Asia

What can you say about Tokyo?

Shibuya Crossing | Photo credit: Naotake Murayama

You’ll still be talking months later!

Effortlessly blending the old and the new, Tokyo is a city that defies definition. Cutting edge technology glitters beside ancient temples, flashing neon lights bathe kimono-clad women, and shining skyscrapers tower above stunning Shinto shrines.

At first glance a city clogged by polluting cars and harassed commuters, Tokyo has spots of tranquility and beautiful detail that amaze and astonish. Home to over 12 million people, this is a city with a history and a heart that captivates every visitor.

This sprawling megalopolis on the Pacific coast of Honshu is on the largest of the 6,800 Japanese islands.

In 1590, the city was founded as Edo, the capital of the shoguns, the succession of hereditary absolute rulers of Japan and commander of the Japanese army. Edo boasted its own vibrant culture, the celebrated ‘floating world’ of pleasure quarters, theatres and cherry blossoms, immortalized in the Japanese woodblock prints of the time.

Following the fall of the shoguns in 1867 (and the restoration of the power of the Emperor), the city was renamed Tokyo, the Eastern Capital, heralding its rebirth as a dynamic modern city and the showpiece of a rapidly modernizing country.

Now a bewildering amalgamation of districts and neighbourhoods, Tokyo still thrives as a coherent whole, due to the extraordinarily efficient network of rail and underground lines that crisscross and encircle the city. These are Tokyo’s arteries, transporting legions of businesspeople, office workers and students from the suburbs and depositing them in vast stations. Two million people a day pass through Shinjuku Station alone.

The towering business districts swarm with soberly dressed corporate warriors and the demure young secretaries known as ‘office flowers’. The architectural anarchy and sheer crush of humanity assaults the senses. Amid the frenzy of consumerism, brash electronics outlets are crammed next to refined upscale boutiques and hordes of giggling schoolgirls swoon over pop idols and the latest fashions in glitzy emporiums.

Downtown, old neighbourhoods cluster around antiquated shopping arcades and the clatter of the temple bell echoes across the rooftops. Here, the rhythms of the seasons are still observed. Tokyoites flock to ring in the New Year at the venerable Shinto shrines and springtime brings a flurry of flower-viewing parties and picnics under the cherry blossoms.

Rowdy, traditional festivals punctuate the humid summers and the spirit of the old Edo also survives in the neon-bathed entertainment districts: modern-day ‘floating worlds’ of karaoke and cinemas, shot bars and bathhouses. Traditional kabuki theatre thrives alongside opera, ballet and symphonic performances.

With the latest figures estimating an incredible 60,000 eateries in Tokyo and home to the world’s largest fish market, food is an obsession even closer to Japanese hearts. From bowls of steaming ramen noodles to delicate slices of sashimi, chefs compete to offer the freshest produce, and presentation is elevated to an art form.

With the arrival of the more ‘yen conscious’ economy, however, Tokyo has become a much more affordable destination. To the surprise of many, travelling and entertaining in this bustling city no longer requires a large bankroll. And with grooming and shopping followed with almost religious fervour, very little economic trepidation is evident to spoil a visitor’s fun.

If you are contemplating visiting Tokyo, avoid Golden Week (late April-May) and New Year (late December-early January), the two most important festivals in the Shinto calendar, because the city closes down. But with festivals celebrated almost every week, whenever you visit there is always something of the old Japan to experience.

With recent statistics heralding an unprecedented rise in tourist numbers, Tokyo is inspiring more western visitors than ever before. Hurtling towards the future while respecting its past, this unique city and the people that live there offer visitors an experience you will never forget.

Did You Know?

  • Tokyo is located on the southeastern area of the Honshu Island. The city is a conglomeration of distinctive districts including Shinjuku ( the hectic transit center ), Shibuya ( the trendy shopping district ), Ueno Park ( the hub of cultural events ), Asakusa ( the historical district ) and Ginza ( the upscale shopping district ).
  • The Greater Tokyo area has a population of over 33 million; making one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world.
  • Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower (whose design is based on the Eiffel Tower in Paris) is located in the middle of a city block. The tower only weighs about 4000 tons, which is extremely light compared to the 10,100 ton Eiffel Tower, and it is painted in white and orange according to aviation safety regulations.
  • Popular Hollywood flicks like ‘The Fast and the Furious’, ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Lost in Translation’ have been filmed in Tokyo.
  • The daily English newspaper in Tokyo is the Japan Times

How to Get Here  

Shinkansen Hikari | Photo credit: Japanese National Tourism Organization

Narita International Airport (NRT) is located 66km (41 miles) east of central Tokyo and is the main gateway to Japan, with over 60 airlines operating out of its two terminals. The airport handles mainly international flights. Most domestic flights use Haneda Airport (HND).

