Tokyo is one of the greatest cities in the world. Home to 14 million people, the largest urban area on earth. The metropolis has been capturing imaginations across the globe for centuries. With a sophisticated culture, world-class food, smooth public transport and endless treasures to explore, it’s no wonder Tokyo attracts waves of visitors from across the globe every year.
Tokyo also has a special place in the world of Vaporwave. It’s a city with an aesthetic like no other: dense neon hanging off weathered office blocks. Shrines dotting the landscape opposite brightly lit convenience stores. The streets busy and dense, but not oppressive. Tokyo has inspired countless artists over the years, from Bladerunner to City Pop via Pizzicato Five and Your Name. And will likely continue to do so far into the future. If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo and would like a taste of the specifically Vaporwave gems of the city has to offer there are several districts waiting to welcome you into their embrace.
Late Night Delight
Shinjuku & Shibuya
Shinjuku, alongside its twin Shibuya, is one of the beating hearts of Tokyo. Immense and intense these districts make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of a mega-city. Taking a step outside the station at night, into the streets below, will likely be one of the most memorable moments of your trip.
A sea of neon, each sign loudly, defiantly competing for your attention. Years and years of electronics and signage building into the modern web of lights.
Shinjuku & Shibuya serve as a brilliant example of one of Tokyo’s most notable traits: shops, bars and restaurants stacked on top of each other high up to the sky. While western cities tend to focus on the street level experience, Tokyo is all about verticality. A brilliant tip for any visitor is to make sure to look up over your head as you walk the streets. Don’t be afraid to ride elevators and pound stairs to reach that gyoza place that caught your eye.
When you combine the countless skyscrapers full of shops, with the neon signs used to promote them you can start to appreciate the full power of Tokyo’s nightlife. Each and every single one of those dive bars and izakaya are full of people who have come from somewhere and are going elsewhere. Every single block has a story to tell- you could spend years in Shinjuku & Shibuya and still not experience it all.
If you want to feel connected to the city, dizzy with excitement and the possibilities open to you, these districts are a must.
While not in Tokyo itself- no discussion of neon in Japan would be complete without mentioning Osaka. Specifically its rolling central district of Dotonbori. Dotonbori has some of the most famous Neon displays in all of Japan and one of the busiest nightlife districts in Japan. If you’ve got a JR pass (you definitely should) and are looking to chase the neon make sure to check out Osaka.
Japanese shopping malls have a very specific vibe to them. Clean and crisp, with a focus on neatness and propriety. Unlike the more practical shopping centres you might find in the UK or America, the beauty and feelings generated by the mall are considered vital in Japan.
Nowhere in Tokyo boasts more elite malls than Ginza. One of the most expensive districts of the city, with shop after shop of gleaming luxury goods.
The feeling of excess, wealth and ambition sticks to the district. Yet it’s not without an artfulness. Broad, clean streets, glass and steel. You can easily spend an afternoon wandering, browsing the shops, visiting the many cafes across the district. Getting a taste for the apex of glitz and glamour.
For another kind of style visit Roppongi Hills- a shopping mall complex built high on one of Tokyo’s hills. Complete with fantastic views of Tokyo Tower in the distance. If Ginza is the place for Mallsoft during the day, Roppoingi is at night.
The Sumida River
Tokyo’s main river, the Sumida, might be famous than its counterparts of the Thames, Seine or Tiber, but it has its own unique charm. The lowkey nature of the Sumida is a big part of its appeal. A clean crisp flow of water, buttressed by a jagged urban landscape. Its banks are some of the quietest areas you’ll find in Tokyo.
Far from the main tourist trail, but still beloved by locals, many Tokyoites use the wide banks of the river for jogging, walking and relaxing. The Sumida is a place to come and reflect when you want somewhere quiet to process your experiences of the city around you. It’s calmness, and stillness, in a city that is defined by energy and light. Watching the busy commuter trains running across the water, dwarfed by the skyscrapers surrounding it, the river is somewhere to appreciate the immense space offered by Tokyo.
There are multiple ways you can approach experiencing the river since it flows through so many districts of Tokyo. I usually get the train to Asakusabashi and walk down the high street- making my way the to river before reaching the banks and following the bends and winds of the water from there.
I find myself walking down this same stretch of river each time I come back to Japan. Usually on the last day before I leave the city. Thinking about everything that’s happened and forming plans for the future.
Far Side Virtual
Arguably now the most popular tourist area of Tokyo, Akihabara is a district of the city almost entirely swallowed up by anime and manga culture. The streets are packed with anime figure shops, DVD, merch, Blu-Ray vendors, maid cafes and karaoke parlours. Akihabara is all about what’s new and what’s hot in the world of anime and gaming. So for any modern anime fan, the district is a sight to behold. Anime characters plastered on buildings and billboards. Multi-storied department stores reaching high into the sky, full of virtual merchandise. A physical space dedicated to a hobby which most people only partake in through the computer screen. Akihabara can feel almost like a victory, that niche, weird hobbies can blossom and develop into something truly powerful. Vaporwave fans take note.
But it’s not just about anime. Akihabara’s roots lie in the electronics shops which still dot the district. Originally the city was dedicated to the kind of niche, progressive electronics which once defined Japan. Filling the streets around Akihabara station with vendors selling computer parts, wires, processors, LEDs and capacitors. Over the years, anime (with its similar demographic audience), was layered over the top, leading to the mesh between the two cultures which now exits. Explore the backstreets of Akiba and you’ll be able to find the echoes of the area’s old focus. Old CRTs, countless jumbled mechanical parts and retro video game stores, an absolute goldmine of tech nostalgia waiting to be discovered.
Whether you like anime or not Akihabara is a fascinating gem. An ideal place to spend anywhere from hours to days exploring. A space where the virtual and physical connect, a trip to the far side.
If Akihabara is dedicated to modern anime, what about older series? Where do I go to find Sailor Moon and Urusei Yatsura merchandise? The answer is Nakano Broadway.
While equally famous for its anime culture stores, unlike Akihabara Nakano Broadway operates less like a grand shopping district and more like a flea market. A mix of shops selling edgy fashion, curios, niche collectables (think model trains, Godzilla figures and Sentai merch) and anime.
Since the majority of content at Nakano is second-hand the anime which populate it tend to be older series. This makes Nakano a great place to go to look for merch from the ‘80s, ‘90s or ‘00s classics which got many western fans into anime in the first place. The kind that now populates a million looping .gifs over Future Funk tracks. The selection is constantly in flux, so you’ll need to do some serious crate-digging and window shopping to filter through the massive selection and find what you’re looking for. But as with all hidden treasure, it’ll feel that much better when you find it.
For the now era, Akihabara is your friend. But for nostalgia, Nakano Broadway is hard to beat.
No visit to Tokyo would be complete without a skyline view. Luckily the Tokyo Metropolitan Government provide a free viewing platform at the top of their gigantic towers. Remember: make sure to get to the towers at about 5pm- so you can watch the sunset from the top of the building and appreciate Tokyo’s full glory as the sun goes down and the Neon lights up.
If you’ve got a few yens weighing down your wallet you could also visit the Tokyo Skytree. While not free like TMG the Skytree is more modern and offers an especially slick viewing experience at the top of one of Tokyo’s most famous buildings.
Odaiba is, without compare, the most Vaporwave place on the planet. An artificial island built in Tokyo Bay, during the 1990s the island was turned into an ultra-modern entertainment district. With morphing architecture blending in with bright sidewalks, palatial greenery, giant shopping malls and crowned with a gleaming monorail. The island remains popular today with tourists and locals alike. Proving itself to be one of the most unique and singular of all of Tokyo’s districts.
Take a trip to the Joyopolis, a Sega theme park built at the height of ‘90s Sonic-mania. Relax at Oedo Onsen, a massive Onsen complex complete with an eternally running Japanese Summer festival. Take a stroll through Palette Town and experience a faux Roman shopping market, complete with a fake blue sky and plastic roman busts. Enjoy some culture at teamLab Borderless, an art installation designed to be experienced just as much through your selfie camera as your eyes. Peruse the grand mall of Diver City, before emerging under the shadow of a giant life-size Gundam robot. Take a photo of the miniature Statue of Liberty at the shoreline, before heading back to the station next to the giant rainbow Ferris wheel.
When I took a friend to Odaiba recently they remarked that it reminded them of the world imaged by 1950s retrofuturism. Too clean, too pristine, too full of pleasurable sights and sounds. It shouldn’t feel real- but it is.
This article only scratches the surface of the multitude of delights which Tokyo holds. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to explore yourself and find your own delights. The secret parts of the city that give meaning to you, and that you find yourself returning to year after year. Tokyo is too big to be distilled effectively into guides and lists. Use parts of what others suggest to you, and combine that with what you discover yourself. That way you can really make Tokyo yours.
Words and photos by Sam L. Barker. Sam is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory. Follow him on Twitter and read the Far Side Virtual archive.