Tokyo doesn’t have much to show of its history, as there isn’t much left in the way of historic structures. A huge earthquake in 1923 completely destroyed the city, and killed around 140.000 people. But that’s where Tokyo shows its talents, it’s a city that’s constantly under development. It shows how people continue to learn from Mother Nature’s fickle temprament, and find ways to cope with her wild outbursts.
Ask a tourist why they’re visiting Tokyo and they will all answer with a similar response: the city offers a blossoming example of Japanese culture, in an ultra-modern environment. For example, there is a strong fashion trend that’s so different to many western cultures, that it’s sometimes described as ‘alien’.
Tokyo will amaze you. There are enormous modern bridges and skyscrapers, impressive shrines and temples, huge light-up advertisements and the most modern shopping centres in the world. You’ll also notice European influences here. It’s just like many other metropolises around the world: a colourful mix of buildings, houses and all that comes with a modern city.
You can’t go back too far into Tokyo’s history. It’s known there was a settlement there in the 12th century, but earthquakes and fires have destroyed all evidence of this. There isn’t much to be found regarding the time after that, except minimal records in history books.
The Tokugawa family plays a very important role in Tokyo’s history. They gained absolute power when they won the famous Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. It was the start of the unification of Japan. The Tokugawa shoguns had much more power than the emperors, who were head of state by name, but in reality, they had little influence.
The Tokugawa lived in a fishing village called Edo, which was renamed Tokyo in 1868. That’s when it became the capital of Japan, and it already had more than a million inhabitants. But Tokyo as we know it now didn’t really come into existence until the 1950s, after the 1923 earthquake and the Second World War.
Forces of nature have demanded the Japanese people adapt. They have learnt to closely read the signs that Mother Earth sends them. A tremor every now and then doesn’t worry anyone. But several within a few minutes makes people alert. That’s when people head out into the streets and wait. Soon, everyone is back on their way, but it can make tourists feel a little uneasy.
Though there aren’t many historic buildings in Tokyo, it does offer a colourful mix of monuments, attractions and interesting sights. The few monuments that have survived have mostly been restored and are in a perfect condition.
Lots of attractions and events, combined with the rich Japanese culture are more than enough to make Tokyo really worth a visit.
The Imperial Palace is a green postage stamp in a concrete jungle. It’s still believed the be the centre of the city. The walls and canals of the Imperial Palace are covered in greenery. It’s home to the emperor and his family, and its official name is Kōkyo. It’s built on the foundations of the former Edo castle, which was entirely destroyed in the Second World War, and quickly rebuilt.
Tourists’ opinions are divided when it comes to this tower, a blatant copy of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The Tokyo Tower is 333 metres high, 9 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower. It’s the largest structure in Tokyo, as well as the largest freestanding steel tower in the world. It’s used as a communications tower and tourist attraction. There is a large aquarium on the ground floor and a wax-statue museum on the second floor.
The Meiji Shrine is a sacred place in Tokyo. It’s an altar built in honour of the first emperor of modern Japan, Emperor Meiji. The original from 1920 was destroyed during bombings in the Second World War, but it was entirely restored in 1958. It’s in Shibuya park, at walking distance from Harajuku Station.
Sensō-ji (Sensoji Kannon temple)
The Sensō-ji is the oldest and most famous temple in Tokyo. It dates back to 645 and has survived all natural disasters, and the bombings during the Second World War. It’s dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of Mercy, Guanyin (Kannon), and it’s free to visit this temple. There are huge gateways at the entry. There’s also a pagoda (five storeys high) on the site, as well as the Asakusa Shrine and a Shinto Shrine.
Commonly simply referred to as Zojoji, this temple is the resting place of many shoguns (military rulers). The gates date back to 1605, and the impressive guard statues are also original. The temple itself was built after the Second Word War. In the Unborn Children Garden, there are many Jizo sculptures representing the souls of children who were stillborn. The temple is located on Hibiradori Road, near the palace moat.
National Museum of Nature and Science
This museum is the most famous natural history museum in Japan, where you can learn lots about nature in all her forms, but also the sciences that focus on this. There are interesting exhibitions about Japanese cultural groups and Japan’s unique natural wonders, both in and out of the water.
Tokyo National Museum
This is the largest and oldest museum in Japan, with an extensive display of Japan’s art history. The focus is on Japanese art, but there’s plenty of other Asian art (from along the Silk Road) to see. There is also a large collection of Greco-Buddhist art, which depicts Buddha in a human form.
