Posted by: David Stewart | January 8, 2009

A Different View of Tokyo

I was in Tokyo last month (December) to give a talk and meet some customers and partners. While I was there, I slipped in a little time to visit a couple of spots which were new to me.


My mind’s eye sees Tokyo as young, fast-paced, high-tech, glitz and glitter. Sugamo is a view into a very different kind of Tokyo.

Sugamo, the "granny's Harajuku"

Sugamo is a neighborhood in the northern part of Tokyo, but still close enough to the center to be easily accessible on the train or subway. They have a market street there very popular with Tokyo’s growing older population.

Sugamo, the "granny's Harajuku"

In fact, some refer to it as “the grannys’ Harajuku.” (Harajuku is a famous Tokyo neighborhood where young people go to find the latest fashions). The market was filled with little stalls selling traditional items like tea, snacks …

Sugamo, the "granny's Harajuku"

… and the famous red underwear! Apparently these undergarments give you good luck. (No, I didn’t buy any)

Sugamo, the "granny's Harajuku"

There was a small Buddhist shrine there as well. I noticed a lot of dogs with jackets on; perhaps the grannies don’t like to see shivery doggies.

Atago Shrine

In the midst of this frenetic city, there is an oasis of peace at the Atago Shrine, the highest physical point in all of Tokyo. It’s near Shiba Park, where I stayed in my first visit to Tokyo in 1990. There are a few small buildings, a little vegetarian restaurant, and a koi pond.

Atago Shrine, Tokyo

Although it’s on a hill, it’s surrounded by huge buildings, so it doesn’t have a good view. But there is a story that a young warrior raced his horse up these stairs to deliver plum blossoms to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great shogun who unified Japan.

Atago Shrine, Tokyo

Hie Shrine

This is fairly close to the hotel I have stayed at many times, but I never ventured over to it.

Hie Shrine, Tokyo

The shrine itself is not that pretty. But there is one stairway with a long tunnel of torii arches that makes it fun to visit.

Hie Shrine, Tokyo

Studio Ghibli Museum

This was one place I decided I wanted to visit in my trip, and it was quite an effort to get there.

Studio Ghibli Museum, Tokyo, Japan

There has been a lot of noise in the past few years about a guy named Hayao Miyazaki, people calling him the “Walt Disney of Japan”. Miyazaki has been making animated movies in Japanese for decades. In the US, some of the best known are “Spirited Away”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “Princess Mononoke” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

Studio Ghibli Museum, Tokyo, Japan

The Studio Ghibli (pronounced like “giblets”, but with a different ending) Museum is an expression of Miyazaki’s work on film. The museum was built only a couple of years ago and has been quite popular with tourists. The only way to get in is to go to a Lawson’s convenience store and buy your timed ticket there. (Don’t worry, there are Lawson’s on practically every street corner in Tokyo).

They don’t allow any photos inside the museum – it’s a shame, because it’s quite fanciful in its design. This is the one snap I got before I found out that photos were not allowed:

Studio Ghibli Museum, Tokyo, Japan
This is in the entry lobby. Fans of “Spirited Away” will recognize it from the scene in the really big baby’s nursery.

Best parts of this museum was the minutely-detailed mockup of Miyazaki’s study, where he does all of his animation. I really wish I could have taken photos there because it was a fascinating insight into someone who is actually fairly low tech in terms of animation – no computers or monitors, but lots of character and imagination.

It was also fun to see the American otaku (animation fanatics) who were among the tourists there – almost the only time I saw other Americans on the trip. I wish I could have taken my daughters there! But, some other time I guess.

It’s good to visit if you are a fan of Miyazaki’s work. But otherwise it takes so long to get there on the subway that I wouldn’t include it in a tour of “essential Tokyo”.



  1. may i know the opening and closing hours of sugamo street? TIA.

  2. Sorry @Kate – I don’t know, and I did a quick search on google and didn’t find it right away. If you pick up a travel guidebook, they should have the hours listed. If I had to guess, I would think maybe 10am to 5pm, but you should check someplace.

  3. 10am-6pm are the hrs 🙂

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