Japan is a land of many contrasts. It’s a place where centuries old traditions and cutting edge modern technology come together and coexist side by side in harmony. This is part of what makes Japan such a special and magical place. Nowhere did this seem more apparent than Tokyo. The modern architecture and bright lights of Ginza are just steps from the Imperial Palace, The ancient buddhist temple of Zojo-ji resting in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower, and the softness of the pink and white cherry blossoms up against the hard grey metal of the city’s skyscrapers are just a few examples of the many contrasts we saw in our travels. Where else do you find 5 star restaurants with their world-class food displayed out front in the form of realistic plastic models?
Here’s a look at a few of the ancient and modern sights we saw while in Tokyo. Some of them were in the same place!
Located in the Asakusa district the Senso-ji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple. The approach leading up to the entrance of the temple is called Nakamise-dori and it is lined with souvenir shops. They are selling exactly what you would expect Japanese tourist shops to sell, fans, Godzilla toys, kimonos, buddhist scrolls, candy, mobile phone straps and a lot of other “stuff”.
This was our first stop in Tokyo and in hindsight I wish this wasn’t the case. The Temple itself is beautiful and surrounded by many other places of interest, but this is a very popular tourist destination and with more than 30 million visitors each year it was extremely crowded! The combination of junky stuff for sale and the large crowds was somewhat off-putting and because of it I think Asakusa was probably my least favorite neighborhood. In fairness It was our very first stop and we were still adjusting to jet-lag. The Asakusa district was largely destroyed by bombing in WWII and a lot of it was rebuilt in the 50s and 60s. It definitely has a 60s-ish vibe to it.
The Meiji Shrine is located in a large forest adjacent to one of Tokyo’s biggest parks, Yoyogi Park. I really enjoyed this! It was raining quite heavily the day we visited, but we chose to walk through the park anyway. We originally hail from Seattle, so a little rain won’t stop us! The cherry blossoms really stood out against the grey skies and with all the tall buildings surrounding the park it was really quite beautiful.
Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, the Meiji Shrine was first built-in 1920 and is relatively new compared to some of the others we visited. Beyond visiting the shrine itself the surrounding gardens have many things to see as well. We wandered through a tea garden, saw royal fishing ponds, and the Otorii Gate which is the largest of its kind in Japan. Walking along the pathway you’ll find a large display of both sake and red wine barrels which were donated in honor of the enshrined deities. We were also lucky enough to see a Shinto wedding taking place during our visit!
When visiting shrines it is polite to pay your respects. You do this by performing a series of actions that are independent of religious beliefs, but show your respect to the sanctity of the place. Once I got the hang of these rituals I rather enjoyed completing them.
A funny side note: It was just after our visit to the Meiji Shrine that I stumbled upon the Harajuku District. I had my mind set on visiting the Rag & Bone Store and knew it was “nearby”. We never actually located the shop, but it was while we were wandering aimlessly, okay lost, looking for it, that we found Takeshita Street which was probably one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip!
Zojo-ji is a Buddhist temple in the Shiba neighborhood of Minato. It sits in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower. Founded in 1393 the Temple has been in its present site since 1598, long before the Tokyo Tower was in existence! On the day we visited there was a parade taking place on the street leading up to the Temple gates. The contrast of the people dressed very traditionally with the very modern looking Tokyo Tower in the background made quite an impact on me. I love how even with the introduction of new and modern ideas sprouting up all around the people still hold their traditions close.
While exploring the grounds of Zojo-ji we came upon an unusual garden. Row after row of tiny little statues all dressed up with flowers and other cheerful items placed around them. The statues represent the unborn children of Japan. Parents who have suffered a loss can chose a statue and decorate it. Often the parents will leave a little gift for Jizo, the guardian of unborn children, to ensure that they are brought to the afterlife.
It was the last day of our Japan adventure and the cherry blossoms were just starting to fall from the trees. Like snow flurries in the air and a light dusting on the ground. The timing of our trip couldn’t have been more perfect!
The Tokyo Skytree
On our last night in Japan we visited the Tokyo Skytree, a broadcasting tower and tourist attraction, located in the Sumida district. However, we decided we were too tired and cold to make the trip up to the observation deck. As of 2011 it was the tallest tower in the world and based on the description of the tower it’s clear that the many contrasts of Tokyo and Japan are not only accepted by the Japanese people, but embraced! The Tokyo Skytree was designed to represent a place where tradition and the future can meet. It is a very modern structure which has been designed with centuries of tradition in mind.
TOKYO SKYTREE is designed in an original color, “SKYTREE White”, representing harmony with the surrounding scenery, its name and the design concept: “The creation of city scenery transcending time: A fusion of traditional Japanese beauty and neo-futuristic design”.