Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
We were walking through the streets of Shinjuku and I had just told her this was the title I was considering for my story.
“What’s so funky about Tokyo?” she said.
Just a few feet away from us, on the sidewalk in front of an appliance store, a young woman dressed in a powder-blue uniform that resembled a stewardess outfit from the 1960s cradled a vacuum cleaner while singing a love song into a microphone. She stared longingly at the vacuum and held it close as if it was her true love.
We took in the scene for a few moments before I turned to Chiemi and smiled.
“Oh, I see what you mean,” she said.
Chiemi is a volunteer with Japan’s Systematized Goodwill Guide (SGG) program. This organization puts travelers together with locals who serve as guides. The locals aren’t paid and the service is free the visitor is expected to pay the guide’s expenses, buy lunch and pay for the guide’s subway ride home. The program is available all over Japan, but visitors should contact the guides via the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) Web site at least two weeks in advance to make a reservation. It turned out to be one of the best surprises of my visit. Not only did Chiemi (and Mr. Oya, the following day) act as an extremely capable tour guide and translator, but she also shed light on cultural differences and I was able to experience the destination as a local would in all of its modern originality.
On my outing with Chiemi, we had decided to seek out “new” Tokyo, leaving “historical” Tokyo for another day.
I had once heard someone familiar with tourism in Japan describe the country in terms of two recent movies. There was “The Last Samurai” tourist who wanted to delve into Japan’s rich history, and there was the “Lost in Translation” tourist, who wanted to experience the country’s uber-hip modern culture. While most tourists will almost certainly want a bit of both, on this day Chiemi and I chose Bill Murray over Tom Cruise.
Located a short walk from Shinjuku Station, the 177-room Park Hyatt is the hotel featured in the movie, and is a fitting base for exploring modern Tokyo. Situated on the top 14 floors of the 52-story Shinjuku Park Tower, guestrooms here look out over the city with breathtaking views of Mount Fuji in the distance.
The interior decor including the New York Bar from “Lost in Translation” is stylish and modern, but with an intimate feel. The hotel also has a playful side, hinted at with “Gutsy,” a handmade mask with a devilish grin that hangs over the front entryway. As guests go up in the elevator, the lights gradually become brighter until they arrive in the full light of the hotel’s lobby on the 41st floor.
The highlight of the hotel for me was the Club on the Park fitness center and spa. The 47th-floor workout room and lap pool with its calming ambiance, soaring city views and glass ceiling made me feel peacefully removed from the city’s fray.
Once I descended from my lofty heights and hit the streets, my first stop on the Funky Tokyo tour was the Sony Building in the Ginza district. This eight-story electronics mecca feels like an adult toy store, with showrooms full of gleaming state-of-the-art Sony products available for tinkering, including some items that are not yet available in the U.S.
Also located in Ginza, close to the Yurakucho station, is the main Tourist Information Center of the JNTO. The office is sort of hidden away on the 10th floor, but the staff is extremely helpful in providing maps and other guidance to travelers.
If visitors get hungry while they are in Ginza, there are several large department stores, such as Matsuya Ginza, featuring a food market in the basement. These immaculate and colorful markets specialize in boxed meals and other specialty food, and the prices are quite reasonable at $5-$10. Plus, there are usually a few free samples too. Just remember that if clients buy a meal here, they will need to find a park or other place to sit and eat. In Japan, it is considered rude to eat on the street.
From Ginza, I headed to the Akihabara district, also known as Electric City. The Akihabara has become the capital of Japanese animation (called anime or manga). Here, visitors will find the Tokyo Anime Center, which bills itself as the “portal facility that provides the latest information surrounding Japanese animation.” Sadly, the center was a bit of a disappointment. Given how immensely popular anime has become worldwide, the facilities were not as large as I expected although the gift shop is a good source for souvenirs.
