One of the most populous cities in the world. A thriving center of economy, culture, and industry. Tokyo consists of the southwestern part of the Kanto region, the Izu Islands, and the Ogasawara Islands. Tokyo is the capital of Japan and the place where over 13 million people live, making it one of the most populous cities in the world.
When the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu established a government there in the early 17th century, the area started to develop, spreading out around his residence, Edo Castle. Most of the city was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and then again by the bombing in WWII, however, Tokyo was able to achieve a remarkably rapid recovery both times.
Tokyo is not only the political and economical center of Japan, but it has also emerged as a center of the world economy and culture. There are a number of attractions in Tokyo that should not be missed. There are large-scale downtown areas, including Ginza where famous shops from around the world stand side by side, the sleepless Shinjuku that has become the “new city center of Tokyo,” Asakusa which is reminiscent of the traditional Edo (the former name of Tokyo), and Shibuya that starts the trends for the young people. Other unique areas include the computer town Akihabara, a dense retail area where numerous electronic shops compete against each other, attracting many shoppers from Japan and overseas, and Tsukiji, an open-air wholesale food market catering to shops and consumers everywhere in Japan.
Tokyo travel tips
English on the Street
In case you don’t already know this, let me just be clear: Just because Japanese people study English in school does not mean they all speak or understand it. Of course, there are many, many more people who can use a little English in Tokyo than there are people who can Japanese in, say, the United States. But you should not rely on finding one to make it to your destination.
Because of this, tourist maps written completely in English are practically useless. You won’t be able to ask anyone the way by pointing to your map. They won’t know what it says. Get a bilingual map whenever possible.
Speaking of street maps, most neighborhoods have awesome maps on big boards on the side of the road where you get off the train and often elsewhere. As you see from the photo above, these are bilingual. Thank you, Japan.
Finally, even if you haven’t studied Japanese, from my awkward experience, I recommend you take a look at the following:
99% of the time restrooms are labeled in a way you can understand, either in English or with illustrations. 1% of the time your friend will take you to a fancy restaurant where you better know the kanji for “man” otoko 男 and “woman” onna 女.
“Flush” 流 is also useful, so you don’t accidentally push the emergency call button in a public toilet in an out-of-the-way train station. Don’t ask me how I know.
Speaking of toilets, everyone tells you about the squat toilets and the high tech ones with heat and built-in bidets. No one seems to tell you that many toilet handles give you a “small” shou,ko 小 and “large” dai,oo 大 flush option labeled only in kanji. Sometimes they don’t even have handles, just buttons with those characters on them. This is to deal with either number 1 (小) or number 2 (大). You’re welcome.
Top destinations and places to visit
The Imperial Palace
The chief attraction of Tokyo’s Marunouchi district is the Imperial Palace with its beautiful 17th-century parks surrounded by walls and moats. Still, in use by the Imperial family, the Imperial Palace stands on the site where, in 1457, the Feudal Lord Ota Dokan built the first fortress, the focal point from which the city of Tokyo (or Edo, as it was then) gradually spread. As famous as the palace is the Nijubashi Bridge leading to its interior, a structure that takes its name (“double bridge”) from its reflection in the water.
Other notable features include the two-meter-thick wall surrounding the palace and its gates, one of which leads to the East Higashi-Gyoen Garden, one of the few areas open to the public (the main Palace Gardens are only open twice a year, on January 2nd and April 29th, when crowds flock here to catch sight of the Emperor). One fortress that can be visited is Edo Castle (Chiyoda Castle), built-in 1457 and located in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district.
Asakusa and the Sensō-ji Temple
In the Asakusa district of Tokyo, the exquisite Sensō-Ji Temple – the city’s most famous shrine – stands at the end of a long street of shops where masks, carvings, combs made of ebony and wood, toys, kimonos, fabrics, and precious paper goods are on sale. Dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, the temple was established in AD 645 and retains its original appearance despite having been rebuilt numerous times. Highlights include the Kaminari-mon Gate with its 3.3-meter-high red paper lantern bearing the inscription “Thunder Gate;” the famous and much-loved Incense Vat, reputed to drive away ailments (you’ll see people cupping their hands around the smoke and applying it to the part of their body needing healing); and the fascinating temple doves, said to be Kannon’s sacred messengers (they also tell fortunes by pulling cards from a deck). Afterward, be sure to explore the rest of the 50-acre temple precinct with its warren of lanes.
