From small-time castle town to world’s biggest city, Tokyo’s fame, fortune and population have multiplied steadily over the years, turning it into the infinite, neon-lit playground that it is today.
Now the world’s most populous metropolis, until the 16th century Japan’s capital (then called Edo) was a small castle town just like any other. However, the city’s fortunes changed forever when shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu chose it as the seat of his feudal government in 1603, and it has never looked back.
Edo’s population grew exponentially along with its fortunes, and within a few decades it was already one of the world’s most populous cities. With the pro-imperial Meiji Restoration in 1868, it stole the crown of capital from Kyoto: the Emperor and the title moved from west to east, and Edo was officially renamed Tokyo (“eastern capital”).
Nowadays, this gargantuan (yet oddly manageable, thanks to its world-class transport system) city has something for everyone - you just have to find it first! Throw yourself into the melee and venture out into the hubbub of thrumming, neon-lit main streets, criss-crossing train-tracks, and nostalgic narrow backstreets, offset by parks, shrines and temples offering much-needed pockets of calm. Even if you don’t find what you were originally looking for, you’re guaranteed to find something else that makes the memories of a trip to Tokyo last for a lifetime.
What to do in Tokyo
Tokyo’s world-famous public transportation system whisks passengers to their destination quickly, efficiently and reliably, making it easy to zip between locations in the capital at a moment’s notice; however, Tokyo’s main sights can be grouped together in a few key areas, outlined below.
A visit to traditional Asakusa is essential for getting a feel for Tokyo’s everyday past - this district beautifully preserves the atmosphere of downtown Tokyo in bygone days. Approach its central attraction, Sensoji Temple, a popular 7th century Buddhist temple, via the scarlet portal of Kaminarimon Gate and bustling Nakamise-dori shopping street, selling traditional snacks and souvenirs.
Neighbouring Ueno Park, which was one of Japan’s first public western-style parks, is a spacious urban oasis housing many national museums worth seeing, and is particularly attractive during cherry blossom season when its 1000 trees burst into bloom.
To the west of Ueno Park, elegant Rikugien is considered one of Tokyo’s most beautiful Japanese landscape gardens. Get a bird’s eye view of the Tokyo skyline from the observation decks of recently-completed 634-metre tall Tokyo Skytree before heading east across the Sumida River to sumo country.
Here, in Ryogoku, follow in the footstep of sumo wrestlers by touring the sumo stables, 10,000 seater sumo stadium and chanko-nabe (sumo wrestlers’ hotpot) restaurants. Nearby, Edo-Tokyo Museum provides an informative and engaging look at Tokyo’s history, while the brand-new Sumida Hokusai Museum, opened in November 2016, is dedicated to the master of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints).
Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan’s largest and busiest wholesale fish market, is also one of the largest in the world. You’ll have to get up early to see the tuna auction, as applications for each day’s 120 spectators are accepted from 5am, but the queue forms long before that! If you can’t drag yourself out of bed in time, a fresh sushi brunch in one of its restaurants is the ideal backup plan.
The Imperial Palace, the official residence of the Japanese Imperial family, looks splendid when the moat is ringed with blooming cherry trees in the spring - borrow bicycles for free on Sundays and make a leisurely circuit of the Emperor’s home.
A visit to pay a call on royalty combines well with a visit to two of Tokyo’s premier shopping and dining districts. Upmarket Ginza’s department stores, art galleries and boutiques are best visited at the weekend, when the main street is temporarily pedestrianized.
Meanwhile, atmospheric Yurakucho is best visited at mealtimes. Slightly more down at heel and approachable than Ginza, its primary draw is its 700 metres of small restaurants fitted snugly into the red brick arches underneath the train tracks, known as Gadoshita.
Once famed for its electronics shops, these days Akihabara (or Akiba for short) is at least as famous for its “otaku” goods shops. Nowadays, there are as many shops devoted to manga and anime collectibles as there are hawking electronics, and Akiba has achieved global renown as the mecca for all things otaku. And yes, those maid cafes can be found here too.
