Tokyo: Ueno, Asakusa, Yanaka
All three northern areas have traditional houses, markets, and tiny streets characteristic of shitamachi (the old downtown).
SEE Nezu Shrine
Nezu 1-28-9, 011-81-3/3822-0753, nedujinja.or.jp
A long winding tunnel of sacred orange torii gates marks the entrance to this peaceful shrine--one of the oldest in Tokyo. Well off the tourist track. Follow the English signs outside the Nezu Station on the Chiyoda Line.
SEE Scai the Bathhouse
Yanaka 6-1-23, 011-81-3/3821-1144, scaithebathhouse.com
Works by the hottest contemporary artists, both foreign and local, are on view in this beautiful gallery in a former public bathhouse. Closed Sun. and Mon.
Senso-ji Temple and its backstreets
Asakusa 2-3-1, 011-81-3/3842-0181
Tokyo's most popular Buddhist temple attracts thousands of people every day, many of whom buy 'fortune slips' there in hopes of receiving good luck. If the fortune is negative, they just tie the slip of paper onto one of the poles outside to let the wind carry the bad luck away. Others come to waft incense smoke over their bodies as a cure for ailments. A wander around the surprisingly quiet backstreets provides glimpses of tranquil gardens, ponds filled with koi, and smaller, quieter shrines.
SEE Ueno Park
JR Ueno Station Park Exit
Site of some of the city's best museums and galleries, such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and National Science Museum, as well as a large proportion of Japan's homeless. It is also the place to come for cherry-blossom viewing in spring, when it's taken over by revelers with beer and portable karaoke machines.
EAT Edo Monja Hyotan
Asakusa 1-37-4 (opposite Ryokan Shigetsu), 011-81-3/3841-0589, asakusa.24663.com
Cook-it-yourself monja yaki may not be a feast for the eyes, but it's surprisingly delicious. Just toss your choice of seafood, vegetable, and meat with a batter made from flour and dashi broth (usually made from fish) and throw the mixture on the hotplate in the middle of the table (the expert staff can help). The place itself is nondescript, but the boisterous crowds and good food make it fun.
Asakusa 1-22-10, 011-81-3/3842-2781
A small café upstairs serves tea and Japanese sweets, such as marble-size ankodama made from bean paste. The real star is the tasty (and very bright) green tea soft-serve ice cream sold at the take-out window. For the less adventurous, there's also vanilla. Just look for the line.
SHOP Sample Shop Maiduru
Nishi Asakusa 1-5-17, 011-81-3/3843-1686, maiduru.co.jp
Lifelike food souvenirs--plastic dumplings, yakitori skewers, and sushi--for the folks back home.
PLAY Momidokoro Rakuya
Asakusa 1-32-11, 011-81-3/5830-0595
A relaxing shiatsu center. This traditional form of massage uses the body's pressure points and meridians to relieve stiffness and promote healing. Wonderful wood and stone footbaths provide a bit of extra pampering for weary feet. All massage rooms are private. Some English spoken. Note: There's no English sign, so ask directions. $19 for a 20-minute massage.
SPLURGE Ebisuya Rickshaws
Departs from across the Senso-ji Temple main entryway, 011-81-3/5806-8881, ebisuya.com
Sit back in a plush rickshaw and let your driver pull you through the lesser-known streets of historic Asakusa. The English-speaking guides are very knowledgeable. Two people per rickshaw. $35 per person for a 30-minute ride.
Summer in the City
In the summer, Tokyo becomes a city of street festivals, many of which are topped off by incredible fireworks. The city's biggest and most anticipated display is the Sumida River Hanabi Taikai, on the last Saturday night in July.
A statue of the awe-inspiring Great Buddha (Daibutsu) gazes over the lovely coastal town of Kamakura, home to ancient temples and peaceful shrines. Dousing your yen in sacred spring water at the Zeniarai-Benten shrine is said to bring prosperity. JR trains regularly depart Tokyo's Ebisu, Shibuya, and Shinjuku stations for Kamakura. Rides take about one hour. $8 each way from Tokyo and Shinjuku stations.