My City: Tokyo

It's easy to get lost in a city where the streets have no names and the buildings no numbers.

by Niall Murtagh
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world to get lost in. You'll never find yourself in a dangerous part of town because there are none.

If you look lost enough, you'll most likely be accosted not by a mugger but by an eager student of English, aged anything between 18 and 80, happy to help you find your way and even happier to get some free conversation practice.

It's easy to get lost in Tokyo: the population of the metropolitan area is about 34 million, the streets have no names (except for a few major thoroughfares), the buildings, which are arranged in blocks, sometimes have no numbers and when they do, the numbering is haphazard, like an unsolved sudoku puzzle. Even Tokyoites use maps to find their way around.

Tokyo has many sub-centres, each has a different character depending on the age and wealth of its flowing population. Shibuya is perhaps the trendiest, with its alleys of flashing neon, video screens that look down on what is claimed to be the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world and unexpected music in the air.

When I first came here in the 1980s, I remember recognising a song being played as background music in the chic 109 Department Store. It was by an English group, The Smiths, and the lyrics were something you would never hear in Harrods: "Shoplifters of the world, unite and take over".

I realised then why Japan is often misunderstood.

As a foreign student I spent many evenings in Shibuya learning the intricacies of the language, as well as the dating culture, and I became proficient at both: my livelihood now involves translation and my wife is from Tokyo.

Shibuya is still a place full of bars, music houses and noisy students, but you have to be under 30 to feel comfortable there.

If you have the time and you need a break from the crowds, go one station north of Shibuya, to Harajuku, and wander into the green oasis of the Meiji Shrine. A few minutes into the thickly wooded grounds and you would think you've left the city behind for a forest park in the hills, with the din of traffic replaced by birdsong or even silence. Just don't come here at New Year. Over the first three days of January, about 3 million Tokyoites line up to throw coins into a huge moneybox placed near the traditional Shinto shrine and to pray for prosperity.

To get a foretaste of what a metropolis of the 22nd century will be like, take the computerised, unmanned train on the elevated Yurikamome line from its Shinbashi terminus. Stand or sit at the front of the train for the best views as it glides past office towers, over and under expressways, then spirals up and across the Rainbow Bridge to the new sub-city of Odaiba, built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. Here, you can stay in one of several high-class hotels, including the five-star Le Meridien Grand Pacific Tokyo and the Nikko, or if you are on a budget, the moderately priced Ariake Washington Hotel, a few stops away near the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition centre.

For eating in style, try the fresh seafood at Tsukiji Sushiko or Koumei Ariake for new styles of Japanese cuisine. You can eat almost any type of cuisine in Odaiba before taking a stroll along the beach - an artificial one, complete with sand, boardwalk and seaside park. If you walk close to the Rainbow Bridge, as far as Daiba Park, you can even find something from the past - the ruins of a fortress built to protect the bay from foreigners in the 19th century.

But these days Tokyo welcomes visitors. The city will bid for the 2016 Olympics, and I've noticed that there are many more English signs and train announcements than there were. The way things are going, it will soon no longer be easy to get lost in Tokyo. And that might be a pity.

By Niall Murtagh, the author of the best-selling book, The Blue-Eyed Salaryman

 

Further information

The Japan National Tourist Organisation has a useful website with everything from advice on doing business in Japan, to basic phrases in Japanese. It has addresses of the main tourist offices in town and at Narita and Kansai Airports.

It also hosts another website where visitors can get information on places to visit, where to stay and eat, and practical information on visas, embassies and emergency services.


Restaurants

Tsukiji Sushiko
See the website for a full list of restaurants, addresses and serving hours

Koumei Ariake
Ariake Park Bldg. 2F, 3-1-28 Ariake, Koto-ku
+81 3 3599 3636
Lunch 11.00-15.30, dinner 17.00-22.00


Hotels

Hotel Nikko
1-9-1 Daiba, Minato-ku
+81 3 5500 5500

Ariake Washington Hotel
3-1-28 Ariake, Koto-ku
+81 3 5564 0111

Le Meridien Grand Pacific Tokyo
2-6-1 Daiba, Minato-Ku
+81 3 5500 6711

Places to visit

Shibuya

Shibuya Station is one of Tokyo's busiest stations. You can get there by JR Yamanote Line, JR Saikyo Line, JR Shonan Shinjuku Line, Hanzomon Subway Line, Ginza Subway Line, Tokyu Toyoko Line, Tokyu Den-Entoshi Line and Keio Inokashira Line.

109 Department Store, Shibuya

This is a trend-setting fashion complex for young women with more than 100 boutiques on ten floors. Usually pronounced "Shibuya ichi maru kyu", the complex's name can also be read as "Shibuya to kyu", identifying the complex as part of the Tokyu Group.

Odaiba

Attractions of Odaiba include shopping and entertainment centres, theme parks, museums, futuristic architecture and city planning. Daiba, literally meaning 'fort', refers to some of the man-made islands in the Bay of Tokyo, which were constructed in the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) for the city's protection against attacks from the sea.

Tokyo Big Sight Exhibition Centre
3-21-1 Ariake, Koto-ku
+81 3 5530 1111

Meiji Shrine

The approach to Meiji Shrine starts a few steps from Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line or Meiji-jingu-mae Station on the Subway Chiyoda Line.

Rainbow Bridge

It is possible to cross the Rainbow Bridge on foot. The walk across takes about 30 minutes and offers nice views of the waterfront area. To access the bridge, get off at Shibaura-futo Station on the Yurikamome.

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