An insider’s guide: how to experience the heart of Tokyo

Anna Sherman, author of The Bells of Old Tokyo, called this incredible city her home for seven years. Here, she shares her favourite things to do in Tokyo, for those looking to discover the heart and soul of the city.

The Bells of Old Tokyo is a remarkable account of one woman's exploration of Tokyo and her search for the bells of Edo, the public bells on which the people of Tokyo relied to tell the time long ago. Anna Sherman, author of The Bells of Old Tokyo, spent seven years living in the city and fell in love with Japanese culture – a culture entirely unlike any other in the world. Here, Anna shares her insider guide to the city – the places to visit and things to do in Tokyo if you want to experience the city's cultural heart.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that the whole of Japan is “a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.” Tourists who arrive expecting temples and Zen gardens, but find mile after grey mile of chaotic concrete buildings, often feel disoriented and even cheated. Where is the dreamed country of iridescent cherry blossoms and wisteria?

At first glance, Tokyo's history appears to live on only in its place names, or in the increasingly rare wooden houses in neighbourhoods like Nishi-Nippori. The architecture of the shoguns has been dismantled and reassembled in sanctuaries like Yokohama's Sankei-en, or the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Museum west of the city. I have always found such buildings somewhat eerie, though, without people to animate them: haunted houses without ghosts. And though Tokyo has many exquisite museums that showcase its traditional culture, a visitor can only experience that golden age at a remove, from behind glass.

Sankei-en Tokyo
Sankei-en's Rinshunkaku in Yokohama, Japan

Anyone searching for a traditional Japan should seek out not a place, but individual artists and artisans: musicians, satirical rakugo storytellers, craftsmen. The Kamata Hakensha knife shop in Asakusa, or Bunsendo, which makes exquisite fans for Kabuki actors. Glimpses of the old city may be found at shops selling tea, or rice, or wagashi, Japanese sweets. Temples and shrines also connect the twenty-first-century city with its medieval origins. Rituals and prayers recall the vanished Japan – that country Oscar Wilde claimed existed only in the imagination. Every week of the year, a matsuri, (festival) is held somewhere in or around Tokyo: whether a celebration of the cherry blossoms or the autumn moon; the anniversary of a samurai vendetta or an annual Buddhist observance. Every month, the Japanese National Tourist Office (JNTO) publishes a complete list of matsuri, so those who want to see Tokyo at its unruly, abandoned best should check the listings, and even plan trips around festival dates.

People sitting next to Japanese cherry blossom
Cherry blossom in bloom in Kinuta Park, Tokyo

There can be magic in the mix of old and new, in the contrast between extremes: Shibuya ward, for instance, combines the timeless aesthetic of old Japan with tomorrow's technology. The unpainted cypress shrine, Meiji-jingū, stands at the heart of a vast green expanse; sacred space is marked by the world's largest wooden torii gate – twelve metres high – and an otherworldly iris garden within a narrow gorge thick with ancient maple trees. On festival days, miko shrine maidens wearing mirrored headdresses and Shinto priests in stiff black hats and shining black lacquer asagutsu clogs pass through the inner courts.

Black and white photo of Meiji shrine approach on the left and colour photo of the bridge on the right
Meiji Jingu Approach and Meiju Jingu Bridge.

But just five minutes away, past the ancient trees of the Meiji-jingū's precincts, thrum the ultra-fashionable shopping districts of Harajuku and Shibuya's ‘Love Hotel Hill.' The elm-lined approach to Meiji-jingū, Omotesando-dōri, includes many new but already iconic structures – like the Prada Building, whose curved-lens windows seem almost to float in space. The world's most whimsical goods are sold here alongside haute couture of exclusive boutiques: chocolate-flavoured rubbers from Condomania; Star Wars fluorescent light-sabre chopsticks and Studio Ghibli soft toys in Kiddyland. And no traveller should miss Tokyo Hands, a place that could exist only in Japan: a three-dimensional maze of a shop, with a single floor dedicated to the serious art of the washer and bolt, and a sombre professional who has dedicated his life to understanding what tiny piece of metal should go where. Transparent terrestrial beach balls; art supplies that would have made Michelangelo weep; a hall of notebooks and stationery; another floor dedicated to kitchenware. And when a wanderer tires of crowds and beeping bar-code scanners, of traffic and trains, Shibuya has sanctuaries of quiet too: the Mingeikan, whose founder devoted his life to preserving Japan's folk customs and crafts; and the sublime Nezu Museum, which contains a dazzling collection of Buddhist statuary and classical scrolls, and whose entry walls blend into the bamboo walk that lines it.

Nezu museum in Tokyo
Nezu Museum, Tokyo

I once heard two Americans arguing about which Japan was better, ‘the classical' or ‘the modern.' The first praised ‘the culture that gave us Noh drama, Bashō's haiku, and sand gardens.' He said: Japan has strayed too far from its true self. The other American, almost in tears, defended Tokyo's vibrancy, the beauty of its neon landscapes and skyscrapers, the technology of its bullet trains.

But that fight was between outsiders. A Japanese answer to the questions – ‘Which is more authentic? Which has more value? Old Japan or New Japan?' – might answer: ‘Both.'

The Bells of Old Tokyo

by Anna Sherman

In this remarkable book Anna Sherman explores the city of Tokyo, befriends its residents and develops a deep affection for Japanese culture, as she searches for the bells of Edo. Through a series of hauntingly memorable voices, Sherman paints a striking picture of Japan’s metropolis and the otherness of Japanese culture.

For even more insights into Japanese culture, don't miss this episode of Book Break which takes a look at why Japanese literature is so popular around the world.