I’ve been to Tokyo three times and still feel like I’ve barely plumbed its cultural depths. My first visit was nearly nine years ago, and while I checked off a lot of tourist attractions, I was an inexperienced traveler and didn’t have the same appreciation for the region I do now. My second visit was two years ago, in the dead of winter. We were there mainly to see friends and spent the majority of our time sitting on the heated floor of our rental apartment playing board games and eating Japanese junk food.
We made our most recent foray this past summer, though were limited to just 36 hours. I was determined to squeeze as much into that short time as possible! My first order of business was, of course, to eat. A lot. My love of ramen is well-documented and our friends had the perfect little spot lined up: Koumen, a local chain. This inexpensive but satisfying eatery was just the place to fuel up for our adventures.
After stuffing ourselves full of porky noodle-and-dumpling goodness, we set off to explore the city. First up was the restaurant supply market, a delightful street lined with stores selling everything from rice bowls and sushi knives to steamer baskets and sake cups. My favorite items, however, were the fake food. Restaurants all over Japan use these plastic sushi pieces and bowls of noodles to advertise dishes on their menu, often in a glass case near the entrance. I’m not sure how this practice started, but it’s highly useful for foreign diners who might not be able to decipher a Japanese menu. I wanted to buy a few pieces as a souvenir but they were surprisingly pricey.
I had enjoyed the temple district of Asakusa on my first visit to Tokyo and was keen to see it again. We were joined by thousands of tourists and Buddhist faithful who come to pray to the Goddess of Mercy at Sensō-ji, the colorful temple erected in her honor. Though all the original buildings were destroyed during World War II, the district remains one of the oldest in the city. A bustling shopping street leads away from the temple’s main gate, which is hung with immense red paper lanterns.
On a clear day, the views from the top of the Tokyo Skytree can’t be beat! The Skytree is the tallest building in Japan as well as the tallest free-standing broadcasting tower in the world. It was built in 2011 to replace Tokyo Tower, a smaller, red Eiffel-Tower knockoff which was no longer tall enough to broadcast signals over the surrounding skyscrapers. After taking a numbered card and waiting around an hour inside the tower’s quirky shopping mall, we reached the 35th-floor observation deck at dusk, just in time to watch the lights turn on all across the city. (Tickets cost about US$20.)
We ate dinner at an izakaya, the Japanese version of a pub with the welcome addition of barbecue. Seated on cushions on the floor around a low table, we drank frosty mugs of Asahi beer and enjoyed skewers of freshly grilled foods. Sundry parts of a chicken were consumed, from the thighs to the cartilage, along with the kidneys and tongue of a cow. Vegetables, like asparagus and cherry tomatoes, came wrapped in juicy pieces of bacon. This meal was a carnivore’s delight!
After putting on a few unhealthy pounds, the only thing left to do was to sing it off! Karaoke is incredibly popular in Japan, as in much of Asia, though quite different from the West where the experience tends toward public spectacle. We rented a private room which came stocked with a decent selection of English songs and tambourines for the backup singers. Liquid encouragement was ordered by phone and delivered by a discreet and efficient staff who have probably seen and heard it all. We called it a night after belting out our fill of the greatest hits of the 80s and 90s.
The next day we were in need of a long walk and some sushi, to counteract the excesses of the night before. After stashing our bags in a locker at Tokyo Station, we made our way to Sushi Zanmai, a famous chain whose main branch resides at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tuna, salmon and amberjack are my fish of choice, and I may have ordered second helpings of each. Thankfully this didn’t count against my baggage limit at the airport!
Have you been to Tokyo?
How would you spend 36 hours in the city?