A vast chunk of central Tokyo is occupied by the Imperial Palace or Kōkyo (皇居), home to the emperor and his family, and the city’s geographical and spiritual heart. The surrounding public gardens provide a gentle introduction to the city, with a glance back to its origins as a castle town.
East of the palace, the city really gets into its stride. The districts of Marunouchi, Ginza and Nihombashi form the heart of downtown Tokyo, with the city’s most chic shopping street, its financial centre and major train station, plus enough bars and restaurants to last a lifetime. The best approach is simply to wander, but there are several specific sights, notably a clutch of art museums and the Tokyo International Forum, with its soaring glass atrium.
Northeast of the palace is lively Akihabara, crammed with cut-price electronic goodies and multistorey manga stores, while to southwest are Akasaka and Roppongi. In the former you’ll find Hie-jinja, one of Tokyo’s most historic shrines, while in the latter an “Art Triangle” has been formed by the National Art Center Tokyo, the Suntory Museum of Art in the huge Tokyo Midtown complex and the Mori Art Museum in the equally enormous Roppongi Hills development. Tokyo Tower remains the area’s retro landmark and nearby is the venerable temple Zōjō-ji.Read More
The Imperial Palace and around
The Imperial Palace and around
Huge and windswept, the Imperial Plaza forms a protective island in front of the modern Royal Palace. Follow the groups of local tourists straggling across the broad avenues to view one of the palace’s most photogenic corners, Nijūbashi, where two bridges span the moat and a jaunty little watchtower perches on its grey stone pedestal beyond. Though this double bridge is a late nineteenth-century embellishment, the tower dates back to the seventeenth century and is one of the castle’s few original structures.
Twice a year (on Dec 23, the emperor’s birthday, and on Jan 2) thousands of well-wishers file across Nijūbashi to greet the royal family. Apart from these two days, the general public is only admitted to the palace grounds on pre-arranged official tours, conducted in Japanese but with English-language brochures and audio-guides available. Apply online up to two months in advance via the Imperial Household Agency website or by calling.
Back in the 17th century the Imperial Palace was the location of Edo Castle. The finest of the fortress’s remaining watchtowers, three-tiered Fujimi-yagura, stands clear above the trees to the north of the Imperial Plaza. Built in 1659 to protect the main citadel’s southern flank, these days it ornaments what is known as Higashi Gyoen or the East Garden (東御苑). The garden is a good place for a stroll, though there’s little to evoke the former glory of the shogunate’s castle beyond several formidable gates and the towering granite walls.
The main gate to the garden – and formerly to Edo Castle itself – is Ōte-mon. A path winds gently up, beneath the walls of the main citadel, and then climbs more steeply towards Shiomizaka, the “Tide-Viewing Slope”, from where it was once possible to gaze out over Edo Bay. You emerge on a flat grassy area, empty apart from the stone foundations of Honmaru (the “inner citadel”), with fine views from the top, and a scattering of modern edifices, among them the pretty, mosaic-clad Imperial Music Hall.
The northern citadel of Edo Castle is now occupied by Kitanomaru-kōen (北の丸公園), another park with a couple of interesting museums. Immediately to the right as you emerge from the Higashi Gyoen through the Kitahanebashi-mon gate, is the National Museum of Modern Art or Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan (国立近代美術館). Its excellent collection showcases Japanese art since 1900, including Kawai Gyokudo’s magnificent screen painting Parting Spring and works by Kishida Ryusei, Fujita Tsuguharu and postwar artists such as Yoshihara Jiro.
A short walk away on the west side of Kitanomaru-kōen, the Crafts Gallery or Kōgeikan exhibits a selection of top-quality traditional Japanese crafts, many by modern masters. Erected in 1910 as the headquarters of the Imperial Guards, this neo-Gothic red-brick pile is one of very few Tokyo buildings dating from before the Great Earthquake of 1923.
At the north end of the park is the Budōkan hall, built in 1964 to host Olympic judo events. The design, with its graceful, curving roof and gold topknot, pays homage to a famous octagonal hall in Nara’s Hōryū-ji temple, though the shape is also supposedly inspired by that of Mount Fuji. Today the huge arena is used for sports meetings, graduation ceremonies and rock concerts.
Across the road from Kitanomaru-kōen, a monumental torii, claimed to be Japan’s tallest, marks the entrance to Yasukuni-jinja (靖国神社). This shrine, whose name means “for the repose of the country”, was founded in 1869 to worship supporters of the emperor killed in the run-up to the Meiji Restoration. Since then it has expanded to include the legions sacrificed in subsequent wars, in total nearly 2.5 million souls, of whom some two million died in the Pacific War alone; the parting words of kamikaze pilots were “see you at Yasukuni”.
Not surprisingly, all sorts of controversy revolve around Yasukuni-jinja. Its foundation was part of a Shinto revival promoting the new emperor (see The Meiji era) and so it became a natural focus for the increasingly aggressive nationalism that ultimately took Japan to war in 1941. Then, in 1978, General Tōjō and a number of other Class A war criminals were enshrined here, to be honoured along with all the other military dead. Subsequent visits made to Yasukuni by politicians on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II (August 15) continue to cause protests both at home and abroad.
For many ordinary Japanese, however, Yasukuni is simply a place to remember family and friends who died in the last, troubled century. Its surprisingly unassuming inner shrine stands at the end of a long avenue lined with cherry and ginkgo trees, and through a simple wooden gate. The architecture is classic Shinto styling, solid and unadorned except for two gold imperial chrysanthemums embossed on the main doors.
To the right of the inner shrine you’ll find the fascinating Yūshūkan, a military museum established in 1882. The displays are well presented, with plentiful information in English, but the controversy is as much what is left out as what is included. Events such as the Nanking Massacre (“Incident” in Japanese) and other atrocities by Japanese troops are glossed over, while the Pacific War is presented as a war of liberation, freeing the peoples of Southeast Asia from Western colonialism. The most moving displays are the ranks of faded photographs and the “bride dolls” donated by the families of young soldiers who died before they were married. You exit through a hall full of military hardware, including a replica of the gliders used by kamikaze pilots on their suicide missions, its nose elongated to carry a 1200kg bomb, while a spine-chilling, black kaiten (manned torpedo) lours to one side.
Some 500m southeast of Kanda Myōjin, a blaze of adverts and a cacophony of competing audio systems announce Akihabara (秋葉原). Akiba, as it’s popularly known, is Tokyo’s foremost discount shopping area for electrical and electronic goods of all kinds, hence it’s also known as the city’s “Electric Town”. These days it’s also “the” destination for anime and manga fans and the spawning ground for the decidedly surreal “maids’ cafés”.
Inside the Akihabara Crossfield complex is the Tokyo Anime Center, which has small displays on recent anime but is really little more than a glorified shop selling anime-related goods.
Today’s electronic stores are direct descendants of a postwar black market in radios and radio parts that took place beneath the train tracks around Akihabara Station. You can recapture some of the atmosphere in the narrow passages under the tracks just west of the station in the tiny stalls of Tōkyō Radio Depāto (東京ラジオデパート) – four floors stuffed with plugs, wires, boards and tools for making or repairing audio-visual equipment.
Contemporary art is also starting to find its way into Akiba. On a side street off Chūō-dōri, you’ll find the landscaped entrance to a new art complex, 3331 Arts Chiyoda. Based inside a renovated junior high school, the centre hosts close to twenty galleries, with a revolving mix of exhibitions, interactive installations, and workshops.
One of Tokyo’s top nightlife destinations, ROPPONGI (六本木) has expanded its all-round charms with daytime attractions including major art galleries and the mammoth shopping, residential and office developments Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. In particular, Suntory Museum of Art, the National Arts Center, Tokyo, and Mori Art Museum form points on the so-called “Art Triangle Roppongi”.
A block northwest of the main Roppongi crossing along Gaien-Higashi-dōri, Tokyo Midtown covers a site of nearly seventy thousand square metres, and includes the small picturesque park Hinokichō-koen, and the 248m Midtown Tower, home to the Ritz Carlton hotel. Strongly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture and art, Midtown’s design is a lot more streamlined and subtle than its nearby rival Roppongi Hills.
On the west side of the complex is the traditional and highly stylish Suntory Museum of Art (サントリー美術館). The museum hosts changing exhibitions from its beautiful collection of ceramics, lacquerware, paintings and textiles. There’s also a traditional tea ceremony room, with the actual ceremony performed at 1pm and 3pm.
Two giant triangular planes of steel, concrete and glass peeking out of a lawn to the rear of the main Midtown complex are part of the fascinating 21_21 Design Site, a collaboration between architect Andō Tadao and fashion designer Issey Miyake. More of a forum to discuss and display design in general than a museum, the main gallery is buried one floor into the ground to provide an elevated, airy space in which to view exhibitions on a single theme.
National Art Center, Tokyo
A couple of minutes’ walk west of Tokyo Midtown is the visually stunning National Art Center Tokyo (NACT; 国立新美術館). A billowing wave of pale green glass ripples across the facade of the Kurokawa Kisha-designed building which, at 48,000 square metres, is Japan’s largest gallery. The bulk of the NACT’s space is devoted to shows organized by art associations, both professional and amateur, from across Japan. This can lead to a very eclectic mix: one minute you may be viewing an Impressionist masterpiece or a huge contemporary sculpture or installation, the next the work of an unknown painter. Before leaving, linger in the main atrium, admiring the conical pods that soar up three storeys, and explore the excellent museum shop in the basement.
Roppongi’s metamorphosis was jump-started by the success of the Roppongi Hills development that’s a couple of minutes’ walk southwest of the area’s main crossing. Here you’ll also find a traditional Japanese garden and pond, a liberal sprinkling of funky street sculptures and an open-air arena for free performances, amid the shops, offices and residences. If you approach Roppongi Hills through the main Metro Hat entrance from Roppongi Station, at the top of the escalators you’ll see Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, a giant bronze, stainless steel and marble spider that squats at the base of the 54-storey, Kohn Pederson Fox-designed Mori Tower.
Directly ahead of the spider is the “Museum Cone”, a glass structure enclosing a swirling staircase that forms the entrance to Roppongi Hills’ highlight, the Mori Art Museum (MAM), occupying the prime top floors of the Mori Tower. MAM puts on exhibitions of works gathered from around Japan and abroad, with a particular focus on the best contemporary art and design, and on Asian artists. The building also includes the Tokyo City View observation deck, Tokyo’s highest viewpoint. On some evenings the café here morphs into the sophisticated Mado Lounge, hosting various DJ events, launch parties and the like.
Clearly visible from Roppongi is Tokyo Tower (東京タワ), something of a retro icon for the city. Built during an era when Japan was becoming famous for producing cheap copies of foreign goods, this 333m red-and-white copy of the Eiffel Tower, opened in 1958, manages to top its Parisian role model by several metres. The uppermost observation deck, at 250m, has been supplanted as the highest viewpoint in Tokyo by the roof deck of Roppongi Hills’ Mori Tower (which, incidentally, provides the best view of the Tokyo Tower, especially when illuminated at night). More attractions, most incurring additional fees and none really worth seeing in their own right, have been added over the years, including a gaggle of the usual souvenir shops – to the point where the place feels like an amusement arcade. There are good views of Tokyo Bay from here, but the wise will save their cash for a drink at the rooftop bar of the nearby Prince Park Tower Tokyo, from which you get a great close-up view of the tower itself.
In nearby Shiba-kōen (芝公園) you’ll find venerable Zōjō-ji (増上寺). Dating from 1393, the family temple of the Tokugawa clan was moved to this site in 1598 by Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first Tokugawa shogun) in order to protect southeast Edo spiritually and provide a waystation for pilgrims approaching the capital from the Tōkaidō road. This was once the city’s largest holy site, with 48 sub-temples and over a hundred other buildings. Since the fall of the Tokugawa, however, Zōjō-ji has been razed to the ground by fire three times, and virtually all the current buildings are of a mid-1970s vintage. However, the imposing San-gadatsu-mon, a 21m-high gateway dating from 1612, is Tokyo’s oldest wooden structure and classed as an Important Cultural Property. Ahead lies the Taiden (Great Main Hall), while to the right are ranks of jizō statues, capped with red bonnets and decorated with plastic flowers and colourful windmills that twirl in the breeze.