RENTLY, I READ AN ARTICLE WHERE ANTHONY BOURDAIN DESCRIBED SOLO TRAVEL IN TOKYO AS “INTIMIDATING” AND “THRILLING.”
This man, famous for eating everything under the sun and traveling to at least double the amount of countries I’ve been to, finds Japan’s capital city a challenge—but clearly one worth taking on. I thought about it for a while after I read the article and I have to say that I concur. Rarely have I been so completely lost in a place and yet so happy in it simultaneously.
TO VISIT TOKYO IS TO EXPERIENCE SENSORY OVERLOAD TO THE EXTREME. I REALIZE THAT SOUNDS PAINFUL BUT I GUARANTEE IT IS ANYTHING BUT.
I had five days to visit a city of thirteen million people and twenty-three “special wards.” It is the most populous metropolitan area in the world and I was attempting to see it in only a few days. Tokyo is many things, but inexpensive isn’t one of them. I would have to make the best of it and hope to get back one day. Confession: I traveled alone, but met up with a local friend on the first day and another flew in on the second. For me, it was the best of both worlds. I could wander freely, but I could also make forays into the more daunting areas in the company of friends.
Choosing a hotel that had a shuttle from the airport and a nearby subway makes life easier—until you have to enter the massive underground and figure out where to go. I must have been wearing the “confused traveler” look on my face because I was offered help with finding the route to Kamakura within minutes. My only excursion outside the city was to see the Great Buddha in a town an hour south of the city. The ride gave me some context for the mega-metropolis and surrounding area as well as a hint of what life would be like in a village nearly one thousand years old.
Once I arrived, the route to the Great Buddha was very clearly marked. I was disoriented by my utterly foreign surroundings, but calm at the same time. Perhaps it was the influence of the second tallest Buddha statue in Japan looking down on me from its forty foot (13 meter) height. With closed eyes, draping robes, and broad shoulders, he has been imparting his flavor of zen on travelers since 1252. He has even withstood the tidal waves which destroyed the hall which one protected him since 1495. Talk about calm in a storm…
Returning to Tokyo, attempting to fit in the highlights was completing a puzzle in each direction. To the west, we survived Shinjuku—Tokyo’s busiest station—to advance toward the popular Meiji Shrine. Stopping to take a few quick picks of the Harajuku Girls known for their outlandish costumes (picture Little Bo Peep holding hands with a goth Vampire), we found the forest entryway to the famous shrine. A vast oasis of calm in the utter chaos of this densly-crowded city, the shrine area holds 100,000 trees donated from across the nation. The shrine celebrates Shintoism, the indigenous faith of Japanese people. Shinto has no scripture and no absolute “right” and “wrong.” I don’t know about you, but I like the sound of that.
Shinjuku is also the home of both upscale and lowbrow nightlife. Take a spin up to the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt for the jaw-dropping view over the sparkling city or take a seat where Bill Murray met Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. Wallet a bit thin? Cruise over to Golden Gai, a maze of six tiny alleys stuffed with bars the size of broom closets—and rub elbows with the locals. (Be warned: this may come with a host of crazy characters, a great deal of sake, and a karaoke finale. But that’s a story for another time.)
To the north of Tokyo, the district of Asakusa is a major tourist draw. We headed toward the Sensoji Temple, eager to discover how it is different from its western neighbor. For starters, it is considerably older—built in 645 AD. The area that surrounds the temple continues to have the “old-world” vibe despite the nearby market streets called Nakamise which lend a carnival feel to the place. Near the entrance, my friend and I were approached by a young Japanese student who offered us a free tour. In most Asian countries, I would have found this deeply suspicious, but there was no doubt he was honest in his explanation that he needed to practice his English. He explained the legend of the temple’s creation in honor of the goddess of Kannon. Two brothers had fished her statue out of a river in 628 AD and though they returned her there—she kept returning to the spot we now stood. Eventually, they built the temple to keep her in. See how helpful the Japanese are? They will even build you a house when you need one.
Southern Roppongi is for painting the town a very beautiful shade of red, one of which you may never have seen the likes of. In my case, color was called Inakaya—a Robatayaki restaurant—and I have never experienced anything like it again. From the moment we entered, there was shouting. Shouts of greeting! Shouts of ordering! Shouts of more sake arriving! Huge wooden paddles (or perhaps oars) are placed into something similar to an enormous pizza oven and roasted to perfection over the hottest coals imaginable. There’s that shade of red I was talking about. If you are very lucky, there will be a champagne bar afterwards—but all flavors are available in Roppongi. Let me tell you, choosing only one is a bitch.
Still awake? I haven’t driven you into the ground with exhaustion? Well, please do not forget central Tokyo! The Tsukiji Fish Market with its thousands of pounds of fresh sushi will not disappoint and the glamorous shopping of the Ginza is something to write home about.
What’s that you say? You’re tired? Welcome to the club! Tokyo will chew you up and spit you out, but it’s very likely you might not ever have had this much fun in your life. I expected to be impressed, but I didn’t expect to have the experience of a lifetime. Though I am eager to return, I’m a little skeptical at the same time. A trip like this cannot be duplicated—and it shouldn’t be! Something tells me that within all those millions of places and people, an even better one is waiting to be uncovered.