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A musician’s guide to Tokyo: 27 things to see and do

By Marty Hicks

<em>Yu Kato</em>
Yu Kato
Marty Hicks is a Tokyo-based pianist, composer and sound designer from Melbourne. He arrived in Tokyo in 2015 and has become an active member of the city’s arts and music community.

What makes Tokyo special?

Tokyo is a very dense, diverse metropolis with an emphasis on convenience – in the heart of the city, you’re never more than a few metres from a good restaurant, quaint shop or a convenience store.

The different areas in Tokyo have an ‘identity’ based on what they are famous for: Jimbocho has a high concentration of second-hand bookstores, for example, so it’s known as Book Town, and Shimokitazawa’s plethora of live venues and amateur theatres has made it a popular haunt for musicians and creatives.

Jumping on a train and going to a different area of Tokyo can sometimes feel like travelling between completely different cities – even though the areas are often geographically close.

What three words best describe Tokyo?

Noisy, hyperreal megalopolis.

Credit: Jet Delacruz

What’s unique about the music and arts scene?

Coming from a very close-knit music community in Melbourne, the biggest thing that strikes me about Tokyo’s music and arts scene is the sheer diversity of it. At any given time you could find yourself at a butoh performance, a free improv gig, an interactive art installation, or a French New Wave film retrospective at a tiny vintage cinema. There’s something for everyone, and a lot of it is very high quality.

Shimokitazawa neighbourhood, credit: Takafumi Yamashita

What are some must-visit sights?

I love to visit Tokyo’s Art Deco-style buildings, or those from the Meiji/Taishō era. Some of my favourites are the Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan, the Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Garden, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. For something more recent, you can’t go past the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) or the National Art Center Tokyo.

In terms of nature, Tokyo manages to conceal some of the most beautiful spots of green in the most unexpected places. Some of my favourite tree-laden areas include the Eisei Bunko Museum and its surrounds, and Kinuta Park. Meiji Jingu rivals some of the beautiful shrine complexes found in Kyoto or Nikko, but there are also many other smaller, more modest temples and shrines situated in quiet pockets of forest. Nezu Shrine is one that comes to mind.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo

Some hidden gems to discover?

If I reveal the location of some of Tokyo’s hidden gems, they wouldn’t be hidden anymore! However, there are a lot of places off the beaten track in my above recommendations, so check out those first.

Otherwise, the best advice I could give is that around 70% of Tokyo itself comprises places that would count as ‘hidden gems’ – all you have to do is throw away your travel guide, pick an alley downtown, and see what’s down there. The best experiences you can have here or in any of the big cities in Japan start this way.

Credit: JNTO

Something you have to do when visiting?

Japan does seasons really well, so I’d recommend doing what the locals do during each season: for example, in spring you’ll want to check out some cherry blossoms and all the sakura-themed food and drinks that pop up around then; in summer you can visit a natsu matsuri (summer festival) and avail yourself of treats like kakigori (shaved ice); autumn is great for seeing the beautiful fall colours while indulging in chestnut-based sweets and hojicha; and the chilly winter period is perfect for hot springs and nabe (hot pot).

What are your top music and art experiences?

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