Visiting Tokyo is not for the faint of heart. A fuel-injected adrenaline rush into a neon-bright future, TOKYO (東京) is a mercurial metropolis flashing by in a blur of conflicting images. Obsessed with the latest trends and fashions, the world’s largest city – the heart of which is home to at least eight million people – is also fiercely proud of its heritage. Lively neighbourhood festivals are held virtually every day of the year, and people regularly visit their local shrine or temple and scrupulously observe the passing seasons in manicured gardens.
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Caught up in an untidy web of overhead cables, plagued by seemingly incessant noise, its freeways often clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, this concrete-and-steel conurbation may seem the stereotypical urban nightmare. Yet back from the frenetic main roads are tranquil backstreets, where dinky wooden houses are fronted by neatly clipped bonsai trees; wander beyond the hi-tech emporia, and you’ll discover charming fragments of the old city such as temples and shrines wreathed in wisps of smoking incense.
The fact is that centuries-long experience of organizing itself to cope with the daily demands of millions of inhabitants has made Tokyo something of a model metropolitan environment. Trains run on time and to practically every corner of the city, crime is hardly worth worrying about, and shops and vending machines provide everything you could need (and many things you never thought you did), 24 hours a day.
With so much going on, first-time visitors should be prepared for a massive assault on the senses – just walking the streets of this hyperactive city can be an energizing experience. It need not be an expensive one, either. 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.
Browsing the shops and marvelling at the passing parade is mesmerising – the next best thing to having a ringside seat at the hippest of fashion shows. The city’s great wealth and relative lack of planning restrictions have given architects almost unparalleled freedom to realize their wildest dreams. Likewise, in Tokyo’s uber-chic bars, restaurants and clubs you’ll see today what the rest of the world will get tomorrow. You may not figure out exactly what makes it tick – and you’re sure to get a little lost while trying – but the conclusion is inescapable: Tokyo is a fun, seductive and addictive experience. Rough Guides' Tokyo Travel Guide will help you get the most out of the city.
Brief history of Tokyo
Visit Tokyo and you'll soon notice signs of its history in its beautiful temples and shrines. The city’s founding date is usually given as 1457, when minor lord Ōta Dōkan built his castle on a bluff overlooking the Sumida-gawa and the bay. However, a far more significant event occurred in 1590, when the feudal lord Tokugawa Ieyasu chose the obscure castle-town for his power base.
The Edo era
By 1640 Edo Castle was the most imposing in all Japan, complete with a five-storey central keep, a double moat and a spiralling network of canals. A bewildering warren of narrow, tortuous lanes, sudden dead ends and unbridged canals was created to snare unwelcome intruders. Drainage work began on the surrounding marshes, and embankments were raised to guard the nascent city against floods.
The daimyō (lords) who were required by the shogun to spend part of each year in Edo were granted large plots for their estates on the higher ground to the west of the castle, an area that became known as Yamanote. Artisans, merchants and other lower classes were confined to Shitamachi, a low-lying, overcrowded region to the east. Though growing less distinct, this division between the “high” and “low” city is still apparent today.
During two centuries of peace, during which time Edo grew to be the most populous city in the world, life down in the Shitamachi buzzed with a wealthy merchant class and a vigorous, often bawdy, subculture of geisha and kabuki, of summer days on the Sumida-gawa, moon-viewing parties and picnics under the spring blossom. Inevitably, there was also squalor, poverty and violence, as well as frequent fires; in January 1657, the Fire of the Long Sleeves laid waste to three-quarters of the city’s buildings and killed an estimated 100,000 people.
The Meiji era
A year after the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, the emperor took up permanent residence in the city, now renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital) in recognition of its proper status. As Japan quickly embraced Western technologies, the face of Tokyo gradually changed: the castle lost much of its grounds, canals were filled in or built over, and Shitamachi’s wealthier merchants decamped to more desirable Yamanote. However, the city was still disaster-prone: in 1923 the Great Kantō Earthquake devastated half of Tokyo and another 100,000 people perished.
More trauma was to come during World War II. In just three days of sustained incendiary bombing in March 1945, hundreds of thousands were killed and great swathes of the city burnt down, including Meiji-jingō, Sensō-ji, Edo Castle and most of Shitamachi. From a prewar population of nearly seven million, Tokyo was reduced to around three million people in a state of near-starvation. This time, regeneration was fuelled by an influx of American dollars and food aid under the Allied Occupation, plus a manufacturing boom sparked by the Korean War in 1950.
By the time Emperor Hirohito opened the Tokyo Olympic Games in October 1964, Tokyo was truly back on its feet and visitors were wowed by the stunning new Shinkansen trains running west to Ōsaka. The economy boomed well into the late 1980s, when Tokyo land prices reached dizzying heights, matched by excesses of every conceivable sort, from gold-wrapped sushi and mink toilet-seat covers to huge building projects such as the Odaiba reclamation in Tokyo Bay.
In 1991, the financial bubble burst. This, along with revelations of political corruption, financial mismanagement and the release of deadly Sarin gas on Tokyo commuter trains by the AUM cult in 1995 – a particularly shocking event in what is one of the world’s safest cities – led to a more sober Tokyo in the late 1990s.
In the new millennium, as the economy recovered, so did the city’s vitality. Events such as the 2002 football World Cup and the 2019 rugby World Cup, plus growing interest in Japanese pop culture and the delicious food scene have contributed to more curious overseas visitors heading to Tokyo, with some staying on – making the capital feel more cosmopolitan than it has ever been. District after district has undergone structural makeovers, and, with the 2020 Olympics coming to Tokyo, there's still more excitement in store.
If you're visiting the Japanese capital, it's worth thinking carefully about where to stay in Tokyo. You can learn more about Tokyo's history at the Tokyo National Museum.
Places to visit in Tokyo
One way to ease yourself into the many places to visit in Tokyo is by taking a relatively crowd-free turn around the Imperial Palace – the inviolate home of the emperor and a tangible link to the past. From here it’s a quick hop to Marunouchi which has been busily restyling itself as a chic shopping and dining destination to rival glitzy Ginza.
High on your sightseeing agenda should also be the evocative Shitamachi area, Tokyo’s northeast quarter, where the Edo-era spirit of the city remains. Asakusa’s primary focus is the major Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji, surrounded by a plethora of traditional craft shops. The leafy precincts of Ueno Park contain several major museums, including the Tokyo National Museum. From here it’s an easy stroll to the charming and tranquil districts of Nezu, Sendagi and Yanaka, packed with small temples, shrines and shops.
In Kanda you’ll find the Kanda Myōjin, one of Tokyo’s oldest shrines and home to one of the city’s top three festivals, the Kanda Matsuri; and across the Sumida-gawa is Ryōguku, home to the colossal Edo-Tokyo Museum and the National Sumo Stadium. You can even visit Tokyo in January, May or September to catch a sumo tournament.
Cross back over the river again to drop into the weird, wired and wonderful world of Akihabara, the one-time “electric town” rebooted as the focus of Tokyo’s dynamic manga and anime scene.
Roppongi’s nightlife can exhaust the most committed hedonist, but save some energy to return by day to explore the art triangle formed by the National Art Center, housed in one of the city’s most dazzling architectural spaces; the various art and design institutes of the mammoth Tokyo Midtown development; and the excellent Mori Art Museum, atop the Roppongi Hills complex.
Fashionistas should head towards on-trend Shibuya and Harajuku, and the super-chic, boutique-lined boulevards of Aoyama. When you’ve reached consumer saturation point, retreat to the wooded grounds of nearby Meiji-jingū, the city’s most venerable Shinto shrine, or peruse the delicate woodblock prints and crafts and artworks in the Nezu Museum, the Ōta Memorial Museum of Art or the Japan Folk Crafts Museum.
