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There is no doubt about it, as Japan’s popularity grows, more and more people are heading to Tokyo. There was a time when English was spoken by the minority, and you could walk through the capital without seeing any other Western faces or recognisable signs. Districts such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Asakusa are a lot more ‘foreigner-friendly’ these days, which has its benefits, but for me it takes away an element of adventure.
Like all travellers, you’ll want to see the highlights, but for a sense of intrepid adventure – visiting places most people will never find – you need to step back from the guidebooks and enlist the help of some locals. Fortunately, Tokyo is quite a sizeable city (35m+ people, 880+ train stations, biggest metropolis in the world etc.) so there are plenty of places to explore beyond the well-trodden districts, each with something interesting to offer. Where to start? I join the Inside Circle Tokyo backstreet walking tour for some top tips from the Insiders.
Yanesen to Yanaka Ginza
Where do you meet for a Tokyo Inside Circle tour? Nippori Station and the Yanesen area of the city of course! The area is completely new to me, but Insider Mark Fujishige enthuses about the neighbourhood.
We stop off at a 150-year-old local senbei rice cracker store – a place that has probably never seen so many foreigners in one go – where Mark buys a selection of crackers and talks about the importance of supporting local business. Next, we continue past an old temple where the old 17th-century gate has bullet holes from the Battle of Ueno. This is not from some recent gang war (this is Tokyo after all), but bullet holes that are hundreds of years old. It’s mind blowing! From here, we head to the Yanaka Ginza area, home to small galleries, funky shops and traditional little stores.
Sensoji Temple, in the old district of Asakusa, is arguably one of Tokyo’s most popular sights, but usually packed full of tourists (unless you go there in the evening when it is lit up and quite atmospheric). So, rather than heading there, we take in the impressive Nezu Shrine instead. Despite having very nice grounds and unique elements, such as an impressive gate, I had never heard of it before. But the most striking thing? There is hardly anyone there.
Japan is renowned for its gardens. One of Tokyo’s most famous is Hamarikyu – a lovely little place it is too. However, this haven of tranquillity, surrounded by modern high-rise architecture, tends to get a lot of visitors these days. With my Insider friends, we wander to Rikugi-en garden instead; while this beautiful 18th-century garden is adorned with the colours of autumn, there are few people about.
As we hop around the subway and explore the districts, we gradually make our way back into Shibuya. After having coffee made by a robot, we go up to the roof garden of one of the buildings overlooking the famous Shibuya crossing. While I’m back in a part of Tokyo I know well, this is the first time I’ve seen a view like this.
Although I have lived in Tokyo and led tours myself for many years, many of these places are new to me and each Insider adds their own little gems, making it very special. My feet ache a little, but the day has been more than worth it – our Insiders do really know their stuff.
If you are travelling self-guided and want to discover a different side of Tokyo join our Inside Circle. Each group size has a maximum 10 people and is guaranteed to take you far away from the guidebook. Get in touch with one of our Japan experts for more information.