The view along the Yakatabune dinner cruise

In Summer 2020, this year, Japan is set to host the world's largest international sports event in Tokyo. Various new facilities have been popping up as the city gets ready for the big summer event and to welcome a large number of visitors.

New and modern are terms often associated with Tokyo. However, it is also filled with many quiet neighborhoods, including old ones known as shitamachi that allow visitors a glimpse into the past. A shitamachi often stands in contrast to modern city living, and visiting both juxtaposes the old and the new.

I spent a day in the Tokyo checking out a new and exciting landmark, and getting a feel of olden Tokyo by exploring a couple of old neighborhoods before ending my day with a dinner cruise to Tokyo Bay.

Throwback to the 60s in Shibamata
Power lines in Yanaka Ginza

I started my day at the "new" National Stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies of that event in addition to other games are scheduled to be held. Located in Meiji Jingu Gaien Park, the newly constructed sports stadium was completed after three years.

The stadium used material from the entire country; wood used for the exterior was sourced from all 47 prefectures in Japan, and its location in the stadium reflects its origin, e.g. wood from Okinawa is placed in the south. It was quite exciting to see the National Stadium all completed, and I cannot wait to see it in use for the first time at next year's international games.

First look at the new National Stadium
These wood panels were sourced from all over Japan
A different view of the stadium
It's so pretty when the lights are on

From a new construction, I headed east in search for something more traditional. In feudal days, Tokyo was generally split into two areas: the elevated Yamanote area in the west where the upper classes resided, and the lower-lying Shitamachi area in the east where common merchants and artisans lived. Despite the progression of society since the end of the feudal age, some of the Shitamachi neighborhoods have remained, held off substantial changes and retained a certain yesteryear charm.

Shibamata, at the eastern border of Tokyo along the Edogawa River, is a Shitamachi neighborhood that has retained its old school atmosphere. The district is most known as the hometown of the well-loved fictional movie character Tora-san and Shibamata Taishakuten Temple. The retro vibes were strong right from the moment I stepped out at Shibamata Station, and it was a precursor of things to come.

I made my way towards the main approach to Taishakuten Temple. For a brief moment, I felt like I was walking through a converted movie set. The quaint street is lined with shops and restaurants selling local snacks and delicacies. One of the local snacks was kusadango, steamed glutinous rice flour (mochi) and mugwort (yomogi) balls covered with sweet red bean paste, and a trip to Shibamata would not be complete wihout trying it.

Statues of Tora-san's sister bidding Tora-san farewell can be found immediately outside Shibamata Station
Start of the main approach to Taishakuten Temple
Kusadango on the left and Yakidango (grilled mochi balls with a sweet-savoury glaze) on the right

Taishakuten Temple is located at the end of the approach, and its carved Nitenmon wooden gate guards the entrance. The liveliness of the approach died down to a murmur once I stepped over the threshold, and it was a different atmosphere - more sedate - on the temple grounds. The first thing I saw was the massive pine tree, Zuiryumatsu, which is said to be over 400 years old, in front of the main hall. It looked like it was welcoming me to the temple!

My visit to Taishakuten started at the main hall, then continued onwards the wood carving gallery around the back of the main hall, and finally, led into the garden which lies beyond the main hall. An admission fee is charged for the wood carving gallery and includes entry to the garden.

Nitenmon gate peeping out at the end of the approach
The massive pine tree in front of the main hall at Taishakuten Temple
The bell is rung at noon daily
Passageways along the visitor's reception hall (Daikyakuden) provide great views of the garden
Looking towards the Daikyakuden from the other side of the garden

From Nitenmon gate at the entrance to the trimmings of the main hall, there are lots of wood carvings to be seen at Taishakuten Temple. However, the most impressive wooden carvings are found at the wood carving gallery. The outer walls of the back of the main hall are covered with slabs of wooden carvings, which make up the gallery, and it was the highlight of my visit.

The stars of the gallery are ten wooden slabs that convey the narrative of the Lotus Sutra. Each slab has a length of 2.27 meters, a breadth of 1.27 meters and a depth of 20 centimeters, and it is said a slab took one wood carver took about 1.5 years to complete. Ultimately, it took over ten years from the early 1920s and a team of wood carvers to complete the intricate work that we can appreciate today.

