Having an entire week in one city is a great opportunity to explore different neighborhoods and really get to know the city. Here are some highlights from my week in Tokyo.
Asakusa, Senso-Ji Temple, and Seijin no Hi
The second Monday of every January is Seijin no Hi, or Coming of Age Day. It’s a day to congratulate all the youth who turned 20 years old in the previous year. This age is considered adulthood, so it’s the equivalent of someone turning 18 years old in the US. The day for the new adult includes dressing up in typical kimonos, participating in a ceremony, and then taking pictures. A popular place for pictures is the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, so Chika and I decided to visit there on the Coming of Age Day.
The temple is one of the most famous in Tokyo, and it was especially crowded on this somewhat warm January day (at least compared to the weather at home). As soon as we left the subway, people were everywhere. Shops selling snacks, like freshly baked rice crackers and grilled meats, and typical goods, like chopsticks and kimonos, lined the main temple gate to the actual temple. The crowd made it impossible to move at our own pace. It seemed like everyone had the same idea of visiting the temple on this day. Finally, we made it up to the temple, threw in our coin, and then people watched.
Sumo at Ryōgoku Kokugikan Stadium
When traveling, I always like to learn about local sports and even see the sport in person. And there is no other sport more Japanese than sumo wrestling. Although it’s not the most popular sport in Japan, it’s by far the most traditional. There are professional tournaments just once every month or so, and they take place only in one city at a time. Fortunately, the Tokyo tournament is in January, giving us the opportunity to go. After seeing that ticket prices go from $21 each, I knew we had to see it.
The match day starts at 9am with amateur matches, while the professional matches start at 2pm or so. The cheapest tickets, the general admission entries, are only sold the day of the match, so we headed to the stadium around 9:30pm to buy our ticket, costing just $21 and is good for a seat in the highest row in the stadium. The stadium is not too big, so it’s not a bad seat. After purchasing the ticket, we walked 20 minutes west to Akihabara (see below) and then returned to the stadium around 3pm.
Sumo is a lot of what you might expect; many traditions and ceremonies, set in an elegant stadium, and very large men wrestling. The sport is pretty straightforward. The two men line up head to head. When both are ready, they go at each other, trying to either push the other outside the circle or to the ground. The matches are typically very quick. They last anywhere from a second to a minute. The day was filled with about 50 different matches, lasting from 9am to 6pm.
I was surprised by how long it took the wrestlers to get ready. After getting into the ring, they would line up as if they were ready to start. For one reason or another, they would then stand up and go back to their corner. This would happen at least once every match and sometimes even three or four times. After each match, an official dressed in traditional Japanese clothing and do a chant of some sort to each side of the stadium. Then the next wrestlers would enter. Before each level of competitors (amateur, pro, and the elite pro) started, there was a ceremony introducing each wrestler. They all came out and entered the ring, creating a circle. Seeing fifteen or so sumo wrestlers surround a ring was an impressive site.
Seeing the sumo match was well worth the relatively cheap price of the ticket. It’s something that you can’t really find anywhere else in the world, and the atmosphere alone is worth experiencing.
Akihabara is the geek-center of Tokyo. Billboards and advertisements are full of anime characters. Eight-story buildings are dedicated to arcade type games, as gamers try to win prizes typically of figurines of anime characters. Entire stores are dedicated to selling memorabilia from any type of character you could think of. And electronics shops are scattered around the area, ranging from brand new tablets to used cassette players. An interesting part of the area is the French Maid cafes, where each customer can be a “master” to a Japanese girl dressed as a French Maid. They give company to the customer, sitting at the table to talk, or the customer can buy extras like playing “Rock, paper, scissors”. It’s supposed to be clean fun, but it’s definitely a bit strange.
Shibuya is known for having the world’s busiest cross-walk. It sits just outside the subway station, leading to the shopping district which is lit up a lot like Times Square. There are times when 1,000 people cross this intersection in just one light change. Five busy streets all come together along with the people leaving the subway station. Car traffic is stopped, and all pedestrians cross. It’s quite the site to see.
In Shibuya, stores from Forever 21 to Coach and Columbia to Gucci line the streets. The area is a hot spot for teenagers and people in their 20s. High schoolers come here to shop with friends after school, and the older crowd comes to have a coffee or a drink after a day of work. Fashion trends also seem to start here, as you’ll see anything and everything.
A Kabuki is a traditional Japanese show in a theater, usually taking place in old-time Japan. The show will last for several hours consisting of various acts ranging in duration from 10 minutes to an hour. With the curiosity to see what it’s all about, we bought tickets to just one session of about an hour and a half. The ticket was just $12, so we figured we’d give it a try. One can rent audio in English, but I opted out of that option. The show consisted of three sets and was very slow moving. There was much more talking than I thought there would be, and there wasn’t much else. The dress and sets were cool to see, but I was absolutely lost throughout the whole show. I’m glad that I saw it, but I probably wouldn’t go again.
Chika’s cousin (Takaki) and his wife (Kana) met us at the end of the train line and took us to Kawagoe, also known as Koedo (or Little Tokyo). It’s an area with many shops in old-style Tokyo buildings made of wood. On a Sunday, the area was packed with both locals and tourists, trying foods like fresh rice crackers and green tea ice cream. Shops included specialty stores of chop sticks, cooking knives, Japanese trinkets, and many others.
Claimed to be the largest fish and seafood wholesale market, the Tsukiji Market does not disappoint. There are two parts to the entire area, the outer market and the inner market. The outer market consists of several small streets (almost like alleyways) which have small stores selling fresh fish, kitchen utensils, and many small restaurants. The inner market is in a large warehouse type building, where large amounts of fish are sold whole or filleted to be sold. Here you can find any type of fish. 50 pound tuna, eel, clams, squid, octopus, shrimp, tilapia. You name it, they have it. At 9am, they open up this part for anyone. I think this is to keep out tourists when the real action is going on early in the morning. Even so, it’s still interesting to walk around to see the fish and just the general atmosphere of a place where so much seafood is sold. The stalls seem to be endless. And the size of fish you’ll see will probably amaze you.