We eased you in gently with the first installment of our guide to Tokyo walking routes, now it’s time to step it up a level. Our next three walks more serious, more time consuming, more energy sapping and may require an altogether sturdier pair of shoes. You will, however, be richly rewarded for your efforts with a unique perspective on Tokyo, one that a train or bus ride simply can’t give you.
Again, each of these Tokyo walking routes is themed and centered around a handful of points of special interest. A reminder, though, that much of Tokyo’s magic lies in the spaces in between—the city’s veins and arteries.
The (Modernist) Architecture Walk
Length: 10 km
Time Necessary: 3–6 hours
We’re throwing you in at the deep end with our first walk, a long trek through east Tokyo on the hunt for some of the city’s finest architecture. We’ll be starting in Ueno Park, before heading eastwards over the river into Ryogoku, then onto Tokyo Station and down into Ginza. Eschewing what might be expected from a tour of Tokyo architecture—shrines, temples, etc.—we’ll instead be focusing on some spectacular works of modernism (with one notable exception), from a time when Tokyo was at the forefront of inventing the future.
Our walk begins with The National Museum of Western Art, French archmodernist Le Corbusier’s only East Asian building. The quasi-Brutalist facade of speckled concrete is brilliant in its graceful simplicity and the interior is just as impressive: a free-flowing, sun-drenched lesson in how to build a museum.
From here, we’re heading south-east through Kuramae, a neighborhood which effortlessly balances old-school charm and a creative, contemporary vibe, over the Sumida River and into Ryogoku. The area is sumo ground-zero, though that’s not why we’re here.
Looming over Ryogoku is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, a building that looks like it’s been abandoned by some far more advanced alien race. Built by Kiyonori Kikutake, it is perhaps the apex of Metabolism, a highly influential Japanese architectural movement that reveled in new forms and invented a whole architectural language of its own. Ironically, this hulk of unabashed futurism plays host to a museum glorifying Tokyo’s Edo past.
Now you’ve got a taste for Metabolism, you’re going to need more. Luckily, that’s where we’re heading, but not before a stop-off at Tokyo Station. The walk from Ryogoku takes you through Nihonbashi, a commercial district with plenty of imposing Western-style banks and hotels, all, however, dwarfed by Tokyo Station itself. The station’s early 20th-century design comes in stark contrast to the other buildings on our walk, though is no less worthy of inclusion.
From here, we’re heading south into upmarket Ginza, back on the trail of modernism. There are two notable buildings in Ginza that can’t be ignored: the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Building and the Nakagin Capsule Tower—two extraordinary examples of the audacity of the Metabolists. Each building has a very different look, but both share the same core principle; that of being able to grow, like nature, almost indefinitely. Great buildings to finish up our walking tour of Tokyo architecture.
The Old-Meets-New Walk
Length: 7 km
Time Necessary: 2–5 hours
Up next, a walk showcasing Tokyo’s past and present, one taking in temples, shrines, history, culture and art. Beginning at tourist-heavy Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, we’ll then be heading through Ueno on the hunt for two excellent galleries, before rolling through Yanaka Cemetery to the north and finally onto the beautiful Nezu Shrine. As ever, keep in mind that the stretches between our points of special interest—the modest streets and alleys that make up the majority of the city—can be just as insightful as anything else.
So, to Asakusa. From the station, follow the perennial crowds to locate Sensoji Temple—a temple among the oldest and most popular in the city. Crucially, in spite of the crowds (or perhaps because of them?), Sensoji is a lot of fun. As you approach from the outer Kaminarimon Gate, down the souvenir-stall-flanked avenue and onto the temple itself, you’re surrounded by the colors, smells and sights of traditional Japan. Even the most cynical among us can’t help but be taken in by it all. We can’t linger too long, however. There’s walking to be done.
From Asakusa, it’s on to Ueno, a walk of roughly 30 minutes. To do so, locate the Asakusa View Hotel, the only real high-rise in the area. From here, head directly west, along narrow back roads home to little more than apartments and local stores, but quaint all the same and typical of Tokyo. You’ll eventually emerge at a jumble of entangled roads and expressways, with Ueno Station and Ueno Park on the other side. It’s not particularly important where you enter the park from, though after the requisite strolling, find your way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
Although not mandatory, a quick look around is recommended, especially as it’s free (except special exhibitions). Throughout the year, the museum plays host to exhibitions from past luminaries and present innovators, from Japan and abroad both. Be careful not to overdo it, however, as our next stop is another excellent gallery, SCAI the Bathhouse.
To get there, find the small road that runs through the park and follow it northwards through a pleasantly salubrious neighborhood, which will eventually lead you to SCAI. Since opening in 1993, the gallery has acted as a conduit for big-name and rising talent alike, making it one of Tokyo’s most well-respected contemporary art institutions. Fitting nicely with the theme of our walk, this hub for cutting edge art, as the name suggests, is housed inside an old bathhouse; a contrast between past and present that never feels incongruous. From SCAI, it’s a five-minute walk northwards to our next destination: Yanaka Cemetery.
You’ll be relieved to note that Yanaka Cemetery is in no way morbid and spookiness is to a minimum. In fact, the vast cemetery exudes serenity and calm, especially in the spring as the cherry trees bloom into life. Get off the main road and wander the paths that crisscross the grounds, just be careful not to get lost amidst the 7,000 graves. When you’ve had your fill, exit the park the way you entered and walk south-west towards Nezu Shrine; a route that will again take you through a neighborhood typical of the city.
Though not as large or lively as Sensoji, Nezu must rank among Tokyo’s most beautiful. Colored by deep reds and glittering golds as lavish as you’ll find anywhere, the shrine is opulent but not gaudy and an incredibly peaceful location to spend some time, as well as the perfect final stop for our walk.
The Forgotten River Walk(s)
Time Necessary: ?
To cap us off, we’re going a little left-field. This isn’t one specific walk (although we’ll offer a few recommendations), but a collection of many, all crisscrossing Tokyo and largely unheard of. What we’re alluding to here are the miles upon miles of subterranean rivers and streams that flow under the city, all largely forgotten or ignored. As Tokyo bulldozed its way into the latter half of the twentieth century, Faustian developers had no qualms with burying waterways under concrete to make room for roads, train tracks and buildings, leaving them to gradually fade from public memory. This wasn’t an isolated affair by any means, it happened all over the city, something very apparent when you compare a contemporary map of Tokyo with one from the Edo era—the blue lines simply vanish.
While knowledge of these secret waterways is limited, it’s not extinct. In fact, some are obsessed with them, including, evidently, the author of Culvert Maniac!—a book released in 2015. But why are we including them in a list of Tokyo walks you ask? Well, because, many of these underground streams and rivers are marked on the surface by (often very beautiful) paths and walking routes. Finding and walking these routes is a topographical adventure like no other and a brilliant way to see parts of the city that you’d otherwise never think to explore. The majority of the paths slice through suburban Tokyo, allowing the intrepid walker a peek into a side of Tokyo that tourists rarely see.
As said, there are thousands of these paths across the city. You could easily spend an entire day (or lifetime) finding and walking the paths, though a nice idea would be to select one (preferably in an area you’ve never been to before) and let that act as a jump off for exploring the surrounding area while you’re there. Once you’re done, look up a new one and do the same all over again. A great resource for finding these paths can be found here, where there’s a good list of recommended examples and tips on how to find a path using Google Maps. A couple of our favorites include the so-called Jiyugaoka Green Road—a brilliantly verdant path in Setagaya—and the similarly beautiful Tachiaigawa Green Road in Meguro.