A May 1995 trip
to Tokyo by billmoy
Quote: Tokyo has been the capital of Japan since 1868. Its name means "eastern capital" and reflects a shift in power from Kyoto to the former Edo fishing village area.
Tokyo has so many interesting neighborhoods to visit. Besides Ginza and Shinjuku, you may visit Shibuya (trendy "Shibuya Girls" wear wild Elton John boots and trend-setting fashions while congregating at the Hachiko the Dog statue), Harajuku (rebellious teens vent their frustrations via loud music, wild hairstyles, skateboarding, etc.) and Roppongi (loud western-style bars and restaurants allow travelers to cruise amongst local twenty-somethings).
If you enjoyed this section, please read my other sections on TOKYO and KYOTO.
Some of the beautiful images of Tokyo are courtesy of my good friend, Chicago architect Marius Ronnett. Our Tokyo travels took place in the fall of 1999, although I have also been in this vibrant city in 1995.
There are always people in the busier areas of Tokyo handing out flyers advertising various stores or products. Instead of running away from these young and usually mild-mannered touts, try to get a handout from them. Usually the ad is connected to something useful, like a pack of pocket tissues or a piece of candy. You can't beat free stuff!
The international airport in Narita is way out from central Tokyo, so the modes of transportation into town are not cheap. The lowest rate is usually on the Keisei Limited Express train for about each way, and the 90-minute ride goes from Narita to Ueno Station.
The typical room has two Western-style twin beds barely inches apart, along with a closet, small table with glasses and hot water dispenser for making tea or soup. My friend and I jokingly nicknamed our accommodations as "the barracks" for its spartan and claustrophobic qualities. The beds are very firm, the pillows small, and the blankets plain. But hey, the rooms are clean enough and the price is very good considering Tokyo's sky-high hotel rates. The shared men's room has a couple of western-style toilets (not the Asian-style ones along the ground), showers stalls and sinks, all with fine supplies of hot and cold water. There is a small laundry room for your clothes-cleaning needs.
The hotel has its own cafeteria for light meals, and you can watch TV or step out to an adjacent outdoor garden patio to relax. The second floor has a sitting area where you can watch TV or sit and consume your take-away food purchases (the staff in the cafeteria is not crazy about people eating food not purchased in-house). I recall watching a documentary about the Japan national soccer team preparing for the 2002 World Cup. The French head coach was screaming at his players in the locker room regarding their poor play...in French! Then the camera focused on the team interpreter, who tried to relay the message to the players in Japanese in an equally fiery tone.
Asia Center of Japan is a good place to stay if you want to watch your budget and perhaps mingle with travelers from around the world. There are no obvious "Japanese" qualities here that you would find at a more personal ryokan, but that is the main tradeoff if you want to stay here. The location is only two blocks from a subway station.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 20, 2002
Asia Center of Japan
10-32 Akasaka, 8-chome
(81) 3 3402-6111
You can order a la carte off the easy-to-read menu of course, but why would you if the buffet is available? They usually have a few varieties of pizza set up, along with a few other menu selections like salad, spaghetti, chicken wings, potato skins, and french fries. Diners quickly grab the pizza slices up, so the pizza rarely has a chance to get cold. There are usually varieties like sausage, ham, cheese, pineapple and seaweed (yes, bits of seaweed on a pizza slice!). You can order beer or soda, neither of which is included in the price of the buffet.
Dining here is not a bad change-of-pace from the sushi and noodle dishes served up at local Japanese restaurants. The buffet is a set rate, so there are no real surprises when your bill comes. Of course, there are no real surprises on your plate at Shakey's, but at least you will probably leave with a full and satisfied stomach.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 23, 2002
E. Shinjuku on Shinjuku Dori
Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
The menu at Mos Burger has a fairly pedestrian selection of western fast food items. Hamburgers with various toppings, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, salads, soups, fries, onion rings, chicken nuggets, soft drinks and pies can all be found at the Mos. The fast-food prices are fairly typical, so you will not spend a fortune ordering food here.
