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5 Tokyo experiences you won't forget

By Wes Little, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • With planning, visitors may be permitted to watch Tsukiji tuna auction
  • Check out a sumo match, a sporting event infused with Shinto religious elements
  • Sample a wide range of native dishes and cooking techniques
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Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- Japan is thick with temples, shrines and cultural attractions with a unique and interesting ancient history. But beyond what you can learn about the past, modern Tokyo offers more than a few memorable experiences. Here are five not to miss:

5. Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji is one of the world's largest fish markets and one of Tokyo's bigger tourist attractions -- only it's not really intended for tourists.

I visited early in the morning, on the first subway train arriving about 5:30 a.m. Some Tokyo guidebooks say that if you get there early and are unobtrusive, you can watch the tuna auction, where buyers gather to bid on hundreds of beautiful giant frozen tuna. This is not really true, at least not anymore.

There are very stern security guards/police who will direct you away from the tuna auction and out of the market. So efficient are they that I managed to get kicked out twice before firing off a single frame with my camera.

Since May, the market has restricted the number of visitors who can watch the auction. There are two time periods when visitors are allowed into the area: from 5 to 5:40 a.m. and from 5:40 to 6:15 a.m. Only 70 people are allowed in during each time slot.

Registration starts at 4:30 a.m., according to the market, so get there early if you want to be one of the lucky few to attend the auction.

Tuna auction or no, the rest of the market is interesting, with every manner of fish, mollusk and possibly mammal that can be pulled from the sea, awaiting buyers (that's wholesale buyers, not tourists).

There are many sushi shops ringing the market, offering some of the freshest sushi available. Stop in for breakfast after checking out the market.

4. Karaoke in Roppongi

Japan is of course the home of karaoke, and the Japanese still do it best. The setting varies between the more familiar (to Americans) bar scene to the karaoke room, a small room with a karaoke machine for three or four people, though you certainly can pack more in.

Although performing for an audience is fun, the karaoke room version has a certain appeal in that you are singing only to people you (at least sort of) know. Supposedly, people are known to get a room alone just for the love of singing.

It's also fun to have some Japanese songs thrown in the mix. They often seem to be more natural for the form, but I (a non-Japanese speaker) was way off a couple times when I tried to guess the subject matter from the sound of the music (like one song that was not a Japanese come-on but about a father lamenting his son lost to war.)

Roppongi carries two connotations to Tokyoites: foreigners and partying. It's also the place in Tokyo where you are most likely to get scammed. Beware anyone touting a "regular, totally normal bar" they want to show you; it probably involves nudity.

3. Sumo

Sumo tournaments take place a few times a year in four cities in Japan. If you find yourself in one of them while a competition is on, go. It's a one-of-a-kind experience.

Sumo is a professional sport, but it's thoroughly infused with Shinto religious elements, and there is more ceremony than actual wrestling in a day of competition. The rules of the game are simple: The winner is the one who forces his opponent out of the ring or forces his opponent to touch the ground with anything other than the bottoms of his feet.

When the competitors enter the ring, they go through several false starts for a period that lasts up to three minutes while they mentally prepare (and try to mentally unbalance their opponent) for the match.

They take sips of water from a ceremonial container, throw salt in the ring (a purification ritual) and get wiped down. Then they face off, only to back down and repeat the cycle. After doing this dance a few times, they have the actual battle, which usually lasts less than a minute.

The two giant men, or rikishi, often slam right into each other and struggle for a moment, and then one tosses the other down or pushes the other backward out of the ring.

But the matches that get the biggest cheers are the ones that last a little longer because of a mental battle between the rikishi, in which they move their hands around each other, testing for leverage. The trick is knowing when to make a move and committing to it, because with opponents of this scale, if you lose your momentum, you'll fall and thus lose the match. The best matches feature multiple attempts at throws and recovery.

Sumo has been around hundreds of years, and there is a lot of literature about different moves and techniques, but from a layman's point of view, it looks to be fundamentally a mental contest about timing and anticipating your opponent's moves.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo has several levels, with seats on the upper levels and floor mats for seating on the lower levels (tickets range from around $30 to $150). They have literature in English, but once you start watching the matches, it's pretty self-explanatory.

2. Bullet trains

I'm quite jealous of Japan's rail system. It's thorough, comfortable and, as you may have heard, fast. The Shinkansen train reaches speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. Japan Rail (in Japan it's referred to by the English acronym "JR") covers most of the main islands of Japan, so you can get just about anywhere you want to go by train.

Couple that with an extensive metro in Tokyo and other cities, and you can get from the plane to many of the country's best attractions without ever getting in a cab.

The Shinkansen compares well to flying, getting you from city to city in about the same time. But there are no lines, and delays are very rare. There's no free beverage service, but there are frequent vendors with carts cruising the aisles, selling delicious treats ranging from snacks to bento box meals. The ride is very pleasant and quiet. And if you miss a train, it's usually not long until the next one.

For foreign visitors (and Japanese living overseas), there is a great deal available in the Japan Rail Pass, which allows for unlimited travel for a set period. This allows a great deal of flexibility, because most trains have cars without reserved seats, so you can hop on any time.

A bonus: The view of Mount Fuji from the Shinkansen between Yokohama and Kyoto is spectacular.

1. Cuisine

You can't beat Japan for variety and quality of native cuisine. If you find yourself hungry, keep walking; you won't get very far without stumbling over something delicious or odd (and usually -- but not always -- both).

From vending machines and food stalls to traditional and cutting-edge (and stratospherically expensive) restaurants, there is no shortage of options.

Click here for some of the best, along with a few recommendations.