lost in translation – 5 day tokyo city break
At first sight, Tokyo is an urban jungle, lit by neon light and inhabited by millions and millions of people who all want to fit into the same subway.
At second, third and fourth sight this concrete bee hive turns out to be a collection of towns, villages and (sub-)cultures. A wonderland you can easily get lost in.
Along the way you will at least be lost in translation once. But most of the time you will be lost in loosing yourself in a city of surprises, all to be unwrapped, admired and enjoyed.
Day 1: Architecture
Tokyo is the giant center of a 36 million metropolitan area. Make your way up to 1 of the observation decks on Tokyo’s skyscrapers or the Sky Tree and all you see is concrete that, when skies are clear, kisses Fujisan.
A good start for city gazing is Roppongi Hills. This is all the new Tokyo is about: a mix of concrete, water, nature, first class architecture and culture. It is also the start and finish of today’s 8,6 km contemporary architecture route with museums, temples, a church and an Eiffel Tower look-a-like.
At Roppongi Hills you find street art, small parks, the National Art Centre and the Mori Art Centre, offering art and 360 degrees views.
More city panoramas and, hopefully, Mount Fuji, you find at Tokyo Tower. This 55 years old copy of the Eiffel Tower offers great photo opportunities, both from its base as from 1 of the 2 decks at 155 and 250 meters.
After visiting Paris in Tokyo, you reach a different state of mind at the overwhelming Reiyuka Shakaden Temple. This starship like temple is both a haven for the Shakaden Buddhism branch as well as a 400-ton calamity water storage in case of earthquakes.
Descended once again from heaven your feet take you to another religion: fashion. You find Tokyo Midtown is both posh and relaxed, featuring all the luxury brands in the world as well as tons of culture. The Suntory Museum of Japanese Art, graphic Design Hub, Fuji Film Square and a masterpiece by star architect Tadao Ando: 21 21 Design Sight, which has its finger on the pulse of Japanese design.
After Ando’s creation, you can opt for a Lost in Translation like bar experience at the Ritz Carlton before heading for…another temple. The Baisoin Temple has a minimalist design, which is both functional and blends in with its surroundings. Still, the use of an ancient wooden gate and bamboo entree contrasting with slick glass, steel and concrete makes this temple very Japanese.
On we go. Again the goal is religious and hidden in the narrow alleys of Shibuya: the Harajuku Protestant Church, an example of organic architecture. Following natural curves and the scarce city sunlight, the church captured the hearts and minds of many architecture fans. Best is to check the opening and service hours.
When church is out, you can head back to Roppongi to choose from an abundance of haut cuisine small restaurants, dine with countless Gaijin in ‘Kill Bill’ Gonpachi, or (way better) bow your head and enter a tiny izakaya marked with a red lampoon.
Day 2: Fish and Sumo
It is 3 o’clock. In the morning. Your alarm goes nuts and so do you. But sometimes the good things in life don’t come easy.
Out we go, towards the most wonderful market you might ever see: the Tsukiji Fish Market, the beehive that takes care of Tokyo’s unstoppable demand for fish. Here you roam between small stalls where men cut up giants tunas with a whole lotta love. Here you need eyes in the back of your head. Cause at the Tsukiji Fish Market people are at work. And since you are a guest and every second counts in the book of fresh, you need to make sure you are not in the way of Japanese tradition.
Before you go check if the market is open for the public: www.shijou.metro.tokyo.jp/english/market/tsukiji.html.
The favorite treat for many visitors is the live tuna auction action. Sitting it on these is a matter of first-come, first-serve basis, and limited to 120 people, admitted in two shifts of 60. You can register starting at 4:30 a.m. at the fish information center inside the Kachidoki Gate off Harumi Street.
Once you have shot the most wonderful pictures it is to leave and eat. Because where there is fish, there is food. Around the Tsukiji Fish Market you’ll find dozens of small roadside fish stalls where you can start the day fresh in many (tasteful) ways.
Next on this day’s itinerary are a totally different species: Sumo…..
Spotting sumo stables in Ryogoku is pretty hard. With its alleys and side streets, it’s easy to loose direction. Picking up a ‘stablemap’ at a hotel or downloading it on your phone helps, as does some luck. Luck to catch the steaming gladiators taking a break out on the street in front of their stable and luck to see them nod at your humble question about sitting in on their training.
Once seated at the edge of the sand floor inside a nondescript building, you’ll be surprised by the speed and footwork of the sumo’s. These men take their training serious. They communicate without words. Practice their moves and bodies with deep concentration and fierceness. All for the ultimate goal: to win the Grand Sumo Tournament in the Kokugikan Sumo Hall around the corner.
To win a sumo game is to be one step closer to becoming Yokozuna, grand champion. To loose is taking a step backwards. This knowledge makes the earth tremble. It leaves you shaking when two enormous bodies collide in training, shocked with awe for these giants who guard a 2000 year old tradition.
Day 3: Get lost in translation and shop along the way
Today’s keywords: fashion, architecture, a walk in the park, seedy and Lost in Translation.
