2-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya
Yoyogi is Tokyo’s Central Park. Go here on a sunny Sunday and you will see the city on full display: musicians, actors, dancers, parties, weddings, etc. In the spring, the park explodes with cherry blossoms; in fall, it radiates the warm yellow glow of its gingko trees. Ethnic festivals run throughout the year, and a flea market is held in the summer. The park is adjacent to Meiji Shrine, itself a grand public space that contains a forest in the middle of the city and a shrine to Emperor Meiji, the great-grandfather of the country’s current emperor.Images courtesy of tokyo-park.or.jp.
This Buddhist temple is the oldest in Tokyo and is dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of Mercy. Situated near the Sumida River, the temple is one of Tokyo’s most popular sites. Enter through the Thunder Gate and you’ll encounter a street of vendors selling souvenirs like yukatas, fans, and local snacks. That path will lead you to the inner gate, Hozomon Gate. Past that is the temple itself. Be sure to go inside and look up—some of the most impressive artwork is on the ceiling.
You’ve seen this. It’s that crazy four-way intersection that people all cross at one time. Shibuya is a little like Times Square—not a place to spend a ton of time in, but everyone should see it at least once. Said to be the busiest intersection in the world, as many as 1,000 people will cross at the same time. For an aerial view, go to the second floor of the Shibuya train station, find the Myth of Tomorrow mural, and look out at the intersection from there. Best time to go: evening, when Shibuya’s neon is at full blast.
Kyu Asakura House
29-20 Sarugakucho, Shibuya
Nearly one hundred years old, the Asakura house is like a time machine in the otherwise modern and luxurious Daikanyama neighborhood where it resides. Built for a local politician, the home survived earthquakes and Allied bombing to remain a singular example of Taisho-era architecture. Equal to the eleven rooms spread out over two floors are the gardens behind the residence, with stone paths, bonsai trees, and the best of Japanese garden design.
Kabukicho is the red-light district of Tokyo. It’s best to just stumble around here and head to the bottom of the hill. Ignore the sidewalk barkers and bring a lot of cash (prices have a way of expanding). You needn’t engage in anything objectionable: You can cruise pachinko parlors, see robot dance shows, visit the Samurai Museum, and see the Hanazono Shinto Shrine. If you get hungry, there are snacks galore on Omoide Yokocho, or “Piss Alley.” You’d be well-advised to drink beer throughout this entire visit.
Inokashira Onshi Park
Here you can paddle swan boats around the lake, as well as visit the Inokashira Park Zoo. But perhaps the highlight of this suburban oasis is the Ghibli Museum, a repository of images and ideas from Hiyao Miyazaki, Ghibli’s founder and the creator of such animated masterpieces as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro.
Ever just wish you were Mario, Yoshi, or Princess Peach, racing around Tokyo in your own, real-life Mario Kart? Tokyo will provide. Or, rather, MariCar will, with costumes from the famous Nintendo game as well as a random assortment of other identities. (Batman, anyone?) So long as you have an International Driving Permit, you can take the wheel of one of the company’s gas-powered go-karts and attack the streets of Tokyo. There may be nothing more exhilarating than sitting inches above the ground as you race through Shibuya and Akihabara while wearing the costume of a mustachioed Italian plumber.
1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya
A quick cab ride brings you to the top of the winding avenue leading up to the Meiji Shrine gate, or torii (passing through the gate marks the transition from the ordinary to the sacred). Dedicated to the spirit of the first emperor of modern Japan, Meiji, and his empress consort, Shoken, the shrine is set in a forest of 10,000 evergreens. Take part in the Shinto ritual of writing your wishes and prayers on one of the ema plaques hanging on the walls, where it is believed the gods of the shrine will receive them. (Though we can’t promise that they’ll listen.)
The Imperial Palace is set on the site of the old Edo castle (the Edo government ruled Japan for 300 years), and the current emperor and his family actually live here, so you can’t physically enter the structure. You can, however, take tours around the lush gardens, moats, and bridges that surround it. The original palace, built in 1888, was obliterated during WWII, but it’s been rebuilt as an almost exact replica of what stood before. Tours are in both Japanese and English, and if you happen to be in town on December 23 or January 2, book in fast—those are the only two days of the year visitors are permitted to enter the inner palace grounds.
Tsukiji Fish Market
5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chūō
Arrive around 5 a.m. if you want to watch all the haggling between buyers and sellers, the chefs scoping out the best catch, and the auctions in which a bluefin tuna may go for thousands of dollars. (The sheer volume of fish here will leave you wondering how any are left in the ocean—best to avoid if you get queasy.) The seafood is unlike anything you’ve seen before: buckets of prehistoric-looking sea snails alongside tanks of crab and lobsters the size of well-fed house cats. Indulge in multiple sushi breakfasts at the bars nestled within the market (Sushi Dai is the best).