This is a cultural writeup introducing Ginza and a bit of Tokyo life / culture that supports the great sushi lunches available in the area (supplied from Tsukiji Fish market). For I have a separate post on restaurant recommendations and lunch tips. TL;DR – infographic at the top and detailed explanations below.
This post teaches you how to search for your own value sushi lunches in Ginza and Tsukiji Fish Market. Sets start at ¥1000 for 8-10 pieces of nigiri, plus rolls and miso soup. Below is a guide of how to use Tabelog (Japan’s Yelp) to search, what to expect for sushi lunches, and my list of personal lunch recommendations (sushi, ramen, and tempura) around the area.
It was anime that finally sold me on Shinjuku, a place I avoided like the plague for nearly a year after moving to Tokyo. The raindrops in Garden of Words got me to take the train across town to explore the area, and once I started, I began to see all the anime inspiration locations for 5 Centimeters per Second, Darker than Black, Terror in Resonance and Tokyo Godfathers. Shinjuku wasn’t just Tokyo’s busiest station, a tourist trap, shopping area, or a nostalgic set of romanticizations. As I spent more and more time at Shinjuku Gyoen, then taking friends around to the tourist attractions, then at a bouldering gym, I often stopped to marvel at how a new place seemed so familiar – because I had seen exactly the same frame on the screen.
Below are some of the places I managed to take with my fixed 35mm lense camera. Enjoy!
Your Name (Kimi no Na Wa)
Japan’s 2016 hit movie doesn’t need further elaboration. Instead, what I noted while taking a photo of this intersection that evening was the type of cameras they must have used to scout locations. The shot they must have taken was not only done with a wide-angle lense, but probably from a car. Trying to follow in their footsteps as a pedestrian trying not get run over (or, in Japan, more likely just glared at) in the middle of the road, I began to appreciate how the animated frames generally distilled the quintessential parts that created the characters of places they captured only for brief seconds.
Garden of Words (Koto no ha no Niwa)
I hated the ending. I’ll just put it out there. But Garden of Words (Kotono ha no Niwa) blew me away with its rendition of tsuyu, rainy season. Makoto Shinkai‘s animation style appeals because it often conveys the romanticism that one can view otherwise cold or dreary settings. He gets the details down right to the swish of cars rushing over puddles.
Garden of Words is set mostly between Shinjuku Station, Shinjuku Gyoen, the Takashimaya Department Store and the school in between (just where the overpass is). If you liked the movie enough, then consider visiting Shinjuku Gyoen during a rainy day when there are fewer visitors. Just note that it has a small admission fee (which I think is entirely worth it for the upkeep) and that it closes usually around evening or sunset (time varies between winter and summer).
Shinjuku Gyoen was originally the residence of the Naito family, feudal lords of Edo Japan. The grounds later came under the ownership of the Imperial Family and were mostly destroyed during the Tokyo Fire Raids during World War II. After the war ended, the gardens were reconstructed and opened to the public in 1949.
5 Centimeters per Second
5 Centimeters per Second is probably Makoto Shinkai’s first feature film that caught international attention. Takaki Tono, the boy in the movie, grows up and works in Tokyo. Shinkai uses the gigantic commercial hub of Shinjuku to accentuate the loneliness and isolation many urbanites now relate to.
Shinjuku Station is Tokyo’s busiest station and has an average of 3.6 million people transiting every day. The station has over 200 exits and 51 platforms. I never found it that confusing to navigate, but local Tokyo (expat?) wisdom seems to conclude that you never, never arrange to meet there. If you do, I suggest you specify exactly which subway line to take and which exit based on that line. An alternative is to just go to Shinjuku Sanchome on the Marunouchi Line, which is close to Shinjuku Gyoen.
If you do exit in Shinjuku Station, make sure you get out on the correct side (East or West) as the two are not connected and you will have to walk all the way around if you’re not careful. The scenes from above are on the West exit, as Takaki is wandering towards the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building area.
On a side note, Shinjuku has three interesting coffee shops. Verve Coffee is from the US and conveniently on top of the new coach bus terminal. 4/4 Seasons Cafe is in a quieter corner closer to Shinjuku Gyoen. My personal favourite for the ambience is Teijimaya Coffee Honten right at Omoiydeyokocho (Yakitori Alley).
