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A walking tour of downtown Tokyo

Having lived in Tokyo for three months, I often hear, to my dismay, from friends who briefly visited Japan that they prefer the tranquil temples and shrines of Kyoto to Tokyo. To be sure, the physical sprawl of Tokyo is enough to intimidate. And Lost in Translation has all but eviscerated the city’s personality and humanity from the popular imagination. With its breakneck pace of living, neon lights, and crush of suits during rush hour, Tokyo is not for the faint-hearted. But even for those who have only a few days in Tokyo, a well-chosen walk can reveal the city’s nuanced character.
My favorite walk is the area around the Meiji Shrine, just south of Shinjuku Station. This place captures the city’s wonderful contradictions: here the solemnity of Shintoism reposes by the cool glamour of Omote-Sando, which in turn abuts the outlandish teenage scene in Harajuku.

The best time for a walking tour is Saturday morning. Take the JR line to Harajuku and saunter west towards the trees of Yoyogi-koen (Yoyogi Park). Although the guidebooks highlight Tange’s Olympic stadium, the real joy of the park is the dog run near the center field. There has been a boom in dog ownership and, given the city’s cramped living spaces, the dog run is one of the few places where Tokyo’s dogs can enjoy an unleashed romp. Inside the enclosure, dogs sniff and chase and even get into fights as their hapless owners run into the melee, pulling apart their dogs while apologizing to one another.

After this entertainment, it is time to visit Meiji-jingu, the city’s spiritual center, on the other part of the park. It is a beautiful, tree-lined walk past an imposing torii and caskets of sake and French wine. The shrine, like so many other buildings in Tokyo, was destroyed during World War II. And although it was rebuilt in 1958, it managed to resist the concrete brutism typical of that era in favor of a formal austerity. As Tokyo’s largest shrine, Meiji-jingu is the venue for numerous Shinto weddings, complete with the solemn procession of the newlywed, their families in formal kimonos, and a gaggle of tourists snapping pictures. In the summer, I could count on seeing a Shinto wedding each morning – and one day I even saw two separate ceremonies.

By this time Harajuku and Omote-Sando will have awakened for the day. Just across the street from Harajuku Station, teenage fashion is on full display at Takeshita-dori (Takeshita Street). This is the place to see and be seen; on weekends, girls gather here in full “Lolita” dress, complete with Victorian blouses, short petticoats, and lace parasols. “Cosplay,” another prominent street style (whose adherents dress up as their favorite anime or video game characters), is also prominently represented. Should you feel the urge to obtain similar clothing, Takeshita-dori is full of Lolita shops—some with ornate chandeliers and rococo mirrors and salesgirls in their bows and frilly dresses.

If Harajuku is the punk kid with the tongue stud, Omote-Sando, one street east of Takeshita-dori, is the glamorous socialite in pearls. Often called the Champs-Elysee of Tokyo, Omote-Sando is home to some of the most prestigious luxury brands. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chaumet, and others are housed in buildings designed by big-ticket architects. Here you can witness firsthand conspicuous consumption at work as legions of well-heeled women, clutching their Vuitton handbags, plunk down hundreds of thousands of yen for the latest designer fashion.

But Omote-Sando is not all haute couture: Oriental Bazaar has plenty of souvenir trinkets and Kiddyland, a five-storey toy shop, sells every child-pleaser from sushi-shaped erasers to plush animals. And even at this sleek pantheon to consumer culture, there remain those quirky and unexpected flourishes—like that tiny café run out of a van, tucked into a side street—that make the scale falls from the tourist’s eyes and see Tokyo in all its splendid charms and contradictions.

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