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Hooked on Tokyo

VISITORS
Visitors stop and view 'The Big Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa' by the country's most famous artist, Katsushika Hokusai, at Tokyo National Museum in Tokyo.Junji Kurokawa / AP file
/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

The crowds, the neon lights, the startling fashions, the crowds, the lustrous skyscrapers, the cutting-edge electronics … the crowds. For many western travelers, Tokyo is an overwhelming city. The sheer density of it all—a quarter of the population of Japan, a whopping 12 million people living in just 1288 square miles—is at once exhilarating and totally exhausting. With a city this complex, it’s well nigh impossible to get a grasp on its inner workings, its personality, in a mere 24-hours. But with the following itinerary you may get a glimpse of why so many people are proud to call it home, and why legions of visitors get hooked on Tokyo each year.

5:30 a.m. - 8 a.m.: If you’re like most Western travelers, you’ll probably be wide awake at 5 a.m., reeling from jetlag so extreme it’s like a kung fu kick to the senses. So get up early and make your way to the , the biggest wholesale fish market in Japan, and one of the largest in the world. You’re not here to buy--though if you’re in the market for a 200-pound tuna, there’s no better place anywhere—but to stand and gawk at the ferocious whir of activity as would-be buyers prod and sniff, motor-mouthed auctioneers work the crowd and men yielding giant knives dice fish at lightning speed. Be sure to bring your camera and wear waterproof shoes.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: After the excitement of the market, you’ll need some sustenance, so head up, way up, to the Top of the Tower, the 40-story high restaurant at the . Breakfast here is the most awe-inspiring meal of the day as you graze a 50-item buffet (of Western and Asian dishes) while staring down on the Tokyo skyline.

9:30 a.m. - noon: Make your way to the housing the world’s greatest collection of Japanese art, nearly 100,000 pieces in all. If you’ve been disappointed not to see kimonos on the streets of Tokyo, you’ll get your fill of exquisite ones here, along with Samurai armor, woodblock prints, traditional screens, ceramics and much more. Those with limited time should confine themselves to the Honkan (main building) where the most ancient and impressive pieces of the collection are displayed.

ALTERNATIVE MORNING ACTIVITY
Sure they play baseball in Japan, but the real national pastime is shopping. So do as the locals do, and spend your morning flitting from shop to shop, staring down Miss Kitty trinkets and the latest naughty schoolgirl fashions. Some of the best areas for store hopping are boutique-laden Ginza for the latest fashions and Akihabara for electronics. A shopping highlight: arrive at the department store of your choice just as it opens for the day (usually at 10 a.m.) and get “bowed” into the store by employees who flank the entryway, crisply bobbing up and down to personally greet each early shopper.

Noon-2 p.m.: Join the city’s legions of office workers for a noodle slurping lunch. in the Asakusa neighborhood is legendary for its firm-to-the-teeth soba noodles and savory broths. Established in 1913, it’s a classic Tokyo experience.

2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: Take a leisurely stroll to the . Dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist deity of compassion, the temple was founded in 628 when, legend has it, two brothers caught a sacred statue of the goddess while fishing. The tiny golden statue is housed within the temple and not viewable by the public, but hundred still visit each day to ask favors of the Goddess. After bathing in the sacred smoke of temple alters, repair to one of Tokyo’s bathhouses for an actual soak and test your mettle by dipping yourself into water the temperature of lava (well, almost). There are 1,145 sentos (public baths) across Tokyo to choose from. You’ll know them by their tall chimneys and shoe lockers just inside the door. Red and pink curtains mark the areas for women, blue curtains are for men.

AFTERNOON ALTERNATIVE
Grab a picnic lunch and hop a train to the peaceful seaside resort of , about 45 minutes from central Tokyo. The seat of the Shogunate from 1190 through 1330 AD, it’s the yin to Tokyo’s ever-so-modern yang, a veritable Brigadoon with old wooden homes instead of glass and steel and 35 ancient Buddhist Temples. You’ve come here to pay your respects to the , who earns that title for his height and girth (a towering 37 feet high, weighing 93 tons) and for his staying power—cast in 1292, he survived the tidal wave that swept away the wooden temple that once surrounded him, and the elements ever since. Be sure also to drop by the nearby which has become a memorial place for babies who have been miscarried, stillborn or aborted. As you climb the steps you’ll come upon 50,000 small statues of the Jizo, the guardian diety of  children; most of them wear baby clothes, and are surrounded by small stuffed animals and toys—an eerie sight.  Free, English language tours of all the sights of are offered on a daily basis.

5 p.m. - 9 p.m.: Buy a ticket for a performance at , Tokyo’s most highly-regarded Kabuki theater company. If you don’t have the time for the entire four-hour show, it’s perfectly acceptable to stay for just one act (you’ll pay less for your ticket that way). But you may find yourself sitting through the entire show; the colorful costumes, dramatic plot-lines, and reaction of the audience—who yell out to the players, cheer wildly and laugh raucously—make attending a kabuki performance a real hoot.

9 p.m. - 11 p.m. (or later): An unforgettable meal awaits you at , one of the finest kaiseki restaurants in the world. Kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine, a parade of tiny, intricately prepared dishes (sometimes up to 20) that change from season to season, and come plated on an exquisite piece of flatware. At Takamura the formality of the meal is enhanced by the setting: you’ll sit in one of 8 tatami rooms, (some include sunken areas for those who need to stretch their legs), in a 60-year-old house,  overlooking the most serene of gardens.

11 p.m.: If you’re still standing head to , one of the Roppongi districts hottest dance clubs. Friendly to gaijin (foreigners) it jams in so many dancers on a nightly basis that many end up strutting their stuff atop the narrow bar. The only rule here? The management posts signs saying that you must have a drink in your hand at all times. Other than that, anything goes.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer Guidebooks which will be debuting in bookstores this July.

Tsukiji Market: 5-2-1 Tsujuki in Cho-Ku; free admission, 5 a.m. - 11 a.m. daily (closed some Wednesdays)

New Otani Hotel:  4-1 Kioi-Cho,  Chiyodu Ku; 81-3-3265-1111; www.newotani.co.jp/tokyo

Tokyo National Museum: Ueno Park, Taito-ku; 03/3822-1111; http://www.tnm.jp/; admission ¥420, open Tues-Sun 9:30-5 p.m., up until 8 p.m. on Fridays, Apr-Sept

Namika Yabuso: 2-11-9 Kaminarimon, Asakusa; 03/3841-1380

Sensoji Temple: 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku; 03/3842-0181; daily 6 a.m. - 5 p.m., free admission

Kamakura: Take the JR Yokosuka Line to Kamakura Station, cost ¥890; there’s a tourist information window at the station (call 0467/22-3350), open daily from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Great Buddha:  Located at Kotokuin Temple; open daily 7 a.m. - 6 p.m., admission ¥200

Hase Kannon Temple: Located on a hillside (ask for directions); open daily 8 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., admission ¥300

Go to kamakuraguide@hotmail.com to set up a tour of Kamakura

Kabuzika: 4-12-15 Ginza; tel. 03/5565-6000 for advance reservations; tickets from ¥2,500 (extra for English language head sets and program); www.shochiku.co.jp/play/kabukiza/theater/index.html

Takamura: Located at Roppongi and Nishi Azabu; call 03/3585-6600 for reservations.

Gas Panic: 3-15-24 Roppongi Minato-ku; www.gaspanic.co.jp

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer Guidebooks which will be debuting in bookstores this July.