Day 4 in Tokyo my friend and I went on a 90-minute private guided walking tour with a local guide. See the highlights of Shibuya and Harajuku, the Meiji Jingu Shrine and everything in between with us. Read on for the full itinerary loaded with photos and a link to a short YouTube video.
This was my first private guided tour and I booked it via reputable Viator with tour operator Withlocals here .
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One of the best areas in Tokyo, popular for good food and shopping. But wait, there’s more…
We met local guide, Sena, at 10 am at the Hachiko memorial statue. Do you remember the Richard Gere movie, Hachi, about the famously loyal Akito dog? He waited for his master, Ueno, every day at Shibuya station. Even 10 years after his death in 1925? Yes, that’s the one!
The Akita Inu breed is known to be fiercely loyal yet gentle. They were Japan’s very first dog breed that was designated as a special natural treasure! How great is that? In 1932, the breeds’ popularity skyrocketed after a newspaper reported about Hachiko still waiting for his master at Shibuya station, ten years after Ueno passed away. The dog’s fierce loyalty completely fascinated and moved all of Japan so much that they called him “chuken Hachiko,” or the faithful dog Hachiko.
You’ll see images of the Akita dog spread across the city in murals, adds and displays; a clear sign of how much the people revere the noble qualities displayed by the breed. They raised a statue in honour of Hachiko. Today it’s one of the most famous meeting points in Tokyo and the starting point of our guided tour through Shibuya and Harajuku.
Shibuya Scramble Crossing
The first thing we did, once we introduced ourselves to Sena, was to cross the world-famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing. Welcome to the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world!
The phenomenon is that more than 1,000 people cross the multi-cornered intersection at a time, almost every time. While bopping and weaving, they somehow manage not to collide! Have a coffee at the Starbucks (pictured below) above the crossing before your tour starts to get a good view and great photos of the action.
While the lights were red, Sena took a quick photo of us in the middle of the crossing, before we also scrambled to to the other side. Just another perk of going with a guide!
Shibuya Hikarie 11th Floor
Go to Sky Lobby on the 11th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie skyscraper for panoramic views of the city, the Shibuya Scramble crossing, and the new Olympic Park in the distance. There’s a free observation deck that’s easy to reach as it’s connected to Shibuya train station. Opposite the Hikarie building is the Shibuya Scramble Square, a new building with 47 floors that’s home to Shibuya Sky, Japan’s largest rooftop observation area. It offers 360-degree panoramic views of Tokyo.
From Shibuya Hikarie we went to the famous Izakayas in Drunken Alley, one of those places you won’t find unless told about it or shown by locals. Drunken Alley is a short small alley with teeny tiny narrow bars on one side. Each bar, called an Izakaya, has about 6 seats only! Fancy a tight squeeze and a beer anyone?
This is where locals love to party so be warned if you’re a tourist. Maybe it’s better to go with a local friend who knows the area instead of just rocking up on your own.
What is an Izakaya?
An Izakaya is a traditional Japanese pub people usually go to after work. One of the many ways that it’s different from our pubs, is that everyone sits down in their seat, so there’s no moving around to socialise. While you drink, they keep the salty but mostly tasty dishes coming.
Each Izakaya has its own flavour of food and snacks that they serve. What you get is often a surprise, so it’s a good way to try new dishes. You pay a seat fee, sit down and order a drink – nothing fancy, usually basic beer, saki, etc, – while the snacks keep coming. Fun! The bill is often shared by everyone at the table, custom to Japanese culture.
If it’s busy and people are waiting outside there may be a 2hr time limit per seat. Non-smokers should avoid Izakayas if you really don’t like smoking. You can find Izakayas under railways near Ginza and in other interesting places all over the city. The best way to go and experience it, is with a local by booking one of the many guided tours like this one here.
Home of one of the most visited imperial shrines in Japan, Meiji Shrine, and top notch fashion of the best variety. Harajuku is another one of Tokyo’s sleek shopping districts, featuring the higher end of the fashion spectrum in fabulous shopping centres which boast cutting-edge architecture.
The tree-lined Omotesando street leads up to the main entrance of the Meiji Jingu Shrine and it’s near here where you’ll find the futuristic entrance to dazzling Tokyo Plaza shopping mall. But our guide took us the long way round to see some of the more characterful streets and shops in the area.
From the bedazzling entrance of Tokyo Plaza, we found our way to Cat Street, which has nothing to do with cats whatsoever! Apparently, this is where you find the true spirit of Tokyo’s street fashion, on sale in small, tall and narrow shops. Sena explained that the quaint shops were built that way to optimize floor space because of the astronomical property prices in central Tokyo. Very innovative!
By now we were nearly half-way through our tour of Shibuya and Harajuku.
