QUIET PONDS AND MANICURED TREES: Exploring magical zen gardens in Tokyo

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Traditional Japanese Gardens are great places to relax in Tokyo. They’re usually not very busy and visited mostly by locals.

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KIYOSUMI GARDEN

I decided to visit this place as it was close to where I was staying. What a wonderful surprise!

This is a picture-perfect XIX century Japanese garden, and you can spend a couple of hours taking in the manicured landscape, watching tortoises and carp laze about and having a picnic with a view (tickets Y150). This was the first Japanese garden I visit and one of my favourites.

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KOISHIKAWA KORAKUEN

I visited Koishikawa Korakuen Garden (ticket Y300) at the end of my Japanese adventure, and it was one of my favourite places!

This is a massive Japanese garden full of little gems – waterfalls, red bridges, lakes, fruits trees etc. I visited on a beautiful sunny day in early November, when you could catch the red tint of autumn leaves which made it the perfect time for a visit.

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The place is pretty big, so you can spend an hour or two exploring and having a snack enjoying the view.

Japanese gardens are always amazing, but this one was probably my favourite!

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RIKUGIEN

Rikugien Garden (tickets Y300) is inspired by scenes in Japanese poems. It is a large garden full of little places to explore, including a human-made hill with great views over the garden and a little waterfall.

It’s located in a quiet neighbourhood but definitely worth the trip.

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HAMARIKYU 

Close to Tsukiji Market, Hamarikyu is a nice green area in central Tokyo (tickets Y300). The place is really big, with many ponds (filled with water from Tokyo Bay), traditional buildings and cafes.

As it covers a large area, it’s more like an urban park than a garden, and as you take in the quiet atmosphere you also see the contrasting skyscrapers nearby.

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SHINJUKU GYOEN NATIONAL GARDEN

Gyoen Garden (tickets Y200) is another place to escape the madness. It’s a quiet garden right by Shinjuku with lots of different areas, including a traditional Japanese garden. It’s the perfect place to recharge with a picnic.

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Tokyo doesn’t have many green areas, but its gardens really are the best!

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HANGING OUT WITH TOTORO AND A TEMPLE FOR CATS: Tokyo off the beaten track

Tokyo has lots of different areas, but many visitors don’t get to explore much outside the tourist trail. These are some cool places I went to in Tokyo:

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GHIBLI MUSEUM

Even before I went to Japan I knew I wanted to visit the Ghibli Museum, but it was still better than I expected!

The museum is located in a park in Mitaka, and even from the outside the place already looks great. Inside, over three floors there are a range of exhibits about the different Studio Ghibli movies, as well as a cool shop and a cafe.

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There’s also a cinema where you watch a short film (in Japanese, but you understand the story from the context). The building is really cool with lots of little nooks and an architecture that brings the displays to life and replicates the atmosphere from Ghibli films.

Tickets cost Y1000 but need to be purchased well in advance on specific dates via this website. They sell out really quickly, which means staying up until 3 or 4am in Europe to get them when they first become available.

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DAIKANYAMA AND SENDAGAYA

I decided to follow the walking tour directions from my excellent Monocle travel guide.

Daikanyama is a cool upmarket neighbourhood full of shops and cafes. The best thing there is the flagship branch of Tsutaya bookshop – two huge floors of inspiration with books (many in English), design objects, a music shop, lounge and lots of sitting space where you can read a book with a cup of coffee. It’s a great find.

Sendagaya is an unassuming area not far from Shibuya. Here you can find little independent shops and many restaurants.

Both areas were good for seeing a chilled side of Tokyo off the beaten track.

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SUMIDA HOKUSAI MUSEUM

I was planning to visit the Edo Tokyo Museum but it was closed for refurbishment. Luckly, there was a sign nearby with directions to the Sumida Hokusai Museum, so I decided to check it out. This is a small but well put-together space, focusing on Hokusai’s life in the area around Sumida, the river that inspired many of his works (tickets Y1200 including temporary exhibitions).

TSUKISHIMA

Built with reclaimed land in the XIX century, Tsukishima is an island in Tokyo Bay. The area is full of cool cafes and restaurants, and little alleyways where locals live. It’s a great place to wander around for a bit, and off the beaten track.

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GOTOKUJI TEMPLE

Gotokuji is a nice and fun temple to visit in Tokyo. It’s not as impressive as some other temples, but it’s located in a quiet neighbourhood so it’s a good place for a break. The best thing about it are the many Menekineko (cat figurines) displayed around the site. This popular luck amulet is said to have originated here and has become its symbol.

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AIN SOPH SOAR

There are a few Ain Soph restaurants in Tokyo, and we visited Ain Soph Soar in Ikebukuro. This is a cool restaurant serving international food and it’s fully vegan.

