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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Japan
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Japan
The theater scene encompasses everything from Shakespeare (at the Tokyo Globe) and Broadway musicals to comedy, classical ballet, and modern dance, with the main venues in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Marunouchi. The level of performance is usually high.
The Tokyo Comedy Store offers non-Japanese and Japanese the chance to show off their comedy skills in English: two laughter- packed hours on the fourth Friday of the month at Crocodile in Harajuku.
A uniguely Japanese theater experience is Takarazuka, a company divided into five troupes and composed entirely of women. With their own state-of-the-art Takarazuka Theater in Yurakucho, they perform adaptations in Japanese of Western musicals and historic love stories, and are famed for their lavish productions.
Nihon Buyo Kyokai stages regular performances of traditional dance. Usually at the end of May, the Azuma Odori, an annual production of dance, drama, and music, brings Tokyo’s geisha community on stage at the Shinbashi Enbujo Theater Buto – a unique and compelling art form – is contemporary dance combined with performance art. Developed in the 1960s, performances feature shaven headed dancers, almost naked, painted with makeup. Slow, simplistic choreography seeks to create beauty out of the self- imposed grotesqueness.
Ancient wooden temples, palaces and pagodas, geisha culture, shogun history and exquisite Zen gardens make Kyoto one of Japan’s most intriguing cities. Kyoto and nearby Osaka (a cruise port), and Nara, where Buddhism came to Japan, encompass the country’s most historic area.
Because it was the imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto is rich in traditional architecture and culture. Among Japanese, it’s known as “Nihon no furusato, „ or “home of the heart.” Over several visits, Kyoto has won my heart, too.
While Tokyo is dazzling, and many cities in Japan merit exploring, Kyoto is the one place every foreign visitor ought to experience. Don’t expect a quaint museum village, though. It’s a living city of nearly 1.5 million people that has its share of urban grit. While Kyoto is not particularly beautiful as a whole, it’s dotted with pockets of astonishing beauty.
Among these are some of Japan’s most iconic sights. Kinkaku-ji, the gorgeous Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is often photographed with its mirror-perfect reflection in a large pond. Ryoan-ji is a temple with a famous rock garden that’s a mecca for contemplation. Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle), a palace built by a shogun, was ringed by a moat. Kiyomizu-dera, a hilltop temple built near a waterfall, overlooks a sea of cherry’’ and maple trees that are striking, respectively, in spring and fall.
American author Arthur Golden’s historical novel Memoirs of a Geisha (1997, Alfred A. Knopf), made into a 2005 film, is set in Gion, Kyoto’s oldest section and most . prominent geisha district. (Both the book and the movie were subject to some criticism for perpetuating Western stereotypes of geishas.) Pocket-sized shops, inns, restaurants and teahouses line the narrow lanes.
If you’re lucky, you may glimpse a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) in a beautiful kimono. Of course, not everyone in a kimono is a geisha. For special occasions some Japanese women still dress in these multilayered garments made of fine silks and elaborately hand-painted, -dyed and -embroidered. During a recent visit to Kyoto with Japanese friends, the)’’ told me many of the young, kimono-clad women being photographed at the Golden Pavilion and other sites were actually Chinese tourists in rented costumes.
Ryoan-ji, Nijo-jo and Kiyomizu-dera are among the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Illustrating what a treasure trove of history Kyoto is, this single UNESCO listing covers 17 component parts with 198 buildings and 12 gardens, most built or designed from the 10th to the 17th centuries.
The UNESCO inscription reads: “Built in A.D. 794 on the model of the capitals of ancient China, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan from its foundation until the middle of the 19th century. As the center of Japanese culture for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto illustrates the development of Japanese wooden architecture, particularly religious architecture, and the art of Japanese gardens, which has influenced landscape gardening the world over.”
Moreover, the buildings and gardens “retain high levels of authenticity,” according to UNESCO, and “the rigorous respect for the original form, decoration and materials that has prevailed in Japan for more than a millennium has ensured that what is visible today conforms in almost every detail with the original structures.”
