Tokyo just might be the largest city in the world, comprised of 23 individual wards, all with their own unique characteristics. Foreigners are easily intimidated by the sheer expanse of Japan’s capital city and its 17 million inhabitants (5 million are commuters); however, due to this volume alone Tokyo has developed an unmatched public transportation system and an intricate network of visitor friendly information resources. The best way to travel Tokyo’s frantic bustle is to allow the subway to lead the way. A loose itinerary will draw you into true Japanese life through unexpected encounters and more intimate experiences.
It may be ironic that one of the most expensive cities in the world also has one of the most rampant and flamboyant consumer cultures. Tourist attractions in Tokyo consist of many gargantuan shopping complexes in addition to the cultural favorites. The Ginza shopping district reigns supreme for ostentatious spending habits, with thousands of mega-stores, boutiques and an excessive array of non-functional novelty stores for the easily amused within us all. For a dose of New York in Tokyo, visit Shibuya, which is rife with higher-end shops, shrines, King-Kong-sized plasma TV screens and the busiest pedestrian street crossing in the world.
There is a tendency to become inundated and desensitized by the neon lights that line the city streets like masts in Japan’s ocean of technology. While these electric temples serve to extol a hyper-modern age, Tokyo also possesses some of the most idyllic and serene shrines and pagodas in the country. Meiji-jingu is the most impressive of Tokyo’s Shinto shrines, built with Japanese cypress and copper plates for the roof. Even though the shrine was destroyed during World War II, the reconstruction has not lost any of the grandeur. Just north of the city, Bonsai Park treats visitors to the zen-like art of cultivating these meticulously placed miniature trees and experiencing the calming of the mind. An essential experience for anyone traveling to Tokyo is the view of Mount Fuji in the early hours of dawn. This is possible from within the city, atop one of the massive skyscrapers such as the Government Building in Shinjuku. Directly in the center of Tokyo, the Imperial Palace (Kokyo) is an inner-city sanctuary that is home to the Imperial Family. The public can visit the surrounding East Gardens and walk along the double bridge over the tranquil moats of the palace grounds, but the palace buildings and inner courtyard are closed to visitors.
No matter the reason for traveling, and the information given, either by employer, travel agent, internet or other source, the best information will come from the use of maps. Maps of Tokyo can be obtained by contacted the visitor information center, or by talking to others that have been there. Maps are important as a person tries to navigate this large and densely populated city, especially for those that do not know the language, it would be very hard to ask for directions in a language you are unfamiliar with, much less understand the answer from someone that does not understand English.
Once you have arrived at Tokyo, do not rely on memory, keep your maps handy and in the event that you do get lost, even if you have no idea which way to go, at the very least you can solicit help from a local by pointing to the place you want to go. Japanese people, for the most part understand English, even if it is just a little, but having a map showing them where you want to go will make the conversation easier and less time consuming on both of you.
Travel to Tokyo with a willingness to get lost among the hustle and perhaps find yourself again in the silence of a shrine. The expansive city and system of subways make it nearly impossible to make a wrong turn.