16 August 2011

The Biggest City in the World

Yes, at 32 million people Tokyo ( 東京 ) is by far the largest city on the planet.  Second place belongs to Seoul with a measly 20 million inhabitants.  I obviously couldn't leave Asia without visiting this megatropolis, so I took off from Busan on Saturday morning and by 3:00 I was smack-dab in the middle of Tokyo.  My first order of business was a visit to Hie Shrine ( 日枝神社, Hie-jinja ), which is located in Akasaka ( 赤坂 ) and surrounded by some interesting architecture.

Hie Shrine and the surrounding buildings
Cool building in Akasaka
I then made my way over to Shibuya ( 渋谷 ) to check out Shibuya Crossing, which is the Tokyo equivalent of Times Square.

No people
And the lights change
Wow! That's a lot of people.
Next up was Roppongi ( 六本木 ), which is home to Roppongi Hills as well as a very large foreign population.  I also took a stroll around Omotesando ( 表参道 ) to check out some architecture.  I then headed to my hostel in Asakusa ( 浅草 ) before heading back to Roppongi to see some Tokyo nightlife.

Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills
My second day consisted of a trip to Nikko, which is about an hour and a half from Tokyo, and some exploration of my home base of Asakusa.  Nikko is a World Heritage site and is home to some of the most famous Japanese temples and shrines.  The first attraction is the Sacred Bridge ( 神橋, shin-kyo ), which is part of Futarasan Shrine ( 二荒山神社, Futarasan-jinja ).

The Sacred Bridge
The next spot to visit is Toshogu Shrine ( 東照宮, Toshogu ), which is generally considered the most famous attraction in Nikko.  There are many Toshogu Shrines throughout Japan, but the one in Nikko is the most well-known due to its ornate architecture.

Corner of the entrance to the shrine
From Toshogu I walked to Futarasan Shrine and then onto Rinnoji Temple ( 輪王寺, Rinno-ji ), which was decorated in a similar style as Toshogu.  There are some other spots to see in Nikko, but those are the three really good ones.

Path from Toshogu to Futarasan
Entrance to Rinnoji
On the other side
From Nikko I got a train back to Tokyo and checked out Asakusa.  The most famous sight in Asakusa is Sensoji Temple ( 浅草寺, Senso-ji ).  Sensoji is Tokyo's oldest temple and dates to 645 AD.  The area is also famous for Nakamise-dori ( 仲見世通り ), which is the street that leads to the temple and is an extremely busy shopping area.

I was also interested in some of the more modern architecture in the area.  Most amazing of all (and one of the coolest things I've ever seen) was the Tokyo Sky Tree ( 東京スカイツリー ).  The Sky Tree is currently the second tallest structure in the world and the tallest freestanding structure.  It is 2,080 feet tall and to put that into some kind of relative context I took a picture of the Sky Tree next to a 31 story building.  31 stories isn't exactly a tiny building, but it sure looks minuscule next to the Sky Tree.

Tokyo Sky Tree next to a 31 story building
Asakusa Skyline
Monday's itinerary consisted of trip to Kamakura ( 鎌倉 ).  This city is about an hour from Tokyo and like Nikko, is home to some famous historical attractions.  So what's there to see in Kamakura?  Well two of the most popular sites are called Hase-Dera ( 長谷寺 ) and Daibutsu ( 大仏 ).  Hase-dera is a famous temple that was first constructed in 686.

Daibutsu, which is the name of several statues in Japan, means "Great Buddha".  Weighing in at 93 tons (despite the fact that he's hollow) and measuring in at 44 feet (despite the fact that he's sitting), the statue can certainly be called impressive.  It was constructed in 1252 and was originally gilded bronze and housed inside of a temple.  Due to its age, the bronze has since worn away and the temple was destroyed multiple times before they finally gave up trying to rebuild it.

These two places were slightly separated from the rest of the attractions, so I took a short train ride to my other destinations.  Next stop was Tsurugaoka Hachimangu ( 鶴岡八幡宮 ), which is considered to be the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura.  Although the site is currently only a Shinto shrine, it also served as a Buddhist temple for almost 700 years.

Stairs to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
The other two good visits in the area are Kencho-ji ( 建長寺 ) and Engaku-ji ( 円覚寺 ).  These two temples rank first and second respectively on the list of the Five Great Zen Temples of Kamakura.

