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47 Prefectures from A to Y


The Calm and the Chaos

Tokyo never seems to rest, and the neon and the endless, crowded hustle often leave first-time visitors feeling shell-shocked. But the sprawling metropolis has plenty of pockets of calm, places to rest and relax.

Mount Takao is one such place, standing at Tokyo’s edge, apart from but still of the city. A thick carpet of brilliant fallen leaves in hues of red, magenta and ochre frames Takao’s cable car ascent—the steepest in Japan at over 31 degrees. A tunnel looms and then you’re inside, tilting up and peering at the light at the end like a periscope to sky country.

From the summit, the city seems so close, yet the calming effect of this place is quite a contrast from the hectic pace down there. The sun glints off distant steel and glass, and in another direction Mount Fuji stands snow-capped and regal against a backdrop of blue.

At the Takao Visitor Center, Tazuko Sato explains a bit about the history of Takao. Even in the Edo Period, people wanted to protect this place, so logging was prohibited. Because of those efforts, the mountain today is the site of lush and varied life.

“There are about thirteen hundred species of plants here,” says Sato. “This is also a good place to see birds found only in Japan, such as the segurosekirei (Japanese wagtail) and the aogera (Japanese green woodpecker).” And Tokyoites as well as nearby residents flock here, taking advantage of an accessible oasis. Many who climb the mountain practice shinrinyoku, or forest bathing. The act of basking in the delicious, sweet mountain air and cleansing presence of nature has been proven effective scientifically to purify the mind and body.

Takao is not only a place of nature, but of history and mythology as well. The 1300-year-old temple known as Yakuo-in stands here, beckoning the faithful. There are 108 steps leading up to the temple, said to embody the 108 worldly desires.

At the temple, the atmosphere is heady with incense and the musical drone of monks chanting their sutras. Statues of winged tengu, mythological long-nosed goblins, stand silent. These creatures are emissaries of the mountain’s gods, fiercely protective guardians of both mountain and temple.

Going back down to the city after exploring at Mount Takao, Omoide Yokocho (which roughly translates as “Memory Lane”) is another kind of respite, a place for camaraderie and sustenance in close quarters. Situated in the heart of Shinjuku, the narrow alley barely wider than a visitor’s outspread arms is crowded with tiny restaurants and bars, many with no more than half a dozen stools where customers can belly up to a slender counter.

Peering inside each joint, it’s hard to choose, as enticing smells and spirited conversations float into the lane. Cries from proprietors urge potential patrons to enter, their entreaties promising cold beer and mouthwatering delicacies. Nostalgic lanterns glow from shop fronts and smoke-tinged noren (curtains) frame the doorways.

Inside one shop, big shining brown bottles of beer line the counter. A word to the staff, and within minutes mugs of beer, plates of edamame and skewers of yakitori are crowding the small table. Yakitori is succulent bits of glazed and grilled chicken threaded on the bamboo alongside blistered shishito peppers and thick green onions. As the food arrives, the tiredness from the earlier hike begins to fade. Elbows jostle as everyone lifts their drinks to toast and congratulate each other on the day’s accomplishments. Kampai!

Tokyo, the largest metropolis in Japan, has something for everyone. While shopping or sightseeing might be the first thing that comes to mind, planning a refreshing trip to Mount Takao and experiencing an izakaya will fill your Tokyo trip with unforgettable memories.

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