cover photo: Representative Shrine, Tokyo
This is Japan:
Land of Ancient Wisdom and Modern Precision
Tokyo: Modern Japan
(First of four)
By: Amber Creighton
Photos By: Amber Creighton
Japan is often thought of as an exotic, mystical land shrouded in mystery. It is that. Yet, modern Japan is also home to lightning fast technology, quartz-like efficiency, and a vivid enjoyment of life. Self-expression in Japanese modern culture often seeps out in the form of unique creativity and a wry sense of humor dispelling the myth of this seemingly conformist culture.
As a family, we traveled on a trip throughout mainland Japan and its tropical Okinawa Islands. This is the first of four location-centered articles in a series focusing on some of the highlights and unique experiences that can only be found in Japan. I’ve included some helpful tips and advice to make all of you future visitors’ cross-cultural trip as unforgettable as possible.
We began our trip in the metropolis of modern Tokyo. Tokyo is an excellent transitional city for the overseas traveler gently introducing the traveler to Japanese society amid a gamete of modern conveniences with familiar scenes and cuisines. It has familiar elements found all over the world and is multi-cultural.
Tokyo offers historically preserved temples, shrines, and ancient gardens as well as modern icons such as the Tokyo Skytree Tower.
The entrancing Meiji Jingu Shrine was built in 1920 to honor the Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, who reopened Japan to the West. When entering the shrine, the traditional washing basin, updated to an infinity style pool to keep purifying the ceremonial water, is available for viewers of the temple to rinse their hands and mouth. Many ceremonies, including baptisms and weddings, take place at the Meiji Jingu Shrine because of its architectural beauty and historical significance.
The Imperial Palace Gardens are overflowing with flowers, intricate walkways, ponds, waterfalls, fountains and colorful koi. Formidable stone walls and thick, lush gardens shield the modern-day Imperial Palace from public view. However, there are many visible ancient structures that date back to the 400-year-old founding of the palace, when the Imperial family moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo.
The current Imperial Palace, occupied by the modern-day Imperial family of Japan, was built upon the foundation of Edo Castle. Remnants of the castle are seen today, but many of its original structures are gone. Edo Castle was the home of the Tokugwa shogun, ruler of Japan from 1603 to 1867. The beloved Emperor Meiji, famed for re-opening Japan to the West, also lived in Edo Castle, before moving into the then created Imperial Palace, which still stands today.
The modern icon of the Tokyo Skytree Tower provides amazing views of the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo. It also offers fantastic contemporary experiences such as interactive characters and a water park for small children. Skytree City, underneath its base, is filled with shops and restaurants.
The Asakusa Kannon (or Senso-Ji) Temple, marked by a huge red lantern hanging at its entrance, is spectacular. It dates to 645 AD and is one of the most colorful and popular temples in Japan. The statues, gates and temple structures are well preserved and maintained.
Japan is adorned with many spectacular parks and zen gardens. One of my favorites was the Hamarikyu Gardens, created in the classical Japanese style, achieving a Zen-feel amid a backdrop of Tokyo skyscrapers. The gardens are expansive and the result on a sunny day is quite surreal.
The best place to begin experiencing modern-day Japan is at the crossing in front of Shibuya station. Known as “the Scramble” it is the sight of so many people crossing seamlessly and simultaneously, with the lights of Tokyo at night as a backdrop. It is truly a quintessential experience of city-life in Japan.
It’s important to experience Japan’s variety of districts. Ginza, Tokyo’s luxury shopping district, is the equivalent of New York’s 5th Avenue and you will see many of the same brand name shops housed in elegant facades. Ginza also has the distinctive Japanese twist of interactive robots on almost every corner.
The Akihabara district with its iconic maid cafes and vast array of technological gadgets and robotic stores is Tokyo. Every type of technology available in today’s world for pleasure or work is here. The classic Japanese figurines and animation characters are present on every store and corner.
The districts of Odaiba and Tokyo Bay are home to the iconic Fuji TV Building, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, a giant ferris wheel, lovely parks and Tokyo Beach.
Tokyo Beach is a recreational area along the river that provides an excellent view of the Rainbow Bridge, which looks strikingly similar to the Brooklyn Bridge. There are many science museums, which makes this a great location to enjoy with children. It is also a bit more laid-back than the rest of Tokyo.
The current historical grounds of the famous Tsukiji Fish Market are the future grounds of the summer Olympics that are coming to Japan in 2020. The market’s character will be preserved but as it stands today, it is not to be missed. Every type of shellfish and deep water fish imaginable is on display, alive, and ready to be served excruciatingly fresh to consumers. The traditional deep-sea fishermen present their wares, amid other merchants constantly zipping around on lightning fast carts.
There is occasionally a language barrier for non-Japanese speakers in Japan, but that doesn’t mean that communication is inherently difficult. On one occasion, as I was stepping off the train, my sandal got caught in the stroller and it fell off into the gap! I thought my shoe was lost forever. We went to leave the station to get some inexpensive flip flops so that we could get back to our hotel. However, our electronic ticket read that we hadn’t actually finished the train ride so we had to go to the help desk to exit the station. I pointed at my bare foot to the attendant and tried to explain that we needed to leave the station. The attendant immediately pulled out a bag of clean rubber shoes, selected my size and handed it to me, and then motioned for us to wait. He showed us a map of the track so we pointed to the number of the platform where it happened. A team of two ladies then showed up with an extendable picker-upper. We went up with them to the platform and they immediately retrieved my shoe for me. This all happened without a word of English being spoken and in a matter of minutes. I have to say I am pretty impressed with the protocols for situations in Japan and that the Japanese people, in general, are an extremely nice lot. All in all, Japan is a wonderful and safe place to travel – with or without family in tow.
Tsukiji Fish Market
My family at the Tokyo Skytree Tower
Tokyo Skytree Tower water park
“The Scramble” at Shibuya Crossing