We had cheese fondue, pasta and their signature pancakes for dessert, and all of it was great. Their Moscow Mule was really delicious too (dinner for two including drinks for Y6300). It’s a great place to visit for a special meal.

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FISH MARKETS AND BIG WHEELS: Tokyo diaries part 4

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TSUKIJI MARKET

One of Tokyo’s most famous attractions is the Tsukiji fish market. People can visit the auction in the early hours of the morning, but I decided to visit the outer area of the market later instead.

Very close to the market is Tsukiji Hongwanji, a Buddhist temple which is not super-impressive but worth a quick stop.

Reaching the market you get to experience the kind of Asian street food you see on tv. You can try fresh sushi, taste local fruit and sample mochi, the famous rice sweets. There are lots of unusual vegetables for sale, although these can be very expensive. Even for a veggie, it was a great place to visit, with lots to see.

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SKYTREE

There are many places to see Tokyo from above, and the Skytree is one of the most famous. I decided not to enter (I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is free instead), but spent some time exploring the area around it.

There’s a huge shopping centre under it, with lots of shops selling anything from traditional Japanese handicraft to Hello Kitty merchandise.

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TOKYO TOWER AND ZIGOJI

Tokyo Tower is another famous observation deck. The structure looks a bit like the Eiffel Tower, but in red and white. I chose not to climb it either, but on a sunny day the view is supposed to be really good.

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The Zogoji temple is a great place to visit if you’re going to the Tokyo Tower, as you get a nice contrast of old and modern with the temple right in front of Tokyo Tower. There are also lots of little statues with bibs that are really cute and cool.

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ROPPONGI

A popular area for going out, Roppongi is a nice neighbourhood full or bars and restaurants. It’s also home to Roppongi Hills, which hosts a massive shopping cenrtre and the Mori Art Museum (ticket Y1000), a modern art museum with lots of cool exhibitions. As it’s located on the 52nd floor, you also get amazing views over the city.

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Not too far from Roppongi is Asakasa, an upmarket office area which also has some shrines – I visited Hie Shrine which was very nice.

ODAIBA

By Tokyo Bay, Odaiba is an area with lots of shopping centres and some local attractions. The shopping centres are what you’d expect, but the massive Gundam statue in front of them is worth a visit.

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The Miraikan – National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – is a fun place to visit (tickets Y620). There are lots of interactive scientific displays, which are exactly what you’d expect of Japanese innovation. But the main attraction is definitely Asimo, the Honda robot that can hop on one leg.

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Odaiba is also home to a Ferris wheel which was the tallest in the world when it was built. At 115m high it really is huge, and on a sunny day you get amazing views over the bay (tickets Y920).

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You can also get great views over the impressive Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Bay from the promenade next to Aqua City, which aside from the views also has an inexplicable replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Odaiba is not a must see in Tokyo but it’s worth the visit if you have many days in the city.

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NEON ARCADES IN AKIBA AND BUSY TEMPLES IN ASAKUSA: Tokyo diaries part 3

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UENO

Ueno is home to a large park (Uenoonshi) where street artists entertain the crowds. It’s also where you can find many different museums. It was a rainy day, so I visited the Tokyo National Museum (ticket Y620), which has a great collection of Japanese artefacts.

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In the same park is also the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, which hosts a range of free and paid modern and contemporary art exhibitions. I visited a calligraphy one which was interesting.

Near Ueno station is Ameya Yokocho, a pedestrianised market street where stalls sell lots of food and souvenirs. It’s a lively area and good for a walk.

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AKIHABARA

Not far from Ueno, Akihabara (also known as Electric Town or Akiba) is a paradise for anime and electronics fans (I am neither). It’s a weird area full of girls dressed as maids inviting you to one of the many maid cafes around (I don’t think so) and buildings covered with manga on the walls.

There are lots of electronics shops, such as the massive Yodobashi, selling all sorts of stuff.

One fun thing to do around Akiba is going to an arcade (there are many around). You can play new and old video games (I played Super Mario World), try your luck in a prize machine to get a plush toy or manga-ify yourself getting decorated photo stickers. It’s a fun thing to do for a couple of hours.

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YANAKA

Not far from Ueno is Yanaka, an area off the beaten path which is most interesting because it’s one of the few areas of Tokyo which weren’t destroyed in the war. The place has a completely different feel from most of the city, and it’s definitely worth checking out. Yanaka Ginza is the main street, with lots of little shops and bars.

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ASAKUSA

It was dark when I crossed the Sumida river over to Asakusa, and I got amazing views of the Skytree, Asahi Beer Hall and a full moon.

Straightaway I knew Asakusa would be just my kind of place – lots of traditional-looking streets with little shops selling food, handicraft and souvenirs. The place is full of life and you can easily spend hours losing yourself and taking it all in.

