Japan - View from Above
Travel to Tokyo's metropolitan skyline, Kyoto's shrines and temples, Fuji's iconic cliffs, and the elegant pagodas and toris of the Japanese countryside.
1. EAT STREET FOOD
From deep-fried delights to skewered chicken and seafood to all kinds of sweet treats, the street food scene in Tokyo is not to be missed. Start with takoyaki (octopus-filled dough-based balls), yakitori (skewered chicken bits) tamagoyaki (rolled omelette) and onigiri (rice balls), then move to the sweet stuff. Taiyaki are popular fish-shaped biscuits usually filled with custard or chocolate cream; matcha soft serve is the ice-cream flavour of the year (or quite possibly the decade); and in trendy Harajuku it's all about sweet crepes, filled to the brim with sugar-laden choices such as cream, ice-cream, fruit and jelly.
2. VISIT THE IMPERIAL PALACE
Surrounded by immaculately maintained parks and gardens, Tokyo's Imperial Palace occupies the site where the residential palace of the Tokugawa shoguns was located during the Edo Period. Although visitors are not able to access most parts of the complex (the emperor and his family reside in the palace), it's lovely to walk around the grounds. Free English-language guided tours are run by the Imperial Household Agency, with morning and afternoon sessions held most Tuesdays to Saturdays.
3. SHOP IN GINZA
Tokyo is teeming with shopping destinations and the trendy district of Ginza is one of the best. The main street is lined with upmarket shops, including many stocking luxury international brands. There are also a number of shopping centres that house hundreds of Japanese boutiques and eateries.
4. STAY AT THE PENINSULA TOKYO
Luxe it up with a stay at one of the city's swankiest hotels, located opposite the Imperial Palace and next to the buzzy precinct of Ginza. The huge rooms (the hotel has 314 guest rooms, including 47 suites) all come with floor-to-ceiling views of the city, the Imperial Palace gardens or Hibiya Park. Service from one the largest concierge teams in the city is impeccable; and there are plenty of inclusions that can be added to your stay – such as a la carte breakfasts in the elegant lobby and chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces. See tokyo.peninsula.com
5. EXPLORE TAKESHITA STREET
This is where Tokyo's cool kids hang out, so join the swarm and stroll down Harajuku's hippest street. There are loads of shops to check out, from one-off clothing boutiques to purveyors of trinkets and home goods. There are typically plenty of interestingly dressed teenagers milling around too, for a spot of people watching.
6. CHILL OUT WITH CUTE CRITTERS
It started with cat cafes in the early 2000s and from there the popularity of enjoying a snack in the company of cute animals has soared. There are pooch cafes and hedgehog cafes, rabbit cafes and bird cafes; in Tokyo, anything goes. If curling up next to a cute critter is something you want to do, do your research and visit a venue where animal welfare is prioritised.
7. PAY YOUR RESPECTS AT MEIJI SHRINE
Tokyo's most famous Shinto shrine is surrounded by acres of lush forested grounds, making for a lovely respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who in the 19th century opened Japan to the West. It consists of a number of shrine buildings, with the entry marked by a huge torri gate. Inside, guests can cleanse themselves at a water station and throw yen into an offering box for good fortune. See meijijingu.or.jp/english
8. WATCH ROCKABILLY DANCERS AT YOYOGI PARK
Most Sunday afternoons at the Harajuku entrance of Yoyogi Park it's all about 1950s rock'n'roll. Local greasers don their best rockabilly outfits, slick their hair back with Brylcreem, and dance to jukebox hits with crowds watching on. Women wearing 1950s poodle skirts often join the fun, making for one heck of a memorable (and unusual!) performance. Don't forget your camera.
9. SEE TOKYO FROM UP HIGH
Tokyo Skytee, Japan's tallest building, is the best place to soak up Tokyo's sprawling vistas. Four elevators, each one symbolic of a season, take visitors up to the 350-metre-high deck. From there, for an additional fee, another elevator whizzes guests up to 450 metres, where there's a transparent glass floor for the daring. At the base of the tower is a huge shopping centre with quirky-cool shops and plenty of eateries. One of the oddest shops is a plastic food shop (called Sample'n Cooking), where you can make your own plastic food. See tokyo-skytree.jp/en
10. CROSS THE SHIBUYA CROSSING
Rumoured to be the world's busiest intersection, this massive crossing is as hectic as they come. When the lights flash green, hundreds of people walk left, right and centre, on a mission to get to one of the many other sides. There are plenty of tourists around at any given time of the day, running in and out to get that perfect snapshot. After dark, the crossing looks even more spectacular, thanks to flashing billboards and neon lights.
