(This post was also published in Rappler. See: Tokyo in half a day)
Towering buildings, beautiful temples, busy streets, delectable food and expensive shopping. This was how I imagined Tokyo and I was right in every way.
I had a short trip to Japan’s capital last November 2013 to participate in the 2013 Developing Asia Journalism Awards and Forum organized by the Asian Development Bank Institute. Due to the jam-packed schedule of the conference, I only had half a day to go around one of the world’s most visited cities.
Luckily for me, I had Japanese friends, Masato and Takahiro, whom I met in Taipei, who toured me around the city. So even with the short time I had, I was able to do a lot. The few places I visited showed me so much about Japanese culture, history and tradition.
Temples and towers
The first place where my friends took me was the Senso-ji Temple, arguably the most famous and most visited Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Foreigners, pilgrims and locals come here to get blessed and pray for guidance.
The temple is beautiful and well-preserved despite the daily volume of visitors who come and go. The design follows traditional Japanese architecture and religion.
Beside the temple is the Asakusa Shinto shrine. It has a beautiful garden with little homes that Shintoists believe houses the spirits of their ancestors. Since I visited in November, the garden was in full Autumn beauty. The ambiance is perfect for reflecting and meditating.
Outside the temple is the place to shop for authentic Japanese souvenirs. Before reaching the temple’s gate, you’ll pass by a stretch of souvenir shops that sell every Japanese souvenir possible, from lanterns, to fake katanas to fans.
Tokyo has 2 skyscrapers that are worth visiting – the Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Skytree. Due to the time constraint, I was only able to visit the former.
Used primarily for communication and tourism purposes, the Tokyo Tower is Japan’s version of Paris’ Effel and Kuala Lumpur’s Menara KL. Standing at more than 1,000 feet, it is also the second tallest structure in Japan (Tokyo Skytree stands 2,080 feet high).
I suggest visiting the tower at night, as my friends and I did, in order to see the tower with all its lights. The FootTown building in the tower’s base is also a good place to have a snack and shop for souvenirs.
Sumida River cruise
This is a must-try for tourists visiting Tokyo as the Sumida river cruise takes you across the city in less than an hour.
Since there was a station located a few blocks away from the Senso-ji Temple, my friends and I rode the cruise to reach the Tokyo Tower. It was a good ride for sightseeing and relaxing. The water buses also have restaurants inside so passengers can drink hot tea or coffee while moving along the Sumida river.
We went down at the famous Hama-rikyu Gardens, which was located at the mouth of the Sumida river.
Hama-rikyu is a public park in the center of the city (near the Tokyo Tower). It’s the perfect place to exercise or reflect in at anytime of the day. Visitors can also drink tea or other refreshments in the restaurant in the middle of the park.
The park was colorful because it was Autumn. The leaves looked as if they were burning in the sun’s rays.
The river cruise costs around JPY 200 and the entrance to the park roughly JPY 100.
Shopping and beer
A visit to one of the world’s most visited cities won’t be complete without shopping and a bit of drinking. So I made sure I had time for both.
On my last night in the city, I visited Shibuya,Tokyo’s shopping district and a famous nightlife area for young people. You can find several fashion department stores and almost every brand here. Shibuya 109 is a major shopping mall where you can buy Japanese style clothes.
For those looking for cheap buys, go to the Don Quijote shop in Shibuya. This store chain has everything from clothing to furnitures to groceries. Every product is sold at a discounted price and the store open until late night (some are even open 24 hours).
Want to have some beer to cap off the day? Check out one of the many bars in the district! My friends took me to this restaurant where we ate shabu-shabu and had unlimited alcohol for only JPY 2500 per person. You can choose from draft beer to imported alcohol to the traditional sake.
On one of the nights of the conference, I visited Ginza with the other participants. For those who like high-end brands and have the budget, Ginza is the place for you! The district is considered as one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world. There are also many coffee shops and bars where you can warm yourselves from the cold weather.
Tokyo has one of the world’s most complicated train systems. Compared to that of Taipei, Bangkok and Seoul, the subway system in Tokyo is not as tourist-friendly as most of the signs are in Nihongo. The friendliness of the Japanese, however, makes up for this so there’s no need to worry. It’s easy to ask around for directions to anyone passing by.
Short trips normally range from JPY 100 to JPY 300 while trips involving many train transfers could go as high as JPY 600 (USD 1 = JPY 100).
There is also a train line going to and from Narita International Airport from Tokyo Central Station and it costs around JPY 1300. This is the cheapest way to get to the airport aside from the bus. The other Filipino journalists and I had to take a cab going to our hotel when we arrived since our flight got delayed. We had to pay the cab JPY 22,000 from Narita to Chiyoda-ku.
Cab drivers are friendly and professional. They don’t ask for more than what’s on the meter and will insist in giving back change.
There are so many places to explore in Tokyo. A week should be the minimum spent here for vacation. The city is beautiful during Autumn but I heard it’s much more beautiful in Springtime because of the cherry blossoms.
Lastly, remember to bring a big budget if planning to visit this city. Tokyo, after all, is the world’s most expensive city to live in.