The Long Walk – Discover the Real Tokyo Without the Crowds

by | May 15, 2024

During the latter part of the COVID-19 pandemic, I embarked on a new hobby: long walks across Tokyo. The pandemic itself was just a kick in the pants to get me to do something I wanted to do for years. 

If you’ve ever seen the excruciatingly painful map of Tokyo’s subways and trains, you’ll quickly realize that long-distance walking isn’t necessary in central Tokyo. I wonder if there exists an address in central Tokyo that isn’t within a 10-minute walk of a train or subway station. But there is another purpose for long-distance walking that is more important than mere convenience, and that is to get to know the city beyond the facade it puts on for tourists.

Why I Take Long Walks in Tokyo

Given the choice of walking or taking public transportation, many people are perplexed as to why I would choose the former over the latter. Taking the subway in central Tokyo is akin to being a naked mole rat. You pop into a hole in the ground in one part of the city and, minutes later, miraculously pop out of a hole in another part of the city. It’s magical but gives you little sense of space and geography. What is the relative relationship between point A and point B, and how did you get there? Trains are better, but few trains traverse the center of Tokyo, the best known being the circular Yamanote Line that connects many of the central districts.

I decided to take long walks in Tokyo to better understand the city: its history, subcultures, and scenes of everyday life. Unsurprisingly, I have stumbled across hidden gems of museums, parks, shops, and restaurants during my walks, the likes of which you may never find in any guidebook or website. I’ve found classic coffee shops and exquisite ramen joints concealed down deep staircases. Bizarre and beautiful architectural wonders. Oases of peace hidden in plain view in the busiest part of Tokyo.

Walking gives you insights into the connections between the various neighborhoods of Tokyo. It makes it easier to understand the history and cultures that developed in each area and how the affected the areas nearby. Walking in Shinjuku’s Nakai area, for example, can give you a sense of its deep connection to the traditional yuzen dyeing industry that once thrived here along the Nakai River, and how the textiles produced here were sold in shops in nearby neighborhoods.

Most importantly, you’ll see the city from eye level, the daily life of Tokyoites in real-time. While that may not sound interesting, remind yourself of that when you’re ooh-ing and ahh-ing over a group of tottering toddlers in their yellow duckling hats being walked to the park. Or when you see a pair of elderly friends chatting while they weed the local community garden for no other reason than to pass the time. Daily life in Tokyo is not like daily life where you came from, and you’ll be fascinated by the little differences you’ll discover.

If you are a photographer, you’ll find one other incredible benefit of long walks in Tokyo: documenting the ever-evolving city. As I look back at images I have taken from a decade of walking around Tokyo (not always long walks, but short ones too), I am amazed to see how the city is transforming, for better or worse. I have an image of the Shibuya Scramble Building when it was little more than a hole in the ground next to Shibuya Station. I have a photo of the Shiodome skyline with the oddly formed Nakajin Tower that is now an architectural memory. Only now do I realize how precious those photos have become.

My Methodology for Tokyo Walks

Not that long walks in Tokyo require a methodology, but one of the things that might paralyze you from making your first attempt is the fear of getting lost or simply the overwhelming options available.

Remember how I pointed out that you are never more than a 10-minute walk from a train or subway station in Tokyo? If you keep this in mind, it frees you completely to wander, knowing that when you reach the point of near exhaustion, you can simply find the nearest station and ride back to your starting point. I often use this method for impromptu long walks where a certain neighborhood draws me in, and I decide to invest a little more time exploring.

However, some people prefer a bit of order to their long walks, and for those people I recommend a simple but effective walking plan: a cut across the Yamanote Line. Pick two stations along the Yamanote Line at least 20 minutes apart (Ikebukuro to Akihabara and Yurakucho to Shinjuku are two routes I have done) and walk between them. This method will take you through central Tokyo (near or around the Imperial Palace), and once you are finished, it is straightforward to return to your starting point using a single train.

While walking, I try to wander off the main streets, using them only to reorient myself to my destination. I have Google Maps handy, but I try not to check it every few minutes; it distracts from the spontaneity of the experience. It’s important to realize you can never truly get lost in Tokyo, so you don’t need to know your exact location at every moment.

 I will use Google Maps to discover some interesting locations that might be down a nearby street or look for a lunch venue that suits my appetite for the moment. While you walk, try to regard Google Maps as a personal assistant rather than a guide.

When To Take Long Walks in Tokyo

While you can take long walks in Tokyo any time, certain times have a greater appeal. So, let’s start with when you should NOT take long walks in Tokyo. That would be during the Tokyo summer, when the combination of the blazing sun, the subtropical humidity, and the superheated pavement make spending extended periods outdoors unbearable. Super-walker Craig Mod sometimes walks Tokyo in the summer, but he clearly doesn’t enjoy it, and to make it survivable, he starts around sunrise before 5:00 am and finishes by mid-morning. Since you would start walking before the trains and buses even run, you’d have to be able to start your walk from the central city already.

Other than that, you can walk in Tokyo any time of the year and at any time of day (or night, if you’re that type of person). For the most part, starting around mid-morning allows you to work up an appetite for lunch around noon. Many restaurants in central Tokyo close for lunch around 2:00 pm, so you want to start walking early and take advantage of your chance to have lunch. However, as a photographer, I recommend throwing in some walks starting in the late afternoon to catch the long shadows of the city and, finally, dusk. And, of course, a long walk after dark is a completely different experience, and Tokyo is generally safe enough that you can do it without worry.

Although tourism in Japan continues to grow and dampens the enjoyment of the most popular attractions in the city, large parts of Tokyo are still mostly unknown. Walking in Tokyo is an opportunity to escape the crowds and see the city the way it was meant to be seen, naked and without pretense.

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