Tokyo: Sprawling spontaneity

✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin

Lesson: If you’re heading to a massive, internationally known city that people rave about, plan! We decided to wait until we arrived in Tokyo to do any serious planning, which wasn’t the best strategy. The city has a ton to offer, and knowing what you want to do and what areas of the city you’d like to visit can save you a ton of time (and money).

That said, we had a great time in Tokyo. We drove go-karts through traffic to see the city above ground; kind of figured out the sprawling train system below ground; ate everything, all the time; and were mesmerized by robots and futuristic technology.

All this while being awed by the efficiency, cleanliness and quiet of a city that’s home to nearly 14 million people. That’s almost twice the size of New York City.

Driving go-karts around Tokyo
Driving go-karts around Tokyo

Some highlights:

Sensō-ji Temple

We wanted to avoid the crowds, so we visited one of Tokyo’s oldest temples at night. The decision didn’t disappoint. The Sensō-ji Temple complex is intricate, pristinely preserved and huge, and best seen without too much chaos. Dozens or maybe hundreds of small shops and restaurants line the pedestrian streets leading to the temple grounds. Nearly all were closed when we arrived, which was fine by us.

The Buddhist temple dates to 628 AD. The story (significantly shortened here) goes that two brothers were fishing in the Sumida River when their nets caught a small golden statue of Kannon, the Buddhist deity. They tried to get rid of it, but it kept coming back, so they brought the statue to their village. They showed it to one of the chieftains, Haji no Nakatomo, a devout Buddhist. He recognized the statue, understood its importance and built a temple to house it. The story caught on and the site soon attracted a pilgrimage.

Also notable: There are no gates or security surrounding the temple, or the posh neighborhood nearby. Just open, quiet streets and alleyways.

Jan also might be famous. Maybe. A Tokyo radio reporter made a B-line for him when we happened across a ceremony near the Sensō-ji Temple. She wanted to know what he thought. From what she told us in broken English, the ceremony seemed to combine ancient rituals with modern technology and was related to the changing of the seasons? We couldn’t find any solid information (or the interview) using English and Google. So who knows. Regardless, it was a fun experience.

Go-kart tours

Stamp “tourist” on our foreheads for this one. Courtesy of Tokyo Kart, we got the best overall street view of Tokyo by driving go-karts through traffic for two hours (sometimes in the rain) all around the city. (Warning: Don’t drive go-karts with me. I panic at yellow lights and stop in the one place we were told not to. See the slideshow below.)

  • Driving go-karts around Tokyo


We were also mesmerized (and a bit spooked?) by the life-like robots at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. We happened upon the museum because it was close to our hotel (which wasn’t close to much, other than tourist traps … again, the planning thing). But this worked out for us.

Gardens, shops & other hideaways:

We also ate so much fresh and cheap sushi we nearly split our pants just outside one of the world’s largest fish markets. Small restaurants and cafes abound. (Even the darn convince store corn dogs, dubbed American dogs, were good.)

And the gardens, they’re just tucked in between. The photograph here is from the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, so obviously one of the city’s major gardens. But other gardens abound, offering a quiet and calm break from the city.

P.S. We’ve apparently exported a sullen ’90s pop star and a large statue … so there’s that. (Some very odd bits of American culture pop up in other countries.)

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