Tokyo Godfathers is the brainchild of two anime legends: Satoshi Kon (director and writer of Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, Paranoia Agent) and Keiko Nobumoto (creator of the Wolf’s Rain series and head scriptwriter for Cowboy Bebop). I didn’t know about them before I watched it, or what the movie was about. It just seemed to satisfy my craving at the time for Tokyo rendered in anime.
The feature film follows three homeless people as they try to take care of and return an abandoned baby during the Christmas holidays. Gin, Hana, and Miyuki make Shinjuku Chuo Park their squat and roam the chilly, neon-lit streets of Shinjuku and other districts, giving a glimpse into other communities that make Tokyo their home. Below is a view of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, an essential part of Shinjuku’s distinct skyline cluster.
I appreciate the film’s unflinching depiction of those living on the fringes — those in poverty, the elderly, the immigrants, and of course the thugs and gangs. As someone who irrationally seeks out ghettos and low-income areas when travelling, this film’s glimpse into the dark backstreets as both purgatory and havens was an insight into not only how another side of Japan lives, but how others view this underside.
Darker than Black
Darker than Black is a two-volume manga and two-season anime series awarded Best Original Anime of The Year by GoGoplex. The series is an alternate reality where the stars have disappeared from modern-day Tokyo due to a mysterious “Hell’s Gate” event that also gave rise to “Contractors” with special powers. Shinjuku and Nakano are the focus of many face-offs and Hei, seems to live somewhere betwene the two. Even though many Nakano areas seemed familiar, I didn’t quite find the rooftops from which you can see the Shinjuku offices.
The white building on the right called the Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Headquarters Building is one of the many iconic buildings one notices when going out the Shinjuku Station West Exit.
Terror in Resonance
Right across the north-end Shinjuku Station train tracks, viewers will find the Yunika Vision LED screen that popped up in Terror in Resonance (Zankyō no Terror), an anime mini-series about two young terrorists out to expose a state cover-up of an experimental project.
Trains are integral to the Japanese experience as every otaku would knows. Trains are the pulsing veins of the Tokyo landscape. Standing at an intersection on the northwest end of Shinjuku Station, one can look out for the JR Yamanote Line train that races by in a silver blur accented with green bands.
It took me 3 visits and about 20 back-and-forths during the green signal to get a frame I liked. It would have been much easier in a car, and it makes me wonder sometimes how the anime location scouts accessed some of the corners they did.
In addition to being known for its department stores and clothes shopping, Shinjuku also has large electronics department stores such as BIC Camera and LAOX, which is where visitors can get the Tokyo subway pass.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the site of an extended scene in the first episode of Terror in Resonance. I looped the entire complex looking for the exact spots the explosions took place, but I’ve just kept the more impressive interior shots to give you an idea of what you would see if you went up.
Visitors can go to both the North and South towers, which have gift shops and a cafe in the top floor (access is free). The top floor observation deck offers a great view of the cityscape below, sunsets, and maybe even Mount Fuji on a clear day.
For otaku on an anime pilgrimage, I recommend giving yourself a full day to enjoy all the different parts of Shinjuku. If pressed for time, you can try to absorb the throbbing, frantic, nostalgic, and even romantic moments captured at these anime locations within an afternoon.
Thanks for checking this out! If you want to buy collectibles, check out my photo essay of Mandarake at Broadway Nakano!
A how-to guide for the Tokyo subway pass that saves you money and time. The pass is valid in 24, 48, and 72-hour intervals for the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines, which reach nearly 200 stations.
On a whim, I signed up for a 500px x Red Bull photo walk to explore Tokyo’s urban core. This city is a constant spring of inspiration and surprises, whether it’s the familiar urban skyscrapers being lit in an eerie light or a quiet Showa neighbourhood around a corner that catches you unaware.
I’m just one of thousands of fascinated photographers. How do others approach this city? What lenses and frames do they prefer, figuratively and literally? I was curious to find out.
While I took many other subjects throughout the day, this post is just a photo diary to document my first attempt at shooting action with my the Fujifilm X100.