On the west side of the city lies Shinjuku, bursting with towering skyscrapers, endless amounts of neon, TV screens several storeys tall, and arguably the world’s most complicated railway station. The attractions include the monumental Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the beautiful gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen, and the lively and raffish Kabukichō entertainment area.
In the north of Tokyo offbeat pleasures include the rickety Toden-Arakawa Line, the city centre’s last tramway; the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Myonichi-kan in Ikebukuro; and a trio of pretty Japanese gardens: Rikugi-en, Chinzan-sō and the Kyū Furukawa Gardens.
It costs nothing (other than a few hours’ sleep) to experience the frenetic early-morning fish market at Tsukiji, on the edge of Tokyo Bay. Hama Rikyū Onshi Teien, one of the city’s loveliest traditional gardens, lies close by. Across the bay from here, and linked to the main city by the impressive Rainbow Bridge, is Odaiba, a futuristic man-made island, where you’ll find the Miraikan, Tokyo’s most fascinating science museum, and the touristy, fun public bathhouse Ōedo Onsen Monogatari.
High-speed trains put several important places to visit within day-trip range of Tokyo, including the ancient temple and shrine towns of Kamakura to the south and Nikkō to the north. A day tour to Nikkō can be easily booked. Mount Fuji, 100km southwest of the capital, can be climbed between June and September, while the adjoining national park area of Hakone offers relaxed hiking amid beautiful lakeland scenery and the chance to take a dip in an onsen – a Japanese mineral bath.
If you’re looking for a quick and convenient trip to the countryside, sacred Mount Takao, just an hour west of the capital, provides a verdant escape. Last, but not least, there’s Yokohama, a whole other city – Japan’s second largest, in fact – right on Tokyo’s doorstep and well worth visiting for its vibrant Chinatown and breezy waterfront districts.
It's important to consider the feel of each area, and where landmarks are located, before deciding where to stay in Tokyo.
Things to do in Tokyo
Witness the titanic clashes of wrestling giants at the National Sumo Stadium in Ryōgoku. Come in January, May or September for a sumo tournament.
Home to old craft shops, traditional inns, and the bustling Sensō-ji temple. There are several bookable activities to help you immerse yourself in Asakusa culture, such as a kimono experience.
National Art Center
Set aside a chunk of time to explore the enormous National Art Centre, a highlight of the so-called Roppongi Art Triangle.
Japan’s ancient seaside capital offers great walks between temples and shrines, plus a giant bronze Buddha that you can clamber inside.
Traditional performing arts
Enjoy kabuki, nō and bunraku puppetry at the National Theatre, Kabukiza Theatre or Shimbashi Embujō.
There are innumerable places in which to scoff delectable raw fish – don’t leave without giving it a try.
A quintessential Japanese-style garden designed to reflect scenes from ancient Japanese poetry.
Contemporary art galleries
Discover fresh talent at Design Festa Gallery and 3331 Arts Chiyoda, as well as commercial spaces such as the Agata Takezawa building. The National Museum of Modern art has an excellent collection, too, while teamLab Borderless is a digital art gallery featuring a series of unforgettable immersive exhibits.
The dazzling Tōshō-gū shrine is the star turn of this quiet mountain town, surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in the land. Nikkō is a great day-trip destination, and you'll also find dazzling Edo Wonderland here, an Edo era-themed park.
It’s amazing how many bars are squeezed into this corner of neon-soaked Kabukichō – getting to and from your seat can resemble a game of Twister.
Pack a picnic and make for the falling blossoms in Ueno Park, around the Imperial Palace moat or along the Meguro-gawa.
Soak in an old neighbourhood bathhouse such as the Jakotsu-yu or at the resort-like spa complex of Ōedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba.
Enjoy one of the many annual festivals or regular wedding ceremonies held at Tokyo’s most venerable Shinto shrine.
