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Deep in a garden of tangled green, tiny lights flash on and off like a mini disco. Fireflies, the quintessential sign of summer, glow against the velvety night sky. As entranced as I am with the dancing beetles, the glimmering light of bamboo lanterns draws me toward a pathway. I follow it up a short hill where I stumble upon a three-storied pagoda.
I could be anywhere in rural Japan, but I’m actually in the middle of Tokyo. In the gardens of Hotel Chinzanso to be exact. While it may seem like an unlikely oasis, opposites are not at odds in Japan. The juxtapositions between urban and rural, old and new, are what Japan is famous for.
Japan has always seemed exotic, but it also had a reputation for being far away or difficult to navigate or expensive. Once upon a time, it may have been all three, but it’s none of those anymore.
English is everywhere, from well-signed transit stations to restaurant menus, making it easy to get around. While Japan may be an ocean away, WestJet’s new direct flights from Calgary to Tokyo make it easier than ever to get to. But the best-kept secret is a weaker yen, making prices from meals to activities to accommodations very reasonable.
As for what to do and where to go, Tokyo has much to unpack. Part of what makes the city so dynamic is its incredibly diverse neighbourhoods. Each district deserves a day’s exploration to do it justice.
If you’re like me and wake early with jet lag, use it to your advantage and witness the bustling tuna auction at dawn at Toyosu Market. For that though, you need to reserve tickets well in advance.
While there’s not much to see after the auction is finished, you can tuck into the freshest sushi you’ll likely ever have for breakfast. If you’re still alert, walk over to teamLab Planets.
This isn’t a regular museum, and you’ll have to take off your shoes to find out why. It may not be the most common way to handle jet lag, but wading through knee-deep water as digital fish swim around you seemed to help. Whether you’re immersed in a digital gallery or a floating flower garden with thousands of orchids dangling above you, the art changes with the presence of people. Where else but in Japan can you experience the blurring of boundaries between yourself and the exhibits?
Once acclimatized, head to northern Tokyo where you can lose an entire day picking your way through Ueno Park. It’s like Central Park but with the bonus of cultural attractions like two art museums and the National Science Museum. Covering 133 acres, you’ll also find performance artists, lively markets and pandas at the Ueno Zoo. With a temple and shrines also on-site, it’s a one-stop shop for a dose of culture – not that Tokyo is lacking in that department.
From Ueno Park, amble towards JR Ueno Station to suss out Ameyoko. Once a black market area after the Second World War, this vibrant street market now focuses on food, clothing and pharmacy finds at discount. Speaking of deals, I snagged a pair of ASICS runners for $43.
Another neighbourhood worth poking around is Ginza, famed for its upmarket shopping and Michelin-starred eateries. Though Japan is extremely affordable right now, there are always places that cater to the luxury market. It’s here, in the food halls of Japan’s oldest department store, that I spot the famed $80 melons and $40 clusters of grapes. It’s almost a bargain when you consider both would’ve been at least 30 per cent more pre-COVID.
I managed to keep my money in my wallet because I knew that a short walk away from Ginza lies Tsukiji Outer Market. Once the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, it’s now where many culinary trends are born. Cresting along a sea of humanity composed of tourists, local foodies and boisterous families, I’m astounded at the amount of seafood and food on a stick on offer.
Walking with no sense of direction doesn’t seem to matter. Along every alleyway are discoveries. There are handmade Japanese knives and tableware down one lane, thinly sliced beef sushi, the new “it food,” down another. I throw back tuna maki rolls and fresh oysters, both the size of my palm, plus scallops, broiled in their shells atop charcoal grills.
Afterwards, amble over to Hama-rikyu Garden, a 15-minute walk away. After the frenzy of the street market, it’s a balm for the senses. Once a private Imperial and Shogunate garden, it’s now a designated Special Place of Scenic Beauty.
Grabbing a matcha, I took a breather at the reconstructed floating teahouse set upon a tidal pond. Gazing through the manicured garden with its winding pathways and perfectly pruned trees, I was surprised to see that the skyscrapers fringing the park were reflected upon the pond’s surface. I’d forgotten for a moment that I’m in the world’s most populous city.
That’s Tokyo for you. One minute you’re part of a crowd, but it only takes seconds to slip away. I’m just happy it’s now more accessible and affordable than ever.
Good to know
WestJet flies direct to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on the airline’s 787 Dreamliner three times per week through Oct. 28 and will return in Spring 2024.
For the latest information on Tokyo events, attractions and accommodations visit: gotokyo.org
Purchasing a 7-, 14- or 21-day Japan Rail Pass offers unlimited access to JR trains without reservations. Passes must be purchased outside Japan and can be used on Tokyo’s metro plus on trains throughout the country. Visit: japan-rail-pass.com
Further information for Canadians on travelling throughout Japan can be found by visiting: japan.travel/en/ca