Written by Mark Parren Taylor
Where yesterdays and tomorrows meet.
Mark Parren Taylor loves Tokyo’s all-day, all-night dynamism, but he can’t help searching out some nostalgia now and then… and surprisingly, this is when the city really wakes up.
Tokyo rocks to the energy of the 21st century. But it’s a new-age spirit that cannot drown out the unhurried echoes of the city’s past and its traditions. Even at the busiest crossroads, on cram-packed subways, and in swarming shopping hubs, the past plays its part in Tokyo’s todays and tomorrows.
In the early 1950s, Takashimaya – the grande dame of Tokyo’s large department stores – kept a baby elephant on its roof.
For four years Takako the Elephant was a heavyweight attraction – until it flew the nest and ended up on terra firma 5km away at Ueno Zoo. The store’s rooftop remains an attraction to this day – with its garden shop and café – as are the attendant-operated art deco elevators that started service in 1933 when this branch was inaugurated.
Every day prior to the 10am opening, Takashimaya employees (in 1930s-style bumper brim hats and velvet-trimmed dress suits) perform a 100-year-old ceremony. They thank customers for politely waiting and symbolically present them with a rose.
Eventually, they throw open Takashimaya’s doors, and assistants welcome the day’s first customers with deep bows.
The same, but different
Ueno, where Takako the Elephant took up residence, was the site of Tokyo’s first underground railway, opened in 1927. It’s still there today of course, running from Ueno station to Asakusa. At 2km, it’s a short journey that carries passengers back a century or more.
Terminus Asakusa was the spiritual and social heart of Edo, as Tokyo was formerly known.
Today, Asakusa’s alleys and arcades are still filled with the atmosphere of those long-gone days, an atmosphere rekindled by traditional hotels (ryokan), historic restaurants, and countless little boutique shops selling traditional goods such as handmade combs and brushes, kimonos and other formal wear, sweets and cakes, and (at 200-year-old Hyakusuke) nightingale-dropping face soap.
Tokyo was a different place when Asakusa was at its heart. It was a low-rise city of wooden machiya houses and stores, linked by a warren of lanes that were busied with clog-shod locals, myriad rickshaws, and horse-drawn carriages. It is reckoned to have been the world’s largest conurbation in the mid-18th century, with one million citizens. Everything’s different today perhaps, but some things never change.
For an idea of what Tokyo street-life might have felt like then, head to one of the city’s excellent museums. Both the Edo-Tokyo Museum and Fukagawa Edo Museum offer rewarding introductions to the old city – both have life-size recreations, the latter with an entire district of alleys, dwellings, food stalls, and a watchtower to explore.
Further out of town the Nihon Mika-en Open Air Folk Museum is an extraordinary collection of 17th- to early 20th-century houses, huts, and workshops transported from across Japan and reconstructed in a delightful setting on the forested slopes of the Tama Hills to the west of the city.
For an urban walk that’s equally rewarding, head to the wooded corners of Ueno Park (which contains the one-time celebrity elephant’s zoo and a selection of other museums and attractions). It was one of Japan’s first Western-style public gardens, opened in 1873 after a furious battle that saw the restoration of the Emperor and the transformation of Edo into the new capital, Tokyo.
Head north from the park to enter Yanaka district: on a sunny evening it’s a delightful area to explore. Stroll around zakka (or knick-knack) shops, cafés, and food stalls, little potteries, museums, and art galleries, and Yanaka Ginza – a charming pedestrianised shopping street that seems stuck in a less-hectic age.
For a more mechanised journey back in time, train-spotters might enjoy a trip on the Arakawa streetcar, which (in part) has been running for just over a century. The trams (including a couple of vintage-style stocks) start off in Minowa and trundle through 12km of northern suburbs before eventually reaching the terminus at Waseda.
A short taxi ride from there, Kagurazaka is another not-to-be-missed neighbourhood of cobbled alleyways, where elegant villas and historic restaurants hide behind discreet screens, and contemporary eateries and coffee shops vie for business. It’s the living equivalent of the reconstructed exhibits in the city museums.
For an overview of vintage Tokyo, pay a visit to the observation decks in Tokyo Tower, which at 57 years of age is now a ‘period piece’ in itself. From this lofty viewpoint a whirlwind of a city spreads out as far as the eye can see. A city where the past and future blur, where tradition and innovation become one, where Tokyo’s yesterdays and tomorrows meet.
ShinYokohama Raumen Museum
A museum that’s fun – and filling! Slurp your way through up to nine regional varieties of the Japanese national dish, ramen, while exploring a recreated Tokyo neighbourhood from the year the instant noodle was invented, 1958. Pork-free and vegetarian menu available. 2-14-21 Shinyokohama, Yokohama City.
This delightful, understated retreat in buzzing Asakusa has been serving handmade buckwheat noodles for 102 years. I invariably plump for the zaru soba: a simple but classic dish of chilled noodles served with a tsuyu dipping sauce. Be prepared to queue.
2-11-9 Kaminarimon. Open 11.30am–7.30pm, closed Thursday.
Asakusa rickshaw ride
Dozens of rickshaw pullers congregate by Kaminarimon, the iconic and imposing gate opposite Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, from 9.30am–7.30pm. Prices start at about US$65 (for two adults and one or two small children) for a 10-minute ride, up to US$170 for an hour’s grand tour. Charges are standard and displayed on boards.
Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center
I always start my visits to Asakusa at this welcome resource centre, offering area maps, free Wi-Fi, English-speaking staff, and – from its top-floor deck and café – fine views of SkyTree and beyond. 2-18-9 Kaminarimon.
If Tokyo Tower gave you a taste for the high life, head to SkyTree. Its observation decks start at 350m and offer astonishing views down to Asakusa district and indeed across all of Tokyo (and on clear days to Mt Fuji, 100km away, and beyond).
Distance: 8,279 km
Flight Time: 9 hours, 30 minutes