Trawl the boutiques of Cat Street, dive into crowded Takeshita-dōri, or take tea in a treehouse café.
Most visitors will have seen at least one Studio Ghibli anime – get behind the scenes at the imaginative Ghibli museum.
Housed in one of Tokyo’s most impressive pieces of modern architecture, this repository of Asian arts also has a magnificent garden.
Cruise down the Sumida-gawa or across Tokyo Bay on one of the city’s ferry services, including the manga-inspired Himiko sightseeing boat. In Sumida City itself, you'll find the Tokyo Skytree, which you can climb for epic views.
Eating in Toyko
When it comes to gastronomic experiences, few places can compare to Tokyo. The number, range and quality of restaurants are breathtaking, with practically any world cuisine you can think of available alongside all the usual (and many unusual) Japanese dishes.
There’s no need to panic about prices. Even Michelin-starred restaurants offer good-value set-meal specials, particularly for lunch. There’s an abundance of fast-food options and cafés offering light meals. Many of the pubs (izakaya) and live music venues listed serve fine food, too.
One of the easiest options is to head to the restaurant floors of department stores and shopping malls. They harbour a wide choice of cuisines under one roof, often with plastic food displays in the windows and lots of daily specials.
Karaoke bars and boxes
Legend has it that karaoke, literally translated as “empty orchestra”, was invented by an Ōsaka record store manager in the early 1970s. Today the mainstay of this ¥1 trillion business is the karaoke box, a building packed with comfy booths kitted out with a karaoke system. Rental of these boxes is by the hour and they have proved particularly popular with youngsters, women and families.
If you fancy flexing your vocal cords, branches of the major karaoke box operator Karaoke-kan (カラオケ館) are liberally peppered across the capital. An hour of karaoke here costs from ¥1000 with drinks and snacks extra. Catering to foreigners are Fiesta and the long-running Smash Hits, both of which offer thousands of songs in English as well as several other languages.
Tokyo nightlife and entertainment
Tokyo’s nightlife and entertainment options run the gamut from grand theatres and multiplex cinemas to broom-cupboard bars and live music venues (known as “live houses”). The distinction between restaurants, bars and clubs in the city’s sakariba (“lively places”), such as Ginza, Shibuya or Shinjuku, is hazy, with many places offering a range of entertainment depending on the evening or customers’ spirits.
On the cultural side, you can sample all of Japan’s major performing arts, from stately nō, the oldest in its theatrical repertoire, to Butō, the country’s unique contribution to contemporary dance. If you only have the energy, or budget, for one cultural experience, save it for kabuki. Information about these and other performances is available in the English-language press and from the TICs. Tickets are available from theatres and ticket agencies.
The latest hit in Tokyo’s polymorphous kissaten culture is cat cafés, offering quality time with well-groomed pedigree felines. Particularly popular among young women and dating couples, they are relaxing places, offering the pleasures of pet ownership without the commitment. A great example is Calico where ¥600 gets you thirty minutes of quality cat time. There are English instructions on the house rules, and inexpensive drinks and food. Another option is Nekorobi where you have to spend at least ¥1000 per visit, including drinks.
Tokyo for kids
Tokyo is a fantastic city for kids. For starters, there’s a whole swathe of museums, the best ones being Miraikan, the National Science Museum and Edo-Tokyo Museum. For animal lovers, there’s the fabulous aquarium at Kasai Rinkai-kōen and Ueno zoo.
The city also boasts Tokyo Disneyland, of course, and the thrill of the rides at Tokyo Dome as well as the wonderful Ghibli Museum, based on the popular anime films produced by the Ghibli studio. If your children are six or under, the National Children’s Castle will keep them occupied for many an hour. For older, tech-savvy kids, the electronic emporia of Akihabara will be a must.
