Shinjuku and Shibuya, the dual centers of Western Tokyo, three stops apart on the Yamanote line, began to boom only after the 1923 earthquake and the opening of the Tokyu Toyoko line, linking the capital and Yokohama, in 1932. Despite its short history, the area still has stories to tell, from Hachiko – the dog who faithfully waited for his owner outside Shibuya Station everyday from 1923 to 1935 – to the US occupation of Yoyogi Park, or Washington Heights as it became known, between 1945 and 1964.
The park remained on the world stage for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games. This part of the city is new Tokyo – all vitality and energy, fast-paced, constantly changing, and challenging the more traditional pleasures of Central and Northern Tokyo. When the Imperial Japanese Army moved to Roppongi in 1890, the area became a nightlife hot spot, and this reputation was only reinforced with the influx of expatriates after World War II. Although no longer burdened with a sleazy reputation, people still flock here after dark for Rop pongi’s cosmopolitan clubs, bars, and music venues, and the neon lights and pachinko par lors of East Shinjuku. On top of this, Shibuya, along with neighboring Harajuku and Minami-Aoyama, have been the epicenters of both young and haute-couture Japanese fashion since the 1980s.
1. Meiji Shrine
For Tokyo’s residents, the lush 170-acre (69-ha) grounds of the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū) are a welcome green lung in the heart of this hectic city. As the capital’s most important Shinto shrine, it offers visitors a tantalizing glimpse of an older Japan. Take a stroll through its beautiful grounds, stocked with some 120,000 trees, learn more about the imperial family through the artifacts on display in the museums, and soak up traditional temple life.
Originally built in 1920, the Meiji Shrine was destroyed during the Tokyo air raids, but was rebuilt in 1958. Controversially, the shrine was rededicated to Emperor Meiji (1852–1912), rather than a kami (spirit), contravening the imperial family’s renunciation of divinity following World War II. At the Treasure Museum and its annexe, visitors can see items belonging to the imperial family, including gorgeous kimonos, lacquer ware, and furniture.
Don’t miss the Nai-en garden, said to have been designed by the emperor for his wife. Here, a teahouse over looks a pond stocked with water lilies and carp. To the right of the pond, a path leads to the beautiful Minami-ike Shobuda (iris garden), which contains over 150 species.
One of the most striking sights at the Meiji Shrine is the huge wall of sake barrels. While the barrels on display are empty, they are loaded with meaning. Sake is supposed to facilitate the connection with the gods and in the oldest Japanese texts “miki,” the old word for sake, is written with the characters for “god” and “wine.” Shinto shrines pray for the brewers’ prosperity and, in turn, the breweries donate sake for the shrines’ rituals and ceremonies.
2. West Shinjuku
Most of Tokyo’s skyscraper office blocks (and some of its most expensive land) are clustered just to the west of Shinjuku Station. About 250,000 people work here each day, creating endless bustle. Many of West Shinjuku’s hotels, and some office blocks, have top-floor restaurants with views of the city.
In 1960 the government designated Shinjuku a fukutoshin (“secondary heart of the city”), and in 1991, when the city government moved into architect Kenzo Tange’s massive 48-story Metropolitan Government Offices, many started calling it shin toshin (the new capital). Tange’s building was dubbed “tax tower” by those outraged at its US$1 billion cost. Between the skyscrapers, the streets pulsate with people shopping, heading to restaurants, and seeking evening entertain ment, including pachinko parlours, nightclubs, and love hotels.
3. Roppongi District
Once harboring a sleazy reputation, the buzzing neighborhood of Roppongi is where Tokyo’s grown-ups now come to play. With three ground-breaking art galleries, boundless high-end stores, and a relentless nightlife, upmarket Roppongi has it all.
Huge redevelopment projects, such as iconic Roppongi Hills, have transformed the district into a shopping powerhouse. Here you’ll find the Mori Art Museum, housing groundbreaking modern art. Together with the National Art Center, Tokyo – presenting innovative temporary exhibitions – and the Suntory Museum of Art, which displays the whisky dynasty’s private collection, Mori forms part of the Roppongi Art Triangle.
After visiting one of the museums, the ATRo Saving ticket grants discounted entry to the other two museums. Alongside these cultural colossi, there are smaller art spaces, such as Ota Fine Arts, Zen Foto Gallery, and complex665. The renowned 21_21 Design Sight museum – the brainchild of architect Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyake – is a must for any design aficionado. As the center of Tokyo’s nightlife, you can find just about any music you want in Roppongi: jazz, blues, ska, hiphop, classic disco, country and western, and soul. Nightclubs, such as V2 TOKYO, Esprit Tokyo, and Cat’s Tokyo, all boast rosters of superstar DJs.
4. Shinjuku Station
With over two million people passing through each day, this is the world’s busiest train station. A major stop on both the JR and metro politan subway systems, Shinjuku Station is also the starting point for trains and buses into the suburbs.
On the Yamanote and Chuo line platforms during the morning rush hour (about 7:30–9am) staff are employed to push those last few commuters on to the train. It’s easy to lose your way in this maze of seemingly identical passages between the lines. For a time in the 1980s and early 1990s, a substantial number of home less people built card board villages in the station’s corri dors. In a controversial move, the municipal government forcibly removed them; they settled in new places, including Ueno Park.
5. Minami-Aoyama District
Favored by artists, writers, and young entrepreneurs, this bustling district lies between the large Aoyama Cemetery and Shibuya. Aoyama-dori, the wide street running through it, is a renowned center for boutiques. On Gaien-Nishi-dori, a fashionable street nicknamed “Killer-dori,” is the Watari-um, also known as the Watari Museum of Contem porary Art. Exhibits are by inter national and Japanese artists, and change regularly.
