Tokyo is the consummate modern metropolis, a land of staggering skyscrapers, dizzying neon signage, and the world’s busiest transport hubs. In many ways though, it’s still the Edo – the former feudal capital, with its Buddhist temples, kabuki stages and sumo tournaments.
Tokyo doesn’t erase the old so much as pile on the new. It’s constantly evolving, mutating, reconsidering its past and rushing headlong into the future. This synergy between tradition and ingenuity is what makes Tokyo the city it is today. Here are some of the best places to experience these fascinating intersections of new and old.
A temple and a tower
Zōjō-ji was once one of Tokyo’s most powerful Buddhist temples. It was a funerary temple of the Tokugawa family, the clan that ruled Japan throughout the Edo period (1603-1868). Today it remains a somber place steeped in the history of old Japan. Behind it is Tokyo Tower, the symbol of Tokyo’s post-WWII rebirth. The 333m tall broadcasting tower, completed in 1958, was constructed partially from scrap metal salvaged at the end of the war. Tokyo Tower is illuminated up from dusk, and there’s nothing quite like seeing this glowing modern construction rising above Zōjō-ji as the temple fades into the night.
Contemporary art in a centuries-old bathhouse
A visit to a sentō (public bathhouse) has long been a regular ritual for Tokyoites. Until the middle of the 20th century, most homes didn’t have baths. Now that they do, bathhouses are on the wane (though they definitely still have their fans). Yet at least one of these classic structures, known for their high, vaulted ceilings, has been put to new use – as an art gallery. SCAI the Bathhouse shows exhibitions of cutting-edge contemporary artists in a 200-year-old sentō. The old wooden lockers for shoes are still out front.
Views from a skyscraper
The towers that house the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building are an imposing work by Japan’s foremost modern architect, Tange Kenzo. They also have free observatories on the 45th floor. From this point, 202m up in the sky, you can look out over the whole city, which stretches all the way to the horizon. On a clear day, you can see the snowcapped cone of Mt Fuji, Japan’s iconic volcano, lording over the western edge – as if to remind the city who is really boss.
When Tokyo was Edo, the old feudal capital, it was a city on the water, shot through with rivers and canals. Today, rail lines and highways have replaced the city’s waterways as the main forms of transport. However, waterbuses still run down the Sumida-gawa, Tokyo’s central river, from Asakusa all the way to Odaiba. The route wends past a number of landmarks old and new, like Tokyo Skytree and the sumo stadium Ryōgoku Kokugikan, before tipping out into Tokyo Bay, where you can view the entire city’s glittering skyline.
You might walk down a typical Tokyo street lined with concrete office buildings, turn the corner and suddenly be confronted by men and women dancing up the block in 18th century garb. No, they’re not filming a period drama; it’s a traditional festival. Tokyo has many of these, which transform the city streets into sites of centuries-old rituals. The most famous is Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri, which draws over a million spectators every May. During this three-day spectacle, portable Shintō shrines are paraded through the streets.
A garden in a shopping mall
Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills is more than just a shopping mall. With office towers, apartments, an art museum and movie theatre all in one undulating complex, it’s a potential prototype for the cities of tomorrow. Of course it is stocked with every modern convenience, but it also has a traditional luxury as well – a landscaped garden. Like the gardens that were part of the villas of the old samurai elite, Mohri Garden has a pond, strolling paths and cherry trees.
Seasonal cuisine 24 hours a day
Japanese food is famous for being attuned to the seasons. Spring is the time for strawberries and takenoko (bamboo shoots); fall is the time for sanma (mackerel) and kaki (persimmon). Menus at kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurants change monthly (or even daily!) to reflect the changing seasons. So do many of the goods available at Tokyo’s ubiquitous convenience stores. So even if Tokyoites don’t have time to head to the countryside to see the fall leaves, they can still savour the changing of the season with sweet potato ice cream or beer packaged in red and gold cans.