Japan: A Sunday in Tokyo
Tokyo is known for its tremendous size, blinking billboards, enormous flat screens perched atop glass walls of buildings pressed together side by side, colossal mass of humanity, which appears to be all crowded and waiting for a green light in the famous Shibuya crossing, Shinjuku station with about two million passengers a day, extravagant Kabukicho district, and more.
This is the image of Tokyo that everyone has come to know, because the movies, the documentaries, the press, together with the human habit of making assumptions, have deprived the rest of the world of any other essence of Tokyo.
Tokyo is indeed all of that, it can't be denied, but it's not only about billboards or Shibuya, nor only about masses of people everywhere and anywhere. Nothing furthest from the truth.
In my experience, one of the best ways to get a feel for a city is have a stroll around it on a Sunday. The pace is slower, you'll see people doing what they would, shopping, eating out, enjoying the day with families, friends, couples...
None of the daily grind, none of the hurries, everyone is out and about at leisure. In short, Sundays generally paint a different view of a city from what you'd find in the tourist guides –or in the movies, indeed.
Route for a Sunday in Tokyo
10:00 Shinjuku Gyoen
Known as one of the best spots to enjoy the cherry blossom season in Tokyo, Shinjuku Park is a big but very manageable extension of green, smack in the middle of Shinjuku district.
What I found remarkable about this park is that once we were strolling among the cherry blossoms, the ponds in the Japanese garden, the lawns spread around the park full of hanami-goers, it was difficult to envision that we were 10 minutes away from one of the most crowded, vibrant, lively, billboarded, square kilometer in the world.
If one just navigates the Shinjuku area, or specifically Kabukicho at night, one will leave Tokyo with that very impression all the movies tell us about. You can rectify that misconception with a stroll around the park. On a Sunday, if you please, but any other day will do, too.
12:00 Aoyama Cemetery
From Shinjuku Park we picked our way on foot towards the Aoyama district, where the famous Aoyama Cemetery sits. It's a 45 minute walk, cutting across peaceful, Sunday-sleepy, low laid neighborhoods, so very different from the image of sky scrappers and billboards and humanity.
I can't say as we didn't see a soul, we did cross paths with a few other citizens, but we really felt pretty much alone and undisturbed. This was probably my first wake up call that Tokyo wasn't only what they cracked it up to be, but a whole lot more.
Once in Aoyama cemetery, besides aiming to spot some cherry blossoms, we simply planned to get a feel for what was a Sunday like in a huge cemetery in the hugest city. It was peaceful and serene, much as one would expect anywhere else, but the confirmation just helped put another notch in our different way to see Tokyo.
Again on foot, we set out compass towards Omotesando area. Omotesando itself is an avenue sometimes referred to as Tokyo's Champs Elisees in the guides. I simply can't agree.
First of all, this amount of people in a stretch of less than one kilometer has never ever been seen anywhere in Paris, never mind the Champs Elisees. Perhaps some parts of Broadway in New York City, if we would find any similarities with any other avenue in the world.
Second, it's brand new and altogether modern, it's actually an "architectural showcase for countless fashion flagship stores designed by internationally renowned architects within a short distance of each other."
This, quite simply, is no Champs Elisees. And I don't mean that to demerit it, quite the contrary, I mean to say it has got its own distinct personality.
Both the avenue and especially the streets around, full of nooks and crannies, restaurants and little, pretty stores, were a real Sunday experience. All those folks out on the town, by the millions, shopped, strolled, biked, ate crepes and ice creams on the street, while the sunny spring Sunday passed on without a care in the world.
17:00 Takeshita Dori
By late afternoon it was time to give the pedestrian Takeshita dori a try. This is a street, all right, but I feel perfectly justified to call it one huge flea market.
Stores of all varieties pack both sides, and people of all denominations pack the area. It's actually difficult to pick one's way through it, it's around 200 meters long but you'll take your good 20 minutes to come out the other way. If you don't stop to look at anything, that is, which is fairly impossible.
In most countries, flea markets are generally a morning thing, and that's when they are worth a visit to see them in full swing. But apparently there's none of that for Takeshita dori, never mind the time of day you pick for a visit, wall-to-wall humanity is fully guaranteed.
No billboards, no fancy stores here, just door to door lingerie, music, assorted clothes, Goth and cosplay specialty stores...
We came out Takeshita street across from the exit of Harajuku train station. And that was our final milestone in the Sunday in Tokyo adventure.
Harajuku corner is world known as the epicenter of Tokyo's extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles. Yes, this is one of Tokyo's typical images spoken about in the movies and in documentaries.
To experience the Harajuku crowd at its most extraordinary, we were advised to visit early evening on Sunday.
The Harajuku youth are a unique variety of urban tribe, a mixture of extreme fashion, anime character impersonations, Goth rock bands, vampire look-alikes, pink attired cosplay kids...
Together with Akihabara, which is the center of the world when it comes to cosplay, Harajuku is a fascinating experience, one can hardly believe it until one comes face to face with it... on a Sunday out on the town.
Packed Sunday, Different Tokyo
After all is said and done, our Sunday around Tokyo marked the beginning of my love affair with the city. There was a lot more loving before and after, but Sunday was a day when I felt one with the city, a part of it, not a foreigner, not a tourist, just someone else out and about.
Take my advice, know a city on a Sunday for an altogether different experience.