To say that Tokyo is a city of delightful contrasts is like saying that Voltes V seems popular in the Philippines.
In Tokyo you can find women and men dressed in traditional kimono walking the streets of Akihabara, passing anime-themed video billboards that remind you of one of Japan’s most beloved cultural exports.
Amid this sprawling metropolis of 14 million people, pockets of serenity can be found in Shinto shrines nestled in parks located amidst high-rise buildings. Quaint ramen restaurants sit alongside rows of modern vending machines selling anything from drinks to ice cream to, well, ramen.
At first instance, Tokyo is a sensory cacophony and makes you feel a sense of disorientation akin to a physical force. In the evenings, in particular, there is an energy to Tokyo, an unbridled exuberance powered by giant LED billboards and neon signs that captures your attention and confuses your senses.
When you settle down, however, you realize that there is a rhythm to Tokyo, a design that allows you to savor the myriad offerings of this city. You discover that, just like the best-selling series of children’s gamebooks, every turn of the page in your Tokyo stay allows you to create your own adventure.
And all it takes is the subway.
The Tokyo Metro is both impressive and daunting. At first glance, on a map, it is an intricate web of underground train lines that seem impossible to untangle. But look past the confusion and you notice the Metro not only features distinct colors for each subway line, every station is also labeled with a letter and number just in case you find it difficult to read the station names. And believe us, many of the multi-syllabic names can be tongue-twisters. Try your hand at pronouncing Uchisaiwaicho, Shinjuku-gyoemmae, or Ushigome-kagurazaka for starters.
We appreciate that while we live in this metropolis of more than 2,000 square kilometers and 14 million people, everything is within easy reach.
The subway is your key to the city. Its predictable efficiency is a source of comfort in what could otherwise be an overwhelming experience. Its weave-like pattern, extending outward to the very edges of Tokyo like wall-to-wall carpeting, ensures that everything can be within easy reach.
Our year of exploring Tokyo via subway begins on a brisk spring morning. Walking to the station from our house, we notice the Sakura trees in our neighborhood park are already shedding pink and white petals, giving the appearance of snow on a fine April day. We stop to take a few photos since the sight of the falling gossamer petals never gets old no matter how many times we witness it.
We enter the station and the morning rush hour’s staccato cadence of countless pairs of shoes and boots greets us. While we squeeze our way through the crush of humanity that is the Oedo subway Line at 8 a.m., we recognize that this is Tokyo waking, stretching its limbs, and having its first cup of coffee as the workday begins.
After transferring to the Tobu Line, we alight at Oshiage Skytree station. It is now May 5, Children’s Day, and coming to the end of the Golden Week holidays. We emerge from the station and are treated to the wonderful sight of hundreds of koinobori, the colorful carp-streamer kites which represent the vigor and spirit of children. They are strung across the expansive courtyard. Buffeted by the winds of early May they look like a large school of fish swimming in joyous unison. Tokyo Skytree’s 634-meter neo-futuristic presence provides a commanding backdrop.
After taking in the majestic 360-degree view of the city at the Tembo Galleria on the tower’s Floor 450, we ride the Asakusa Line to Daimon station.
We exit to the street level to find ourselves in a humid early July evening. We head to Zojoji Temple, now shrouded in darkness. Even Tokyo Tower, the second-tallest structure in Japan and usually gleaming like a laser sword from behind the temple in the evenings, is cast in shadow.
The indigo night is broken only by more than 3,000 flickering candles laid out on the steps leading to the temple, bearing witness to the age-old ritual of Tanabata. Every year on July 7, this phosphorescent carpet bridges the dark divide of the Milky Way which separates mythical lovers Hikoboshi and Orihime throughout the year except on this one night.
Tanabata’s hold on the Japanese imagination means thousands of people flock to this temple each year to commemorate this unofficial holiday. There is a semblance of solemnity here and the temple visitors’ collective hushed voices sound almost like prayer. And perhaps they are saying prayers to accompany the personal wishes they write on tanzaku, strips of paper which they tie onto bamboo shoots in the days leading up to Tanabata, in the hope that the reunited celestial lovers will look on them with favor.
We leave the temple and head to Shibakoen station on the Mita Line. We transfer to the Shinjuku Line at Jimbocho and alight at Shinjuku-sanchome.
At the top of the staircase leading out of the station, we are greeted by an early November afternoon. A crisp chill is in the air as we walk onto the grounds of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Our breath catches at the sight of the multitude of fiery and exuberant maple trees. Leaves of vermillion, ochre, and pumpkin meld into a dazzling kaleidoscope canopy, providing both shade for families on a picnic and enough photo opportunities to satisfy any Instagram-fueled craving.
Shinjuku Gyoen is the welcome respite in the middle of the neon light-infused concrete jungle that is Shinjuku Ward. This is the part of Tokyo where Godzilla, or at least a life-size representation of his head, stands sentinel over theme restaurants, bars, pachinko parlors and electronics shops.
The Tokyo Metro is both impressive and daunting. At first glance, on a map, it is an intricate web of underground train lines that seem impossible to untangle. But the Metro not only features distinct colors for each subway line, every station is also labeled with a letter and number.
As the sun sets, we return to Shinjuku-sanchome station and head towards the Fukutoshin Line. This route takes us directly to Shibuya station.
We are treated to a light December snow at the Shibuya station exit. We head to where the famed shopping district melds with Yoyogi Park, eschewing the almost-obligatory selfie at the Shibuya Scramble, one of the world’s most photographed crosswalks.
During Yuletide season, several areas in Tokyo are clothed in electric illuminations that would put Christmas displays in many countries to shame. To us, Shibuya’s Blue Cave is the most spectacular. And that is our destination this evening.
More than half a million lights create this dreamlike effect, enveloping everything in an ethereal azure cocoon. Though many of the photos we take here may be blurred or discolored by the bluish hue, we don’t mind. The otherworldly experience of walking through the Blue Cave leaves a clear imprint on the memory.
We walk back to Shibuya station, stopping along the way for takoyaki and melon pan. We take the Hanzomon Line to Nagatacho station and shift to the Yurakucho Line towards home.
It is New Year’s Eve when we arrive at our stop. Instead of boisterous celebration and fireworks, the Japanese New Year is marked with solemn gratitude. We take a detour on the way to our apartment and follow a throng heading to the local Shrine. The crowd’s conversation ebbs the closer we get to the Shrine. There is a long line of people here hoping to say a prayer before hatsuhinode, when they welcome the first sunrise of the new year.
As we arrive home, we realize it would take more than a year to fully understand this city. Our trip on the subway throughout one Tokyo year provides only a glimpse of a metropolis that is steeped in tradition but with one foot firmly planted in the future.
Instead of just being a city of contrasts, perhaps the adage “there is something for everyone” describes Tokyo best. This city offers both the grand gesture and the intimate invitation, a feast for the senses as well as tailor-made experiences, the technological marvels and the centuries-old traditions. It is a place where even a seemingly nondescript street corner may turn up fascinating—and yes, Instagrammable—discoveries.
Most of all, we appreciate that while we live in this metropolis of more than 2,000 square kilometers and 14 million people, everything is within easy reach.
We are delighted to discover that Tokyo, in whatever form we fancy, is really just a subway ride away.