Tokyo, known as Edo until 1868, is by far one of the most futuristic cities in the world. Wondering through this high-rise and high-tech landscape and you will feel that the visuals from sci-fi thrillers have literally taken concrete shape: skyscrapers illuminated with glowing signs, taxis with automated doors, subways that stop in shopping malls, these are just some of the signs that showcase Tokyo as a city that belongs to the future.
The vertical rise of Tokyo has been shaped by a history of disasters. The 20th century was characterized by World War II bombings, fires and earthquakes. In fact the earthquakes in Tokyo are inevitable and people have taken them in their stride: each time there is a catastrophe, the city rises from the ashes and rebuilds its skyline taller than ever.
But just because Tokyo is futuristic, doesn’t mean the city has forgotten its pasth. The old world charm is visible in the Shinto heritage kept alive in the Meiji Jingu Shrine or in the pulsating chaos of the Tsukiji Fish Market. The enduring formalities of Tokyo’s social etiquette and the rituals of the tea ceremonies are signs that the city maintains a deep and enduring affection for its traditions and culture.
Whether it is kimono clad ladies or women dressed in the latest fashions, Tokyo is a paradox. The futuristic Roppongi Hills peacefully co-exists with the numerous Buddhist shrines and the Imperial palace. Whether you want to have sushi or a Big Mac, you’ll find the old and the new forever juxtaposed in Tokyo.
At first glance, the Tokyoites may seem sober, industrious and efficient going about their daily business with clock-work efficiency. However they take their entertainment equally serious. Once the sun sets, the discos, clubs, bars, pubs and restaurants come alive with people who wish to let their hair down and turn their backs to the obligations of their daily lives.
Is It Safe?
Since the Fukushima earthquake and subsequent reactor meltdown in 2011, many people have been asking whether Tokyo is safe for visitors? The answer is unequivocally yes. Tokyo is 300 kilometers south of Fukushima and has not been affected by any dangerous radioactive fallout and radiation levels in the city remain normal.
Things To See
Tokyo is famous for its magnificent skyline, museums, parks, gardens, landscapes, archeological master pieces, and architectural wonders. While the list of things to do and see in Tokyo is exhaustive, we have listed some that should be visited in all itineraries.
Tokyo Tower: The Tokyo Tower is modeled on the Eiffel Tower but it is 333 meters taller than the original. The world’s tallest self-supporting steel tower, completed in the year 1958, is a symbol for Japan’s rebirth as a major economic power. You can go up to the main observatory at150 meters or to the special observatory at 250 meters to enjoy the beautiful view of Tokyo. Under good weather conditions, Mount Fuji can be seen in the distance.
Bunkamura: This is Tokyo’s most well known museum. Apart from its collection, the museum is also a famous cultural center where you can enjoy some fine music, movies and various other interesting events. The exhibits feature the work of artists such as Grandma Moses, Monet, and Munakata Shikō as well as photographic displays by Man Ray.
Roppongi Hills: The Roppongi Hills complex is arguably Tokyo’s most upscale neighborhood, in fact a mini city where you can find just about everything: restaurants, pubs, discos, night clubs, boutiques, shopping stores and to cap it all, fantastic views from atop the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. There are more than 200 restaurants situated here ranging from affordable eateries where you can grab a quick bite to really lavish places that serve exotic Japanese cuisine.
Sensoji: Sensoji, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Tokyo, is famous for its extraordinary beauty and architecture. Established in AD628, this temple is dedicated to Kannon Bodhisattva who is considered as the Goddess of Mercy. Thousands of people throng to this temple, either to worship or just to marvel at its grandeur.
Hama-Rikyu: Tokyo has its fair share of gardens, one such being the Hama-Rikyu. Filled with beautiful trees and flowers, it is an ideal place to relax away from the bustle of the city. The garden has three beautiful lakes and you can take a walk on the famous Rainbow Bridge.
Shinjuku-gyoen: This is considered as one of the most magnificent gardens in Tokyo. The perfect blend of traditional Japanese and French landscaping makes this place aesthetically appealing. Spring time sees a rich bloom of cherry blossoms, something that attracts tourists from all over the world.
Ginza: The Tokyo equivalent of Rodeo Drive, in Ginza you will find everything to be modern and expensive. It is a great place to window shop. Those with a reverence for technology shouldn’t miss the Sony Building. Here you can marvel at a whole floor devoted to the PlayStation and all of the latest gadgets.
Kabukiza Theater: The traditional ornate Kabukiza Theater dates back to 1949, but Kabuki plays have been around for at least 400 years. There are two performances a day and shows can last up to five hours, but you can buy tickets for a single act.
Tsukiji fish market: This traditional fish market is definitely worth checking out, the only catch (no pun intended) is you have to be there are 5 am in the morning to witness the action. You’ll see the restaurateurs battling it out for the day’s best catch. Generally visitors are not preferred, in fact they are not officially allowed but you can still go there provided you don’t take photographs or get in the way.
Ueno Park: Tokyo’s largest public park, Ueno-koen is best visited in the spring when the cherry trees are in full bloom. The park houses a zoo and some well known museums. It also has on its premises the famous Nikko Toshogu Shrine.
Edo-Tokyo Hakubutsukan: The building’s white space ship look is an attraction in itself. The permanent collection on the upper floors reconstructs one-half of the bridge at Nihombashi, on either side of which are thorough histories of Edo and Tokyo respectively.
Shibuya: This is the place to visit if you want to see Tokyo at its futuristic best. Shibuya, with its sprawl of gleaming office blocks adorned with illuminated billboards and surrounded by surging crowds, has inspired countless sci-fi films. Away from the crowds, in the north of Shibuya, you can seek solace in the Meiji Shrine Inner Gardens. Home to some 125,000 trees and shrubs, these gardens provide a suitably peaceful setting for the Shinto Meiji-jingu Shrine.
Meiji-jingu: Built in honor of the spirits of the great emperor Meiji and and his consort Shoken, this shrine is a good place to see traditional Shinto architecture.
Shinjuku: Located next to Shibuya, Shinjuku is both a bustling business district and a vibrant nightlife and entertainment area. Home to the busiest train station in the world, 3.64 million passengers daily, Shinjuku is just as crowded as that figure would suggest. Worth checking out is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, consisting of two towers each with viewing decks 202 meters high which are completely free of charge to visitors. This makes an interesting alternative to Tokyo Tower. Also located in Shinjuku is the Park Hyatt Hotel from ‘Lost In Translation’ fame, have a drink at the New York Bar on the top floor of the hotel and relive some of the movie’s classic scenes. Shinjuku is also the address of Tokyo’s largest red-light district, where there are literally thousands of neon signs advertising hole-in-the-wall bars and seedy dive joints.
Yasukuni-jinja: This place is not for the weak-hearted. It is believed that the souls of people who were killed in the Japanese war rest in this house. This house will also give you a glimpse of the rich culture and history of Tokyo.
Tokyo Disneyland Resort: The first Disneyland to be built outside of the United States, Tokyo Disneyland is one of the most popular attractions in Japan. While this may not seem like a must-see attraction, and it isn’t if you happen to be coming from a place that has its own Disneyland, however for tourists coming from other Asian countries or who have yet to visit a Disneyland, this family attraction is definitely worth a visit. In the resort complex there are two theme parks, three Disney hotels and six normal hotels.
Harajuku: This neighbourhood is known for its peculiar street culture that attracts youth from all over the Tokyo metropolitan area, who come to stand around and sometimes prance around in all kinds of fantastical and elaborate costumes.
Festivals and Events
There is nothing like festivals and events to provide an insight into the historical and cultural legacy of a country and the same applies to Japan as well. Festivals like O-Shogatsu, Setsubun and Hana Matsuri, which is The Birth of Buddha, are celebrated with great fanfare.
Then there is the New Year festival, which begins at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of December. Every temple bell throughout the country tolls to a total of 108 times to represent the 108 evil human passions. The New Year bell ringing ritual is known as Joya no Kane.
Offices are closed during events like the Golden week which occurs in late April. The festival celebrates the beauty of spring when the cherry trees are in full blossom. The true attractions of this festival are in fact the cherry, azalea, and rhododendron blossoms that shower both city sidewalks and the countryside.
Cherry Blossom viewing is a fun event in Tokyo. People visit the gardens, organize picnics and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Some other festivals and events include Tokyo Motor Show, Tori-no-Ichi (Rake Fair), Omisoka (New Year’s Eve), Kanda Matsuri (Kanda Festival), Sanja Matsuri (Sanja Festival), Sanno Matsuri (Sanno Festival), Sanno Matsuri (Sanno Festival), Sumida Hanabi (Sumida Fireworks Festival), Tokyo International Film Festival etc.
Tokyo has a wide range of accommodation facilities to suit every budget. Most of the low range and affordable hotels are situated in areas like Taito. Ueno and Asakusa too, have their share of budget hotels. The capsule hotels are usually the ones that are the cheapest on the pocket. However, most of these hotels are male dominated except the Akihabara Capsule Inn and the Asakusa Riverside. Some of the facilities offered by these hotels are internet café, karaoke boxes and library. You can also opt to stay in a youth hostel, if you are on a limited budget.
Most major four-star and five-star hotels are located conveniently in the commercial and business areas and other places of interest around Tokyo, such as the Ginza, Akasaka-mitsuke, Shinagawa, Ebisu, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Roppongi. You’ll find both regional and international chains with all providing the highest standards of international hotel service. The Tokyo Bay is a huge group of luxurious hotels situated in Chiba.
You can also choose to stay near the destinations you wish to visit. For example, if you are looking for partying and fun, the place to stay is Roppongi. Most of the high range luxurious hotels are situated in western Shinjuku, in fact, this is a good place to stay if you are on a business visit. If it is shopping that is your idea of a perfect holiday, you can stay in Ikebukuro.
[Also check out this article from Hopper: “The Five Best Sushi Restaurants in Tokyo“]
Tokyo is a delight for the food enthusiasts. Whether it is the better known sushi or the more exotic dishes, you will find something to satisfy your palette in Tokyo. There are lots of options when it comes to dining out in Japan. You can take your pick from Nepali, Persian, Greek, Cajun, French or Mediterranean. Tokyo also has a fair share of Korean, Chinese, American, French, Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants.
Shops like the noodles shop and bakeries are the best places to find affordable food that doesn’t dent your wallet. At the convenience stores you will get variety of food items at low prices. Tokyo also has outlets of leading fast food chains such as KFC, McDonalds, MOS Burger and Freshness Burger etc. In fact the subway stations are great joints to catch a quick bite, when you are on the move. You can spend your evening at one of the Izakayas, which serve great food at low price.
You can have your fill of great food at low budget in places like Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, or Isetan. There are various department stores in Shinjuku Station like the very famous Odakyu and Keio department stores and also super markets, which after 7 in the evening sell food stuffs at half the price.
If you are looking for a fine dining experience in high end specialty restaurants then you should head to Roppongi hills, Ginza and Akasaka. Tokyo has a ton of exclusive top-notch restaurants, befitting its role as one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Tokyo is a shopper’s paradise. The shops in Tokyo usually remain open on all days of the week. The superb selection of goods and impeccable service is enough to send anyone on a buying spree.
Antique furniture, electronics, funky fashions or traditional kimonos, Hello Kitty goods or comics, you will get all of these in Tokyo. If you are looking for antiques then you can go to the malls in Omotesando and Ginza. The stylish Ginza has got various department stores where you will find accessories, trendy clothes, boutiques etc. If you are looking for some cool, colorful, fashionable clothes then you can go to Harajuku and Shibuya. Some other places worth checking out are the Tobu and Seibu stores.
Roppongi Hills is another big shopping destination. Stores such as Marui (OIOI), Mitsukoshi, Sogo and Takashimaya are quite popular with tourists. If you are looking for some great souvenirs, you must visit the Oriental Bazaar and Three Minutes Happiness.
For great bargains, you can check out the antique/flea markets that held every Sunday – on the first and fourth Sundays of the month at Harajuku’s Togo Shrine, on the second Sunday of the month at Nogi Shrine in Nogizaka and most Sundays at Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku. To shop in these markets, you should start before dawn because they pack up by early afternoon. You can shop for old silk kimonos, Japanese dolls, ceramics and lacquer.
Excursions From Tokyo
Kamakura: This small town encircled by wooded hills has some of the finest temples devoted to Lord Buddha including some really beautiful Zen temples. Also visit the National Treasure Hall and the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine. Traveling from Kamakura to Tokyo is very easy as you will find plenty of trains available throughout the day.
Nikko: Situated in the north of Tokyo, this is another very popular tourist destination. Nikko is renowned for the brilliantly elaborate mausoleum of a former shogun. It is located in the middle of a very old cedar forest. The widespread compound also comprises of Futarasan Shrine, Rinnoji Temple, and the third shogun mausoleum. From Nikko you can go to Lake Chuzenji and the very stunning Kegon Waterfall. This place is very well known for its exceptional natural beauty. You can engage in some fishing, swimming or boating at Lake Chuzenji.
Nightlife and Entertainment
The nightlife in Tokyo is simply awesome. You will not have a dull moment or be at a loose end for choice. Akasaka has many nightclubs, “snacks” counters bars, cabarets, bars, restaurants, pubs, and a very famous restaurant of Korean barbecue. Ginza is another place that boasts affordable night clubs and bars. You can also try out the hostess clubs.
The night life at Roppongi has developed post World War II and today the region is home to more than 200 pubs, night clubs and restaurants. Shibuya is considered as the place for the young and attracts a large number of tourists who are young or still young at heart. At Shinjuku you will find a mix of luxurious bars as well as cheap bars. Ni-chome is another interesting party spot. It has more than 250 bars, restaurants and night clubs. This place is also quite famous for its gay bars.
Bars: You can choose from the sleek and sublime to the rowdy and raucous. Hajime in Ginza is a bar with minimalist design offset by a distinctive yellow light that runs across the room. Mother, in Daizawa, has an interior, which is an eclectic mix of kitsch. There is a giant lizard hanging down from the ceiling. If you’re craving beer, head for Flamme d’Or, where Philippe Starck’s infamous sculpture houses a bar selling a wide selection of beers and snacks. If it’s a drunken night out you’re after, you can check out Gas Panic in Roppongi.
Clubs: If super clubs are your style, you can head for Womb in Maruyama-cho, Shibuya. The club boasts an enormous dance floor packed with an up-for-it crowd. Then there is the Velfarre, in Roppongi that is well worth a visit. It has a huge multi-level disco palace with a strict dress code and a high admission charge. For a more intimate clubbing experience you can go to Secobar, Shibuya. There aren’t usually dress codes or face control in the night clubs but the cover charges can be quite high.
Live Music: Tokyo’s local pop and rock scene revolves around live houses, which mean dark disco-like venues with a small stage. Club Que, Setagaya-ku and Club Quattro, in Shibuya, are among the best known names. The two main venues for major rock acts are Nippon Budokan and Tokyo Dome.
The climate of Tokyo has three distinct phases; the summer, spring/autumn and the winter. The summer months of July and August are quite warm. The most beautiful time is the spring when the cherry trees are in full bloom. While the fall can also be beautiful because of the foliage.
By Air: Narita International Airport is the foremost gateway to Japan. The airport serves over 60 airlines operating out of its two terminals. The airport handles mainly international flights, with most domestic flights using Haneda Airport.
Airport facilities: These include various bureaux de change, ATMs, travel agent, numerous restaurants and shops, left-luggage service, luggage delivery service, tourist information, showers and day rooms, children’s play rooms, clinics, copy and fax facilities, executive lounges and post offices.
Transport to the city: There are various transportation facilities available for the passengers traveling from the airport to the main city. Buses run every few minutes. You can also hire your own car or take the train to the city.
By rail: Japan’s far-reaching railway arrangement has been developed keeping in mind the comfort of passengers. Most of the trains fall under the Japan Railways (JR) rail system, which offers efficient and punctual services.
If you are visiting Tokyo, you simply have to travel on JR’s futuristic shinkansen (also known as ‘bullet trains’). Clean, fast and punctual, these trains crisscross the country, and take you to the cities, coast, mountains or towns in Japan. Shinkansen run to northern Japan, Niigata on the Japan Sea, Nagano in the central Alps, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima, and Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu.
By road: Tokyo is connected by the Tomei-Meishin expressway to Kobe, Chuo expressway to Nagano and Tohoku expressway to Sendai. Traveling by road can be a good option as the expressways, roads and streets are rather well maintained, but it can be a bit hectic due to the traffic congestion.
Public transport: The public transport system of Tokyo is highly organized and very sophisticated. It includes a combination of an extensive train network operated by a number of private companies, 12+ underground lines, bus services and several monorails. Traveling around is easy as you will find most signs in English.
Taxis: In Tokyo finding a taxi is easy enough. You can reserve a taxi in advance from one of the many companies. Fares vary slightly between taxi companies but are uniformly expensive. Tipping is not customary and could offend. Drivers rarely speak English so it is advisable to carry the name of your destination written out in Japanese.
Car hire: There are lots of facilities for hiring your own car in Tokyo. But before you hire a car, you need to show a valid driving license and also the permit for international driving. You cannot hire a car if you are below 18 years.