The middle panels show the narrative of the Lotus Sutra
Close up of the intricate carvings

Following that, I got back on the train and made my way to Nippori Station. My destination was Yanaka Ginza, which is less than five minutes on foot from the station. The Yanaka neighborhood is a well-known Shitamachi area in central Tokyo, and Yanaka Ginza is its main shopping street where the small businesses carrying daily necessities and services can be found. Compared to the quaint Shibamata, Yanaka Ginza had a larger variety of shops as well as an international vibe.

This is a good spot at Nippori Station for train spotting
Super cute woven basket shop just before reaching Yanaka Ginza
Great place to see the sunset
Shops line the main street

What I loved about Yanaka Ginza was its touristy and local atmosphere. Here, decades-old shops rubbed shoulders with hip new businesses. I saw visitors sipping alcoholic beverages while people-watching and residents buying their fresh produce and side dishes for dinner. I could definitely see myself spending a leisurely afternoon wandering the narrow back streets of Yanaka and checking out the small businesses that are scattered along the way.

Fried food at a popular takeaway shop to start my walk
Handmade food store
Everything in this hip cafe I visited in Yanaka Ginza was good

From Yanaka Ginza, I headed back to Nippori Station and made my way to Asakusa by train with a transfer at Ueno. I had reservations for a dinner cruise, Yakatabune, which departed from there. Yakatabune (literally: "house-boats") are Japanese-style wooden boats that were originally used for entertainment purposes by aristocrats during the feudal period. Today, the same style of boats are used to provide an approximately two hour dinner cruise where patrons can enjoy night views of Tokyo while traveling down to Tokyo Bay.

Bridge and boat along the Sumida River
Boat berth
Yakatabune boat
The interior of a yakatabune was akin to a traditional Japanese-style room, where tatami straw mats line the floor of the boat and low tables are used
The boat I took with Tokyo Skytree in the background

There are a few yakatabune companies, and consequently each cruise may have a different departure point. My cruise departed from Asakusa, sailed down the Sumida River, and stopped for a while in Tokyo Bay before returning back to the start point. Dinner was served during the cruise and included freshly fried tempura and hot plate dishes. As the boat traveled down towards the bay, it passed under the numerous bridges that connect districts of Tokyo, and we also got to see the city lights and landmarks like Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree and Rainbow Bridge. For me, this dinner cruise was the best way to wrap my day up. Not only did I get to have a nice Japanese meal onboard, it was a great experience to sit in a Japanese-style wooden boat and see the modern sights from a different angle.

At the end of the cruise, I was very satisfied with how my entire day had turned out. The shitamachi I visited showed me a different side of Tokyo, like a throwback to simpler days, while the visit to the National Stadium reminded me that we were very much in the 21st century and moving full steam ahead. Finally, the icing on the cake was the dinner cruise where I could relax and take in the best of both the traditional and modern worlds.

Japanese style dinner which included raw fish
Advance reservations are required for a yakatabune experience
Tokyo Tower from the water
The boat stopped in Tokyo Bay for about 20 minutes, and we were allowed to go on the top deck to see the view and take pictures
Lights were dimmed slightly on the way back to see the view outside
Ended my night with a great view

Access

National Stadium

The nearest station to the National Stadium is Kokuritsu Kyogijo Station on the Toei Oedo Subway Line. From Tokyo Station, take the JR Chuo Line to Yoyogi Station, and transfer to the Toei Oedo Subway line to Kokuritsu Kyogijo Station. The one way journey takes about 25 minutes and costs 350 yen.

Shibamata

Shibamata Station on the Keisei Line is the main station serving Shibamata. From Tokyo Station, take the JR Yamanote Line to Ueno or Nippori, and change to the Keisei Line to Keisei Takasago Station. From there, transfer to the Keisei Kanamachi Line to Shibamata. The one way journey takes about 50-60 minutes and costs 430 yen. Taishakuten Temple is about five minutes on foot from the station.

Yanaka Ginza

Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote Line and the Keisei Line is the main station to access Yanaka Ginza. From Tokyo Station, take the JR Yamanote Line to Nippori Station (about 15 minutes, 160 yen one way). Yanaka Ginza is about a five minute walk from the station's west exit.

Yakatabune

There are a number of Yakatabune companies in Tokyo, and I went with Amitatsu, which departs from Azumabashi Pier in Asakusa. From Tokyo Station, take the JR Yamanote Line to Kanda and change to the Ginza Subway Line bound for Asakusa. The one way journey takes about 20 minutes and costs 310 yen. Azumabashi Pier is about a five minute walk from the station on the other side of the river.

This article was sponsored by Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau