Tokyo is the capital of Japan and is one of the 47 prefectures. It is renowned for being the biggest metropolitan area in the world. The Japanese Royal Family also lives here which just goes to show how important Tokyo is. Indeed, Tokyo is classed as one of the three giants in the world economy, with London and New York City.Interestingly, Tokyo used to be just a small fishing village, with its original name Edo meaning ‘estuary’, so it is obviously on the water. The surrounding area is quite flat. It is situated on the island of Honshu and the name changed to Tokyo in the mid nineteenth century since this word stands for ‘capital’. These days though, Tokyo is probably best known for its dense population, and everywhere seems to be extremely crowded.
Architecture here is mostly modern because most of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1923, or by the fire bombing in the Second World War. However, this does not detract from it because the contemporary architecture makes the place look more spacious than it really is.
Table of Contents
Best time to go
Tokyo enjoys hot and humid summers and mild winters. There are some cool spells but none of which are too cold. August is the warmest month with temperatures averaging 27C. The coolest time to visit is in January where temperatures can drop to 6C. Rainfall tends to be more in the summer than winter and snow will fall now and then in the winter. Typhoons occur as well, but these are usually not strong enough to cause problems.
There is a vast network of trains, subways and buses that service Tokyo. It is the train and subways which are the best way to move around the city.
Although special tickets do not have discounts as such, by purchasing them, the traveler can move around quicker.
There are different offers so check these out. This is also the home of the famous bullet train, the shinkansen, which takes people from Tokyo to Osaka in just three hours.
Car rental is possible but given the congestion, it may well be better to take a taxi, or take public transport which is relatively clean and safe.
Major Attractions and Sights
When arriving in Tokyo, many visitors find that it takes some days to get their body clock in sync. When this happens, the first visit must be to the busiest fish market in the world. For reservations to visit, try looking out for the fish information center at Kachidoki Gate on Harumi Street. Visitors are allowed in only on certain days and in two groups of sixty. The whole thing starts at around five in the morning so fits in well with jet lagged people! Be in time to experience the live tuna auctions in full swing. After this, go for a sushi breakfast in Tsukiji. Although raw fish for breakfast is only for the brave, it is worth a try at least. There are many different stalls selling sushi, but the best ones are off the wholesale fruit and vegetable market. Look for long lines to find the best sushi shops around.
There is also a general market in Tsukiji where specialty foods are on offer, but the best buys are the sashimi knives and bowls.
No-one can visit Tokyo without witnessing a ubiquitous sumo wrestling match. These huge athletes are revered for their skills, and none of them are without their attendant sumo groupies. There are three big tournaments throughout the year and they each last for fifteen days. They occur in January, May and September. A tip here is to visit in the morning or midday sessions as it is less crowded then. If visiting outside the competition seasons, try visiting the training sessions at a sumo stable, as it is called.
A visit to Japan cannot be complete without a visit to a shrine and one of the famous shrines here is the Shinto shrine. The demeanor of the place is serenity, so it is not really a tourist trap. There is a forty foot high gate, the torii, at the opening to the park, and there are two hundred acres to roam around in. Visitors who want to pray must first cleanse their hands and mouth at the communal water tank. Look for the huge taiko drum to offer up some offering and say a prayer here. Bow the head twice, clap once and then bow again. On Sundays, many wedding processions parade here with Shinto priests in attendance. It is a wonderful sight to behold and, if lucky, more than one procession will occur on this day.
Yoyogi Park in Shibuya-ku is well worth the visit. After spending some quiet time at the shrine, this place is a little manic to say the least. Since space is at a premium, many performers come here to practice. This could be anything from a run through for a play to hip hop singers and dancers. The American pop culture of the fifties is very popular, so expect to see poodle skirts and beehive hairstyles here.
The park is also a great place to cycle and they are available to hire. Go to the area to the northwest of the central field and check out the tandems and bikes. Snacks are available along with beer and other light refreshments, so this is a great place to stop for lunch.
For garden lovers, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a must. They have decked this place out in different styles. There is the English Landscape, the Formal, the Japanese Traditional with its own teahouse etc. To get a better overall view, go to the second floor of the Taiwan Pavilion and take some memorable photos. If possible, aim for the February /March time so that the beauty of the Cherry Blossoms can be experienced.
The free way to see the city at its best is to go up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. This has two towers with two observation decks on the forth fifth floor. Find the towers to the west of Shinjuku skyscraper area. This is a wonderful way to get photos of the skyline, and many tourists come here just for this purpose.