National Museum of Nature and Science
In Tokyo’s Ueno Park, the superb National Museum of Nature and Science (Kokuritsu Kagaku Hakubutsukan) opened in 1871 and is one of the country’s oldest museums. Completely renovated and modernized, the museum houses a vast collection of materials related to natural history and science, including many fascinating interactive displays on space development, nuclear energy, and transportation, allowing visitors a unique insight into the latest scientific and technological advances. Highlights of the Japan Gallery (Nihonkan) include numerous exhibits of prehistoric creatures and the Japanese people, including traditional customs and outfits, while the Global Gallery (Chikyūkan) features many excellent scientific and technology displays, including robotics and vintage vehicles.
Ueno Park and Zoo
A paradise-like oasis of green in the heart of busy Tokyo, Ueno Park is the city’s largest green space and one of its most popular tourist attractions. In addition to its lovely grounds, the park also boasts a zoo, aquarium, and numerous temples and museums to explore. Criss-crossed by pleasant gravel paths, this 212-acre park includes highlights such as a trip on a small boat on the reed-fringed Shinobazu pond, around a little island with its Bentendo Temple; visiting the 17th-century Toshogu Shrine with its 256 bronze and stone lanterns, or strolling around Ueno Park Zoo. Opened in 1882, it is Japan’s oldest zoo, famous for the pandas presented by the People’s Republic of China. The Aqua-Zoo, one of the largest aquariums in Asia, is also worth a visit, especially if traveling with kids.
The Meiji Shrine
Dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, construction of the splendid Meiji Shrine began in 1915 and was completed in 1926. Although the original structure was destroyed during WWII, it was rebuilt in 1958 and remains one of Tokyo’s most important religious sites. Surrounded by a 175-acre evergreen forest that is home to some 120,000 trees representing species found across Japan, the shrine’s highlights include its Inner Precinct (Naien) with its museum containing royal treasures, and the Outer Precinct (Gaien), home to the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery with its superb collection of murals relating to the lives of the emperor and empress.
The Tokyo Skytree
It’s hard to miss the Tokyo Skytree (Tōkyō Sukaitsurī), a 634-meter-tall communications and observation tower that rises out of the city’s Sumida district of Minato like a huge rocket ship. The country’s tallest structure (and the world’s tallest freestanding tower), the Tokyo Skytree opened in 2012 and has quickly become one of the city’s most visited tourist attractions thanks to the incredible panoramic views from its restaurant and observation decks. With a base designed in the form of a massive tripod, the tower includes a number of cylindrical observation levels, including one at the 350-meter mark, and another at the 450-meter point, which includes a unique glass spiral walkway to an even higher viewpoint that also boasts glass floors for those with strong stomachs.
The Kabuki-za Theatre
Tokyo is home to a number of excellent theaters, none is as well known as the historic Kabuki-za Theatre in the city’s busy Ginza district, home to famous traditional Kabuki performances. Based upon a medieval, highly skilled, and often burlesque theatrical form including song and dance, the theater’s performances are as popular among tourists as they are Japanese-speaking people. The drama and comedy are relatively easy to follow thanks to rich visuals and theatricality. The theater’s interior, usually full to capacity with some 2,500 guests, is always intimate and seems more akin to an enormous family get-together than a stage show due to the fact that spectators bring their own food or purchase treats from the various restaurants spread around the auditorium. Performances can last for hours, and spectators stay as long as they wish (or as long as they can bear), and no one seems to take offense at people’s comings and goings, nor their loud cheering or jeering.
Tokyo may be forever reaching into the future but you can still see traces of the shogun’s capital on the kabuki stage, at a sumo tournament or under the cherry blossoms. It’s a modern city built on old patterns, and in the shadows of skyscrapers you can find anachronistic wooden shanty bars and quiet alleys, raucous traditional festivals and lantern-lit yakitori (grilled chicken) stands. In older neighborhoods you can shop for handicrafts made just as they have been for centuries, or wander down cobblestone lanes where geisha once tread.
Eat Your Heart Out
Yes, Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city. Yes, Japanese cuisine has been added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list. But that’s not what makes dining in Tokyo such an amazing experience. What really counts is the city’s long-standing artisan culture. You can splash out on the best sushi of your life, made by one of the city’s legendary chefs using the freshest ingredients from Tsukiji Market that day. You can also spend ¥800 on a bowl of noodles made with the same care and exacting attention to detail, from a recipe honed through decades of experience.
Fashion & Pop Culture
From giant robots to saucer-eyed school girls to a certain, ubiquitous kitty, Japanese pop culture is a phenomenon that has reached far around the world. Tokyo is the country’s pop culture laboratory, where new trends grow legs. Come see the latest looks bubbling out of the backstreets of Harajuku, the hottest pop stars projected on the giant video screens in Shibuya, or the newest anime and manga flying off the shelves in Akihabara. Or just pop ’round to the nearest convenience store to pick up treats in wacky flavors emblazoned with cute characters.