One of the world's most exciting cities, TOKYO is a fuel-injected adrenaline rush into a neon-bright future. But for all its cutting edge modernity, this ceaseless metropolis remains fiercely proud of its ancient heritage. Lively neighbourhood festivals are held virtually every day of the year, people regularly visit their local shrine or temple and scrupulously observe the passing seasons in lovingly tended gardens. And at this hyperactive city's centre lies the serene and mysterious Imperial Palace – the inviolate home of the emperor and a tangible link to the past.
But at first glance the city's beauty and traditions are not readily apparent. Filled with eyeball-searing neon and messy overhead cables, plagued by incessant noise, its freeways often clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, this concrete-and-steel sardine can – the heart of which is home to at least eight million people – can come across as the stereotypical urban nightmare. Yet step back from the frenetic main roads and chances are you'll find yourself in a world of tranquil backstreets, where dinky wooden houses are fronted by neatly clipped bonsai trees; wander beyond the hi-tech emporia, and you'll discover temples and shrines where the trappings of contemporary Japan dissolve in wisps of smoking incense.
Tokyo's reputation as an expensive city is ill-deserved and you'll be pleasantly surprised by how affordable many things are. Cheap-and-cheerful izakaya (bars that serve food) and casual cafés serving noodles and rice dishes are plentiful, the metro is a bargain, and tickets for a sumo tournament or a Kabuki play can be bought for the price of a few drinks. Many of the city's highlights are free; among these you can choose from a stroll through Asakusa and the major Buddhist temple, Sensō-ji; a visit to the tranquil wooded grounds of Tokyo's premier shrine Meiji-Jingū and the adjacent fashion Mecca of Harajuku; the frenetic fish market at Tsukiji; or the crackling, neon-saturated atmosphere of Shinjuku or Shibuya. Simply walking the streets of this hyperactive city can be an energizing experience.
Tokyo is known for its booming economy and its always original, ever-changing culture. Those who come to visit this vast, bewildering metropolis of 12 million people will likely be overwhelmed. There is so much to see and do that planning ahead of time is essential.
You could say all roads lead to Nihonbashi since all distances to and from Tokyo are measured from here. Nihonbashi, "Japan Bridge," is centuries old, though the present Western-style structure only dates back to the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Once a prominent landmark, it is today dwarfed by buildings and an overhead expressway. Mitsukoshi , Japan's oldest department store, which still stands on its original site, and Takashimaya , another venerable shopping institution, are worth visiting here. Nihonbashi is also home to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, whose museum should be a stop for anyone interested in the economic history of the industrial and high-tech powerhouse that is Japan.
This is Tokyo's main business hub, and home to the country's three largest banks, as well as some of its most prominent companies, including Hitachi and Mitsubishi. Flooded daily with both businesspeople and tourists from all corners of the country, Marunouchi is a great place for touring the city's many impressive skyscrapers, including the Shin-Marunouchi Building , which houses over 150 stores, and is the tallest building in the Chiyoda Ward. Located between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace , two stunning examples of Japanese architecture, modern and ancient, visitors can begin their tour of this district the moment they step off the train.
Here you will find everything from department stores and boutiques, like the Sony Building and the famous Wako , to bookstores, bars, and restaurants that fit every taste and budget. The Ginza is the nation's showcase. It is to Tokyo what Fifth Avenue is to New York and Oxford Street is to London.
On the flip-side of the coin, the Ginza is also where visitors can experience some of the most refined aspects of Japanese heritage and culture. One example of this, Kabuki-za , the city's main Kabuki Theater since 1889, still puts on two shows daily.
This is one of the most lively wards in Tokyo, and encompasses Shinjuku and Harajuku , two popular districts for young people, and major centers of activity within the city that have the usual mix of department stores, shops, cafes and restaurants. The unique monument Hachiko , which commemorates a dog's loyalty to its master, can also be found right near Shibuya Station, where it commonly serves as a popular rendevous point for Tokyoites. The famous Shinjuku Station , the busiest train station in the world, with some 4 million commuters passing through daily, is also located in Shibuya.
Harajuku comes alive on weekends when the young and trendy come to see and be seen. This is where Tokyo's fashion-forward attitude manifests itself most prominently, with no shortage of off-the-wall outfits and hairstyles to be found strutting up and down the streets, particularly Jingu Bashi just outside Harajuku Station. If you tire of fashion, however, just around the corner from the train station are the Meiji Jingu Shrine , one of the most beautiful and sacred shrines in Japan, and the adjoining Yoyogi Park .
By day or night, the Shinjuku district is a lively, neon-lit place with a bit of the atmosphere of New York's Greenwich Village. Looking for a smoke-filled jazz joint? You can find it here, along with ramen noodles shops, pachinko (gambling) parlors, and such global brand stores as Virgin Records, Tiffany and Gucci. There are also two major landmarks here: the Tokyo Tocho (Metropolitan Government Office) , with its futuristic twin 48-story towers, and the huge Takashimaya Times Square department store, which is sure to sate even the most enthusiastic shopaholic.
Also located in Shibuya are the neighborhoods of Azabu and Hiroo, where many expatriates reside in expensive high-rise buildings. It is here that some of the most sought-after properties in Tokyo can be found, as well as some of the most sacred, such as Samboji Temple , an important religious site of the Shingon Buddhist sect. There are many small, independently-owned, shops, cafes and restaurants in the area as well, like the Thrush Cafe with its upscale beer garden atmosphere. Many foreign ambassies can also be found here.
This district is close to the popular Ginza. Check out the quaint yakitori barbecue chicken stalls that are set up beneath the district's raised train tracks, enjoy a quiet moment among the flower beds of Hibiya Park , or take in the sight of the impressive Imperial Hotel , which was erected along the park by imperial edict in the 19th Century, and once featured a building designed by the eminent American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. You could also join the many joggers who can be seen circling the 5-kilometer/3.1-mile periphery of the Imperial Palace grounds, on what is otherwise called the Imperial Palace Jogging Course , or stick to a leisurely stroll around the Palace East Garden.
A quick subway ride from Ginza will take you here, a place world famous for its raucous nightlife. Once a sleepy village, Roppongi is crowded with discos, clubs, bars, pubs and restaurants, including such trendy places as the Hard Rock Cafe and the massive Roppongi Hills mega-complex, which has just about everything a visitor could ask for, from stores to restaurants, and even a museum, all in one place. You can't miss it; it's iconic Mori Tower is 54-stories tall. Tokyo Tower , modeled on the Eiffel Tower, but taller, is also visible and easily accessible from here. Take the elevator to the observatory; you might catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji from up there on a clear day. Worn out from all the sightseeing? Take a soak at the Azabu-Juban Onsen , whose relaxing waters come from a natural hot spring 500-meters underground.
Asakusa & Ueno
Bustling centers of city life during the Edo period (1603-1868), these two districts belong to what Tokyoites call shitamachi, or "downtown." A must-see in Asakusa is Sensoji , Tokyo's oldest temple, the approach to which is lined by stores featuring colorful displays of traditional crafts, while the Sumida River Fireworks Festival , which attracts a crowd of more than one million people every year on the last Sunday in July, is a spectacle you won't want to miss.
At Ameyoko market street in Ueno, you can pick up unusual bargains ranging from dried squid to fake designer shirts. Culture buffs, however, should head for the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art , both located in Ueno Park , Tokyo's first public park, established in 1873, that is also home to the 100-year old Ueno Zoo .
Sometimes called "Little Seoul", this district has a small section of nightlife, but it caters mostly to local yen-loaded patrons. The Kotohiragu Shrine is a good place to stop to pick up some good luck charms, while others might prefer to browse the wares for sale at the flea markets at Nogi Jinja Shrine , where you're sure to find a good deal. The Akasaka Act Theater , featuring everything from live music to drama to dance, is also located here, and is a great place to spend an entertainment-filled evening.
Also known as Akihabara Denki Gai, (Akihabara Electric Town), this is the major hub of Otaku, or "geek," culture. People looking to buy electronic gadgets, computer accessories and anime/manga videos, books, toys and games know to come here, where they can not only get good prices but also meet people who share their special interests. Due to a recent boom in popularity, the cramped stores of Akihabara , like Animate with its 8 sprawling floors of everything from comics to anime soundtracks, are always abuzz with hip techno-ites. Another popular store, Sofmap , offers a huge selection of consumer electronics to choose from, spread out over 7 floors, while the Nishikawa Duty Free Square specializes in assisting foreigners with their high-tech purchases.
This district is most often visited for the sweeping view from the top of Sunshine City 's 60-story tall center skyscraper, Sunshine 60, which was one of the first skyscrapers to be built in earthquake-prone Tokyo. Sunshine City itself is definitely worthy of its name; you can get lost in this huge cluster of buildings for days. Within its many walls are an indoor amusement park, movie theater, shopping mall, museum and planetarium. There's clearly something to keep everyone happy here.
For inexpensive, traditional Japanese accommodations, the Kimi Ryokan is located conveniently close to Sunshine City, as well as transportation and other attractions. Many authentic but inexpensive dining options can also be found in Ikekuburo, including Nami for okonomiyaki (a type of savory pancake), Umehachi for tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), and Kaiten Yume Sushi , which sells sushi for as little as JPY99 per piece!
Ikebukuro is also the home of the well-known Ankokuron-ji Temple of the Nichiren Buddhist sect. It is said that it was on this site that Nichiren himself lived in a cave for three years, and wrote his famous religious tract entitled, "Rissho Ankoku Ron," one of his defining treatises. The temple was later established on the site in 1274.
This is the site of the Tokyo Dome , Tokyo's modern sports arena that can accommodate up to 56,000 spectators. Baseball games are most popular here, but there are also concerts and festivals in the off-season. The Koishikawa-Korakuen Garden is attached to the Dome, offering a tranquil escape for those looking to have some peace and quiet, while the Korakuen Amusement Park is also right next door, with a roller coaster and a huge arcade for those looking for a little more action. And as if that weren't enough stimulus, the rest of the area in the immediate vicinity, known as Tokyo Dome City , features everything a tourist might want, from shopping and restaurants to a luxurious spa.
For something different in Korakuen, however, take a timeout to visit Muryozan Jukyoji Temple , where you can learn about the Shogunate Period. Many other famous religious sites are also located in the area as well, including Tennoji Temple , with its beautiful and ancient cherry trees, and Gokoku-ji , a major Buddhist Temple that dates back to 1680.
Odaiba is an ongoing oceanfront development and artificial island, served by monorail, that has come to be commonly known as “Tokyo Teleport Town” in an effort to further cement it as a symbol of Tokyo's futuristic urban living plan. The Fuji TV Building is located here, along with one of the world's largest ferris wheels at Toyota's MegaWeb , several shopping malls, museums and even a full-size replica of the Statue of Liberty. Lovers of videogames must check out Sega Joypolis , where some of the most advanced simulation games abound, while toy collectors can join over 100,000 of their efellow enthusiasts in Odaiba at the annual Tokyo Toy Show .
Whether your budget calls for a cheap bowl of noodles, or a melt-in-your-mouth Chateaubriand for two, you are certain to find food and drink to suit your taste in Tokyo. Nepali, Persian, Greek, Cajun...anything goes. For a price, of course. Korean restaurants are represented well, second to Japanese in the capital, followed closely by Chinese, then American, French, and Thai. Tokyo also has a wide range of Indian restaurants and Italian cuisine.
The Royal Park hotel houses Kei-ka-en , which specializes in Cantonese dishes and offers many fresh, seasonal items on their menu. Several floors up, you'll find Palazzo , which switches things up with its eclectic French cuisine and large wine selection. Also, be sure to sit near a window to take in the stunning views of Tokyo at night. Dishes from all over the world are served at L' Aventure. Try the spaghetti with urchin cream sauce for something truly unique, or go to Genjikoh for a traditional Japanese dinner that includes tempura, shabu shabu and a nice glass of sake.
You'll find some quality Chinese and Thai at Coca near the famous Seibu department store. If you find yourself in the mood for different kinds of sake, you have to stop at Sake No Ana , which translates into “The Sake Hole.” 130 different kinds are available for tasting here, and there is also a menu of classic Japanese dishes. Italian may seem out of place in Tokyo, but La Fontevini knows how to do it well. They specialize in fresh, local seafood, but have affordable pizza and pasta options also. Alain Ducasse's BEIGE TOKYO gets its style partly from its location on the top floor of the Chanel Ginza Building. French food is served in a sleek, modern decor.
The American-Caribbean flair of Lahaina definitely sticks out in this city. It's well known for the quality of its universally-comforting Cajun food. There's also a Turkish place called Vahsi At, which has belly dancers at night. Belgo is a fine Belgian pub with over one hundred different brews to choose from and a good selection of light meals. Barbacoa embraces the spirit of Carnival with its vibrant dining room and eclectic Brazilian menu. Meals are served informally; you can pick what you'd like from a large buffet.
For a pleasing Thai meal, try Ban Kirao or Ban Thai . Soak up the earthy ambiance of AUREOLE , which serves healthy, contemporary food that will satisfy anyone looking for a macrobiotic meal, like fresh vegetable tortillas. Esperia is known for their large selection of cheeses; different kinds even decorate the dining room. You can incorporate any kind you like into one of their many fine Italian dishes. You have to try dim sum when you're in Tokyo, and Tokyo Daihanten is famous for its inventive and delicious dumplings. Nagani is a bar and restaurant that serves Burmese food in a jungle-themed dining room.
The Bombay Cafe combines Indian, Thai and Mexican on its eclectic menu, while Cay offers exotic food in a warmly lit atmosphere; try the lobster in coconut sauce. Aoyama Sakura is another very cozy and intimate place to go, where you can sit in a lush, dark decor and enjoy some traditional Japanese food and a nice glass of sake. For something unique, check out Jap Cho Ok , where you'll find Korean dishes that cater to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike; try the special liquor made from ginseng for a late-night boost. The seafood and wine bar is the big draw at Underground Mr. Zoogunzoo , where you can dine in a warm, earthy atmosphere.
Phothai Down Under is just what it sounds like: Australian-Thai fusion. You can get a tasty steak here, and some nice Australian wine. The buffet during the week is also worth checking out. To the delight of many Western tourists, the Hard Rock Cafe is located here, so if you want a good hamburger and some rock and roll nostalgia, you know where to go. Salsa Sudada is a South American bar and restaurant with more to offer than just great food and margaritas; they have regular dance classes that will fine-tune your merengue dance moves.
Anna Miller's stays open 24 hours, and serves breakfast around the clock. The best thing about this place is their wide array of classic pie flavors; everything from cherry to key lime is represented, and they all evoke a feeling of home. Trader Vic's specializes in flavorful Polynesian meals with colorful ingredients like coconut and bananas, and a wine list with choices that originate mostly in California. At the Rib Room , you'll be able to find different cuts of steak cooked to perfection, like Matsuzaka Beef.
Laten is and Italian restaurant and crêperie that will give you a large portion of whatever you order, and you can top it all off with a decadent chocolate crepe. Watch your meal being prepared at Fukusuke , where the sushi is known for its freshness and quality. The delicious Okinawa-inspired food at Miyarabi is accompanied with some skilled dancers on certain nights; you can spend an entire evening here and never be bored.
Considering that Tokyo covers some 1,813-square-kilometers/700-square-miles and is home to over 12 million people (the daytime population greatly exceeds that), it is all the more remarkable that the city's public transportation system is second to none. This can be attributed to planning (construction was concomitant with the post-war rebuilding of the city), timing (there was a certain urgency in showcasing the capital at the 1964 Olympics), and the fact that the Japanese are sticklers for order and discipline.
The centerpiece of Tokyo's train system is the overland Yamanote Line, begun in 1885 and completed in 1925. The Yamanote (sometimes shortened to Yamate) comprises some 30 stops in a loop linking most of the city's major centers: Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ueno, Tokyo, Shinagawa and Shibuya. Fast, clean, efficient, safe, and invariably on time, the Yamanote is part of Japan Railways (JR) East, a vast network of tracks spread out over eastern Japan. Because the transit system is so easy for outsiders to navigate, touring the entire city is no problem.
Shinjuku is a district with a flavor all its own, with much more to offer than just Shinjuku Station , the world's busiest train station, though this is where most any tour of the area will begin. Apart from such modern sights, however, the most remarkable of this district's features is the variety of Buddhist temples and shrines that can be found throughout the area. One example of the plentiful shrines in the area is the Hanazono Jinja Shrine . This Inari shrine is located in the middle of a bustling commercial district and is known for its role as the site of the annual Festival of the Fowls. One temple of note in Shinjuku is the Taisoji Temple , known for its two statues of the Buddha: one to protect good children and one to scare away naughty children. But the one stop not to be missed in this district is the Shinjuku Gyoen , a former Imperial garden, now famous for its 1500 cherry blossoms trees, which paint quite the pretty picture each spring when they bloom in a dazzling array of colors. And if you're hungry after all this touring, not to worry because Shinjuku is filled with some of the best restaurants Tokyo has to offer. Just to name a couple, New York Grill offers a high-class Manhattan-chic atmosphere and menu that will put a pleasant finish on any day, while Kuwaranka serves up local specialties for those who want to experience authentic Tokyo flavors.
Another district that is both easy to get to on Tokyo's metro system and a great pleasure to visit is the Ueno district. There are so many things to see here that it's hard to choose just a handful. A district within a district, Ameyoko is a great place to walk through because many people believe it's one way to get a real taste of Tokyo. Being at the terminus of the Ueno metro line, it's the jumping off point for those that come in from outlying areas. Another world-class sight to see is Sogakudo , Japan's only, and one of the world's only, concert hall pipe organs, which operates by a special compressed air mechanism, can be found. The one place in Ueno that both locals and foreigners alike come to see, however, is Ueno Park , which is home to numerous museums, shrines, and historical monuments, including the Tokyo Natinoal Museum , National Science Museum , and National Museum of Western Art , as well as a Shinobazu Pond and hundreds of beautiful cherry blossom trees. While there, you won't want to miss the Ueno Zoo , which houses three famous pandas, a handful of Siberian Tiger kittens, and many other animals, as well as a children's petting zoo.
Shinagawa Jinja Shrine
Every district in Tokyo has its fair share of temples, some new and some old. If you want to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, paying a visit to each neighborhood's favorite shrines and temples is a good way to start, and Shinagawa is no exception, with three such locations, as well as two other popular places of interest. The Ebara Jinja Shrine is noteworthy as being the possible cause of the Meiji Emperor taking up residence in Tokyo, as he visited the shrine just before doing so. Another Meiji period shrine in this district is the Shinagawa Jinja Shrine , which sits atop ancient lava flows from Mount Fuji and is more heavily adorned than most other Jinja shrines. Next, for history and culture visit the Tokaiji Temple . Built by a Tokugawa shogun in the 16th or 17th Century, this was a major Buddhist complex until the mid-19th Century.
Apart from temples and shrines, however, Shinagawa, like the rest of Tokyo, has much more to offer. Your first stop in this respect should be the Shinagawa Aquarium , which features an underwater glass tunnel that gives visitors a true marine experience, as well as over 300 species of marine life and multiple deep sea and shallow sea aquariums. After all that, you'll need to relax, and the perfect place to do that in Shinagawa is at Kaisuiyu , a Roman-style bath house. Kaisuiyu offers three different bathing options and provides everything you'll need for your visit there.
Yoyogi Hachimangu Shrine
The ideal place to start a tour of Shibuya is at a statue that is considered the meeting place for the neighborhood, the Hachiko Statue , which depicts the loyal Akita of the famous Professor Ueno, who once taught at the University of Tokyo. The story is that Hachiko walked to work with his master every day, and when his master died, he continued to wait for him. From here, you can continue on to see Shibuya's two main shrines, both of which are especially of interest to fans of history and lore. The Yoyogi Hachimangu Shrine is the site of an unearthed hut believed to have been built around 8000 BCE. A model of the hut and actual pieces of the original are still on view there. The second shrine is the Konno Hachimangu Shrine , which is notable for its cherry tree, which is reputed to be at least 900 years old, and which sprouts different numbers of petals on its blossoms.
In addition, the Shibuya district has two museums, one devoted to the arts and one devoted to riches. The Koga Memorial Museum is devoted to Masao Koga, who was a composer known for blending Western and Japanese melodies. The gardens at the Koga Museum alone are worth a visit. The other museum in Shibuya, the Meiji Jingu Treasure Museum , is devoted to treasures of the past, and is a great place to learn about Japanese Imperial history. The museum contains many artifacts from Japan's Meiji Period, such as the Imperial Carriage and several items of clothing that are worn by the Emperor and Empress on special occasions.
Finally, top off your day in Shibuya with a romantic dinner at Tokyo's most popular French restaurant, Kinoshita , but be prepared because reservations generally need to be made literally months in advance. Didn't plan that far ahead? The stylish Grand Blue is another great option.
Viator (+1 866 648 5873/ http://www.partner.viator.com/en/1584/)
H.I.S. Experience Japan (http://hisexperience.jp/)
Sunrise Tours (+81 35 796 5454/ http://www.jtb-sunrisetours.jp/)
Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau (+81 35 840 8890/ http://www.tcvb.or.jp/en/guide/area01.html)
Tokyo Realtime (http://www.tokyorealtime.com/)
Sky Bus Tokyo (+1 81 33 215 0008/ http://www.skybus.jp/English/index.html)
Hato Bus (+1 81 33 435 6081/ http://www.hatobus.com/en/index.html)
Nippon Travel Agency (+1 310 768 0017/ http://www.ntainbound.com/domestic/bustour/index.htm)
Excel Air Service (+1 81 47 380 1111/ http://www.excel-air.com/english/cruising/index.html)
Asahi Heli (+1 81 35 569 7255/ http://www.asahi-heli.co.jp/)