The theme for the event was “Action and Adventure”, which is second only to night photography for equipment unsuitability. My Fujifilm X100 focuses too slowly and has low-quality continuous shooting renders. That’s not a problem for everything else along the walk: the streets, shops and people I’ll inevitably pass. Technical limitations may preclude me from certain types of shots, but they also challenge me to think through my lense.
For our walk, we had 3 tricking models who obligingly pulled out moves whenever we were at a good spot (thanks to Jason, who arranged the route).
I did sports photography in high school, and I’ve never had the luxury of ideal equipment or conditions. As a result, I’ve learned some strange tricks such as pre-timing shots for slow (or sometimes delayed) shutters. Shooting action with a wide-angle, using single-frame is a fun challenge to really focus on the subject and predict exactly what they’ll do and where they’ll go.
Our route took us from Tokyo Station, through to the North-East corner of the Imperial Palace Park, up to Akihabara, and through to Ueno. Our subject options ranged from blue skies and trees, to electronic shops, to quiet back alleys, to crowded markets, and finally to Ueno Park and Nezu Shrine up at Yanasen.
By 12:30, we just made it to Ueno Park, but everyone was having a good time. The attendees were a mix of Japanese and foreigners from all backgrounds. The good company quickly became even more distracting than the places we were walking through!
With a wide lense (18mm >> 22mm), I couldn’t get a good close-up of the action without blocking other photographers. As such, I had to do a lot of photo processing to make up, so I had fun playing around. Below is a first go.
I think of photos like a canvas. As such, my processing might seem inconsistent as I usually run with whatever seems to interest me in that moment. However, I’d appreciate some tips and pointers (bearing in mind I only use wide-angle lenses)!
Also, you can download these photos CC from my Flickr.
Below is the walking route we took, in case you want to try yourself!
Thanks for checking this out!
In a few weeks, I’ll have made Tokyo a home for a year. There were a few, predictably nomadic, gaps that included Hong Kong, Canada, and a long-overdue revisit to India. Fifty odd weeks after moving in, I’m preparing to move again. In September, I’ll move to another place around the neighbourhood for an interim month, then across Tokyo to another friend’s place.
The district of Koto-ku didn’t take long to charm me. I have a soft spot for understated places, community efforts, and cottage-industry ingenuity. Before I go, I want to try to capture those little things that make this forgotten corner of Tokyo so special.
Firstly, Koto-ku is translated as Koto Ward, which is effectively its own city within Tokyo. The area sits at the junction of the Arakawa and Sumida Rivers and much of it used to be marshland. Known in the Edo Period as the Shitamachi, the Low City, the area was comprised of fishing villages. The waterways that were once the highways between these communities still have a modern imprint on Tokyo and they have been transformed into lovely tree-lined recreational routes.
I live 5-minutes bike ride from the mighty Arakawa and the lengthy recreation grounds that travel 20+ kilometres upstream. At 6am or 6pm, I am joined by other cyclists, runners, students commuting to school, and parents playing with their kids. Emptying into Tokyo Bay, the winds here are strong and moist, sweeping across the high grasses at the river banks. Flower gardens, parks, tennis courts, baseball fields and football fields line the riverside in turn.
My sister tells her friends she lives in a district with dogs and kids. One cannot avoid the laughter and enthusiastic chatter of young kids in this area. It’s a blessing.
One hasn’t quite settled in until one has a mental map of the best eateries in the area. Armed with my bike, I can venture over to neighbouring Fukagawa to enjoy Koukaibo’s chashu ramen during lunch.
Home is defined by the places you can saunter down the block to. There’s nothing like treating yourself to the warmth of a local haunt after a long day’s work. Thank heavens mine close by is a ramen shop. Toukanya serves solid shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce) ramen with jazz floating through the half-filled seats that regularly get refilled.
The area may have once been marshland between central Tokyo and Tokyo DisneySea. But, Fukagawa was once the largest grain market from Edo times right until World War II. The Tomioka Hachimangu is the birthplace of professional sumo and hosted 80+ tournaments. It is still a lively place for flea markets on weekends, an active part of community life. Every few years, the shrine’s Water Festival becomes a full-on street water fight and the mikoshi (portable shrine) is paraded through the streets. This mikoshi also happens to be Kanto’s largest, and visitors can see its intricate gold-leaf work near the shrine entrance.
