Tokyo, Japan’s busy capital, mixes the ultramodern and the traditional, from neon-lit skyscrapers to historic temples. Tokyo may be forever reaching into the future but you can still see traces of the shogun's capital on the kabuki stage, at a sumo tournament or under the cherry blossoms. It's a modern city built on old patterns, and in the shadows of skyscrapers you can find anachronistic wooden shanty bars and quiet alleys, raucous traditional festivals and lantern-lit yakitori (grilled chicken) stands. In older neighborhoods you can shop for handicrafts made just as they have been for centuries, or wander down cobblestone lanes where geisha once trod.
Tokyo is not only the political and economical center of Japan, it has also emerged as a center of the world economy and culture. There are a number of attractions in Tokyo that should not be missed. There are large-scale downtown areas, including Ginza where famous shops from around the world stand side by side, the sleepless Shinjuku that has become the "new city center of Tokyo," Asakusa which is reminiscent of the traditional Edo (the former name of Tokyo), and Shibuya that starts the trends for the young people. Other unique areas include the computer town Akihabara, a dense retail area where numerous electronic shops compete against each other, attracting many shoppers from Japan and overseas, and Tsukiji, an open-air wholesale food market catering to shops and consumers everywhere in Japan. The opulent Meiji Shinto Shrine is known for its towering gate and surrounding woods. The Imperial Palace sits amid large public gardens. The city’s many museums offer exhibits ranging from classical art (in the Tokyo National Museum) to a reconstructed kabuki theater (in the Edo-Tokyo Museum). You can’t miss out on the hole-in-the-wall noodle shops – the trick is to sample it all. It would be a shame to go all the way to Tokyo and not walk across the busiest intersection in the world, Shibuya Crossing. It’s amazing to see traffic stop and people pour into the streets from all sides.
Yes, Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city. Yes, Japanese cuisine has been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. But that's not what makes dining in Tokyo such an amazing experience. What really counts is the city's long-standing artisan culture. You can splash out on the best sushi of your life, made by one of the city's legendary chefs using the freshest, seasonal market ingredients. You can also spend ¥800 on a bowl of noodles made with the same care and exacting attention to detail, from a recipe honed through decades of experience.
Things to do
Tokyo’s most visited temple enshrines a golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), which, according to legend, was miraculously pulled out of the nearby Sumida-gawa by two fishermen in AD 628. The image has remained on the spot ever since but is never on public display. The present structure dates from 1958. Entrance to the temple complex is via the fantastic, red Kaminari-mon and busy shopping street Nakamise-dori.
Fruit, vegetables, flowers and meat are sold here, but it’s seafood – around 2000 tons of it traded daily – that Tsukiji is most famous for. Tsukiji’s star attraction is maguro (bluefin tuna) as big as submarine torpedoes and weighing up to 300kg: the sight (and sound) of these flash-frozen whoppers being auctioned is a classic Tokyo experience, worth getting up early (or staying up late) for.
Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Constructed in 1920, the shrine was destroyed in WWII air raids and rebuilt in 1958; however, unlike so many of Japan’s postwar reconstructions, Meiji-jingu has an authentic feel. The towering 12m wooden torii gate that marks the entrance was created from a 1500-year-old Taiwanese cyprus. The shrine itself occupies only a small fraction of the sprawling forested grounds. Meiji-jingu Gyoen was once imperial land; the Meiji emperor himself designed the iris garden here to please the empress. The garden is most impressive when the irises bloom in June.
Rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing, is like a giant beating heart, sending people in all directions with every pulsing light change. Perhaps nowhere else says ‘Welcome to Tokyo’ better than this. Hundreds of people – and at peak times said to be over 1000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions at once yet still managing to dodge each other with a practiced, nonchalant agility.
Tokyo National Museum
If you visit only one museum in Tokyo, make it the Tokyo National Museum. Here you’ll find the world’s largest collection of Japanese art, including ancient pottery, Buddhist sculptures, samurai swords, colorful ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), gorgeous kimonos and much, much more. Visitors with only a couple of hours to spare should focus on the Honkan (Japanese Gallery) and the enchanting Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures, which displays masks, scrolls and gilt Buddhas from Horyu-ji (in Nara Prefecture, dating from 607).
Japan’s Mt. Fuji is an active volcano about 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. Commonly called “Fuji-san,” it’s the country’s tallest peak, at 3,776 meters. A pilgrimage site for centuries, it’s considered one of Japan’s 3 sacred mountains, and summit hikes remain a popular activity
Opened in 2012, the Tokyo Skytree is Japan’s tallest tower. It measures 634 meters and was the second tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion. The Skytree has the two highest observation decks in Japan. The spacious, 350 meter high lower deck features wide windows, a restaurant, cafe and shops. The 450 meter high upper deck is notable for a glass and steel enclosed ramp that spirals around the building. Both offer spectacular, unobstructed views out over much of the Kanto Region. A beautiful aquarium and shopping mall are found at the base of the tower.
Natural hot springs (onsen) are numerous and highly popular across Japan. There are many types of hot springs, distinguished by the minerals dissolved in the water. Different minerals provide different health benefits, and all hot springs are supposed to have a relaxing effect on your body and mind. Hot spring baths come in many varieties, indoors and outdoors, gender separated and mixed, developed and undeveloped. The most popular onsen in Tokyo is Oedo Onsen Monogatari. Sometimes you just want a quick relaxing soak before heading home, sometimes you want to wander around an Edo-period hall in a yukata, eating crepes and ignoring your real-world problems for hours. If you’re ever in need of the latter, this is the place for you.
This three-Michelin-starred restaurant is tucked down a tangle of alleyways in a friendly neighborhood of Tokyo, a location that is so baffling staff insist on finding and escorting lost customers to the restaurant. This friendliness continues within, as exceptional service and a relaxing atmosphere complement the food. Ishikawa is worth hunting down for its Sabo alone.
Dress code: Smart
Address: Japan, 162-0825 Tokyo, Shinjuku, Kagurazaka, 5-37,
Hours: 5:30 pm to 12:00 pm Closed on Sunday and National Holidays
World-famous chef Joël Robuchon places an emphasis on his absolute love for food, cooking and eating – an ethos evident in the dishes he creates. Meticulous about the finer details as well as the overall creative process, he succeeds in making every one of his international restaurants personal and individual, providing the customers with his dynamic take on French cuisine. Having been awarded three Michelin stars, it is an unmissable experience when visiting Tokyo.
Dress code: Jackets are recommended while ties are not necessary.
Address: Yebisu Garden Place, 1-13-1, Mita, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0062
Hours: Lunch 12:00?2:00(L.O.)4:00 close *Available on Saturdays, Sundays and National holidays.
Dinner 6:00?9:00(L.O.)12:00 close
Usuki Fugu Yamadaya
Specializing in fugu (Japanese for puffer fish), this three star Michelin restaurant is renowned for creating unforgettable dishes with this potentially poisonous fish. Head chef Fumie Yamada has undergone a three-year apprenticeship and ten years of training, making it the safest place to eat in Tokyo, despite the reputation of this delicacy. The fugu sashimi, sliced with expert precision, is not to be missed.
Dress code: Business casual
Address: 4 Chome-11-14 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo 106-0031, Japan
Hours: 6:00 pm to 12:00 pm Closed on Sunday
Since opening in 2003, the kaiseki restaurant Ginza Kojyu has exceeded all expectations with its fresh seasonal menu, sixty different wines, Shizouka brewed sake and shochu. Savor the authentic Japanese flavors over multiple courses. The two-Michelin-starred venue is particularly small and is well known for its value for money, so booking in advance is highly recommended.
Dress code: Business casual
Address: Japan, 104-0061 Tokyo, Ginza, 5 Chome-4-8
Hours: Lunch 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm, Dinner 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm Closed on Sunday and National Holidays
Summer in Japan lasts from about June to mid-September, depending on the location. Summers are hot and humid, with temperatures ranging from approximately 21-32°C (70-90 °F). Mid-June starts the rainy season and lasts for about six weeks. July and August are typically the hottest and most humid times of year, and can be uncomfortable for sightseeing if you are averse to humidity. August is the season for summer festivals. Spring (March – May) sees a lot of the country ablaze with beautiful white and pink cherry blossom, celebrated with an increasingly popular festival. Temperatures during these months begin to rise and it is before the hot rainy season. Autumn is from September to November and is characterized by light breezes and cooler temperatures of around 7-10°C (46-50°F). It’s during autumn that many exhibitions, music concerts and sports tournaments are held in Japan. Early autumn brings the typhoon season which amounts in heavy rainfall. Japan’s weather in winter, from December to February, is quite dry and sunny along the Pacific coast and the temperatures rarely drop below 0°C (32°F). The temperatures drop as you move north, with the Central and Northern regions experiencing snowfall. Southern Japan is relatively temperate and experiences a mild winter. The mountains are covered in snow and it is a good time for skiing.
There are some cultural taboos that are important to know as a foreigner before traveling to Japan or any Asian country. It’s best to know ahead of time what is expected of you before someone accuses you of being rude! Here are a few rules of etiquette that could help you when you are traveling to Japan.
Bowing is one of Japan’s most well-known customs and can be used for a number of reasons. The most common reason is when you meet someone. Bowing is used in the same way as a handshake in other parts of the world. Bowing is also used when thanking someone or apologizing. The deeper the bow, the more respectful!
When you enter a Japanese home or restaurant, it is custom to remove your shoes and put on slippers that are provided for you. What one must remember is that the Asian lifestyle is mainly centered around the floor. The tables are low and they sit on the floor to eat, sleep and do all their activities. That’s why it is so important to have clean and warm floors.
Chopstick etiquette is very important in Japanese culture. Never use your chopsticks to point at someone, never wave them in the air or stab food with them. If you have a chopstick rest, you must use it with your chopsticks placed neatly together. Don’t use your chopsticks to take food from a communal plate or pass food with your chopsticks.
Avoid leaving tips at restaurants, bars or in taxis. The fact is, tipping is simply not expected – it’s really not a part of Japanese culture – so if you leave a tip it will only cause confusion, and almost definitely won’t be accepted!
If you wish to travel to Japan from Europe, the UK, the United States of America or Australia, you can enter Japan without a visa for a total of 90 days. You must have a valid passport and an onward/return ticket for tourist/business “visa free” stays of up to 90 days. Your passports must be valid for the entire time you are staying in Japan.
If you are wanting to travel to Japan and you are from South Africa, you must apply for a visa. The following documents are required when applying for a visa to Japan: a valid passport, completed application form, passport-size photograph, complete flight schedule and return air ticket. Tourists applying for a Japanese visa will require in addition a daily itinerary, hotel bookings and a letter from the bank stating you have sufficient funds. Please allow time for the visa to be accepted and your passport to be sent back to you.
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