Japanese culture is rooted in politeness, loyalty, justice, modesty, refined manners and respect for the elderly.
Do yourself a favor and research before visiting.
If not, asking the hotel staff or your tourist guide about basic etiquette is useful.
When everything else fails: read the room.
For example, when entering Meiji Shrine, walk along the sidelines, never through the middle, which is the gods’ path.
The Japanese people dedicated the shrine to their 122nd emperor, Meiji, a progressive leader who modernized the country through a “Japanese Spirit and Western Knowledge” philosophy.
Leading by example, he encouraged the Japanese to wear Western clothes and haircuts and to broaden their food and drink consumption. French wine lovers, especially those who favor Burgundy, will marvel at the display of barrels after the Harajuku entrance.
Across the vast and lush gravel gods’ path, another display signifies the intersection between Estas and West through spirits. Barrels of sake, the only drink the Japanese enjoyed before introducing wines, whiskeys and beers, provide another Instagrammable photo op.
Nowhere is Emperor Meiji’s legacy more evident than from the Tokyo Skytree. The 2+ thousand-feet broadcasting structure’s observation deck affords a dizzying 360-degree view of the 40 million people megalopolis (think New York City’s One Vanderbilt times five).
Nearby, Sensō-ji stands as the city’s oldest Buddhist temple. A gigantic complex with halls, gates, a five-storied pagoda and a shopping street, the site holds religious festivals attracting as many as 30 million local and foreign visitors a year.
Tokyo feeds both body and soul. The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the best places for the former. Opened in the 1930s, it encompasses wholesale and retail shops, restaurant supply stores and street-style eateries, like the one where I had the freshest (and most giant!) oyster of my life.
After sampling the delicatessen of Japanese cuisine, a stroll to Ueno Park, established in 1873, is in order. Tokyo’s oldest public park exemplifies the Westernization of the early Meiji period. Think London’s Hyde Park with museums, temples and shrines.
The park is home to the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, among other cultural institutions. It also houses the magnificent Ueno Tōshō-gū Shrine, established in 1627, next to the Sacred Tree that predates it by 200 years.
Ueno Daibutsu is another religious gem on the park grounds. The remaining head of an ancient Buddha statue, salvaged after earthquakes, fires, and wars, is a symbol of Japanese resilience and a popular spot for students to pray before exams.
North of Ueno Park, in Taitō City, you’ll find the upscale and bohemian neighborhood of Yanaka, which would give Venice Beach, CA vibes if Venice had ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
The WW2 Allied bombing spared Yanaka, which shows in the well-preserved quaint homes. Wandering among its lovely neighborhoods, enjoying coffee and shopping for traditional Japanese souvenirs and stationery is a real treat.
The tomb of The Last Shogun in the Yanaka Cemetery is the cherry on top of this historic area. The last warrior to rule Japan surrendered Edo Castle helping to restore imperial power. In 1902, Emperor Meiji granted him the title of duke, which he bore until he died in 1913. The mausoleum is a nostalgic reminder of the end of an era in Japan.