This busy, ultramodern, yet traditional capital is probably one of the most visited places in the world welcoming over 28 million visitors every year. While there are a lot of ways to tour this city as well as a lot of companies out there that can put together an itinerary, we decided to reach out to Ian Ropke, owner of Your Japan Private Tours, as we wanted to get a more interesting itinerary that’s not just simply based on the well-known landmarks. And as expected, Ian amazed us with his suggestions.
Jump the subway or a taxi to the new Tokyo Tsukiji fish market, which also happens to be the one largest in the world. First pay a respectful visit to the all important fisherman’s Shinto shrine at the edge of the market area, then explore as many of the bright white alleys of seafood from A to Z: everything from tuna and the auction frenzy to weird fish that you may have never seen before. People watching is also amazing in the Tokyo fish market so make sure you take everything in before stopping to have the freshest sushi you can imagine.
Take the subway or the JR Yamanote Circle line to JR Ueno Station. Walk first to the Ameya-Yokocho open-air market, featuring food, clothing and lots of other things, just south of the station. From the beginning the rail line brought food into Tokyo (which was the first city in the world to reach one million people before being surpassed by London 50 or more years later) and JR Ueno was a major transit point for goods and food from the countryside. The market also acquired a darker reputation as a primary center of Tokyo’s black market economy including the early beginnings of organized crime known at the “yakuza” today. So it definitely has a ton of interesting history.
Walking back a bit east of the station, you can witness Tokyo’s most famous day laborer area: many men killing time with other men killing time, all hoping for enough trucks to come by daily to take them to construction sites and the like for cash day by day. It’s definitely not a touristy part of Tokyo, but an interesting one to experience nonetheless. Cross back through JR Ueno Station and wander into the vast grounds of Ueno Park, home to the most important classic Japanese art fortress: the National Museum of Art. The museum itself is huge, so much so that you could easily spend the whole day here, so make sure to pick a few areas of interest than move on to experience other wonders of this wonderful city.
If you exit the park in the northwest corner, you will walk right into the old Tokyo (think ancient and small buildings all in the traditional Japanese Edo style). This area is the Yanaka district and it is full of small temples and a large boulevard cutting through a sedate Buddhist cemetery. At the end of the boulevard you can turn to the left and enter the Yanaka Ginza shopping street lined with authentic living shops devoted to primary foods, key craft products, and textiles. It’s only about 200 meters long (220 yards) but it truly feels like you’ve stumbled back to the 1920s.
For dinner, check out some of the Japanese street food, including ramen, yakitori chicken on a skewer on the eastern flank of JR Shinjuku Station. Don’t forget to wander briefly through Hanazono Shrine which is a place of devotion for countless people 24/7. Shrines are free in Japan and generally open 24/7. Even if you are not religious or have a different faith, these places are so beautiful and so full of history, they are worth a visit.
Head to the Odakyu Railways entrance of Shinjuku Station and buy a Hakone Free Pass. Take the Hakone Tozan Railway from the adjacent Hakone Yumoto terminal up to the end of the line in Gora. In Gora take a short taxi ride to an ancient Buddhist stone statue garden set in a bamboo grove and then walk to the nearby Pola Art Museum complex (less about art more about lush forest ambience and modern architecture) where you can also enjoy a beautiful lunch.
To take a taxi back to Gora, you can ask the museum staff for help as they will be more than happy to call you a cab. From Gora take the cable car to Sounzan and then from there the ropeway to Owadakuni to experience the mountain’s volcanic side (which powers the entire hot spring culture of Hakone). Then take the ropeway to the bottom and Lake Ashi from where Mount Fuji looms to the northwest. The south end of the lake, where the boat ride ends, offers fine lakeside garden strolling and or a perfectly preserved post station on the famous Tokaido highway that linked Edo to Tokyo for hundreds of years. Return to the Odakyu terminal where you initially got on the Hakone Tozan railway by bus which is covered by the pass, and return to Shinjuku station.
Head out for dinner to the Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu, also known as the “Kill Bill” restaurant as it was the inspiration for the famous Quentin Tarantino movie.
Take the train or the subway to Sengoku-ji Temple where the 47 masterless ronin samurai are “buried” in an 18th century Buddhist cemetery landscape. Then wander the back lanes out of the temple to the nearby Happoen 18th century pond garden estate including many 300-500 year old bonsai trees and notable tea ceremony facilities just off the pond. Have a snack at the terrace cafe overlooking the garden.
Then take the subway to the world renowned Ginza district where you will stroll about 8-10 blocks and see and experience a varied selection of Japan’s finest traditional and modern products in one small area..
Some of the highlights of this area include:
- The floors of Mitsukoshi Department Store including the basement gourmet deli shops and the upper floor restaurant world and above it the rooftop for gardening everything and small outdoor cafe zone.
- Kyukyodo Ginza branch for a couple of floors of the finest calligraphy brushes and ink stones, tea ceremony bowls and select accessories, Japanese incense, handmade washi paper postcards embedded with real flowers and leaves or painted in old artistic ways, and lovely sturdy boxes, often very red and patterned, for stationery things that are very pervasive in the Japanese culture.
- The Ginza also has many of top modern art and antique specialty shops in concentration and then a couple of large buildings devoted to stationery products Japanese and international selections.
The Imperial Palace moat this then a short stroll north to another subway station for the final zone of the day Daikanyama. The Daikanyama district is a new area of Tokyo that approximates the now famous “New Brooklyn” of New York Asian style or better said Japanese style. It is educational and very hip somehow organically futuristic and positive and healthy. Incredible “things” on display for hiking, biking and all the accessories that go with those lifestyles, plus cafes and bookstores and health food restaurants. Just a bit north of Daikanyama, you can walk in the forest of contemporary shopping buildings known simply as Shibuya, before ending your tour of Tokyo.