First time in Japan: old and new Tokyo

Traditions and history dive-ins are not really Tokyo things, and it is better known for the chaos of a huge city, neon lights, and crazy youth culture. Those seeking old characteristic Japanese architecture should set their way to ancient Kyoto or at least pay its little sister Kamakura a short visit from the capital.

Nevertheless, even though Tokyo does not have that many and that diverse temples as Kyoto does, you can still get in touch with its ancient culture right in the center of the city, just next to the most bizarre districts and entertainments Tokyo has to offer.

Today we will try to maximize the diversity of impressions that you can get in Tokyo in a single day. This program implies a lot of walking, but you can shorten some distances by taking subway.

Tokyo Skytree

The day starts with taking a lift up the new TV tower Tokyo Skytree, the second biggest construct in the world (after Burj Khalifa, of course). Tokyo is anything but shy of its main sights, and the Skytree jumps into your face the moment you exit the subway.

The two observation decks of this tower are at 350 and 450 meters high. Tickets are sold separately for either of them or combined. And while it felt suspicious to us that the upper platform was more than twice cheaper we still could not deny an opportunity to look down from 450 meters above the ground.

So, with the combined ticket you first make a stop on the lower platform from where the view on the city is already spectacular. It is so easy to just stay here forever, staring out of the window and eating ice cream from a kiosk right next to the best panorama view.

But the duty calls, and the second elevator is ready to take your to the upper floor. And… neither my eyes nor the camera were able to tell the difference between 350 and 450 =)

On the way back there is one more intermediate stop at 350, and this time you get an opportunity for a little glass floor thrill: while rationally you are able to understand it is all safe, the inner monkey still puts on the panic mode observing 350 meters of nothing below =)

Getting out of this building is not exactly trivial: the exit is not on the same level as entrance, and the pointers really try to put you back into subway. Don’t trust them, but try to make your way out on the street. On success, direct yourself west, to the Sumida river. Water, space and cherry trees to both sides of the river will be your little break from the city.

A small park on the opposite side is full of sakura, so treat yourself to a bonus view of the gigantic tower between the blossoming trees.

Asakusa – a glimpse of old Tokyo

From here it is mere minutes of walk to Asakusa district that revolves around its buddhist temple, one of the biggest in Tokyo. Are you close? Watch out for rickshaws on the streets – they are a sure hint that you are closing in.

The temple itself is not the most interesting one, but it is definitely very typical and leaves a great solid impression.

The temple square is filled with sticky incense smoke. Too bad the tourist crowd makes it impossible to meditate and detach.

Despite the quite moderate size of this temple, it even has its own multi-story pagoda:

This part I had to consult the Web about. Torii gates are a usual attribute of Shinto temples, but isn’t this one buddhist? Turns out buddhist and Shinto are not mutually exclusive, and many buddhist temples in Japan have one or even multiple small Shinto shrines.

After a short walk around the temple, it is time to slowly start moving towards the district exit.

The long street that leads to the temple has dozens of small stores and restaurants. By now it is probably lunch time, so grab your lunch at one of them and make sure to check out maneki-neko figurines and assorted local crafted goods..

Akihabara: …

I hear you wanted some strange? Be careful with such wishes because Tokyo delivers.

Going to Akihabara – the go-to district for all otaku – on the first day of the trip meant showering ourselves with an overdose of Japan. On its streets we were stared at by anime girls from huge billboards, our ears were exploding from J-pop, our eyes were blinded by colorful and chaotic ads for manga, anime, and electronics stores, while friendly girls in French maid costumes were begging us to follow them…

Ok. I can imagine what you just thought, but they were just advertising their maid cafes. In case you don’t know what a maid cafe is, just go there. You don’t even need to do any research in advance, but be mentally prepared for anything. I only have a few memories of that place – those that were not blocked by the consciousness’ protective mechanisms: pink everywhere, being called exclusively “Tanya princess”, and how I had to chant for my food while showing heart with my fingers. Kawaii!

There are dozens of such cafes in Akihabara – no wonder the girls have to advertise in the street. The one we visited is actually one of the most famous, called @Home. As far as I can tell, each of its seven floors is a perfect, by-the-book maid cafe. But the purity of impressions has to be paid for with time – so we waited on the stairs for 40 minutes.

One thing that puzzled me was the total absence of tourists in the audience (in fact, we were the only ones). All seats were occupied by locals which visit maid cafes in groups, couples and even on their own (including both male and female visitors). The cafe obviously targets regular clients – right at the entrance we received our brand new loyalty cards with cute animals drawn on them by a maid.

To conclude, I would say a maid cafe is a must while in Akihabara. I felt it was sort of a vaccine from any Japan weirdness: nothing can confuse you anymore after this. And on the other hand, it’s a sure and probably the simplest way to experience the bizarre culture of modern Tokyo.

Maid cafes are not the only themed places in Akihabara – just look around carefully. Gambling, video gaming and slot machines are also popular around here, just like in Shinjuku.

Ueno park

After the maid cafe you will probably need to reboot and think about what the hell has just happened. A good way to do it is to walk down a cherry blossom alley or a pond, which can be both done at Ueno park just a 20 minute walk away from Akihabara.

The park is one of the most popular (but not the most pleasant) places for hanami, or cherry blossom watching. The main alley of the park is lined with lush cherry trees. The impression is however slightly spoiled by trash containers and plastic nets and fences everywhere, but also by blue blankets that people use for sitting right on the concrete, under the tree branches.

The park is accessible around the clock, and on all evenings during the sakura season the trees are lit up with lanterns. You might want to wait till dark in the park and walk the same valley in the evening light – it’s so different you wouldn’t recognize it.

The park is not only interesting with sakura: a few small shrines, a National Museum, and a stunningly beautiful pond are among other attractions of Ueno park.

Finish the day off with a dinner in an izakaya or a sushi bar: walk around the pond, and you will find hundreds of diverse restaurants and cafes all around you.

Modifications

So, in just one day in Tokyo it is possible to view the city panorama from a huge tower, visit an ancient temple, experience crazy and strange otaku culture, and take a stroll in a beautiful cherry blossom park.

It’s so cool that all four sights are located so close to each other that it’s possible to visit all of them by only walking! Be prepared for a quite intensive day of walking, though there is also an option to lower the load and take subway from Asakusa to Akihabara (and maybe even from Akihabara to the park).

To visit all without rush, you might want to split this itinerary in two and do Skytree and Asakusa on one day, and Akihabara with the park on the other one. In that case the first evening will be completely free, and I can recommend booking a premium restaurant around Shibuya. When you are done with the temple, you should still have plenty of time to return to the hotel and change if needed.

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