6 things you CAN’T miss on your next visit to Tokyo

Tokyo is a place of superlatives: the most futuristic human-made structures but equally places which are embedded in history and transpire tradition; the most beautiful places, the weirdest things; a city which is hectic and urban at its most, but it could also be a haven of tranquillity and peace. A city that can be frustrating and difficult to explore but that can reward us with beautiful surprises at every other corner. A city that can be overwhelming by the sheer size of its population and the thousands of neon lights flashing in your face but at the same time a city that one can learn to quickly fall in love with.

In this post, I will write about 6 different spots I visited over two days on my most recent trip to Tokyo. If you follow my itinerary, you will be able to enjoy the magnificence of these gems in a city which is not only overloaded with avant-garde buildings but also with magnificent green manicured gardens, offering tourists and locals the opportunity to escape from the hectic city life.

These places (and following a clock-wise motion) are:

  1. Yoyogi park
  2. St Mary’s Cathedral
  3. Koishikawa Korakuen Garden
  4. Senso-ji Temple
  5. Imperial Palace
  6. Hamarikyu Gardens

The map below shows the route I followed to see them all. I started with the Yoyogi park because was the closest one to our Airbnb place in Shinjuku.

1. Yoyogi park

1.1 Address

2-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo 151-0052, Japan
www.tokyo-park.or.jp
+81 3-3469-6081

1.2 How to get there

To get to Yoyogi Park, take the JR Yamanote line to Harajuku station (use the Omotesando exit) and walk around 200 meters and you will see the entrance on the right-hand side. The park is also close to the Yoyogi Station or Tokyo Metro’s Meiji-Jingumae Station

1.3 Overview

Before you head to the park, don’t forget to take a stroll around the Harajuku area. Harajuku is known internationally as a centre of Japanese youth culture and fashion. Shopping and dining options include many small, youth-oriented, independent boutiques and cafés, but the neighbourhood also attracts many larger international chain stores with high-end luxury merchandise extensively represented along Omotesando. One of my favourite places in Harajuku was the New Balance flagship store at 4 Chome-32-1 6. Open every day from 11 am until 8 pm.  It is humongous, and you can find anything from old vintage shoes to the latest limited-edition-extremely-expensive styles. 

As I mentioned before Harajuku is well known in Tokyo and internationally for the eclectic sense of fashion displayed by Japanese youngsters dressed in all sort of styles. This subculture is famous for elaborate cross-dressing that boys and girls perform to look like anime characters and caricatures of western culture. Some of the styles and trends within the Harajuku subculture are costume play (cosplay), Lolita, Punk, Gyaru, Ganguro and Yamamba/ Mamba. Some of them have evolved since post war times, some disappeared, and some are just a mixture of many of them.

Some of these subcultures are difficult to find nowadays but if you stroll down Takeyita street you should be able to see some, especially over the weekends. You can also see some at the Harajuku bridge.

Once you have spent some time wandering around this busy and colourful neighbourhood, Yoyogi park should be the next move. The park is open from dawn to dusk and the admission is free.

One of the main reasons we went to Yoyogi park was because of the Meiji Jingu which  is one of the most famous and important shrines in Tokyo, as well as one of the most-visited. The inner gardens on this shrine are not to be missed. They cover an area of 83.000 square meters between the main shrine and Yoyogi park. So, there is plenty of nature to admire wherever you go within this green escape in Harajuku. The entrance fee to the inner gardens is 500 yen (super cheap) and then you are free to stroll on the stone pathways taking you through some idyllic landscapes.  There is a cute picturesque Japanese style tea house and also a large iris garden. If you visit the park, please do bear in mind that in Tokyo, flowers are in full bloom in June, so this is the best time to appreciate the sheer beauty of this place.

Perhaps, the most popular feature of these inner gardens is Kiyomasa’s Well. You can find it at the mouth of the stream that runs to the South Pond. It is believed the well functions as a “power spot” or at least a place which gives off positive, restorative, and lucky energies to people who visit it. This “power spot” has become so popular amongst locals and tourists that a special security guard is needed to ensure people don’t spend to long at the well trying to soak up as much positive vibes as possible but also taking photographs.

