Tokyo highlights

 


 

While not necessarily boasting its share of famous attractions, Tokyo is undeniably one of the world’s major cities. It is a good stopover on a RTW trip as well as being the main entry point for those going on to explore more of Japan. Four days in Tokyo is just about enough time to sample a few of the city’s districts and experience some of its unique attractions. If you only have a couple of days you’ll need to arrive with a plan and get started as soon as you dump your bag in your hotel.  Here are five suggestions of things to do on a short visit to Tokyo:

 

Get up ridiculously early to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market 

Consistently listed as one of Tokyo’s leading things to see, the daily auction of freshly caught fish begins at around 6am. A few tourists are allowed to watch this spectacle but you’ll need to be there by 5am (before the subway starts) to be sure of a place. It is well worth bearing this in mind when jet lag has kicked in and you’re wide awake on your first night at 3am. If you’re not an early riser you can still head down for 9am to observe the wholesale market in full swing before enjoying one of the freshest sushi breakfasts you’re ever likely to taste. (Closed Sundays)

 

Shop for electronics in Akihabara and visit a maid café

Akihabara is the famous electronics district where you can wander from one 9 storey shop to the next, each piled high with the latest PCs, phones, tablets and DVDs. Now is sadly not the best time for bargains. With the yen currently so strong you might want to stick to playing with the toys on display and watching the geeks cooing over the latest arrivals. For more good people-watching head into one of the nearby manga comic stores. Some of these are also spread across many floors, with the cartoon characters becoming more raunchy as you reach the higher floors. If the comics have left you a little uncomfortable, step outside and you’ll soon find some of the characters brought to life in the form of one of many pigtailed teenage girls waiting to lure you into a nearby maid café. 

Admire Tokyo’s most striking buildings in Odaiba

Head across Tokyo Bay via the monorail to this ultra-modern part of the city. Fans of bold and creative architecture will love Odaiba with its many unusual skyscrapers and stand-out public art (there’s even a Statue of Liberty here). Pride of place goes to the Fuji TV Centre with its giant metal sphere suspended in the middle of its upper floors. The TV-related content of the building will mean nothing to a non-Japanese visitor but the views from the top on a clear day are excellent. 


Visit one of the city’s most popular temples at Asakusa

This district of Tokyo is famous as the home of the Senso-ji temple. Access to the temple is via a long straight street lined on both sides with old shops selling everything a tourist could possibly want. Once you approach the temple itself things get a little calmer; watch the people filing in to learn the etiquette of washing your hands and rinsing your mouth before entering. 


Chill out in Ueno Park 

For an escape from Tokyo’s sea of concrete and glass head to this popular park in the north of the city. Families come here to enjoy a weekend picnic or to take a stroll, while in the week businessmen can be seen on the benches around the park’s perimeter enjoying a relaxing moment away from the shackles of their desks. Best of all is the large zoo to the west of the park which has all the usual suspects (the two pandas attract the longest queues). 

 

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

Japan

 

Pre-Departure

A series of orderly queues form on the platform several minutes before the train is due to depart, each queue corresponding to the carriage numbers stamped on the platform floor. On the train an army of cleaners is seen running from seat to seat, cleaning, polishing and even vacuuming between the seats. They step off the train together, line up and deliver a deep bow to the waiting customers before disappearing into the station building below. The signal is given to board and the queues quickly shuffle on board and find their seats. So begins a journey on the shinkansen (bullet train). By providing a service that is reliable, comfortable and convenient Japan Railways propel millions of people up and down the spine of the country on what is widely considered the best railway system in the world. It is hard to believe that the first bullet trains began service in 1964.

 

On board the bullet train

Once on the train the quality of the service is just as impressive. A regular trolley service offers food and drinks at similar prices to the convenience stores. The immaculately dressed girl in charge of the trolley (it’s always a girl) bows upon entry to each carriage and again when leaving. The conductor (always a man) does the same. Announcements are always given in English on the shinkansen services and even on some local trains that are rarely used by foreigners.

 

Punctuality

Punctuality is taken for granted. With train drivers required to explain delays of over a minute and in some cases of over 15 seconds, if your watch suggests a late arrival at your destination it might just be time to get yourself a new watch. The phrases ‘points failures’, ‘signal problems’ and ‘insufficient driver numbers’ do not form part of the Japanese railway vocabulary. When delays do occur (on one journey our line was blocked by a landslide caused by a typhoon) a well-oiled system swings into place and you can rest assured that somehow the staff will get you to where you need to be.  As for the on-board toilet facilities, they are spotlessly clean and even after a six hour journey can be used with none of the dread associated with train loos elsewhere in the world.

 

Backpacking and Japanese trains

The rail system in Japan is set up well for the rucksack-wielding traveller. Coin lockers are available at every station and the overhead racks on the train are big enough to accommodate all but the most bulky backpacks. When leaving the train you need to have your wits about you as some minor station stops are very brief. Fortunately every station name is printed in English as well as Japanese.

 

Cost

Rail travel in Japan comes at a hefty price and a three hour journey can easily cost in excess of £100. Most visitors to Japan will get good value out of a Japan Rail pass with the cost of a one week pass pretty much the same as a return journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. Two and three week passes are available for those wishing to see more of Japan. You need to plan in advance as these rail passes can only be purchased outside of Japan.  Rail travel in Japan is a real pleasure and allows you to see every corner of a fascinating country where pretty much everywhere is off the beaten track to western folk. A word of warning however to British travellers: after travelling on the Japanese rail system for a while it may take a long time to acclimatise once again to the traumas of train travel in the UK.