All this history can mean it’s easy to get overwhelmed by Kyoto if you have only a day. And since it’s not right next door to a port, there’s transportation and travel time to consider. These are good reasons to book a cruise line shore excursion that focuses on a handful of highlights. Most tours stretch a full day, 9.5 or 10 hours.
Kyoto is located in the central part of the island of Honshu, 319 miles southwest Continued on next page
of Tokyo in an area called Kansai. By cruise, it’s usually accessed from the port of Osaka, a 90-minute drive by motorcoach, or from Kobe or Maizuru.
Lines like Silversea Cruises shave the transfer time by using the bullet train (Shinkansen). From Osaka port, this entails a 45-minute drive to the Shin-Osaka station, where the high-speed train whisks riders to Kyoto in a breathless 15 minutes.
It’s possible to get to Kyoto and back from Tokyo or the port of Yokohama on the bullet train, but that would make for a very long da}’ and the risk of being late for your ship, so I don’t recommend it. (From Tokyo, the bullet train takes more than two hours one-way.)
For the independent-minded, Princess offers a “Kyoto on Your Own” tour from the port of Maizuru. An English-speaking guide travels with the bus on the 2.5 -hour transfer to provide narration and suggestions for sight-seeing. Participants are dropped at a central location and have 4.5 hours to explore on their own before the bus ride back to the port.
Kyoto itself is easy enough to navigate. It’s built on a grid system, safe and tourist- friendly. The excellent Tourist Information Center in the Kyoto Station concourse, open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., is a good starting point for independent travelers.
Hiring a private car and driver is an option, too, and can be arranged through some cruise lines. Though it seems pricey, this option for two couples may work out to be about the same, or less than, the cost of full-day excursion tickets for four. Private cars in Japan typically provide excellent, (literally) white-glove service, and the savvy drivers know the best times to visit key sights to miss the crowds. Lines like Silversea can arrange a private van for up to six people.
There’s a lot of walking in Kyoto. For those who prefer little or no time on foot, Princess offers a shorter (approximately 5.5 hours) excursion from Osaka that gives a scenic overview and photo opportunities from the motorcoach plus a stop at Kyoto Handicraft Center.
For those interested in geisha culture, Crystal Cruises offers a tour of the Gion where participants meet a geisha who describes her rigorous training in the arts, involving music, dance, singing and calligraphy as well as the art of conversation. Included is a performance by a maiko or a geiko (a full-fledged geisha).
If you’re on your own with just one day in Kyoto, must-see attractions include Nijo Castle. Built from 1603-1616 by a shogun, this complex was more of a palatial residence than a fortified defense. But besides the stone walls, moat and massive gates, a myriad of security features were built in, such as the “nightingale” floor that chirps when walked on, to alert of potential assassins. The painted paper screens throughout are incredible. Be sure to wander the palace grounds with their crane and tortoise islands. Parts of the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai were filmed at Nijo Castle.
If you photograph one thing in Kyoto, or indeed all of Japan, it likely will be Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. The top two floors of this elegant three-story structure are covered in gold leaf. Built in the late 14th century as a shogun’s retirement villa, it became a Zen temple, according to his wish, after his death. The structure has burned down several times, most recently in 1950 when it was set ablaze by a fanatic student monk. The current structure dates from 1955. Brace yourself for crowds on the narrow forest trails leading to the best photo spots. It’s not possible to enter the Golden Pavilion, but you can sit down and reflect at an outdoor tea garden.
In the wooded hills east of Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water Temple) gets its name from the Otowa Waterfall, located at the base of the temple’s main hall and channeled into three streams. Each is said to bestow a different benefit. People line up to drink for longevity, a happy love life or-the most popular with throngs of students-success at school. (Drinking from all three is considered greedy.) I visited in the fall when the maple trees were ablaze in red, orange and yellow-an incredible sight from the temple’s viewing platform.
The path leading up to Kiyomizu-dera is lined with some 50 shops selling souvenirs, everything from paper fans, sweets, ceramics and kimonos to the local green tea, considered the highest quality in Japan. Kyoto is where tea was introduced from China more than 800 years ago. A few of the many varieties include sencha, hojicha (roasted) and matcha (the bright green powdered tea used in tea ceremonies).