Japan Railway’s Narita Express (called N’EX) and the Keisei Railway Skyliner provide rapid, frequent and comfortable service to passengers travelling between Narita International Airport and the Tokyo Metropolitan area. Both companies operate regular services between 6:00 AM and 10:00 PM and the travel time is just over 50 minutes. At Narita, each passenger terminal has its own railway station.

Airport Limousine buses depart the airport several times an hour between 7:00 AM and 10:00 PM, serving major hotels in central Tokyo and Yokohama. The journey time, depending on traffic and the destination, is about 90 minutes. Buses and taxis from the airport to various destinations leave from the Arrivals level on the first floor. Passengers planning to take the bus should obtain their tickets at the ticket counters before proceeding to the bus stops.

Taxis, which are readily available, are notoriously expensive. The journey time is also about 90 minutes, depending on traffic.

Are there any Travel or Medical Alerts? News from Japan National Tourism Organization

Following the British and Canadian governments’ ease on travel restrictions to Japan, on April 14, the US Department of State has reduced the travel alert to Japan only to the 50 miles radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which excludes major cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama, and Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports. As international organizations release clearer figures and assessment, the current situation has reached a reasonable safety level for international travelers.

Can We Visit Japan Today?

Yes. The majority of regions in Japan including popular leisure travel destinations are outside the areas affected by tsunami, earthquake and radiation, and received no disruption to infrastructure.  Everything in these areas continues to operate as usual.  The greater Tokyo area has already retrieved the usual condition, and there are no more periodical blackouts.  The other regions are unharmed, and safe and normal as before.

How is the Radiation Level?

NOT DANGEROUS! Except for the proximate areas near the nuclear power plants, there is no dangerous level of radiation detected in Japan.  Tokyo is not within radiation contamination concern area, located over 200km (124 miles) away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant facilities.  The radiation level in Tokyo is similar to that of New York City.  The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and other international organizations confirm that the radiation level in the atmosphere is within a reasonable safety level to human health. You can see daily updates on radiation level in major cities in Japan here.

Are Food and Water Safe?

Yes. There is no shortage of food or water, and products distributed to the public are all safe.

Is Public Transportation Working?

Yes. Japan’s sophisticated public transportation systems have been recovered to the regular service levels everywhere, except for the tsunami-affected regions.

Daily Updates

Since the 3.11 earthquake, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) continues to release updates on its website, including radiation conditions, transportation, events and other travel-related information.

Japanese Yen

You do not need to arrive in Japan with Yen in hand. When you land at Narita International, there are exchange counters that offer better exchange rates than what you’d get abroad, as well as ATMs. Change enough money to last several days, since exchanging money is not as convenient in Japan as it is in many other countries.

Credit cards are widely accepted in major cities. Canadian or U.S. traveller’s cheques can be exchanged at major banks and hotels. Although traveler’s checks are something of an anachronism now that ATMs have come onto the scene, they’re still useful for Japan, where ATMs for foreign-issued cards are limited. All banks in Japan displaying an Authorized Foreign Exchange sign can exchange currency and traveler’s checks. Automated banking machines are widely available, but some do not accept foreign debit cards. Visitors should be aware that banking machines are not available 24 hours a day and may not be available on weekends.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

Your bank can advise if you need a new personal identification number (PIN) for overseas access to your account. Credit cards and debit cards should be used with caution due to the potential for fraud and other criminal activity. ABMs should be used during business hours inside a bank, supermarket, or large commercial building.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Tokyo’s climate is temperate, with four separate seasons and subtropical conditions for most of the year.

Visiting the city is a pleasure at any time, except perhaps during the sweltering heat of summer (July and August). While winter in the city is cold and crisp, spring (March to May) is the highlight of the year for many, with the arrival of delicate cherry blossoms inspiring sake-soaked picnics in the city’s parks and avenues. Autumn (September to November) sees the oppressive summer heat give way to balmy days and golden leaves.

Getting Around

Otaru Station, Hokkaido | Photo credit: Japanese National Tourism Organization

Thanks to the determination of the Japanese government to attract foreign visitors, Tokyo is becoming ever easier to navigate. A recent redesign of the subway map makes travelling on the city’s excellent public transport extremely easy. English signage is good and getting better, but learning a few basics in Japanese will go a long way to help navigate the sprawling city’s streets.

Tokyo has one of the most sophisticated and efficient public transport systems in the world – a combination of an extensive train network operated by a number of private companies, 12 underground lines, bus services and several monorails.

The complexity of the network and the sheer size of some of the stations can seem daunting at first, but navigation is remarkably easy. There are numerous easy to use ticket machines and the colour-coded underground map makes navigation simple.

There are a variety of passes available designed to save money. Frequent travel tickets offer 11 tickets for the price of 10. The Passnet is a pre-pay card that won’t save you money, but will save you time, as you simply charge it up at the machines and swipe it at each ticket gate. Best of all for confused travellers, if in doubt simply buy the cheapest fare available at the ticket machine. You can then settle up at the fare adjustment machines at your destination without the risk of a fine. For information in English call the JR East Infoline (03) 3423 0111.

Tokyo’s subway network is operated by two companies, the Toei Subways with four lines, and Tokyo Metro with eight lines. Some Tokyo Metro tickets and passes are not valid on the Toei lines.

With the number of Tokyo commuters, trains are uncomfortably crowded during rush hours, despite very frequent services. Public transport is also very safe, even after dark, and staff and passers-by are generally quick to help confused foreigners.

Despite Tokyo being very much a 24-hour city, the service does not operate 24 hours – trains run from approximately 5:00 AM – Midnight. Nevertheless, there are many 24-hour pubs and cafés in the city and waiting for the trains to start running in the early morning is a long established tradition among the revellers wishing to avoid ruinously expensive night-time taxi fares.

Tokyo’s taxis are numerous and can be hailed easily on the street or found at taxi ranks. It is also possible for one to reserve a taxi in advance, but there may be an extra charge. Tipping is not customary and could offend.

Taxi drivers are very professional but rarely speak English, so it is advisable to have your destination written out in Japanese or to be able to point to it on a Japanese map. During rush hour, it is often quicker to take the train. Unoccupied taxis become scarce at around 1:00, once the train services have finished. A peculiarity of all Japanese taxis is that the rear doors are operated automatically by the driver – visitors should not try to open or close the doors themselves.

Tokyo’s public transport network and taxis are excellent and driving in the city is not advised. Traffic is heavy, navigation is greatly complicated by the fact that streets rarely have names and parking is expensive and difficult to find. If you do want to rent a car, free city maps are available from either the city tourism association or a car rental agency, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems today also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

Those who come to visit this vast metropolis will likely be overwhelmed. Planning your visit can be most beneficial. This is a guide to some of the more popular districts in Tokyo.

Ginza Here you will find department stores, boutiques, bookstores and eating and drinking places that fit every taste and budget. The Ginza is the nation’s showcase. It is what Fifth Avenue is to New York and Oxford Street is to London. Store prices are uniform throughout Japan, so there is no need to bargain. Just make sure not to wander into some classy restaurant where you might get a shock from the high prices.

Nihonbashi 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 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, still on its original site, and Takashimaya, another venerable shopping institution, are worth visiting here.

Marunouchi-Otemachi This is Tokyo’s main business hub, and is great for skyscraper watching and picture-taking. It is located between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace, two stunning examples of ancient Japanese architecture.

Shibuya Young people congregate in these three places. Both Shibuya and Shinjuku are major centres, with the usual mix of department stores, shops, cafes and restaurants. The unique monument Hachiko, by Shibuya Station, commemorates a dog’s loyalty to its master, and is known by practically every Tokyoite as a universal meeting place. Shibuya also encompasses Aoyama, a fashionable area dotted with designer boutiques and chic Parisian-style cafes. Shinjuku Station handles some 4 million commuters daily.

By day or night, Shinjuku is a lively neon-lit place with a bit of the atmosphere of New York’s Greenwich Village. Looking for a smoke-filled jazz spot? 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 is even a Barneys, an entire department store transplanted from New York. There are also two major landmarks here: the Tokyo Tocho (Metropolitan Government Office), with its futuristic twin 48-story towers, and Takashimaya Times Square.

Harajuku comes alive on weekends when the young and trendy come to see and be seen. This is where Tokyo’s fashion-forward attitude becomes manifested. There’s no shortage of off-the-wall outfits and hairstyles to be found strutting up and down the streets. And most are perfectly willing to pose for your camera.

Yurakucho-Hibiya is close to Ginza, and many airlines have offices here. Check out the quaint yakitori barbecue chicken stalls under the raised train tracks. Or enjoy a quiet moment among the flower beds in Hibiya Park. The Imperial Hotel, erected along the park by imperial edict, once featured a building designed by the eminent American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. You could join the joggers on the five-kilometer periphery of the Imperial Palace grounds, what is otherwise called the Imperial Palace Jogging Course, or stick to a leisurely stroll around the Palace East Garden.

Roppongi 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 Café. Tokyo Tower, modeled on the Eiffel Tower, but taller, is visible and easily accessible from here. Take the elevator to the observatory; you might catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji from up there.

