Fascinating Tokyo – Your First Stop on Japan Tours

Landmarks & Icons

Two geishas at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

With the 2020 Olympic Games having been awarded to Tokyo, here is what this vast metropolis offers visitors on Japan tours.

The feeling I experienced on my first visit to Tokyo was one of being somewhat overwhelmed. This was due mainly to the size of this extremely vibrant city. The question is, where does one start, on a first-time visit. If you read any guide book on Tokyo, you will probably again be overwhelmed with the inexhaustible number of choices of places to see and things to do. In order to try to make sense of this metropolis, I am breaking down what I feel are the essential items I would include for a first time visitor. Here is a selection of my suggested highlights.

Tokyo's modern skyline with Mt fuji in the background, Japan
Tokyo’s modern skyline with Mt fuji in the background

First of all, it is helpful to know that a) the metropolitan area of Tokyo has a population of 13 million and b) there are 23 districts called wards. With the major earthquake in 1923 and the effect of bombing received during the Second World War, as you would expect, a large number of the city’s buildings are modern and contemporary. Sure, the city sprawls, and it is for the most part, ultramodern, but there are a number of traditional areas which show off features from the old traditional Tokyo, plus there are a number of pleasant green spaces. I would like to point out that should you be the more intrepid type, you might want to try out traveling on the subway system. All signs both in the stations and on the trains are in Japanese and English and it is a lot less daunting than you might think to use it. You do, however, need to know the name of the station appropriate for the venue you wish to reach.

Whether you take Japan tours that are organized or you travel independently, there are 3 buildings from the top of which you can have a panoramic bird’s eye view of Tokyo. These include the Tokyo Tower, the world’s tallest self-supported steel tower. Due to the tower’s central location, the observation platform offers an amazing view of the city and one can, when visibility allows, see Mount Fuji in the distance. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku has observation decks which are free of charge and which provide excellent panoramic views of Tokyo and beyond. The Tokyo Skytree is a television broadcasting tower and a landmark in Tokyo. It is the tallest building in Japan and was the second tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion. Again, with favourable conditions, famous landmarks such as Mount Fuji can be seen from the observation platforms.

Tokyo city and Skytree with Mt Fuji in the background, Japan
Tokyo city and Skytree with Mt Fuji in the background

After this, you will probably want to go to the Imperial Palace, home of the Emperor and Empress of Japan. What surprised me initially on my first visit was that the palace is situated in the very heart of the city and turned out to be an oasis of tranquility in the midst of all the turbulent hustle and bustle of Tokyo. This castle-like building is surrounded by moats, tree filled gardens, and impressive stone walls. Unfortunately, you can only visit the inner palace grounds two days a year. However, the attractive Imperial Palace East Garden and Outer Garden which are a part of the palace area are open to the public.

An interesting district is Ueno Park, for several reasons, and you will want to set aside a considerable amount of time for a visit here. First, it houses a number of the most important museums and art galleries. These include the Tokyo National Museum, with its large collection of national cultural treasures of around 100,000 objects from early Japanese times to the present day such as Buddhist statues, calligraphy, tea ceremony art, swords, armour, woodblock prints, and pottery. The National Museum of Nature and Science houses fascinating exhibits including some on space exploration. For fine arts, there is the National Museum of Western Art, which houses an extensive collection of Western art, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum which has a collection of works spread over many periods. Another small cultural gem is the Shitamachi Museum which provides a look at life in the area in the early 20th century, with re-created houses and stores and cultural artifacts. Ueno is literally a park and has a zoo containing more than 300 animals. The park is a wonderful place to visit on Japan tours, should you be there during Cherry Blossom time.

Cherry trees in full bloom during Hanami along Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan
Cherry trees in full bloom during Hanami (Cherry Blossom Festival) along Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park

One more museum before I move on. This one is not in Ueno Park. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is one devoted to the history of this city. Before you think, “oh just history,” let me rush to tell you that this museum is not in the least dry in content. It brings to life the story of Tokyo in a hands-on way through imaginative interactive models and reconstructed buildings which you can walk through. (The museum is set to re-open in April 2018, after a few months of renovations.)

