To travel through Tokyo for the first time is to learn the language of opposites: old and new, east and west, otherworldliness and banality. Every account of it is honest. Tokyo is as truthfully depicted in haiku and ukiyo-e as it is in the fiction of modern writers such as Haruki Murakami, whose novels collectively refer to a city that walks the fine line between dreams and reality.
Understanding Tokyo is less about translation and more about sensation. It will take anybody, even a Tokyoite, a lifetime to experience all that it has to offer. But, at the very least, first-time travellers can count on the city’s trains to run like clockwork, as if attempting to help them navigate a complex narrative that constantly skips back and forth between centuries.
Those looking to ease into the blur would do well to begin in the heart of Tokyo, in no less than Japan’s Imperial Palace. Its parks and gardens are spectacular in any season but most frequently visited in the spring, when locals and tourists flock to the palace moat to picnic under a gentle rain of cherry blossoms in a tradition known as hanami. Philippine Tatler Traveller cover lady Rissa Mananquil-Trillo describes the palace grounds as transporting, “a beautiful garden in the middle of the city.” Another lively hanami location north of the area is Ueno Park, whose central pathway is flanked by 1,000 cherry trees, and whose grounds are home to both the Tokyo National Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
Nearby Asakusa, the city’s prewar pleasure district, begs to be explored. The best time to go is in the late afternoon, when the crowds around the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), the symbol of Tokyo and the entrance to the city’s oldest temple, Sensoji, are just beginning to relax. Freshly baked traditional pastries and sweet, hot sake await in the stretch of souvenir shops, cafés and street food stalls that lie beyond the trademark red lantern in Nakamise. “Walking around here feels like a step back in time,” says Rissa. “Everything is quaint and charming, and the treats are always so artfully wrapped.” When evening falls, Asakusa warms and coaxes with alcohol and meats in top-notch izakaya set within centuries-old structures.
On the other side of Ueno, 15 minutes on foot from the Tokyo National Museum, primordial Tokyo survives in the old-world neighbourhood of Yanaka. Spared from the destruction caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake and the air raids of the Second World War, Yanaka preserves many points of culture from both the Edo period and Japan’s post-war revival. Its nostalgic shitamachi (downtown) atmosphere brings in many artisans who seem to share the common mission of promoting a slowed-down lifestyle and a more careful way of practicing their craft. The downtown market area yields cheap thrills like 10-yen manju (filled buns), and also showcases newer cafes and boutiques owned and run by young entrepreneurs selling everything from bicycles to katsu. While Yanaka is a residential area that remains largely unknown to foreigners, its cemetery, which houses the remains of the last shogun of the Ed o period, is a landmark and a steady draw for local tourists and photographers.
Browse through Rissa's fashion shoot here: