Pulsing with color, Tokyo’s innumerable neon signs, rivers of people and ever-punctual trains create a glamorous whirl of motion and lights. Yet in-between the blur, you’ll find moments of blissful calm in its many gardens and centuries-old temples. There’s always room for wonder in this city of 13 million people, for Tokyo constantly reinvents itself in what seems like a never-ending quest to discover everything that’s new.
In a city as vertical as Tokyo, try beginning your exploration well above street level at one of the many observation decks, such as the 1,500-foot Tokyo Skytree or the twin 660-foot observatories in the impressive Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. From these vantage points, the city stretches clear to the horizon — a fascinating landscape of concrete, metal and glass, with Mount Fuji looming large in the distance.
Back on the ground, Tokyo’s bustling streets offer endless options. Tokyo is really a collection of distinctive neighborhoods linked by its amazingly extensive and efficient public transportation system. In these neighborhoods, you will find the city’s heart and soul. You’ll also find an astounding amount of excellent cuisine: Michelin has awarded over 200 restaurants one or more stars within Tokyo, more than twice that of Paris. Many of the best are found in the buzzing upscale districts of Nihonbashi and Ginza. Make time too to stop in at one of Tokyo’s many ramen shops or atmospheric izakaya pubs for traditional tastes.
For those who don’t mind crowds, join the organized chaos of pedestrians at Shibuya Crossing, possibly the busiest intersection in the world, with up to 1,000 people filling the well-tread crosswalks between lights. Or, unwind with a tranquil stroll through the wooded grounds of nearby Meiji Shrine, where the enormous torii gates that guard the entrance provide a pure example of Shinto architecture.
Just east of the shrine in the Harajuku district, head to the shops lining Takeshita Street to feast your eyes on the latest fashion trends, both in the boutique shops and on the people walking next to you. Once a small stop on the famous Kamakura Highway, Harajuku transformed into a popular gathering place after it became a pedestrians-only zone on certain days in the late 1970s. The area is now considered one of the world’s most active hotbeds for avant-garde clothing styles, and it’s worth a few hours of any traveler’s time to observe the spectacle of thousands of hip, fashionable Japanese youths congregating on the streets to see and be seen.
Once you’ve had your fill, more traditional works of art are found in the nearby Nezu Museum, with its renowned collection of Japanese and Chinese antiquities, as well as at the small but impressive Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, where you must first change into slippers to peruse its exquisite collection of woodblock prints.
The 280 miles from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan’s ancient imperial capital, will go by in a blur — literally — as you race up to 200 mph on the Shinkansen bullet train. During the 2 1⁄2-hour journey, enjoy charming views of rolling rice fields, thatch-roofed farmhouses and, if the clouds allow, Mount Fuji’s snow-tipped caldera.
Gazing at that sacred mountain creates the impression of a centuries-old painting come to life, as does modern Kyoto. More than 2,000 temples and shrines can be found within its borders, along with transcendent gardens and ancient districts where geishas still walk on thick wooden sandals, their faces masked in ethereal pale white makeup. But the city is not completely grounded in the past — it’s also a vibrant university city teeming with youthful energy.
Nearly every moment spent in Kyoto is a moment that you can fill with wonder. Take the “Philosopher’s Walk” around the eastern foothills to Ginkaku-ji, the luminous Temple of the Silver Pavilion, originally a villa built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482. Next head north to popular Kinkaku-ji, the gold-leaf covered Golden Pavilion set within a magnificent classical Japanese garden, before walking to the famed Zen rock garden of Ryon-ji. To the west, the Arashiyama mountains provide the opportunity to mingle with free-roaming monkeys and wander through a towering bamboo grove.
To immerse yourself further in Japanese culture, we suggest an overnight stay at a traditional ryokan. Often found near hot springs throughout the country, these charming inns can be viewed as time machines to a past age, in which you’ll walk barefoot across tatami (woven straw) mats, sleep on plush futon beds and feast in the privacy of your rooms on traditional kaiseki cuisine, a series of meticulously prepared small dishes served on local ceramics and lacquerware.
For a true ryokan moment you’ll never forget, take a long soak in a communal bath and experience “hadaka no tsukiai,” or “naked friendship” with those around you. The activity was traditionally intended to achieve a feeling of closeness between friends, where all of life’s pretenses (and one’s clothing) have been stripped away.
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