Photo courtesy of Tokyo Metropolitan Government
By: Gigi Manukyan
Tokyo is the city where the old meets the new. A history spanning over 400 years old, Tokyo breathes history and culture. Yet, dually, is home to the largest metropolitan city in the world. Here, the remnants of the Meiji period juxtapose the futuristic sky towers of the booming metropolis, while the influence of the samurai culture still permeates into modern Japanese society. This is a city that prides itself on its ancient history, all the while striving for optimum innovation. This is the Tokyo I fell in love with three years ago, and why I was so eager to attend an event spotlighting Tokyo, thrown by the Japanese Metropolitan Government.
Before kicking off a two-month backpacking trip to SEA, my best friend (who embarked on this adventure with me) and I made our way to Japan. As I had no expectations for the country and was looking forward to our next stop in Thailand, Japan was magical. The first half of our stay in Japan was spent in Tokyo. From the moment we stepped foot in the airport, it was smooth sailing. Despite no understanding of Japanese nor English-friendly signs, the country was easy to navigate. There was a direct train route to and from the airport into town—take note, Los Angeles. Public transport, in general, was easily accessible, with trains arriving promptly on time—take note, MAJORITY OF EUROPE.
Not only has Tokyo mastered public transport, but also safety. Tokyo is ranked the safest city in the world for the third year in a row by the Economic Intelligence Unit. Walking over an hour at 4 am because we missed the last train home, I can attest to this. In general, female travelers have an extra concern for safety, and I’m no different. However, after the ordeal of walking over an hour back home at the crack of dawn and seeing bicycles left unlocked outside, I realized how safe Japan truly is. This is why I always recommend Japan for my fellow female solo travelers, especially if it’s the first solo trip.
Gigi standing in front of Imperial Palace.
For Tokyo, I always recommend setting one day aside for just walking around—to get lost in the magic of this former imperial city. On our walking day, we started at the Imperial Palace, the former site of Edo Castle. “Edo” was Tokyo’s original name during the Edo Period, which came to an end with the Meiji Restoration. After the revolution, the capital was renamed “Tokyo” under Emperor Meiji. For 260 years, the Edo Castle served as home to the powerful Tokugawa shoguns and as the epicenter of Japan’s political sphere.
You will cross a moat that surrounds the palace as during medieval days this was kept to ward off invaders. Once inside imperial grounds, you have a plethora of sites to check out: the watchtowers, guardhouse, and gardens. The watchtowers and guardhouses are designed following the traditional Edo period architecture with tiled roofs, sliding doors, and elevated floors. Despite its purpose, the sight of these defense houses offers tranquility to the unfamiliar eye as they can be mistaken for temples. The East Gardens serve as the former location of Edo Castle; however, only the stone foundation remains. A colorful array of flowers and orchards line along the walkways, with different flowers blooming each season—yes, even cherry blossoms.
A casino that looks like an arcade.
After touring the palace, make your way back to town to explore the eclectic enclaves that make up Tokyo’s metropolitan area. We walked by arcades, casinos that looked like arcades, cat cafes, maid cafes, cafes to meet school girls, one-of-a-kind vending machines, and real-life Mario race karts. Every district is unique from the other, and exploring the main districts back-to-back allowed us to truly experience this.
Harajuku, characterized by colorful shops filled with equally colorful characters, is every fashion lover’s dream. The district caters to just about any niche style, and you definitely will not be shunned—regardless of how ridiculous your outfit may look. You’ll need to go to Ebisu for both traditional Japanese meals and outside-the-box food vending machines, including canned bread and homemade curried rice. Sit down and have a bowl of ramen by yourself at a ramen shop made specifically for singles.
Gigi wondering the streets of Tokyo.
Contrasting Tokyo’s preservation of the Edo period is its boom as a tech giant. Tokyo was ranked Number 1 and Number 2, respectively as the world’s most innovative city by the Innovation Cities Index. Tokyo is a city embracing robotics and encouraging start-ups to produce AI. I mean, there’s a whole Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku with a robotic dance show, so Tokyo really is not playing. The artificial island of Odaiba was revamped to showcase the futuristic pursuits of the Japanese government. Science, technology, innovation are the best ways to describe the experiences offered in Odaiba—doubling as an excellent place to learn more about Japan’s AI endeavors.
If you’re fond of a good night out (like me), you MUST go to Roppongi. You will have easy access to all the best clubs Tokyo has to offer, plus LA favorite, 1 OAK. If you’re hungry for the best of the best, check out V2 and Odeon. Women are granted free entry, while men pay hefty entrance fees. Regardless, at Odeon you’re guaranteed a good time, especially if you fancy partying until the wee hours of the morning, or until lunchtime the next day on weekends.
Taken at Sensō-ji.
Come full circle and end in Asakusa, where the blend of Tokyo’s past and present is the most distinct. This district in Taitō is famous for the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. According to legend, in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River. Despite putting the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Completed in 645, the temple is Tokyo‘s oldest. The annual Sanja Festival, one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo, is held here.
To get a panoramic of Sensō-ji, go to the top of the Tokyo Skytower, where even Mt. Fuji is in full view. Opened in 2012 as the ‘world’s tallest free-standing tower’ and is currently the second tallest structure in the world. Asakusa’s blend of traditional and modern attractions effortlessly represents the Japanese Metropolitan Government’s “Old Meets New” campaign, promoting the city ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
To learn more about Japan and to help plan your trip, click here. You will not go wrong with Japan!