One time I ordered a "rice burger" that contained beef slices laced with tangy soy sauce. The beef and a slip of lettuce are piled between two formed rice patties (are they toasted?), which are supposed to be the equivalent of a bun. It is a nice concept, and the flavor is not bad, but the idea does not quite work because the rice patty just cannot hold together long enough to support the meat. Surely you have had that frustrating feeling when the hot dog breaks through the seam of the bun? It is basically the same story here. Ask for a fork, or order one of the standard sandwiches with an actual bun.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on August 27, 2002
Attraction | "Shinjuku"
Shinjuku Station basically separates the area into two regions with various characteristics. The western end is like La Defense in Paris, with legions of gray skyscrapers and sterile urban plazas. The buildings have a certain formality to them, containers for offices, shops, hotels, and museums. The gigantic Tokyo City Hall complex by architect Kenzo Tange visually anchors this area. The Shinjuku Sumitomo building has a free observation deck, and the Shinjuku NS Building has a large pendulum in its lobby.
The area immediately surrounding and east of the station seems to be the opposite of genteel, traditional Tokyo. There is a lot of flash and dash here, with neon billboards spouting scintillating colors, electronic jumbotrons showing a stream of loud videos, commercials and sports highlights. Enormous department stores like My City and Studio Alta vie for attention with fast-food outlets, clubs and bars with hefty cover charges. The Kabuki-cho area is the somewhat sketchy red light district, where there are tackily decorated "love hotels" displaying their rates by the hour. If you can keep your eyes focused after all these sensory experiences, you will enjoy some very interesting people watching in Shinjuku.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 23, 2002
Kinokuniya Shinjuku Main Store
Tokyo, Japan 160-0022
+81 (0)3 3354 0131
The fish auction starts at 5AM for seafood wholesalers, and restaurant owners get in on the action of the auction at 7AM. There are about 1200 wholesaler shops, along with some sushi bars and food stalls. It is fascinating to walk about and see all the variety of the "catches of the day". Take a casual stroll around the many stalls, with all sorts of tuna, squid, crab, shrimp, and other you-name-it-we-got-it sea creatures. Some are still kept alive in fish tanks or big styrofoam buckets, and the locals take great pride in handling the fresh seafood. Most of the seafood products are sold to large and small local restaurants, but some small portions are also sold to individuals too.
The locals here do not seem to mind that tourists come out to check out this free-form equivalent of an aquarium, as the early hours holds the potential size of such a crowd down. Just stay out of the way of the men dragging huge slabs of fish and fresh seafood, some riding in little motorized vehicles. Do not wear your finest outfit here, as water and flopping fish and whatnot may splash you! The surrounding neighborhood is relatively blue-collar and faceless, but you are not far at all from the action in central Tokyo.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Station Stop (subway)
I actually watched a game here in May 1995 between the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Nippon Ham Fighters (yes these are actual names of baseball clubs). It was interesting to see the fan interaction during the game. Each team seems to have its own designated cheering section, and they have coordinated and rhythmic cheers, claps and shouts that seem very positive and collegiate in tone. Most people in these areas are whacking colorful noisemakers or waving banners. Sluggers hitting home runs are given stuffed toys when crossing home plate, as if in a carnival game. The animated displays by the crowd are usually good-spirited, except for a few rare instances where the fans booed one particular American player after he struck out four times during the contest.
In 1999 there was some sort of food fair / variety show taking place on the field. There were apparently no free food samples here, but you could pay for various food products, drinks, ice cream, gift packages and so forth. On the entertainment front, there were singers, costumed dancers, colorful floats, and something proclaimed as the "largest" concert. There were about 700 musicians sitting in the right-field bleachers playing a tune, each with a Japanese equivalent of a banjo. It was rather fun to walk on what would be the playing field, and stare into the baseball dugouts and imagine the ballplayers who would normally be sitting and spitting in there.
Tokyo, Japan 112-0004
+81 (0)3 5800 9999
Attraction | "Tokyo City Hall"
Each of the two prongs has a free observation deck, but they seem to be sporadically open whenever I visit. Both were closed for some reason when I stopped by in 1995, and only the south observatory was open in 1999 (note that they are usually closed on Mondays). One is good enough for me, so we took the express elevator up to the 45th floor (there are 1096 steps from top to bottom for emergencies). The sky in Tokyo can seem perpetually hazy, but there are some wonderful panoramic views from the deck. It is fun to spot all of the landmarks of Tokyo when you wander the perimeter of the observation deck. If you are fortunate to have a clearer sky (I was not) you may spot Mt. Fuji in the distance. Each observation deck has a domed coffee shop in the center, and a small souvenir shop on the side. Annually over two million visitors enjoy the views from the two observatories.
The TMG complex is built on the site of an old water purification plant. Shinjuku Central Park lies to the west, and a curved Assembly Building and the accompanying Citizens’ Plaza front the east side. As you might expect, there are a few modern sculptures scattered about the grounds. The forest of skyscrapers in Shinjuku includes a variety of office buildings and posh hotels.
