Tokyo Travel Guide


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 the crowds.

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 Nanmon Bridge.

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 appeal.

Imperial Palace
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.

Tokyo Disneyland
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. Ever.

Ueno-koen park
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

Bonsai Park
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.

Kite Museum
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.

Sony Building
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.

Mt Fuji
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.

Noto-Hanto Peninsula
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.

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