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Nearby is the impressive Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. The place is really impressive, and it was great seeing it at night with all the lights on, even if it was already shut. You can get your fortune for Y100, which is a fun thing to do.

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I decided to go back and explore some more during the day, and it was also great. The area gets really busy, as there are lots of shops and food stalls around, but it’s fast-moving and not too crowded. I tried itayaki (Y154), which is a pancake shaped as a fish with a sweet filling (the traditional one is red bean paste, but I chose custard instead).

Senso-ji Temple is also busier during the day, but there’s more to see as everything is open.

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ENJOYING THE BUSY LIFE IN SHINJUKU AND SHIBUYA: Tokyo diaries part 2

I knew before I went to Tokyo that I wanted to stay somewhere around Shinjuku, so I spent I lot of my time in the area.

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SHINJUKU

One of the most popular areas of Tokyo is Shinjuku. As soon as you get off the station you’re overwhelmed by neon lights, bright screens and competing loud music.

There are shops everywhere, and a massive Godzilla head watches over you. This is the Tokyo of films. In Shinjuku you can shop at popular places like Don Quijote (don’t go there, it’s a nightmare) or Tokyu Hands; you can go to tourist traps like the Robot Restaurant (I didn’t visit) and you can enjoy lots of weird and wonderful bars.

It’s a good area to explore, and if you’re based around there, you will get to know it well.

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GOLDEN GAI AND BAR-HOPPING

Golden Gai is a traditional area of Shinjuku where you get hundreds of tiny little bars in a few narrow alleys. In the past it was mostly a local crowd, but when we visited it was very touristy.

There are lots and lots of bars in the area and around Shinjuku in general, so there are plenty of options. We went to From Dusk Till Dawn, which despite being mostly empty on a Friday night was a cool place with good music and friendly staff (drinks for Y700).

We also went to Capcom Bar, a videogame-themed bar where you can play games while enjoying food and drinks inspired by them. I tried the Hadouken (for Y700), which was good and looked great too. It’s a fun place to visit – even if it’s clearly very touristy it’s still an interesting experience.

TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT BUILDING

A great option to see Tokyo from above is the Metropolitan Government Building. It has two observation decks (north and south) on the 45th floor and it’s amazingly free to visit (I visited twice and you need to wait a bit to get in but not much).

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You can get amazing views over the city day and night (the north tower is open until 11pm), and it’s definitely a highlight of any Tokyo trip – you get to see the city sprawling in all directions with no end in sight.

Tokyo is a whole world and this is the perfect place to spot its magnitude. I visited the south tower during the day and north tower in the evening and both were great.

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SHIBUYA

The Shibuya scramble crossing is a famous intersection which highlights how Japan is hectic and orderly at the same time. When the lights are green, up to 3,000 people can cross at the same time. It’s nice to watch it from the station and then join the crowds on the ground, which is really fun.

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Shibuya is an area at the heart of Tokyo where you can get lost for a few hours exploring the place and going into shops. It’s also full of neon signs and bright lights, but a bit less gritty than Shinjuku.

HARAJUKU

Harajuku is internationally famous as the place you see in photos showing Japanese girls dressed up in the weirdest outfits. The area is full of shops selling all sorts of kawaii tat. There are lots of little roads to explore and watch the local crowds – although it is very touristy so you’re really watching other tourists!

If you venture off the main roads things get a bit more interesting. I found Mojo, a hidden-away cafe serving nice pastries (two drinks and a pastry for Y1200) which was perfect for a slow break. And heading towards Omotesando is also a good option to escape the crowds.

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MEIJI JINGU

Meiji Jingu is an Edo temple localted in Yoyogi, a huge park next to Harajuku. The park is beautiful and so is the temple – a great place for a quiet break on a sunny day.

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FOOD AND DRINK:

AOYAMA FLOWER MARKET TEA HOUSE

A flower shop which is also a tea house is the perfect setting for an instagrammable drink. The Aoyama Flower Market Tea House is a popular place for tea with a light meal or dessert. I went on a Monday to avoid queuing (it gets very busy), and it was definitely worth the visit.

I had the Collette tea which was really good with the ‘Halloween’ eclair, very good too (both for Y1530). The whole place is decorated with plants hanging from the ceiling and little vases with flowers everywhere. A bit girly, but a perfect stop for a little treat.

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8ABLISH

We had lunch at this nice restaurant in fancy Omotesando. It is a vegan restaurant serving delicious set lunches with local beers and yummy dessert. A bit expensive at Y3000-4000 per person, but definitely a good option for a treat.

