May 30, 2020
Spending 24 virtual hours in the incredible city of Tokyo

Spending 24 virtual hours in the incredible city of Tokyo


akihabara-main.jpg

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

With the world largely shut down, the Olympics postponed and most of us stuck inside for a bit, how about a virtual tour around one of the world’s most amazing cities? Imagine, for a moment, you’ve got a day to spend in Tokyo, and you’ve just landed in Japan…

Normally when you arrive at Narita International Airport, having spent half a day in the air, your jet-lagged brain and tired eyes have to navigate brightly lit signs and the multistep process of customs and immigration. Not today. From the comfort of our couches we’re going to spend 24 virtual hours in one of the most vibrant and frenetic cities in the world.

Our first step, however, is getting out of the airport. Narita is quite far (almost 40 miles) from the center of Tokyo. Sure, we could get a taxi, but what fun is that? Transit in Japan is excellent anyway, so we descend into an underground labyrinth. We pick up PASMO cards, which will let us access not only any subway in Tokyo, but also subways in most cities across the rest of the country. We can add the card to our collection, along with the Oyster card we picked up on our visit to London.

There are a few transit options for us. We could take the Skyliner express train, which would be a bit faster, but the Keisei Narita Skyaccess is more convenient for our first stop. A shiny new Keisei 3100 series is our chariot west into the biggest megacity on Earth.

Skytree

It’s early morning, and our first stop is going to give us a sky-high view of the city we’re about to explore. The Skyaccess train drops us right below the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world and second-tallest structure after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Winding our way from the station to the tower’s elevators, there are endless shops where we can load up on snacks for our day ahead.

The view of the city from 1,476 feet is breathtaking. Nearly 40 million people live in the Tokyo metro area, and from here it’s as if we can see them all. In the distance on this clear day, to the southwest, you can see the snow-covered Mount Fuji.

We’ve got a long day ahead, so we take the elevators down. From street level the tower seems impossibly tall.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

It’s about a 30-minute walk to our next stop. Though Tokyo’s public transportation system is one of the best in the world, and we’ll be riding it plenty today, so much of this city’s beauty is found only when walking through quiet neighborhoods. We follow a small canal away from the Skytree, crossing the Glenmori bridge to snap a quick photo, before walking through a few blocks of tightly packed residential and commercial buildings.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, with sharp angles and cantilevered overhangs. Inside time slows for us as we explore one of the city’s most important periods.

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Walk around inside the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Wiiii via CC BY-SA 3.0

Electric City

Just outside the museum we hop on the Chūō-Sōbu Line for two stops, arriving in Akihabara, aka Tokyo Electric Town. This is the legendary neighborhood that was once the ultimate location for anything electronic, from tiny capacitors to TVs and more. Today it’s a bit more touristy, falling victim to the same surge in online retail like any electronics shop. Still, there remain tiny stalls of components, massive electronics retail stores, arcades and more, all worth exploring.

One of my favorite spots is just around the corner: Honey Toast Cafe. It serves just toast with honey, cream and whatever else you want. Tokyo’s food, which goes far beyond just ramen and sushi, is legendary. Sadly, our virtual tour doesn’t involve actually tasting something, so a picture will have to suffice.

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Honey Toast: soft white bread cubed and caramelized, brushed with honey and topped by a dollop of fresh cream (or whatever else you want).


Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The National Museum

We’ll next head back to Akihabara station, and go north on the Yamanote line. This isn’t a subway, but a surface rail line that’s part of the overall city network. We alight at Ueno, grab a maple shou (like a cream puff), and head across Ueno Park to the Tokyo National Museum. Time slows down for us again as we explore.

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A Google Street View tour around the Tokyo National Museum.


Google

Despite feeling full of honey toast and shou, we’re going to catch a late lunch at my favorite ramen place. Yes, it’s a chain and, yes, there are countless places that are undoubtedly better, but Ichiran makes it to order just how you like it. If you’ve never had real ramen, the only thing it has in common with the instant variety is the size of the noodles. It’s like craft beer versus Coors Light.

ichiran-ramen

I could eat this every day.


Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Odaiba

With a warm belly full of ramen, we head south, first on the Yamanote line again, and then on the Yurikamome. This line is brilliant for two reasons. The first is that it’s automated, so you can sit right up front like you’re driving. The second is that it crosses Rainbow Bridge, approaching the span with a massive over-water circular approach. 