Much more entertaining was a walk around the surrounding neighborhood where shop after shop carried the latest DVDs, games, action figures, posters and more for the true anime devotee. Also entertaining were the people dressed as various anime and sci-fi characters standing outside the shops handing out advertisements to passersby.
Tell clients to seek out one of the area’s “maid cafes.” These simple tea and coffee houses, which are featured on You Tube among other places, feature waitresses dressed like the maids popularized in certain anime series. It truly is one of the most unique phenomenon in Tokyo.
Finally, I decided to end my Funky Tokyo tour with shopping in Tokyo’s hippest districts, Shibuya and Harajuku. These neighborhoods are full of cafes, bistros and trendy shops. (Also look for the guy with a sign that says “free hugs.”) At one spot, a Japanese pop band was being interviewed in a storefront window while teenage girls screamed and cried for them outside. Just another day in Harajuku.
This is the best place to see Japan’s stylish teenagers, dressed in everything from torn gothic French ball gowns to neo-punk demonic schoolgirl outfits. If you can’t find the perfect outfit for that hipster back home in one of these boutiques, you are probably just too old to “get it.”
While in Shibuya, be sure to tell clients to snap a photo in one of the most famous spots in Tokyo. If they go up to the second floor of the Starbucks across the street from the subway station, look out the window and wait for the lights on the street to change, they can get a photo of hundreds of pedestrians entering the intersection from seven different directions at once.
It’ll be a good reminder when your clients get back home of the energy of this truly original city.
For clients that want the best of historic Tokyo, start with the Asakusa neighborhood. Here visitors can see one of Japan’s most well-known shrines, as well as take in the ambiance of this beloved neighborhood where local stores feature authentic crafts.
Visitors should also be sure to visit Ueno Park, north of Central Tokyo. This historic site is now the home of a number of Tokyo’s museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo Art Museum, the National Science Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, as well as Tokyo’s zoo. The grounds make for a great walk, especially in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Of course no visit to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to the Imperial Palace, particularly the East Gardens. And in Harajuku, clients should be sure to take in the Meiji Shrine, where they might just catch part of a traditional wedding ceremony. Here, visitors hang small wooden ornaments with their wishes written on them for luck.
Finally, clients should look into day tours to Nikko, outside the city. The two-hour train trip from Tokyo is well worth it considering the range of World Heritage shrines and temples found there. Tours can be arranged in advance or booked through most hotel concierge.
In fact, Tokyo has many options for travelers on a budget. For instance, the price of a sushi dinner can range widely depending on location. Clients can choose expensive sit-down restaurants or relatively inexpensive “conveyor belt” sushi restaurants where they pay by the plate (look for the words kaiten sushi on the sign).
Another good option is the food courts in the basements of major department stores, especially in the Ginza district. Visitors to these shops can get delicious specialty foods and boxed meals for less than $10.
Probably the best bet for an inexpensive and delicious meal in Tokyo is at one of the numerous soba noodle shops. A visitor can eat every meal at these very reasonably priced shops and never try the same thing twice. And soba shops and stands can be found all over the city. One great place I tried was actually on the subway platform, just steps away from the tracks.
Finally, one of the best times I had in Tokyo was eating yakitori (grilled skewered meat and vegetables) at an outside stand. Here a visitor can sit shoulder to shoulder with Japanese businessmen, blue-collar workers, young couples and hipsters and strike up a conversation over a beer or sake. That is the kind of true local experience your clients will remember long after they go home.
CONTACTJapan National Tourist Organization (JNTO)www.jnto.go.jp/eng
JNTO in Tokyo: 10 Floor, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan Bldg., 2-10-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, 03-3201-3331JNTO in Los Angeles: 515 S. Figueroa St. Suite 1470, 213-623-1952
Kabukiza Kabuki Theaterwww.kabuki-za.co.jp
Park Hyatt Tokyowww.parkhyatttokyo.com
Tokyo Anime Centerwww.animecenter.jp
Tsujiki Wholesale Marketwww.tsukiji-market.or.jp