I have never been to Asia. In fact, I’ve never been further east than Budapest. However, after a lifetime of thinly spread exposure from afar, mainly through media and cuisine, this part of the world remains at the top of my destination list. To visit some place very different from all that I know, to maybe even be a little uncomfortable, is a feeling I chase after. When the time comes to make the journey, and I hope it will be soon, Tokyo is the first place you’ll find me. Here is my perfect day.
Taking part in the Shibuya Scramble is more than simply crossing the street. This maze of crosswalks in the heart of the Shibuya district is known for being the busiest intersection in Japan, if not the world. Traffic can peak at 3,000 people, mostly thanks to the intersection’s proximity to Shibuya Station. The chaotic scene’s been an iconic backdrop in a number of films, such as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. After witnessing the scramble up close, I’ll enjoy the view from the Starbucks in the TSUTAYA shopping center, just like the characters in Makoto Shinkai’s film Your Name.
Taking the Fukutoshin Line two stops from Shibuya Station lands you a quick stroll from the iconic Meiji Shrine in the heart of the district’s Yoyogi Park. Originally built in 1920 to honor Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) and his consort, Empress Shoken, the current structure dates from 1958. The traditional construction serves as a stark contrast to the modern city that surrounds it, and is a popular stop for tourists and locals alike. Traffic increases dramatically around New Years and in June when the iris fields in the adjacent garden, Meiji Jingu Gyoen, are in bloom. Personally, it looks like the perfect place for a morning photo shoot. For lunch, however, I’ll be leaving Shibuya behind.
After seeing this ramen shop featured in the first episode of Netflix’s Mind of a Chef, I was convinced that a trip to Tokyo would be incomplete without a visit. The phrase “train station food” might strike fear into the hearts of many travelers. However, this noodle house, located in the belly of Tokyo Station, is of legendary reputation. A line regularly snakes through the door, and down the corridor outside the restaurant. The speciality here is a style of ramen known as tsukamen, where noodles are served separately from the heavily concentrated broth. The best advice I’ve seen: get there early, be hungry, and don’t be afraid to slurp!
From Rokurinsha, the next stop on my list is the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda, about a 20 minute walk away. Built on the former site of Edo Castle, the residence of the Imperial Family is surrounded by a massive park, complete with towering stone walls and moats. Although the inner grounds are usually off-limits to the public, visitors can take guided tours between 10am and 1pm, Tuesday through Saturday by reservation. The palace’s main plaza, Kokyo Gaien, and the Imperial Palace East Gardens are open to the public to explore, excluding Mondays and Fridays. Remains of the original Edo grounds also include entrance gates, guardhouses, and the foundation of the former castle’s tower.
While strolling through malls isn’t usually at the top of my vacation to-do list, Tokyo’s Ginza district, located a few kilometers from the Imperial Palace, had enough variety to intrigue even the most reluctant shopper. While principally known for its offerings of luxury brands and a 12-story UNIQLO (!), the area equally caters to buyers with a range of interests and budgets. Greatly anticipated is Ginza Six, the area’s largest and newest department store, which offers visitors over 240 retailers to choose from. To satisfy my inner child is Hakuhinkan, one of the city’s most well-known toy stores. However, at the very top of my list is Ginza Itoya, a century-old stationery shop with a staggering 18 floors.
As a native Minnesotan, I have an innate appreciation for any food that comes on a stick. That said, there’s no better way to refuel after a long day of exploring Tokyo than with a dinner of Japanese-style skewers at Yakitori Ton Ton. Located under the tracks of the Tokaido Shinkansen line, this hole-in-the-wall eatery is still largely frequented by locals, but word is slowly getting out. Recommended by several visitors are the green pepper or chicken skewers, especially for beginners. With a couple of beers, it’s a reasonably priced dinner with a plethora of variety. Thankfully, the restaurant does have an English menu.
I can’t think of a better way to end a day in Tokyo than on the observation decks of the Tokyo Tower, gazing over the lit-up skyline. Until 2012, the 333 meter high Eiffel Tower-inspired structure was the tallest building in the country. Despite the moderate height of the main deck (150m), the tower’s central location offers incredible views of the city skyline in all directions for JP¥900 (around $8). For a higher price tag of JP¥2800 (around $25), visitors can access the top deck, which stands at 250 meters above the city. On clear days, it’s possible to see the Tokyo Skytree, the city’s tallest building, and even Mount Fuji during daylight hours.