Tokyo Tocho (City Hall) Gift Shop
Tokyo Tocho (North), Observation Floor 45F
+81 (0)3 5320 7890
The complex houses many exhibition halls, restaurants and cafes, shops, travel agency, post office, and a pretty good Tourist Information Center. You can find a good selection of maps and brochures, including a handy listing of contemporary buildings in Tokyo designed by famous architects.
The most visually interesting element is the almond-shaped "G Block" Glass Hall Building, which from the inside looks like an x-ray of a whale because of the ribbed steel beams supporting the 60-meter high roof structure. The lobby interiors are elegantly veneered with natural woods for a bright look. Walk along the length of the lobby floor and stare up at the details surrounding you.
Tokyo International Forum
Tokyo, Japan 100-0005
+81(0)3 5211 9000
Attraction | "Ginza"
It is amusing to wander through the great food emporiums at the major department stores, like Matsuya, Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, Wako. You can browse through the wide variety of products on sale, and perhaps sample a few delicacies. If you want to do a bit of adventurous noshing, walk through any of these food halls to try some snacks or perhaps a sip of tea or beer.
The distinctive cylindrical San-ai Dream Center building, which stands at a busy intersection in Ginza, is one of the first generation of exciting and different modern buildings from the 1960's to make an architectural impact on Tokyo.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 28, 2002
Ginza Shopping District
Tokyo, Japan 104-0061
+82 (0)3 3201 3331
Attraction | "Contemporary Japanese architecture in Tokyo"
San-ai Dream Center (1963)
This colorful cylinder by Nikken Sekkei anchors a prominent intersection in Ginza. The building is almost like a giant billboard, with glass windows, neon, and signage.
National Yoyogi Sports Center/2-1-1 Jinnan/Shibuya-ku (1964)
The great Japanese architect Kenzo Tange designed these famous sports complexes for the 1964 Summer Olympics. They are considered to be sports "temples", as the ferro-concrete structures have a modern swoop to them derived from classical temple buildings. The larger of the two gymnasia buildings can hold up to 15,000 spectators for swimming and diving events. The smaller of the two holds 4000 for basketball games.
Nakagin Capsule Tower Building (1972)
This legendary "Metabolist" concrete tower designed by Kisho Kurokawa jumps out of the gray urban landscape and really emphasizes how precious the square footage is in central Tokyo. Each of the 140 apartments in this high-rise is a prefabricated rectangular unit (3.6 meters long and 2.4 meters wide) with a basic set of amenities, including one round exterior window that looks like the door of a washing machine. The modular square pods are attached to a pair of service cores. At the street level there is a prototype of an apartment, and you can peek in to see how tight a fit this must be to live in.
Contemporary Japanese Architecture
Attraction | "Very Contemporary Japanese architecture in Tokyo"
Asahi Super Dry Hall (Phillippe Starck, 1989)
This slick project by Starck is topped by a bizarre element balanced on its roof. What is it? Is it a carrot? Sperm? Turd? Whatever it is, the wavy horizontal blotch is made even more obvious (ominous?) by celebratory lighting at nighttime along the Sumida River. Once you draw closer to this beer hall (if you dare), the entrance has the appearance of a nightclub or disco, with dark glass, opaque stairs, and more celebratory lighting. This building is sure to draw a reaction from you.
La Collezione (Tadao Ando, 1989)
Ando makes his mark on Tokyo with this building, which houses a boutique store. The building has straight and curved concrete walls that are characteristic of Ando's design style.
Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium (Fumihiko Maki, 1990)
Maki's Gymnasium rates very favorably with the National Yoyogi Sports Center designed by Kenzo Tange a generation earlier. The complex's low and sleek silhouette is reminiscent of a hard-shelled insect or some sort of ancient Japanese armor.
Edo-Tokyo Museum (Kiyonori Kikutake, 1992)
This squat-looking museum complex looms broodingly in a northeastern section of Tokyo. The monochromatic exterior blends in with the gray and rainy November sky, but the lipstick red escalator tube welcomes visitors into the belly of the beast.
Uwa Tower (Bank)
This simple tower in Tokyo has exterior zigzag bracing, giving it some stylistic and structural punch.
Notable architects like Norman Foster, Mario Botta, Aldo Rossi, and Peter Eisenman all are represented by projects in Tokyo.