SEE PHOTOS TAKEN BY DEREK MILLER AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS STORY
It’s not often that I order my dinner from an electronic menu board in a foreign city. Although I couldn’t understand the language describing the food I was about to order, the photos provided plenty of eye appeal to help me make my decision.
Unlike America where there is a friendly or not-so-friendly voice to take your order, here there was no human interaction. After pressing the buttons that corresponded to my beverage and meal of choice, I deposited my yen into the machine to make my purchase — then entered the restaurant to sit down. Within 10 minutes, the kitchen staff served me my Miso soup and sake looking exactly like the photos on the menu board from which I ordered.
If the electronic menu board at the restaurant wasn’t convenient enough, the abundant amount of vending machines (approximately 2.7 million of them) located throughout the city of Tokyo offering people beer, cigarettes, fruits, vegetables, hot and cold beverages and much more will reconfirm the ease and convenience that is available to the public.
Tokyo is the enormous and wealthy capital of Japan, loaded with culture, commerce and most of all, people. With a metropolitan population of over 37 million, it is the core of the most populated urban area in the world. Tokyo is also the home of the emperor of Japan and the Japanese government. Tokyo is a fascinating and dynamic metropolis that mixes foreign influences, global business and consumer culture.
Tokyo is vast: it’s best thought of not as a single city, but a constellation of cities that have grown together. Tokyo’s districts vary wildly by character and personality, from the electronic blare of Akihabara to the Imperial Gardens and shrines of Chiyoda, from the hyperactive youth culture Mecca of Shibuya to the pottery shops and temple markets of Asakusa.
With the expansive and efficient metro trains of Tokyo, if I got tired of one district, I just hopped on the train to head to the next station and found something entirely different in another district.
As a first-time visitor, I was intimidated by the sheer size and frenetic pace of Tokyo. I couldn’t help noticing that the city is a jungle of concrete and wires, with a mass of neon and blaring loudspeakers. At rush hour, crowds jostle in packed trains and masses of humanity sweep through enormous and bewilderingly complex stations.
I was warned not to get too hung up on knocking off tourist sites from my list. I quickly learned that the biggest part of the Tokyo experience was just to wander around at random and absorb the vibe. I found myself poking my head into shops selling weird and wonderful things, sampling food from restaurants where I couldn’t recognize a single thing on the menu (or on my plate) and finding an unexpected oasis of calm in the tranquil grounds of a neighborhood Shinto Shrine. It was all perfectly safe and the locals went to extraordinary lengths to help me whenever I asked.
While in Tokyo it is a must see to visit the Imperial Palace. The palace is a short walk from the Tokyo Station (this is the central or main hub for the rest of the city) from where I arrived in Tokyo.
The palace resides on the grounds of the former Edo (Edo is the former name of Tokyo) Castle and provides a pivotal cultural location for visitors to soak up outside the hustle and bustle of the main city.
Though the palace itself is not open to the public (it is the current home of the Imperial Family), its grounds and gardens are. I marveled at the impressive landscape that included picturesque moats and high stone walls and bridges, over which the main castle can be spotted with its white wall facades and lifting tile roofs.
Modeled after its Tokugawa era (also called Edo period 1603-1867) counterpart, the palace puts on museum-quality exhibitions for visitors and its landscape is lush and lavish at any time of the year.
Temples in Tokyo are also a must see and the Senso-ji Temple is certainly no exception. This temple is located in the Asakusa District and offers many photographic opportunities. The Senso-ji Temple is the oldest and most prominent in Tokyo.
A peaceful location surrounded by vermillion torii gates, small souvenir shops and street — side food stalls, it serves as a symbol of harmony and rebirth for the city, with greenery having overgrown some of the scars the grounds suffered during wartime.
Entering via the Thunder Gate, a giant paper lantern is the first sight visitor’s encounter, evoking the power of nature, while the inner structure is home to a five-story pagoda, a well-kept garden and a shrine devoted to the god Kannon.