Next up was a great place for souvenir shopping, Oriental Bazaar, situated next to Dior. Here we bought a heap of well-priced gifts for the family back home. The store has three floors packed with everything Japanese and staffed by friendly English speaking staff. This could easily be the only place you want to shop as a tourist in the Shibuya and Harajuku district. That’s unless you came to Tokyo with a serious and specific shopping agenda, of course – which Tokyo is perfect for.
While Omotesando is haute couture high-end fashion, Takeshita-dori (‘dori’ meaning street) is where Tokyo’s hip teens flock to hang out and shop their hearts out. It’s a pedestrianised retail street popular with schoolgirls. The closest place I can compare it to is Camden in London. Some people describe Takeshita-dori as the craziest place they’ve ever seen. I bet they’ve not been to Camden in London yet. Anyway, despite Takeshita street being super touristy, it’s great fun. It’s just one of the places that you don’t want to miss if you’re in Tokyo. Besides, it’s where stars like Lady Gaga like to shop so you might bump into her!
Takeshita Street is where you’ll see the Kawaii (meaning ‘cute’) culture in full swing. I must confess that I found the Japanese obsession with Kawaii, evident across the city, slightly disturbing. Grown woman act and dress like school girls all for the sake of looking cute to placate men. Perhaps I’m not culturally aware enough in that respect, but from an outsiders perspective, I struggle to see a clear line drawn between adult and child in some of the blown-up images blasted across buildings. If you’re reading this and you have insight into this topic, please share it in the comments below or contact me directly.
Apart from a treasure trove of crepes to choose from – how they love their crepes! – there is attention-grabbing independent shops and much-loved big chain stores crammed into all 350 meters of Takeshita Street. Great bargains and fabulous deserts are to be had here.
You’ll also find a large variety of animal cafes. For about ¥900 (roughly £6,70 at the time of writing) you can have a drink while sitting with a small potbelly pig, owl, dog, ferret, cat, etc., on your lap! I, for one, have never seen such a thing.
Unless you like to shop in serious close proximity to thousands of strangers, perhaps avoid Takeshita-dori over weekends and holidays. It gets unbelievably crowded.
The Meiji Jingu Shrine
Once you walk through the massive torii gates to the Meiji Shrine and the surrounding Yoyogi gardens, you won’t know that you’re in the centre of one of the most densely populated cities in the world. And it’s so close to the Shibuya and Harajuku districts that you cannot miss it if you’re in the area. You’ll be surrounded by a tranquil forest filled with relaxing walkways to find a place of peace and quiet. You need this after the hustle and bustle of Takeshita-dori!
But before you get there, just after you exit the top of Takeshita street and turn left, you reach Tokyo’s oldest wooden train station, Harajuku Station.
The 96-year-old station survived the second world war but no longer meets fire safety standards. It’s being dismantled and replaced with a modern station this year, probably as I’m writing this post. That’s sad because the building screams charm and character. Thankfully they plan to build a replica of its exterior near the new Harajuku Station, partially using materials from the old building. How thoughtful.
Behind Harajuku Station is the entrance to the Meiji Jingu Shrine where Sena left us with the very kind parting gift of a small origami crane that she folded herself for each of us. I was so impressed with Sena as a guide. She was knowledgeable, thoughtful and kind, patiently answering all my 101 questions about Japanese culture and the places we saw. Even sending me links afterwards to things we discussed or that I asked about during the walk.
Once we said our good-bye’s to Sena, Lek and I explored the sacred Meiji Jingu shrine and Yoyogi gardens at our leisure, using almost an hour to take it all in. A few of the thousands of shrines in Japan were commissioned by the government and are known as imperial shrines. The Meiji shrine is an imperial shrine, therefore it’s known as the Meiji Jingu shrine instead of ‘jinga’.
It takes about ten minutes to walk from the torii gates to the main hall unless you take time to read and appreciate the elaborate informative displays along the way. They tell the story of the shrine and the two inspirational people they built it for, why it was erected in their honour and the major undertaking it took to build a forest of its size in the middle of a city.
Deep inside the main hall where no-one is allowed to enter they keep the most sacred items of the enshrined deities.
The rope around the tree stump is called a shimenawa. It signifies the boundary of a sacred place and is often wrapped around sacred torii gates, trees or stones.
It’s all very interesting to observe, but needless to say, this is a quiet place of respect and reverence and visitors should be mindful of that, no matter what your belief is.
That concluded our walking tour of Shibuya and Harajuku, taking in all its highlights and the beautiful Meiji Shrine. We were done before lunch, so from there we caught the train at nearby Omotesando station to Asakusa for our next awesome experience in Tokyo.
A guided tour of Asakusa on a traditional rickshaw! Read all about it here.
Watch It On YouTube (10 min)
Watch a short 10-minute video on YouTube featuring some of the highlights of Shibuya and Harajuku HERE
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