Tokyo: Where history reaches into the future

Meiji-jingu is Tokyo's grandest Shinto shrine.
Wibowo Rusli/Getty Images

Meiji-jingu is Tokyo's grandest Shinto shrine.

Tokyo is a city forever reaching into the future, resulting in sci-fi streetscapes of crackling neon and soaring towers. Yet it is also a city steeped in history, where you can find traces of the shogun's capital on the kabuki stage or under the cherry blossoms. It's a tapestry of sensorial madness unlike anywhere else in the world.

Tsukiji Market (tsukiji-market.or.jp) is the world's biggest seafood market, moving an astounding 1800 tonnes of seafood a day. You'll find all manner of fascinating creatures passing through, but it is the maguro (bluefin tuna) that has emerged the star. Even if you don't arrive at dawn for the tuna auction, you can still get a flavour of the frenetic atmosphere of the market. The whole show will pack up and move to a new location in Toyosu, on Tokyo Bay, in November 2016. The controversial move has been in the works for years, delayed due to the need to clean up the new site – where a gas plant once stood – on an artificially constructed island in Tokyo Bay. New Toyosu Market, as the market will be called, will have state-of-the-art facilities, including temperature-controlled rooms, as well as a viewing area for tourists.

Travellers visiting Tokyo in January, May or September should not miss the opportunity to attend one of the 15-day sumo tournaments at the national stadium, Ryōgoku Kokugikan. Never mind if you're a sports fan or not, ancient sumo is just as captivating for its spectacle and ritual. Ringside tickets cost ¥14,800 (NZ$181), but reserved arena seats start from ¥3800. Same-day unreserved seats can be bought from the stadium box office for only ¥2200. During the rest of the year, catch the big boys in action at one of the neighbourhood stables.

You'll find all manner of fascinating creatures passing through Tsukiji Market, but the maguro (bluefin tuna)is the star.
Paul Dymond/Getty Images

You'll find all manner of fascinating creatures passing through Tsukiji Market, but the maguro (bluefin tuna)is the star.

Tokyo's grandest Shinto shrine, Meiji-jingu (meijijingu.or.jp), is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji's reign (1867-1912) coincided with the country's transformation from an isolationist, feudal state to a modern nation. Constructed in 1920, the shrine was destroyed in World War II air raids and rebuilt in 1958; however, unlike many of Japan's postwar reconstructions, Meiji-jingu has an authentic feel. The shrine occupies only a small fraction of the sprawling forested grounds,which contain 120,000 trees collected from around Japan. Towering torii (gates) mark the entrance to the shrine and sacred space. The largest gate, created from a 1500-year-old Taiwanese cypress, stands 12 metres high. Along the path you'll also see rows of decorative sake barrels – gifts to the shrine (and a favourite of photographers).

Founded more than 1000 years before Tokyo got its start, Senso-ji (senso-ji.jp) is the capital's oldest temple and the spiritual home of its ancestors. According to legend, in AD628 two fishermen brothers pulled a golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) out of the nearby Sumidagawa. The temple was built to enshrine it. Today Senso-ji stands out for its old-world atmosphere – offering a glimpse of a bygone Japan that can be difficult to find in contemporary Tokyo. The temple precinct begins at the majestic and unmissable Kaminari-mon, which houses a pair of ferocious protective deities: Fujin, the god of wind, on the right; and Raijin, the god of thunder, on the left.

Dramatic, intensely visual kabuki is Japan's most recognised art form. It developed during the reign of the shogun and was shaped by the decadent tastes of the increasingly wealthy merchant class of Edo (old Tokyo under the shogun) – resulting in the breathtaking costumes and elaborate stage craft that characterise the form. Kabuki-za is Tokyo's kabuki theatre (kabuki-bito.jp/eng). Established in 1889, the theatre reopened after a lengthy reconstruction in 2013. The new building, designed by architect Kuma Kengo, has a flamboyant facade and scarlet and gold throughout.

Senso-ji temple offers a glimpse of a bygone Japan that can be difficult to find in contemporary Tokyo.
Wibowo Rusli/Getty Images

Senso-ji temple offers a glimpse of a bygone Japan that can be difficult to find in contemporary Tokyo.

