Tokyo is constantly evolving. On one level it is a very modern and fashionable city with a seemingly unlimited choice of shopping, entertainment and fine dining, but it is also deeply rooted in its culture and traditions. It is a city full of surprises and contrasts, wrapped up in a dizzying whirlwind of activity.
Once a small castle town known as Edo, Tokyo has evolved into an economic and cultural powerhouse. It is the world’s largest metropolis with a greater Tokyo population of 98 million, and can be quite daunting at first for visitors.
It is not really a centralised city, more of an urban patchwork of distinct neighbourhoods. The trick is to explore a district at a time, perhaps starting in the central business and financial district of Hibiya which boasts both Edo Castle and the Imperial Palace before heading to Ginza for shopping and fine dining and then on to Roppongi for its lively night life.
Japan has more festivals (matsuri) than almost any other country in the world and Tokyo plays host to some of the biggest, including the Kanda Matsuri that lasts a week, every two years and the boisterous Sanja Matsuri held in May in Tokyo’s old-fashioned Asakusa district and draws around two million visitors.
Local etiquette can be tricky for tourists and it’s best to brush up on the correct manners for footwear when entering private homes or temples. Always remember to use two hands when giving and receiving business cards and gifts, slurp loudly when eating noodles, don’t tip waiters or cab drivers and never, ever blow your nose in public or pour your own drink.
Food & Drink
Tokyo is the fine dining capital of the world. The city’s restaurants have more Michelin stars than any other location on the planet – more than Paris and New York combined.
The cuisine served at these restaurants range from traditional Japanese and sushi to French fare and international fusion.
Izakaya are the most common type of casual dining establishments and are similar to tapas bars where customers order a variety of small dishes of food that can be shared at the table, including popular food items such as yakitori and sashimi.
Many well known Japanese dishes began as a speciality of Tokyo. These culinary creations are known as “edomae”, which literally means “in front of (mae) Tokyo Bay” (Edo is the original name for Tokyo).
The bay was teeming with fish and edomae was a term that locals used to describe the abundance of prawns, shellfish, eel, and octopus that could be caught there. Classic dishes now include:
- Nigiri-Zushi – perhaps the most famous sushi in the world. It is made with a slice of raw fish on top of a compacted mound of rice and is generally served in pairs, with a little dab of wasabi between the rice and the fish. The dish can be found throughout Tokyo, but the restaurants surrounding the Tsukiji Fish Market are often considered one of the best places to eat them.
- Soba noodles – can be found across the city, including standing soba eateries and restaurants specialising in soba (soba-ya). Made from buckwheat, diners dip their noodles lightly into thick dipping sauces.
- Tempura – Deep fried seafood and vegetables in tempura batter. Try tempura at a Tokyo restaurant that specialises in the dish, known as tempura-ya. These have a top-class dining reputation, where customers often sit at the counter and watch as the chef prepares one tempura piece after the other.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have encouraged a wide range of new developments, hotels and infrastructure upgrades across Tokyo. There are also many notable attractions across the city that are well worth setting time aside to see.
One landmark that is impossible to miss is the Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest free-standing tower. It is 634 metres high and offers spectacular views across the city. The Skytree has two observation decks, the Tembo deck at 350 metres high that can hold 2,000 people and the even higher Tembo Galleria at 450 metres that can accommodate 900 visitors.
The Imperial Palace is one of the top-rated tourist attractions in the city with its beautiful 17th-century parks surrounded by walls and moat and the famous Nijubashi Bridge. The palace was built in 1888 on the site of the former residential palace of the successive Tokugawa Shoguns in the Edo Period. Some parts are not accessible as the palace remains the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family.
Tokyo also boasts many beautiful temples and shrines. The oldest and most famous Buddhist temple is Sensoji (also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple). The five-storey pagoda stands at the end of a long street called Nakamise lined with shops selling Japanese souvenirs, crafts and sweet and savoury snacks. The temple dates back to AD645 and retains its original appearance despite having been rebuilt several times.
