Because it is such a maze of contradictions Japan, and particularly Tokyo, has always been one of those places that have fascinated me. One of the reasons for this fascination is the fact that Japan is the land of the ninja – and there is not much that beats a ninja on the cool scale!
Plus they have dragons, Tanukis, sushi, gadgets galore, fantastic myths and legends, and a passion for the weird and wonderful that appeals to my brand of crazy!
The other thing that has always intrigued me is the fact that a country so steeped in tradition and centuries old superstitions is also a global leader in technological innovation! Being the person that I am, I knew I had to see this eclectic mix of old and new in person. So I set about using every saving trick I know (you’ll find most of them on the Discountrue.com, a couponing site that offers many discounts to all the most popular stores including Kohl’s and many other) and finally pooled enough funds to book my trip!
And let me just say – if you’re looking for inspiration for your bucket list then you will NOT regret adding a visit to the land of the rising sun. You’ll find ancient shrines hidden in beautifully maintained parks that are around the corner from monuments to the latest and greatest in science, technology and electronics, all surrounded by one of the most civilized, well organized and populous concrete jungles that you could ever imagine.
No matter where you go, there is something to explore and discover – but here is my list of the three destinations you absolutely have to visit:
Sensō-ji Temple and Nakamise
Located in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, this exquisite Buddhist temple is the symbol of the city and Fujin Raijinmon, also known as the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, is probably the most recognizable and well known landmark of the whole country. But Sensō-ji is on my list the temples official name is “Golden Dragon Mountain Sensō-ji Temple” and I absolutely HAD to visit an entire shrine that is said to be protected by dragons!
The Thunder Gate is dominated by a massive red and black lantern, but if you look up as you pass under it you’ll see a beautiful dragon carved into its base. And that is just the first of the many dragons I saw (I got sidetracked and lost count at about 50) while exploring the Main Hall, the 5 story pagoda and the rest of the 50 acre temple precinct. Unfortunately there wasn’t a single living dragon to be seen – and I did ask!!
Although visiting the shrine won’t cost a thing, you will need cash for the 200m shopping street known as Nakamise that leads up to it! Here you’ll find everything from traditional local snacks, yukata and folding fans to the typical ‘Made in Japan’ trinkets found in dime stores and flea markets around the world – including items you couldn’t imagine anyone buying aaaannnd funky toe socks. Yes I bought a pair. And no, I’m not ashamed!
Ueno Park is like a little slice of paradise nestled in the heart of the city and if you are going to visit just one place in Tokyo then make sure this is it! This park is the largest green space within the city boundaries and is home to numerous art galleries, a couple of museums, schools and universities, libraries, the peaceful Shinobazu Pond, beautiful temples and shrines, as well as Ueno Park Zoo and one of the largest aquariums in Asia.
If you’re a science and technology geek then the National Museum of Nature and Science has fascinating interactive displays on everything from space development and nuclear energy to transport and robotics. There are also exhibits showcasing the history of Japanese culture and a few prehistoric remains.Then there’s the National Museum of Tokyo where you can see a superb collection of Asian art and more than 100 national treasures.
In my opinion though, the best feature is its traditional Japanese landscape garden and the gorgeous tokoharitsuke, koshishoji and fusuma paper panels in the 5 teahouses transported to the museum over the years. The best time of year to visit is during the Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) while the blooming cherry trees are lit up by 1000 lanterns, inviting all to welcome the spring with an antique market and several other special events.
Akihabara Denki Gai
Just a short stroll from the subway station, Akihabara Denki Gai or Akihabara Electric Town is an entire town dedicated to two things that are synonymous with Japan – electronic gadgetry and otaku stores, clubs and cafés. The main street is a crowd of tall buildings covered in colorful signs advertising various sales or the latest trending anime characters, with side streets filled to overflowing with an endless number of stalls and stores.
Although online shopping has stolen Akihabara’s status as the home of electronics, it is still the number one place to score anything that is electrically powered, as well as the spare parts, doodads and thingamabobs that make them do whatever ridiculous or awesome thing they do. Then there is the Yodobashi building that has EIGHT storeys filled with the most unbelievable collection of electronics you’ve ever seen!
And once the overly bright lights and repeated playing of the Yodobashi theme song gets too much, the craziness of the otaku stores will be a welcome relief. Now for those who don’t know otaku is roughly translated as ‘fanboy/girl’ and refers to anyone who is intensely passionate about something. So you’ll find whole stores dedicated to Pokemon, Godzilla,yo-yos, and Power Rangers along with ‘maid cafés’ which are basically the cosplay version of hostess bars!
Of course there is plenty more to see – such as the Shibuya Crossing where masses of pedestrians cross the street all at once without any shoving, mishaps or disasters happening, the Tokyo Skytree which is the tallest building in the country, the Kabuki-za Theater where traditional burlesque like Kabuki performances are staged and the Meiji Shrine which is surrounded by 175 acres of indigenous evergreen forest.
But once you have visited these three destinations I think that you will have experienced everything that is quintessentially Tokyo. You’ll have seen how wholeheartedly individual religions, beliefs and superstitions are embraced, you’ll have absorbed how proud the people are of their past, even while they bring the most futuristic ideas to life, and you’ll have been surrounded by people so passionate about one thing that they’ve made it a lifestyle!
And THAT at the end of the day, is Japan. The past and the present all rolled into a weirdly wonderful, crazy yet passionate ball of exquisite beauty!!!