Our first idea of Tokyo was that most people come here to see bright neon lights, read Manga, shop till’ they drop and drink all night at the izakaya bars. We only heard about the Harajuku girls, robots, crowded trains and convenience machines that sell strange things, and we were looking for the Tokyo of the old Edo-era. But, in order to fully appreciate Tokyo, you have to see all corners and sides of it to get the full impression.
Yanaka – our home base, and favorite neighborhood. We are not sure why they don’t say more in the guidebooks about Yanaka. Yanaka was where we stayed and it turned out to be our favorite neighborhood in Tokyo. It’s quiet, visually beautiful, with Edo-period buildings, some which are restaurants or small artisan shops that sell hand-made crackers and tea sweets, and everyone rides around on bicycles. Yanaka also has the highest concentration of temples and shrines we’ve ever seen. We loved it so much we wrote another blog post about it in more detail, check it out… Stay at Ryokan Sawanoya if you can get a room. A wonderful traditional, family-run in with amazing baths overlooking a zen garden. Nice to come home to.
Shikian – the house of haiku poet Masaoka Shiki. Close to Yanaka is this wonderful, little museum which is the house of Masaoka Shiki. They do not speak much English here, so read up on Shiki before going. This is the house where he spent his last days, had poetry parties, wrote poems and painted what he saw in his garden here. It made me cry, and I felt it was very moving, especially if you love poetry and art.
Ryogoku – the Sumo district. Get off at the Ryogoku JR station and before you even leave the station you are met with the huge hand prints of the famous Sumo wrestlers as well as larger than life images of them. We splurged to eat the very filling dish of Chanko Nabe, the dish the sumo eat – a steaming pot of tasty broth with vegetables, meat and seafood that you cook at your table. A delicious and unique eating experience. We heard you can even see the sumo practicing in one of the sumo stables that dot the area but we were out too late. Many thanks to Ai for showing us this part of town and singing karaoke after!
Tsukuji fish market. Eat some of the freshest seafood of your life the largest fish market in the world. Daniel wrote an entire blog post about it, check it out.
The Samurai Museum near Shinjuku. This was probably the most fun museum experience we’ve been to. Where else will they let you touch, and even wear, real samurai swords and clothing? The owner of the museum answered all of our questions and gave us a personal tour through the beautifully designed gallery. As you can imagine those swords and helmets are heavy, and truly amazing.
Asakusa – the busiest temple in the city. If you think of a temple as being quiet and reserved, well Asakusa will change your mind. It’s busy, loud, crowded, lively and exciting. The road leading up to the temple from the station is filled with some cheap touristy trinkets, but look further and deeper and you will find real, authentic craft shops peppered throughout selling everything a geisha desires such as hand crafted kimono and used kimono, wooden brushes and geisha hair picks and pieces, fans, antiques, quality tea ware and tea sweets. Lots of good food abounds.
Pair a visit to Asakusa in the morning with a sunset cruise to Odaiba and it’s a fun day.
Odaiba Island. An alternate universe in Tokyo. Odaiba has it’s own elevated train that gives you a great view of the city from above. You can take a boat or a train to the island from the mainland. We went to Oedo Onsen, which was fun, loud and lively. Fun for families, they have a lot of games you can play and food to eat, but it’s not one of the onsens we’d recommend for relaxing. But, it is really fun to walk around in a Yukata for a co-ed mingling experience.
More fun is the gigantic Ferris wheel in Palatte town. Go during sunset or at night time when it’s lit in rainbow colors. Lots of great shopping, outlet mall and we happened to be there during a free car show.
Meiji Jinju Shrine. This shrine is very different experience from Asakusa, it is grand, surrounded by a huge, peaceful park and garden. You pass through a very large, wooden tori gate and get transported from the busy city into a place of peace, poetry and love. While we were there we happened upon a very quiet and beautiful wedding ceremony. The emperor Meiji was famous for writing Waka poetry and instead of a typical fortune, you get a poem. Transformative, especially after the hectic pace of Harajuku and Shibuya in the surrounding area.
Kagurazaka neighborhood. You won’t find too much about this neighborhood in guidebooks, but there are numerous Edo era buildings, and geisha houses where we heard them practicing the shamisen from the street. There are good restaurants and great tea and tea sweet shops in the area as well as geisha supply stores for kimono and other wares.
Kosoan tea house. This tea house is a little outside the central city, but if you like matcha tea, it’s a really, really lovely and peaceful place to have it. A historic building overlooking a beautiful garden, tatami mats and small tables with pillows. On the street leading up to it are fancy boutique shops and a strange replica of Venice is directly across the from the tea room.
Takadanobaba’s Intro jazz club. If you like jazz then check out a bar called “Intro” for a smoky, authentic, local jazz scene. A tiny bar, downstairs, wall full of records, live jazz band, gets crowded, go after 7pm.
and the rest of it…Want to shop till you not only drop but pass out completely? Want to see hoards of people, be blinded by neon and get your ears full of pinging pachinko and video game noises? Then you want to go to Shibuya, Shinjuku or Harajuku. Harajuku was our favorite. If you travel down the side streets of the main avenue you will find wonderful little boutiques and used clothing stores. Looking for a store that has the best of everything in Tokyo? Then go to the Loft or Tokyu Hands, personally I liked the Loft in Shibuya the best for stationary, home goods and travel gear. They have a top floor with a creative lab of local artists and cutting edge design. Unique, modern and well-designed Japanese gifts. I spent an hour just drooling over really cool bento boxes and another hour browsing the stationary aisles.