Asakusa and Ueno Already bustling centres in Edo times, 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 colourful displays of traditional crafts. At Ameyoko Market Street in Ueno, you can pick up unusual bargains ranging from dried squid to fake designer shirts. Culture buffs should head for the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park.

Azabu and Hiroo This neighbourhood is where many ex-patriots reside in expensive high-rise buildings. It is here that some of the most sought-after properties in Tokyo can be found. There are many small, independently-owned, shops, cafes and restaurants in the area as well.

Akasaka-mitsuke 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 by and get good luck charms, or browse the wares for sale at the flea markets at Nogi Jinja Shrine, where you’re sure to find a good deal.

Akihabara, Tokyo | Photo credit: Japanese National Tourism Organization

Akihabara This is the major hub of Otaku, or “geek,” culture. People looking to buy electronic gadgets, computer accessories and toys and games know to come here, where they can not only get good prices; they can also meet people who share their special interests. Due to a recent boom in popularity, the cramped stores of Akihabara are always a-buzz with hip techno-ites.

Ikebukuro This district is most often visited for the sweeping view from the top of Sunshine City’s center skyscraper Sunshine 60. It’s 60 stories high, and one of the first skyscrapers built in Tokyo. Sunshine City itself is definitely worthy of its name; you can get lost in this large cluster of buildings for days. Within its many walls are an indoor amusement park, movie theatre, shopping mall, museum and planetarium.

Korakuen is the site of the Tokyo Dome, which is a modern sports arena. he Dome can accommodate up to 56,000 spectators. Baseball games are played here and there are also concerts and festivals in the off-season. The Koishikawa-Korakuen Garden is attached to the Dome, and it offers a tranquil escape for those looking to have some peace and quiet. The Korakuen Amusement Park is right next to the Dome, and has a roller coaster and arcade. For something different, visit Muryozan Jukyoji Temple, where you can learn about the Shogunate Period.

Odaiba is an ongoing oceanfront development and artificial island, served by a monorail. It’s been called “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 a giant Ferris wheel, several shopping malls, museums and even a replication of the Statue of Liberty.

What not to miss …

World Heritage Site(s)

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. Currently, there are fourteen World Heritage Sites in Japan

Unlike other cities of its size and significance, however, Tokyo lacks a definable centre or landmark. Instead, the city is divided into separate and distinct neighbourhoods, each with their own secrets to discover. The best way to navigate these mini-cities is on the Metro system, specifically the Yamanote Line, a commuter train loop which passes through many of Tokyo’s major stations.

But as with all of Japan, the key to discovering the true Tokyo lies in the details. Simply wandering though an area reveals the secrets that make this city so unique.

But with no street names, finding exactly where a building is in Tokyo can be difficult. Buying a detailed bilingual map will certainly help, and with so little crime to solve, the police in their boxes (called koban) on practically every corner are both plentiful and experienced in redirecting the lost gaijin traveller. Lastly, study the large and detailed maps on display at every Metro station. These clearly show which exit is needed, in English. Another tip is: carry a GPS, which will call out when you arrive at your location. A GPS system will usually contain the location of Nearby Attractions and other very useful information.

Passes There are no sightseeing pass as such in Tokyo, but a couple of guides printed by the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau offer discount vouchers to visitors. The Tokyo Museum Guide, for example, offers discounts at 12 art galleries and museums, while the Tokyo Handy Guide covers 37 affiliated attractions.

From the hectic multi-road crossing at Shinjuku to the peaceful tree filled gardens at the Meiji Shrine, the city’s sights are varied and mesmerising. But, one of the most fascinating sites to see is simply people-watching. You can watch the fashion-obsessed teens every Sunday in Shibuya, step back in time in Asakusa’s crowded street stalls or revel in the neon lit view from the top of Roppongi’s Tokyo Tower and watch the crowds below.

Sightseeing Tip Know where to go and what you want to see in advance. This is a brief introduction to the most popular districts in Tokyo, and the key sights to see in each …
Perhaps the least noticeably ‘Japanese’ of all the neighbourhoods, Roppongi is where many expats go to party. Filled for years with packed bars, clubs and restaurants, the area saw the beginning of a new era with the triumphant opening of the Roppongi Hills complex in 2003. With visitor numbers now climbing to 300,000 each weekend, the success of this shining beacon to consumerism inspired the Mid-town Project, which opened in March 2007 on the other side of the neighbourhood. This complex includes the tallest building in Tokyo, the Midtown Tower, which rises 54 storeys and 248m in height. There are two museums, the Suntory Museum of Art and the new 21_21 Design Sight, a beautiful park, and a host of eateries. The striking new National Arts Centre is just down the road.

