Ginza's where you can purchase novelty items whose fetishist value far
outweigh their functional value, and indulge in pricy retail therapy.
Serious shoppers don't leave town without swinging through the doors of
Matsuya, Mitsukoshi and Wako. Window shopping is free, though, and many
window displays are works of installation art in themselves.
Despite its disaster-ridden history and propensity for shape-changing,
Ginza has become synonymous with conspicuous consumption and excessive
shopping. At the end of the 19th century, after fire razed it to the ground,
it was resurrected in a London-cum-faux-Parisian style with brick buildings
and wide boulevards that mimicked the Champs-Élysées. Since
then, earthquakes and WWII carpet-bombing have seen it gradually transform
from continental chic to trans-Atlantic functional, but it still pulls
There are some jejune shopping districts that have tried to wrestle the
crown from Ginza - they're more crowded, more opulent and hipper - but
the grande old dame of ostentatious spending stills retains her imperious
snob value. Serious shoppers don't leave town without swinging through
the doors of Matsuya, Mitsukosh and Wako department stores. The Ginza
strip is where you can purchase novelty items whose fetishist value far
outweigh its functional value, and indulge in a spot of retail therapy.
Window shopping is free, though, and the window displays in the department
stores are works of installation art in themselves.
Hama Rikyu Detached Palace Garden
The Hama Rikyu Detached Palace Garden, south of Tokyo central, is 25ha
(62ac) of Tokyo's greenest and most finely landscaped real estate. In
the 17th century it was the happy hunting ground for the Tokugawa shogunate
but passed into the hands of the good citizens of Tokyo, post WWII. The
park is actually on an island, cut off from the surrounding metropolis
by an ancient walled moat and accessible by only one entrance over the
The park is a popular venue for a stroll because it feels deceptively
large and has all that water. The huge Shiori Pond is a focal point for
visitors but its tidal pools, teahouses, bridges, pine trees, and pavilions
for moon-watching all contribute to the garden's charm and photogenic
The Japanese emperor and the imperial family still call the Imperial Palace
home, so unless you get a royal invite to tea, tourists are restricted
to the outskirts and the gardens. New Year's Day (2 January) and 23 December
(the Emperor's birthday) are the only exceptions to this rule.
The biggest drawcard of the Imperial Palace, both literally and metaphorically,
is Edo-jo castle. From the 17th century until the Meiji Restoration, it
was used as the impregnable fortress of the ruling shogunate. Over the
years the castle was upgraded, added to, renovated and built onto with
all the force of a rabid renovator. For a while it was the largest castle
in the world but all the DIY'ing came to an abrupt end when large portions
of it were destroyed in the transfer of power from shogun back to emperor
during the Meiji Restoration.
The Imperial East Garden is entered through one of three gates, although
the most popular is the Ote-mon, which was once the principle gate of
Edo-jo. The garden is an oasis of quiet after the bustle of Tokyo, and
characteristically Japanese; a horizon of clear lines, an attention to
detail and the religious placement of objects within the landscape.
The Shinjuku district is, without doubt, the most vigorous part of Tokyo;
two million people per day pass through Shinjuku subway station alone.
With a total lack of irony or tongue-in-cheekness, the two sides - east
and west - sit side-by-side in mutual harmony; west Shinjuku is the staid,
buttoned-down commercial hub of the city, while the east is its colourful,
seedy and exotic counterpart. The west is planned, administrative and
skyscrapered, while the east side is rambling, chaotic and full of fast-food
joints and pawn shops.
Wandering the east side you'll see the entire world go by while simultaneously
having your senses assaulted by archetypal Blade Runner video billboards
on the Studio Alta building, a popular meeting place for Tokyoites. Other
east-side attractions include Hanazono-jinja shrine, the many department
stores and the vivid if risque Kabukicho and Golden Gai areas.
This is a near-perfect replica of the California original - turn left
into the African Jungle, head straight on to Fantasyland then right to
Tomorrowland. Fans of the Littlest Mermaid will love the new DisneySea
resort next door. Despite the crowds and queues, no-one is ever disappointed.
