Tokyo Travel Guide Part 3: Where in Tokyo am I?

Asakusa is renowned for the Senso-ji temple and its giant 'chochin' lanterns — Pictures by CK Lim
Asakusa is renowned for the Senso-ji temple and its giant 'chochin' lanterns — Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, Jan 13 — You can get lost in Tokyo, even with all the clearly marked signposts (not only in Japanese but in English too).

It’s helpful, therefore, to quickly get oriented with some of the major areas of the city, from where giant red lanterns hold fort (Asakusa) to the outskirts of the city where cup noodle fans geek out (Yokohama).

What’s the best way to explore the different neighbourhoods of Tokyo? Though by no means exhaustive, here are some of the major areas of interest you might consider, not only for sightseeing but also for your lodgings.

Sleep where you’d like to wake up — what’s more Zen than that?

Kabukicho, the red light district of Shinjuku
Kabukicho, the red light district of Shinjuku

There is perhaps no Tokyo district more famous than Asakusa, renowned for the Senso-ji, a magnificent Buddhist temple. The giant chochin lanterns – red, black and gold – dominate the imagination.

Enter through the Kaminarimon (“Thunder Gate”), where statues of Shinto deities stand guard on either side: Fujin, the god of wind, and Raijin, the god of thunder and lightning. Beyond the gates, the Nakamise-dori shopping street draws tourists by the hundreds.

In the month of May, Asakusa is also famous for the Sanja Matsuri, when portable shrines called mikoshi are paraded along the streets. It feels like it’s always a time for celebration as these matsuri (festivals) happen all year round.

As Tokyo’s oldest geisha district, Asakusa is still home to geishas; you may be able to spot them near old ryokan (traditional guest-houses). You can even shop for kitchenware at Kappabashi-dori. How about a real sushi knife, anyone?

The tranquil Meiji-jingu Shrine
The tranquil Meiji-jingu Shrine

For shopping and nightlife, nothing quite beats Shinjuku, especially Kabukicho for the latter. While it’s considered Tokyo’s largest red light district, this being Japan, it’s quite safe to walk here at all hours at night; you’ll even see families with children!

Foodies make a beeline for the depachika (department store basement food hall) at Isetan; even if you don’t purchase anything, it’s a feast for the eyes.

If you’re after an experience, we’ve already mentioned the Shibuya Crossing in an earlier article. Besides Shibuya though, two other neighbourhoods popular with the fashionable crowds are Harujuku and Omotesando.

Besides trendy boutiques, Harujuku is also the cosplay capital of Tokyo where the predominantly youthful cosplayers will dress up in a variety of styles. Most would be happy to pose for a photograph if you ask politely.

Dressing up in Harujuku, the cosplay capital of Tokyo (left). 'Otakus' hunting down the latest collectible figurines in Akihabara (right)
Dressing up in Harujuku, the cosplay capital of Tokyo (left). 'Otakus' hunting down the latest collectible figurines in Akihabara (right)
Kiddyland in Omotesando, where the adults often outnumber the kids
Kiddyland in Omotesando, where the adults often outnumber the kids

Contrast this with the tranquil, tree-lined gravel path into the woods of Meiji-jingu just outside Harajuku Station.

The Meiji Shrine is very popular for traditional Shinto weddings. Walk beneath large torii gates, past barrels of nihonshu (Japanese rice liquour); write down your dreams on an ema (wooden plate); or simply relax.

Not far way — a metro stop or two away or a brisk walk when the weather is fine — is Omotesando. The central stretch is populated by flagship stores of luxury labels such as Prada and Louis Vuitton.

Delve deeper into the alleys on either side of the main road, and you will discover smaller independent shops selling handmade clothes and vegan fare. Don’t miss out on Kiddyland, the multilevel Japanese toy store where, despite its name, the adults often outnumber the kids.

On weekend afternoons pedestrians roam freely along the central Chuo-dori
On weekend afternoons pedestrians roam freely along the central Chuo-dori

While on the subject of toys, there’s nothing more Japanese than manga and anime characters. These are out in full force in Akihabara, where otakus — usually young Japanese men obsessed with comic culture — prowl the streets looking for the latest collectible figurines.

Unlike Harujuku, where cosplayers dress up for fun, here the servers at maid cafés make a living from the kitschy fetishes of their customers. Nicknamed the Akihabara Electric Town, you can also shop for all sorts of electronic goods here.

Then there are the more upmarket neighbourhoods. Ginza is known as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, with plenty of high street brands. Go on weekend afternoons when the central Chuo-dori road is closed to traffic from 12 noon to 5pm for pedestrians to roam free. Not far away, Roppongi has an abundance of art galleries and open-air sculptures.

If you have more time, you could even head farther out to visit suburbs such as Daikanyama and Jiyugaoka that have a vibrant yet more relaxed pace of life compared to the city centre.

A day trip away from Tokyo, Nikko is famous for its ornate shrines
A day trip away from Tokyo, Nikko is famous for its ornate shrines

Consider day trips to nearby towns such as mountainous Nikko for its ornate shrines and onsen (hot springs resorts), and Yokohama, a port city only an hour away that has the largest Chinatown in Asia and not one, but two noodle museums!

Does where you stay make any difference? Well, it might if you’re spending most of your hours in certain neighbourhoods; the time you save on transportation can be better spent on enjoying your destination to the fullest. Alternatively, you could set aside a single day for a specific area or two neighbourhoods that are not too far from each other (e.g. Asakusa and Ginza, or Shibuya and Shinjuku).

This is the third part in a five-part series about travelling to Tokyo. Read about the best time to visit here and how to navigate the city’s busy transportation system here.

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