Big cities usually have enough attractions to keep even the most demanding of visitors occupied, but if you’re a die-hard megametropolis fan like me, Tokyo beats them all. Bristling with neon-studded towers, snaking train lines and a sensory overload of the unfamiliar, it’s an endlessly intriguing über-city you can’t stop exploring — and may never quite figure out.
Hungry for action on my arrival, I set out to explore Tokyo’s traditional heart as well as its fascinating futuristic face: With flare-topped temples abutting multifloor technology stores, no city pulls off this juxtaposition better than Tokyo. Since my geeky side usually wins these tugs-of-war, I started my trawl in Akihabara, the central neighborhood also known as Electric Town.
Teeming with arcade-noisy stores hawking every gadget known to man (plus plenty known only to the locals), I weaved in a daze between fluorescent Yodobashi, Bic Camera and Llaox outlets. This last was the most tempting because its products — including a fluttering, egg-shaped music player that, according to a television monitor, makes everyone dance at boardroom meetings — are adaptable for international use.
Barely able to restrain my itchy credit cards, I ducked into a Manga character toy store for a respite and was confronted with shelves of oddball action figures. But not every action figure in this vibrant city is fictional. Hitting the Ryogoku Kokugikan arena later in the day, I found myself engrossed in the ancient sport of sumo.
Seated among chattering, bento-box-cradling spectators high in the stands, I peered down at the centerpiece sand dohyoˉ. With as much psychological strategy as a knotty chess match, the first two fleshy wrestlers strutted around, sprinkled salt to purify the ring and finally came together like a pair of pale, breaching whales. I was glad not to have a front row seat when the losing mountain of a man teetered unsteadily over the flinching crowd.
You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the sumo spectacle, and first-time visitors were quickly caught up in the excitement as the feverish crowd — about 12,000 on my visit — called out the names of favored combatants and gasped with surprise at unexpected moves. For me the best part was when all the somber-faced wrestlers took the stage and posed in a ceremonial circle, their lavishly embroidered, ritually important miniaprons making them look like carefully coiffured, lifesize dolls.
With my incessant tech itch ready for another scratch, I headed for a late-afternoon visit to Mega Web, a giant, free-entry showcase of Toyota technology, which, recall issues notwithstanding, the company has in abundance. After a Disney-style simulator ride in a Formula One car, a live trombone performance by a jaunty robot and a glimpse at a prototype people mover that looked like a Segway armchair, I stepped back in time to an age when cars were as alluring as Hollywood starlets.
An art gallery of old automobiles, the site’s historic garage included a shiny array of gorgeous Corvettes, Jaguars, Citroëns and Alfa Romeos. It was a reminder that even ultramodern Tokyo still values classic aesthetics and simple pleasures. I kept this in mind during my final stop in Shibuya, Tokyo’s enticing but hyperactive nightlife center.
My brain overflowing with the sights, smells and sounds of winking neon bars, red-lanterned backstreet restaurants and clamorous karaoke venues, I ducked downstairs into a small subterranean lounge for some quiet. In a smoke-filled, wood-lined nook among chilled-out locals, I perched at the end of the counter and sipped some copper-colored Yebisu beer. In a city as stimulating as Tokyo, a bit of calm was a welcome thing.
STAY at the Shangri-La Tokyo, the city’s newest high-end sleepover in the heart of the Marunouchi financial district, with grand cityscape views.
EAT at one of the multitude of friendly food stands (including a streetside sake seller) on Yanaka Ginza Street, a quaint shopping destination not far from Ueno Station.
DRINK at Grandfather’s, a subterranean bar with a cozy pub feel (helped by background music that favors 1970s-’80s rock) near Shibuya Station.
DON’T MISS the clamorous Tsukiji Market, a giant fish emporium near the Ginza; the early morning tuna auction is a highlight.