Stepping Out: Exploring Tokyo on Foot
Tokyo sees millions of tourists arriving from all over the world every month (2.2 million in January 2017 according to tourism.jp), many of them with itineraries overflowing with places to see, things to do, and foods to eat. While this is one way of trying to get the “Japanese experience” condensed into the shortest period of time possible, it can be very overwhelming as they rush to and from trains and buses, all while snapping photos and recording video of the sights and sounds everywhere they go.
In order to truly experience Tokyo, it must be explored on foot, whether it be crossing Shibuya’s scramble intersection, venturing down Takeshita Street in Harajuku, wandering through the floors of toys, games, and figurines in Akihabara, or taking in the historic ambience of Asakusa. An added benefit of being active is that it may take out some of the guilt from eating bowls of creamy ramen, platters of sushi, and all the other incredible foods in the city with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world?
Here are some resources for walking tours in Tokyo.
However, for those who may be repeat visitors or residents (short-term or long-term), taking things at a more relaxed pace can allow for a more nuanced experience as even popular destinations like Shibuya, Harajuku, Asakusa, Akihabara, Ikebukuro, and Ginza can lose their sparkle with repetition. This is not to say that these are not incredible places but, venturing off the beaten path opens up the possibilities. Why not put on some comfortable footwear and take a walk down some unfamiliar streets?
In the main 23 wards of Tokyo, there are many train stations, many of them located quite close to each other so they can serve as the starting points as well as the finish lines for any walking adventures. Each year since 2010, a “Yamathon” (Yamanote Line marathon) has been held in the spring time, where teams walk/jog/run along the 34.5 km loop line in order to raise money for charity but, who’s to say you can’t organize one of your own with a few friends on a weekend (drinking optional)? The sprawling public transportation network also provides a bit of a safety net as there is almost always a station located nearby in case someone becomes tired and wants to go back.
Keep in mind that the further one ventures from the 23 wards of Tokyo, the farther apart train stations will be located. Lines that snake through the metropolis tend to straighten out as they stretch their way out towards the suburbs and countryside, with homes, temples and shrines, schools, farmland, and parks appearing more commonly than train stations, conbini, restaurants, and shops as well.
One of the fascinating features of Tokyo is how historic, modern, and futuristic are mashed together. Temples, shrines, historic landmarks, and businesses that have operated for centuries can be found just around the corner from a restaurant with dancing robots, shops selling the latest street fashion trends, or Tokyo Sky Tree. Walking just a few blocks in any direction may lead to the discovery of a calming Zen-like spot in the middle of the bustling metropolis.
For those of you with an interest in photography, going away from the popular spots may also lead to some unique pictures. While it’s a surefire way to get attention by posting shots of famous destinations, why not turn your lens toward some lesser known scenery as well? While millions of people will flock to Yoyogi Park and Meguro River as cherry blossom season arrives in Tokyo, there is no shortage of locations scattered throughout the city that are equally, if not more alluring depending on how you chose to frame them. Remember to stay alert and be responsible when it comes to taking photos, especially in crowded areas.
Taking a walk is also great for clearing the mind and getting some fresh air, especially at the beginning or end of a long day. Depending on where you need to go, it can be relaxing compared to attempting to cram yourself into a crowded train. Of course, if you are in an area that is already crowded, the difference may be negligible. Spots like Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Harajuku are areas of heavy traffic but, in those cases it’s experiencing the hustle and bustle that are part of the adventure.
As the largest urban center in Japan, you never know what or who you might run into. Whether it might be “itasha” in Akihabara, musicians going to and from live houses in Shibuya and Shinjuku, a fashion shoot or MV being filmed in Harajuku, or random neighborhood festivals just about everywhere. With all kinds of construction happening throughout the city, revisiting someplace you have been even months prior may yield some surprising new developments upon returning.
However, there are obvious detractors to proactively walking around in Tokyo. Although it is a modern metropolis in many respects, the layout of the streets is also quite old. Even as development has leapt forward and massive structures of concrete and glass cut through the sky, it seems like Tokyo still lags in the department of handling traffic of all kinds. Narrow streets and sidewalks not made to accommodate millions of pedestrians can make progress difficult, especially when cars, bicycles, and other vehicles enter the equation. The Japanese system of addresses, which does not use specific street names also makes navigating one’s route counterintuitive even if you have a good map/GPS app available. Keep in mind that in a lot of crowded areas like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Akihabara, and Roppongi, there will be all kinds of people handing out promotional fliers or tissues or aggressively trying to bring customers to their establishments and that it’s perfectly okay to not stop for them.
For those coming from a largely car-dependent area may not be accustomed to the difference in how much one may end up walking on a typical day in Tokyo. It’s not unusual to rack up an average of 5-10km without even trying. In addition to longer distances horizontally, vertical distances can accumulate as stairs are commonplace with elevators and escalators in short supply and high in demand wherever they are. With real estate at a premium, several shops/venues/businesses will be packed into multi-story buildings. The Tokyu Hands department store has estimates of calories the average person would burn as they navigate their labyrinth of staircases. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes!
While not everyone might have a schedule which allows for exploring Tokyo on foot at their own pace, it is helpful to be reminded that not everything is located within 5-10 minutes of a train station, even though there is a lot of conveniences to be sure. Whether it’s food, sightseeing, shopping, or anything else in between, going just a bit further can expand your options (for better or worse). For all you know, your next favorite shop or eatery could just be a few blocks away!
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