Tokyo things to do: Hidden highlights most visitors miss

You can see most of Tokyo from the rooftop of Ginza Six. You can stare out over the skyscrapers, peer into the alleyways that separate them, look down at the main streets. You can see the angles and the curves of the surrounding buildings, the steel-and-glass trunks that make up this urban jungle. And you can see from up here that Tokyo is … ugly. It's uninspiring, at best. It's just big.

"The beauty of Tokyo is in the details," says David Lovejoy, an American expat and my guide for today, as he too stares into the morass. "From up here it looks ugly, but at ground level, the details are all taken care of. Even the manhole covers in Tokyo are beautiful."

He's right, of course. If ever there was a metaphor for the Japanese character, for the way of life and the way of thinking here, it's Tokyo. This city is all about thoughtful use of space, about quiet beauty, about joy in the details. You can see that joy in so many facets of Japanese life: in art and design, in the exquisiteness of a few lines and characters; in homes, in the thoughtful placement of just a few objects; and most importantly in Tokyo itself, in an impossibly huge city that nurtures beauty in the details.

Everything that's great about this megalopolis is tiny. It's often hidden to the untrained eye, an eye that would wash over it without seeking the minutiae. There is, however, beauty here if you look further: in small urban gardens, islands of peace in the mire; in picture-perfect shopfronts selling artisanal crafts; in restaurants behind shuttered windows; in bars behind closed doors, where life plays out in intimate spaces.

To skim the surface of Tokyo is easy. You can do it on your own. However, you'll miss the vastness that lurks below.

Today's journey with David to the rooftop of Ginza Six, an upmarket department store in central Tokyo, is more to prove a point than to take in any sights. Tokyo – big Tokyo, easy Tokyo – is not pretty. But the details are stunning.

Cut to a small street a few blocks away, where the glass and steel of modern-day Ginza is replaced by the bricks and mortar of old-school Japan. This is the Okuno Building, built in the 1930s as an apartment block for the rich, these days a crumbling wreck that you'd walk past a million times and take no notice, or in fact step faster on the off-chance it collapses on you.

But then you'd miss the details. You'd miss all the tiny rooms in this old block that have been converted into art galleries, that are now exhibition spaces for up-and-coming artists. You'd miss walking through bare concrete hallways, stepping up old, worn stairs, and then wandering into these little wonderlands, each room commandeered by an artist with a wildly different oeuvre.

And that's what David and I do. Soon though, it's time to move on, with big dreams of little Tokyo. We ride the "Sakura tram", a streetcar that's a throwback to when Tokyo transport looked very different from the spider-web subway system that now ferries millions of people a day. We alight in Sugamo and explore Rikugien Gardens, beautifully landscaped some 300 years ago, its contours and features meant to recreate scenes from famous Japanese poems. It's hidden, of course, from the outside world by a large wall. You step inside and modern Tokyo just ceases to exist, replaced by grass and water and trees.

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And then David and I part ways, and I have another guide, Mark Rawlins, an English expat who specialises in a different side of tiny Tokyo. Beauty, in Mark's Tokyo, is in small slices of modernity, in the quirks and passions that lurk beneath Tokyo residents' buttoned-up facades.

We're in Ikebukuro, a suburb on the edge of Tokyo's "green line", the railway loop that encircles most of what tourists know of the Japanese capital.

We start off in a tiny shop down a quiet alley, a place called Super Potato. Like the Okuno Building, Super Potato is a throwback to another era, though it's a much more modern one. Fans of retro gaming: this is nirvana. Super Potato is packed – literally packed, you couldn't fit another cartridge in here – with retro gaming systems, with Super Nintendo consoles and Power Gloves, with Sega Mega Drives and Atari 2600s. You can pick up an original copy of The Legend of Zelda. You can play a few games of Super Mario Bros.

But again, we have to move on, Mark leading the way through labyrinthine backstreets, sharing tales of one small life in a big city, as an expat in Tokyo. It's funny, he says, listening to people talk about him on the train. It's frustrating, he laughs, when people approach him and call him "Jason". "There's an American guy on TV here," he explains, "a comedian called Jason. Everyone thinks I look like him. But I really don't."

We stop for karaage – fried chicken – at a hole-in-the-wall shop called Tenka Torimasu. It's insanely good. And of course, you'd walk past here a million times and not give it a go. It's hidden in plain sight. We delve deeper into the dark side of Ikebukuro, stopping at a "standing bar", a casual drinking den with no niceties like seats. This one, Kojima, is run by a smiling old Filipina woman who slings beers and cracks jokes in English.

Later, we head to a "live house", a tiny music venue in the basement of an apartment block in Higashi Koenji, a suburb in Tokyo's west. It's called 20000V, but there's no sign, not even any music you can hear from the street. You'd always miss it.

And then we wind up in Nakano, another lively, locals-only neighbourhood west of Shinjuku, doing a crawl of the standing bars, chatting to a guy who claims to be a famous comedian – "Yeah," Mark says, "I've never heard of him" – before we move on again, drinking, eating, chatting, at these little joints you'd never even know existed.

One of the bartenders smiles at Mark and yells: "Why, Japanese people? Why?!"

Mark rolls his eyes. "That's that guy Jason's catchphrase. They always say it to me here."

I get Mark to google the comedian, to show me what he looks like. Short hair, square glasses, neat and tidy looking. I smile. "You know, he does actually look a lot like you …"

This night, of course, warps and bends the way so many nights in Tokyo do, taking on a life of its own with the people you meet and the paths they take you. And there are so many paths, so many choose-your-own-adventure moments in a city like Tokyo. Another tiny bar. Another hidden restaurant. Outside it's bustling, heaving, intimidating. But there's beauty in the details.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

www.gotokyo.org 

traveller.com.au/tokyo

FLY

ANA flies daily from Sydney to Tokyo Haneda. See ana.co.jp, or call 1800 081 765.

STAY

The Keio Plaza Shinjuku has beautiful rooms in the perfect location, walking distance to Shinjuku train station and other attractions. See www.keioplaza.com 

TOUR

Inside Japan offers "Insider Experiences" with David, Mark and a whole host of other local experts, each tour focusing on a specific personal passion or interest, and revealing the side of Tokyo that only a resident would know. See www.insidejapantours.com for more.

Ben Groundwater was a guest of the Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Inside Japan

FIVE BIG TOKYO ATTRACTIONS YOU CAN'T MISS

The easy-to-find sites that prove bigger is sometimes better

TOKYO SKYTREE

It's hard to miss Tokyo's tallest building – which is also the tallest structure in Japan. The Skytree tower rises 634 metres above the city, and on a clear day commands views all the way to Mount Fuji. tokyo-skytree.jp/en

GODZILLA

Probably Japan's most famous fictional character (pipping Pikachu, Astro Boy and Hello Kitty), the fearsome visage of Godzilla towers over the suburb of Shinjuku, and even breathes fire every hour on the hour. jnto.org.au

IMPERIAL PALACE

There are precious few buildings of historical significance in Tokyo, but this is one of them: the Imperial Palace, a complex surrounded by 17th-century parks, and still the home of Japan's Imperial family. jnto.org.au

SENSO-JI

This is Tokyo's best-known and most popular temple, first built in 645 AD, and these days surrounded by traditional shops selling all sorts of handmade goods and touristy trinkets. People flock to Asakusa just to see this. jnto.org.au

TOKYO DISNEY

The Japanese iteration of the Happiest Place on Earth is hugely popular and hard to miss, given its sheer size and worldwide fame. Make time for Space Mountain, and the chance to have the It's a Small World song stuck in your head for days. tokyodisneyresort.jp

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