The Meiji Jingu Shrine is a 1 minute walk from the Omotesando Exit of Harajuku Station (JR Yamanote Line), or the JR Exit of Meiji Jingu Mae Station (Chiyoda and Fukutoshin Lines). After passing beneath the large entrance torii gate, you will walk down a forested path towards the shrine. The entrance to the Inner Gardens is off the path, to the left, and they are open from 9am-4:30pm between March and October, and 9am-5pm from November to February. In June, the hours are 8am-5pm during the week and 8am-6pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Meiji Jingu enshrines Emperor Meiji who died in 1912 and his Empress Shōken. It is also the largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

After the Emperor’s death, the Japanese government commissioned an iris garden in an area of Tokyo frequented by him and his wife.  Construction started three years after his death, and it was formally dedicated in 1920. Completed in 1921 and its grounds officially finished in 1926. Built in the traditional nagare-zukuri style (Nagari-Zukuri is s a traditional Shinto shrine architectural style characterized by a very asymmetrical gabled roof projecting outwards on one of the non-gabled sides, above the main entrance, to form a portico), using Japanese cypress and copper. The original building was destroyed during the Tokyo’s air raid of World War II.

The Emperor and his wife were fierce supporters of modernization of the Japanese industries and of technological development. This is one of the reasons why they are held in the highest esteem by the Japanese people. To show their respect, every year, members of the Meji Jingu Zenkoku sake brewers association and other sake brewers around Japan offer sake barrels to the enshrined deities. Some of these offerings have been made for generations.

The picture above shows the sake barrels. However, contrary to what some people may think, they are not full of rice wine, they are empty in physical terms but spiritually they carry a lot of significance. When displayed near a Shinto shrine, such barrels are called kazaridaru, which means “decoration barrels.

In Japanese culture sake has always been a way of bringing gods and people together. Sake may also be known as miki, written with the characters for god and wine. So, people would go to a shrine festival and be given wine rice to drink and they would feel happy and closer to the gods.

Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers have always maintained a symbolic relationship. The shrine conducts rites to ask gods for the prosperity of the brewers and then the brewers donate the alcohol that shrines need for ceremonies and festivals.

The empty barrels at Meiji Jingu are stacked and bound together, then fixed with rope to a simple frame to keep them from falling over.

2. St Mary’s Cathedral

2.1 Address

3 Chome-16-15 Sekiguchi, Bunkyō, Tokyo 112-0014, Japan
www.cathedral-sekiguchi.jp
+81 3-3941-3029

2.2 How to get there

To get there I started from Shinjuku – the place where we stayed at and I travelled north on the Yamanote Line (Circular line – grey doted colour) to a station called Ikebukuro (map below)

I then changed to the Yurakucho Line (Yellow line) to a station called Gokokuji (map below). Please don’t get confused with the Ginza Line which is also a similar type of yellow.

At Gokokuji take the exit number 6 and then follow the map below. It’s a short 15 minutes’ walk

2.3 Overview

As a raised Catholic, I was very keen to see the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Tokyo. Also, because architecture has always had a huge impact on the places I tend to visit when I am abroad.  This Church is a fine example of craftsmanship by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, who also designed some of the buildings within the Olympic park for the 1964 Summer Games. He was also responsible for the design of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park after winning an open competition at an early age of 36.

One of the things that strikes me the most about this building is the stark contrast between the materials used: concrete, steel and wood.

It is a fascinating building and it seems as if a spaceship has landed in the middle of this quiet neighbourhood in Tokyo to astonish its inhabitants and passers-by. It is also surprising that despite the calibre of the architect who designed it and its undeniable beauty, the building is almost unknown in town. 

The Church is made from 8 curved walls that rise from the ground in an almost vertical fashion to shape the roof in form of a cross. All the exterior walls are made of stainless steel in contrast to the austere concrete walls on the inside. At the intersection of each one of the four facades there are windows running all the way from the ground into the cross on the roof which also performs as a massive beam of light for the interior of the building. It is a magnificently lit building with tons of light flowing in from the massive windows and the cross-shaped roof.

Please see picture below of how the Cathedral looks like from above. Taken from google maps.

The bell tower is over 60 meters high and it is detached by a short distance from the main building.

