“It’s like a boulder rolling down a hill – you can watch it and talk about it and scream and say Shit! but you can’t stop it. It’s just a question of where it’s going to go.”
– Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
During my time in Tokyo, I enjoyed wandering semi-aimlessly through the streets. During the workweek I didn’t have much time to see much of the city — living out in Kawasaki meant that it was a significant distance from the center of the city. If I wanted a more urban feel, I had to take the Odakyu line farther out to Machida, which was at least close enough for a weekday excursion after work.
On my lunch breaks I sometimes wandered the streets near my apartment — I found a couple little temples nearby, but there wasn’t much else. I stayed in what was possibly the least exciting part of Tokyo, though many people would not consider Kawasaki Tokyo but rather just a part of the metropolitan area.
As I rarely planned my weekends, I headed out to different parts of the sprawling city and wandered — for the most part I had at least one destination in mind but didn’t plan much beyond that. I brought along pocket Wi-Fi so I’d have access to maps in case I got lost on the way back to a metro station. Had I planned a bit more of my weekends, I would’ve made it to museums earlier or found my way to historic sites when they weren’t closed. It didn’t matter; I enjoyed my wanderings and the sights I discovered.
Wandering through streets with only a hint of direction led me to find interesting corners of the city. Tokyo has beautiful buildings; although there are still plenty of boring buildings that were built before Japan decided it wanted inspiring architecture. But there was also something to catch my attention — either the structures, shops, or signs.
I was fascinated by the ability to open spaces beneath bridges — I ate dinner one night in an archway alley beneath a railway line. And I discovered many more similar areas during my time in Tokyo; when space is limited, you take what is available.
As I walked through parts of the city, I recognized that some areas hold an identity of sorts — a shared design and atmosphere. In some narrow neighborhoods, the alleys seemed narrower with smaller independent shops and restaurants, while other neighborhoods were modern with imposing towering architecture that most people associate with contemporary Japanese culture. Obviously, finding neighborhoods with more traditional structures were rare as much of Tokyo was destroyed during World War II, though there are still some such buildings outside the center of the city (and some have been turned into history museums like at Nihon Minka-en).
On my most recent short stay in Tokyo, I wandered more through areas I previously had not visited. My friend suggested staying in Shinagawa because of its proximity to Haneda Airport. This turned out to be a great suggestion as the main road through Shinagawa from our hostel had a pedestrian/bike path and was lined with some interesting shops and shrines. A little farther from the hostel and street was Shinagawa Kumin Park, which offered a pleasant walk through a park toward the aquarium that I did not go into because they only accepted cash and I needed to find an ATM. Nonetheless, in a sprawling city with little green space, the stroll through the park was a welcome respite.
On the way back to the hostel, I took a detour along the canal. While it wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped, it was still a better route to walk. The wildflowers along the embankment brightened the already sunny day. They certainly made the dull skyline across the way more colorful.
In the evening, I wandered up to Shimbashi Station after walking through the Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, a former imperial garden that closes at 5 pm. Situated between Roppongi and Ginza, Shimbashi is best known as the salaryman’s paradise. It’s surrounded by office buildings and reasonably-priced restaurants. Unfortunately, on this day I decided to try my wide-angle lens, and it really only distorts photos.
While the walk to the area was full of modern architecture and walkways that reminded me a bit of the High Line in Manhattan, the streets of Shimbashi are more reminiscent of a foreigner’s perception of typical Tokyo scenes.
The busy side streets and crosswalks buttressed with train and road overpasses, the alleys lined with illuminated signs to entice the office workers with food and drinks before catching their respective trains home, turned this into a scene a traveler would expect to see on a travel show or movie.
Tokyo is a wanderer’s city — there is a seemingly endless number of neighborhoods in which to disembark a train and stroll. The senses are assaulted; the buildings demand one to take notice and the restaurants waft welcoming aromas out into the streets. And as the sun sets, the scene changes — the city illuminates in artificial light that sends crowds out from the office buildings and into the alleys. A travel could stand around and watch the crowds head for preferred destinations, follow along, and enjoy what the neighborhoods have to offer in the way of culinary delights, sake, and beer.
And when exhaustion from the overwhelming city finally hits, it’s time to head back to the hostel. The FamilyMart and 7-Eleven are nearby with offers of more snacks or just a final beer or three with new friends sharing the space in Shinagawa.