When it’s time for a break from the bustle of touring, Ryoan-ji affords a respite, but also an enigma. This Zen temple contains Japan’s most famous rock garden. A rectangular plot of pebbles holds 15 rocks. The design is such that only 14 of them can be seen from any vantage point. Supposedly you need to obtain enlightenment to view all 15 at once. The temple grounds enclose a pond covered in lily pads and a leafy park where you can stroll in a set-ting as inspiring as Monet’s Givemy in France.
Be sure to leave some time in your one day to explore the Gion (Shijo dori is the main street) and, if you’re there in spring, head to Shirakawa Canal or Hanami koji dori (Flower Viewing Street) to be awed by the cherry blossoms.
Full-day cruise line tours include lunch, but if you’re on your own, you may want to try a small, traditional restaurant like Gion Kappa, with counter seats ringing the open kitchen. The wide menu includes a sushi platter, assorted tempura and a little of everything else, all freshly prepared before your eyes. Don’t expect a quiet meal; Gion Kappa is cramped and loud
Another bustling Gion spot with an open kitchen is Issen Yoshoku, which serves just one dish: okonomiyaki, a savory, grilled pan-cake filled with green onion, meat, shrimp and vegetables. Don’t be surprised if you have to share a table with other diners; it’s not unusual in Japan, where space is at a premium.
As a vegetarian, I love the wonderfully varied and elaborate shojin ryori Zen Buddhist monks’meals served at temples like Tenryu-ji. These feature rice, soup and perhaps half a dozen or more other dishes made of soy or sesame tofu, plus seasonal vegetables, fresh herbs and wild plants. (Reservations at the Tenryu Temple’s Shigetsu restaurant are required at least three days in advance.)
Just outside Tenryu-ji is another magnifi-cent Kyoto attraction that’s downright other-worldly: Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, where you walk through a tunnel of towering bamboo with just a sliver of sky visible overhead.
When it comes to shopping, Kyoto is known for Japan’s widest variety of traditional handicrafts. Kyoto Station is packed with interesting stores, and most temples and attractions have little shops. The Kyoto Handicraft Center, a stop on many excursions, is bursting with items like woodblock prints, paper lanterns, Japanese dolls, textiles, kimonos, yukatas (a casual summer robe worn by men and women), ornamental swords, pottery’, ironware and damascene (inlaid metals).
Twenty-two miles from Kyoto is Nara, another historic place that strongly merits a visit. There Buddhism was introduced to Japan, and Nara was the country’s first permanent capital, from 710 to 784, when Kyoto took over. At the impressive Toda-ji, where deer roam freely, the enormous main wooden temple houses Japan’s largest bronze Buddha. Located south of Kyoto is the wondrous Fushimi Inari Taisha, an important Shinto shrine known for its parallel rows of thousands of orange torii gates that you can walk through, like a passageway.
But for these places, you will need more than just a day in Kyoto.
Lines that visit Japan include Azamara Club Cruises, Cunard Line, Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Ponant, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises and Windstar Cruises, Dream Cruises and Star Cruises, carrying mainly Asians, also call.
Tokyo is one of the liveliest places on the planet. Contrary to the popular image, the Japanese are not simply a nation of workaholics – they play hard, too. The young in particular are demanding more “lifestyle” time. Traditionally, Japanese gather with like-minded friends at small establishments catering to their interests; as a result, thousands of entertainment venues fill the city.
There’s a mind- boggling range of live music from jazz and blues to pop and techno, and the classical music scene is also very active. Tokyo is the best place to see traditional drama and is well served by touring national and international theater groups. Sports fans can head for packed baseball and soccer games, or sample traditional martial arts including sumo, the national sport.
Local guide Metropolis is a free weekly magazine (and website), published every Friday, with plenty of information on entertainment in Tokyo. Saturday’s Japan Times and Thursday’s Japan News also have good listings. They are often available at convenience stores and station kiosks, as well as book stores such as Kinokuniya, Tower Records, and Maruzen. Information on events in and around Tokyo can be accessed by visiting the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) website
Online sources: Where in Tokyo, Outdoor Japan, Go Tokyo, and Japan Visitor (a calendar of traditional festivals happening in and around the city) are also good places to go for information.
Tickets can go very quickly, so make decisions fast, be prepared for some disappointments, and have an alternative plan. For popular Japanese entertainment (such as Kabuki, Noh, sumo, or baseball) try to book in advance via a travel agent.
In Tokyo two of the main ticket agencies are Ticket PIA and CN Playguide. They can be hard to reach by phone, so it’s often easier to book in person; a convenient office is Ticket PIA at Ginza’s Sony Building. Many department stores also have their own ticket offices. Alternatively, book direct by phoning the venue; you pay when you pick up the tickets.
Kabuki and Noh, the two main forms of traditional theater, are well represented in Tokyo. Many visitors find Noh heavy-going due to the slow-paced action and dialogue in a foreign language. As a theatrical experience bordering on the mystical, however, Noh can be exceptionally powerful.
The National Noh Theater near Sendagaya JR station usually has weekend performances. Tickets vary from ¥2,600 to ¥4,800. It is also possible to see plays at a Noh school. Noh can occasionally be seen as it was originally performed: on an outdoor stage in front of a temple illuminated by torchlight, Kabuki is an all-male flamboyant spectacle with rousing stories, elaborate sets, and amazing costumes.
In 1986 Super Kabuki controversially combined avantgarde ideas and high-tech special effects (such as actors flying through the air) with traditional Kabuki. The reconstructed Kabuki-za Theater is the main venue for Kabuki, with near daily performances starting mid-morning and lasting three or more hours. It is also possible to buy a ticket to see just one act as a taster or if short of time. Prices range from ¥2,500 to ¥17,000, or ¥900 for the one-act ticket.
The National Theater has Kabuki performances in January, March, October, November, and December. Bunraku traditional puppet theater is sometimes staged in the National Theater’s Small Hall.
Kyogen is Japan’s oldest form of drama, and includes acrobatics and juggling. Now played to comic effect, Kyogen is often performed as part of Noh, or as Individual plays between Noh plays. Another theatrical tradition is Rakugo, a form of storytelling which literally means “falling down”.
Dressed in a kimono and using a minimum of props, storytellers sit on zabuton cushions in small theaters such as Suzumoto in Ueno and pass on tales old and new. Manzal, or stand-up comedy, is a Kansail tradition that can be found in Tokyo, with Shinjuku’s Luminethe Yoshimoto a convenient venue.
You can buy almost anything you want in Tokyo, from a traditional kokeshi (cylindrical wooden doll) to a Chanel handbag or an up-to-the-minute video game. Tokyo-ites love shopping and, budget permitting, the city is a paradise for browsing and buying, with its huge department stores, informal street markets, and fascinating one-of-a-kind shops.
Although half the joy of shopping here is the amazing contrasts that can be found side-by-side, some areas do specialize in certain types of shops. Ginza is the place for traditional, upscale stores, while Shinjuku mixes huge arcades with electronics shops stacked high with the latest innovations. Harajuku and Minami-Aoyama are the areas for the funkiest fashions and designs; the older quarters around Ueno and Asakusa offer more traditional Japanese crafts.
Department stores grew out of Edo-period mercantile houses. Customers would sit on tatami mats and describe what they wanted, then staff would bring out the goods for their perusal.
After the 1923 earthquake, newly built stores allowed customers wearing shoes inside for the first time, revolutionizing shopping. Since the collapse of the “bubble” economy in about 1990, the opulence of Tokyo’s department stores has been more muted and prices lower, but they continue to offer a huge variety and immaculate service. Basements are usually supermarkets, where free samples are handed out. Top floors are often filled with restaurants, both Western and Japanese, plus an art gallery and sometimes a museum, too. Ginza’s Mitsukoshi is perhaps Tokyo’s most famous store; the main Mitsukoshi store is in Nihon- bashi, with other branches in Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Ebisu.
