Our three day stay in Tokyo was short for such a big city but we had other places in Japan to explore such as Kyoto, Koyasan, and Osaka. To get a little local taste of Tokyo in such a short time we enlisted the help of a Tokyo resident to give us a local’s guide to Tokyo the capital city of Japan via Tokyo Free Guide. In a packed half day we visited districts off the beaten path such as Shimokitazawa, Nippori, and Yanaka.
Tokyo Free Guide connects tourists with local Tokyo guides who will provide a personalised city tour of Tokyo for half a day or a full day. All the guides are volunteers and residents of Tokyo so you get a real flavour of Tokyo beyond the guidebooks. The service is free, you only pay for any expenses such as meals, drinks, transport, and entrance fees during the tour for you and your guide.
Before we left for Japan we requested a guide through the Tokyo Free Guide website. Within a day or two we received an email from Michiko who was to be our guide. As well as confirming dates and times, more importantly she asked us what we would be interested in seeing and doing during our local tour of Tokyo.
We listed our interests of food and culture and stated that we didn’t really want her to show us the big sights or museums as we could find and visit those easily, we wanted to see a more local version of Tokyo. Quite an open brief and not an easy one in hindsight, but our local guide more than delivered.
Tsukiji Fish Market
As we are foodies Michiko took us to Tsukiji Fish Market first. Nobody was prepared to wake up at 5am for the tuna auctions so visiting at 11am was fine. Although many stalls were winding down it was a great insight into the working market. The size of the tuna and the variety of seafood is stunning.
We proceeded to explore the outer Tsukiji market where there are many stalls selling bonito, fruit, tea as well as some sushi restaurants with some obviously excellent ingredients and long customer queues. It was great having a local especially for a chef and a foodie, Michiko was able to point out ingredients not so familiar to us growing up in the west and what to look out for trying to buy the best.
Conversations we had along the way made the trip so much more interesting and enlightening, and we learnt much more about Japanese food and culture than merely walking through the market by ourselves. Little things like how salt and sugar are the main seasoning ingredients of Japanese food, or how Japanese people don’t normally have matching crockery like the west but select the colour and pattern of plates based on the dish that is being served. We also learnt how revered strawberries are in Japan and how many people debate where the best strawberries come from.
Shibuya Crossing and Hachiko
Next we headed to Shibuya to catch a train to the artsy area of Shimokitazawa. Of course we had to stop and marvel at the famously busy Shibuya Crossing and the surrounding streets and signs.
Also Michiko pointed out the statue of Hachiko, a dog renouned for his loyalty. During the 1920s Hachiko an Akita breed would greet his owner Professor Ueno at Shibuya station every day. Unfortunately the professor died, but for over nine years Hachiko still went to Shibuya station everyday at the same time to greet his owner.
Hachiko became a national sensation in the 1930s and on April 8 every year many dog owners gather at Shibuya station to commemorate Hachiko and his devotion. His story has also made it to Hollywood in a movie starring Richard Gere, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.
We entered Shibuya Station but we weren’t leaving yet, Michiko pointed out an enormous and beautiful artwork inside the station concourse.
The Myth of Tomorrow is a 30m long mural by Taro Okamoto that was lost for years in Mexico. The vibrant colours surrounding a skeletal figure depict the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We caught a local train west to the arty area of Shimokitazawa. The first thing that hits you about this small town is the small narrow roads that barely fit a car single file, which is a welcome contrast to the busy centre of Tokyo. Shimokitazawa is popular with young adults and creatives and might be considered a little bit hipster, or at least bohemian.
Independent cafes, boutiques, bars and second had shops line the Shimokitazawa streets and lanes and you’ll find plenty of small theatres, in fact it’s the “Off Broadway” of Tokyo. On a sunny day Shimokitazawa is a great place to stroll around and see creative, alternative and youth cultures.
Throughout the year they have many festivals such as the Tengu-matsuri Festival in January/February, Shimokitazawa Theatre Festival in February, and the lively Mikoshi-matsuri Festival (portable shrine festival) in early September.
Even if you’re not out shopping this is the place to go to experience a piece of Tokyo that is not so generic. We didn’t have a hipster lunch though and opted for something more traditional.
Sitting at a traditional Japanese dining table (kotatsu) can be quite a strain for people not used to it, men may cross their legs and sit on the floor but women traditionally need to sit on the floor with their knees bent and sitting on their heels. Luckily this restaurant had a modern kotatsu with a big hole beneath the table for your feet to hang down.
Nippori Textile Town
Leaving we Shimokitazawa got the train back to Shinjyuku, the busiest station in Tokyo and hopped on the Tokyo Metro to Nippori. Nippori Textile Town is know for, well… fabrics.
We wondered past many little boutiques with beautiful fabrics. from traditional to cute to modern. It must be a fashion designer’s or clothing maker’s dream to be here, and there are many clothing shops and fun accessory shops that show off exactly what you can do with these fine fabrics.
Walking south through Nippori we arrived at Yanaka, yet another area that is a lovely contrast to the hustle and bustle of central Tokyo. Yanaka is slightly elevated and the air feels cleaner and you have great views of the city. You’ll probably be distracted by the views of Yanaka itself though.
Yanaka is filled with traditional old houses and has many temples. They say Yanaka has a “shitamachi” atmosphere, an old town vibe from a couple of decades ago, and it does. Everything is more peaceful and life seems slower here where people can enjoy the moment.
There are a few local shops and the residential houses are immaculately looked after with pretty plants and tree decorating their fronts. There’s a large cemetery and quite a few temples but there is a feeling of contentment in Yanaka.
We visited a few art galleries displaying work by local artists who no doubt find it much easier to express themselves in Yanaka. SCAI The Bath House shows avant garde contemporary art, you’ll also find Allan West’s Art Sanctuary – an American artist specialising in Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting).
A local Tokyo guide much more than pure sightseeing
We took a short walk to Ueno and our fun filled half day with Michiko was over. Normally we don’t find tours to have much value, but this personal tour of Tokyo by a local guide was the complete opposite.
Not only did Michiko lead us to places off the main tourist trail but the enlightening little tidbits she shared throughout the day meant we learnt and felt so much more of Tokyo than just pure sightseers.
Highly recommended if you’re a first time visitor to Tokyo, go visit the Tokyo Free Guide website to organise your personalised tour.