To begin our adventure we spent one week in Tokyo. If you decide to visit the capital, here's a brief guide to some of the popular areas we recommend seeing.
Roppongi 六本木 is a an upmarket district in Tokyo known for its fashionable boutiques and luxurious hotels. A good spot to visit here is Midtown, a new and spacious galleria kitted out with all sorts of designer stores, bars, restaurants, cafes and a 24-hour supermarket. There is a 'design space' just outside which currently hosts a light display showing fireworks and waterfalls, and which previously housed a giant Godzilla statue. Midtown sits directly above the Roppongi Metro station and is a very pleasant place to visit for a coffee or snack if passing through area.
Harajuku 原宿 is probably one of the most recognisable places in Tokyo (helped in part, I'm told, by Gwen Stefani's song “Harajuku Girls”). A place for the youth of Japan to flaunt their style, arrive on a Sunday at around 2pm and you will see dozens of cosplayers gathering outside the train station, comparing outfits and posing for photos. Like the local look? Head down Takeshita street, a bustling market-like alley bursting with colour, sounds and smells- with famous Harajuku fashion stalls such as ACDC Rag where you pick-up all sorts of wacky clothing and accessories. If this isn't your cup of tea then the main road, Omotesando-dori, is packed full of more recognisable brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Better yet, why not take one of the side roads and find your way to the independent boutiques that provide for the hip-hop aficionados, where you can pick up some Bape or custom Adidas originals.
Just West of Harajuku station is Yoyogi Park, which houses one of Japan's most famous shrines, Meiji-jingu. Led to by a beautiful walkway covered by giant trees and offering blissful shade from the sun, Meiji-jingu is a shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. The shrine itself is situated within a large courtyard and surrounded by the natural beauty of the park. Need divine intervention? Write your prayers on a placard by the shrine entrance and the priests will offer it up to the gods for you at the end of the day.
If you're up for some fun, head towards Yoyogi National Stadium on a weekend afternoon and you'll be met by the odd site of Japanese men, women and children dressed as 1950's rockabillies- complete with custom denim jackets and giant Elvis-style quiffs- performing choreographed dance routines to old 50s rock 'n' roll music. You may even spot rival 'gangs' competing against one-another.
Akihabara 秋葉原 is more commonly known as Electric Town, and for good reason. During the week you can roam leisurely around the multi-storied arcades and play anything from the latest in oculus-rift gaming to vintage arcade games from the 70s and 80s. Visit on a Friday evening or on the weekend however and you will find yourself bombarded by techno music, neon lights and scantily clad 'maids' vying for your business in their cafes. Once you've managed to weave through the crowds and get into the arcades, you will find them rammed to capacity with schoolgirls trying to win their favourite toys from the UFO machines; schoolboys playing their favourite fighting and racing games; teenagers with ninja-like reflexes on the dance machines; and middle-aged men reliving their youth on the retro machines- all in a haze of cigarette smoke. It is difficult to find a seat at any game machine, and more than a little daunting is the prospect of having to compete against one of these seasoned competitors.
Shibuya 渋谷区 is known for the world's busiest pedestrian crossing, with as many as 2,500 people venturing across the junction at any one time. Its best to witness the scramble from above by visiting Starbucks or one of the other numerous cafes that overlook the scramble, but if you're brave enough to try for yourself, make sure to cross over to Tokyo's most famous meeting place, the Hachiko statue.
Go for a stroll down some of the adjoining streets and visit the izakayas. If Japanese language is an issue, you can buy meal tickets from vending machines- just click on the picture of the food you like the look of, pay the price stated, hand the ticket to the staff inside the restaurant and take a seat- water is always free and waiting for you as you enter, so this is a good way to take a rest and have a quick snack. Fancy something more luxurious? Tokyu food show in Toyoko Department Store (directly linked to the Shibya station building) boasts an impressive array of food establishments to choose from.
Pop into Mandarake whilst you're in the area and see the crazy amount of manga they have for sale, with library-like aisles of books, merchandise and figurines.
Asakusa 浅草 is a district to the north-east of central Tokyo and has a more traditional feel than a lot of the other neighbourhoods. Once known for its Geisha, this area is believed to host some 40 still- take a rickshaw ride around the district and you may be lucky enough to see one. The main draw of this area is Senso-ji temple, with it's giant Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and ominous statues of the thunder and wind gods, Raijin and Fujin. Pass through the gate and you'll find yourself in the midst of the throngs of market stalls selling everything from traditional snacks to tourist souvenirs. The temple itself is Tokyo's oldest, founded in 645AD.
The Asakusa skyline is dominated by Hanayashiki, an amusement park situated just behind the temple. Opened in 1853, it claims to be the oldest amusement park in Japan. Entry costs £5 for adults, and once inside you must purchase tickets for the rides themselves (£5 buys 10 tickets, and rides cost between 2-5 tickets each), or purchase a Free Pass which allows unlimited rides for the day for £11.50. Rides include a ghost train, a 'house of surprises' and a rollercoaster among many others.
Feeling hungry? Head down one of the side-streets near the amusement park for some traditional Japanese street food- gyoza, ramen, yakitori and takoyaki are all available. These places gets very loud and busy in the evenings and can provide quite the atmosphere. Get a gyoza and ramen set for £3.20, or a yakitori and takoyaki set for just £5.
Ueno 上野 hosts a vast and bustling park, full of shrines and market stalls. There is a large lake situated within the South-Western corner where you can hire a rowing boat or pedalo on the lake for £3.50 per half hour. Inside the park is Japan's oldest Zoo, home to giant pandas Ri Ri and Shin Shin. Entrance is only £3 each and if you can bare the heat it is definitely worth the visit.
Not an animal lover? Opposite the park is a bustling market street where you can pick up some bargain clothing and visit the traditional Japanese style restaurants, or better yet, stay in the park and visit one (or all) of 6 museums right in the centre: The National Museum of Nature and Science; National Museum of Western Art; Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum; Shitamcahi Museum; Ueno Royal Musuem; and Tokyo National Museum. The latter in particular is well worth a visit if you have even a passing interest in the history of samurai and feudal Japan.