Created as a city within a city, this immensely popular complex offers visitors a taste of Tokyo’s future. Every inch of Roppongi Hills has been beautifully designed; visitors can wander through peaceful Japanese gardens and beside water walls, then eat and shop in one of more than 200 restaurants and boutiques. Many of Japan’s festivals are celebrated here with dancing and performances in the open spaces, while temporary art sculptures come and go amongst the permanent pieces designed by world renowned artists. Night visitors shouldn’t miss the chance to catch the best view of the city at Tokyo City View. Offering a 360 degree view of the bustling city from 250m above the sea, it is an inspiring sight. Opened in 1958, Tokyo Tower is a 333m red and white tower and an almost exact replica of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But standing several metres taller than the original, it also includes an aquarium and a waxwork exhibit. The observation tower offers views as far as Mt Fuji.

Tokyo Tower | Photo credit: Japanese National Tourism Organization

The wide tree-lined streets of Ginza are synonymous with the Japanese’s favourite hobby; sheer, unadulterated shopping. Despite being destroyed in the 1923 earthquake, the area soon sprung back with designer shops, famous department stores and tiny exclusive boutiques to inspire even the most ‘yen conscious’ of visitors. But a visit to Ginza doesn’t have to be pricey: splash out on an expensive cup of coffee and make it last, this is the ultimate area for people watching, especially on Sundays when various streets are closed to cars to give pedestrians free reign. But beyond the glittering shop fronts there is plenty to see in the area. Heading south from Ginza brings you to Shiodome, a new commercial centre with a number of shining skyscrapers, and the famous Tsukiji fish market is a short walk away. Tsukiji Ichiba (Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market) Set your alarm clock early, as visiting the world’s biggest fish market before dawn has even broken is a sight not to be missed. Relocated to this area following the 1923 earthquake, the sheer scale of the operation is breathtaking. Now open six days a week (the market is closed on Sundays and national holidays) more than 2,200 tons of fish pass through here every day. Those exhausted by the fish market can seek solace at the nearby HamaRikyu Garden. Hidden within a beautiful walled moat, this city oasis boasts manicured lawns, an ancient pine tree and three peaceful lakes. Once the hunting ground of a shogun, this tranquil garden now offers peace and quiet and a view of Tokyo’s famous Rainbow Bridge.

Shinjuku is a tale of two cities, divided by the numerous train tracks that run directly through it. To the west lies Nishi Shinjuku, a cluster of shining skyscrapers that serve the business and government district. To the east, Higashi Shinjuku, a number of neon lit streets filled with love hotels, hostess bars and pachinko gambling machines. Head for Takashimaya Times Square, where shopping and eating can be done indoors and on a large scale. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s largest travel hubs but be forewarned, the station has over 50 exits and can be a nightmare to navigate. Even locals get lost among the miles of underground tunnels that deposit commuters at their destinations. With two million travellers passing through the station every day numbers are always high, but seriously swell in rush hours, creating the famous images of commuters being pushed into packed carriages. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden Originally created for the royal family, these are perhaps the most beautiful gardens in Tokyo. The layout is meticulous and breathtaking, with both Japanese and French garden design, an imperial villa and a tropical greenhouse to explore. The gardens are filled with families on sunny days, as picnicking here is a Japanese tradition, although cafes are also on hand. The garden is particularly beautiful in the spring, when the cherry trees are in full bloom.

Top teen hangout and neon wonderland, the neighbourhood of Shibuya is always fast and furious. Exiting the station brings you to the most famous meeting spot in the city, a statue of Hachinko the dog. This loyal pup met his master from work every day and even after he died continued with his pilgrimage. So touched were the locals that they cast a statue of him in his honour. More famous to most visitors is the enormous street crossing, which sends hundreds of people across the road every few minutes. The vision many people have of Tokyo was featured in Lost in Translation. While there are some sights to see in Shibuya, the greatest show is people watching, seeing the teens preen and giggle their way through ever changing fashions. Bunkamura The Museum For a glimpse of international art, as well as the most innovative and exciting Tokyo can offer, this is the best gallery in town. But it is much more than just a museum, it is a multi media building offering a complete range of music, cinema and events.

