Overview

Tokyo, Japan, presents a different view at every turn. It's one of the world's main economic centers and its most populous agglomeration. The business of Tokyo is business, but you can still find harmony and small-scale gardens on back streets. Around the corner from neon and concrete, you may find the bonsai-lined courtyard of a traditional inn.

Tokyo was nearly destroyed by bombs and fires during World War II, and by earthquakes at other times, but it has always rebuilt itself. As a result, there is little left of Old Japan in the city, but there's plenty of New Japan to take its place.

The streets are a confusing maze, so a map is essential. The transit system is excellent, however, and there are kobans (police boxes) throughout the metropolis, as well as a populace generally willing to answer questions.

Most visitors to Tokyo are there on business, but tourism has grown exponentially. And despite its reputation, Tokyo doesn't have to be fearsomely expensive. With some planning, it's possible to visit Tokyo on a reasonable budget.

Geography

Tokyo is located on the east coast of Japan's volcanic main island, Honshu, at the northwest corner of Tokyo Bay. It's part of a huge urban corridor that sweeps from Chiba City (close to Narita Airport) in the east and Saitama in the north to Yokohama in the south, connected by clean, efficient train and subway systems and an amazing network of elevated expressways. Tokyo Prefecture sprawls from the banks of the Edogawa River in the east to the mountains of Tanzawa to the west, and even includes a chain of islands stretching far to the south. The city itself is made up of 23 central wards, or ku, surrounded by many smaller cities and towns, known as shi.

For most visitors, it's the central wards west of the river, inside the Yamanote train line that loops around central Tokyo, that hold the most interest: Chiyoda-ku, defined by the feudal-era moat that once encircled Edo Castle in the heart of the city, is where you'll find the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station. To the northeast is Taito-ku, known as the shitamachi (old town) part of Tokyo and home of Ueno Park, Ueno Zoo, the Tokyo National Museum and Asakusa Kannon Temple.

To the south and west, Minato-ku includes the Roppongi entertainment district, fashionable Aoyama with its many designer shops, the Shiodome development and the area around Shinagawa Station with its many hotels and office high-rises. Chuo-ku is the other central ward, and is home to Ginza, Tokyo's original high-end shopping area. To the west is Shinjuku-ku, home of the metropolitan government and many of the tallest skyscrapers. Shibuya-ku, in the southwest, includes the Meiji Shrine and the sophisticated shopping districts of Harajuku, Aoyama and Omotesando.

Note: Finding a specific address in Tokyo can be incredibly frustrating. Few streets have names, and buildings are numbered somewhat arbitrarily, often according to when they were built, not their relative location on the street. Addresses have the name of an area along with three sets of numbers that zero in on specific neighborhoods but are difficult to decipher. Asking for help is routine even for locals, and the police boxes on street corners have very useful maps. Throughout our report, we've included the ward (denoted by the suffix -ku), followed by the closest subway or train station in parentheses, wherever possible.

History

Tokyo's history is a story of continual reinvention. Located at the mouth of the Sumida River, the city was originally a marshy fishing village called Edo ("river mouth"). It became important in the early 1600s when the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power and declared himself shogun (military governor), establishing a dynasty that lasted some 260 years. While the Japanese emperor remained cloistered in Kyoto, the shogunate made Edo his political and military base and required Japan's other feudal lords to reside there for six months every other year.

By the 1700s, Edo had become one of the world's largest cities. Thus, when the Tokugawa clan was overthrown in 1867, it only made sense for the restored emperor to move the capital from Kyoto to Edo as a means of reinforcing his authority. Edo was renamed Tokyo ("Eastern Capital").

Although Japan had been isolated from the outside world under the old military dictatorship of the shogunate, the new emperor embraced Western influences, which ultimately made the country a modern, industrialized nation and Tokyo a major world center. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake unleashed a series of fires that left half of the city in ashes, but it was quickly rebuilt. In the 1930s, Japan became swept up in a quest to dominate Asia that led into World War II. Before the conflict ended, Allied air raids had destroyed much of the city. In the initial years after the war, Tokyo was occupied by Allied forces and reduced to a city of tawdry entertainment and prosperous black markets.

By the early 1950s, Tokyo had reinvented itself again, using some of the profits accumulated from serving as a base of operations for U.N. forces during the Korean War. In 1964, Tokyo played host to the summer Olympic games and demonstrated to the world that it was joining the economic elite. In the following decades, with Tokyo taking the lead, Japan became an economic powerhouse. Although recession in the 1990s slowed its expansion into the new millennium, the city remains defined by its commitment to growth.