Tokyo’s wholesale districts
Tokyo’s wholesale districts can be fun to poke around. Best known to visitors are the fish and fresh produce market Tsukiji and the “Kitchenware Town” Kappabashi. Other ones to search out include the area around Edo-dōri, north of Asakusabashi Station, which specializes in traditional Japanese dolls. Further north along Edo-dōri, the area called Kuramae is “Toy Town”, where shops sell fireworks, fancy goods and decorations, as well as cheap plastic toys. Bakurochō and Yokoyamachō are the textile districts where you’ll also find shops selling cheap clothes.
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.
Until recently the prime attraction for visitors east across the Sumida-gawa was Ryōgoku, home to the capital’s sumo stadium and the engaging Edo-Tokyo Museum, covering the city’s history from the seventeenth century to the present day. Looming over both these is the soaring Tokyo Sky Tree telecommunications tower, a mega construction project that is drawing attention to the previously untouristed residential and industrial area of Oshiage.
This part of Tokyo, the core of the Shitamachi area, is the capital at its most traditional. Nowhere is this more obvious than among the craftshops and neighbourhood restaurants and ryokan of Asakusa and in the constant festival atmosphere around its magnificent temple, Sensō-ji.
Two subway stops or a short walk west of Kappabashi is Ueno, best known for its park and museums, including the flagship Tokyo National Museum, offering a comprehensive romp through Japanese art history. The Yamanote line loops west from Ueno past Rikugi-en, a serene classical garden, before rattling into Ikebukuro, worth exploring for its two huge department stores, discount shops and cosmopolitan vibe.
Northern Tokyo's main commercial hub is Ikebukuro (池袋). Cheap accommodation and good transport links have attracted an increasing number of expatriates, typically Chinese and Taiwanese, but including a broad sweep of other nationalities, to settle around here, which lends Ikebukuro a faintly cosmopolitan air. Either side of the hectic station (around one million passengers pass through each day), the massive department stores Tōbu and Seibu square off against each other.
Five minutes' walk south of Komagome Station on the Yamanote line, Rikugi-en (六義園; daily 9am–5pm; ¥300) is Tokyo's best surviving example of a classical, Edo-period stroll-garden, designed in the early 18th century by high-ranking feudal lord Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. Both a perfectionist and a literary scholar, Yanagisawa took seven years to create this celebrated garden – with its 88 allusions to famous scenes, real or imaginary, from ancient Japanese poetry – and then named it Rikugi-en, "garden of the six principles of poetry", in reference to the rules for composing waka (poems of 31 syllables).
Few of the 88 landscapes have survived – the guide map issued at the entrance identifies a mere eighteen. Nevertheless, Rikugi-en still retains its rhythm and beauty, beginning as you enter with an ancient, spreading cherry tree, then slowly unfolding along paths that meander past secluded arbours and around the indented shoreline of an islet-speckled lake. In contrast, there are also areas of more natural woodland and a hillock from which to admire the whole scene.
Tokyo's last tramline
Tokyo once had an extensive tram network, of which only the 12km Toden Arakawa line (都電荒川線) remains, running north from Waseda to Minowa-bashi. The most interesting section is the short stretch from Kōshinzuka Station, a fifteen-minute walk northwest of Sugamo Station, from where the line heads southwest towards Higashi-Ikebukuro, rocking and rolling along narrow streets and through Tokyo back yards. Most of the original tramlines were private enterprises – the Arakawa line was built purely to take people to the spring blossoms in Asukayama Park – and have gradually been replaced with subways. Now the last of the chin chin densha ("ding ding trains"), as they're known from the sound of their bells, the Arakawa line, will probably survive for its nostalgia value if nothing else. Tickets cost ¥160, however far you travel; you pay as you enter. Station signs and announcements are in English.
Southern and western Tokyo
Tokyo’s southern and western districts are where you’ll find the city’s younger, hipper areas. Shinjuku – with its skyscrapers, department stores and red-light district – buzzes with life, and includes one of the city’s most beautiful parks, Shinjuku Gyoen. A short train ride west will bring you to a couple of charming museums where you can learn more about anime.
