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All change: Tokyo Station is back better than ever
A bones-deep facelift for the redbrick wonder catapults it to the top rank of must-see attractions
Tokyo Station is big. Big like a mini nation in its own right, complete with an entire ecosystem of train lines stores and even a hotel.
With the Narita Express, Shinkansen, JR and private rail lines, plus the Tokyo Metro passing through, most visitors end up transiting at Tokyo at some point during their trip.
Recent visits to Tokyo Eki might not have been all that impressive, though, as it’s being undergoing a major refit.
Now, however, the last of the scaffolding is slowly coming down in preparation for October's big reveal of a full exterior renovation to the building’s pre-World War II classic elegance.
You can already see most of the rebuilt domes and much of the facade on the Marunouchi side.
Inside, the concourses are full of redesigned restaurants, shops, cafes and services.
Here's a quick look at some of the new appeal of this all-time-great station.
Tokyo Station can be a bit of a maze, as any first timer who has tried to find the Narita Express will affirm (It's on the Sobu line, not JR).
Just remember, the main concourse runs all the way through from the North Yaesu Exit to the North Marunouchi Exit. The Imperial Palace side is Marunouchi. Yaesu is towards Daimaru Department store. Got that?
Start off on the B1/F at the new Ichi Ban Cho (First Avenue) area, with three of the most-talked-about developments that are already bringing in crowds of tourists and locals: Character Street, Tokyo Okashi (sweets) Land and Ramen Street, all in a row.
Japanese character goods and collectibles from anime, movies and TV, corporate and brand mascots, are a worldwide collecting phenomenon.
Character Street takes 21 big names and packs them into one shopping area: Robots and rail cars, Tottoro and capybara (the appeal of giant rodents is a difficult-to-explain phenom here in Japan...), super hero and super silly.
Toddlers jostle with pensioners to get their hands on the newest, cleverest incarnations of their favorite characters.
Broadcasters Fuji TV, TBS Television, TV Tokyo and NHK all have stores on the street, saving TV-savvy visitors a lot of legwork.
Right next door to the Jump Comic shop (and a little out of place) is Kabuki-Ya Honpo.
This is the spot to pick up Kabuki- and Japan-themed goods at very reasonable prices. On hand is a craftsman to carve and customize your own lucky key chain or phone charm.
Character Street is not the place for the buxom, super-sexy figures from popular games and anime, by the way. That's still Akihabara and Nakano's provenance. Characters are G- or, at most, PG-rated.
More on CNN: There's more to Akihabara than nerds and maids
Just around the corner from the Jump Comic shop, is Tokyo Okashi (sweets) Land.
There is no shortage of sweets in this country -- or in Tokyo Station.
Okashi Land, though, is more than a few bakeries strung together.
Instead, it hosts satellite shops by confectioners Morinaga, Calbee and Glico with rare, fresh treats made right on the premises.
Calbee Kitchen has people lining up by the hour to get a bite of their just-fried chips, ice cream and chocolate-sauce sundae (that’s one thing) that has become a taste sensation.
Seriously -- potato chips and ice cream. And chocolate. Don't forget the chocolate.
People from all over the country are desperate to give it and several other specially created fried snacks and toppings a try.
So many, that the line often stretches up the nearby staircase and needs several full-time Calbee wranglers just to keep it orderly.
Fans of Morinaga's much-loved Choco Ball spokesbird, Kyoro-chan, are in the right place too.
Nearly every flavor Choco Ball ever made is for sale, as are fancifully shaped Kyoro-Chan gift packs stuffed with snacks.
Morinaga's Okashi-Ya San (Candy Store) corner even sells Kyoro-Chan-filled cakes (and sells and sells and sells ...).
Each company has stocked its stores with hard-to-find products and character goods from around the country.
If you’re trawling for some strange, you could even grab a box of eel-flavored Pretz corn snacks from Glico.
Just in case you can't look at another box of candies, Tokyo Station's cheapest (but very tasty) Sushi restaurant is just to the left of Calbee Kitchen.
At Uogashi Nihon Ichi it's always standing room only -- there are no chairs -- and prices start at ¥75 (US$1) per piece.
Noodles more your passion? Ichi Ban Cho has another Japanese speciality visitors have come to treasure -- ramen.
Ramen Street is a collection of eight outstanding restaurants from around the country: Hakata, Kyushu, to Sapporo, Hokkaido.
Unfortunately for visitors, the Japanese are just as passionate about tasty noodles in rich broth as they are and lines can be very long indeed.
When Rokurinsha opened its store, there was a six-hour wait for the restaurant's signature tsukemen dipping-style ramen.
Hungry travelers looking for more substantial fare than noodles should head for Kitchen Street on the first floor main concourse between the North Yaesu and North Marunouchi exits. The name says it all.
There are enough restaurants to suit most any flavor craving, and for some real local ambiance, try the Yebisu Bar on B1/F.
Drink up too
Pressed for time and either can't or don't want to leave the station? No problem.
There's now an entire gourmet gallery right below the Shinkansen / JR main concourse that goes far beyond boxed bento lunches.
How about sitting down to a round of fine sake tasting between trains at stylish Hasegawa Sake? Or a tomato caponata risotto from Riso Canovietta?
Mini department store GranSta has sweet or savory, takeout or eat-in dining fare, also on the B/1 floor. There are several bilingual maps on the walls to help you locate specific shops.
Access: through the JR ticket gates on the first floor, head for the main Shinkansen waiting area. The GranSta entrance is on the first floor “North Stage” or down the escalator to B/1.
Shop hours vary, but generally run from 8 a.m.-10 p.m on Sunday and holidays and until 9 p.m. on weekdays.
Full speed ahead
This is only a fraction of what Tokyo Station has to offer in terms of shopping and dining -- there’s more to come over the next few months, including the Yaesu GranRoof promenade.
Tokyo Station Hotel opens October 3, promising a cosmopolitan hotel in the European tradition just steps from the Yamanote Line.
It will also have the distinction of being the only hotel operated within a designated Important Cultural Property in Japan. Bet your local station can’t match that, eh?
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