Construction projects continue to alter the cityscape, especially in preparation for the 2020 Olympic summer games in Tokyo. New hotels have been built, existing ones are undergoing renovation and more are planned for the future. Roads are being constructed—not easy in a city this congested—that will lead from the center of town to the Olympic Village around Tokyo Bay. Among projects currently underway is a new national stadium to replace the one built for the 1964 Olympics and a huge renovation of Shibuya Station and its environs, including a 754-ft/230-m skyscraper with a rooftop sky deck. Shibuya’s redevelopment is so massive, it isn’t expected to be completed until 2027.

Sightseeing

Tokyo's veneration of old traditions shows in the respect for and popularity of its many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that serve as an escape from the city's hectic pace. Two of the most popular are the Asakusa Kannon Temple and the Meiji Shrine. In contrast, Tokyo SkyTree, Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills are three of the modern landmarks, offering views of the city (and sometimes Mount Fuji) that you can't get anywhere else.

Tokyo has many museums showcasing Japan's art, history and culture, but if you can manage to visit only one museum, make sure to see either the Edo-Tokyo Museum or the Tokyo National Museum. Note: Most museums are closed on Monday unless a national holiday falls on that day, in which case they remain open but close on Tuesday instead. Some private museums, on the other hand, are closed on all national holidays.

Take some time to explore the distinctions between various areas of the city. Neighborhoods in Tokyo are really like small towns. Each offers different atmospheres and attractions, so choose a few and grab a subway map: Asakusa (temples), Roppongi (jam-packed nightlife), Harajuku (Meiji Shrine and trendy shopping), Ginza (art galleries, department stores and international designer shops) and Ueno (beautiful park, museums and temples) are among your options.

Although green spaces are at a premium in the densely residential parts of the city, Tokyo has several parks and gardens worth visiting, many of them having once served as expansive temple grounds or as residences for wealthy feudal lords. These include the East Garden next to the Imperial Palace; Hama Rikyu Gardens, right by the Sumida River; the walled Rikugien Garden, in Bunkyo-ku, with its bonsai pines and miniature landscapes; Ueno Park, home to shrines and cherry blossoms; Yoyogi Park, along with the adjoining Meiji Shrine grounds forming the largest green space in the inner city; and Shinjuku Gyoen, with its traditional Japanese and European landscaping, as well as a greenhouse and a teahouse where women in kimonos serve traditional green tea and sweets to visitors.

Tokyo has little in the way of wildlife, but there is always the zoo in Ueno Park, plus several very good aquariums in Ikebukuro and Edogawa ward. The city's theme parks provide an alternative form of amusement. The biggest one is, of course, Tokyo Disneyland and adjacent DisneySea. The top theme park in Japan, it's also one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Joypolis Sega provides an electronic escape with its virtual-reality video games.

Nightlife

If you're thinking about a night out on the town, keep in mind that some of the smaller clubs and bars may not welcome outsiders unless they're introduced by their regular customers, though this happens far less frequently than it used to. There are plenty of other bars and Japanese-style drinking establishments that welcome foreign visitors, particularly in cosmopolitan nightlife areas such as Roppongi.

Tokyo nightclubs are definitely for the young, and the action doesn't get under way until after 10 pm. Otherwise, a hotel bar may be more to your liking. Usual hours for bars and clubs are 6 pm-midnight, although in Roppongi and Shinjuku, the action often continues throughout the night, especially on Friday and Saturday. With more than 300 bars, lounges, dance clubs and other establishments, Shinjuku Ni-chome is Japan's largest gay nightlife district. Some are welcoming to outsiders and a few admit members of the opposite sex, but many are private clubs.

Also on the nightlife landscape are hostess bars and karaoke rooms. Unless you're desperate to try a hostess bar, where a pretty woman (who may not speak English) entices you into buying very expensive drinks for her, it's best to steer clear. There are a number of karaoke bars that cater to foreigners, most of which consist of private rooms where you can belt out tunes with close friends. Some places are even themed.

