I could feel Tokyo’s buzz from the moment I disembarked at Narita Airport. With flights from Australia to Japan taking as little as seven and half hours, Tokyo is a quirky and exhilarating holiday destination that you will remember for a lifetime.
Japan is one-twentieth the size of Australia, yet has a population more than five times greater, so getting around can be a tad confusing. It’s a good idea to hire a phone at the airport, or buy a sim with a data pack for your existing phone but confirm your phone is ‘un-locked’ before departure. That way you can operate any apps whilst on the go, like a handy translation app, Watts App, Google maps, which will make navigating a lot easier, and the Hotels Combined App, in case your day trip to the Tone River, Mt Fuji, or the like, turns into an overnight stay.
There are two factors to consider when planning your trip to Tokyo – the time of year and the neighbourhoods you’d like to visit. Japan is blessed with distinct seasons and this demarcation will guarantee a different experience each time you visit. Join the locals in spring to enjoy a sake-drenched Hanami (flower viewing) Party under a canopy of beautiful splashes of pink and white cherry blossoms. Cherry blossom season begins end of March or early April (depending on the weather) and lasts around two weeks. Along with numerous museums, twelve hundred cherry trees line the main paths of Ueno Park, and Shinjuku Gyoen Park boasts more than 1000 trees with 12 varieties of cherry blossoms. The atmosphere is one of joy and celebration and attracts people from all over.
Autumn is another spectacular kaleidoscopic treat of colour as the trees ready for winter. The weather of both spring and autumn are temperate and make for comfortable sightseeing. Although summer is largely hot and muggy, it is sprinkled with festivals, fireworks and celebrations just as colourful as cherry blossom season. It’s best to avoid Japan the last week of April (and sometimes the first day of May) as a series of national holidays, known as Golden Week, make travel expensive and crowded.
Winter is great for folk who love skiing with lashings of powder – alert all powder hounds. Slopes range from green, for beginners, right through to thrill-seeking heli-skiing and cat skiing. Cat skiing at Mt Kariba, in Hokkaido’s backcountry, has been likened to the same in Canada. Depending on the region you can expect good snowfall from December until early April.
Tokyo’s eclectic neighbourhoods reflect the quirky culture that gave the world sushi, anime, tamagotchi, and larger than life Sumo wrestlers. The megalopolis can be broken down to manageable neighbourhoods by what attractions and peculiarities you’d like to see. Finding Shinjuku accommodation, at the best rate, was easy using Hotels Combined. Shinjuku is Tokyo’s largest suburb, and home to the world’s busiest train station. It’s packed with a wide selection of things to do and see such the Samurai Museum, the Hanazono Shrine, catch a baseball game, or check out the 12 metre tall Godzilla head peering from atop the Toho building - the equivalent to Australia’s big Prawn, I wonder? Golden Gai is an area of Kabukicho, the red light district of Shinjuku, which houses some of the smallest bars I’ve seen, seating as few as five people. There are also countless soba, ramen, sushi, teppanyaki, tempura and the odd western style restaurants. Some have standing only, for up to seven people, and a line 15 deep.
Tokyo has the largest number of Three Star Michelin restaurants of any city in the world and this year saw the first Ramen restaurant added, with one Star. With 39 of Tokyo’s 213 Michelin Star restaurants found in Shinjuku, it’s definitely the neighbourhood for food lovers.
Harajuku is another neighbourhood not to miss with its extreme youth culture and street fashion, and Meiji Shrine in nearby Shibuya. Takeshita Street is narrow, often crowded, and lined tightly with fashion boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and youth dressed in Cosplay (costume), gothic, Lolita, punk, and mix and mismatched outfits. Shibuya is jammed with shopping malls, restaurants and nightclubs, and is home to the famous ‘Shibuya Scramble,’ an impressive crossing surrounded by giant video screens, neon lights, and sometimes thousands of people crossing in every direction.
Akihabara, known as ‘electric town,’ is geek heaven, where you’ll find everything electric you never even knew you needed. It’s a good idea to have your passport on hand to avoid the 8% consumption tax on most in-store product purchases. Ginza is the area to head for upscale luxury shopping, a well-heeled crowd, and Tokyo’s main Kabuki theatre, Kabukiza.
If you plan to be in Tokyo in January, May or September then treat yourself and secure a ticket to Japan’s national sport, Sumo wrestling, theatre to rival Kabuki. The 15-day tournament is held at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Ryogoku. The tournament culminates in grand final day where the highest-ranking wrestlers use brute force and technique to push or pull their opponents outside the circle, or to touch any part of the body, other than the soles of the feet, to the floor of the dohyo. If your holiday doesn’t coincide with a tournament, or tickets are hard to come by, then try and organize a visit to the stables for an up close training session (asageiko) if accompanied by a Japanese person, or via a guided tour, either way you will not be disappointed.
With something for everyone, Tokyo is a city to put any reservations aside, brush up on primary school Japanese, and ready yourself for any experience that comes your way.