In Ginza Matsuya is aimed at a younger, yuppie crowd. Shinjuku’s department stores were given a boost with the opening of Takashimaya, which has been hugely successful. Tokyu Hands, next door, is a fun cornucopia of household wares, and items for the craft enthusiast. There are other branches in Ikebukuro and Shibuya. For a heavy dose of youth culture, try Marui Jam in Shibuya.
Isetan in Shinjuku is a trendsetter for department stores in Tokyo, and is known for its artistic window displays. It has a separate building dedicated to men’s fashion, accessed by a passageway from the main building.
Labyrinths of corridors lined with shops occupy major subway and train stations. They are good for window-shopping and sometimes for bargains, but are notoriously disorienting. Tokyo station is packed with shops and kiosks. On the Yaesu side is a sprawling underground shopping mall. It includes specialized shopping and restaurant zones such as Ramen Street and Tokyo Character Street. In Shinjuku station, underground passages run for hundreds of meters to the “Subnade” (underground shopping street) below Yasukuni-dori. Odalba’s Decks Tokyo Beach is five floors of shops and a promenade deck with restaurants. Nearby Aquacity and Wanza Ariake are similar. The lower floors of Tokyo Opera City also have restaurants and shops.
Street markets flourish outside many of the city’s train stations. Tokyo’s most famous station market is Ameyoko under the tracks at Ueno station. Takeshita-dori in Harajuku is full of shops for the young and fashion-conscious. The ultimate market experience is Tsukiji Fish Market; the area to the east is full of small restaurants where piles of dishes crowd the sidewalk, and shops with pungent crates of wasabi horseradish and dried fish hanging from storefronts.
A short distance from Tokyo city center are a number of interesting sights. The Japan Folk Crafts Museum and Goto Art Museum are small gems in pleasant neighborhoods that give an idea of Tokyo life as well as its heritage; in contrast Ikebukuro, Daiba, and Ebisu are all modern urban centers in their own right. Ryogoku, the place for all things sumo, also has the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Rikugi-en, near Ikebukuro, is one of Edo’s last great stroll gardens.
Goto Art Museum
Set in a pleasant hillside garden, this museum showcases the private collection of the late chairman of the Tokyu Corporation, Keita Goto. Avidly interested in Zen, he was originally attracted to Buddhist calligraphy, particularly that of 16th-century priests. His collection contains many examples of this work, called bokuseki. Also included are ceramics, calligraphy, paintings, and metalwork mirrors; items are changed several times a year. The museum’s most famous works, however, are scenes from 12th-century scrolls of the Tale of Genji, painted by Fujiwara Takayoshi, which have been designated National Treasures. They are shown once a year, usually in “Golden Week”.
Japan Folk Crafts Museum
Known to the Japanese as Mingeikan, this small but excellent museum was founded by art historian Muneyoshi Yanagi. The criteria for inclusion in the museum are that the object should be the work of an anonymous maker, produced for daily use, and representative of the region from which it comes. The museum building, designed by Yanagi and completed in 1936, uses black tiles and white stucco outside.
On display are items ranging from woven baskets to ax sheaths, iron kettles, pottery, and kimonos; together they present a fascinating view of rural life. There are also special themed exhibits, such as 20th-century ceramics or Japanese textiles, and a room dedicated to Korean Yi-dynasty work. A small gift shop sells fine crafts and some books.
Tokyo Opera City
Tokyo’s impressive music and theater complex has two main halls, one primarily for Japanese classical music and theater, and a larger opera hall with a soaring vaulted roof. Performances are frequent – phone for details or pick up a leaflet from the foyer information counter.
There are 54 floors, mostly offices. On the first three are an art gallery, shops, and restaurants. The fourth has the NTT Intercommunication Center, with modern interactive art.
The 53rd and 54th floors hold a dozen restaurants and bars with great city views.
Arakawa Tram Line
In 1955, 600,000 people a day were riding the dozens of tram lines that crisscrossed the city. Now the 13 km (8 miles) Arakawa line is one of only two that remain. The others were eliminated as old-fashioned in the modernization for the 1964 Olympics.