Kenzo Tange, one of the most prominent figures of 20th century architecture died in 2005 and to no surprise his funeral took place here, one of his masterpieces of modernism and metabolism.

3 Koishikawa Kōrakuen Garden

3.1 Address

1 Chome-6-6 Koraku, Bunkyō, Tokyo 112-0004, Japan
www.tokyo-park.or.jp
+81 3-3811-3015

3.2 How to get there

Koishikawa Kōrakuen Garden is in the vicinity of the Tokyo Dome.

Nearest metro station is Korakuen on the Namboku Line (Green line – N).

To get there I travelled from Gokokuji Station (same station I used when I went to St. Mary’s Cathedral) to Lidabashi station in direction towards Shin-Kiba, 2 stops on the Yurakucho Line (Brown line – Y). At Lidabashi I changed to the Namboku Line(Green Line –N) to Korakuen Station in direction towards Hatogaya

Please see picture below:

Once you come out of the station you should be able to see something like this:

The amusement park (picture above) should be behind you and the Dome on your right-hand side as you walk down the road below towards the gardens:

So now the Dome is on your left, the station on your right and the brown building with the ride should be right behind you. Keep walking down this road until you hit the kid’s baseball playground. 

As you walk down this road, please stay on the left-hand side of the road.

Once you get to the baseball playground, turn left and follow the wall until the next corner where you will see the entrance to the gardens.

3.3 Overview

Unilike the Yoyogi park which has free entry, the Koishikawa Kōrakuen charges 300 yens and it is open from 9 to 17:00 but last entry is at 16:30

The reason why I chose Koishikawa karakuen was because it is regarded as one of the oldest in Tokyo and one of the best kept.  Once I got there, I was impressed by the beauty of the maple trees, the impeccable manicured gardens, the bridges, ponds, ancient houses and the manmade hills. The aim of Japanese gardens of this scale is to replicate both Japanese and Chinese scenery. I don’t know much about Chinese nor Japanese scenery, but they have done an amazing job here. As I visited in November, the colour of the leaves partially reflected the autumn season but there was still plenty of green foliage as you can see from the pictures. Some people say that during the spring when all the trees are blossoming, the garden looks completely different, embellished by the beautiful colours of the season. I guess I will have to come back again to witness it.

There were plenty of people around and surprisingly lots of locals just having a stroll and enjoying the peace and quiet of this place, having lunch or just escaping from the concrete jungle that fiercely grows beyond its walls.

There is also a tea house and shop where you can buy some delicious Japanese sweets and snacks near the entrance.

The garden dates from 1600. The Mito branch of the ruling Tokugawa family had residence here. The Tokuwaga shogunate was the last feudal Japanese military government.

4. Sensō-ji Temple

4.1 Address

2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taitō, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan
http://www.senso-ji.jp
+81 3-3842-0181

4.2 How to get there

To get to Sensō-ji Temple from Koishikawa Kōrakuen Garden you can go back to Korakuen station or you can use Lidabashi station, both on the Oedo Line (Magenta colour, Letter E). On the Oedo Line (direction Ryogoku / Daimon) go to Ueno-Okachimachi Station (3 stops). Here you need to get off and walk to Ueno-Hirokoji Station on the Ginza Line (Yellow colour, letter G). Take the Ginza Line (direction Asakusa) to Asakusa (4 stops) and get off there.

From Asakusa station, you need to walk along Kaminarimon street in opposite direction as to where the Asakusa bridge crosses the Sumida River. Follow the crowds.

You will then see the Kaminarimon gate (See picture below). This is one of the two outer entrances to the Temple. You can’t miss it as there are hundreds of tourists taking pictures of this majestic gate to Senso-ji. The whole temple looks particularly amazing at night time. Once at the Kaminarimon Gate, also known as the Thunder Gate, you are already at the Sensō -ji temple.

4.3 Overview

Senso-ji temple is the oldest in Tokyo and it was built in 645AD. It is also knowns as Asakusa Kannon. Asakusa because is located in this neighbourhood of Tokyo and Kannon because is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) a.k.a  Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. According to the dictionary a bodhisattva is “a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings”. The Chinese name Guanyin means “The one who perceives the sounds of the world”. Guanyin is pronounced Kannon in Japanese.

