Tokyo is not your usual stopover destination, but I recently had the opportunity to spend a day exploring the Japanese capital. I found that this bustling city is crowded, yet can be strangely quiet.
The first thing in any new city is to master how to get around. The Tokyo Metro is so easy to use that you can even head straight to the automated machines to buy a ticket (after selecting the English option). All stops are numbered so even if the names sound the same to you, you won’t get lost and each line is a different colour.
One important thing to note is that there are two separate subway operators (Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway) and not all tickets cover both.
My first visit was to Ueno Park. After nine hours on a plane, I wanted some open space and Tokyo offers many lovely parks and gardens to visit. I chose Ueno Park, a little further out from where I was staying, so I could gradually work my way back to the hotel. The grounds were originally part of Kaneiji Temple, which used to be one of the city's largest and wealthiest temples. Today, Ueno Park is famous for the many museums found on its grounds, especially the Tokyo National Museum. Visit from late March to early April to view one of Tokyo's most popular and lively cherry blossom spots, with more than a thousand cherry trees lining its central pathway. There are several other shrines, temples and lakes to visit throughout the expanse of the Park and it was surprising how big the green space was and how quiet it could be in the middle of the city.
Before leaving the area, I had a quick wander around the nearby Ameyoko Market. Here you can buy everything from clothes, bags and cosmetics to fresh fish, dried food and spices. Although it was early on a Wednesday morning, crowds were as busy as on weekends.
One thing I couldn’t pass up trying was ‘Frozen Beer’. An invention by Japanese beer maker Kirin, the beer itself isn’t frozen, just the foam on top. This keeps the beer colder for longer and has the novel effect of looking like a slushy. Don’t fear that this will dilute your beer as it melts; the foam itself is also made of beer. Very refreshing on a hot summer day.
The next stop was ‘Electric City’ in Akihabara, where streets and stores selling electrical goods abound -- you can buy everything from home appliances to the latest computers and gadgets. Although fascinating, as a bit of a techo-phobe I found the area slightly overwhelming.
Lunch was the next item on my agenda. I love food and went on a mission to find some ramen noodle soup. I managed to stumble across a hole-in-the-wall bar where you order by pushing a button and putting coins in the machine. You then get a ticket which you use to collect your food at the counter. I have to say I had my reservations, but my tempura vegetable ramen with extra chilli was delicious. If ordering food from a machine isn’t your thing, sushi can be found in abundance.
You can’t visit Tokyo without shopping. I headed to Shibuya where shops of varying quality line the streets. The first thing you will experience when exiting the station is the five-way ‘scramble crossing’. This is even more impressive (or overwhelming) at night with the large neon ads, giant video screens and masses of pedestrians.
After shopping my fill, I headed to dinner with some friends, at an all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu restaurant. Highly recommended! You get paper-thin strips of meat which you cook at the table in a communal bowl filled with soup of your choice, along with a vast array of vegetables and condiments.
Having only one day, going home after dinner was not an option, so drinks it was. Still in Shibuya, we decided to check out some tiny (and I mean tiny, maximum seven people at a time) bars. Only beer, sake and shochu were on offer but they came with snacks, including large, fat edamame the size of baby carrots.
After a few drinks I was ready to drop. Obviously there were still things I wanted to see and do in this famous city but Harajuku and the Imperial Palace would just have to wait for another day.