Long Walks in Tokyo – From Ginza to Shinjuku

by | May 17, 2024

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I love long walks in Tokyo. One of my favorite ways to take a long walk is to connect two stations along the JR Yamanote Line that encircles the central city. If you begin and end on the Yamanote Line, you can easily return from the station you came from in 30 minutes or less by boarding one of the trains that arrive every few minutes.

I took this Spring walk from Yurakucho to Shinjuku stations in roughly three and a half hours at a casual pace. While there are countless ways to do it, I skirted the southern edge of the Imperial Palace through Hibiya Park, the bureaucratic offices of Kasumigaseki, eclectic Akasaka, turning north through the Meiji Jingu Gaien past the new National Stadium. From there, I headed west again to Yoyogi and followed the train tracks north into Shinjuku.

Technically, I began in Ginza, the trendy district bordering Yurakucho to the east, but because Ginza is not a Yamanote Line station, let’s call it Yurakucho, for simplicity’s sake. But Ginza is a worthwhile detour to begin the walk, with its stately boulevards of luxury flagship shops, unique architecture, and cosmopolitan feel. Although the main areas teem with tourists in search of luxury brands on sale at weak currency-induced discounts, side streets are mostly quiet. There are occasional hints at the secret life that goes on here after dark, exclusive clubs whose members and activities are shrouded in shadows. But mostly, Ginza is a reminder of Japan’s glory days of the 1980s when the money flowed like Mt. Fuji spring water.

Heading west, I again passed by Yurakucho Station, a bustling hub for tourists and locals alike. On many Sundays, the Edo Antique Market takes place outside the nearby Tokyo International Forum and is an excellent reason in itself to come here. The sight and smell of Okinawan donuts from a shop near the station tantalized me into a brief stop before I had barely begun my walk. My manta is to never pass up an opportunity for a good snack on a walk, and Okinawan donuts are not a snack you will encounter again easily.

I oriented myself to the Tokyo Midtown Hibiya building, another downtown mixed-use development that promised much and delivered little. The “Park View Garden” on the 6th floor provides the requisite view of Hibiya Park across the street, but the “garden” is a sparse mix of plants and trees that amounts to the garden section of a home improvement store. Every new behemoth development in Tokyo promises green space; few ever deliver on it.

Thankfully, the tonic for that ailment exists next door in Hibiya Park. Smaller and lesser known than Tokyo’s Ueno and Yoyogi parks, Hibiya Park was Japan’s first Western-style park, converted from feudal gardens and a military use area in 1903. Rarely crowded but well-used, Hibiya Park is an oasis of rest in any season, although particularly spectacular in the fall.

I strolled through the park, pausing atop the Mitsuke ruins overlooking Shinji Pond, once a security checkpoint for Edo Castle. I continued through the bustling fountain square and past the iconic Crane Fountain, standing in the middle of a cloud-shaped pond, one of Tokyo’s most beautiful views in the autumn season.

Continuing west, you’ll enter the Kasumigaseki area, the center of Japanese politics, with the National Diet Building, various ministry offices, and the Prime Minister’s Office situated around its rolling hills. The streets are noticeably wider here, with a constant police presence. Unconfirmed sources explain that this is necessary to defend the area should Godzilla or any other kaiju rise up from Tokyo Bay—unconfirmed, mind you.

The bureaucrat hordes were mercifully absent on the weekend of my walk, leaving the area feeling deserted in a simultaneously eerie and pleasant kind of way. There aren’t a lot of side-street options in this area, but near the major intersection of Sotobori-dori and Sakurada-dori, I discovered Toranomon Kotohira-gu shrine, literally hidden in the shadows of a skyscraper. It is a sub-shrine of the famous Kotohira-gu Shrine in Kagawa Prefecture, transferred here by the lord of that region in 1660. The sight of a 360-year-old shrine existing serenely at the foot of modern skyscrapers is one of those sights that makes me appreciate the culture of Tokyo.

Following the main avenue of Sotobori-dori northwest, I arrived at the foot of Hie Shrine, a major Tokyo shrine not well-known to tourists. Like many shrines, Hie Shrine is situated on a hill, encouraging worshipers to physically demonstrate their devotion by climbing a path or stairs to the shrine. But this is 21st-century Tokyo, for goodness sake, so the inconvenient stairs have been replaced by fast, smooth escalators that zip you to the top with minimal effort.

If you prefer to worship the gods of motorsports, Bingo Sports is a unique shop in the building to the right of the shrine escalators. The company deals with some very exclusive second-hand supercars and motorcycles, but the showroom is open to all for browsing, and you’ll likely find some vehicles here you have never seen before in real life. No barriers exist to get in the way of your dream car selfies, but remember, you break it, you buy it, so unless you have a few hundred grand lying around for emergencies, no touchy.

