The Lights and Sights of Tokyo
It wasn’t difficult to appreciate how big Tokyo was. With each day’s explorations involving a multitude of train connections as I skipped around the city, there was no denying the scale of the place. But a lot of my movements had occurred under ground in the vast network of Tokyo’s metro system, so I was looking forward to getting a bit of a raised perspective of this immense metropolis. There are plenty of observation decks to choose from, and I decided to make the Tokyo Skytree my priority. Not only was it a distinctive building in itself, but its location meant it was well placed for an impressive vista.
There was a haze in the sky evident as I reached the upper observation deck at 445m (1460ft), but it was still possible to see for miles. When I visited in October 2019 there was a temporary display about space travel and astronauts. It was a slightly random theme, and was heavily dotted with Snoopy & Friends characters but it was actually interesting and it filled the gaps where there wasn’t a viewpoint. But it was, at the end of the day, the view that made it worthwhile, and in every direction, Tokyo life played out below me. A mishmash of skyscrapers and lower buildings interplayed with each other, and on close inspection some historic building or shrine could be seen dotted amongst the more modern developments. Snaking through this urban landscape was the large sinuous Sumida and Arakawa rivers. The observation deck also snaked round and up as well to a final height of 451.2m (1480ft), the highest publicly accessible point in the tower.
I took my time at the upper observation deck before going down to the lower observation deck at 350m (1148ft). Following brunch in the cafe, the viewing areas in this lower observation zone spanned 3 different floors and were a bit more broken up. The difference in height from the upper observation deck gave a slightly different perspective of the city, and more detail was obvious such as the random giant golden bean that was nestled among some skyscrapers. There was also a glass floor here, as is often found in observation decks like these around the world, offering a vertigo-inducing view of the street below if you are afraid of heights, or a chance to scare other people by jumping up and down on the glass in front of others. I spent about 2hrs up the tower making it worth the entrance fee for me.
After the obligatory visit to the gift shop on the way down, I decided to take a wander around the neighbourhood. The Skytree is next to a canal so I followed this watercourse for some way to get a different perspective of the tower itself as well as to nosy around the nearby area. At a total height of 634m (2080ft), it was difficult to get a photograph that fitted the full scale of the tower in, but that didn’t stop me trying. After a while it was time to get moving and head on to the next part of the city to discover: Ueno Park.
As often happened in the underground rabbit warren of Tokyo’s metro system, it was a bit confusing which station exit I wanted to get where I was aiming to be. Sometimes it could be blatantly clear, and other times it was a complete guess and trial and error. Ueno park is a huge greenspace within the city containing a few museums, a zoo, shrines and a large pond. As always it was blisteringly hot to walk around it, but the park was very busy with locals and tourists alike. At the southern end there were multiple sculptures, and a couple of water features next to which a band was playing. I watched them briefly before making my way deeper into the park, following the side road past museums, eventually finding myself at a giant blue whale sculpture outside of the National Museum of Nature & Science. Beyond here was the impressive looking Tokyo National Museum at the top end of the park. Despite the respite from the heat that these museums would offer, I had neither the time nor the interest to go into any of them. Instead I was much more interested in the large market that was taking place in fountain square. Row upon row of wares ranging from teapots and cups to chopsticks and fabrics filled the square and it was really popular. I would have loved to have bought all sorts of pottery from there but in the end I settled for a few sets of chopsticks that I have made good use of since.
About halfway back through the park, on the far side from the road I’d cut up through, was a shrine and pagoda. Although I was keen to absorb Japanese culture during my stay, I feel that I missed out a lot on the significance of some of these places that I visited. I wasn’t always interested enough to read the signs, and sometimes the English signage could be somewhat lacking, so mostly I just admired the architecture or the gilding. Finally I happened upon a set of torii gates which led me down a pathway round the side of another shrine, and once across the road I was met by the large Shinobazu pond.
The Shinobazu pond was transected from the Shinobazuno pond by a series of bridges. The lower pond was a mass of floating water plants which hid the water below it. In what few gaps there were, large fish could be seen at the surface. As much as this pond felt like an oasis, it was completely surrounded by suburbia, and skyscrapers filled the circumference, the sounds of the city ever present. Once at the southern end of the pond, the plants offered a natural frame to the view of the Shinobazu no Ike Bentendo shrine and the skyscrapers to the west. It was a beautiful juxtaposition between an urban landscape and nature.