Of course, no trip to Tokyo could be complete without some significant time spent shopping. Ginza has been the commercial centre of the country for centuries and is Tokyo’s busiest shopping area. It’s where five ancient roads connecting Japan’s major cities all met and is now lined with exclusive shops, numerous department stores, cafes, restaurants, and flagship fashion boutiques. At weekends all traffic is barred and it becomes one of the world’s largest pedestrian zones and a veritable shopper’s paradise.
Tokyo is a truly unique place to visit, with literally thousands of things to do and see, but Japan’s superb high-speed rail network makes it very easy to explore other parts of this fascinating country.
Yokohama is Japan’s second most populated city and is only half an hour on the train from Shibuya Station. It’s not quite as bustling as Tokyo, but highlights include The Cup Noodles Museum, Japan’s largest Chinatown and a lively waterfront area that features the 296 metre Landmark Tower, the three Queen’s Towers and Cosmo World Ferris Wheel as well as a wide range of shopping opportunities for visitors.
To get away from city life, there are many spectacular landscapes scattered across the country. For instance, Hakone is a two-hour train journey from Tokyo and forms part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. It is famous for its hot springs and the view across Lake Ashinoko of nearby Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan.
Visitors can also take a cable car, known as the Hakone Ropeway, up the mountain to Owakudani (The Great Boiling Valley) where a must try is the area’s celebrated hard-boiled eggs that have turned black after being cooked in the sulfuric hot springs.
Then there is Nikko, another town on the edge of a national park. Here you will find Toshogu Shrine, Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. You can also walk across the Shinkyo Bridge, ranked as one of Japan’s three finest bridges, or follow the Kanmangafuchi Abyss river trail with its collection of 70 stone statues of Jizo, a Bodhisattva who cares for the dead.
Four hours by train out of Tokyo is Hiroshima. There are two World Heritage Sites in the city – the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, the only shrine in the world built on water, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial – known around the world as the Atomic Bomb Dome.
Hiroshima is also one of Japan’s three great sake-producing areas, along with Fushimi in Kyoto and Kobe’s Nada district. The city has more than 50 brewers creating a wide selection of the traditional rice wine, popular with connoisseurs for the variety of flavours they produce.
The Edo period lasted for more than 250 years until 1868. In that time, the unique high culture and education of the Japanese people grew and matured into a legacy that helps define modern Tokyo’s arts and culture.
Tokyo is well known as a centre for traditional performing arts such as Noh (highly stylised drama), Kabuki (complex dramas performed in elaborate costumes) and Rakugo (comic storytelling).
Its unique culture is also reflected in its traditional arts, such as ikebana (flower arranging), origami (making objects by folding paper) and ukiyo-e (woodblock printing).
On top of that there are many unique traditions, such as the Japanese tea ceremony, called Chanoyu (or sometimes “Sadou” or “Chadou”) and the etiquette surrounding bathing in Japan’s hot springs, known as onsen.
There is also the Sumo event. The whole pageantry of the event makes it much more than a simple wrestling competition. It originated as a performance to entertain the Shinto deities and can now be seen in 15-day Grand tournaments that take place in Tokyo three times per year, typically in January, May, and September.
However, while Tokyo has many traditional art forms it is also an international centre for creative culture. It has world-class symphony and philharmonic orchestras and a thriving jazz scene. But for a musical experience you won’t find anywhere else, there is the famously extravagant Takarazuka Revue. It’s bold, brash entertainment involving sparkly costumes and big dance numbers from an all-female cast that’s been described as “a mix of Broadway, Parisian cabaret and Radio-City variety shows”.
And finally, you will probably be aware that karaoke was invented in Japan and Tokyo has many bars that specialise in the sing-along concept, some world famous. Many of the karaoke songs performed are in English, but the most popular Japanese song is called Kimi to Itsumademo by the singer Yuzo Kayama.