The Arakawa tram line runs from Waseda in the west to Minowabashi in the east and costs ¥170 for each trip, short or long. Near the Waseda end of the line is the quiet stroll garden of Shin Edogawa. There are few outstanding sights en route, but the pleasure of this tram ride lies in seeing a quieter, residential side to Tokyo. A short walk from Arakawa Yuenchimae stop, past tightly packed, tiny houses, is a modest amusement park, Arakawa Yuen Park; Sumida River tourboat trips leave from here. Opposite the Arakawa Nanachome stop is Arakawa Nature Park.
With the second-busiest train station in Japan (after Shinjuku), Ikebukuro is a designated fukutoshin (subcenter) of Tokyo. By the station’s south entrance is the flagship store of Seibu, perhaps the country’s most innovative department store, with boutiques of up-and-coming designers and a large basement food market. To the west of the station is the large Tobu department store with a similar set-up.
The Sunshine City complex, including the Sunshine 60 tower, is a short walk east of the station, it is built on top of what was Sugamo Prison, where seven Class-A World War II war criminals, including the prime minister, Hideki Tojo, were convicted and hanged. The Ancient Orient Museum, on the 7th floor of the complex, has collections from Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan. A huge Sunshine City sign points down an escalator; just before here, investigate the Tokyu Hands store for home furnishings and kitchen gadgets.
Down the escalator is Amlux Toyota, five stories packed with cars, where you can sit in any model. In Sunshine 60 there is also a planetarium, an aquarium, and a rooftop outdoor viewing platform.
Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, grand chamberlain of the fifth shogun, constructed this garden in seven years, starting in 695. Yanagisawa had a well-earned reputation for debauchery, but he also managed to build this, one of the finest Edo-era stroll gardens. Iwasaki Yataro, Mitsubishi’s founder, oversaw its Meiji-era renovation. The design re-creates 88 landscapes in miniature from famous waka (31-syllable poems), so the view changes every few steps. Near the entrance is a weeping cherry that is beautiful all year. Numerous paths and seats offer opportunities to enjoy the views. Bush warblers and turtledoves are among the birds that can be heard here.
Shinjuku and Shibuya, the dual centers of Western Tokyo, three stops apart on the Yamanote line, started to boom only after the 1923 earthquake. This part of the city is new Tokyo – all vitality and energy, fast-paced, constantly changing, and challenging the more traditional pleasures of Central and Northern Tokyo. Modern architectural landmarks are dotted around, from the Olympic Stadiums of Yoyogi Park to the magnificent twin-towered home for the city government in West Shinjuku.
Shibuya, along with neighboring Harajuku and Minami- Aoyama, is the epicenter of both young and haute-couture Japanese fashion. Nightlife is also in plentiful supply with Roppongi’s cosmopolitan clubs, bars, and music venues, and the neon lights and pachinko parlors of East Shinjuku. In these overwhelmingly modern surroundings, historical sights are few and far between but include the popular Meiji Shrine and the nearby Sword Museum.
Street-by-Street: East Shinjuku
East Shinjuku is where Tokyo plays. The area has been a nightlife center from Edo times on, when it was the first night stop on the old Tokaido road to Kyoto. Since Shinjuku station opened in the 1880s, entertainments have been targeted at commuters (mainly men) en route back to the suburbs.
Amusements are focused in the tiny bars of Golden Gai, and in the red-light district of Kabukicho. Daytime attractions include several art galleries, a tranquil shrine, and some of Tokyo’s best department stores. A late-afternoon stroll as the neon starts to light up will take in both sides of this fascinating, bustling area.
Most of Tokyo’s skyscraper office blocks (and some of its most expensive land) are clustered just to the west of Shinjuku station. About 250,000 people work here each day. Many of the hotels and some office blocks have top-floor restaurants with views of the city.
In 1960 the government designated Shinjuku a fukutoshin (“secondary heart of the city”); in 1991, when the city government moved into architect Kenzo Tange’s massive 48-story Metropolitan Government Offices, many started calling it shin toshin (the new capital). Tange’s building was dubbed “tax tower” by those outraged at its US$1 billion cost.
With over two million people passing through each day, this is the busiest train station in the world. As well as being a major stop on both the JR and metropolitan subway systems, Shinjuku station is the starting point for trains and buses into the suburbs. On the Yamanote and Chuo line platforms during the morning rush hour (from about 7:30 to 9am) staff are employed to push those last few commuters on to the train, making sure the odd body part isn’t slammed in one of the closing doors.