I cut round the pond and followed the dissecting causeway that split the pond in two, past weeping willow trees and people on pedal boats, eventually finding myself at the shrine in the middle. There was some sort of service taking place that I couldn’t make sense of despite observing for a while, so eventually I left, continuing to head towards the northern end of the pond where there was a plethora of giant fish and red-eared sliders hanging out on the rocks. The Ueno zoo is situated here and as I looked back towards the centre of Tokyo I could see the very top of the Tokyo Skytree sticking up above the trees. Between the ponds and the main part of the park, Ueno park offered plenty of variety of things to pass the time, and I’ll definitely return here if I ever make it back to Tokyo.
But there was still so much ground to cover and so much sightseeing still to fit in. Although it was now well into the afternoon, I still had a few hours of daylight ahead of me. My next stop was within walking distance, and already at the northern end of the pond it was just a 15 minute walk to reach the Nezu shrine. Initially walking through a typical city landscape, nearer the shrine down back streets there were a few traditional buildings present. After a short while I found myself at a giant torii gate marking the entrance of the shrine grounds. Following the long entrance path, there were a variety of buildings at the end and a plethora of torri gates lining the various pathways around the property. A couple of women in traditional kimonos were doing a photoshoot, but otherwise it was a very quiet place with hardly anyone there. There was a large koi-filled pond and the main shrine building itself had some gorgeous gilding on the roof.
I was both knackered and hungry by the time I reached Rikugien gardens an hour before it closed. Not only did the garden have an unexpected entry fee but it was also fully walled and gated, meaning it closed ahead of sunset which caught me off guard. I had grabbed some snacks at a nearby convenience store and found myself a spot to have a picnic overlooking the central pond. This was such a peaceful place with gorgeous shrubbery and a cute little boat in the middle of the pond, and was one of my favourite gardens to visit in the city. I felt rushed though, having to work my way round it all before it closed for the night, and sadly by the time I reached the final garden on my list of places to visit, it was already closed.
The Koishikawa Korakuen gardens was in an interesting part of the city. Stepping out of the Korakuen station I was immediately met with the large structure of the Tokyo dome and intriguingly an inner-city rollercoaster. After discovering that the gardens was closed, I walked round its circumference and round the edge of the Tokyo Dome, the forecourt of which had a host of entertainment centres including the aforementioned rollercoaster, but also a giant swinging dragon boat ride. Dusk was pushing on as I continued to wander around listening to the screams and chatter of the people enjoying themselves.
Because Tokyo doesn’t sleep there was no rest for the wicked. Taking the train to Shinjuku, one of the most active parts of the city at night, I started my night time adventures at the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Governmental building. The view was of a mass of city lights spreading out in all directions. I bought myself some sake and takoyaki at the cafe and proceeded to get myself nicely merry on the strong liquor. Takoyaki are battered balls of octopus but the highlight of them is the fish flakes that are sprinkled on top and that appear to dance, the heat causing them to flutter on the plate. At 202m (662ft), this observation deck was far lower than the Tokyo Skytree and its location within a built up part of the city meant the view wasn’t quite so interesting, or at least at night time it wasn’t, so after walking round a couple of times, and despite it being over 12hrs since I’d left my hotel that morning, I was ready to experience the chaos of nighttime Shinjuku.
Japan is a barrage on the senses at the best of times, but especially at night, where lights and sounds bombard you from every direction. Shinjuku was chaotic and highly stimulatory but also very fun to walk around. The crowds here were crazy and I discovered a plethora of games halls which I loved, spending far too many Yen on arcade games, the likes of which I hadn’t played since I was growing up. The Japanese seemed obsessed with these arcade halls with large complexes of them on nearly every street corner in this hub in the city. I stumbled across the infamous Robot Restaurant (which has since closed down) and there were eateries and bars galore down every turn. Every surface of almost every building was covered in neon signs advertising things I couldn’t make head nor tails of, and eventually the constant stimulation added to my increasing tiredness. That didn’t stop me from getting an ice cream pancake but after sitting down to eat it I struggled to get back up again as my feet were in quite a bit of pain from walking all day. It was after 11pm when I returned to my hotel room, over 14hrs since I’d left that morning. My legs were throbbing and my feet swollen, but I’d had a thoroughly enjoyable day. It wasn’t hard to get to sleep which was just as well as I’d be doing it all over again the next morning.