Some cities are perfect for layovers. Take Amsterdam. A short, efficient, easy to use rail system shuttles visitors from the airport to the center of the city. Nearly everyone speaks English, and the city is navigable. Tokyo is no Amsterdam. To put things in perspective, 35 million people live in Tokyo and most of them don’t speak English outside of large or upscale hotels. So if you're killing time in Tokyo, you'll need some tips on where to go.
The city is much smaller in size than New York City, but don’t be fooled – the rail and metro network is vast. The Japanese like their trains. After all, they came up with the lightening fast bullet trains.
The challenge: absorb a bit of Tokyo’s atmosphere and experience a glimpse of both pop and historical culture in just four hours on a layover between Osaka and Seoul.
It was that, or skip Tokyo altogether. Bearing all this in mind, along with the hangover effect a 9-hour time difference can cause, I broke with personal tradition and booked a tour guide. The words alone are enough to make me cringe. But, Hide, a part-time guide and web designer managed to give me an experience that was less about history lessons (though he can do that, too) and more about the things that interested me. Where do local people shop? Far away from Ginza, the Tokyo equivalent of Fifth Avenue, you can be sure. And, what about this cultural obsession with anime, a world of cartoons, comic books and superheroes? While I wanted a more sociological view of Tokyo, I also wanted to tick some of the standard boxes, by taking in a temple or two and a typical workday lunch.
Hide and I meet at the Tokyo Station Hotel, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year after a remodel. Hotel staff are a godsend. They speak excellent English and to avoid any confusion, escort me, with my luggage all the way to the platform long after Hide has dropped me off and it’s time to head back to the airport.
Hide and I had exchanged emails just a day or two before my arrival, so he knew how to plan the most efficient route and what I might find interesting. He also has quite clever business cards, with basic Japanese phrases on the back. I booked Hide through Tours by Locals, a Canada-based company with local guides offering different kinds of general, specialist and customised tours all over the world.
In Tokyo, there were several choices for ‘layover tours’ as well as food and drink, horse back riding, tea ceremonies and other customised options. Prices are per tour, rather than per person, which can make it a bit more expensive, but worth it for a group, or if you’d like to cover specific things in a short period of time.
We begin with a metro ride to Asakusa, an old downtown district where we’re instantly faced with a string of kitchenware shops where urbanites come to buy tableware, knives and chopping boards. Small shops sell beautiful ceramic bowls, some traditionally painted, others in more simple, modern designs and many with plastic covers. Beyond the bowls, every other shop seems to be selling light wood chopping boards in small, medium and large sizes. The boards are made of Paulownia wood, known for it’s resilience and low water absorbency that means it dries quickly. Because they’re so light, the Paulownia boards make a great souvenir.
Tokyo is mostly a city with an architectural age of less than 50 years because of wartime bombing, but Asakusa has more buildings from the 1950s and 60s than any other neighbourhood. It’s also the oldest geisha district, with actively working geisha. Traditional guesthouses and small apartment buildings give the area an authentic, residential feel.
Nearby, we stroll through Nakamise, an outdoor promenade of snack vendors and souvenir shops hawking Hello Kitty everything and Star Wars chopsticks. It’s a colorful and amusing route to the Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, built in 645.
We hop on the metro to visit Akihabara, Japan’s centre for animation, with entire cinema’s showing only animated films. At a discount shop called Don Quixote, we find heaps of comics and cartoon figures, as well as costumes, light sabres, glow in the dark magic wands and jewellery – fun for the next Halloween party.
Lunch is soba noodles at a casual restaurant before we end our tour in Ginza, home of Tokyo’s high end shopping district and Mitsukoshi, Japan’s first department store. It’s worth a visit for the food hall, alone where even the smallest, most mundane item is beautifully presented in great detail and carefully gift-wrapped. From Ginza, it’s an easy, and short ride back to Tokyo Station.
Among the many tours offered by Tours by Locals, some are specifically geared towards layovers, with airport collections, others take in more typical ‘sites,’ like the famous fish market, the Imperial Palace and Shinto shrines.
Tours by Locals also offers a 24-hour hotline for any emergencies.