Fashionistas have long been drawn to Omotesando, where the long leafy avenues join the hip area of Aoyama with the teen filled neighbourhood of Harajuku. Endless designer shops built next to one-off boutiques give this shopping mecca a more laid back feel than the classic air of Ginza, and with trends changing every minute it’s the place to stay abreast of Tokyo’s chameleon fashions. Make the trip on a Sunday to see one of Tokyo’s most infamous attractions, hordes of teenagers dressed in outrageous outfits. Part of the still hot trend of cos-play (short for costume play) the city’s young use the pastime as a way to shrug off the stress of the week at school or work. One of Japan’s finest examples of Shinto architecture, the atmospheric Meiji Shrine is tucked away in the centre of a dark, cool forest – an unexpected oasis in the centre of the city. Completed in 1920, the shrine honours the memory of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, under whose reign Japan rapidly modernised and was opened to the outside world. On weekends, it is often possible for visitors to see a traditional wedding procession.

The largest park in Tokyo is Ueno, where locals head when the cherry blossoms suddenly bloom. With over 1,000 trees it makes a spectacular sight every spring. Home to several important museums, as well as Ueno Zoo, the park is dotted with historically interesting temples and shrines. The Tokyo National Museum houses treasures of Japanese art through the ages, while the National Museum of Western Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum host important visiting exhibitions.

Perhaps the only place to truly get a sense of old Tokyo, Asakusa is where you will find one of the finest temples in the city. Tokyo’s most revered Buddhist temple and a site of pilgrimage and tourism for many centuries, Sensoji Temple was founded in AD628, to enshrine a gold statuette of the Kannon Bodhisattva (the Goddess of Mercy). The temple and its five-storey pagoda are concrete reconstructions built after a 1945 bombing raid but the temple precincts are nevertheless always bustling with worshippers. Smoke from the huge incense burner in front of the temple is said to have healing powers. The impressive Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) is famous for its enormous red paper lantern and fearsome guardian statues. Visitors can get lost in the tiny streets that surround the temple, easily drawn into the hundreds of little shops and restaurants that line the nearby roads. For hundreds of years the roads leading up to the temple’s front gate have been filled with stalls selling traditional Japanese wares, and today that tradition continues.

Built on reclaimed land at the height of Tokyo’s bubble era, Odaiba (also known as Rainbow Town) was a glimpse into Tokyo’s weird and wonderful future. A mixed development of shops, businesses, tourist attractions and spectacular architecture, this enormous development is well worth a day trip. You can ride on the world’s largest psychedelic big wheel, visit Venus Fort (the world’s first department store just for women designed with a unique shifting interior that mirrors Venice at sunset) and relive Edo era bathing at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari theme park.

Marunouchi The current Imperial Palace (Kokyo) is located on the former site of Edo Castle, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the centre of Tokyo. It is the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. Edo Castle used to be the seat of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan from 1603 until 1867. In 1868, the shogunate was overthrown, and the country’s capital and Imperial Residence were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. In 1888 construction of a new Imperial Palace was completed. The palace was destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt in the same style. From Kokyo Gaien, the large plaza in front of the Imperial Palace, visitors can view the Nijubashi, two bridges that form an entrance to the inner palace grounds. The palace buildings and inner gardens are not open to the public. Only on January 2 (New Year’s Greeting) and December 23 (Emperor’s Birthday), visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds and see the members of the Imperial Family, who make several public appearances on a balcony. During the rest of the year, guided tours of the palace are offered in Japanese, with an English pamphlet and audio guide provided. Tours must be reserved in advance. Perhaps the most controversial of all Tokyo’s sites, Yasukuni Shrine & Japanese WarDead Memorial Museum houses the souls of those killed in various Japanese wars. The grand shrine displays various artefacts. Housed in what looks like a colossal white spaceship, the EdoTokyo Museum is a wonderful place for visitors to get a feel for Tokyo’s history and culture. The permanent exhibition is divided into three distinct areas. The ‘Edo Zone’ opens with a replica of Nihombashi ‘Bridge of Japan’, taking visitors through ‘Tokyo Zone’ post war reconstruction ending at ‘History Zone’. Throughout the museum, engaging displays present the daily life and customs of the city’s past.

And while you are in Tokyo … have a bath …

Kinosaki Onsen | Photo credit: Japanese National Tourism Organization

Onsens Literally translating as ‘hot bubbling springs’, onsens are an essential part of Japanese life. First becoming popular more than 1,000 years ago, the baths are still scattered throughout Japan, and an onsen trip is an experience not to be missed. As with many aspects of Japanese life, strict onsen etiquette should always be adhered to. You bathe naked, no clothes or jewellery should be worn. Take off your shoes as soon as you enter and put them on the shelf or cabinet provided. Always wash thoroughly before entering the bath, make sure all soap is removed from your hair and body. Do not use any soaps or liquids in the bath. Do not bring a large towel into the bath, a small towel will be provided for you. Finally make sure you are dry before returning to the changing rooms. Very few onsen allow mixed bathing.

