My Secret City: Tokyo
Japan’s capital and the world’s most populous metropolis presents a dazzling fusion of traditional and contemporary culture. We asked Tokyo resident Paul McInnes (MA 1998, MPhil 2004) to give us his insider’s guide to exhilarating Tokyo.
"The best place to get a photo of the skyline is from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings. It's stunning.
It's a close call but my favourite Tokyo neighbourhood is Koenji. It's not the most aesthetic of places. It can be a bit rough, run down, cool and majestic all at the same time. Full of vintage shops, cafes and famous for its subcultures and annual Awa Odori summer festival, it's popular with tourists mainly because some Hollywood celebs have name-dropped it over the years. Try the glorious Nantoka anarchist bar. It will blow your mind.
There are so many museums and galleries in Tokyo. This is a city that loves art and takes it very seriously. My favourite, however, is Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. It's known as the best place to see original art deco design in the city. The museum's interiors were designed by some heavyweights such as Henri Rapin and René Lalique and recent exhibitions have included work by Kisling and Chistian Boltanski.
"My favourite time of the year in Tokyo is spring. April is hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season where Tokyoites come together to eat and drink under the trees and enjoy the city in its prime.
Many people don't know this but Tokyo has an abundance of great parks. Ueno Park, Yoyogi Park, Inokashira Park. All must-visit destinations. Shinjuku Gyoen, however, is special. It requires a very small entrance fee (¥200) and is only five minutes’ walk from the busiest train station in the world but it feels like you are in a tranquil hideaway. Beautiful, relaxing and refreshing it should be on every visitor's itinerary.
Most expats in Tokyo would probably opt for Senso-ji in Asakusa or Meiji-Jingu in Harajuku as their favourite shrine or temple. Both are centrally located and wonderful in their own ways. For me, however, Kishimojin, in Zoshigaya, is a real under-the-radar temple. My daughter held her shichigosan (a festival for kids) here and it was a really special event for all the family.
Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for shopping. Fashion is everything here. For me, Isetan in Shinjuku holds everything anybody would ever want. It has two buildings, one for food, crafts and womenswear and another multi-storey space dedicated solely to menswear. You could easily spend days here.
"It sounds weird but don't even try tipping in Japan. It's not expected and is a total cultural no-no.
My favourite bar in Tokyo is hallogallo in Nakano. Run by Japanese owner (Yuki) and her English husband (Richard), it's one of Tokyo's only vegan bars. The food is brilliant, the drinks are great and the music is one of the main reasons people flock to the place. Indie, rock, electronica, Japanese folk, shoegaze and film soundtracks - it's the hippest and friendliest bar in the city by far.
If I want a day out of the city, I will go to Ubara. It's a beautiful and virtually unknown seaside town in Chiba Prefecture. About 1.5 hours by express train from Tokyo Station. You can swim in the Pacific and have a clean and beautiful beach almost to yourself. Nobody knows about Ubara but it deserves to be on the map.
I live near Ikebukuro which is one of the biggest areas of Tokyo. So, if I have a free day I usually take my daughter for some ice-cream and play in the compact but cool Minami Ikebukuro Park. After that we'll go for lunch on top of the huge Seibu department store and then ride our bikes to Ekoda (a nearby college town) and look at vinyl in Coconuts Disk record store.
My food and drink hit list
"Try Japanese food. It's diverse, scary and wonderful.
Shinjuku Sanchome is a bustling area, minutes away from Shinjuku Station, which is crammed with roadside izakayas (Japanese-style bars), cafes and restaurants. You can sit on beer crates, on the street, eating yakitori (meat skewers) and drinking lemon sours while watching the world go by.
There's an amazing cocktail bar in Ginza called Bar Tender. It's not cheap, men are required to wear a jacket and tie and the staff wear tuxedos. But the drinks are outrageous. The master, Ueda-san, is legendary for being the creator of the "hard shake", a method of shaking cocktails which maximises aeration and flavour. It's a special evening out kind of spot.
My mother-in-law (who is Japanese) loves green tea and showed me a beautiful place in Ginza called Uogashi Meicha. The first floor is a retail space where customers can buy a myriad of green tea and the second floor is a cute tea cafe. Very Japanese and welcoming with delicious tea.
Tokyo has an abundance of ramen shops from cheap and cheerful to high-end luxury experiences. My personal favourite is Naritake. You have a fine selection of ramen including shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and miso. The side dishes are also great including the majestic chashu don (pork belly on rice). Would be rude not to add a nama (draft) beer to your order too.
This article was first published January 2020. All opinions expressed are the views of the author and are not endorsed by the University of Glasgow.
Sensō-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa (photo: Yu Kato, Unsplash).
Shinjuku City encompasses buzzing clubs and karaoke rooms and upscale hotel bars and restaurants (photo: Jezael Melgoza, Unsplash).
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was originally a residence of the Naitō family in the Edo period (photo: Shutterstock).
Tokyoites out enjoying the river during hanani (cherry blossom viewing) season (photo: Yu Kato, Unsplash).
An alley in Shinjuku crammed full of izakaya (Japanese-style bars), cafes and restaurants (photo: Shutterstock).
Tokyo skyline at sunset featuring Senso-ji Temple and Tokyo Skytree (photo: Shutterstock).
Kishimojin Temple is dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kishimojin, a goddess who cares for and protects children (photo: Paul McInnes).
The Koenji Awa-Odori is one of the biggest street festivals that Tokyo puts on during the summer (photo: Shutterstock).
Popular Japanese dishes of Katsudon (a bowl of rice topped with deep-fried pork), ramen and dumplings (photo: Shutterstock).