Tokyo is a city of historical contrast. The verdant forests of Yoyiogi surrounding the Meiji Shrine and the ruins of Edo Castle’s bold walls lay immortal beneath the skyscrapers and neon lights of an economic global heavyweight. And Tokyo is more than just a single city: it comprises numerous villages and towns, each with its distinct character. We were fortunate to have family—Lou’s cousin Lonny, his wonderful wife Hitomi, and (really the best word that describes her) spry mother-in-law Teba—host us. Not only did we tour today’s vast Tokyo, but the showed us glimpses of historic Edo stretching back some 400 years. We visited Tokyo on May 14-16 and May 19-20, 2010 (with the time in between spent in Kyoto).
We arrived late and headed straight out to dinner at Kurosawa in Roppongi Hills. Named after legendary Japanese film director/producer Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, RAN, etc) and run by the Kurosawa clan, the restaurant is built resembling an old Japanese residence. This was a perfect dinner for our first night in Tokyo (even for non-movie buffs). Fresh, delicately flavored dishes—Oboro tofu, homemade soba noodles, black boar, tempura shrimp with lotus, and, of course, sashimi—paired with a good selection of sake and plenty of iced Yebisu beer, and all in a restaurant created to evoke Kurosawa’s samurai movies.
Just down the hill from Roppongi lies the upmarket area of Azabu Juban. We were not at all hungry after Kurosawa, but that did not stop us from ducking into an underground Okinawan izakaya for some late night snacks and awamori. Awamori is an alcoholic beverage indigenous to and unique to Okinawa. It’s made from rice, but it differs from sake in that it is distilled, not brewed. It’s basically Okinawan firewater. The standout snack was the jimami tofu, made with peanuts.
Now, we’d been traveling at this point for more than two months, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. Hitomi, with all the grace and thoughtfulness one could imagine, started our visit off with a lovely breakfast−an assortment of freshly made eggs, breads and fruit (oh, those peaches) that made you doubt you were on island nation and not some tropical continent.
Following breakfast, Lonny took us on a tour of some of more historically significant and culturally relevant sites. First, we headed over to the Imperial Palace, also known as Edo Castle. Tokyo is an old city. It was founded by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 and first named Edo. Tokugawa was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which ruled from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ieyasu seized power in 1600, received appointment as shogun in 1603, abdicated from office in 1605, but remained in power until his death in 1616. Edo became Japan’s political center in 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu established his feudal government there. A few decades later, Edo had grown into one of the world’s most populous cities.
In 1868, when the Shogunate finally lost their power (with the Meiji Restoration), the emperor and capital were moved from Kyoto (then the formal capital) to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”). The castle became the offical abode of the new Emperor Meiji and the Imperial family.
The Imperial Palace has seen some pretty turbulent times as it remained the main bastion for all the Shoguns during the Tokugawa Period and later, during WWII, was largely devastated during the firebombing of Tokyo. It is characterized by the typical Japanese style stone walls that surround it and the moat that circles the main Palace.
From Edo Castle, we visited the Meiji Shrine. eiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu) is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. The shrine was completed and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken in 1920, eight years after the passing of the emperor and six years after the passing of the empress. The shrine was destroyed during the Second World War but was rebuilt shortly thereafter.
Shinto (“Way of the Gods”) places importance on nature, purity, and tranquility and has no central deity as found in most western religions. It venerates kami (“spirits”, “essences” or “deities”) that are associated with many understood formats: in some cases being human-like, in others being animistic, and others being associated with more abstract “natural” forces in the world (mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks). Kami and people are not separate; they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity. Consistent with this philosophy, Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The approximately 100,000 trees that make up Meiji Jingu’s forest were planted during the shrine’s construction and were donated from regions across the entire country. The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths that are great for a relaxing stroll.
At the middle of the forest, Meiji Jingu’s buildings also have an air of tranquility distinct from the surrounding city. Visitors to the shrine can take part in typical Shinto activities, such as making offerings at the main hall, buying charms and amulets or writing out one’s wish on an ema.
When you visit a shinto shrine, the first thing to do is to rinse your hands and mouth with water from a temuzu basin or purification fountain, located out front. Clean water is believed to remove impurity. This ritual is a simplified version of full body bathing.
From Meiji Jingu, we strolled through some more urban parts of Tokyo, including Omote-sando—a major up market shopping avenue—and Harajuko— a sorta Hello Kittyland district where the kids chill out, showing off a strange mixture of fashionable hip-hop, punk-pop and cos-play (i.e. costume dress in fictional characters).
We spent the next few days in Kyoto and arrived back in Tokyo on the evening of May 18. We headed over to one of Lonny’s favorites conveyor-belt sushi joints, where we engaged in a sushi tray skyscrapers competition.
The next morning, May 19, we woke early and headed over to Tsukiji Fish Market. Tsukiji Market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Licensed wholesale dealers (approximately 900 of them) operate small stalls overflowing with fish as fresh as can be. So incredible is this place—to the eyes, ears and (especially) mouth—that we have dedicated a separate post to it.
With our bellies satisfied, we wealked a bit around the Ginza and then took a nap (Tsukiji is an early morning outting: it’s finished by 8:00 am). After our nap, we grabbed an unadon lunch at a restaurant chain Laura had enjoyed years earlier on a visit with her parents. An Unadon is a popular donburi (rice bowl) dish made with unagi kabayaki, grilled eel coated with a sweet sauce.
Our bellies happy, we headed over to Asakusa. Asakusa is the center of Tokyo’s shitamachi, (“low city”), one of Tokyo’s few districts, which have preserved a certain atmosphere of the old Tokyo. Asakusa’s main attraction is Sensoji, a very popular Buddhist temple, built in the 7th century. The temple is approached via the Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs for centuries. In addition to visiting Sensoji, we also stolled around the Asakusajinja shrine.
While in Asakusa, we walked down Kappabashi street. Kappabashi-dori, also known just as Kappabashi or Kitchen Town, is a street in Tokyo between Ueno and Asakusa which is almost entirely populated with shops supplying the restaurant trade. These shops sell everything from mass-produced crockery, restaurant furniture, ovens and decorations, through to esoteric items such as the plastic display food (sampuru) found outside Japanese restaurants. Pretty neat, if you’re into the culinary arts. Finally, we strolled though Shibuya, one of the fashion centers of Japan, particularly for young people, and a major nightlife area.
That evening we hung out in Shinjuku. Shinjuku is Tokyo’s skyscraper district. It also is home to Kabukicho, Japan’s largest and wildest red light district. We started off at a sake bar and from there hopped into a few izakayas, including Yumeya Gura.
Finally, we had an artful sukiyaki dinner at Niimura restaurant.
The next morning, the last morning of our Asia trip and just before flying back to the U.S., we made a last run to Tsukiji Market for a sashimi breakfast and some snacks for the plane.
Below is a gallery of our visit to Tokyo. Click on any thumbnail to expand the picture (and open the caption) and cycle through the gallery.