Japan was the third country I had the opportunity to reside in. I enjoyed it so much that I later sought to launch a company here and to make Japan my home for a longer time. As a child, the culture and arts of Japan had intrigued me. In my college years I had a chance to study Japanese culture, language, religious history and business style.
I moved to Tokyo in 1999 to live in the Setagaya district on the west side of the city, just outside of Shibuya, which was considered the Japanese equivalent of Silicon Valley for the number of technology-related start ups based there. My company distributed search engines to the major portals of Japan. So I had an excellent opportunity to learn about business culture and what it takes to be a strong partner company in a highly dynamic and shifting economy.
For those planning to visit Tokyo, I recommend a week long stay if possible. There are so many districts around the periphery of Tokyo that can fill fascinating days of wandering and sate the appetites of in-depth explorers. Some districts I recommend follow.
Asakusa is a district at the end of the Ginza subway line which has one of my favorite Buddhist temples, the Asakusa Kannon. (Kannon-sama is the Japanese name for the boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara who is revered in all countries that practice Buddhism north of India.) During festivals it is one of the most vibrant places to visit. You can draw an “omikuji” fortune straw to determine your degree of near term auspiciousness, and there are always dozens of stalls offering local delicacies and sweets to take on your travels. This also happens to be the headquarters for one of my favorite drum makers, Miyamoto, which has dedicated the second floor of their offices and sales branch to house a world heritage museum of drums from around the world. They even allow you to play some of the drums if you’re interested.
Tsukiji market is the largest fish market in Japan. It is here that sushi served across Tokyo is purchased early in the morning to find its way to the sushi bars across Japan’s largest city. You have to show up very early to get a view of the market at its prime. But there are dozens of small sushi shops along the market side that serve the freshest sushi in Japan for those early risers.
Shinjuku is the seat of government for Tokyo and a central business district. It has some of the highest skyscrapers in the city. So it’s a good destination for those who like landscape views from high places. The kabuki theater district is surrounded by neon-illuminated shopping streets that make one feel like the opening scenes of the futuristic movie Blade Runner. Fans of Godzilla movies will recognize the iconic buildings of Shinjuku, as Godzilla would ritually destroy it on regular visits to Tokyo in the many sequels of the film series.
Shibuya, just to the south of Shinjuku, is a dense shopping and restaurant district. It seems like the west-side peer of Akihabara, the tech-gadget mecca of the city to the east. Both have long neon illuminated shopping alleys and trendy gadget shops. Because this was my back-yard during my time living in Tokyo, I spent a lot of time here, seeing concerts, dining, reading in cafes.
It has a theater dedicated to Noh-geki, an ancient Buddhist-inspired form of chant, dance and drama that has lasted it its exact same style for a millennium! I found the performances hypnotic to watch. So I would go there on weekends to see performances by different troupes.
If you have a chance to visit Shibuya, I recommend taking the Yamanote train line one stop north to Harajuku, to then wander the gardens of my favorite Tokyo park, Yoyogi Koen. This is a particularly scenic spot in the fall when the Japanese maple trees turn color.
The Meiji Shrine, in the heart of Yoyogi Koen, is a very subdued shrine of all wood design. This style is more typical of a Buddhist temple than a Shinto shrine. I find it to be one of the most tranquil spots in the city.
Typically on weekends all manner of artists come to the park to practice their arts in Yoyogi Park’s main avenues. So you can see cosplay (Cosplay is an abbreviation of “Costume Play” in which kids dress up as their favorite heroes) Rockabilly dancers and sometimes drummers and other musicians in the park.
Ueno district is the museum hub of Tokyo. There are several fine museums that you could explore for hours. It has some elegant parks and temples scattered around that make for hours of fun walking. The dark network of food markets and pachinko parlors around the Ueno train station are fascinating to explore as well.
Further afield, there are notable historic destinations for history buffs. Nikko is the mountain town where the Shogun founder of the capital of Edo (modern day Tokyo) is enshrined. It is an excellent day trip or overnight trip, especially in fall or spring when flowers are in blossom or the autumn leaves turn color. You can read more about Tokugawa Ieyasu here.
Yokohama, the port city to the south of Tokyo is a major metropolis in its own right. It has one of the largest Chinatown districts in Japan and fantastic food. One can find a museum of Ramen as well, a Chinese import that swept the nation. Yokohama is a modern port city that serves for international trade globally.
If you are able to visit further afield in Japan, there are many amazing destinations which I’ll cover in subsequent blog posts.
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Tour of Miyamoto Taiko Museum
Ramen Preparation in Ippudo
View of Shinjuku from Shibuya
Shibuya’s intersection crossing
Ueno’s Ameyoko Market
Akihabara Evening Lights