reached the end I was so hungry I ate 3.
And I totally agree about the density being constant. It’s a little menacing the way it’s always right there in your face. I’ve ducked down a lot of alleys and stayed way outside of the city core to get away from it before. That “far out” ward, Ota, still has almost 3/4ths of a million people though.
Totally agree, we stayed at the Ritz Carlton and the views were amazing.
I spent about 10 days in Japan in August 2010. I was in the south, though. I have a friend who lives in Amakusa, south of Fukuoka (who’s airport code is FUK, how cool is that?!) and so I got to experience small town Japan. I loved it. We spent two days/one night in Nagasaki, which I also loved. We even drove through the town of Obama (I kid you not!) on our way to Nagasaki. While I didn’t get the big city experience of Tokyo, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt like I got to experience “real” Japan in the small town atmosphere. I’m finding the more I travel, the less I like big cities and the more I like small towns…spending two weeks in a small town in Spain last fall helped me realize that.
I’m looking forward to reading more about your trip to Japan!
Thanks! Lots more to share :)
Loved the last two photos especially, Matt…
Thank you much Lesley!
Going to Japan (namely Tokyo) next week and really enjoyed this post! Added a couple things from it to my list of stuff to see! :D
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