We’re headed for Odaiba, one of the many artificial islands in Tokyo Bay. After we cross the bridge we get a brief glimpse of the life-sized Gundam outside the DiverCity mall. It’s one of the so-called unicorn variants, and fairly new. We gave its predecessor a closer look a few years ago.

We get off at the next station and head into Miraikan, otherwise known as the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

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A Google Street View tour of the Miraikan.


Google

There are lots of malls and entertainment on Odaiba, but next we’ll head a few stops farther on the Yurikamome to another artificial island, Toyosu. Here we go inside for a completely different experience, one of art made with light and sound: TeamLab Planets and Borderless.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

We emerge many hours later.

Shinjuku

It’s getting late in the day, and once again I’m thinking about food. In fairness, I’m pretty much always thinking about food when I’m in Tokyo. However, I’ve got something… different planned for dinner. Stay tuned.

After a few stops on the Yurikamome line again, we switch to the Rinkai line, which weaves its way across the city. We stop briefly at Shibuya to walk across the famous Shibuya Crossing, a symbol of Tokyo.

Then it’s back on the Rinkai line to Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world. Shinjuku itself is a major hub within Tokyo, with many corporate headquarters, shopping, restaurants and of course bars. The intense lighted signs of the Kabukichō neighborhood are as legendary as the area itself is infamous.

That’s where we’re headed, but not for any nefarious reasons. We’re here to see some robots. Specifically, dancing robots, drumming robots, sword-swinging robots, DJ robots, plus the occasional dragon and maybe a dinosaur. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, all lit with lasers and LEDs galore.

Later, our minds (and ears) blown and saturated with robot kitsch, we work our way over to Golden Gai, where there are smaller bars. Much smaller. Like, five seats or fewer smaller. We’re able to find a seat, even though most bars are packed and some cater only to locals.

Night in Tokyo is an entirely different experience. Vertical signs of kanji, katakana and sometimes English blast their LED and florescent brilliance, illuminating entire streets. People head home from work, or to and from the bars and restaurants they frequent.

We hail a cab, minding the doors which are controlled by the driver. The driver brings us to Ginza, near the heart of the city. The long, straight streets here are filled with high-end shops, but it’s the lights and signs topping the buildings that are worth gawking at.

Tokyo has the height of New York and the breadth of Los Angeles. There’s an energy to this city, a partially organized, or at least orderly hustle and bustle. People line up for trains and wait for the lights to cross. Much has been written about packed Tokyo subways at rush hour, but while they’re busy, it never feels like chaos.

tokyo-at-night

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

This is the largest urban area in the world, and it has countless multistory apartment buildings and epic multiblock covered shopping streets. But there are also stark contrasts: The bright lights and loud sounds of entertainment can be around the corner from quiet and chill residential streets.

It’s hard to say how long we’ve been walking, but slowly we’ve made our way back to the island of Toyosu in the bay. The legendary Tsukiji fish market closed in 2018, shuttering one of the city’s most popular tourist sights. The new market still lets you watch the auctions of tuna after they arrive from the fishing boats in the early morning, but it lacks the gritty charm of the original.

We’ve been on the go for nearly an entire day, and our virtual feet are feeling the virtual pain. We’ve got just one more stop. It will take us a little while to get there, which is fine. It’s a few hours before it opens, and we could use a nap.

G-CANS

Being on the water, and with rivers and canals flowing through it, flooding is a huge concern in Tokyo. Storm gates stand at the ready throughout, though we’re headed to a different location a bit north of the city.

The name isn’t very interesting, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, also called G-CANS. It looks, however, like the Mines of Moria. Impossibly tall concrete support columns in a cavern with flat walls. It’s unquestionably man-made, but at a scale it’s hard for the brain to comprehend. Especially our brains, having now been walking, albeit virtually, for nearly a full day. 

On the way back into the city, we fall asleep on the train. At Oshiage station, at the base of the Skytree, we grab a bowl of oyakodon, which literally translates as “parent-and-child rice bowl.” It has egg and chicken, and makes for a warm, satisfying breakfast before we head to the airport.

Or do we? There’s still plenty of virtual money on our PASMO. We didn’t get a chance to see the Ghibli Museum, the Fuji Art Museum or the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. What spots in Tokyo should we virtually head to next?


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on InstagramTwitter, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel.





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