27 August 2013

[ENGLISH] The Zen and Zest of Tokyo

Writer at Sensoji, Asakusa
I have travelled to many cities all over the world. However, I have yet to find a city that is remotely similar to Tokyo. This megapolis concrete jungle illustrates an unexpectedly harmonious collision between the Zen of traditional urbanity and the zest of modernization. Like Ying and Yang of life, Tokyo offers a perfect balance of the old and the new.

The land of the rising sun’s capital is undoubtedly the world's most populous metropolis. It is estimated that there are over 13 million people live and work in Tokyo. In addition, around 8 million foreign visitors come to this city every year. Tokyo is always packed and never quiet, yet serenity is abundant here.  One can do grocery shopping on a vending machine here and head to a park for a lovely stroll along a Sakura covered path.

Busy people in Tokyo
Beautiful sakura near Tokyo Tower
Today, Tokyo offers a full spectrum of culture, shopping, entertainment, and dining experience to its visitors. There is definitely something for everyone here. Hence, it makes more sense for me to call this city a land of the rising fun!

My adventure in Tokyo began with Asakusa. Many locals and foreigners come here to witness the iconic Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), which is popular for its enormous red lantern called Chochin. Come rain or shine, this gate is constantly surrounded with people. Tour guide services by the locals are available here in multiple languages.

Asakusa's other famous attraction is Sensoji, the most visited Buddhist temple in the country, built in the 7th century. Various cultural events are held throughout the year in the Sensoji Temple area. The major one is Sanja Matsuri, the annual festival of the Asakusa Shrine, held in the month of May. Other festivals include the Asakusa Samba Carnival in August and the Hagoita Market where decorated wooden paddles used in the traditional game of Hanetsuki are sold.

Sensoji in Asakusa
Also known as Asakusa Kannon, the Sensoji Temple is approached via the Nakamise, a traditional shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with an array of local snacks and tourist souvenirs for decades. Items like Osenbei (rice crackers), ice cream, folding fans, Yukata (Japanese robe) and t-shirts are widely available with countless choices to choose from.

Worshipers at Sensoji 
Peaceful Sensoji
Here, I saw a little stall with an old lady busy making handmade colorful candies. I entered the stall, browsed and decided to purchase a small bag of candies. Not knowing any Japanese phrases except for “Arigatou”, I just smiled and handed the old lady a note of Yen. What I was about to experience was unexpected but really lovely.

It took the old lady a good 3 minutes to complete that rather simple transaction. Speaking in Japanese, she began by carefully explaining to me the amount of money that I just passed to her. I didn’t understand any word she said but her body language was obvious. Then, she told me the price of my candies and the balance she owed me.  She reconfirmed the amount by showing the math on her calculator. She put the cash I gave her into her cash box and took out the balance. She recounted the balance 2 times. Finally, she handed it to me. This slow yet proper transaction demonstrated how polite Japanese people are. I was completely blown away by her graciousness. This is Japan living up to its expectations.

Nakamise at Asakusa
Akihabara, almost the complete opposite of Asakusa, is where geeks and gizmo addicts claim as their “heaven”.  This district is famous for its many electronics shops.  The recent birth of Otaku (diehard fan) culture has caused many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga to spring up all over this area.

Electronics here are not exactly cheap, but one can bet to find the latest trends and technologies available on the market. From a talking animal-shaped toy that greets you every time you open your refrigerator to the most advanced digital cameras, Akihabara has it all.

Another view of Akihabara
Out of my strong curiosity, I decided to take a coffee break at a local maid café in the area. Maid cafes are cosplay themed cafes and they are one of the most iconic things about Japan. I was served by a waitress dressed in a vibrant-colored French maid costume. She also surprisingly spoke some simple English. Waitresses at the cafe don’t just serve guests drinks and snacks. They engage in conversation and games with the customers and address the customers as their “masters”.

An experience at a maid café can be weird to some people, but it was definitely fun for me. Something I personally have never experienced before. I was a little uncomfortable at first with the level of attention I received from the maid, but after a while, I got used to it. The most interesting thing about the whole experience to me was when the bill came. Instead of service tax, the café charged me for the “maid’s charm”.

