Visiting Japan in the spring may be a classic, but now that the blossoms have fallen off, why not think of a visit in the fall. The end of September and the beginning of October is the time when the gingko leaves are beginning to turn yellow and start to fall on beautiful temple grounds.
The plane from Paris flew overnight into a dazzling sunrise, landing over the shimmering sea at Narita airport. About 12 hours after leaving Paris, I was staring down the dazzling gardens of my hotel, complete with a pond of colorful koi carp, stone lanterns and winding rocky paths. Japan on that first morning was a heady mix of tall buildings bedazzled by neon ads, and the quiet atmosphere of the hotel, as I looked around the busy, trendy Roppongi district of Tokyo.
This bustling city will dazzle and intimidate at first, but it only takes a couple of days to find out its human side, the charming little places that offer comfort and quiet amid the noise and chaos. Soon we felt at home in the Roppongi district, and with my travel companions headed to flashy, busy Shibuya, crossing with the crowds as the lights stopped all the traffic in the world-famous five-way crossing. And then only meters away, a quiet restaurant tucked away, offering recipes unchanged for centuries, with a small warmed-up bottle of sake.
And then off riding the metro, straight into its beating heart, the Shinjuku station, a labyrinth spreading for kilometers, taking us into the Shinjuku area, the original movie-set for all things Tokyo. The bustling commercial and entertainment center is also the heart of night life, and as the evening wore on, the costumed crowds pouring out of the offices gave way to pink-haired teenagers. At some point in the evening, we ended up off the beaten track, into a small Filipino-run Karaoke bar.
Tokyo never repeats its charms, and for a contrast to the night-time glamour of the skyscraper districts, one could visit the quaint Asakusa, an array of narrow streets taken by vendors of things both fine and outlandish. This is your place for hand-crafted creatures, staring at you out of store shelves, the epitome of Japanese “kawaii”, a form of extreme cuteness. Add the Niomon gates of guardian demons and old temples, and a couple of sumo wrestlers taking an evening walk in flowered kimonos and coiffed topknots, and Asakusa becomes a vision of Japan as an old country of strong traditions.
Tokyo holds the poetry of names, all of its districts offering a distinct experience. But if you want a place unlike any other, pay a visit to the Tsukiji fish market. Choose early morning and a clear head, and watch out for the electric cars zipping and swerving by. Watch the day’s catch prepared for sale, from the smallest shrimp to plump tuna.
If Tokyo is all one could see of Japan, it is still possible to venture outside the city. Kamakura is an ideal destination for a day trip, and for a break from tall buildings. But the attraction of Kamakura is no less spectacular: a 12-meter iron statue of a Buddha, standing under the open sky since a tsunami destroyed the surrounding temple at the end of the 15th century.
So if you want to explore Japan through Tokyo and the vicinity, get your good walking shoes and prepare to be amazed at every step.
- Freelance Writer