When we are very organised we arrange for a tour on our first full day in a new city. This helps us get our bearings, sample a selection of top sights on day 1 and get some insider information from the guides – “eat in this district”, “get here before 9am to not queue” etc.
We also use every tip and hint we get from friends that have been there before.
So what is a great and fun way to explore a good stretch of Tokyo? A cycle tour!
We booked up with Bike Tour Tokyo and lucked out on that morning -> a private cycle tour 🙂
Akio, our guide, met us outside one of the big hotels in Shinjuku on Chuo-Dori Avenue. After a small introduction we were made to go through a quick orientation – basically showing them that we could ride a bicycle. Luckily its something you never forget.
With the rules satisfied we were off, taking a big right turn by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (we would visit this later on) – an impressive complex of three towers that was the tallest building in Tokyo until 2006. Continuing on towards Yoyogi Park and Shibuya we arrived shortly afterwards at our first stop
Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, the Meiji Shrine is the largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo. In living, the site chosen for this shrine had been an iris garden visited by the royal couple. Original construction was started in 1915 and took 11 years. We say original construction as the shrine was destroyed in March 1945 during the Tokyo air raids.
The shrine was not too busy – it is normally busiest over the new year as Japanese families visit Shinto shrines to prepare for the worship or Hatsumode. The entire complex comprises of 70 hectares of forest, trails and a number of traditional buildings. Over 120,000 evergreen trees from 360 different species.
From here we continued our cycle through the suburbs of Tokyo – namely Shibuya City and Jingumae – towards a place called Jingu Gaien and its famous rows of Gingko Trees. 2 Lanes of 150 trees.
It was too early for the Gingko to be in bloom (this normally happens two weeks from mid November) but we enjoyed the stop after a long leg of the tour. Our next stop was a little bit south and is probably the most famous cemetery in Tokyo.
Amongst the rows of cherry blossom trees lies the grave of Hachikō, the faithful and dutiful dog whose statue adorns Shibuya Station. Here he is buried with his owners. An akita breed of dog, Hachikō’s story was quite remarkable. It would wait for it’s owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, everyday after work at Shibuya Station – even for nine years after Ueno’s untimely death. The Japanese held this activity in high regard as an example of loyalty and fidelity. This act is remembered today with a shrine at the station as well as books, an annual memorial ceremony, tv shows and even a hollywood movie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale starring Richard Gere of all people.
The cemetery was also one of the first public burial grounds in Japan after the Meiji Restoration and has a number of graves for foreign experts of that era including Charles Dickinson West – an Irish mechanical engineer heavily involved in the early days of the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo.
Another interesting fact that we picked up was that the cemetery was not for one religion or the other – Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian were all buried here. Marker posts the only difference between them.
The rest of the residents make up a bohemian collective – playwrights, political leaders, Kabuki actors, assassins and a Prime Minister – Osachi Hamaguchi. There is also an Olympic Gold Medallist Showjumper and Japanese WW2 General (the same person).
Count Nori Magesuke, commander of the Japanese forces and victor at the siege of Port Arthur was also buried here.
Back to the Future
After spending some time discovering Japan’s past we rode uphill to one of the monuments to it’s future – Roppongi Hills.
Completed in 2003 and the product of the imagination of Minoru Mori – property tycoon and visionary. His stated vision was
“to build an integrated development where high-rise inner-urban communities allow people to live, work, play, and shop in proximity to eliminate commuting time. He argued that this would increase leisure time, quality of life, and benefit Japan’s national competitiveness. Seventeen years after the design’s initial conception, the complex.”
And I think he delivered on this. Its a massive complex of shops, offices, restaurants and an abundance of outdoor space in gardens, walkways and verandas. It looks like it should be a backdrop set of San Angeles. Even TV Asahi has its headquarters here.
Art dots the complex and we were particuarly taken with the giant 30 foot Maman Spider (by French artist Louise Bourgeois) – 1 of 7 replicas around the world.
After spending some time exploring we skirted across the north of Minato City to one of the best vantage points for Tokyo Tower. This Eiffel Tower inspired lattice tower is the second tallest structure in Japan. That vantage point was it’s next door neighbour – the Zojo-ji Buddhist Temple.
The main gate (Sangadetsumon) dates from 1622 and the temple grounds are the final resting place for no less than 6 of the Tokugawa shoguns (rulers of Edo period Japan).
There is a particularly sad portion of the temple grounds – The Sentai Kosodate Jizo (Unborn Children Garden). Here rows of stone statues of children represent unborn children. Parents choose a statue and decorate it with clothing and toys – gifts for Jizo – the Guardian of Unborn Children.
We continued cycling east towards Tokyo Harbour for the Shiodome City Center and lunch – we had cycled nearly 14km by this point.
After lunch we were whisked up a skyscraper to take a view across the Tokyo Bay. Sights below included the Hamarikyu Gardens, the Tsukiji Fish Markets and Chuo City beyond.
The post lunch section involved the only real hill as we circumnavigated around the Imperial Palace – the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. We stopped to take photos of the Seimon Ishibashi bridge, which leads to the main gate of the Imperial Palace, before continuing past the moat and hooking back to Shinjuku taking in some more districts on the way back.
Oh and did I forget – the cherry blossom was on form…as per usual this trip!
On the way back we passed someone taking a video of themselves dancing in the streets in traditional garb – only in Tokyo
All up it was a 27km cycle around some great spots in Tokyo with some perfect leads for the rest of our stay there.