The corridors connecting all the lines and train networks are edged with hundreds of shops and restaurants. It’s easy to lose your way in this maze of seemingly identical passages, and it is often simpler to find your bearings at ground level.
For a time in the 1980s and early 1990s, a substantial number of homeless (mostly men) built cardboard villages in the station’s corridors. In a controversial move, the municipal government forcibly removed them; they settled in new places, including Ueno Park.
In the Edo period, wood-block prints, called ukiyo-e, or pictures of the pleasure seeking “floating world” became the most popular pictorial art of Japan. They had a profound influence on artists such as Matisse and Van Gogh. Although today they are credited to individual artists, they were in fact a cooperative effort between the publisher, responsible for financing and distributing the work; the artist, who produced a fine line drawing; the carver, who pasted the drawings onto blocks of wood and carved away what was not to appear on the print, making one block for each color; and the printer, who inked the wooden blocks and pressed them onto the paper – one for each color, starting with the lightest.
Editions were limited to 100-200 copies. The first artist known by name was Moronobu, who died in 1694. The golden age of ukiyo-e lasted from about 1790 to the 1850s. Beautiful women, Kabuki actors, scenes from Japan, including Shitamachi, and the supernatural were recurring themes.
Popularly known as Asakusa Kannon, this is Tokyo’s most sacred and spectacular temple. In AD 628, two fishermen fished a small gold statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, from the Sumida River. Their master built a shrine to Kannon, then in 645, the holy man Shokai built a temple to her. Its fame, wealth, and size grew until Tokugawa Ieyasu bestowed upon it a large stipend of land.
The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter moved nearby in 1657 only increasing its popularity. The temple survived the 1923 earthquake but not World War II bombing. Its main buildings are therefore relatively new, but follow the Edo-era layout. Although the buildings are impressive, it is the people following their daily rituals that make this place so special.
The northern districts of Ueno and Asakusa contain what remains of Tokyo’s old Shitamachi (low city). Once the heart and soul of culture in Edo, Shitamachi became the subject of countless ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Merchants and artisans thrived here, as did Kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara pleasure district near Asakusa.
One of the last great battles in Japan took place in Ueno in 1868 when the Emperor Meiji’s forces defeated the Tokugawa shogunate. Ueno and Asakusa are the best parts of Tokyo for just strolling and observing. Life in Asakusa still revolves around the bustling Senso-ji Temple, its main approach packed with shops. Ueno is dominated by its huge park containing the National and Shitamachi Museums, among others.
It is still possible to find pockets of narrow streets lined with tightly packed homes, especially in the Yanaka area, which escaped destruction by war and earthquake. Shopping is a pleasure in Northern Tokyo: as well as the traditional arts and crafts shops near Senso-ji Temple, there are specialists in plastic food in Kappabashi-dori, religious goods in neighboring Inaricho, and a wide variety of goods at Ameyoko Market.
Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, built the Kanei-ji Temple and subtemples here in the 1600s to negate evil spirits from the northeast. Judging by how long theTokugawas lasted, it was a wise move.
In 1873, five years after the Battle of Ueno, when the last supporters of the shogun were crushed by imperial forces, the government designated Ueno a public park. Always a popular spot, it has figured in many woodblock prints and short stories. Shinobazu Pond (actually three ponds) is an annual stop for thousands of migrating birds. Several museums and temples are here, as is Japan’s oldest zoo.
Tokyo National Museum
The group of buildings that makes up the Tokyo National Museum is in a compound in the northeast corner of Ueno Park; tickets to all buildings are available at the entrance gate. The Honkan is the main building. To its east is the Toyokan. The 1909 Beaux-Arts Hyokeikan is usually closed to the public and opens only for special exhibitions. Behind it is the Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures, containing stunning objects from Horyu-ji Temple, near Nara, and the Heiseikan. More than 110,000 items make up the collection – the best assembly of Japanese art in the world – and the displays change frequently.
