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.
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. 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.