DREAMSCAPES Fall/Winter 2017
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TOKYO IS ON THE MOVE
 
(2017 - Fall/Winter Issue)

Writer: STEVE GILLICK



It’s good to arrive at the Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa District early if you want to avoid the crowds.

By 9:00 a.m., visitors converge on the site from tour buses and the Tokyo Metro (subway), and after the mandatory photos and selfies, they walk in wonder under the giant chochin or lantern that hangs from the Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon). The four-metre-high lantern is a traditional way of lighting a Buddhist temple, and the gate, originally built in AD 941 and reconstructed several times since, serves as the main entrance to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple.  

PRECIOUS TRADITIONS

While passing through the gate, visitors come face-to-face with the terrifying images of Fujin, the god of wind, and Raijin, the god of thunder, protectors of the temple and the Buddhist religion. And then after exploring the stalls on Nakamise-dori, one of Tokyo’s oldest shopping streets, visitors surround the Jokoro, the giant incense burner in front of the  main temple building, and waft smoke toward and around their heads to invite good luck, good health, and for students, good marks! 

Tokyo traditions maintain the foundations of a culture that dates back to the mythical gods Izanagi and Izanami and their child, Amaterasu, who became the goddess of the sun. It was her great-great grandson, Jimmu, who became the first Emperor of Japan and began a lineage that can be traced directly to the current Emperor, Akihito. 

A DYNAMIC CITY 

In Tokyo, there is a remarkable interface between the old and the new which has come to define a dynamic city that is always on the move and offers one of the most unique travel experiences anywhere on the planet.

Across the road from the Thunder Gate, the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information  Center has an outdoor observation deck on the top floor that provides superb views of the entire Senso-ji complex. The centre’s layered architecture, resembling a vertical neighbourhood of traditional wooden homes, was designed by the renowned architect Kengo Kuma, and serves as a reminder that nature can be respected and appreciated even in a busy, modern city.

Kuma, who is the architect of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium, also designed Tokyo’s Nezu Museum with its bamboo garden, as well as “Sunny Hills” in the Omote Sando area where the structure, resembling a giant bamboo basket of intersecting wood, contrasts with the mostly grey concrete residential neighbourhood, again emphasizing the modern need for nature to be celebrated by people and within cities. Other notable architectural landmarks in Tokyo include the Iceberg, also known as the Audi Forum near Harajuku, and the Cocoon, home to three colleges, in the Shinjuku District. But none is more poignant than the Tokyo Skytree, located in that 17th-century district known as Asakusa.  

Only a 20-minute walk across the Sumida River from the Thunder Gate, the 634-metre-tall Skytree is visible from just about every neighbourhood in the city. Twenty thousand daily visitors ascend to the 450-metre observation level where, on a clear day, Mt. Fuji can be seen, 95 kilometres to the west. In 1868, the Meiji Emperor moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto, meaning “capital city,” to Edo, which was renamed “Tokyo” or “Eastern Capital.” One of the reasons for the move was the proximity of Mt. Fuji, the traditional home of Shinto gods. The Skytree enhances that connection between the old and new.

Not far away, in Shinjuku the Samurai Museum creates a bond with video gamers and movie goers, with exhibits of Samurai armour, swords and guns that tell the story of Japan in the years of the Shogun. The Darth Vadar-like helmet on display was an inspiration for the costume worn by the Star Wars villain.

And with futuristic travel in mind, Tokyo is on the move, literally. With 179 stations of the Tokyo Metro, Monorail and JR Trains, the entire city is accessible to visitors looking to explore a thriving metropolis that is actually a blend of many fascinating neighbourhoods.

In Mitaka, the Ghibli Museum showcases the work of the eponymous anime studio and then fans can head to Nakano to shop for anime and cartoon figurines. In Ginza, not far from the Kabukiza Theatre where traditional plays depict life in centuries past, the Sony Building exhibits the latest technology, while in Aoyama, visitors can meet ASIMO, the humanoid robot, at the Honda Welcome Plaza.

OUTSTANDING HOSPITALITY

Ningyocho, another neighbourhood dating to the 17th century, comes alive with Sake Tasting Festivals where izakayas (traditional Japanese pubs) throughout the area offer samples of sake to beginners and aficionados of this rice-based drink that’s been popular since the eighth century. But sake tastings also occur at small stand-up bars, such as Shinshu Osake Mura in Shimbashi and Orihara in Monzen Nakacho, which features about 150 sakes at any given time, enough to accommodate any taste.  

And in Tokyo even accommodation can provide a bridge between the old and the new.  At Hoshinoya, a super-luxury ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) just outside the grounds of the Imperial Palace, the exterior of the building is a traditional kimono pattern (Edo Komon) that represents wishes for good life. Inside the five-star hotel, soothing sounds of nature welcome local and international guests who want to get away from western hotels and envelop themselves in an authentic cultural experience.

But no experience in Tokyo would be complete without indulging in what can only be described as culinary bliss. There are many renowned restaurants such as Joël Robuchon, Narisawa and Sukiyabashi Jiro but there are also many small izakayas where the sashimi and seafood are outstanding. Tokudawara, a stand-up, one-hour time limit restaurant in Kita-Senju, has constant lineups to get in, as does Uosan in Monzen Nakacho, where patrons indulge in deep-fried oysters, firefly squid, tuna belly, fried white shrimp and more. Kappabashi is a very old neighbourhood, now regarded as the culinary equipment district of Tokyo, but it’s also the home of Wasuke, where river fish, octopus, mackerel, sole, snapper, skipjack and huge, fresh oysters equate to “taste bud heaven.” And near the Ushigome Yanagicho Metro stop, the signature dish at Tsuzuku is wasabi meshi—freshly grated wasabi root on steamed rice, topped with nori (seaweed).

Tokyo embodies the spirit of creativity, challenge and excitement in continuing to position itself as a city that embraces the precious traditions of the past along with the 21st-century expectations of multi-generational travellers. The “old” destination seems to be enthusiastically bursting at the seams with new ideas that keep it relevant, meaningful and truly dynamic, in a world of change.

Travel Planner

For more information on Tokyo, visit: Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau: gotokyo.org      

Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center: jnto.go.jp/eng/spot/tic/asakusa_culture.html

Ghibli Museum: ghibli-museum.jp/en

Honda Welcome Plaza: world.honda.com/ASIMO

Hoshinoya Tokyo Hotel: hoshinoyatokyo.com/en

Kengo Kuma’s Architecture: kkaa.co.jp/works/architecture

Orihara (Sake Bar): orihara-net.co.jp/oriharashoten  

Samurai Museum: samuraimuseum.jp/en

Shinshju Osake Mura: nagano-sake.com/vil/index.php

Sony Building: sonybuilding.jp/en

Tokyo Skytree: tokyo-skytree.jp/en

Tokyo Metro: tokyometro.jp/en

 
 
 
 
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