Back on Aoyama-dori, turn left at the Omotesando junction for the Nezu Museum, which houses a collection of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art and is situated in landscaped gardens containing traditional teahouses. A very different museum is found a few blocks away. The Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum houses the peculiar works of this post-war sculptor. The towering figures have crudely realized faces and tapering plant-like tendrils.
6. Harajuku District
Harajuku Station was the main station for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic village and that concentration of international culture had a great impact on the area, attracting the young and innovative of Tokyo. Today Harajuku remains a center for fashion from highend inter national stores to bargain boutiques. Takeshitadori, a narrow alley bet ween Meijidori and Harajuku Station, is the place to find what’s hot in teen fashion and culture.
Sundays bring the biggest crowds. Prices range from cheap to outra geous, as do the fashions. Starting from the Harajuku Station end, about 200 m (220 yards) down, a left turn leads up some stairs to Togo Shrine, founded for Admiral Togo, the commander who defeated the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima, which was part of the RussoJapanese War. It was a huge naval victory, the first of an Asian country over a Western one. Admiral Togo remains a hero in Japan, and his shrine has a beautiful garden and pond. Located a few blocks east of the shrine is Design Festa Gallery.
This Postmodern, bohemian gallery focuses on futuregeneration artists and has a designthemed cafébar. Running parallel to, and south of, Takeshitadori is the more sophisticated Omotesando. With its wide, treeshaded side walks and dozens of boutiques showcasing top fashion designers and brands such as Celine, Fendi, and Dior, this is one of the best places to stroll in Tokyo. As you walk from Harajuku Station, just before the intersection with Meijidori, off to the left you will see a small street leading to the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, which houses one of the best collections of ukiyoe prints (p131) in Japan.
A vivid image of a Kabuki actor por traying a superhero in the classic aragoto style by Sharaku and a masterful program of a memorial Kabuki performance by Hiroshige are among many familiar works. There is a small restau rant and a shop selling prints and other ukiyoerelated souvenirs. Just to the left down Meijidori is LaForet, a fashion mecca, with more than 150 boutiques. Leading off Omotesando, just before the pedestrian bridge, a narrow lane to the left is lined with boutiques of up-andcoming designers and gives a good idea of residential life in this upscale area. Farther up the hill from the footbridge on the left is Omotesando Hills.
This huge complex is home to bouti ques such as Jimmy Choo, and specialist luxurygoods stores, as well as dozens of brand stores such as UGG Australia and Catimini. Over the pedestrian bridge to the right is the Oak Omotesando Building. This two-story shopping zone has an impressive glass facade and houses several luxury brands, such as Coach and Emporio Armani, as well as Japan’s first Nespresso boutique. Just before the Oak Omotesando Building is the vermilion-and-white Oriental Bazaar, a collec tion of shops full of real and fake antiques and good handicrafts, ideal for souvenirs.
7. Tokyo Opera City
This towering skyscraper is home to Tokyo’s impressive music and theater complex. On the first floor of the building, you’ll find two main halls. One of these is primarily used for Japanese classical music and theater, while a vast opera hall with a soaring vaulted roof stages largescale opera recitals. Performances are fre quent – phone for details (03 5353-0770) or pick up a leaflet from the foyer information counter for a list of upcoming shows. On top of the two halls, there are 54 floors, mostly housing offices of companies, including Apple.
The first three floors are accessible to the public, however, and house an art gallery, shops, and res taurants, which are worth investigating before or after the opera. The expansive NTT Intercommunication Center occupies the fourth floor. This is one of Tokyo’s primary centers for modern inter active art. The 53rd and 54th floors of the buildings hold a dozen restaurants and bars, some of which boast great city views.
8. Samurai Museum
Geared toward international visitors and conveniently located in Kabukicho, this museum displays samurai swords, armor, and a plethora of other fearsome-looking weapons. Its beautifully laidout displays put the rise of the samurai in context and explain the history of this uniquely Japanese style of warfare, as well as what happened when the Japanese warriors came up against the Mongols in the 13th century.
Visitors can indulge in some Japanese-style cosplay, try on lacquered armor, and handle a reproduction katana sword. Enthusiastic English-speaking guides give regular tours that include demonstrations of sword moves and terrifying battle cries. Exhibition fights are also regularly staged. To see more amazing suits of armor, head to the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park.
9. Yoyogi Park
For almost three decades the park filled with a fantastic array of performers and bands every Sunday. These events were stopped by the authorities in the mid-1990s, supposedly due to worries about the rise in criminal activities and main taining public order. Sundays are still a good time to visit, though, for the weekly flea market.
At the entrance to the park you can still see members of the zoku (tribes) who used to perform here, from punks and goths to hippies and break-dancers. Kenzo Tange’s two Olympic stadiums, the landmark structures in Yoyogi Park, were completed in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics. They are currently being renovated for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Elaborate samurai armor on display in the Samurai Museum in Kabukicho.
10. Akasaka District
With the Diet Building (p116) and many government offices just to the east, Akasaka is a favorite place for politicians to social ize. Limousines carry dark-blue-suited men to the many exclusive establishments lining the streets here. About 200 m (220 yards) along Aoyama-dori from Akasaka-Mitsuke Station is Toyokawa Inari Shrine (also called Myogon-ji).
With its red lanterns and flags, and dozens of statues of foxes (the traditional messengers of Inari, a Shinto rice deity), this is a pleasant place to linger for a while. Back past the station and over the moat, you will see a large building up ahead that you may recognize from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), in which it featured. This is the huge, luxurious Hotel New Otani.