A pocket of calm a stone’s throw away from fast-moving Akiba and sprawling leisure complex Tokyo Dome City, stately Japanese landscape garden Koishikawa Korakuen, one of Tokyo’s oldest and best gardens along with Rikugien slightly further north, is the ideal place to slow down.
Temples, shrines, palaces and garden are all well and good, but what about Tokyo’s “now”? Those who are interested in contemporary Tokyo should zero in on several key areas in western central Tokyo for their fill of shopping, dining and entertainment.
Busy, noisy and unpretentious, Shinjuku’s scintillating neons were the inspiration for the street scenes in Bladerunner. While you’re in the area, stop off for streetfood and a cold beer in the tiny eateries in Omoide Yokocho alley or Golden Gai street; watch the day go by in elegant Shinjuku Gyoen park, a good family-friendly cherry blossom viewing spot; and get up high for free panoramic views from the observation floors of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
In Harajuku, centre of teenage fashion and cosplay culture, jostle your way through Takeshita-dori street, with its fashion boutiques, used clothes stores, and crepe stands geared towards trend-conscious tweens and teens. If it all gets to be too much, then head to the other side of the station, where a couple of verdant urban oases await your discovery.
Meiji Jingu shrine, a major shrine dedicated to the Meiji Emperor, doubles as a leafy hideaway from the chaos of Tokyo’s city streets. Take a peaceful stroll along the gravelled paths of the lushly forested shrine, or join Tokyoites next door at spacious Yoyogi Park as they hang out and play on its lawns, ponds and forested areas, especially at weekends.
There are many more retail therapy opportunities in Shibuya, a shopping district popular with young women. Don’t miss the world-famous scramble crossing, loyal pooch Hachiko’s statue, and shopping landmarks such as the Shibuya 109 building and pedestrianized Center Gai street.
Ikebukuro, sister city to Akihabara, caters to young female fans of anime and manga with shops and cafes galore - there are even butler cafes to rival Akiba’s maid cafes, if being addressed as “princess” and being waited on hand and foot is your thing!
Central Roppongi is known for its stylish and elegant leisure and retail opportunities in newly developed shopping centres Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, its trio of high quality art museums, and its buzzing expat nightlife.
Candy-cane striped, 333-metre tall Tokyo Tower was Japan’s tallest structure from its completion in 1958 until it was overtaken by the Tokyo Skytree in 2012, and it is still the world’s tallest steel tower at 13 metres taller than its model, the Eiffel Tower!
At its foot is Zozoji Temple, a Buddhist temple home to a startling and moving display of rows of Jizo statues, the guardian of unborn children, kitted out in colourful knitted hats and scarves and surrounded by children’s toys and plastic windmills.
Hamarikyu Teien is a pleasant landscape garden abutting the bay notable for its quintessentially Tokyo views of modern skyscrapers towering behind the garden’s timeless vistas. Pause for green tea and sweets at the teahouse on the island in the middle before catching the water bus or monorail out to Odaiba, a futuristic and family-friendly shopping and entertainment district built on a man-made island in Tokyo Bay.
Twin theme parks, family-friendly Tokyo Disneyland, with its seven themed lands, and unique, ocean-themed Disney Sea, aimed at adults and serving alcoholic drinks, are further east of Tokyo, while you can meet Totoro and the cast of the Studio Ghibli films at the Ghibli Museum, 20 minutes train ride out in the suburbs to the west.
How to get to Tokyo
Tokyo is served by two airports: Narita Airport (NRT) and Haneda Airport (HND). Haneda Airport handles a smaller number of international flights and the majority of domestic flights. More centrally located, than Narita, it is just 30 minutes by train or monorail from central Tokyo.
Narita Airport, 60 kilometres outside of Tokyo’s centre, handles the majority of international flights and a small number of domestic flights, including budget carriers. By train, it takes about 60 minutes from eastern Tokyo and 90 minutes from western Tokyo.
Bullet train lines head north or west from Tokyo. The trip between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka takes about three hours depending on the speed of bullet train used - about 155 minutes by Nozomi (although this is not covered by the JR Pass), three hours by Hikari and four hours by Kodama.