But wait, what about Hie Shrine? Once I finished drooling over the supercars at Bingo (not literally, because that would be disgusting), I rose on the heavenly escalators to Hie Shrine. The shrine is shrouded among the trees, so you can’t easily see it from ground level, so it is a pleasant surprise to see its beauty when you reach the top of the hill. Another pleasant surprise is the tunnel of torii gates ala Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine (but on a much smaller scale) elsewhere on the shrine grounds.

I headed back toward Sotobori-dori, crossing the street into the Akasaka District. The Esplanade Akasaka is the main artery of this upscale restaurant and entertainment district, the playground of politicians and elites. One shudders to think of the backroom deals that have been made here, so let’s not go there. Instead, I keep walking toward the towering modern broadcasting center of TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System). There’s an outdoor event held in the plaza, with live entertainment and street food vendors out, keeping the masses buzzing.

The “saka” 坂 in Akasaka means “slope,” so it makes sense that the area is on a hill. There are actually 25 hills in the Akasaka area, and the TBS complex is atop one of them, so I made my way down a staircase and back up another slope toward the southern edge of the Akasaka Imperial Residence.

Unless you are a recently discovered member of Japan’s Imperial family, you won’t be getting past the gate to the property, but you can get a peek over the wall from Connel Coffee, which occupies the second floor of the Sogetsu Building across the street (spoiler alert: I saw two police officers, one standing guard and one riding around on a bicycle, and a lot of trees). While the view of the Imperial Residence is underwhelming, the coffee at Connel is primo, and with plenty of seating, it makes a great spot to rest your feet.

A side note about the Sogetsu Building: you can take ikebana classes here. Sogetsu is one of the major schools of ikebana, and founder Sofu Teshigahara must have been inspired by the Pixar film “Ratatouille,” devising the motto that ikebana is for “Anytime, anywhere, by anyone, even rats.” Okay, that might be stretching the truth because Teshigahara founded the school in 1927 and probably didn’t mention anything about rats. There is also a portion of the lobby designed by architect Isamu Noguchi from stone; you used to be able to enter it, but on the day I visited, it was closed off with no explanation.

There is one other great reason to come to this neighborhood, the excellent Japan Traditional Crafts shop at Aoyama Square. The shop has an incredible selection of authentic traditional crafts from all over the nation. Nearly every Japanese traditional craft is represented: wood carving, textiles, paper, ceramics, and more. Although the quality of the objects sold here is extremely high, they have items in nearly everyone’s price range. For every work of art made by a master potter selling for a few thousand dollars, they have several beautiful tea cups made by lesser-known artisans selling for less than 20 dollars.

Skirting the southern edge of the Imperial Residence, I passed the entrance to the Aoyama-Itchome subway station, and, resisting the urge to end my walk here, pressed on a few hundred meters more to the entrance to Meiji Jingu Gaien. Not the famous shrine, which is still over a kilometer’s walk to the west in the Naien (inner park), but the outer park, home of the Yakult Swallows baseball stadium where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once played in an exhibition game. The same stadium the Tokyo governor approved for demolition, giving rights to one of Japan’s mega-real estate companies to build a new stadium and some lucrative commercial buildings nearby in the process. One of Japan’s more shady business deals in recent years (probably made in some swanky restaurant in Akasaka), the enraged public will hopefully be able to influence the outcome for the better.

I walked this way because I wanted to see the Japan National Stadium up close for the first time. It was initially conceived for the 2020 Olympic Games by Zaha Hadid Architects as an enormous convertible alien saucer before cost overruns pared it down to a more modest construction created by the locally beloved Kuma Kengo. Ironically, the first major spectator event at the stadium has yet to take place: the 2025 World Athletics Championships, next year in September. 

Although I am generally a fan of KK’s work, the Japan National Stadium left me feeling underwhelmed. From the outside, it looks like any other generic stadium with slats of wood bolted on for that “ecologically friendly” vibe. I realize that domestically grown timber is a major material in its construction, and perhaps that is more evident from inside the stadium than outside, but the stadium seems to glumly whisper, “Pity me; I’m a victim of poor financial planning.”

I was in the home stretch now, passing the 70-year-old Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which, like a 70-year-old boxer, holds its own against the nearby National Stadium. The Sendagaya entrance to Shinjuku Gyoen Park is on the opposite side of the Chuo Line tracks, but the now 500 yen entrance fee discouraged me from taking a scenic shortcut through the park. Instead, I followed the main street until it crossed the Yamanote Line tracks, then turned north past the West exit of Yoyogi Station until the familiar skyscrapers of Western Shinjuku came into view.

And so, after about three and a half hours, with plenty of time for breaks and exploration, I completed my walk between Ginza and Shinjuku. If I wanted to return to Ginza, a 20-minute ride on the Marunochi Line would put me right back where I started, but I was content to hang around Shinjuku, find a place to rest, and have a bite to eat.

The details I mentioned in this article are precisely the ones I wished you to know about. The article aims to get you to explore Tokyo on your own, so don’t ask me for any further details about my route because I won’t be divulging them. Set aside your fears and apprehensions, slip on your favorite walking shoes, and go where your feet lead you.

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