11. STROLL THROUGH YANAKA
Home to small art galleries and concept stores, industrial-style cafes and shops selling local handmade goods, Yanaka is a beautiful district that's reminiscent of Tokyo's bygone days. Yanaka Ginza is a charming old-fashioned street for a spot of shopping, snacking and watching local people go about their day. There are also plenty of temples and shrines scattered around – and not a tour bus to be seen … yet.
12. PLAY AT TOKYO DISNEY RESORT
Tokyo Disney Resort (which incorporates Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea) was the first Disney theme park to be built outside the US. This year marks the park's 35th birthday and there are plenty of celebrations, including new attractions and special shows added. See tokyodisneyresort.jp
13. ATTEND A SUMOTOURNAMENT
The best way to get a feel for Japan's official national sport is by attending a sumo tournament, or basho as it's known in Japan. In Tokyo, official tournaments go for 15 days and are held in January, May and September. Pre-purchase tickets through an official vendor to ensure you get seats. Not in Tokyo when a tournament is on? InsideJapan Tours offer a sumo stable visit as part of their Northern Highlights Tour. Tour guests are able to watch wrestlers train, but must do so in total silence for 90 minutes. See sumo.or.jp/en and insidejapantours.com
14. EXPLORE TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
Alleged to be the biggest fish market in the world, Tsukiji Fish Market is best visited before the sun comes up. Open from 3.30am, one of the highlights is the live tuna auction held at 5am every morning (only a small number of visitors are allowed to attend and only on some days). Come to watch the auction, or just to peruse the markets. Be sure to arrive hungry as the sashimi is probably the freshest you'll ever eat. Towards the end of 2018 the market is moving to the Toyosu district, to make space for the construction of a major road that will connect Olympic venues for 2020. See tsukiji.or.jp/english
15. VISIT SENSO-JI TEMPLE
Founded in 645, Senso-ji Temple is Tokyo's oldest temple and one of the city's main attractions. Sightseers enter the temple grounds through the Kaminarimon gate, which means "thunder gate" and is one of the most photographed sights in the area. Although the main temple is the drawcard, there's plenty to see and do outside the temple. Visitors can take part in rituals including writing wishes on paper and tying them to a tree, lighting incense, and cleansing themselves at the dragon fountain.
16. ENJOY THE BUSTLE OF ASAKUSA
After visiting Senso-ji Temple, explore one of Tokyo's most vibrant neighbourhoods. Shop for typical souvenirs such as kimonos and chopsticks along Nakamise Dori, the shopping street between the Kaminarimon and Hozomon gates of the temple. When hunger calls, popular snacks to try include kaminari-okoshis (rice crisps that come in a wide variety of flavours) and ningyo-yaki (pancake dough dumplings filled with red bean paste). For a different view of the temple and Asakusa, head to the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center's observation deck on the top floor – entry is free.
17. RELAX AT AN ONSEN
Japan is a volcanically active country and home to thousands of onsens (public bathhouses that use water from natural hot springs) which are scattered around the country. There are plenty to be found in Tokyo, ranging from traditional public bathhouses to enormous complexes boasting a dizzying array of amenities. Oedo-Onsen Monogatari is a large Japanese-style onsen, with hot spring pools, saunas, dining options and accommodation. See daiba.ooedoonsen.jp/en
18. EAT MONJAYAKI
You've had plenty of sushi and ramen, soba and tempura, and now it's time to sit down and eat something a little bit different. Monjayaki is a pancake-style dish that's unique to Tokyo, with hundreds of restaurants that specialise in it located in the Tsukishima district. A flour-and-dashi and cabbage base is topped with a variety of ingredients (squid, shrimp and pork are popular choices), then mixed together on a hot plate, making for one delicious (but not overly attractive) concoction.
19. EXPLORE AKIHABARA
If you're into gadgets, Akihabara is the best place to shop. Not that long ago (before the internet became as everyday as coffee) this was where you came to get all your electronics. Nowadays, you'll find plenty of manga (Japanese-style comics), anime (Japanese-style animation) and gaming products, alongside the electronic stores. It's a lively and interesting suburb to meander around watching people get their geek on.
20. UNWIND IN A BACKSTREET IZAKAYA
Izakayas are casual eateries where drinks flow freely and there are plenty of delicious dishes on offer. The best izakayas are often hidden away behind small doors in secret laneways, so head out on an izakaya night with an Inside Japan Tours guide who knows the inside story. See insidejapantours.com
Tatyana Leonov was a guest of the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau, The Peninsula Tokyo and InsideJapan Tours.