Best Places to Visit in Tokyo

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Travel Features >> Best Places to Visit in Tokyo

Best Places to Visit in Tokyo

March 14, 2012

I’m standing on a somewhat disturbingly punctual train, a businessman’s navy-blue-suited elbow jabbing me in the side, a short-skirted sixteen-year-old’s cell-phone conversation ringing in my ears, punctuated with high-pitched squeals of Kawaii!! I’m trying to ignore the stares of my fellow passengers, who, in this “global city,” still really haven’t gotten used to others from around the globe. The train is so packed that I’m held up by the sheer mass of humanity that surrounds me. I can’t fall - there’s no room for that. And I can’t breathe. WHAT am I doing in this bloody place? I ask myself this for the thousandth time, and proceed to curse Tokyo and everyone in it…

Tokyo is stylish and cute. It’s a crowded, old, many-times-destroyed land. It’s spiritual and commercial. It’s sleazy yet slick. It’s expensive, but not always so. It’s many things for many people. It’s absolutely indefinable, and in it’s very contradictions lies it’s charm.

The train screeches to a halt. I get off, take a breath, and leave the jam-packed station. Within five minutes, I’m standing in front of the Meiji Shrine - the largest and most serene Shinto shrine in the city, set in the midst of beautifully manicured Japanese gardens. I sit and admire the striking simplicity of Japanese architecture, and watch busy Tokyoites take a few minutes out of their very long day to stop and pray for good fortune. I let my mind wander...

Harajuku is a city within a city (because Tokyo is not one, but really a number of cities connected by the most efficient and extensive transportation systems in the world). Harajuku station lies on the Yamanote train line, which forms a loop around the centre of Tokyo. Within the Yamanote loop are some of Tokyo’s most famous sites, as well as its business and fashion centres.

Not only is Harajuku the home of famous shrines like the Meiji and Togo, it’s also has a cutting-edge and is one of the most fashionable places in Tokyo. Omotesando - Harajuku’s main street - is a wide, tree-lined avenue in a city where both space and trees are scarce. On Omotesando Street are located some of the most fashionable boutiques and “depatos” (department stores) in the city, and it goes without saying, in the world. The price tags are high, so I content myself window-shopping and people-watching. The clothing displays are, in themselves, works of art. Sunday is the best day to go to Harajuku. It’s the day when both the young and pretty and the pretty strange people come out to see and be seen by the “right people.” Fashion photographers and model agency scouts often search for and find new “talent” here.

The benches in front of the super-trendy Laforet Depato are always occupied by the young and beautiful, looking oh so nonchalant in their trendy outfits that must have cost at least a week’s wage. While Laforet is the place to shop for 15-to-25 year olds, Omotesando’s shops cater to more upmarket clientele. All the big boutiques, including Channel, Louis Vuitton, and of course, Armani and Versace are here. Catching a movie in Tokyo runs to about $19, but who needs to throw away that kind of money when there’s so much free entertainment on the street? I walk back to Harajuku Station, and stop to watch a group of teenage Goths apply their make-up on the sidewalk, strut their stuff and generally make spectacles of themselves.

Going against quite a few of the traditional Japanese norms (such as modesty and shyness), these kids, armed with homemade costumes and an arsenal of make-up, transform themselves into a variety of corpse-like characters. Faces painted white, lips painted bright red, they become corpse-nurses, corpse-clowns, corpse-French maids - each one loving every bit of attention they get from locals and tourists alike. They might look unfriendly, (actually, they look...dead), but these kids are more than happy to strike a pose with and for you. It’s interesting to watch these “rebellious” teens bow politely (as is custom in Japan) to each other and to tourists who’ve given them then attention they seek. Contradiction is the norm in Tokyo...

I walk a few minutes from the station to Yoyogi Park, famous for the cross-section of people it attracts. Usually a good place to unwind, have a picnic or just take a stroll, on Sunday’s it is the place to be. Sundays are when the dirty hippies crawl out from under their rocks to shake their bodies to techno beats in outdoor park “raves,” and pop, rock, and “experimental” bands of all varieties busk for adoring fans and curious passers-by.

Harajuku is fashionable, artistic, spiritual, spontaneous, pretentious, amusing, crowded. It is just one part of the monolith that is Tokyo. Asakusa, with its old Edo-era feel, Shinjuku, with it’s Blade Runner style buildings stretching towards the sky, and Shibuya with it’s infamous nightlife and even more infamous teenage girls, are just a few of the “cities” that make up the megacity Tokyo.

When I first arrived in Tokyo, I saw never-ending urban sprawl in the form of identical, unending streets lined with hideous, greying buildings. Now that I’m no longer there, I remember the energy, the hybridism, the lantern lit narrow allies, the beautiful gardens, the sense of safety and the never-ending options that Tokyo offers. Mostly, however, I remember the graciousness and kindness of the people I met.

So, like me, you will no doubt have your moments of frustration in Tokyo. You WILL curse the place. You WILL want to leave. But the moment you do, you’ll be aching to go back. That, for me, is the charm of Tokyo.

- This article has been contributed by Sherry Chopra

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