As the biggest metropolitan area in the world, a quick guide to Tokyo is an almost impossible task – central Tokyo alone is made up of 23 special wards, all of which qualify as cities in their own right! This guide aims to introduce the city and cover some of the key bits of information that will help you get the most from your visit.
A Very Quick History of Tokyo
Tokyo began life as a small fishing village called Edo but its big break came in 1603 when it became the centre of power for the Tokugawa shoganate. Growth was rapid and by the 18th century Edo was the biggest city on earth, with a population of 1 million. Edo was the cultural and political capital of Japan, although the emperor remained in exile in Kyoto. Many of the buildings of this period were made of wood; fires and earthquakes regularly devastated the city so little from this time remains today.
In 1868 the Shogun was overthrown, Edo was renamed Tokyo and Emperor Meiji designated Edo Castle as an Imperial residence. Tokyo soon became a major trading port and began to adopt Western trends and products – the surviving buildings from this period wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or New York.
The Kanto Earthquake of 1923 flattened Tokyo and made way for the modern city you see today. Roads were widened and new railways planned, low rise wooden buildings were replaced by taller, concrete structures. The bombing of Tokyo in World War II also allowed for extensive rebuilding and modernisation of the city.
Since hosting the 1964 Olympics as the finale to post-war regeneration, Tokyo has been a major player on the world stage both economically and culturally. It is a city of contrasts: futuristic skyscrapers sitting alongside ancient castles; peaceful shrines neighbour frenetic stations and the latest gadgets sell as well as traditional crafts. No matter what your interests, you are sure to find something in Tokyo.
Tokyo has two airports – Narita and Haneda. Both are well connected to the city centre by trains. Limo buses also run to many of the major hotels and stations from the airport, and are a good option if you have too much luggage to carry on and off trains. Taxis themselves are expensive and likely to get stuck in traffic, so the train is usually the best option.
You can also arrive in Tokyo from other parts of Japan by intercity train (shinkansen – bullet trains) which are fast, clean and very reliable.
It is possible to get a ferry in to Tokyo from other parts of Japan, but there are no scheduled international routes covering Tokyo itself.
Where to Stay
The size of central Tokyo means there is not one area that is best to stay in. Each neighbourhood has its own character and attractions – your own personal preferences will play a big role when deciding where to stay. Tokyo’s railway system is very efficient and easy to use (most signs and announcements are translated in to English) so getting around the city is simple.
If your visit to Tokyo is very brief, the area around Tokyo station is probably best – most of the must see sites listed below can be easily accessed on foot or via a quick subway journey.
If you have longer to stay, any of the following areas provide local interest as well as good connections to other parts of the city. If you have multiple stays in Tokyo (for example flying in and out of Tokyo with a trip elsewhere in Japan in between) then it is definitely worth staying in different areas each time to get a better feel for the city.
Shinjuku is the entertainment hub of Tokyo with bars and clubs on every corner, especially in the Kabukicho area. During the day it’s a major shopping destination, especially for department stores and big brands. You can experience some of the ambience of old Tokyo in the tiny alleys around Shinjuku station, or venture up the skyscrapers for fantastic city views. The station has connections to all other parts of Tokyo, as well as several lines heading out of Tokyo.
Shibuya is also a shopping and entertainment area, although the crowd here are younger than Shinjuku. It’s a great place to pick up unique fashions or modern Japanese housewares at affordable prices. Yoyogi Park is great for people watching if you get fed up of the crowds at Shibuya crossing. Shibuya station is also well connected for local trains, but the intercity shinkansen trains don’t stop here.
Ginza is Tokyo’s answer to Mayfair or the Upper East Side; full of high end designer stores, fancy restaurants and stylish bars. It’s also close to Tsukiji fish market and the Imperial Palace, and well connected for local and intercity transport from Tokyo central station.
The home of ‘otaku’ (geek) culture, Akihabara is filled with electronics, manga comics and the dubious pleasures of maid cafes. It’s also close to other sites, such as the Sumo arena and Edo-Tokyo museum at Ryogoku and the Sumida river. It’s also a great base to explore the shitamachi area, which is the oldest part of Tokyo. The subway station will get you most places but you will have to change to get an intercity train.
In the past Roppongi was notorious for its seedy nightlife, although the area has cleaned up recently. It’s now home to modern entertainment and shopping complexes at Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills, as well as the rather quaint Tokyo tower. The area also has more than its fair share of art galleries, some of which are free to enter. The subway connections are decent and the Chuo expressway is nearby for road travel.
Ueno is perhaps a little out of the way for many travellers, but the more suburban pace of life might suit those unused to the hustle and bustle of the inner city. Accommodation and food are also much cheaper here without the city-centre premiums. Local attractions include Ueno park and the Tokyo National Museum. Shinkansen trains go north from Ueno station, but you will need to head across the city to get out to western Japan.
Like Ueno, Ikebukuro is on the outskirts of central Tokyo and a little quieter as a result. It has some good shopping and plenty of bars and restaurants, although hardcore party animals may get bored. The main attraction here is an indoor funfair (Namja Town) although there’s also high culture at the Metropolitan Art Space. There are good subway connections as well as some intercity lines.
Must See Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market
Tokyo’s fish market is enormous, and filled with more sealife than the average aquarium. If jetlag has you up at 3am head over to the market visitor office for a chance to watch the famous tuna auction. If you don’t fancy such an early start then check out the restaurants that fringe the market, serving some of the freshest sushi you’ll ever taste.
Going to sumo match is a great way to soak up some Japanese culture. The set up at the Kokugikan stadium in Ryogoku is very friendly for English speakers, with leaflets and match guides explaining the event and personal radios offering English commentary. There’s also a sumo museum and restaurants serving the wrestlers’ favourite calorific stew – chanko nabe.
Although the main palace is closed to the public, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the imperial residence from the public park that surrounds it. You can also arrange a tour of the palace grounds by contacting the Imperial Household Agency in advance (the tour is in Japanese but English leaflets are provided). The East gardens are free to visit and feature traditional garden design, samurai guardhouses and the foundations of Edo Castle.
This shrine commemorates the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken . The shrine itself is hidden away in wooded parkland, and the approach features several impressive torii gates. This is a perfect place to experience the spiritual side of Japan and is a complete contrast to the neighbouring hyperactivity and neon of teenage Harajuku.
To appreciate the sheer scale of Tokyo (as well as catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji) head up one of the many viewing decks around the city. Tokyo Tower has a certain retro charm, while the recently opened Tokyo Sky Tree is the highest tower in the world. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku has a free observation deck, and many of the hotels around the city have bars with stunning views, although the prices can be equally sky-high.