Before entering Senso-ji Temple, wooden cups were available at a nearby fountain for washing my hands. This process takes place in a Temizusha which is a small roofed structure containing a pool of water for use in ritual purification. People are encouraged to wash their hands and rinse their mouths. It is customary and a symbolic act to purify the mind and body in this manner when visiting a temple or shrine in Japan.
The timing of my visit at the Senso-ji Temple worked out well as I was able to observe the Sanja Matsuri Festival. It is an annual festival that is held in celebration of the three founders of Senso-ji Temple, who are enshrined in the Asakusa Shrine next door to the temple. Nearly 2 million people visit Asakusa District over the three days of the festival, making it one of Tokyo’s most popular festivals.
In the Shinjuku District, I experienced a mix of the eclectic and the traditional waiting for me. The district offered a seamless blend of entertainment and education. Shinjuku is home to a number of Tokyo’s most impressive skyscrapers, along with beautiful and luxuriant gardens. Known as a trend-setting district, it’s famous for its fashion and shopping, especially among Japan’s most avant-garde youth. It was easy to see why this area was so popular as there was a lot of activity and a vivacious nightlife.
This area packed a lot of punch as I explored underground malls, endless department stores, rooftop restaurants, public parks and museums.
The Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest station as it is served by over 10 subway lines.
The Japanese Sword Museum is also in this area, illustrating the art of sword-making with its small but grand display of blades and hilts, forged hundreds of years ago for the samurai.
Meiji Jingu Shrine
The Meiji Jingu Shrine, which is located in the Shibuya, Shinjuku, is an impressive Shinto shrine, built to honor the Meiji emperor and his wife on the site of a flower garden the couple had once been fond of. Though the original was destroyed during wartime, its restoration is nestled in the heart of a 175-acre evergreen forest with trees donated by patrons across Japan, creating a tranquil green space in the heart of Tokyo. While visiting this shrine I was fortunate to witness a Shinto wedding taking place on the grounds. It truly was an amazing backdrop for such a special occasion.
The inner shrine, Naien, contains the main complexes of the structure, including a small museum which houses items once belonging to the Imperial couple. Outside the Gaien is home to the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, host to over 75 murals depicting the life and times of the Meiji emperor.
Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble
By far the craziest and busiest intersection I’ve ever encountered was in the Shibuya area, otherwise known as the Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble. It is quite possibly the busiest intersection in the world as many as 2,500 pedestrians cross every time the signal changes. This busy street crossing is the most famous of its kind. It stands right outside of the Shibuya Station, allows those on foot to cross from any angle or direction and all at once. When the traffic lights change to red, the crowds surge forward and the mingled crowds of businessmen to fashion fanatics make for quite a sight.
One of the major highlights in Tokyo to visit especially at nighttime is the Tokyo Tower in Minato. The tower is a staple in Japan’s history and pop culture alike, the Eiffel Tower look-alike was once used as a communications tower and today houses observation decks where you can take in breathtaking views of the city.
As mentioned earlier, the tower is best enjoyed at night, when Tokyo’s skyline becomes ablaze of lit skyscrapers and serpentine looking highways. The tower also provides visitors with a museum about its origins, a Shinto Shrine, a souvenir shop and dining options high in the sky.
Not far from Tokyo Tower is the Rainbow Bridge, a suspension bridge along the Odaiba waterfront. A testament to Japanese ingenuity and creativity, it is lit up via solar energy at night, when the structure takes on a rainbow hue.
A model Statue of Liberty overlooks the bridge in Odaiba. It was placed on the site in 1998 (the “Year of France”) to honor French culture.
If visiting the bridge during the day and it is clear, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to view Mount Fuji as well as the Tokyo Bay and harbor areas.
Everywhere I went in Tokyo, I noticed how well dressed and polite everyone was. Their culture is that of being very humble and respectable.
It seemed like every moment of every day was filled with new discoveries, incredible cultural exploration and utter delights. I was truly impressed and fascinated with the Japanese way of life that surrounded me.
From modern electronics and gleaming skyscrapers to cherry blossoms and the Imperial Palace, this is a city that represents the entire spectrum of Japanese history and culture. Tokyo truly has something for every traveler.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Derek Miller lives in Dover with his wife Kathie and daughter Brittany.