TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo is one of the world’s most crowded and bustling cities, but anyone who travels there around New Year’s will be able to see a far different face as workaholic Japan takes its longest holiday of the year.
Christmas, which is a normal work day, is mainly a retail event, with Japan devoting all its energy to “Oshogatsu,” the New Year period extending roughly from Dec 29 to Jan 3 - the first part in frantic preparation, the second in enjoyment.
Days of dry, crisp cold bring clear air and sharp views of Mount Fuji from many parts of the city, and with most Japanese companies closed and many people back in their hometowns, trains and streets empty out and the capital takes on a laid-back and leisurely air for those who choose to stay.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a 48-hour visit.
5 p.m. - Head to “Ameyokocho,” one of Tokyo’s oldest market streets. Bracketing the raised tracks of the Yamanote Line and running south from Ueno Station on Tokyo’s northern side, the area is boisterous on regular weekends but really cranks it up at this time of year as people come shopping for New Year feasting. Just about anything imaginable is for sale here - fish on trays of ice, piled vegetables and fruits. Vendors shout to attract business under bright lights, and pots of food at nearby open-air restaurant stalls steam in the cold.
New Year food is called “Osechi,” and housewives prepare enough for the three days from New Year’s day so they don’t have to do any cooking then. Most foods have symbolic meanings, like simmered black soybeans for good health, and herring roe, which symbolizes a wish to have many children. Many people eat sea bream, whose Japanese name echoes the word “congratulations.”
6 p.m. - If you decide not to drop into one of the restaurants under the train tracks for some sticks of grilled meat and a glass or two of hot sake, hop on the Yamanote Line at Okachimachi Station and get off a few stops later at Yurakucho, on the edge of the posh Ginza shopping area.
The area under the tracks is crammed with restaurants, from Italian to Thai and Californian cuisine. But try “Andy’s Shin Hinomoto,” across from the Yurakucho Denki Building. Run by genial Briton Andy, Shin Hinomoto features sashimi, stir fries, tempura and daily specials in a long room with arched ceilings and a jovial, casual atmosphere. (03-3214-8021) As the evening wears on, loud groups of people drift out into the street after “Bonenkai,” or “Forget the Year” parties, in many cases a bit the worse for wear.
9 p.m. - Stroll the Ginza, checking out the window decorations in stores like Cartier, or lit-up trees in front of Mikimoto, the pearl shop. Other colorful displays can be found in Roppongi Hills or the Marunouchi area near Tokyo Station.
As New Year’s day nears, many stores will also sport large “kadomatsu” decorations - literally “gate pines” - consisting of pine boughs and bamboo stalk arrangements on each side of the door. This is echoed in private homes, where pine is used to welcome ancestral spirits.
Stop to admire the lit-up front of Tokyo Station, unveiled in its pre-war classical brick glory in October after an extensive exterior renovation.
9 a.m. - Take the Ginza Subway line to Asakusa and make your way to Sensoji, the Asakusa Kannon temple. Enter through the Kaminarimon, a bright red gate with a huge dangling lantern, and head up the Nakamise shopping street. Though many of the goods here are of the cheap souvenir variety, other stalls offer crisp, freshly made rice crackers and other tasty treats.
Sensoji is popular for “Hatsumode,” or the first shrine and temple visits of the New Year, when people go to pray for good luck in the coming year. It can take hours to move the 200 meters (yards) up Nakamise, but the mood is jovial amidst incense smoke from huge metal burners near the main temple building. Millions visit Sensoji and other popular sites, such as the Meiji Shrine, during the first three days of the year - some wearing the traditional kimono.
Other people make these visits at midnight on the 31st, when temple bells all over Japan boom out 108 times for each of the sins of mankind. Trains run all night and some restaurants and pubs stay open until dawn.
Afterwards, wander around the Asakusa area, which still has an old neighborhood flavor. About five minutes’ walk from the temple is a street of open-air restaurants selling grilled meat on skewers and stewed tripe with tofu. Belly up to a counter stool and have some beer or hot sake.
1 p.m. - Head east across the Sumida River. You’ll pass the headquarters of Asahi Beer - recognizable by the “Flamme d’Or” (Golden Flame) sculpture on its roof that locals refer to as “The Golden Turd” - on your way to Tokyo’s newest landmark: the Tokyo Skytree.
A futuristic broadcasting tower of dubious beauty, the Skytree is 634-metres high and has been certified by Guinness as the world's tallest tower. It anchors a shopping and pleasure complex that includes movie theatres and an aquarium, and boasts two observation decks: one at 350 meters and the other at 450 meters. (here)
Tickets to the observatories cost 2,000 yen ($23.70) for the lower one and 1,000 yen for the higher one, and can be bought on the day. But check the website for special periods, such as New Year’s, when other arrangements may have to be made.
6 p.m. - Feel daring? Then eat at Torafugu Tei Monzen Naka-cho (r.gnavi.co.jp/fl/en/b267803/), which features fugu, the blowfish that can be fatal if improperly prepared. Torafugu Tei has reasonably priced courses that start with delicate slices of raw fugu fanned across a plate and ends with a thick rice porridge in fugu-flavored soup. To drink, try hot sake with a lightly grilled fugu fin in it for flavor.
8 a.m. - If it’s the first or fourth Sunday of the month, check out the flea market at the Togo Shrine, at Harajuku Station on the Yamanote Line. The shrine is crowded with vendors selling everything from junk to elaborate wedding kimonos and antiques. Also on the first Sunday is a flea market at Arai Yakushi Shrine at Arai Yakushi-mae on the Seibu Shinjuku Line. Hope for good weather as it’s canceled in the event of rain.
11 a.m. - Brunch at Suji’s (www.sujis.net), a restaurant in the Roppongi entertainment district with all the traditional options, including Eggs Benedict or even just two eggs with home fries and toast. Large portions and good prices.
1 p.m. - With the construction of several new museums in recent years, Roppongi is now billing itself as "Art Triangle Roppongi." Within a short walking distance are the Mori Art Museum, the Suntory Museum of Art, and The National Art Center, Tokyo. (here) Notable is the Mori Art Museum, on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower in the Roppongi Hills complex, which offers good views along with the art. Both Roppongi Hills and the Tokyo Midtown, near the National Art Center, have seasonal light displays.
3 p.m. - Take the Hibiya Subway line up to Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics mecca. Year-end bargains are likely to abound, and many stores - like stores all over Japan - offer “fukubukuro,” or lucky bags, on January 1. Each bag is sold for a set price, but the contents are unknown. Take a chance!
($1 = 84.3900 Japanese yen)
Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato