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Tokyo in a Day


It is never advisable to do a city in one day. More often than not it is stressful, expensive, doesn’t give you a feel of the city or its people, and you are left bewildered, struggling to grasp all that you have taken in.

Tokyo is a refreshing exception to this, even though it is no exaggeration to call the capital of Japan a massive sprawl and the idea of circumnavigating the sprawl when considered over a map is an intimidating one. Remember this 12.5 million person city you are in has a density of around 5, 700 persons per kilometre.

The JR line, though much maligned by guide books, is in fact the same price as the Tokyo Subway and equally as efficient and convenient. The only major difference is the small electronic map in the Subway carriages which conveniently explain the time to the next stop. If you are willing to sacrifice this minor luxury then the JR Yamanote line allows the speed tourist to explore the four major seasons of Tokyo – the wards Ikebukuro, Ueno, Tokyo Station, and Shinjuku, each large cities in themselves – in one day.  It is not an easy task, especially in late August where the mercury hovers around 33 Celsius and the sticky humidity has the comfort of the mid forties.

The route is roughly round so it is at your indulgence to where you start the journey. Because I was staying in Ikebukuro I decided to travel straight to the next stop, Ueno, and thus finish with the neighbourhood I was most familiar with.

The west exit of Ueno ejects you straight into the park which is the centrepiece of the ward. It is pocked by old temples, a zoo, the Metropolitan Museum and the National Museum. Ueno is old man winter of Tokyo, reticent, nostalgic, and serene. The tents of elderly  homeless people sit neatly off the paths amongst the shrubs. There were some ingenious feats of architecture, like the tarpaulin tent that had a skylight made with a transparent umbrella. The inhabitants sat outside reading or tending to their aluminium can collections with a dour professionalism. Even the bums of Tokyo have industriousness about them.

Hours of quiet consideration can be spent in the chambers of Ueno’s museums, in the parks, or at the zoo, but the speed tourist must condense the visit, resist the charms of Ueno and move on to the next ward.

The best way to get to the Tokyo Station ward is by a slight digression under the JR line. Between the wards of Ueno and Tokyo Station is the famous electrical city Akihabara, 400 metres from each of the wards. By walking the 400 metres under the JR line, through a maze of peddlers selling cheap US replica clothing, Zippos, Jack Daniel’s belts, and intriguing Japanese cuisine – an experience in itself – you can get a peek at yet another side of Tokyo life: gaudy, tacky, westernised Tokyo hidden under a railway line.

And then there is Akihibara Electrical City. Famous for its variety and price, it is actually homogenous and not particularly cheap. Most of the dinky, miniscule looking objects you may have your eye on are often designed exclusively for the Japanese domestic market. Although it is famous for its range of shops, the prices are identical in every outlet and if you do not pay careful attention, you will be forgiven for thinking you have walked in to the same pink department store twenty or thirty times. Still, it remains the premier electrical goods district in Tokyo and is worth the trip just to marvel at the size and technology of the electrical gadgets you are unlikely to see in your home country for at least a year.

Although not much more than a kilometre down the road, it is worth the 160 yen train ride just to exit the grand Tokyo Station, a replica of the Amsterdam Central Station. Be sure to exit early and not be tempted to employ the mass of underground tunnels which can take you to almost any building in the district without experiencing the bustle above. Walk over ground to the Imperial Gardens and wander free through the Imperial complex.

In general, the Imperial complex is something of an anti-climax. You can view the guardhouses in the Eastern Garden and climb to the top of park, but there is nothing at the top. Like most of the area, there are signs promising that there was once something famous here but that sometime during its history it was razed by one invader or another. At one point you get a fleeting glimpse of the current Imperial Palace, and the gardens are peaceful, but it is not the feast of historical architecture one might expect from an Imperial Palace precinct. Although Tokyo ward is the patriarch of the greater Tokyo wards, it is a slightly disappointing experience for the speed traveller looking for an insight in to life in Tokyo; it is in its autumn years, left behind in post war Tokyo.

Ginza is an addendum to the Tokyo Station ward. Tacked on in the south near the harbour, it is a huddle of high-rises which include the suspiciously Eiffel-like Tokyo Tower. It contains the Stock Exchange and numerous corporation headquarters too, but speed tourist must sacrifice a perusal of Ginza, for the more rewarding Tokyo experience lies in Shinjuku.

It is at Shinjuku that we find the popular version of Tokyo. The Times Square electronic billboard, the high fashion and the classy electronic department stores. This is the summer of Tokyo, the closest thing the sprawl comes to having a central heart. It is a hive of activity, even for Tokyo, and some time out for people watching can provide excellent entertainment. Again, like Tokyo Station, be careful to leave the underground early or you risk walking miles underground before you see the terranian ward. For the budget conscious speed traveller looking to fudge things, the Tokyo Metropolitan Towers is a must. The two towers stretch high into the air, providing on level 45 a free observation deck and furnishing the visitor with outstanding views, even on smoggy-ish days. If the speed traveller times it right, they will even be graced with views to Mt Fuji which are best in winter time when the skies are clearer and the mountain whiter.

The final stop is Ikebukuro, the supposed spring of Tokyo. It is hard to say that Ikebukuro has a central heart, but there is a criss cross of streets to the west of the station which thrive in vice: the shops oscillate between bars, ‘hospitality establishments’, which display large colour photos of their menu items (Kiki, 22 years old, 34B) and gambling rooms. It is an experience in itself and a stark contrast to the commerce of Tokyo Station, the high fashion of Shinjuku, and the serenity of Ueno. It is hard not to scratch your head that the ubiquitous commuter faced conservatives staring purposeful straight ahead on the subway, briefcase in hand, are the same people indulging in these evening ‘hospitality establishments’. Unless you are in the market for what the main Ikebukuro businesses have to offer, it can quickly become tiresome, though every now and then, breaking up the threesome of sex, gambling, and booze, is a good looking restaurant.

Eating is cheap in Ikebukuro. A large nutritious meal will hardly lighten your pocket by more than USD$4, double that and you’ll get a long cold beer as well. Beware speed traveller: the feet will ache and the armpits will smell; your hands will be black with grime from the pollution and your index finger will be calloused from frenetic photography. Luckily, all this will disappear over a cold beer.

There was still an underlying sense that in one day you cannot begin to get a feel for a city the size of Tokyo and this may be true, but with the meagre time that you have, Tokyo can be seen all four seasons in one day.

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