Immediately south of Shinjuku, Aoyama and Harajuku offer a collective showcase of contemporary Tokyo fashion and style, as well as the verdant grounds of the city’s most venerable shrine, Meiji-jingū. The transport hub of Shibuya, further south, is another youth-orientated commercial enclave, as is nearby Daikan’yama.
Further south, Ebisu is home to the excellent Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, while neighbouring Meguro has the tranquil National Park for Nature Study and Happōen traditional garden and teahouse. East of here is the temple Sengaku-ji, a key location in one of the city’s bloodiest true-life samurai sagas, and the transport and hotel hub of Shinagawa.
Covering parts of both Aoyama and Harajuku, the areas immediately south of Shinjuku, is Meiji-jingū (明治神宮), Tokyo’s premier Shinto shrine. A memorial to Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912, and his empress Shōken, who died in 1914, the shrine is split into two sections, the main one being the Inner Garden, beside Harajuku Station. Of less importance is the Outer Garden, between Sendagaya and Shinanomachi stations, which contains the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery and several sporting arenas, including the National Stadium and Jingū Baseball Stadium.
Meiji-jingū is the focus of several festivals during the year, the most important of which is Hatsu-mōde (meaning “first visit of the year to a shrine”), held on January 1 when some three million descend on the shrine. Apart from the festivals, Meiji-jingū is best visited midweek, when its calm serenity can be appreciated minus the crowds.
The Inner Garden
The most impressive way to approach the Inner Garden is through the southern gate next to Jingū-bashi, the bridge across from Harajuku’s mock-Tudor station building. From the gateway, a wide gravel path runs through densely forested grounds to the 12m-high Ō-torii, the largest Myōjin-style gate in Japan, made from 1500-year-old cypress pine trees from Taiwan.
To the left of the Ō-torii is the entrance to the Jingū Naien (神宮内苑), a traditional garden – said to have been designed by the emperor Meiji for his wife – which is at its most beautiful (and most crowded) in June, when over one hundred varieties of irises, the empress’s favourite flowers, pepper the lush greenery with their purple and white blooms.
Returning to the garden’s entrance, the gravel path turns right and passes through a second wooden torii, Kita-mon (north gate), leading to the impressive honden (central hall). With their Japanese cypress wood and green copper roofs, the buildings are a fine example of how Shinto architecture can blend seamlessly with nature. There are exits from the courtyard on its eastern and western flanks; follow either of the paths northwards through the woods to arrive at the pleasant grassy slopes and pond before the main Treasure House. Don’t bother going in – the contents of the museum are no more thrilling than the lumpen grey concrete building that houses them.
The 47 rōnin
Celebrated in kabuki and bunraku plays, as well as on film, Chūshingura is a true story of honour, revenge and loyalty. In 1701, a young daimyō, Asano Takumi, became embroiled in a fatal argument in the shogun’s court with his teacher and fellow lord Kira Yoshinaka. Asano had lost face in his performance of court rituals and, blaming his mentor for his lax tuition, drew his sword within the castle walls and attacked Kira. Although Kira survived, the shogun, on hearing of this breach of etiquette, ordered Asano to commit seppuku, the traditional form of suicide, which he did.
Their lord having been disgraced, Asano’s loyal retainers, the rōnin – or masterless samurai – vowed revenge. On December 14, 1702, the 47 rōnin, lead by Oishi Kuranosuke, stormed Kira’s villa, cut off his head and paraded it through Edo in triumph before placing it on Asano’s grave in Sengaku-ji. The shogun ordered the rōnin’s deaths, but instead all 47 committed seppuku on February 14, 1703, including Oishi’s 15-year-old son. They were buried with Asano in Sengaku-ji, and today their graves are still wreathed in the smoke from the bundles of incense placed by their gravestones.
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