Nishi…it’s Japanese for “West”. Tokyo is immense – the worlds largest urban expanse, and even the “centre” of Tokyo can fit many small cities inside. “Central Tokyo” alone, takes almost half an hour to traverse from East to West (from Akihabara to Shinjuku) by train, and well over an hour to circumnavigate via the Yamanote line. And that doesn’t even include the suburbs yet which is many times larger.
And thus, it’s hard to talk about Tokyo as a singular city. Even parts of it look very, very different. Harajuku, for example, is just a couple of kilometres from Shibuya, but the two look so unlike each other, you could mistake them for places in two different countries, if all you’ve seen were pictures of both. Same with Akihabara and Marunouchi, and many other places in central Tokyo.
I generally split central Tokyo into east and west sides while planning our itinerary, and I’ll start talking about what we saw on the west.
The Shibuya Scramble
This 5-way scramble in Tokyo’s Shibuya district is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. It is the world’s busiest intersection, and people from all over the world come over just to experience crossing it, as if you haven’t genuinely been in Tokyo unless you’ve crossed the scramble. Some even take a few precious seconds stop in the middle to take photos – fancy, wacky or even serious.
The Shibuya Scramble is also Tokyo’s version of London’s Picadilly Circus or New York’s Times Square, with its large TV screens and bright neon signs.
Daunting as the mass of people heading towards you may seem, crossing the scramble isn’t particularly that difficult. The crowds heading towards each other may look like Greek phalanxes about to crash together, but suprisingly there is very little actual physical contact. People instinctively know how to avoid each other without changing direction. Each actual crossing takes only less than a minute, and after that, everyone gets to the side they want to go to, the street lights go green, and the cars start going again, as if no scramble ever happened. Whatever it is that makes the scramble work, it’s too hard to describe with words. You have to cross it, to feel it.
The Shibuya Center Gai
The scramble may be Shibuya’s most popular and sought after attraction, but there’s more to see beyond it. The area around the Shibuya station is one of Tokyo’s many busy commercial areas, and naturally there are all sorts of shops and stores all around. Food, drinks, clothings, books, gadgets – if it exists on this planet, you’ll probably find it somewhere in Shibuya. The bright lights and general liveliness of the place makes it ideal for a very good stroll as well, if you’re not in the mood to buy anything.
The “Center Gai” is the main pedestrian street, right across the scramble from Shibuya Station’s Hachiko Exit, and it is lined with shops and restaurants from end to end. Shibuya’s commercial district is a large area – you could spend a day there if you want. However if you don’t have that much time, then a stroll through Center Gai would be a good way to feel the pulse of one of Tokyo’s busiest arteries.
A few kilometres north of Shibuya, and you have another large and busy business district, Shinjuku. Shinjuku is a main transportation hub, and the home of the world’s busiest train station. People coming from the west side of the Tokyo metropolitan area converge here, to change trains or walk to their offices. And like Tokyo Station to the east, it is filled with shops of all sorts too. The station itself probably has more economic activity than a small city elsewhere. The west side of Shinjuku station is one of Tokyo’s several central business districts (CBDs), and on the east is a commercial area, almost similar to the one in Shibuya. The fact that you have two large commercial centres a few kilometres from each other is hard to explain, but perhaps that characterises Tokyo…it’s a never-ending urban sprawl, with one busy area after another.
*Photos taken from our trip last April 2015