If there is one word synonymous with global metropolis, bustling trade, ancient cultures, avant-garde robotics, or perhaps Lost in Translation, Tokyo would undoubtedly take the crown. But, slow?
Working in a Japanese bank and having studied the language briefly in my formative years, I was always destined to set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun. Before I did though, I worried whether it is even possible for a city of over 13 million people and 37 dizzying Japan Rail networks (and counting) to have any semblance of calm.
It turned out that my worries were superfluous. The city offers numerous places to unwind, often right where you needed them to be. On an impeccable April morning, we set out on our excursion to savour Tokyo, the slow way.
Imperial Palace (皇居)
Located a stone’s throw away from Tokyo Station and the CBD district of Marunouchi, the Tokyo Imperial Palace – the primary residence of the Japanese Emperor – beckoned to be toured first. The Imperial Palace occupies the site of the Edo Castle, once one of the most impressive fortresses of its era. Juxtaposed against the hustle and bustle of its contemporary neighbour Marunouchi, the moated grounds and stone walls of the Imperial Palace would stand as a beacon of peace, and nostalgia for another place and time.
Whilst the Palace itself is generally off-limits to the public (except for limited guided tours to the inner compounds available from Tuesdays to Saturdays), the Imperial Household Agency, the East Gardens and the Nijubashi Bridge are the main tourist drawcards.
Arriving at the southern outskirts of the Palace by mid-morning, we were instantly led to the famed Nijubashi Bridge by the throng of tourists that made a permanent perimeter at its foot. On a spectacularly clear day, it represents one of the most Instagrammable icons of Japan and it’s not hard to see why this scene remains one of the most photographed in the country.
Meiji Shrine (明治神宮)
A short walk away from the claustrophobic, pubescent madhouse that is Harajuku Station, we were infinitely glad to have found haven at Meiji Shrine. Dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken, Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine (preaching one of the two prevailing religions in Japan, alongside Buddhism).
Despite proximity to one of Tokyo’s most populous precincts, its tranquillity is immediate as we entered Meiji’s lush forested grounds marked by imposing Torri gates. It is a place where you shed your daily struggles and anxieties, seemingly as easy as it would have been to shed your shoes… Perhaps that holds its appeal as the venue of choice for traditional Shinto weddings.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑)
Hanami (花見), cherry blossom (sakura) viewing, is a national obsession that heralds the onset of spring. As with all Japanese traditions, it is celebrated in earnest. Shinjuku Gyoen, located on the border of Shinjuku and Shibuya, would be one of the locals’ favourite viewing spots. (4 million people descend upon Shinjuku Station per day, no wonder earning it the title of the most accessed railway station in the world.)
Spanning 58ha, the Garden has three distinct designations, blending French, English and traditional Japanese horticultural influences. While we missed the peak hanami season by a matter of days, the Garden was nonetheless teeming with a sea of human activity. As with my obsession with crowd-free shots, sometimes the only way to look is skywards.
Good to Know
- Japanese do not litter. Littering is considered a serious cultural offence and is widely frowned upon. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do, and bring your own plastic bags as a repository for your rubbish.
- If your preference is to mix and mingle amongst the crowd and have your shots photobombed by smiling strangers whom bear no resemblance to the friend you are meant to be shooting for, then feel free to venture out during the day. For the rest of us hermits, early morning would be your best bet at relative seclusion.
- The peak cherry blossom season typically runs from early to mid April for a period of circa 7 days. However, this varies year on year and is location-driven.
- Invest in a Pasmo Card (Tokyo’s transport smart card), please. You can thank me later.
- Nijubashi Bridge might just be the world’s biggest misnomer! The famed bridge with the double stone arches is actually Seimonishi Bridge. Nijubashi Bridge barely registers in the rear of most shots (being the one further along the moat), if at all…