Like a Local: Tokyo
A Tour of Tokyo
Close the guidebooks and let a local lead the way.
By Rebecca Milner
Tokyo has been my home for 14 years. My husband (Tokyo born and bred) and I sometimes talk of leaving, but then we realize that would mean giving up the world’s best sushi, an impressively efficient public transportation system, preternaturally safe streets, and gorgeous parks.
Tokyo is the largest city in Japan and one of the largest in the world. Yet to those who live here — 37 million in the greater Tokyo area — it can feel more like a collection of towns squashed together. There is always something new going up or going on, which keeps me on my toes as a travel and culture writer. So if your upcoming cruise takes you to Tokyo, here are my tips to make the most of your time here.
The thousand-year-old Buddhist temple Senso-ji has long been one of Tokyo’s biggest draws. It’s a must-see and gets a mind-boggling 30 million visitors a year, many of whom are Japanese who come to honor Kannon, the goddess of mercy, enshrined in the main hall. Naturally this makes for a very crowded temple — during the day. What most visitors don’t realize is that the temple grounds are open 24 hours a day, and are illuminated from dusk until 11 p.m. During this time Senso-ji is eerily quiet and the lights make for some striking photos.
Off the Beaten Path
The neighborhood of Kichijoji, west of central Tokyo, has for years been voted the most desirable place to live in the city, though few tourists visit. There’s a leafy green space, Inokashira Park, with a pond and a small but ancient shrine to the sea goddess, Benzaiten. There are also narrow streets full of cute boutiques and cafés and a bustling shopping arcade.
If It’s Free, It’s For Me
Tokyo is full of attractions that will charge you money for a sky-high view of the city, but you can get just as good a view for free: the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building (called “Tocho” by Tokyoites) has a public observatory on the 45th floor. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji. It’s also open until 11 p.m. (last entry 10:30 p.m.), so you can get a glittering night view from here, too.
How Not to Look Like a Tourist
There’s nothing that makes locals’ eyes roll more than tourists who overdo it with the soy sauce. At sushi restaurants, just pour a small amount into the little dish — think dipping rather than dunking. And don’t put soy sauce on plain rice!
Eat Around the Town
Japanese food isn’t all raw fish and rice. Ramen, egg noodles in a richly savory soup, is beloved by locals for lunch, dinner, or a midnight snack (basically any time). There are countless variations, with soups flavored with soy sauce, miso, or citrus and toppings ranging from butter-soft marinated pork to bean sprouts to hard-boiled eggs. Tokyo Ramen Street, in the basement of Tokyo Station, has outlets from several of Japan’s most famous restaurants, so you can shop for your favorite combo.
The Best $10 You’ll Ever Spend
Summon up the courage to head into one of Tokyo’s numerous clanging video arcades and look for a “purikura” (short for “print club”) photo booth. After you mug for the camera comes the fun part: decorating the photos with digital pens on the touch-screen panels. You can also opt to have your eyes enhanced, anime-style. It only costs around $4 for two sheets of photo stickers, so you can always have another go at it.
Tokyo is baffling even to the locals: Ask a broad question such as, “What’s your favorite place?” and you’ll be met with a blinking stare. Ask something far more specific and relevant to daily life such as, “What’s your favorite ramen shop?” and the tides will come flooding open…
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Photo: DICK THOMAS JOHNSON