Legend has it that two fishermen brothers from the Asakusa village found a statue of Kannon in the Sumida river. Their intention was to put the statue back into the river but for some reason the statue always found its way back into the brothers’ hands. The chief of the village recognised the sanctity of the statue and built her a shrine in his own house, so all the locals could pay their respects. This happened in 628AD. This was the same place where a few years later the first temple was founded.

Senso-ji temple is the most widely visited spiritual site in the world with over 30 million visitors annually. This temple has been partially destroyed in a couple of occasions over the years but then rebuilt again: during the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and during World War II. Senso-ji now stands tall and proud as a place of peace and rebirth.

Once you have passed through the Thunder gate, you will see Nakamise-dori:  250 meters of almost 100 small stalls selling anything from traditional Japanese food and sweets to other more elaborate handcrafts. 

At the end of this line of shops there is the inner entrance called Hozomon (Treasure House gate) which leads us onto the the Senso-ji temple itself and the main hall devoted to Kannon.

Next to the Treasure House gate, rises the beautiful five-story pagoda, perhaps the second most photographed building within the compound after the Thunder gate.

Nakamise-dori traders have been doing business in Asakusa for hundreds of years when residents of the area were given permission to sell their produce to the visitors to the temple.

There is a festival in Tokyo called the Sanja Matsuri which attracts thousands of locals and tourists to the area. Sanja Matsuri takes place in May and the area surrounding the Senso-ji temple becomes a huge street party with roads close to traffic and music and dance performances taking place over the course of the weekend.

The festival is always held on the third weekend of May and this year from Friday 18 May until Sunday 20 May. One of the main attractions during this festival is the massive parade taking place on Friday with tons of dancers, musicians and all sort of performers wearing traditional Japanese attire.

Another main attraction during the weekend is the public display of the three mikoshi (small replicas of the Asakusa shrine, hence the name Sanja Matsuri which means Three shrine festival). These small shrines are decorated with gold paint and are also extremely heavy so a huge army of over 40 people is required to carry each one of them.

5. Imperial Palace

5.1 Address

1-1 Chiyoda, Tokyo 100-8111, Japan
http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp
+81 3-3213-1111

5.2 How to get there

From Asakusa, there are several ways to get to the Imperial Palace.

  • Take the Ginza Line (Yellow line, G letter), direction Shibuya and get off at Nihombashi station (8 stops). From here, take the Tozai Line (Blue line, letter T), direction Nakano and get off at Takebashi station (2 stops)
  • Take the Asakusa Line (Red line, A letter), direction Haneda airport and get off at Nihombashi (2 stops). From here, take the Tozai Line (Blue line, letter T), direction Nakano and get off at Takebashi station (2 stops).
  • Take the Ginza Line (Yellow line, G letter), direction Shibuya and get off at Kanda station (6 stops). From here, take the Chuo line (Orange line, letters JC), direction Tokyo station and get off at Tokyo station (1 stop)

In my case, I wanted to go to Tokyo Station first because I knew it was an impressively beautiful building and because I wanted to walk around the Marunouchi shopping district nearby.

5.3 Overview

I could have not gone to the Palace without at least doing a short walk around the impressive building of the Tokyo Station (see picture below)

This is the majestic Marunouchi façade of this century-old red brick train station opened in 1914.  The picture below shows a detail of the dome interior after the restoration works to the building completed in 2012. Marunouchi is a business district adjacent to the Tokyo station and overlooking the stone moats and lush greenery of the Imperial palace.

Just across the street from the station’s south gate I stumbled across a shopping centre called KITTE.

I was taken aback by the sleek design of this mall which is owned by Japan Post. There are great food shops on the ground floor offering delicious samples of Japanese sweets and some more traditional restaurants on the last floor. There is also a museum on the second and third floor called Intermediatheque, a rather eclectic museum displaying all sort of things from early steam engines, Egyptian mummies, some samples of preserved wildlife, artifacts of tribal art, amongst others.

From here, it is a short walk to the Palace, no longer than 15 minutes. See the map below.