Roppongi Hills (roppongihills.com/en), completed in 2003, sprawls more than 11 hectares and is home to the city's leading contemporary-art museum, Mori Art Museum, a sky-high observatory, shops galore, dozens of restaurants and even a formal garden. It's imposing, upmarket and polarising – an architectural marvel, a grand vision realised or a crass shrine to conspicuous consumption? Explore the towers and corridors of this urban maze and decide for yourself, but you can't understand contemporary Tokyo without stopping here. Don't miss the Mori Art Museum (mori.art.museum), which has no permanent exhibition; instead, large-scale, original shows introduce major local and global artists and movements. Recent exhibitions have focused on the works of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei and native son Murakami Takashi.

The world's largest collection of Japanese art, Tokyo National Museum (tnm.jp) covers ancient pottery, religious sculpture, samurai swords, ukiyo-e (wood-block prints), exquisite kimonos, and much, much more. There are several buildings, the most important of which is the Honkan (Main or Japan Gallery). Exhibitions here are designed to give visitors an overview of Japanese art history throughout the last few millennia. Other highlights include 7th-century Buddhist relics inside the Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures and the Asian artefacts in the Toyokan (Gallery of Eastern Antiquities).

Catching a glimpse of Mt Fuji (Fuji-san; 3776m), Japan's highest and most famous peak, will take your breath away. Climbing it and then watching the sunrise from the summit is one of Japan's superlative experiences. The official climbing season runs from July 1 to August 31. Outside the climbing season, you can take a bus halfway up the mountain to the Fifth Station or hunt for views from the foothills around the newby lake, Kawaguchi-ko, which acts as a natural reflecting pool for the mountain's cone. The eponymous lakeside town offers year-round activities including hiking and onsen-soaking. For excellent views, take the KachiKachi Yama Ropeway (kachikachiyama-ropeway.com)  to the Fuji Viewing Platform (1104m).

Lonely Planet Pocket Tokyo (5th Edition) by Rebecca Milner © Lonely Planet 2015.  Published this month, RRP: NZ$22.99.

Lonely Planet Pocket Tokyo (5th Edition) by Rebecca Milner © Lonely Planet 2015. Published this month, RRP: NZ$22.99.

The verdant grounds of Japan's Imperial Palace occupy the site of the original Edo-jo, the Tokugawa shogunate's castle when they ruled the land. In its heyday this was the largest fortress in the world, though little remains of it today apart from the moat and stone walls – parts of which you can view up close in the Imperial Palace East Garden. The present palace, completed in 1968, replaced the one built in 1888, which was largely destroyed during World War II. As it's the home of Japan's emperor and some of the imperial family, the palace buildings are all off limits. It is possible, however, to take a free tour (lasting around 1¼ hours) of a small part of the surrounding palace grounds, but you must book ahead through the palace website (sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/index.html).

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Oedo Onsen Monogatari proves that Tokyo really does have it all, even a natural hot spring. The water is pumped from a spring 1400m below Tokyo Bay. But Oedo Onsen Monogatari is not solely about bathing. Billed as an "onsen theme park" (a fantastically Japanese concept), it's done up to resemble a Disneyland-style version of an Edo-era town,with games and food stalls. Touristy, yes, but for visitors making their first foray into Japanese-style communal bathing, the light and kitschy atmosphere makes the actual bathing part that much less intimidating.

From 1986 until his retirement in 2014, master animator Miyazaki Hayao and his Studio Ghibli (pronounced "jiburi") were responsible for some of the best-loved films in Japan – and the world. The most well-known is the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2001). Miyazaki designed Ghibli Museum (ghibli-museum.jp) himself, and it's redolent of the fairy-tale atmosphere that makes his animations so enchanting. The only catch: tickets must be purchased in advance, and you must choose the exact time and date you plan to visit. An original 20-minute animated short film plays in a small, whimsically decorated theatre inside the museum (you'll get a ticket for this when you enter). It changes every season to keep fans coming back.

This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet Pocket Tokyo (5th Edition) by Rebecca Milner © Lonely Planet 2015.  Published this month, RRP: NZ$22.99.

 - Stuff

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