Perhaps the most famous of all entertainment spots in Tokyo is Disneyland. As one would expect from Disney, the park is run like clockwork, and has all the famous characters for the children to interact with. The rides are phenomenal, the parades exceptional and the layout perfect. Book tickets in advance on the website to avoid queues. DisneySea is also in Tokyo, so expect some spectacular ocean based fun. Oddly enough, the website is not that charming or interesting, but those of us who have been to Disneyland in other countries will know what to expect.
Outside Tokyo Station, at the Yaesu entrance, is the Daimaru department store. On the tenth floor is the kimono shop which the locals frequent. Tourists love this place but for the prices of these exquisite garments. For extra special souvenirs of the city, take home some hair combs, thong sandals or fans. Try out the lightweight cotton robes that most local hotels have in their rooms, the yukata, with delightful decorations in the form of geometric patterns for men and bamboo prints for women. Magnificent Samurai swords are on display nearby so the men will have something to take their minds off all that shopping!
For a real tourist experience, try the Oriental Bazaar on Omotesando Street which has even more yukata on offer. This place is cheaper than Daimaru’s but it can get really crowded on the weekend. The store closes on Thursdays.
Sushi has already been mentioned and everyone should give this delicacy a try while in Tokyo. It is not for everyone, but here is where they make it best.
Food in the city is not always cheap, but those in the know can get by on a tight budget. This is done by going where the locals go to eat in a bar or within neighborhoods that cater to the working man. Ebisu, in Shibuya-ku, is full of little bars and eateries with some specializing in roasted meats and vegetables.
Try out the sashimi served on small plates, and then choose from the extensive drink menus. Look for chalkboard menus outside these establishments not far from the main railways station. Gyi miso is a wonderful stew of elephant yam and tripe with some deep fried ginger root. There are western style food joints too, like KFC or Choco-croco so kids don’t have to suffer. Buri is also a posh place to visit, and has a great sake menu just a few blocks away.
The Japanese are renowned for their love of karaoke and Tokyo is no exception. In the Hiroo neighborhood, find a bar called Smash Hits, and while away a few enjoyable hours giving forth to a very rowdy audience. There are plenty of English songs in their extensive catalog. There is a forty dollar cover charge to get in but this includes two drinks. To get here on local transport, take the Hibiya line and get off at Exit 2. From there it is only a couple of minutes walk. Expats tend to take over on some nights so, if this is not what is required, try Jan Ken Pon instead.
Jan Ken Pon (rock paper scissors is the literal translation) is a club that offers live music which covers the fifties to the eighties eras, so this is a great place for nostalgia. Be aware though that hostesses that chat to customers in the early part of the evening are paid by the customer. For those on public transport, go on the Hibiya Metro line or JR Yamanote line to Ebisu.
Another musical experience must be at the Gigabar in the Minami-Aoyama which is the real center of nightlife in Tokyo. Here visitors can sing, play drums or guitar along with the band. It costs to join in, and there is a cover charge as well, but the experience is not to be missed.
Anything of local interest
Although not peculiar to Tokyo alone, bath houses are frequented by most Japanese. The one thing that a novice should know is that these baths are not for washing in! Scrub down well before entering the baths for a long soak so that no one looks askance! Also note, tattoos are not allowed, not even for women.
Capsule hotels are peculiar to Tokyo because of the lack of space. People actually sleep in something that looks like a capsule or small chamber. These tiny spaces with a curtain for a door don’t even have room for the man, and these tend to be men only, to stand up straight.
Some capsule hotels have gone a little up-market and include saunas and the like, and there are also those that cater for women and tourists too. It is a cheaper way to stay in the city but it is meant as a stopover rather than a long stay. Luggage has to be left at the desk since there is no storage space in the capsules.
For those people who just have to smoke in a restaurant, they are in luck. Tokyo still has sections for smoking and non-smoking. However, they will seat visitors in the non- smoking section unless they are told differently.
Lastly, there is such a thing as train etiquette in Tokyo. For example, it is safe to sleep without fear of being robbed etc, but don’t spread legs all over the place as this is perceived to be extremely rude. Locals will not ask for the offending leg to be removed because they are too polite.
Lastly, there are a lot of stairs in railway stations in Tokyo, but it is very rude to help someone up the stairs when they are carrying large suitcases. It is perceived as an insult for some reason although it goes against the grain for many westerners.