Another world city might be called the city that never sleeps but if you want to make the most of the sights in Tokyo there’s not much time for napping. Here's our guide to spending 48 hours in Tokyo.
The city electric
The bright lights, the sheer spectacle of the mass of signs – there’s no mistaking I’m in Tokyo as soon as I hit the Akihabara district. It’s the world's largest electrical equipment marketplace with more than 250 appliance and electronic shops of all sizes crammed along Chuo-dori Street. But what began as an area specialising in electrical equipment in the latter half of the 1940s, just as the locals’ primary source of information was radio, is now a shopping mecca where I can even buy my own personal robot (at Tsukumo Robot Kingdom, the world’s first specialist robot store). Prices are comparable to Australia but it’s not price that’s the attraction here but the massive range of models and accessories and, unlike some other destinations in Asia, they are original brands, not fakes. The downside is that all instructions are in Japanese and an international converter is required, although some duty-free stores have export-ready models. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here – it probably doesn’t exist.
Shopping and shrines in Asakusa
In stark contrast to Akihabara, the Asakusa district is a slice of old Japan, dating back to the 7th century. Passing through the vermilion-lacquered Kaminarimon Gate (Thunder Gate), the symbol of Asakusa, traditional Japanese culture is everywhere. The main attraction here is the ancient Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo's oldest, built in 645, as a tribute to an important Buddhist deity. Although largely destroyed in WWII, the buildings have been restored to their original condition. Wandering around its vast grounds I feel a sense of calm, despite the constant flow of visitors and worshippers. Some 30 million people visit this popular temple every year.
Along Nakamise-dori Street, one of Japan’s oldest shopping streets which leads to the temple, I buy a hand-made silk kimono jacket from one of the many shops for around $25. The shopping street has a history of several centuries and sells a multitude of traditional goods from hand-made Japanese paper to clothes and sweets at reasonable prices.
At the Ekimise shopping hotspot directly above Asakusa Station, I can’t go past the Shinobiya store which specialises in samurai and ninja goods, and for about $30, buy a set of five ‘shuriken’, the star-shaped weapons thrown by ninja warriors in movies. The store also has a wide range of original samurai swords with prices around $1800 or imitation swords that look as good as the real thing from around $150.
Tokyo’s tallest tree
From Asakusa Station, it’s a two-minute train ride to the Tokyo Sky Tree. The second tallest structure in the world is impossible to miss, towering 634 metres high over the Tokyo skyline. I buy a ‘fast ticket’ for around $29, which is only available to international visitors so you don’t have to wait in line.
The elevator ladies greet me as though I am the most important person in the world as I head up to the observation deck, where I’m rewarded with 360-degree panoramic views across the entire city.
Back down to earth and I have time to visit the planetarium in the Solamachi (Sky Town) building next door. It features over 300 shops and restaurants and an entire floor with original souvenir and craft shops, and is well worth visiting, even without Japan's tallest tower on top of it. Shows screen throughout the day, but two special ones at 8 and 9 pm provide the healing scent of aromatherapy to match the very cool audio-visual scenes of the starry sky.
Shinjuku is where neon signs turn night into day and Tokyoites come out to play. Shinjuku Station is the world's busiest railway station, carrying more than two million passengers every day. I figure the best way to experience the organised chaos is to jump right in.
Day and night, Shinjuku is overflowing with restaurants, bars, shops and giant video screens. Especially fascinating is the Golden Gai, a small area between the Shinjuku Town Hall and the Hanazono Shrine, in the Kabuki-cho district, Tokyo’s red-light district. It’s a tiny fragment of old Tokyo, providing a glimpse of what the city was like in the past. Here, more than 200 tiny bars are crammed into six narrow alleys, some only a few metres wide. Each only seats around eight to 10 people and they are all unique, some playing music from hip hop to pop; while others are odes to movies, horse-racing and other more obscure themes.
My advice is to wander and try a few that you like the look of. The bars usually open around 8pm and close around 5am. The buildings are ramshackle and the alleys dimly lit – but Tokyo has one of the lowest crime rates of any big city, and I feel perfectly safe wandering around on my own at night. It’s a good place to linger and soak up modern Japanese culture, or for a few drinks after dinner. Best avoided if you can’t stand cigarette smoke, as few, like most places in Japan, are non-smoking.
To end my day in Tokyo, I head to Gonpachi, in the heart of Roppongi, otherwise known as the 'Kill Bill Restaurant' as it was here that a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s movie was filmed. It’s one of the great movie destinations of Tokyo (another being the Karaoke-Kan in Shibuya where the karaoke scenes in Lost in Translation were filmed).
The food is modern Izakaya (Japanese pub) geared towards a Western palate. I’d recommend the set menu which includes 10 courses including salmon carpaccio, fried shrimp dumplings, assorted skewers (such as chicken, vegetable, wagyu), noodles and dessert.
After dinner there’s time for a nightcap in the Moon Lounge on the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, where the glass walls offer superb views of the neon-lit city below. It remains one of my treasured memories of Tokyo. Adventurers with a good head for heights may want to arrive earlier and venture out to the open-air Sky Deck. Entry fees apply.
On day two I head to Harajuku, the famed cultural heaven for Tokyo's youth. Anytime of day or night is a good time to hit Harajuku, although weekends are when the teens are out in force. I start with a stroll down Omotesando Avenue, sometimes referred to as Tokyo's Champs-Elysees because it’s lined with elegant boutiques and restaurants and it has a distinct European feel.
However, the focal point of Harajuku's teen culture is Takeshita Street, where it’s hard not to stare at the outrageous outfits and wild haircuts. Daiso Harajuku is one of the largest 100 Yen Shops in central Tokyo, where there are more unusual items than you can poke a chopstick at, such as clothing, kitchenware, food and stationery and uniquely Japanese goods, all for around $1.
Free entertainment doesn’t come much better than an afternoon spent at Yoyogi Park which draws all sorts of talent on weekends, from hip-hop dancers to Elvis impersonators. I love the way the dogs are also decked out in rhinestones and denim or dressed like cheerleaders.
Weird and wonderful dining
Tokyo has around 160,000 restaurants, more than any other city in the world. Anywhere you go, you’ll be within a few paces of a good, if not great, restaurant.
Ramen is one of Japan’s national foods. Some of the best ramen restaurants can be found at Tokyo Ramen Street, in the basement at Tokyo Station. The longest lines are always at Rokurinsha, where people are known to wait well over an hour for a seat..
For an ‘only in Tokyo’ experience, try out one of the quirky themed restaurants. Cat cafés are commonplace now but there are other animal cafes where you can play with your pet of choice, from rabbits (and hedgehogs) to reptiles, or be immersed in the techno show at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku-ku. The food is standard, but that’s not the attraction, and these offbeat eateries give some insight to what amuses the locals.
At the other end of the scale, Narisawa in Minato City, about 20 minutes by train from central Tokyo, consistently appears on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (most recently in the top 20). Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa flawlessly creates each dish with imagination - and a little drama – serving a menu ‘omakase’ style (chosen by the chef) that changes every day, according to ingredients. Bookings open only one month prior to the dining date (so from 1 June for dining in July, for example) and cost starts above AUD$350 per person for lunch (more for dinner), but the experience of enjoying a meal at a two-Michelin star restaurant, made with the finest Japanese ingredients and prepared by one of Japan’s top chefs is priceless.