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The Tokyo Times

If you’re planning on visiting Asia this summer, you could do worse than spend a few days sampling the unique delights of Tokyo, writes Gavan Reilly

For most of us on this island, the closest we might get to Tokyo is a late night viewing of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, interspersed with epic vistas of endless and eerily grey skyscrapers fading into oblivion. While its buildings do indeed fade into the distance, drowning in a sea of their own abundance, the city is much more colourful and lively than one might think. Tokyo – or, strictly speaking, the 26 cities making up the ‘Tokyo metropolis’ – is one of the few hubs, on a par with New York and London, where a wandering soul can do pretty much anything that crosses their mind.

First things first, though, a warning: if you’re travelling in summertime you’ll be in for a serious thermal shock the moment you step outside the door of Narita airport. During the intense heat of the summer monsoon months, you’ll feel a spectacular bam! of humidity. Monsoon season lasts from mid-July well into the autumn, but it’s nothing to be feared – the rain is soothingly warm and never lasts for very long.

It’s here that any ‘gaijin’ (western traveller) will first experience Japanese humility and hospitality. Outside any of Tokyo’s municipal buildings, travellers will find stashes of freely available umbrellas, the belief being when it rains, you take one; when it stops, you return it to the nearest stand. Unbelievably from an Irish perspective, the system works – proving elegantly the Japanese mutual conscientiousness for the welfare of fellow citizens. If further prove was needed, consider the masks you might see the locals wearing, guarding their lungs from the city’s chronic smog. These aren’t smog masks at all: they’re worn by anyone with a bout of sniffles, trying not to share their viruses with the Tokyoites with whom they share their cramped quarters.

Walking any street in Tokyo, but particularly in the Shinjuku district, is a strange experience for a gaijin. For one thing, the usual terms of reference one has when travelling – recognising fast food chains or major clothing brands – are almost entirely lost, with global logos being diluted by incomprehensible katakana letters. Similarly, it’s possibly the closest most of us will ever come to being illiterate: where in other countries with Latin script we can make a decent attempt at pronouncing a placename, there is little hope of doing so in Tokyo – though, thankfully, many placename signs include an English rendering.

But back to the city itself. Tokyo is a cramped and bustling town – an understandable problem with 39 million people in its greater metropolitan area – and, true to form, caters to all sorts of whims. In Shinjuku itself, where I stayed, the intimate masses of commuters and travellers crowd around electronics stores and a bizarre frequency of pornography kiosks. (Seriously – ever wanted to know what Misty from Pokémon looks like in the nude? You won’t be long in finding out.)

A prime example of Japanese technological excess is a visit to Akibahara, more commonly known – even by the locals – as ‘Electric Town’. As home to the world’s biggest video games developers (Nintendo and Taito logos are frequent occurances; Sega have their HQ elsewhere in the city), Akibahara is full of electronic hyperstores – each comparable in size to Dundrum Town Centre – and crammed arcades where local technokids pound the floors and walls in the new wave of Wii-style arcade games. These arcades aren’t for the faint-hearted: the noise is deafening. With hundreds of machines crammed on each floor of a multi-storey building, and each machine competing with its clones for the attention of a passer-by – the volume can be monstrous.

The city is not all about mass hubbub, though. To take a break from the bustle, head out to the Meiji Shrine at Yoyogi Park. Situated in the Shibuya district – home of the world-famous Shubiya Crossing, the world’s busiest pedestrian area – the serenity of the world-famous iris garden is simply breathtaking. Burial place of Japan’s beloved Emperor Meiji and his wife Shoken, the still lapping waters of the fountains and the silence of the prayer yard are a welcome relief from the cavalcade of metropolitan life. Still, the shrine’s not far from some fun – Yoyogi park itself, aside from being a home to Tokyo’s emo and skateboarding classes, hosts a world-famous open market which is always worth a roam.

For a sense of the historical Japan, meanwhile, visit the Senso-Ji temple in the Taito district. A former Tendai temple, its main pagoda is the closest you might feel to sharing a space with the samurai of old – and as Tokyo’s oldest temple, it attracts a fair quantity of street traders selling all kinds of endearingly stereotypical Japanese memorabilia. If you’re asked to bring home a souvenir, this is where to go looking.
Though Tokyo isn’t the most obvious tourist destination in Asia, it’s certainly worth hopping to for a few days. It mightn’t be have the same student-friendly pull as somewhere like Thailand, and it might be a little more expensive (though always getting cheaper), but if you find yourself in that part of the world, you could do far worse than spend a few days in this beautiful metropolitan mix of technology and history.