Inside the Main Hall at Kenchoji
Entrance to Engakuji
On to my last day in Tokyo.  I started this one out in Ueno ( 上野 ) with a trip to Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum ( 東京国立博物館, Tokyo Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan ), which is the largest museum in Japan.  The museum itself is made up of four separate buildings (actually five, but one of them was closed) and the pieces on display include archeological findings, paintings, sculptures, and works from other countries. 

Fudo Myo'o
Inside of Hyokeikan
Gallery of Horyuji Treasures
From Ueno I set off on foot to Akihabara ( 秋葉原 ), which is the electronics district.  And I can say that Akihabara certainly confirms the idea that Japanese love their electronics.  The whole district is just store after store and floor upon floor of electronic devices. 

Building in Akihabara
Next stop was Imperial Palace Park to check out Marunouchi ( 丸の内 ), which is the business district, and to get a glimpse of the Imperial Palace (it was closed for tours). 

Panorama of Marunouchi
Nijubashi Bridge and Imperial Palace
I moved on to Ginza ( 銀座 ), which is a shopping district with some very cool buildings.  One of these buildings is the Sony Building, which is pretty much Best Buy on steroids.  Four floors of interactive displays that consist of the latest products from Sony.  Anyone who is even the least bit interested in the latest gadgetry would have a blast exploring the place. 

Sony Building
I then visited Hama-rikyu Gardens ( 浜離宮恩賜庭園, Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien ), which is located between Ginza and Tokyo Bay and provides some great photo opportunities of both locations. 

View from Hama-rikyu Gardens
Tokyo Bay
And that about wrapped it up for my sightseeing in Tokyo.  It's a pretty awesome city.  And just for fun, let's see how it stacks up against New York.

Tokyo Metro vs. New York Subway
Advantage: Tokyo
The two systems are about the same size and cost, but Tokyo's is definitely nicer and less confusing.

Imperial Palace Park vs. Central Park
Advantage: Tokyo
Imperial Palace Park is bigger, but most of that space is off limits to normal pedestrians.  However, the thing that really sets Imperial Palace Park apart is that there is a PALACE in the middle of the park.  Until the White House is moved to Central Park I'm afraid New York simply can't compete with that.

Shibuya Crossing vs. Times Square
Advantage: New York
It's pretty cool to watch the people flood the street when the lights change in Shibuya, but I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more iconic location than Times Square. 

Marunouchi vs. Lower Manhattan
Advantage: New York
This definitely belongs to New York.  I personally think the Manhattan skyline is the most amazing accomplishment of modern architecture.

Tokyo Sky Tree vs. Empire State Building
Advantage: Tokyo
Well if the Manhattan skyline is the most amazing accomplishment of modern architecture, Tokyo Sky Tree isn't too far behind.  Now this comparison is a little unfair considering the two structures were built 80 years apart, but trust me when I say that seeing the Sky Tree is truly an impressive sight.  The Empire State Building certainly wins in terms of iconic value, but as far as the overall WOW factor is concerned, the competition has to go the Sky Tree.

Tokyo National Museum vs. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Advantage: New York
Tokyo's museum does a nice job of displaying Japanese art and historical relics, but it's really lacking in global artifacts.  China, Korea, India and Egypt each have a small room and that's about the extent of their international collection.  The Met on the other hand has much more of a global feel to it, which really increases its appeal.

So we've ended in 3-3 tie.  However, I would have to give the crown to New York based upon my admiration for the skyline and the Statue of Liberty, which I didn't rank because Tokyo doesn't really have a counterpart.  Either way, both cities are awesome and Tokyo certainly did not disappoint. 

And to sum up Japan, here are my 10 favorite sights:
10. Hama-rikyu Gardens (Tokyo)
9. Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto)
8. Shoren-in (Kyoto)
7. Downtown Tokyo (Marunouchi and Ginza)
6. Todai-ji (Nara)
5. A-Bomb Dome (Hiroshima)
4. Fushimi Inari (Kyoto)
3. Itsushima (Close to Hiroshima)
2. Mt. Aso (Kyushu)
1. Tokyo Sky Tree (Tokyo)

Honestly, number 1 and 2 could very easily be switched.  I was blown away by both of those sites, but I guess Tokyo Sky Tree is just fresher in my mind so I'll go with that for now.


  1. Did you feel all zenlike in the temples? During your exploration of the Tokyo nightlife?

    PS When you refer to something as "Tokyo equivalent" or something, I think you need to readdress your definition of "biggest city." Maybe population ain't the only thing, you dig?

    - 8 miles

  2. Why say something here when Freddy Mercury already said it so perfectly...