If Ginza is for shopping, Ueno-koen Park is for strolling, museum-hopping
and temple-gazing. The area of Ueno was historically the Alamo of the
last shogunate - site of his futile last-ditch effort to prevent a takeover
by the imperial army. Today it's a carefully landscaped park dotted with
museums, temples and a not-half-bad zoo.
Attractions inside the park include the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of
Art (if contemporary art is your bag this is a good place to start), the
Tokyo National Museum, the National Science Museum, the National Museum
of Western Art (not only does the building house some impressive examples
of western art, the building itself was built by Le Corbusier and the
garden contains original Rodins including his iconic sculpture,The Thinker),
the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall and the Ueno-no-Mori Art Museum,
which often has calligraphy exhibitions scheduled.
One of the most frequently and fervently patronised temples in Ueno-koen
park is the Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple. Women wishing to conceive leave
a doll here for the 1000-armed goddess senju Kannon; after the dolls are
burnt in an annual bonfire on 25 September, the women wait to see if Kannon
has granted them the gift of fertility.
Off the Beaten Track
It's probably one of those zen-type lessons in life that the smaller something
is the more effort it requires to keep it that way. At Omiya, northeast
of Tokyo, a bonsai village has been established dedicated specifically
to the art of growing and propagating miniature trees.
The village was started when the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 destroyed the
city's bonsai population and decimated the bonsai artist population. It
was decided to start afresh in an area with spacious land, clean water
and fresh air. Today a large area to the north of Omiya Park is set aside
specifically for the growing and cultivating of bonsais.
The bonsai village is not open on Thursdays and it's worth noting that
photography is not allowed. Tourists are taken on a guided tour of the
gardens, but a good deal of that time is taken up observing the intricacies
of Japanese etiquette - tea must be taken and polite introductions made
- and discussions on the nature of bonsai. It's an engaging and intriguing
part of Japanese culture, but means that time spent with the bonsais is
shortened. A visitor could spend three or four days in this biologically
undersized world and still not see everything.
The Kite Museum, just behind Tokyu department store in Shibuya-ku, is
one big reproof to all those rinky-dink kites with plain plastic sails,
plywood frames and a Sunday driver at the end of the string. Most of the
4000 kites in the museum are traditional Japanese kites (edo nishiki-e
dako) but there are some fine examples from China and other Asian countries.
The frames are mainly bamboo, while the sails consist of washi, a type
of handmade paper made from the kohzo tree (a species of mulberry). The
paper is both lightweight and strong. Illustrations are first outlined
in dark sumi ink to restrict the pigments to the desired areas and then
the artist goes to town on the design itself. Kite scenes include scowling
Kabuki actors, samurai warriors hacking each other to death against a
busy backdrop of psychedelic swirls and cute fluffy 'Hello Kitty' type
animals doing unnatural things.
The museum is on the 5th floor of Taimeiken, a well-known restaurant
in downtown Tokyo. It's cramped and pokey and lacks explanatory material,
but it's still a unique museum with a unique collection.
The Sony building, at the Sukiyabashi intersection, is a must-see for
all the cyberjunkies, digi-devotees, www.zoids and Playstation groupies.
Any electronic gizmo that has ever been invented is here in the Sony building,
as well as some yet-to-be-retailed prototypes. With most of the displays
being a hands-on proposition, it's an oversized kid's arcade. The building
itself is a rather phlegmatic version of the sixties - a lot of function
over form - but with eight stories of unadulterated electronic heaven
who cares about the packaging?
Tokyo National Museum
This is a magnificent, unmissable museum, and by far the best rainy-day
option in the megalopolis. The Tokyo Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan, to give it
its Sunday name, is an awe-inspiring collection of 89,000 supreme examples
of Japanese and Asian art as well as a number of fine sculptures, variously
donated and plundered from across the region.
