Carefully adjusting her colourful kimono, the young girl arranged herself under the cherry blossom tree as her friend, in a matching traditional outfit, took out her gemstone-covered phone which sparkled in the sunlight. As the camera clicked, the girl smiled and raised her hand to form the victory sign, a gesture that brought back so many memories. I was visiting Japan for the first time since my two year tenure in Tokyo as a teacher 13 years ago and it was reassuring to see that some things hadn’t changed. That being said, I couldn’t hide my delight at the slightly different circumstances I found myself in all these years later. Our hotel was the incredibly luxurious and centrally located Shangri-La – a far cry from the tiny, cramped accommodation I had suffered in the first few months of my arrival as a teacher. The other major difference was the use of English in areas such as signage and directions. A few restaurants we visited even had English menus which meant the old days of trial and error were somewhat over. It also meant that getting around the city was a lot easier and it was great to visit some old haunts as well as discover some new places. Here’s some of the highlights taken from my feature written for Hello! Middle East magazine:
Akihabara (Electric Town)
This district is famous for all things electronic and will bring out the geek in even the most extreme technophobes. Visit at night, when the entire town is lit up like Christmas tree, as the hundreds of shops all compete for your attention. Akihabara is also renowned for its manga (Japanese comic books) and is a must-visit for those looking for collector’s items in the world of anime. If you can stand the noise, a visit to the one of the many Pachinko parlours (pin-ball machines) will give you an insight into one of Japan’s most notorious past-times.
Opened in 2003, Roppongi Hills is a modern development of hotels, restaurants and residential buildings which have changed the face of this party-time district, giving it a more luxurious feel. Renowned for its exotic nightlife of bars and clubs, visitors can now experience a more upmarket destination which is also suitable for families. There’s a great viewing spot to see Tokyo Tower and the statue of the ginormous spider will either scare or startle – be brave enough to stand under the ‘Maman’ to see impressive details such as the sac filled with eggs.
Home to the Senso-ji Buddhist temple, Asakusa is a tourist’s delight. Emerge out of the train station and you are immediately greeted by both locals and visitors as they visit this scared shrine built in the 7th century. Impressive and imposing, it gives an awe-inspiring insight into traditional Japanese customs. The temple is approached by a shopping street (Nakamise) which offers souvenirs, snacks and other goods and the surrounding gardens are a welcome respite from the crowds. Also worth checking out is nearby Kappabashi shopping street, a kilometre of shops selling everything related to kitchens and restaurants.
Visit Harajuku where the devout heading to the Meiji shrine mingle with the extraordinarily dressed members of the different fashion sub-cultures. From goths to cartoon characters to punks, here you will find different fashion ‘kei’ strutting their best and most bizarre selves in what can only be described as competitive fashion one-upmanship: it’s people watching at its best.