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No.169 (8/13/10)

Tokyo Training

By Jamie Pitts
Guest Writer

The sheer size and frenzied pace of Tokyo can intimidate the first-time visitor. Much of the city is a jungle of concrete and wires, with a mass of neon and blaring loudspeakers. At rush hour, crowds herd in packed trains and masses of humanity sweep through enormous and bewilderingly complex stations. Tokyo, being Japan’s capital is the countries largest city. The population of Greater Tokyo has an estimated 35 million people. This is the largest metropolitan area in the world in terms of population, greatly exceeding the population of the entire continent of Australia (which is estimated at approximately 26 million). Tokyo is cosmic: it's best thought of not as a single city, but a constellation of cities that have grown together. Tokyo's districts vary wildly by character, from the electronic blare of Akihabara to the Imperial gardens and shrines of Chiyoda, from the hyper-intense cultural mecca of Shibuya to the temple markets of Asakusa. Navigating such a place can be tough, however with the right attitude and a pocket full of change, a day in Tokyo can be a train stop away from delight. And If you don't like what you see, hop on back on the train, head to the next station and you will find something entirely different...which is exactly what we did.

On our quest for an ipod touch we ventured to Akihabara. Ever since Sony and Nikon became synonymous with high-tech quality, Tokyo has been a favored place for buying electronics and cameras. Each area of the city has its traditional territory/stores, and Akihabara has the electronics (including a large number of duty-free shops specializing in export models). As we stepped off the train it was like being transported into the future. There are storefronts full of gadgets, phones, computers, cameras, video games and toys as far as the eye can see. It is complete sensory overload- the lights, the advertisements blaring from shop speakers, the fascinating techno-gizmos that surround you, the arcades teaming with Japanese youth and the Don Quijote discount chain store where you can purchase your very own adult sized costume-themed onesie in options such as Batman, Gizmo, Pokemon and The Cheshire Cat. It's a must have for the young at heart.

Because it neighbors Akihabara, Chiyoda was our next stop. Located in the heart of central Tokyo, Chiyoda is where the Imperial Palace and Imperial Gardens are located. Here you can also find Hibiya Park, a serine and skillfully landscaped oasis to relax and enjoy a scenic stroll. The National Diet Building, which is where sessions of the House of Representatives and The House of Councilors take place, is located here. The building’s hybrid architecture of European and East Asian design draws in many tourists, photographers and students. Here we also found the Yasukuni Shrine, which was built to honor the soldiers and others who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan. Chiyoda is a beautiful and pristine area abounding with political buildings and memorial shrines; it's like the Washington D.C. of Tokyo, one visit and you'll feel as though you’ve seen some history and its making.

Shibuya, Tokyo From peaceful to plentiful our next stop was Shibuya. Shibuya Station is one of Tokyo's busiest railway stations, with 2.4 million passengers passing through per day. Stepping out of the station at Shibuya I had the strange sense that I’d been there before, it embodies everything we Westerns think Tokyo is and/or should be. Speaking of familiarity, anyone who has seen Lost In Translation will recognize the skyscraping neon buildings that line the crowded streets covered in preoccupied pedestrians. The infamous “crossing” (which is when the crosswalk turns green and an ocean of people flow out into the streets) can be nicely viewed from the second floor of Starbucks. Inside there are comfy seats and floor to ceiling windows that allow you to ingest more than just good coffee. Shibuya is also known as being a hot spot for nightlife. Bars, clubs and love hotels are abundant is this area. In fact, Love Hotel Hill is located in Shibuya and has a high concentration of love hotels that offer couples a private room for a 2-3 hour "rest" for around 5,000 yen.

Asakusa, Tokyo I wasn't tired, and after the scrambled crossing craziness we were in the market for some old charm so we headed to Asakusa. Asakusa is the home of the famous Asakusa Shrine, also known as Sanja-sama ("Shrine of the Three Gods"), and is one of the most famous Shinto shrines in Tokyo, as well as the Sens?-ji, Tokyo’s most ancient Buddhist temple. When you arrive in Asakusa and walk through the Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate) you get a sense of preserved atmosphere, one of old Tokyo (which might be why Asakusa is Tokyo's oldest geisha district and still has 45 actively working geisha). Because of its bright location, downtown feel, and relaxed character (by Tokyo standards), Asakusa is a very nice place to be. You can easily explore on foot or opt for a ride in a rickshaw, but don’t miss the Nakamise shopping street that covers over 250 meters from Kaminarimon to the main grounds of Sensoji Temple. It's teeming with more than 50 shops, all which offer local specialties and the standard array of souvenirs. Sumida River A five-minute walk from the market is the Sumida River, so after a day spent on trains we decided to hop on board a river cruise and take in some sights by sea. Definitely worth it! As a first time Tokyo traveler I survived with minimal injury (perhaps just to my wallet, those train tickets do add up fast). I'd recommend not getting too hung up on checking all the tourist sights off your list. Keep the basics in mind and just roam like a gnome from there. For most visitors, myself included, the biggest part of the Tokyo experience is just wandering around and relishing in the vibe, exploring shops selling bizarre and beautiful things, having dinner at restaurants where you can't identify anything on the menu (or on your plate), and stumbling upon an oasis of calm in the tranquil grounds of a neighborhood Shinto shrine. No training required.

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