The Asakusa District is an old traditional one and not to be missed. For a different mode of transportation, you can reach it by the water bus which departs from the centre of Tokyo and travels along the Sumida River. The main attraction in this colourful neighbourhood is the Sensoji Buddhist Temple, also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple, originally built in the 7th century.  It is an active temple and always busy. From the temple, you should explore the neighbourhood, especially the shopping street called Nakamise. This is a street market with many of the stalls selling everything from snacks to typical Japanese souvenirs. There are also boutique style shops in this area which sell more upscale merchandise.

Would you consider a visit to a fish market as a highly recommended experience? Possibly not, but a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market is on the itinerary for many Japan tours. If you know it, the Pike Place Market in Seattle doesn’t compare. This Tokyo fish market is an enormous place and the largest seafood market in the world. I understand it serves at least 50,000 buyers and sellers daily. The outer market consists of a number of small retail shops and restaurants situated in narrow lanes. Here you will find all kinds of food-related goods, fresh seafood, and other produce for sale. You may chance on a tuna auction, which is fun to watch.

Shoppers Visit Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan
Tsukiji Fish Market

There is a district called Harajuku which offers up a couple of well worth venues to visit. Here you will find the renowned and popular Meiji Shrine, which was built in 1920 and dedicated to the first modern Emperor and Empress of Japan at that time. Next to it is a spacious park and gladed forest with attractive paths along which to stroll – an oasis in the middle of this vast city. You can, if you wish, take part in typical Shinto (a branch of Buddhism) activities, such as making offerings in the main hall, or writing a wish on an ema (a small plaque) which you subsequently hang up in the shrine. On one visit, I was fortunate to see a traditional wedding ceremony take place in the grounds of the shrine. The whole wedding party was dressed in traditional costumes. These ceremonies are a regular occurrence, so with luck, you will see one too.

The other major venue in Harajuku is the Takeshita-Dori Alley. This is a narrow street which attracts young local people and foreign visitors alike. Why? It is Tokyo’s teen-fashion shopping outlet. Doesn’t sound so wonderful?  Well, just viewing the styles which are so totally outlandish and very colourful is an experience. I doubt whether you will see many teenagers like these, who shop here usually dressed in their fashionable, trendy clothes anywhere else. Nearby is a tree-lined street called Omotesando which has been referred to as “Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees.” It is here you will find famous brand name shops, cafes, and restaurants catering to a more adult clientele.

Omotesando Street lit up at night in Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan
Omotesando Street lit up at night in Harajuku District

One other important shrine in Tokyo to explore on Japan tours is the Yasukuni Shrine which is dedicated to the Japanese who died during wars going back to the 19th century. There are around 2.5 million written records including names, origins, and dates and places of death. The grounds are full of beautiful cherry trees.

For shoppers, head to the Ginza district for upscale and high-end stores including naturally, designer brand boutiques. Or you can visit Shibuya for fashionable department stores. There are more than 12 department stores from which to choose. While strolling around this neighbourhood, don’t be blinded by the very bright neon advertisements everywhere. I remember standing at an intersection here and not only marveling at the neon signs but also the vast number of people waiting to cross over the road at any given time. It was quite a sight. Then there is Akihabara, the mecca for electronics merchandise with a network of streets offering computers, cameras, televisions, mobile phones, and much more.

View of Shibuya Crossing and surrounding neon lights at twilight, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
View of Shibuya Crossing and surrounding neon lights at twilight

For dining, nightlife, etc., one of the most popular districts is Roppongi, which caters to foreign visitors… which isn’t always the case in other similar areas. It especially attracts the ex-pat community who frequent the bars, clubs, and restaurants here. Other dining options with pleasant restaurants are in the Ginza and Shinjuku districts.

Close up of Shinjuku station in Tokyo metro subway map, Tokyo, Japan
Close up of Shinjuku station in Tokyo metro subway map

Having mentioned Shinjuku, if you happen to find yourself in the world’s busiest subway and railway station here, it is one of the most complicated stations to cope with in Tokyo. It handles over 2 million passengers a day. There are so many exits and lines which interconnect that it can be a nightmare finding one’s way around this labyrinth of corridors. I once stayed in Shinjuku, and after several frustrating attempts at trying to find my way out of the station, I eventually became an expert on this venue.

I really could go on and on about other districts and attractions in this amazing city. Suffice to say, any visitor on Japan tours who gets to see even a portion of the highlights mentioned above will come away with not only an understanding and appreciation of the city, but also with plenty of wonderful memories of Tokyo.

Aerial night view of Tokyo Tower from Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, Japan
Aerial night view of Tokyo Tower from Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills