Whether you need to make a visa run or take a break from work, Tokyo is a great overseas destination if you desire to escape Taipei for even just a few days.
By Stuart Hill
OK, a few caveats to begin. Yes Tokyo has lots of people, and can feel even more intensely crowded than Taipei. Yes, you can face a language barrier, especially the further out of Tokyo you go. Yes, Japanese still smoke indoors, which can be extremely frustrating for non-smokers. Yes, everything seems expensive. Yes, a hotel room is insanely small by any sense of the imagination. And yes, affordable food can get a bit monotonous after your third bowl of noodles or rice.
A basic meal in Tokyo, such as this chicken rice bowl (above) or a bowl of ramen noodles, can cost around 750-950 yen. Compared to the cost of something similar in other Asian countries it is pretty expensive, but compared to the same in a western country, the cost is competitive and the taste authentic Japanese.
BUT, all that said, Tokyo (and Japan in general) is such a smorgasbord of cultural, geographical, and culinary experience, that it is a travesty not to go at least once.
That’s why a bento box-style short trip of just a few days is the perfect approach. Relatively affordable, not culturally overwhelming, it’s most likely to result in your wanting to come back again to taste even more.
Japan also experiences dramatic changes in season, so even visiting the same place at different times of the year offers a lot of variety.
These days flights can be taken both from the TaoYuan International Airport or via Taipei’s extremely convenient (SongShan) International Airport, getting you there in just a few hours.
Here are my favorite things to see and do in Tokyo and in areas that are reasonably nearby and can be planned as a 1-night stop over.
1. Take a Boat Ride Along the River in Tokyo
A pleasant way to see Tokyo, and a good way to appreciate how the old city’s commerce must have once operated, is to catch a river cruise.
2. Wander the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace
Other than being a building of intense historical value to the Japanese, and being the official residence of the Japanese royal family, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (above) and east gardens are extremely photogenic. Areas surrounding the exterior moat and grounds have great views of the city.
3. Celebrate Christmas Tokyo Style
While Japan’s obsession with Christmas seems purely commercial, the cold weather and over-the-top decorations make for a festive season regardless.
4. Explore the Backstreets of Almost Any Tokyo District
Whether it is the small lanes behind a large shopping center, a closed street near a temple, or just about anywhere off a main road, the backstreets of Tokyo hide all kinds of interesting shops and restaurants to explore. The Tokyo Fish Market (above) is a great place for an early morning dose of fresh raw fish — or just a place to soak in the traditional market atmosphere.
5. View Tokyo’s Cityscape by Night
If exploring the streets on a rainy day wasn’t enough of a throwback to Blade Runner, then how about taking in the view of the Tokyo night skyline to give you the full effect? Hotels often have bars (a la Lost in Translation) set on an upper floor to take advantage of the night view, while many office towers have observation decks and restaurants located on upper floors that stay open to the early hours. (Photo by Jonathan Chiang)
6. Stroll Through a Tokyo Park
Offering immediate respite from busy shopping centers and the hectic pace of the subway, many of Tokyo’s districts feature parks big and small. The Shinjuku Gyoen (above), originally an imperial garden, has long been a showcase of western plant species. Yet come spring, the garden explodes with the surreal pink of Japan’s famous Sukura.
7. Soak in a Japanese Hotspring
In the west, public bathing is something of a cultural experience perhaps only done by team sports players these days. But with good quality spring water and facilities close to nature, a hotspring bath can be relaxing and therapeutic. Taking your own photos of the facilities is pretty much a no-no which means pictorial evidence is scarce, so you’ll need to judge by the promotional pictures each establishment provides and the design of the hotel to give you clues before giving any place a try. (Above) South Wind Hotel, Hakone.
8. Visit a Gallery or Museum
In addition to their own permanent collections, there are often great visiting collections or local event-based collections on display. But beyond what you will find inside each building, it is often the architecture of the gallery or museum itself that is worth the visit alone. (Above) National Art Center, Tokyo in Roppongi.
9. Get in Touch with Nature by Escaping Tokyo for a Day or Two
In stark contrast to the manic bustle of the city, tranquil Nikko and Hakone can be accessed by an easy morning train ride out of Tokyo. Once there, you can experience the variety and beauty of Japan’s lakes and mountains, which shift in personality between each season. Staying over night is a more relaxing way to enjoy local points of interest. Accommodation in these areas tends to be bigger, and more traditional in style too. Japanese love these areas, so visiting mid-week and outside the times of special festivals will help you avoid the crowds. (Above) View of Mt Fuji in the distance over Hakone’s Lake Ashi.
10. Capture a Moment of Peace in a Temple
A visit to a Japanese temple tends to be a mixture of intense interruption dispersed by moments of blissful serenity — mainly due to the popularity with tourists and the devoted. Temples like this one in Nikko (above), a few hours by train outside Tokyo, showcase all kinds of intricate designs and details that you won’t find on Japan’s more functional and modernist architecture.
There are so many things to see and do in Tokyo itself that a list of ten that also includes two different day trips doesn’t even begin to do justice to the place.
The great thing about Tokyo is that you can have a small taste of many things, or really dive deeply into something that interests you. If it’s galleries, or temples, or shopping, or eating, (or drinking!), it is all pretty accessible, even with the obvious cultural and language barriers to overcome.