For the kids …

Tokyo Disneyland is a faithful replica of the Californian original, complete with Adventureland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, as well as shows, parades and firework displays. The unique DisneySea Park, set against the backdrop of Tokyo Bay, is proving enormously popular.

About Shopping

Tokyo is still riding high as the world’s ultimate shopping nirvana. With impeccable service and an indescribable selection of goods, it is very easy to succumb or just be bedazzled …

The main shopping areas in Tokyo are the stylish Ginza, with its ritzy department stores, designer boutiques and chic galleries; young, trendy Shibuya for clothes; the ‘youth mecca’ of Harajuku for teenage fashions and kitsch; Akihabara for a vast selection of electronic goods and computers; and vibrant Shinjuku, known for its camera shops, both new and second hand. Odaiba Mall is situated on the Tokyo Rainbow Town development in Tokyo Bay, also known as Odaiba.

When buying electrical goods, visitors should remember that Japan runs on 100 volts AC, so an adaptor and transformer will be required unless the items have a dual-voltage switch. In addition, many instruction books are available only in Japanese.

Antique/flea markets are 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. Starting before dawn, many stalls pack up by early afternoon. These markets are great places for browsing and good buys that include silk kimonos, Japanese dolls, ceramics and lacquer. A smile and a polite request will often yield a discount.

For low-price Japanese gifts visit the Oriental Bazaar. From china to yukatas (a simple Japanese robe worn by both men and women), there is something for every budget.

A visit to the basement food hall of a major department store is a must, if only to marvel at the exquisite presentation of the extraordinary selection of foodstuffs. Bakeries are currently the hottest food shops in the city, with delicious smells wafting from classy patisseries all over the Ginza, Marunouchi and Omotesando areas. At the other end of the commercial spectrum, lively Ameyoko Market, located under the railway tracks just south of Ueno Park, retains echoes of its origins as Tokyo’s post-war black market, with raucous vendors, cheap prices and crowds of shoppers.

A consumption tax of 5% is added to the price of all goods. Credit cards are slowly becoming more widely accepted, but most transactions are still done in cash.

Tokyo After Dark

To the surprise of many visitors, dining out in Tokyo doesn’t cost the earth. With an estimated 60,000 eateries, there is something for every tastebud and wallet, from the gastronomic delights to fresh and delicious sushi, served from a stall at the city’s famous fish market.

Unlike American and European counterparts, Japanese restaurants are often housed in anonymous grey buildings, either at the top of a high rise or down in the basement. But don’t be put off, the city has an incredible eye for design and diners often find themselves eating in the most beautiful surroundings. Service is impeccable and every diner is made to feel special.

The traditional arts thrive in Tokyo, with drama, martial arts, the tea ceremony and flower arranging all widely taught and performed. Tokyo is a stop on the touring schedules of many internationally famous music and dance companies, pop groups and art exhibitions, further adding to the vibrancy of the local arts and entertainment scene. Events are regularly sold out and bookings should be made well in advance.

There are five resident symphony orchestras including the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the NHK Symphony Orchestra. There are numerous major venues to hear any of the orchestras among them the Bunkamura Orchard Hall, Suntory Hall, and the stunningly designed concert hall, Tokyo Opera City. Tokyo International Forum, stages a variety of musical and cultural performances in its four halls, one being among the largest in the world, with 5,000 seats. Traditional Japanese musical performances, such as taiko (drum) and shamisen (string instrument), are occasionally held at Bunkamura.

Of Japan’s traditional dramatic arts, kabuki, with its gorgeous costumes, elaborate staging and complex plots, is probably the most accessible. Kabuki-za is a beautiful theatre that holds regular performances. English earphone commentary is available. Performances are long, sometimes lasting 5 or 6 hours, however, it is usually possible to purchase tickets for a single act.

As well, Tokyo has an opera house, a Shakespearean playhouse, and large concert halls that have a regular schedule of live entertainment ranging from puppet theatre, rock bands to orchestral quartets.

With tiny Japanese apartments still very much the norm, most Tokyo locals socialize out of the house. This has contributed to the vast array of restaurants, bars, clubs and coffee houses. From the small and smoky Japanese nomiya bars to wallet-busting cocktails at hotels, even long-term visitors can’t run out of new watering holes.

Dress codes are rarely overly strict. Entrance fees to clubs are high but usually include a couple of drinks. Cover charges are common in izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and bars. Drink prices very depend on the surroundings and range from the reasonable to the stratospheric. If in doubt, ask before ordering. Should you be tempted by one of the city’s many ‘hostess clubs’, be aware that a beverage in the company of an attractive companion can be costly. Tokyo’s gay bars are clustered in the Shinjuku 2-chome area. They are generally wary of foreign customers and are best explored with a Japanese companion.