Right beside it, the Fukagawa Fudoson has a regular stream of local visitors, especially since the Buddhist temple hosts free Goma fire rituals. Few temples are so open to the public, and even fewer play the same active roles they once did a century ago as community centres with conversing mothers and frolicking children.
What’s more – Matsuo Basho spent some of his life here! I didn’t know it was possible to be such a fan of my own area.
Speaking of goma, one of my favourite daifuku places is at a place called Futaba just north of the temple. A limited number is made daily in the dim family-run shop run by a friendly oji-san (uncle), who likes to pop his head out and people watch when it’s quiet.
Since I started commuting to work, I always look out the two street cats waiting to be fed in the evening. It seems like everyone in the neighbourhood has taken to adopting something. My neighbour has taken to liberally pruning our bushes and patrolling the block. The moms rotate watching the kids on the playground. Someone planted mint in stealth in one of the flower beds covered in weeds. I’ve adopted onions, soy bean sprouts and basil from my supermarket from the sale pile; they’re now happily in flower beds on my deck.
The concrete grid looks pretty bland and characterless from one block to the next. It doesn’t take much effort to notice the pots and plants balancing precariously above the sidewalks. Suddenly, one notices all the jungle pockets: hanging from the walls in pots, lining the parking lots in rows, on step-displays at an entrance, or circling a corner. The greens come in all shapes and sizes and many have flowers. There are these mini magenta ones in bunches, hydrangeas, and cacti that bloom only in the morning.
There’s a nursery around the corner and in front, there are eggplants and cherry tomatoes that have been left unclaimed (I guess someone was more interested in growing than eating them).
Unagi used to be street food because the rivers of Edo, old Tokyo, were teaming with freshwater eel. Now, unagi is often served in lacquered boxes. Old-school street-stalls have had to close up shop because of increasingly expensive eel prices since they are over-fished. Unakuri 5 is an ordinary little shop that’s been opened for only a decade, quietly selling out every afternoon before it officially closes at 6pm.
Even though this residential area doesn’t have many restaurants compared to commercial districts, quiet eateries are still litered everywhere. Best of all, people here leave lots of places open and aren’t afraid to let you see what they have.
Koto-ku is also an area of immigrants, I quickly learned. Ojima has a great Indian grocery store and neighbouring Kasai also has a large community. On the weekends, an Indian food truck pedals shwarma outside my park and I had a lovely chat with a Tamil man. Chinese joints also dot the area. A second-floor restaurant is at our main intersection, and down the street is another toshomen restaurant. Toshomen is the Japanese reading of the Chinese 刀削麺, which means noodles that have been cut directly into a boiling cauldron of water.
When I walk to the park around 7am, the taxi garage is filled with drivers checking in and waiting for their first dispatch. There’s something about seeing those drivers in their neatly tucked white shirts every day having their morning banters that’s put a warm face to the orange cars I see in further-flung places in the city.
Every day, this public bike parking is filled in the morning with commuters hopping into the metro after locking up. Every night, this area in front of the field is emptied out after all the parents have gone home.
All year round, this field is filled with the shouts of young baseball athletes. Sometimes you hear a little voice leading the chants, bellowing as deep as his little 4-feet person can. In the summers, the cheers of enthusiastic parents can be heard on the other side of the park, drowning that hollow ring of a home-run hit.
This park is the socialising ground. Junior high school jocks hang out with their bikes here. Students gossip on the swing. Toddlers scale this mountain and sail down at twice the speed. This is where children learn to walk, climb, and sail on a free-hanging rope.
In the morning, the gentle sunlight flickers through the green canopies. In the evening, the sun rays sweep past the trunks and bathes everything in a golden glow.
It’s a small park. After being gone a week in spring, I returned to find the trees swallowed by the waist-high grasses. In early summer, those got cut down, and the remaining stalks looked sickly for a while. By the time I started visiting every morning, the leafy weeds began sprouting buds. After a recent July rainy week, and I’d been absent for a few days, I returned to find the wild grasses had matured into full-on shrubs that commanded attention.
Luxury is the joy no amount of money can buy. For me, it is the bench with just that patch of weeds that look like soft bak choy atop dark, rich soil. In those quiet morning moments, when the streams of workers and students march quietly by, I sip my home-made coffee and type with bare feet. It is good to be grounded.