Four and a half days are barely enough to scratch the surface of one of the world’s most incredible cities, and a single blog post can hardly capture the overwhelming energy and subtle complexities of Tokyo. We arrived in the late afternoon on Christmas day and spent the following four days dashing around the city on the subway, visiting our first of many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, gawking at enormous buildings lit by hundreds of neon signs, exploring quiet neighborhood lanes and cemeteries, and getting our first tastes of authentic ramen, yakitori, soba, and sushi.
Top Five Things I Loved about Tokyo
The juxtaposition of hyper-modern and formal, traditional cultures
Tokyo is what you picture. Huge buildings, neon signs, cool street art and graffiti, anime, gadgetized toilets, dizzying energy, and excitement everywhere. It is Shibuya and Shinjuku and Roppongi and Harajuku and Ginza: high art, high fashion, high tech, young, expensive, flashy.
But it also quiet parks, like Yoyogi Park and the wooded expanse hiding Meiji-ji (shrine). It is Aoyama Cemetery and Ueno Cemetery, solemn and quiet. It is Yanaka, a series of quiet lanes lined with traditional shops.
The architecture is cool. No doubt about it, there are ugly 1970s/1980s style concrete blocks everywhere. But the massing of the huge department stores, the tidy little shops and bars stacked one atop the other, the glowing neon lights, the modern new mixed-use projects in Roppongi, and the trendy boutiques of Daikanyama all shout that this place is uniquely Tokyo.
The sense of style
Everyone in Tokyo is so stylish. People were either well-dressed in professional wear or in avant garde ultra-trendy outfits. Despite the cold weather, most women wore heels or boots with tights and skirts or dresses. Everyone is tiny, many women have long hair and bangs and fake eyelashes, and even on a Saturday in a coffee shop men and women alike will be impeccably dressed. Even if they are dashing through the Tokyo train station at 5am on a Sunday morning to line up for unreserved train tickets, women will be in skirts and heels. And I really did see many people showing off the Japanese trendy streetwear stereotypes, layers of bright patterns, high-top sneakers, shorts with tights, and 80s-style fashions. I consequently felt like a slob much of the time.
And yes, I did go shopping at Uniqlo.
The alleys of food stalls and tiny restaurants
Several nights we had dinner and drinks in yakotori alleys and tiny restaurant arcades tucked under railroad tracks or between huge buildings. These covered collections of miniature bars usually have one or two people grilling food over an open fire, waiters dashing around frantically, and a boisterous after-work crowd hunched on low stools around teeny little tables, downing beers and bits of grilled meat, fish, and veg. They are confusing places, especially for non-English speakers, but full of atmosphere.
And of course, the variety of food we ate in Tokyo was incredible:
I loved Tokyo even more than I thought I would. The city stretches on forever, with so many interesting neighborhoods to explore. There is something so energizing, so amazing, about visiting a huge world city like this. So much to see, to do, to experience. I can’t wait to return.