Being the capital of Japan, Tokyo is one of the most heavily populated cities in the world and one of the most modern cities when it comes to infrastructure & design. Although the Japanese capital gets constantly ranks among the most expensive cities in the world, it is also one of the easiest to get around without spending too much due to the excellent subway and rail networks for its public transport option.
The cultural side of Tokyo is famous for its many palaces, temples and internationally recognized cuisines. If you want to absorb some of the cultural atmosphere but do not wish to spend too much time and money doing so, we recommend that you visit the following 4 cultural places in Tokyo.
1.The Imperial Palace
Located on the former site of the Edo Castle, the Imperial Palace is the official and primary residence of Japan’s Imperial family. It is a huge area that houses a number of important buildings including the main palace and the private residential of the Imperial Family.
The Imperial Palace is on the same site of the Edo Castle which was the seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled Japan for a fairly long period from 1603 till 1867, before the capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo after the Shogunate was overthrown. The construction of the new Imperial Palace was completed in 1888, and although it was completely destroyed during World War II, the Palace was rebuilt in the same style after the war.
The public is allowed to enter through the inner gate on New Year’s Day and the Emperor’s Birthday, where they will gather in front of the Chowaden Hall and watch as the emperor gives a short speech, thanking the visitors and wishes them good health and happiness – a rather ceremonial event.
The guided tours (only in Japanese language) of the Palace grounds are offered during the rest of the year although entries into the buildings will be restricted. It takes about 75 minute and are available daily at 10am and 1.30pm except on Sundays and Mondays.
The Imperial Palace East Gardens remains open to the general public on all days of the year except on Mondays, Fridays and special days when there are important events.
Nakamise is one of the major tourist spots in Tokyo which has gained international fame for being the front passage to the popular Senso-ji Temple. Nakamise-dori is a 250m walking street leading to the Hozomon Gate from Kaminarimon Gate with numerous stores on either side of the pavement, and visitors will fully enjoy the atmosphere of downtown Tokyo.
A wide variety of products are sold here, with the likes of wooden dolls, Japanese clogs, hair accessories, folk art products and a whole lot of souvenirs that depict the culture and customs of Tokyo. Needless to say, Nakamise-dori is always teeming with tourists from all over the world.
Many travel guides have suggested that Nakamise-dori is one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan which is probably true. There is a story of a warlord that governed Japan in the Sengoku Period and the population of the city increased rapidly during this period.
Some of the residents then opened stores right on the premise and the passage to the Senso-ji Temple, and this led to the establishment of Nakamise-dori in later years.
One should come here at night too in order enjoy a unique scene – rows of shutters in the front of the stores used as a single canvas on which traditional scenes of each of the seasons are drawn beautifully resembling a large picture of Akakusa.
There are also people who enjoy visiting this place at night when the stores have closed for a peaceful stroll through the otherwise vibrant street. The beautiful mural paintings on the front of the shutters is a magical sight and this makes visiting Nakamise-dori at night really worthwhile.
3. Senso-ji Temple
Founded in 628 AD, the Senso-ji Temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo and also one of the most significant. This ancient Buddhist temple was initially linked with the Tendai sect of Buddhism but became independent soon after World War II.
The most popular festival in Tokyo, Sanja Matsuri, takes place in the Senso-ji Temple and spreads over three to four days in the 2nd half of spring season. This results in the surrounding streets being closed to traffic from dawn till late evening when the number of visitors can reach up to 2 million.
The entrance to the temple is marked by the massive Thunder Gate or the Kaminarimon, with the structure featuring a mammoth paper lantern painted in red-and-black tones which suggests lightning and thunder clouds.
Right behind the gate is the Nakamise-dori walking street with its full range of shops, followed by the Treasure House Gate or the Hozomon, the entrance to the inner complex where the five-storey pagoda also stands nearby.
The Senso-ji Temple is visited by tens of millions of Japanese and International tourists every year, with the surrounding area full of traditional shops and eateries serving local cuisines like sushi and ramen.
Within the premises of the temple there are a number of o-mikuji, where visitors can consult the oracle and seek divine answers in exchange of a small donation of 100 yen.
A metal tin containing 100 labeled sticks are shaken until one falls out of a small opening, and the corresponding fortune paper will then be retrieved from the respective drawer. Admission to the temple grounds is always free.
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4. Meiji Shrine
The Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken, located in a forested area together with the adjacent Yoyogi Park.
The original shrine was completed in 1920 but was fully destroyed in an air raid during World War II, and the present shrine was re-built with public fund and was completed in October 1958.
Emperor Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan, and ascended to the throne in 1867 at the height of Meiji Restoration. It was during this era that Japan went through a period of modernization to match other powerful nations.
The entrance into the sacred shrine grounds is marked by a huge looking torli gate beyond which the hustle and bustle of the busy city is replaced by a tranquil forest, and the main building of the shrine is just a 10-minute walk from there.
The Meiji Jingu’s forest is made up of approximately 100,000 trees donated from various regions of the country, and visitors can take part in various Shinto activities like praying or making a wish on the ema – a wooden plaque which is used to write the wish.
Meiji is one of the most popular shrines in Japan, and is said to welcome up to 3 million visitors for the first prayers of the year (hatsumode), while traditional Shinto weddings take place in this shrine during the rest of the year.