Ancient and modern, fast-paced and peaceful, Tokyo offers unique treats for visitors, writes Jo Bell.
Tokyo is a dazzling adrenalin rush and first-time visitors to the world's largest city should be prepared for sensory overload. A population of more than 13 million and a passion for everything new and high-tech, means that just walking the city streets can be
an assault on the senses.
A fusion of the ultramodern and traditional, the city's neon signs, futuristic architecture and streets heaving with people exist alongside peaceful public gardens, religious temples and quaint examples of daily life.
Offering a seemingly unlimited choice of shopping, entertainment, culture and dining to its visitors, Japan's capital boasts many excellent museums, temples and green spaces.
With more Michelin star restaurants than in any other city in the world, there's also a bustling bar and nightlife scene, with options running from award-winning sushi to comfortable Japanese izakaya (pub), grand hotel bar or hole-in-the-wall quirky.
Although not everyone speaks English, the Japanese people are renowned for their courtesy. Combine that with efficient, clean trains and taxis, and the city is easy enough to get around, especially when you have Google Translate and a good map app on your phone.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The western and southern districts of Tokyo are the best areas in which to base yourself for a stay as there is much to explore in these parts.
The Maranouchi area around Tokyo Station offers many excellent hotels such as the Tokyo Station Hotel, Shangri-La, Ascott and Mandarin Oriental as well as upmarket shopping and eateries, and has the added benefit of being close to a major train station.
Shinjuku buzzes with its skyscrapers, department stores, nightlife and one of the city's most beautiful parks, Shinjuku Gyoen.
Below that is Aoyama and Harajuku, a shopping mecca combining top international brands, Japanese youth culture and contemporary Japanese architecture along with venerable Meiji Jingu shrine and peaceful Yoyogi Park.
Further south is Shibuya, another youth-oriented enclave, home to the famous Shibuya crossing and myriad side streets with affordable izakayas.
And if upmarket international fashion brands and department stores are your thing, be sure to check out Ginza, to the east.
Meiji Jingu Shrine and Yoyogi Park
Tokyo's grandest Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu was constructed in 1920 but destroyed in World War II air raids before being rebuilt in 1958.
Set in Yoyogi Park, the main shrine is accessed via a long, winding gravel path in a peaceful wooden grove. Visitors can make an offering of a ¥5 coin and there are kiosks selling ema (wooden plaques on which prayers are written) and omamori (charms). Ceremonial offerings of food and prayers are made at 8am and 2pm.
Along the gravel path to the shrine you will see colourful sake barrels on display. With sake seen as a connection between the gods and people of Japan, the barrels are donated every year by sake brewers from around the country for use in ceremonies and festivals.
The sprawling green oasis of Yoyogi Park features some 120,000 trees of 365-odd species collected from all over Japan and there's also a strolling garden, Meiji Jingu Gyoen, which is accessible to the public.
Tip: Most shops and attractions in Tokyo open at 11am, but parks and shrines can be accessed much earlier — Meiji Jingu from sunrise, for example.
Harajuku and Aoyama
One of Tokyo's biggest drawcards, Harajuku is most famous for its out-there street fashion and youth culture. Home to the very best in international footwear and sportswear, there are hard-to-find and limited edition releases from brands like Nike, Adidas and Supreme. The famous Takeshita St is lined with shops, boutiques, cafes and fast-food outlets and both here and at the entrance to nearby Yoyogi Park are good spots — particularly on Sundays — for catching Tokyo teens dressed as Punks, Lolitas, Little Bo Peeps, and even Dancing Elvises putting on a performance.
Just south is Aoyama, a shopping and dining mecca with the main drag Omotesando described as Tokyo's Champs Elysees. On this broad, tree-lined avenue and the streets off it you'll find top international designers and upmarket eateries catering to a wealthier and older clientele.
Wander both areas for inspiring examples of contemporary Japanese architecture. Families will also want to check out Kiddy Land on Omotesando, with its five floors of toys for kids of all ages.
The busiest crossing in the world, the intersection in front of Shibuya station hums day and night with shoppers, students, commuters and sightseers. When the traffic lights turn red, a mass of people cross at once from every direction. It's known as "the scramble". Complete with neon lights and giant video screens, this lively pedestrian area is also lined with restaurants and high-fashion shops — just be prepared for the crowds. For a bird's-eye view, try the upper floor of the Starbucks, which overlooks the crossing.
Home to Japan's Imperial family, the grounds of the Imperial Palace offer a welcome respite from the hubbub of the busy city streets. Surrounded by moats, bridges, massive stone walls and a large park area, the inner grounds of the
palace are closed to the public but guided tours of the outer palace grounds are offered daily (and can be booked in advance).
The Imperial Palace East Garden is also open to the public so you can stroll through beautifully manicured grounds complete with foundations from the original Edo Castle from the 1600s.
Senso Ji Temple
With its five-storey pagoda, vast eaves and trails of incense, Tokyo's oldest temple is also one of its most beautiful and most visited, attracting 30 million visitors a year. First founded by a Buddhist sect in 645AD, the temple was bombed and destroyed during World War II with the present structure finished around 1960. Always busy, particularly at weekends, consider an early morning or evening visit and check out the many shops lining the approach.
Park Hyatt Bar
Finish the day with a cocktail at the Park Hyatt's New York Bar, the same bar frequented by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in movie classic Lost in Translation. On the 52nd floor, the prices match the altitude but the views are sensational. Men should make sure to wear long pants or they'll be dressed in a spare pair of chef pants like my poor husband — they still turned out too small.
LESSER KNOWN SIGHTS
Roppongi Hills Observation Deck and Tokyo Tower
There's no better view of downtown Tokyo and Tokyo Tower than from the Roppongi Hills building. Offering views both from its rooftop and enclosed observation deck, this multi-purpose complex also features eateries, shops, an art museum and gardens. The iconic red Eiffel Tower-inspired Tokyo Tower is a communications and observation tower and the second tallest structure in Japan, at 332.9m.
Cat lovers, this one's for you. Located in the Setagaya district, Gotokuji is a famous Buddhist temple covered in maneki-neko statues (beckoning cats), popular in Japan as a symbol of good luck. Legend has it that a well-loved cat who lived in the temple helped lead a lord to safety through a treacherous thunderstorm. Thankful to the cat for saving him, the lord rebuilt the temple that is now Gotokuji.
Digital Art Museum and Rainbow Bridge
The Digital Art Museum at Odaiba Palette Town is an immersive experience featuring multiple three-dimensional spaces set across a massive 10,000sq m. Explore the spaces as a beautiful world of flowers, rain, waves, animals unfolds, morphs and transforms. Be sure to book in advance.
This time-warped tumble of tiny drinking dens is a must for anyone keen on a different nightlife experience. Several blocks packed with tiny, ramshackle bars in Shinjuku, most fit only a handful of people and have their own theme, ranging from outlandish decor to bad karaoke and nurse uniforms. Most accept tourists but some still only welcome regulars, so check for a sign or price list in English out front. Add "oishii" (delicious) and "kanpai" (cheers) to your Japanese vocabulary and you'll be making friends in no time.
● Follow Jo Bell's travels on Instagram — @meandmrjones.travel
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Tokyo's Narita Airport. One-way Economy Class fares from $619.