Tokyo National Museum: Toyokan
Opened in 1968, the Toyokan (Asian Gallery) displays an excellent and eclectic collection of non-Japanese Eastern art that ranges from textiles to sculpture and ceramics. Many of the exhibits are from China and Korea -a consequence of these countries historic ties with Japan. The layout of the three floors is in a rough spiral, and a well-marked route guides visitor through the collection.
Tokyo National Museum: Heiseikan
Built in 1993 to commemorate the Crown Prince’s wedding, the Heiseikan houses major temporary exhibitions and a superb collection of Japanese archaeological artifacts. Its modern facilities do full justice to the fascinating displays.
The first floor houses the Japanese archaeology gallery, with items from 10,000-7,000 BC onward. The temporary exhibitions on the second floor are of mainly – but not only-Japanese art. Captions are in English and Japanese.
This museum is dedicated to preserving the spirit and artifacts of Shitamachi. The 50,000 exhibits include recreations of Edo-era shops, traditional toys, tools, and photographs, all donated by Shitamachi residents.
This quiet area is rewarding to wander through because it survived the 1923 earthquake and bombing of World War II. It preserves something of the feel of old Shitamachi with tightly packed houses in narrow alleys, and traditional food stalls selling rice crackers and old- fashioned candy.
The large Yanaka Cemetery is a must-see in cherry-blossom season. Inside is Tenno-ji, a temple with a large bronze Buddha dating from 1690. Nearby are tea shops and florists. To the west of Tenno-ji is the Asakura Museum of Sculpture, home of sculptor Fumio Asakura (1883-1964). On the second floor is a delightful room full of his small statues of one of his favorite subjects – cats – but the garden is the real highlight with a traditional composition of water and stone. Sansaki-zaka, the area’s main street, has some traditional shops. The understated Daimyo ClockMuseum has 100 Edo-era clocks lovingly presented.
One of the great bazaars in Asia, Ameyoko is a place where almost anything is available, almost always at a discount. In Edo times, this was the place to come and buy ame (candy).
After World War II black-market goods, such as liquor, cigarettes, chocolates, and nylons started appearing here, and ame acquired its second meaning as an abbreviation for American (yoko means “alley”). An area of tiny shops packed under the elevated train tracks, Ameyoko is no longer a black market, but still the place for bargain foreign brands, including Chanel and Rolex. Clothes and accessories are concentrated under the tracks, while foods, including a huge range of seafood, line the street that follows the tracks.
Inaricho District and Kappabashi-dori
Inaricho is the Tokyo headquarters for wholesale religious goods. Small wooden boxes to hold Buddhas and family photos, paper lanterns, bouquets of brass flowers (jouka), Shinto household shrines, and even prayer beads can be found here.
Kappabashi-dori, named after the mythical water imp (kappa) who supposedly helped built a bridge (bashi) here, is Tokyo’s center for kitchenware and the source of the plastic food displayed in almost every restaurant window. Although the “food” is for sale, prices are much higher than for the real thing.
At 634 m (2,080 ft), this is the tallest building In Japan. While its main function is broadcasting, it also hosts a large mall, aquarium, planetarium, and restaurants. The Tembo Deck, at 350 m (1,150 ft) above ground level, offers 360-degree views across Tokyo, and another viewing deck, Tembo Galleria, is at 450 m (1,475 ft).
Situated to the north and west of the Sumida River, this area has been at the heart of Tokyo since the first shogun, Ieyasu, built his castle and capital where the Imperial Palace still stands today. Destroyed by a series of disasters, including the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Allied bombing in World War II, the area has reinvented itself several times over.
Ginza and Nihonbashi were commercial centers and are still thriving and prosperous, offering a mix of huge department stores and affluent side-street boutiques. For more down-to-earth shopping, there’s the Jinbocho area for books, Akihabara for discount electronics and software, and the Tsukiji Fish Market for the catch of the day.
Central Tokyo’s continuing political importance is evident in the Hibiya and Marunouchi districts, and the area is also home to two very different shrines: Kanda and Yasukuni. A selection of green spaces provides a respite from the frenetic bustle elsewhere.