Dining

Staying well-fed in Japan can be an expensive endeavor, but it doesn't have to be: If menu prices shock you, you can stop at a noodle shop for a tasty and filling meal of udon (white wheat noodles), soba (gray-brown buckwheat noodles) or ramen (Chinese noodles). Yakitori (grilled morsels of skewered chicken with sweet sauce or salt) is another inexpensive option, though there are also many classier yakitori restaurants serving premium breeds of chicken, as well as vegetables and occasionally beef grilled over charcoal. Another option we highly recommend is to take advantage of the many expensive and famous restaurants that have more reasonably priced lunch menus, often featuring some of the same wonderful dishes they charge more for in the evenings. Upscale eateries often advertise their gourmet food through such lunchtime specials.

No food is more closely associated with Japan than sushi, making it a must during your visit. Japanese food presentation is one of the most visually impressive in the world, and a plate of impeccably prepared sushi is no exception. You will need to know the difference between sushi and sashimi: Sushi is prepared with cooked short-grain rice (the word "sushi" actually refers to the rice), and sashimi is unadorned slices of raw fish, typically served with a side of shredded ginger. Freshness is paramount for both dishes. According to locals, the quality of a sushi shop can be gauged by how crowded it is, so stay away from places that are nearly empty. You won't find fresher fish than that sold at the sushi shops around the Tsukiji fish market. They're a good value too, although few stay open after lunch, and they're closed on days when the market is closed.

The formal Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki developed from the meals served with the traditional tea ceremony. There is also a vegetarian tradition, Shojin-ryori, which had its origins in Japan's traditional Buddhist roots. Both cuisines feature artistic arrangements of many small dishes made from fresh seasonal ingredients. Fugu, or blowfish, can be fatally poisonous if not prepared properly (chefs must have special licenses). Usually eaten raw or cooked in hotpots, it might be bland in taste, but many Japanese say it has a slight numbing sensation caused by residual toxins in the meat. Other traditional dishes are sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef cooked tableside in broth with vegetables), shabu-shabu (thinly sliced beef cooked tableside and dipped in assorted sauces) and tempura (deep-fried fish and vegetables in batter).

A traditional Japanese breakfast consists of white rice and miso soup, served with side dishes such as raw eggs, pickled vegetables, seaweed, fermented soybeans and often some fish. However, most Japanese businesspeople are too busy for more than a quick bowl of noodles or a roll and coffee at breakfast kiosks around train stations (and even on larger train platforms). Major hotels usually have a choice of either Japanese or Western-style breakfasts, often served as all-you-can-eat buffets.

It is not impossible to pay ¥1,000 for a cup of coffee at a ritzy Ginza coffee shop or in some of the major hotels. However, there are many Japanese coffee shop chains that offer much more reasonably priced cups of coffee, including Doutour, Excelsior Caffe and Pronto, all with coffee that costs less than ¥300 along with snacks such as sandwiches. There are also international coffee chains such as Starbucks and Segafredo.

Traditional coffee shops (kisaten) occupy the middle ground, some of them offering poor, overpriced coffee but providing comfortable settings where you can linger as long as you like—and (more importantly for some) smoke. Many of these old-school coffee shops still offer the traditional breakfast, known as a Morning Set. This meal will comprise a hard-boiled egg, sometimes with some ham or bacon; a "salad" of grated cabbage with Thousand Island dressing; a thick slab of air-light white bread, lightly toasted and served with a pat of butter; and a cup of well-stewed coffee (ask for "American" if you want a cup of the same coffee diluted with hot water).

Tokyo also has its fair share of beer gardens—nighttime open-air restaurants open during the summer months (some of the department stores in Tokyo have rooftop beer gardens). Many charge a set fee for all-you-can-eat meals, though a few allow guests to order a la carte. If you're on a budget, happoshu is similar to beer but is a little less expensive because it contains less malt, so it's taxed in a slightly lower bracket.

You'll be happy to discover that the language barrier that makes Tokyo so perplexing at times is not such a big problem in restaurants—many have plastic displays of menu items for you to point at, and English-language menus are increasingly common.

Restaurants are generally open 11 am or 11:30-2:30 pm and 5:30-10:30 pm, except on weekends, when some remain open all day. Few open early in the morning, so your best bet is to eat breakfast at your hotel, at a coffee shop chain, or eat sushi in the Tsukiji fish market.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drink or tax (moderate and expensive restaurants also add a 10% to 15% service charge): $ = less than ¥3,000; $$ = ¥3,000-¥6,000; $$$ = ¥6,001-¥12,000; and $$$$ = more than ¥12,000.

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