Even though it can take a while to understand the beauty of Tokyo’s concrete jungle, the hyper-modern Japanese capital offers a wealth of iconic sights from the serene to the surreal. Add these famed spots to your Tokyo to-do list
Sitting beside Shibuya’s green lung Yoyogi Park, Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shōken. First built in 1920, surrounded by plantings of 100,000 trees donated from across Japan, the building as it stands today was reconstructed following the razing of Tokyo in World War II. Despite its relative youth, the serene shrine nestled in century-old trees commands a solemnity beyond its years. The din of the city melts away as you pass under a pair of Japan’s largest torii gates and into the naien, the inner precinct, where Tokyoites flock to honour the emperor credited with establishing Japan on the world stage.
Recognised as the world’s tallest tower, the 634m-tall Tokyo Skytree in Sumida district offers stellar views of Tokyo’s sprawl. The futuristic structure completed in 2012 was inspired by traditional five-storey pagodas; a symbolic design that also offers great tremor resistance. Although the Skytree serves a practical purpose as a radio tower, the drawcard is two observation platforms perched 350 metres and 450 metres above the ground. Try not to get side-tracked in the mall at the base and queue for the super-fast elevators capable of whizzing up to the 350th floor in 50 seconds. On clear days, you stand a good chance of spotting Mount Fuji’s iconic silhouette.
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On the grounds of a former Edo castle encircled by a moat and hulking stone walls, the Emperor’s official residence occupies a city block in Chiyoda ward. Although the palace only opens twice annually – on the December 23 and January 2 for the Emperor’ birthday and New Year’s greeting respectively – the Imperial Household Agency run regular tours of the inner sanctum and the East Gardens can be explored at your leisure. As you stroll the East Gardens keep an eye out for remnants of the original castle, manicured Japanese gardens and seasonal displays of iris and plum blossom.
Rumoured to be the busiest crossing on the planet – with up to 2500 people striding across at each signal – this intersection outside Shibuya station is the ultimate Tokyo photo opp. Nothing drives home the Japanese capital’s sheer population density more than the stream of human foot traffic that floods the intersection each time the light turns green. Although it’s a sight to behold at any time, the crossing is at its most surreal after nightfall when flashing neon and blaring billboards heighten the sensory overload.
If Meiji is Tokyo’s best-known Shinto shrine, then Sensō-ji is its Buddhist equivalent. Built in the 7th century in the Edo entertainment district Asakusa, the famed temple and its imposing entrance gates Kaminarimon and Hōzōmon are perennially popular with Japanese and foreign tourists alike who come to purify themselves in the temple’s incense smoke, have their fortunes told with an omikuji (fortunes written on slips of paper) and snap a photo of the immense red lantern in Kaminarimon. On a visit to Sensō-ji, it’s practically mandatory to run the gauntlet of Nakamise Dori – a historic shopping street linking Kaminarimon and Hōzōmon ideal for picking up street food and souvenirs of your time in Japan.