Tokyo in a Day

Story and photos By Robert W. Bone   (Author of the new travel memoir, Fire Bone!)

Lines of shopping stalls front the Buddhist temple of Sens-ji in Asakusa. It’s one of the most popular and colorful temples in Tokyo’s “old town.” It was first completed in the year 628.

TOKYO – You’re a business professional and have found yourself in one of the world's largest and most confusing cities. You flew in yesterday. You've got a meeting tomorrow, and then it's on to somewhere else.

Meanwhile, what can you see in a single day in Tokyo? Moreover, what should you see in a day in Tokyo?

The following list of personal sightseeing targets might be called "Tokyo's Basic Five." It may seem like a one-day whirlwind, but I did it myself and even had a little time to spare.

Take taxis if you insist, but heavy traffic may cut into your valuable sightseeing time. Instead, I recommend going totally by subway, which is fast, clean, cheap, safe and efficient. (Try to skip rush hours, however, and remember the trains stop running after midnight.)

Follow the color-coded maps issued by the Japan National Tourist Office (JNTO). If you haven't prepared in advance, you can probably get an English-language version from the concierge in the Park Hyatt, as I did, or probably in several other nearby hotels. The map also explains the subway system.

SHINJUKU

A good starting point, and a genuine point of interest itself, is the little park outside nearby Shinjuku Station, Tokyo's busiest and most well-known train and subway complex. Here in "Tokyo's Times Square," the atmosphere is electric, an apt description given extra meaning by the humongous television screen on the wall of one of the nearby buildings.

Sit and watch the passing parade from a bench on the promenade, almost an oasis in the middle of a world of pure energy. If you've a mind to shop, several department stores are steps away. Also adjoining is Kabukicho, a neighborhood of narrow streets with bars, cafes, and other places of entertainment.

A few years ago, amidst a crowd hurrying between subway lines in the Shinjuku Station. I received a tap on the shoulder. Turning, I saw a Japanese citizen handing me my wallet. I didn't even know I had dropped it. Everything was intact -- and imagine that happening in Times Square!

IMPERIAL PALACE

Take any train to the Imperial Palace. You can't actually go in and visit the emperor, but the wide open spaces surrounding the palace's south gate provide a popular area for strolling. Watch the ducks sailing in the outer moat and then walk across the water on the Nijubashi double bridge and right on up to the closed portals. (The grounds are open to the public just two days a year, December 23 and January 2.)

Nearby is a wide plaza, once the site of two-century old mansions which disappeared in the destruction of World War II. The equestrian statue is of a Japanese hero, Masashige Kusonoki, and his horse, both of whom lived hereabouts in the 14th century.

The roof-top clock is considered the symbol of the Ginza, the center of shopping and entertainment in modern-day Tokyo.

THE GINZA

The average Tokyoite would probably go from the palace to the Ginza by subway, although  it’s just one stop. But on a fine day you can easily amble the few blocks to one of the world's most famous streets. The word "ginza," by the way, means "mint" -- not the green kind, but the kind that makes money. The neighborhood coin factory is long extinct, but the name is still apt today.

Fifty years ago, or so, the Ginza was the site of hundreds of sleazy side street bars remembered by American GIs stationed here. Many of these now seem to have been transformed into exclusive art galleries.

Sometimes referred to today as "Tokyo's Fifth avenue," today's Ginza is an eight-block stretch which is mainly the home of smart shops and splashy electric signs. Note the old clock above one of the stores. It has been the unofficial symbol of the Ginza since the 1930s.

MEIJI JINGU SHRINE

Exiting the Harajuku subway station, cross a walking bridge over a noisy street, and enter the large park surrounding the Meiji Shrine. It’s like being transported from bustling urban Tokyo to some peaceful forest far away in the countryside. Throughout most of its 175 wooded acres, you would hardly guess you were surrounded by the busy metropolis.

The shrine itself is pure Japan, its traditional Shinto architecture is built of cypress wood, and honors the Emperor Meiji. He reigned from 1868 to 1912, and is credited with opening commerce with the world, and otherwise laying the foundations for modern Japan.

The nearby iris garden is revered in Japan as the place where the beloved empress would take her walks. Reportedly there are more 80 varieties of that flower there, all of which bloom in profusion throughout the warmer months.

Although the Imperial Palace usually cannot be visited, the park-like surroundings are popular places for strolling in Tokyo.

ASAKUSA KANNON TEMPLE

The seventh century Asakusa Kannon Temple, also known as the Sensoji Temple, is the focus of Asakusa., This neighborhood on the banks of the Sumida River is a popular shopping and strolling area for both Japanese and foreign visitords in Tokyo.

Dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, the main temple building is approached by a long walking street lined with small commercial stalls. These are often described as "tacky but fun," and they sell anything -- wigs, kimonos, and things both imaginable and almost unimaginable to eat.

Be sure to "purify" yourself by wafting the smoke from a sacred cauldron toward your nostrils, and then admire the 1631 adjacent Five-Storied Pagoda. Afterwards you can wander the narrow streets of the neighborhood. Residents proudly claim it as the birthplace of Japan's Edo Culture which flourished under the 17th-century shogun.

If you want to know what else to see and do in Asakusa, drop in to the JNTO office whose entrance is nearby under the animated "Clock of Fine Mechanism." The moving figures perform on the hour throughout the day.

Psst: There's a prominent "Makudonarudos" (McDonald's) in Asakusa, but I skipped that and was led instead to a tiny shop around a nearby corner. There I had the most delicious noodle (ramen) soup that I can ever remember. The JNTO might be able to point you to one of those.

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