YEBISU BEER MUSEUM

Ebisu is a nice area just one stop from Shibuya. There you can find the Yebisu Beer Museum, a grandiose bar with a small gallery where you can learn about Yebisu beer and taste the different varieties. You can get any of their beers for just Y400 or a tasting set of three for Y800 – it’s definitely worth a visit!

RAINBOW RAW FOOD

Also in Ebisu we went for lunch at Rainbow Raw Food, a vegan place serving a nice selection of light meals. We had the sushi lunch set (Y1500 per person) which was really delicious – and the only time I had sushi in Japan so definitely a good thing to do.

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EXPLORING GINZA AND THE IMPERIAL GARDENS: Tokyo diaries part 1

I spent lots of time in Tokyo, but the first area I discovered was around Ginza and Tokyo Station, as that’s where my first hotel was.

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GINZA AND NIHONBASHI

On my first day in Tokyo, I headed to Ginza, an area full of major retailers. It’s a good area to visit, as it’s full of flagship stores and bustling with people. Nearby Nihonbashi is equally impressive. Even if you don’t like shopping, it’s interesting with lots of flagship stores.

I visited Uniqlo (spread over 13 floors!), Muji, Mitsukoshi (a famous department store) and G. Itoya (a great stationary shop). Shops around Ginza often cover many floors and have anything you need (and even more that you don’t).

Ginza is considered to be a more Western part of Tokyo, with its ample avenues. To me it’s still very much Japan, completely OTT, but a bit less hectic than Shibuya or Shinjuku.

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TOKYO STATION

Tokyo Station is massive and manic, and it has lots of shops and restaurants around and inside it. It’s a useful place to visit for tickets and to get information, but it’s also an interesting stop itself.

Inside the station there’s T’s Tantan, a vegan favourite as it serves ramen (which is rarely vegan-friendly). The food was really delicious and definitely worth a visit (lunch for two including drinks for Y3000). The restaurant is located inside the JR barriers at Keiyo Street, so you need a valid ticket to get in.

Just outside Tokyo Station is Hitachino Brewing Lab, a nice bar serving Hitachino beer. You can try one of their nice beers for around Y700, or sample a float of three for Y980.

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IMPERIAL GARDENS

After many days of rain there was finally a break, so we went to the Imperial Gardens (free to visit). It is one of the largest green areas in central Tokyo, and a good place to spend a few hours. There are ample green areas, an orchard, and many historical buildings which used to serve as lookout posts.

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MOMAT

Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art is behind the Imperial Gardens. The place hosts many different exhibitions and you can buy different tickets – we visited the permanent collection for Y500. It is a great museum with lots of interesting artworks by Japanese artists, so definitely worth a visit to get to know their work.

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KABUKI THEATRE

One of those things you think about doing before you go to Japan is seeing some Kabuki, and it was actually quite easy to do. Kabuki-za is a famous theatre in Ginza, and it has performances every day.

You can buy tickets on the day for a single act (the whole thing lasts four hours, so an hour-long act is enough). You join the queue about 1h30 before it starts and you get a ticket for Y1000 to Y1600 depending on the performance. You can rent an audio guide to translate it, but they also give you a written summary before it starts (all the details are on this website, look for the single act instructions).

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We went late one afternoon and it was a great experience. The theatre looks amazing and brand new, and the set and costumes are perfect – I don’t think I’ve seen this level of care in a production before.

The plays are quite old-fashioned – it’s all funny expressions and funny lines (I gather), so you only need to try it once!

HUGE BUDDHAS AND CUTE STREETS: Day trip to Kamakura and Yokohama

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I decided to take a day trip to Kamakura, which is not very far from Tokyo.

The main draw of Kamakura is the Great Buddha statue (tickets Y200), which really is huge and impressive.

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Nearby is Hasedera temple (tickets Y300), a beautiful temple with lots of things to see: there’s a great garden, lots of little Buddha statues and caves with wall carvings.

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Kamakura is a great place to visit, as aside from the temples there are lots of cool shops and cafes, and the town centre is really cute.

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Nearby is Yokohama, so you can visit both on the same day. Yokohama has a famous Chinatown, so I went to check it out. There are lots of food and souvenir shops as you’d expect from any Chinatown, but what really struck me was how nice and tidy it was – definitely the neatest Chinatown I’ve seen!

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Yokohama also has the Red Brick Warehouse, a historical building which was made into a shopping centre – but a nice one, with independent shops and plenty of cafes and restaurants.

This is a good option for a day trip not far from Tokyo.

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GETTING THERE:

Kamakura is served by a JR line from Shinjuku. The trip takes about 1h20. Once there, everything is within walking distance.

Yokohama is also on the JR line, and the best stations near the city centre are on the Negishi line. It is about 30min from Kamakura and 50min from Shinjuku. Tickets from Tokyo are cheap (Y800 – Y1000, or free with a JR pass).

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