Gleaming towers stretch to the horizon in the heart of Japan, broken only by narrow streets and serpentine subway lines. From above, the city appears as a labyrinthine construct of concrete and starlight.
As the mecca of Otaku culture, the Akiba district is home to thousands of anime, manga and game shops. In recent years the area has experienced a gentrifying effect, with some of the more geeky establishments being replaced by mainstream brands.
The intersection between the subway and the Shibuya shopping district is said to be the most crowded in Japan. The density of Tokyo can be felt here on the streets, as human bodies flow and merge as if they were a single entity.
Despite the crowded streets there is little chaos. Civility is one of the admirable qualities of Japanese culture.
As there are virtually no garbage bins, trash is taken home. It is unclear why public trash cans do not exist in Japan - some say they were removed after a rash of terrorist attacks in the 90s. Perhaps people simply accept a kind of personal responsibility for the refuse they generate.
Tokyo National Museum
The museum is undoubtedly one of the must-visit destinations in Tokyo. On display is a plethora of Japanese armour, katana, art and artifacts.
The real attraction however, is the park that surrounds the museum building. In early April it is the best location to view the cherry blossoms.
Tokyo Imperial Palace
This is one of the more overrated attractions in Tokyo, as the inner grounds of the palace is not open to the public. The rest of the castle is a small park surrounded by high walls and a moat.
The Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is the most popular temple in Tokyo, although it's also one of the most commercial. The entrance is lined with nearly a kilometer of souvenir shops and food stands.
The iconic Tokyo Tower thrusts skyward in stark contrast to the grey buildings that surround it. Though the Skytree is taller, the Tokyo Tower is perhaps more beautiful.
On this occasion the lights have been changed to celebrate a visit by President Obama.
The ride up the elevator can be quite psychedelic.
Oedo Antique Market
For a more genuine experience of Tokyo outside of the tourist bubble, the antique market is a good place to start. Each item for sale has a story to tell, just don't be shy about asking the vendor.
The independent kissa (cafe) is perhaps the greatest hidden gem of Tokyo. Completely unmarked and located in a residential area, the Kissa Sakaiki is a jazz bar that hosts local artists and actors.
Occasionally an artistic or theatric event takes place. This evening two plays were shown: first a conventional drama exploring the infidelities of a husband and wife, followed by a more experimental piece set in a subway station.
I used my limited Japanese to gain small pieces of understanding during the play. The plot was explained to me in detail afterward.
The bullet train or Shinkansen is a cultural icon of Japan. Though other nations also have high speed trains, the Shinkansen network is the oldest and most extensive. I purchased a 7 day JR-pass for a tour of the country.
A sleek Shinkansen train stops at the station. The Japanese Shinkansen trains are not maglev, but ride on wider gauge standard rails.
The green cars (first class) offer more comfort and space. They come in handy during golden week, when the regular seats are fully booked.
The outside world speeds past in a surreal blur, the smooth ride causing a dissonance between eyes and body. A quiet hum and the occasional turn reminds you that the train is indeed moving.
We cross vast stretches of fields between major cities, the monotony broken by small towns, their lights flashing by as if an abstract art piece. Despite the popular image of Japan as lacking in space, it really is quite big.
The train stops in Osaka. In typical Japanese efficiency, the cleaning crew lines up outside their assigned cars.
The capsule hotel, another sight unique to Japan. Surprisingly, the capsules are not sealed. A bamboo shade can be pulled down for a modicum of privacy.
There is just enough room to lie down. I could sit up straight, but a taller person may have some trouble. A bargain at $30 a night.
When in Kobe, eat Kobe beef. While Kobe and Wagyu beef may be found in North America, much of it is "fake".
The cut is presented before cooking. The famous marbling of the meat can be seen. The chef recommended trying it with salt and wasabi, I was surprised to find the flavors worked together.
The taste of Kobe beef is difficult to describe - in short, it doesn't taste like beef at all. Due to the higher fat content, it reminded me of Peking duck, or ice cream.
Conveyor sushi, yet another delicacy of Japan. Prices are determined by plate color, and items not on the conveyor can be special ordered.
Thousands of torii gates line the path up the Inari mountain. The torii gates symbolize the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds. Proper etiquette requires one to walk on the side, as the center path is reserved for Kami-sama.
Several deities are historically associated with the temple, but the fox is featured prominently as a messenger of the gods.
Torii gates can be purchased and installed, usually by businessmen in gratitude to the god of prosperity. Prices range from 175,000 Yen (1,728 USD) for the smallest, to 1,302,000 Yen (12,856 USD) for the largest.
I ended my southward journey at Hiroshima. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is a sobering reminder of the human cost of war.
The Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall was one of the few buildings that survived the atomic blast. It glowed eerily in the darkness.
Thanks to the Shinkansen network, almost every city in Japan is less than a day's travel away. I head up north to a small town renowned for its onsens.
In Japan, the word onsen may only be used to describe natural hot spring baths. As such, certain locations are prime real estate for the onsen business. Kinosaki is home to dozens of onsens. People dressed in yukata can be seen walking from onsen to onsen.
A hot spring drinking fountain. A sign in the background describes the numerous health benefits of volcanic spring water. The water is warm and salty.
Going even further north, I arrived at the mountain temple of Yamadera. The path up the mountain has about 1000 steps. A 30 minute climb brought me to the top, where the temple awaits.
I end my travels back in Tokyo. It seemed to have carried on with its own busy life in my absence.
You never know what you'll find on the streets of Tokyo.
Like a Falun Gong demonstration. The parade passes by for a good 5 minutes, with families and children in tow.
The sun sets in Tokyo bay as I prepare for my next destination. Japan is truly a magical place, and in my month here I have only explored a small corner of it. I'm certain I will be back for the food, sights, and friends I've made along the way.