Western Tokyo

Tokyo: Central and Eastern Tokyo | West Tokyo

As opposed to the business and high-brow areas of central and eastern Tokyo, the busiest centers of youth culture and entertainment are located along the western part of the Yamanote Line between Ebisu to the south and Ikebukuro to the north. Ebisu was a sleepy if well-to-do area until the arrival of Ebisu Garden Place and the expansion of Ebisu station in the 90s. Ebisu Garden Place has several department stores, a major hotel, cinemas, restaurants and is generally a pleasant place to spend a few hours.

The famous scramble crossing in Shibuya

The famous "scramble" crossing in Shibuya

The next two stops on the Yamanote Line are the youth meccas of Shibuya and Harajuku. Twenty years or so ago, Shibuya was just another dingy city neighborhood. Today, thanks largely to the thriving sub-economy that is fuelled by the under-20's, the area is bustling on any day of the week. In front of the Hachiko exit of the JR station stands a small bronze statue of the faithful canine in whose furry honor the exit is named. The late pooch continued for years to wait at the station for his master's return from work each day despite the fact that the said master was six feet under. This kind of blind loyalty and faithfulness to one's master is supposed to be an example to us all. The statue remains the city's most popular place for being stood up. Shibuya has a good selection of department stores for the younger set, such as Parco, Marui and 109 and countless boutiques, restaurants, bars and game centers. Head from Hachiko across the famous "scramble" intersection and you'll be at the entrance to "Center Gai", one of the busiest shopping streets.

A giant torii gate at Meiji Shrine

A giant torii gate at Meiji Shrine

Shinjuku and Mt. Fuji

Shinjuku and Mt. Fuji

Just up the line are the two faces of Harajuku. On the west side of the tracks is the large Yoyogi Park, in the center of which is Meiji-Jingu shrine. This shrine receives millions of visitors over the New Year period alone and is also the site of initiation ceremonies for newly-crowned Sumo Grand Champions among other events. It is surrounded by heavily wooded land and is a cool oasis in the summer heat. Entrance is free. To the east of the Yamanote Line is the fashionable, cafe and tree-lined Omotesando street and the teeny-bopper Yamashita-Dori, where a twenty-year old feels ancient. Around halfway along Omotesando, you can find Kiddyland, a huge multi-storey toy store, and Oriental Bazaar, where you will find a great selection of quintessentially Japanese gifts.

A couple of stops up the line is Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world. To the west of the station lie the Tokyo City Hall and several other impressive skyscrapers, mostly hotels and insurance company headquarters. Several have restaurants and allow free access to observation decks on their upper floors. The potentially attractive Shinjuku Central Park seems to be home to a considerable number of Tokyo's wino population and is usually semi-deserted. On the other side of the station, the main attractions are the Kabukicho entertainment district to the north, the Takashimaya Times Square mall near the south exit and the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen park. Kabukicho has dozens of cinemas and theaters, some good restaurants and a lot of seedy 'sex shops'. Some guidebooks describe it as dangerous and, given the number of less-than-reputable places, there is a certain low-level Yakuza presence. But the bad reputation is pretty much out of date and these days it's just about as safe as any other part of the city. Shinjuku Gyoen is a large park with an English Garden, French Garden and Japanese Garden as well as a hothouse. There is an entry charge but the park is worth it.

Cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Gyoen

Cherry blossoms in bloom in Shinjuku Gyoen

Tokyo Tower

When lit up, Tokyo Tower dominates the skyline

Further north is Ikebukuro, a kind of poor cousin of Shinjuku. The area has been 'upgraded' in recent years and is even home to the main Seibu department store, Tokyo's biggest. But perhaps because it's further from the center of the city, Ikebukuro lacks the young chic of Shibuya or the energy of Shinjuku. Also, again perhaps because of its relative proximity to the neighboring Saitama Prefecture (snobbishly thought of as countryside, in the worst sense), it seems to lack the urban sophistication of its neighbors to the south. Typically, the Sunshine Building, 60 floors of offices, shops and restaurants and once the tallest building in Asia, is no longer of much interest to visitors. At the Ikebukuro Engeijo theater, you can enjoy (if you speak the language fluently!) the traditional Japanese forms of comedy Rakugo and Manzai.

Returning south and inside the Yamanote loop, are the Akasaka and Roppongi areas. This part of Tokyo is home to most of the embassies and a good number of the expatriates who work there and in the more lucrative end of the salary scale. Akasaka has many fine hotels, nightspots and restaurants and is where a lot of the behind-the-scenes political and financial wheeling-and-dealing is done. Roppongi is often, and quite fairly, described as a 'Jungle in Tokyo'. It's where a lot of the foreign population go to let their hair down, dance and drink till dawn on the weekends and generally live up to the image Japanese people have of 'crazy gaijin'. There are a lot of good bars , clubs and eating places and many places offer happy hour prices and ladies nights. A short distance to the south is the world famous (not) 333m Tokyo Tower, which is illuminated at night and has an over-priced observation deck and aquarium.

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