First we’re off to Tokyo’s luxury shopping block: Omotesando. In case you take the subway and you’re Dutch or have been to Amsterdam; Tokyo’s only ‘brown café’ – Van – is found opposite the station’s Police Box. Van is very Japanese but will remind you of Amsterdam.
After coffee or something stronger, be amazed by the architectural frenzy Cartier, Prada, Gucci and so on have been getting into in Omotesando. You’ll almost forget to enter the shops.
After the luxury and architecture it’s time for Tokyo’s most famous crosswalk. Right across the statue of Hachikō (check the emotional story on www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hachikō) you won’t have a problem seeing Tokyo as a giant ant colony hill every time the light turns green. From Shibuya Station you have a good few of this phenomenon. Shibuya itself offers a wide variety of very Japanese stores you can easily spend a day and lots of money in.
More Japanese customs and photo opportunities are found at Yoyogi Park, especially on Sundays. At Harajuku station you’ll bump into Japanese Elvisses dancing to old-fashioned Rock ‘n Roll. Gothics, Geishas and Lolita’s also take a walk in the park. Making photos is perfectly OK and includes good poses when you politely ask.
Besides Elvis and his colorful girlfriends, Yoyogi Park harbors the Meiji Shrine. This important Shrine is visited by countless Japanese, the bulk (1 million) of which comes on January 1st to pray for another year of good fortune. In case you’re around at the beginning of a New Year, make sure to visit the Shrine on 1/1 to experience a rare mix of spirituality, mass crowds and discipline.
Next it’s time to touch the sky and enjoy a 360 view of Tokyo at 202 meters high on top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. For free. The best moment is to arrive somewhere between an hour and 30 minutes before the sun disappears behind the concrete horizon after which you descent to earth only to be bolted up again to the sky bar of the nearby Park Hyatt, order Suntory and get ‘Lost in Translation’.
Kabukichō, Tokyo’s entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku, is the last stop. In this seedy, but safe, district you bump into the amazing hair creations of Host Boys, tons of small (BBQ) restaurants wanting your business and – if you feel like it – you can own the night since this neon-clad part of town is known as Sleepless Town.
Day 4: Mickey & friends
About 45 minutes by subway(train) from Shinjuku and bus from Tokyo Station you find the Tokyo Disney Resort. Why visit a Disney park when in Japan many would think? Well, in case you are not into theme parks the answer to this question can of course be: ‘Don’t go there.’ But, there is a but….
…Cause whether or not you are into the light parade, fireworks and fairy tale castles and streets lit by millions of tiny stars, the 115 acre theme park also provides you with a magical insight in Japanese culture: the Japanese know how to identify with animation in such a way they become an attraction themselves.
A day Disneyland Tokyo is yet another wonderful day of being lost in translation. Another day of celebrating the wonderful spirit of Japan.
Day 5: Japanese landscaping and food art
In case you’re in town around New Year’s, you can spend the January 1st with your hangover and a million Japanese visiting the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi. January 2nd is then a day to party with the emperor. Cause on this day the Imperial Palace opens the gates and welcomes everybody in for a party.
Usually an oyster, on January 2nd thousands of Japanese rise to the occasion of entering the heart of the empire. After crossing the Meganebashi bridge you get a Japanese flag. Everybody who has ever been to a Japanese sports game knows what’s next when Japanese get their hands on flags or balloons: they orchestrate a bonanza and go nuts the moment the emperor and family appear on the balcony.
But what if you’re not in Tokyo during the Holiday season? Then it is still worthwhile to visit the palace and its beautiful gardens that are like a fresh breath of air in the middle of Tokyo.
And when you’re into Japanese landscaping, you also want to visit the Koishikawa Korakuen Garden. This park was established in 1629 and is actually a Chinese garden. Walk the park in spring to see flowering Cherry Blossoms. Walk the park in fall and be rewarded with Maple Leaf fire.
Next to Koishikawa Korakuen is the Tokyo Dome, home of the Giants. Visiting a baseball game is a must-do. Cause visiting an event, whether its sports, music, theatre or dance, is a peek behind the cultural curtain: A stadium filled with Japanese ranging from 3 to 97 years. Men, women, kids, hipsters, grannies and salary men, the crowd is a mirror of the city’s population.
Not before long food sets the stage. But unlike in the USA it ain’t fries but ramen, udon or luxury bento boxes that, together with the crowd, enter the stadium.
For 3 hours, the audience sings, claps and performs North Korean like choreography acts. It makes Japanese baseball ‘hanabi’ without fire. A sight you’ll not easily forget..
..just like you won’t easily forget eating at the Tapas Molecular in the Mandarin Oriental, one of the high-rise neighbors of the emperor. The 5 star hotel offers luxury and marvelous views. The best view is men only: the male restroom where you can do your business looking down at billions of city lights or up at billions of stars.
But there’s more to the Mandarin than views, nice rooms or waiving at the emperor: the 8 seats Tapas Molecular Bar. Here you get a heavenly taste of the molecular cuisine while watching the 2 chefs cooking up small miracles like in the best days of El Bulli and the Fat Duck.
Another good and affordable place to sleep:
Minato, Tokyo – Japan