There are no specific licensing hours in Tokyo, although the minimum drinking age is 20 years. Admission fees and opening times vary widely and the Tokyo nightlife scene is ever changing.

There are hundreds of bars on offer in the city, from the sleek and sublime to the rowdy and raucous. But if superclubs are your style, this is the right city. Tokyo’s local pop and rock scene revolves around ‘live houses’ – dark disco-like venues with a small stage. Tickets are pricey and should be reserved well in advance. Jazz has a large and ever growing following in the city and there are numerous venues offering excellent live jazz music. The artists are impressive artists and so are the prices. If all the live music inspires you, you might want to start making some of your own. Karaoke is still big business in Tokyo, but forget the drunken man serenading a bar full of strangers. In Tokyo the singing is done in small private rooms, with plush seating and excellent sound systems. Venues are scattered across the city, so you will never be far from a karaoke bar: just look up, they tend to be housed in the high floors of high rise buildings.

Sports / Outdoor Adventure

Mount Fuji from Lake Yamanakako | Photo credit: Flickr user hoge asdf

Tokyoites are passionate about sumo, baseball and now, thanks partly to the 2002 World Cup, football.

Japan’s traditional national sport is sumo, where huge wrestlers compete against each other in a five-meter ring. Six tournaments are held annually, about every other month, and are broadcast on national television. The centre of sumo in Tokyo is the Ryokugo Kokugikan.

In terms of popularity, sumo is outstripped by baseball, which has been played in Japan since the 1870s and has been known as yakyu (field ball) since World War II. Six teams are based in the Tokyo area, most with sponsorship from large corporations. Two of these teams, the Tokyo Giants and the Nippon Ham Fighters, play in the Tokyo Dome, Japan’s first indoor stadium, with a capacity of 56,000.

Golf is also a major athletic preoccupation for Tokyoites, though golfers who can afford membership in a club have to travel two hours outside the city.

The season for climbing Mount Fuji (The dormant volcano is about 2.5 hours from Tokyo) is July and August. Buses to the base camp (known as the Fifth Station) depart and arrive from outside Shinjuku station. Most people climb at night in order to view the sunrise from the summit. Be warned, though, that at an altitude of 3,776 m, it is extremely cold at the top, even in midsummer. Weather conditions can change rapidly, so dress appropriately.

Local Customs and Etiquette

Greetings in Japan are very formal and ritualized. It is important to show the correct amount of respect and deference to someone based upon their status relative to your own. If at all possible, wait to be introduced. It can be seen as impolite to introduce yourself, even in a large gathering. While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting is the bow. How far you bow depends upon your relationship to the other person as well as the situation. The deeper you bow, the more respect you show. A foreign visitor (‘gaijin’) may bow the head slightly, since no one expects foreigners to generally understand the subtle nuances of bowing.

Saving face is crucial in Japanese society. The Japanese believe that turning down someone’s request causes embarrassment and loss of face to the other person. If the request cannot be agreed to, the response may be “it’s inconvenient” or “it’s under consideration”. Face is a mark of dignity and means having status with peers.

Gift-giving is ritualistic and meaningful. The ceremony of presenting a gift and the way it is wrapped is as important – sometimes more important – than the gift itself. The gift need not be expensive, but take great care to ask someone who understands the culture to help you decide what type of gift to give. Good quality chocolates or small cakes are good ideas. Do not give lilies, camellias or lotus blossoms as each are associated with funerals. Do not give white flowers of any kind as they are associated with funerals. Do not give potted plants as they encourage sickness, although a bonsai tree is always acceptable. Give items in odd numbers, but not 9. If you buy the gift in Japan, have it wrapped. Gifts are not opened when received.

If you are invited to a Japanese house, remove your shoes before entering and put on the slippers left at the doorway and leave your shoes pointing away from the doorway. Arrive on time or no more than 5 minutes late if invited for dinner. If you must go to the washroom, put on washroom slippers and remove them when you are finished.

Dining Etiquette

Wait to be told where to sit. There is a protocol to be followed. The honoured guest or the eldest person will be seated in the centre of the table the furthest from the door. The honoured guest or the eldest is the first person to begin eating. Never point your chopsticks. Do not pierce your food with chopsticks. Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak. Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest. It is acceptable to ask what something is. Don’t be surprised if your Japanese colleagues slurp their noodles and soup. If you do not want anything more to drink, do not finish what is in your glass. An empty glass is an invitation for someone to serve you more. When you have finished eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Do not place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl. If you leave a small amount of rice in your bowl, you will be given more. To signify that you do not want more rice, finish every grain in your bowl.

Conversation at the table is generally subdued. The Japanese like to savour their food.

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