Tsukiji Central Fish Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the largest and busiest fish markets
in the world and if you can hack the smell, the hustle and bustle is a
sight to behold. Every aquatic creature is sold here: giant tunas, scallops,
fish galore, sea cucumbers, poisonous blowfish - in fact if it swims and
isn't wearing a wetsuit it's up for grabs. It's best before 10am.
But it's no place for the amateur ichthyophage looking for one tuna steak
for dinner - a barely concealed hysteria of commerce is the order of the
day as motorised carts hoon down the aisles, workers scurry around with
clipboards and cartons of seafood, chainsaws go to work on giant tuna,
and the gutting, slicing, scaling and sectioning of fish all keep apace.
A wander around the aisles (remembering that in any traffic situation
the captains of commerce always have the right of way) is best topped
off with breakfast at a sushi bar in one of the many alleyways running
off the fishmarket.
Other Japan Attractions
Daisetsuzan National Park
Japan's largest national park (2309 sq km/1432 sq mi) is in central Hokkaido,
the northernmost and second largest of Japan's islands. The park, which
consists of several mountain groups, volcanoes, lakes and forests, is
spectacular hiking and skiing territory.
Kyoto, with its hundreds of temples and gardens, was the imperial capital
between 794 and 1868, and remains the cultural centre of Japan. Its raked
pebble gardens, sensuously contoured temple roofs and latter-day geishas
fulfill the Japanese fantasy of every Western cliché hunter.
Nagasaki is a busy and colourful city, but its unfortunate fate as the
second atomic bomb target obscures its fascinating early history of contact
with the Portuguese and Dutch. The chilling A-Bomb Museum and Hypocentre
Park are evocative reminders of the horror of nuclear destruction.
Kirishima National Park
Kirishima, in southern Kyushu, is known for its superb mountain scenery,
hot springs, the impressive Senriga-taki waterfall and spring wildflowers.
The day walk from Ebino-kogen village to the summits of a string of volcanoes
is one of the finest volcanic hikes in Japan. Shorter walks include a
stroll around a series of volcanic lakes - Rokkannon Mi-ike has the most
intense colour, a deep blue-green. The southern view from the summit of
Karakuni-dake is superb: on a clear day you can see right down to Kagoshima,
the nearest large city, and the smoking cone of Sakurajima, a decidedly
overactive volcano. A direct bus runs from Kagoshima to Ebino-kogen.
Love Hotel Hill
In Tokyo's Shibuya district is a concentration of love hotels catering
to all tastes. The buildings range from miniature Gothic castles to Middle
Eastern temples. The rooms within can fulfil most fantasies, with themes
ranging from harem extravaganza to sci-fi. Further choices can include
vibrating beds, wall-to-wall mirrors, bondage equipment and video recorders.
Japan's highest mountain (3776m/12,385ft) is a perfectly symmetrical volcanic
cone which last blew its top in 1707, covering the streets of Tokyo 100km
(62mi) away with volcanic ash. On a clear day, you can see its volcanic
cone from Tokyo, but this reclusive mountain is often mystically shrouded
by cloud or, in winter, picturesquely capped off by snow.
For an enjoyable combination of rugged seascapes, traditional rural life
and a light diet of cultural sights, this peninsula is highly recommended.
The wild, unsheltered western side of the peninsula is of most interest,
as it is less developed than the indented eastern coastline.
Seagaia Ocean Dome
The Seagaia Ocean Dome is mind-boggling: it's a 140m (460ft) white-sand
beach complete with a splash of ocean under a permanently blue 'sky,'
all in a completely controlled 'natural' environment. It's the apotheosis
of the Japanese obsession with germ-free fun and amusement parks.
This all becomes even stranger when you realise that the complex is just
a stone's throw from bona fide surf and sandy beaches along Kyushu's Miyazaki-ken
coastline. Seagaia is accessible by bus from balmy Miyazaki, a reasonably
large city on the south-east coast of Kyushu. The Ocean Dome closes during
the winter months.