I didn’t go inside the Imperial Palace because I was trying to make it to the next stop, the Hamarikyu gardens before they closed. Also, I knew from research that there is no really access to the Palace interiors and rooms, so I decided to do what most people do: admiring its beauty from the grounds outside. But if you do want to do one of these tours please bear in mind, they are only held twice a day at 10:00 am and 13:30 pm apart from Sundays and Mondays.  You can pre-book your tickets through the Imperial Household Agency but also you can do same day registrations from a person who stands outside the palace near the Kikyomon Gate.

The palace is only open to the public on January 2 (New Year’s Greeting) and on December 23 (Emperor’s Birthday). During these two dates people are allowed to enter the inner palace grounds and also to see the members of the Imperial Family appearing from one of the Palace balconies.

The public is permitted to enter through the Nakamon (inner gate) where they gather in the Kyuden Totei Plaza in front of the Chowaden Hall. The Imperial Family appears on the balcony before the crowd and the Emperor normally gives a short speech greeting and thanking the visitors and wishing them good health and blessings.

The current Imperial Palace is located on the former site of the Edo Castle, also known as Chiyoda Castle dated from 1457 and built by Ota Dokan, a Japanese samurai warrior and a poet. Nearly 200 years later the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu established the shogunate here. It also functioned as the military capital during the Edo period of Japanese history. Once the Meiji Restoration took place and with the last of the shoguns resignation, the Edo Castle became what is now known as the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Parts of the Edo Castle still survive today, and its grounds were much more extensive with Tokyo station and the Marunouchi section of the city lying within its boundaries.


One of the most beatiful views from outside the Castle is the one of the stone bridge, also called the double bridge or Nijubashi. In kenji, Niju means double and hashi means bridge. If you are looking at the stone bridge from the front you can see the iron bridge behind and that’s the reason why some people call it the double bridge. However, the bridge is also called the seimon ishibashi (main entrance stone bridge) and the iron bridge behind it is called the seimon tetsubashi (main entrance iron bridge).  Furthermore, and due to the refelction of the stone bridge in the water below, other people call it the meganebashi which means the “eye-glasses bridge”. So, it is really up to you what you want to call it. I think I will stick to Seimon Ishibashi. Also, because according to history the double bridge used to be the current iron bridge which in Edo times was wooden built and it had a wooden support mechanism built underneath which made it look as it was a double bridge or Nijubashi. Do you see what I mean?

I think it is enough of etymology and history lessons. Let’s now move onto our final stop and hopefully a place where you will be able to unwind and relax after two exhausting days.

6. Hamarikyu Gardens

6.1 Address

1-1 Hamarikyuteien, Chūō, Tokyo 104-0046, Japan
http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp
+81 3-3541-0200

6.2 How to get there

To visit the Gardens, you can either enter through the main gate Otemon after a short walk from a station called Tsukijishijo station (about 7 minutes’ walk) or you can also enter through the Naka no Mikado gate after a short walk from Shiodome station also on the same line (about 5 minutes’ walk).

6.3 Overview

The Tokuwaga family was a very powerful clan in Japan. They ruled the country in the form of shoguns for more than two centuries and they owned large amounts of land in Tokyo including the Hama Rikyu and Koishikawa karakuen Gardens.

Hama Rikyu is a green island surrounded by a seawater moat filled by Tokyo Bay and it also lies at the mouth of the Sumida river.  Its seawater ponds change level with the tides. The inner pond is called Shioiri and there is a cute tea house on an island where you can buy some hot green tea and typical Japanese sweets.

Hama Rikyu was opened to the public in 1946 and it covers an area of more than 250.000 square meters of astonishing landscaped gardens.

It is very difficult to imagine what life was like in the times of the shoguns and the mighty Tokuwagas when the gardens were just a massive green patch in the middle of nowhere and served as duck hunting grounds.

Nowadays they are surrounded by all the fuss of the city and the skyscrapers of its neighbouring business districts.

During the end of year festive season, falconry and the martial art called akido are demonstrated in the gardens.

Entrance fee to the gardens is just 300 yens and it is open between 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. There are English guided tour guides available on Mondays and Saturdays at 10:30 am and 11:00 am respectively.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this post about Tokyo. It will be awesome to hear about your recent and past experiences with this fascinating city.  Use the box below to do so and once again, please don’t forget to share it with your friends through any of the social media links displayed.

Thanks

Oscar

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