Tokyo: the capital of Japan and the country’s largest city. It’s also Asia’s largest city. And the world’s largest city. In fact, Tokyo is just fucking enormous. The city itself isn’t really any bigger than other major world cities – Tokyo proper’s population is about the same as New York City proper – but Japan’s ridiculously fast transport system has allowed the urban area to grow out and engulf other major nearby cities such as Yokohama and Kawasaki. All up, the Tokyo metropolitan area has nearly 38,000,000 inhabitants. That’s 38 MILLION PEOPLE. Tokyo has more people than Canada. Canada! And Canada is fucking huge! To give some more perspective it’s basically New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco combined. For the Europeans reading this, it’s basically London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, and Rome combined. And for the Australians, it’s basically all of Australia and then add another Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide. Holy fuck.
Despite having a friend in Tokyo (Hi Elcid!) and being able to access free wifi at Starbucks and most train stations, I quickly realized that I would certainly need a local sim card if I had any hope of getting around Tokyo on my own. That’s because Tokyo has 13 subway lines. It also has 23 above ground lines. And it has over 60 other types of rail lines, including a handful of monorails and streetcars and private commuter lines. This figure does not include lines that are part of the Tokyo metropolitan area but don’t run through Tokyo proper, such as the Yokohama subway system. Add another 20 lines. 882 railway stations in Tokyo later, and I was cross-eyed looking at the map. Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest train station with about 20,000,000 passengers per day. Can you fucking imagine the crowd of people at rush hour?
The crowds of people on public transport are often equalled by the crowds walking in the streets, particularly in busy pedestrian areas like Harajuku. Queues to get into some restaurants can be hours long. But despite all of this, Tokyo isn’t too overwhelming… provided you spring for the local sim card. Fast trains can whisk you into the countryside in no time at all. And the city itself has quite a few pockets of quiet, so it’s not always hustle and bustle (though it mostly is hustle and bustle).
A few highlights of my time in Tokyo:
Museums & Galleries:
The number of museums and galleries in Tokyo is staggering. Lonely Planet lists the best ones, and I would need to spend a year being a tourist in Tokyo just to get to them all. The best and biggest that I visited was the Edo-Tokyo Museum which outlines in great detail the entire history of the city from its founding to present day. The amount of information is enormous but it is well-presented and laid-out in a way that’s easy to follow. I spent four hours here and only left at that point because I was hungry. I could have spent the entire day – it’s fantastic. The Tokyo National Museum contains a wealth of antiquities, including a collection that encompasses all of Asia. I had seen enough of that so I moved on to some smaller venues, such as the Yebisu Beer Museum, outlining the history of Japan’s second oldest beer (and providing the opportunity for a beer tasting!) The Hara Museum and the Mori Art Museum are two smaller galleries that were also on my list. Neither have permanent collections, but the Hara had a photographic exhibition on display and the Mori had a fantastic exhibition of works from Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. The Mori Arts Center also has an open air Sky Deck which has 360 degree views of the city. Fabulous.
On a side note, it was at the Mori Art Museum that I became increasingly annoyed by the shutter snap of everyone’s smartphone cameras. Why not silence it in a museum??? I just assumed it was a cultural thing – like slurping soup – but I later learned that smartphones sold in Japan cannot have the photo sound silenced because too many Japanese men were taking pictures up the skirts of Japanese women. Instead of street crime, Japan has sexual harassment. I don’t know enough about it to comment more, but this and the lack of anti-smoking laws are the two major drawbacks to Japan. Everything else was pretty sweet.
I was a bit over religious shrines at this point of my trip, and by “a bit” I mean “definitely”. But I was in Japan so I had to visit at least a few. Knowing I’d see the cream of the crop in Kyoto, I opted to limit the number I popped into while in Tokyo. Elcid took me to the Meiji-jingu Shrine and explained some of the typical rituals to me. Lenora (a friend from high school who flew out to see me for a few days) and I visited the Senso-ji Shrine in Asakusa, and we rang in the New Year at the Hie Shrine in Akasaka. A rather low key New Year’s Eve, we arrived at the shrine just before midnight to witness what must have been every single local in the area there. New Year’s Eve is a big deal in Japan and most people head to a shrine either at midnight or within the first three days of the year to ring the bells and get their fortune among other traditions.
Lenora and I took a day trip to Yokohama. Our main purpose for visiting was to head to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum which turned out to be less of a museum and more of a place just to eat ramen. But that’s ok. We ate ramen. We also walked around the waterfront and rode a giant Ferris wheel. We learned that the “Cosmo Clock 21” is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest Ferris wheel in the world… with a clock affixed to it.
I’m not even joking.
Elsewhere in Tokyo:
The first item checked off my tourist checklist in Tokyo was the Hachiko Statue at Shibuya Crossing. This statue of a dog was erected by residents decades ago to commemorate a local canine that would show up here at the train station every day to greet his owner after work. It’s an uber-famous landmark among the locals. The crossing itself is the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection – with about 100,000 people crossing the street there every hour.
The Tokyo SkyTree is the world’s largest tower and the second tallest structure in the world (after the Burj Khalifa). It offers 360 degree views though I prefered the open air Mori Arts Center roof top deck. I couldn’t see Mount Fuji from either one – it was too hazy both days – but I did get great views of Japan’s iconic mountain from the bullet train back to Tokyo from Fukuoka. I wandered down to Tokyo Bay to see Japan’s model of the Statue of Liberty (along with a bunch of other random crap that they have there) and visited the Asakusa neighbourhood, where restaurants go to buy (or get made) plastic sample food for their window displays. Speaking of stores, I visited the world’s largest Uniqlo in Ginza and some crazy fancy department stores where I could buy a cantaloupe for over $100. I can only assume that the melon in question would give you the world’s longest, most intense orgasm, because there’s no other reason why a cantaloupe should cost $100. Finally, on my last day in Tokyo, I visited the Hama-rikyu Gardens. Steeped in history, the gardens offer a quiet respite from the busy streets surrounding it, and an audio guide narrates stories about the gardens as you walk around. The device uses GPS to track where you are so you don’t even need to push any buttons: it just plays the appropriate track for wherever you venture. Creepy. The gardens also manipulate some cherry trees to have cherry blossoms year round. Yay!
Obviously I will talk about food. Of course I had sushi. And ramen. And sake. And weirdly flavoured Kit Kats. And tea. Lots of green tea. And anything and everything flavoured with matcha (green tea powder). And mochi (rice cake) filled with all sorts of things like cake and cream or red bean or whole strawberries. But Tokyo is such a big city that it has everything. I had pizza, burgers, French pastries, fancy brunch, American cupcakes, craft beer, Mexican food (duh!), Hawaiian food, and some delicious local desserts such as the fruity creations at Takano – a famous dessert restaurant in Shinjuku that Elcid’s friends took me to. But I have to give a special shout out to one aspect of Japan that I particularly enjoyed: the ubiquitous soft serve ice cream. It was everywhere. And it came in a variety of flavours, the best being black sesame, matcha, and the matcha/vanilla swirl cone. Oh fuck yes.
I refrained from eating horse sushi. And shark cartilage. And whale sushi. But I did eat some other weird shit in other parts of Japan. More to come later. But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in Tokyo, follow this link: