With over 38 million people living in the most extensive urban sprawl in the world, Tokyo can be a tricky city to navigate at first. There is no single central downtown core, rather a string of city centres dotted across the capital, each with their own feel and flair. Finding your patch of Tokyo can be a defining experience; your taste in food, fashion, culture and lifestyle are all on display when you tell people where you are staying. We will help you unpack the different neighbourhoods that make up this megalopolis. Despite the fear you have when you look at the metro map, Tokyo is not a disorganised urban jungle, but rather a zen garden, where even the most obscure sites have their place.
This article has ballooned since I started writing it, and I want to cover everything, but I also want to guard my sanity, so I have decided to split it into two articles, relative to the two distinct halves of Tokyo. This article will focus on the younger newer Western districts of Shinjuku, Harajuku and Omotesando, Shibuya, Ebisu and Roppongi. The second will focus on the older more traditional East: Ginza and the Imperial Palace, Akihabara, Ueno, Bunkyo, Asakusa and Odaiba.
Despite the fact it lies 6 km (4 miles) west of Tokyo Station, many would regard Shinjuku as the real centre of Tokyo. The skyscraper-laden district is bright, colourful, loud and wild. Shinjuku station is the largest in the world, with 3.5 million people passing through it daily. That is the equivalent of the population of Rome, or everyone in Puerto Rico, passing through this one individual station every single day. Navigating it requires a bachelor’s degree, and every exit feels like it is controlled by a massive rival department store. It is enormous, and like so much of Shinjuku, is just mind-boggling.
In Tokyo, often areas are referred to by which exit you use at the station. Out the west exit of Shinjuku Station is the Skyscraper district, where the largest conglomeration of skyscrapers in Tokyo are located. You can see Mt Fuji from the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, but you will need to have a clear day, which can be hard to come by with the seemingly constant smog cloud hovering over the city. Also out the west side is Yodobashi, reputably the largest camera store in the world. It is spread over a dozen floors across numerous buildings in the area. It is so complicated they plaster the entrance with maps of the store so you can check that you are in the right building for what you are looking for.
While the west side is mostly boulevards and big businesses, the east side is a complex array of small street filled with delicious restaurants, rowdy bars and jam-packed Karaoke booths. Shinjuku is the kind of madness you expect from Tokyo, and even in the middle of the night, it will still feel like daytime with the omnipresent glow from advertisements and store signs illuminating the streets. The area to the north is called Kabukicho. Once the centre of Tokyo's red light district, the area has been cleaned up a lot over the past few decades and you can be delighted by the hive of activity that never ceases. When looking for a place to drink or sing, do not neglect to look up. Tokyo is a vertical city, and this is especially true in Shinjuku, where you may find restaurants and bars on the 3rd, 7th or 12th floors.
One of my favourite streets is the delightful Omoide Yokocho, or the unpleasant English name 'Piss Alley'. It is a maze of tiny run down drinking establishments bursting with salarymen who come for the cheap beer and atmosphere. Born from a post-WWII black market, smoke fills the narrow alleyways as owners grill up meats and vegetables in the shops that barely seem able to contain their patrons. Come in, grab a beer, it is one of the best places to people watch in the city.
The district has a youthful edge to it, and the fashion scene here is wilder than other parts of Tokyo. The streets are always flowing with groups of Japanese subcultures flowing from Karaoke bars to Izakayas and department stores, and there is an electricity in the air. The district is so large and distinctive, I have decided to break it down into three segments, Shibuya Station, Harajuku and Omotesando, and Ebisu. I will start with Shibuya Station.
Lying smack in the centre of Shibuya is Hachiko Crossing, the most hectic pedestrian crossing I have ever experienced in my life. I will admit, the first time I crossed it, it felt like I was up against a tsunami of people who were coming to swallow me up, but somehow in that calm, respectful Japanese culture, everyone smoothly glides past each other in some form of organised chaos. Advertisements are constantly projected from the massive screens embedded in the surrounding building, trucks are often parked blasting propaganda, while shops over utilise their megaphones to sell you the latest phones, the chatter of thousands of people all at once mix with the cars and the trains to create one gigantic wall of sound that is never-ending. Shibuya is not for the faint-hearted. I would not usually recommend Starbucks, but grab a coffee at their Tsutaya branch and watch the madness of the crossing unfold before you. Alternatively, head to the 11th floor of the newly constructed Shibuya Hikarie for sweeping views across the area.
Shibuya is, and always has been my spiritual home in Japan. It was here where I had my minuscule 13 sq meter (140 sq foot) apartment when I lived in Tokyo, and it is where I continue to return to each time I come back.
Harajuku and Omotesando
Nestled between Shibuya and Shinjuku is the pop-culture capital, Harajuku, and right next door, the upmarket fashion powerhouse of Omotesando. At first glance, the two districts could not be further apart, Louis Vuitton and Dior on one side of the street, competing with highschool DIY fashion on the other, but once you get to know them, you can see the similarities, in their own way they are both standing on the edge, one step ahead of the trends. One day you might see a quirky article of clothing on Takeshita Street in Harajuku before it is quickly gobbled up and spat out for 100 times the price in Omotesando. Check out the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku, it might look like any other department store from the outside, but the entrance is worth it for the photo opportunity itself, and the open rooftop allows you to chill between shopping.
Across the other side of the Yamanote line, the park plays the same paradoxical split between calm and clamorous: between Meiji Shrine and Jojogi Park. Meiji Shrine is one of the most important shrines in Japan and surrounded by a thick, dense forest. When you are walking amongst the trees, the skyscrapers become obscured, the noise from the streets disappear, and you forget you are in the middle of the largest city in the world. Slip out one exit and back in another and you will find yourself enchanted by the activity in Yoyogi Park. It is not only my favourite park, but I think my favourite place in Tokyo. It is not a pretty park, it was a military base turned into a recreation area for space-deprived locals. Take your time and stroll around to see how everyday people from Tokyo relax and watch them as they rehearse traditional dancing, practising music, be it accordion or Shamisen, or twirl crystal balls, juggle, skate, run rickshaw races or a thousand and one other activities. Sundays are the best day for the park when the crowds come out, as do the Rockabillies. Immaculately dressed in leather or denim, comb and hanky in the back pocket, and gaffer tape over their shoes, they have been dancing 50s rockabilly at the entrance of the park for decades. You won't find a hat though, they are not busker, it is purely for the fun of it.
Located on the southern side of Shibuya lies Ebisu, an affluent neighbourhood that lacks any real sights, but makes up for it with hip bars in an easily walkable chic neighbourhood. It is typified by European architecture and filled with galleries. Artists and designers sport their haute couture fashion in outdoor cafes, a rarity for Tokyo. At the southern tip, you will find the Yebisu Garden Place, a former beer factory turned shopping precinct. Beer lovers will enjoy the Museum of Yebisu Beer and photographers can catch top works in the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum.
Roppongi is the least Japanese part of Japan. A little slice of American in the East, or at least a Japanese version of America. Filled with TGI Fridays, clubs and pubs, people feel more at ease here and lose their reserved inhibitions. A popular destination for expats due to the large concentration of embassies, it is the place to party, or just to fuel up on some familiar comforts. The new Roppongi Hills development has changed the face of the district and made the area a day destination as well. It hosts the Mori Art Museum, on the 54th floor of the Mori Tower, which has contemporary installations. Even if the art is too modern for you, you will not be let down by the panoramic views of the city, especially of the Tokyo Tower.
But before we get to Tokyo Tower, let us make a stop at the Zojo-Ji, the Buddhist temple at the foot of the tower. It was the funeral grounds for the Tokugawa regime and it is an immaculate building. Sitting alongside it is a particularly macabre garden, the Unborn Children's Garden. It memorialised unborn children, including miscarried, aborted, and stillborn in the form of little statues decorated with children's toys and clothing. Stones piled next to the figures help the spirit pass into the afterlife.
Many Japanese people have spoken to me quite fondly about the Tokyo Tower, always pointing out that it is 33m taller than the Eiffel Tower; somehow thinking that this forgives the fact it is a blatant ripoff. It unnerved me when I first saw it, an uncomfortable part of Paris stuck in a sea of concrete in the middle of Japan, painted its technical white and red. After some years though, it grew on me. Each film I watched about Tokyo started with an establishing shot of the tower, and it pops up in Manga and advertising so often that now I can not imagine Tokyo without it. As a symbol of Tokyo, I think it is fitting, as it epitomises the city's character. It is familiar, yet misaligned. It is modern but old-fashioned. It is ugly but beautiful. It is constantly contradicting itself. It is orderly chaos: Tokyo in a nutshell.
Hopefully, you have a better understanding of the West of Tokyo and can narrow down your hotel selection for your trip. If you like any of the photos and would like to learn how to take better images with your camera, book a photo tour with Aperture Tours and let a professional photographer help you navigate the city and your camera.
Or join Alexander and Sony Digital Imaging Advocate Andy Yee on a nine day intensive workshop throughout Japan with our Japan Autumn Photography Workshop from 7 - 16 November 2019.
Next: Unpacking Tokyo's Districts: East - coming soon
Author: Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours which run photography tours in the most photogenic cities across the globe. A professional photographer for over a decade, Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.