Tokyo (6 – 12 February 2016)
It took me quite a while to decide to come to Tokyo. I am usually quite reluctant to visit major cities, especially one as massive as this. The crowd and frenzy in such places, not to mention the costs, are just off-putting.
But how can I not see Tokyo at least once in my lifetime? Besides Kyoto, I suspect that Tokyo may be the only other place in the country that extensively encapsulates the essence of what it is to be Japanese.
I spent most of my short time in the city (since Tokyo was more a base for day trips outside the city for me) visiting museums and just walking. There are a number of interesting museums in the city, especially those in Ueno Park. The Tokyo National Museum is probably the most important one of all with its extensive collection of historical and artistic artefacts. If there is only time for one museum in Tokyo, this has to be it.
There are a number of art museums in Tokyo but I picked the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum to visit. What sealed the deal for me was the special Botticelli exhibition which was held in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Italy.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see an exhibition of works in the museum by local students . The calligraphy of some high school students were of such high quality they made me feel embarrassed about my own ghastly penmanship.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum was however, can I say, the cutest for me. The museum building itself was already interesting. Upon entering the museum, one had to literally cross a bridge to get to the rest of the exhibition. It was quite an entrance!
The museum provides visitors with an overview of Tokyo’s history and culture from the Edo Period to the modern era.
Edo, which means “bay entrance”, is the former name of Tokyo. It was a mere fishing village in the 15th century until the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate chose the city as its seat of power. Tokyo therefore became the centre of government of the country from 1603 although Kyoto remained the de jure capital since the emperor was still living there. Tokyo became the undisputed capital when the emperor moved here during the Meiji Restoration.
This Edo-Tokyo Museum is one that I am very likely to visit again if I have the chance to.
The nice cool weather (really nice despite it being winter) made the city actually pretty walkable. Tokyo is crowded in the places one would expect to be so, such as at popular tourist attractions. Surprisingly however, on weekdays, the rest of the city can be rather quiet.
Not Ueno Park though which I found to be full of people both times I was there. Besides tourists, I assume that many of the visitors there were students of the University of Tokyo next door. The park is apparently best visited during sakura season. Since it was winter during my visit, the park was a little boring.
I prefer however the park around the imperial palace.
Although crowded, there is an ume garden which was absolutely beautiful. I had never seen ume blossoms before and I was just in time for ume season. It all felt like I had struck lottery.
The Nihonbashi district had some interesting sights, including the bridge which gave the district its name. There had been a wooden Nihonbashi since 1603 (the bridge in the Edo-Tokyo Museum is a replica). In 1911, a stone one was built to replace to wooden one and there it remains today. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, an expressway was built over the Nihonbashi. The expressway above and bridge below just do not match at all in my opinion.
It is said that Mt Fuji could be viewed from the Nihonbashi and that the expressway obscured that view. However I wonder if the famous mountain could still be seen today from the bridge even without the expressway what with all the tall buildings in the area.
Expressway or not however, Nihonbashi was and still is practically the centre of Japan. Kilometre Zero of the entire country, and also Tokyo, is on the middle of this bridge. When it was built, the shogunate designated the bridge as the starting point of five major roads. Even today, distances to Tokyo indicated on highway signs are in fact distances to Nihonbashi.
The Nihonbashi district was already a mercantile centre during the Edo Period. Today, it is a typical modern commercial area with all the tall buildings and people everywhere.
There had been a fish market in the Nihonbashi district since the Edo Period. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 however destroyed this market and operations were moved to Tsukiji Market in 1935 after its completion.
Many visitors to Tokyo wake up (way too) early to watch fish being traded and thrown about at the Tsukiji Market. I had half a mind to make my way there at 5 in the morning to do just that but the ungodly hour and the cold of early winter mornings made me change my mind eventually. Still I could not resist going there way after official trading hours just to see what the place looked like.
There was of course nothing spectacular about the market itself. What is spectacular is the human activity early most mornings. The market was also practically empty of people by the time I got there, except for a small group of tourists and three lonely workers who were moving some crates with forklifts and looked like students on detention.
Another major highlight of my visit was the view on the top floor of the 163 metre tall Tokyo World Trade Center. There is an admission fee of 620 yen just to go up to the observation deck which takes up the entire floor. The view was spectacular from up there and for the second time that trip I felt like I had struck lottery. The weather was clear enough that late morning for me to get not only a good view of the huge city below but also a hazy sight of the often elusive Mt Fuji.
I do not think that I did real justice to Tokyo. I suspect that I could have done a lot more during my time in the city if I had been less lazy. There were definitely areas I did not explore. I got the impression that, unlike Kyoto where the ancient, traditional and cultural can be easily sought and seen from among the modern, it takes a bit more digging in order to encounter and experience the same things in Tokyo.
As of now I still find myself preferring Kyoto to Tokyo. I do not believe that I will ever prefer Tokyo over Kyoto. But I curiously find myself feeling more curious about Tokyo now. I think the city warrants a second more attentive visit.