Maid cafes around Akihabara area
Japanese girls in French maid costumes giving out flyers, promoting local maid cafes
One can’t complete a trip to Japan without visiting its shrines. Meiji Shrine, situated in Shibuya district in Tokyo, is one of the most famous shrines in Japan. The shrine was built in 1920 and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken who passed away a few years prior to that.

Walking towards the main complex of the shrine buildings was a very pleasant stroll. The area is surrounded by a rather tranquil forest. Most trees here are at least 15-storey building in height. Approximately 100,000 trees were planted around the shrine during its construction process. The trees were donated by local major companies and elites. 

There are 3 major entrances to the shrine grounds. They are all marked by a big Torii gate to welcome worshipers and visitors. Most people enter the area from Harajuku entrance because it is the most accessible by public transportation.

Meiji Shrine
Torii Gate near Harajuku station leading to Meiji Shrine

The offering hall of Meiji Shrine receives millions of people every year and hosts hundreds of traditional Shinto weddings as well. Not only limited to Japanese people, anyone who come to the shrine are allowed to pray, make offering and write wishes on an Ema (wooden rectangular plate).  There are also a few gardens in the shrine area. During summer, people come here to jog, have picnics, read books and even do yoga.

Main building of Meiji Shrine

Shinto wedding ceremony at Meiji Shrine
An ema, written by a foreign tourist, at Meiji Shrine
One of the parks inside Meiji Shrine's compound
From Meiji Shrine, I headed to the famous shopping street in Japan, Takeshita Dori. As the face of Harajuku, this narrow but long street is never quiet. During weekends, there will be even more people here, especially teenagers and foreign tourists. This is a perfect place to shop and hang out with friends. There are a handful of shops, boutiques, cafes and fast food outlets here to cater to everyone’s needs.

Takeshita Dori, Harajuku 
Famished from the walk at Meiji Shrine, I decided to try one of the popular desserts here, Japanese crepe. Locals love this snack because of its portability, easy to eat and for its “mochi-mochi” texture, which simply means chewy.

The stall that I went to offers at least 30 different flavors. It was a little intimidating for me at first. I didn’t know which one to choose and I couldn’t ask for a recommendation from the storekeeper as I couldn’t communicate in Japanese. From a wall that displays an array of fake crepes made of wax, I pointed at the one with strawberries and whipped cream on it.  For under 500 yen (approximately 15 ringgit), it was definitely a satisfying snack on the go. As a health cautious nation, local food here is rarely too sweet. Therefore, one can avoid having the guilt while trying all the local delights.

Japanese crepes in Harajuku
Another main attraction of Harajuku only happens on Sunday afternoons. If you are lucky enough to be there during the time, you can witness Japanese eccentric fashion sense at its most extreme. Youngsters gather around Harajuku Station (near the Meiji Shrine entrance) in their out-of-this-world cosplay costumes and enjoy each other’s company. Don’t be afraid to take pictures of them, as they love to be photographed.  In fact, that is the whole point of it.

Standing there with my camera, I realized something. The view of these teenagers in crazy outfits with a background of the Torii gate to the Meiji Shrine reminded me again about this unique city. A combination of old and new is everywhere here.

For the rest of my trip in Tokyo, I managed to visit a few more places as well like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza and Tokyo Tower.

If I learned anything from my trip to Tokyo, it was definitely about learning to appreciate the old while living in the new. The symbiotic coexistence of traditions and modernization here proves a vital need for both in order for a nation to thrive.

I left Tokyo with a heavy heart but I know one day I will be back there again. I brought back with me a pair of Yutaka and a small Doraemon pillow to symbolize my great discovery of the city. Sayonara, Tokyo…until next time.

Random back alley in Tokyo with a few food stalls 
Sakura blossoms in Tokyo 

To explore Tokyo this year end, head to for an all-in tour package with MAS flights starting at RM4,999 for 6D4N.


  1. Dear Mr Fazdlee Isa,

    You wrote this post beautifully but I think it's a bit too long. Maybe you could make it into a series post. It's only a suggestion but good job. Nice pictures too.

    p/s: It's quite stiff.

  2. Thanks Anis for your feedback.

    This article is longer than my usual write ups because it is also meant for a magazine feature. Magazine feature usually requires at least 1500 words :-)

    Thanks again for reading POTO's blog.