This museum tells Tokyo’s history in detail, and focuses on Japan’s rich cultural history as a whole. There are lots of scale models of famous and important structures in the city, and modern audio-visual information about their history. There is a lot to learn about the so-called Edo period, that lasted from 1603 to 1868. It was the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The museum was opened in 1993 and is very popular with the locals. Besides its ongoing collection, there are regular exhibitions here as well.
Please note: this museum is closed until March 31st 2018 for renovation.
This park was opened in 1983, the third Disney park in the world and the first outside of the US, after the first two in California and Florida. There are three sections to the Disneyland park: Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea (with lots of attractions in which the sea and marine life play a big role) and Ikspiari (a shopping and entertainment area). You can see all the famous Disney characters here, and you’ll be surprised to know that Winnie the Pooh is more popular here than Mickey Mouse.
This is the most modern district of Tokyo and is home to some of the largest department stores in the world such as Seibu and Tobu, and many others including Hankyu, Marui, Matsuya and Matsuzakaya. There is also a huge car showroom here: Toyota Amlux. Another famous building is the huge Sunshine City, with a great view of the city from the observation deck on the 60th floor.
The nickname of this area in Tokyo is ‘Electric Town’, for obvious reasons: electric billboards flash down at you, with lots of light and colours. It’s been called that for fifty years, because after the Second World Word ended this area became famous for its lively trade in electronics. You can still find the latest innovation in technology here, and there are also lots of (digital) games shops. Japan has a very active gaming community and Akihabara is its epicentre. There are also lots of shops where you can find Anime (animated movies) and Manga (graphic novels) and all the merchandise that come with these genres.
This area has grown into the fashion mecca of Tokyo, and possibly even Japan. Japan’s hip and fashion-conscious youth like to parade around here, and different groups even have their own hangout spots. The most famous street in this district is Omotesando, which connects the different parts of this districts; it’s full of shops and cafes and of course extremely exclusive boutiques. This is why it’s also known as the Champs-Elysées of Tokyo. But the Takeshita area is also very popular with Tokyo’s youth, it’s got smaller shops that are not connected to large retail chains. Another popular spot with young people is the Jingu bridge, a pedestrian bridge that connects Harajuku to the Meiji Shrine.
This park is one of the most famous parks in Tokyo. It’s a historical place, as this is the spot where the very first motorised, manned airplane in Japan took flight. After that, the park was mostly used for parades, and they built a lot of sports facilities here for the Olympics in 1964. They were designed by the renowned architect Kenzo Tange, who died in 2005. The buildings are still there today.
This was the first public park in Tokyo. It opened in 1873 and ties in perfectly with the Ueno neighbourhood besides it, where there are many authentic houses, shops and other buildings. This is one of the few places where you can catch a glimpse of historic Tokyo. There are numerous museums in the park, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science, the National Museum of Western Art and Tokyo’s zoo. There is also a statue of a nationally adored samurai: Saigō Takamori. He’s considered to be the ‘last true samurai’.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
The city’s town hall is the highest town hall in the world, measuring 243 metres high. This building was designed by the famous architect Kezo Tange, who also designed the Olympic buildings in Yoyogi Park, for example. This building complex has three sections, each consisting of a tower that takes up a city block, and it’s been dubbed Tochō for short. There are observation decks on the 45th floor of two of the towers that are open to the public and free to visit, but they alternate the days that they’re open, so check which one is open before you head up.
Fuji TV Headquarters
Fuji Television Network Inc. is one of the largest television networks in Japan, and still privately owned. The head office is 123 metres high and dominates the skyline of Tokyo. This tower was also designed by Kenzo Tange, a famous Japanese architect. There is a large silver orb in the rectangular building, it is 32 metres in diameter and is an observation deck that gives a panoramic view of the city. There are also exhibitions of popular Japanese TV shows.
Must Do! Tips:
Explore the city with a Lonely Planet author
Chris Rowthorn is the author of several Lonely Planet guides to Japan, and you can take a walking tour with him and find out about his views on the metropolis that is Tokyo. You’ll hear what inspires him, and what’s challenging about the city. He’ll also tell you about how he chooses what gets a mention in the Lonely Planet, and what doesn’t. It’s a fascinating way to learn about Tokyo, and he’s possibly got one of the best jobs in the world.
Immerse yourself in entertainment
Shinjuku is the area where skyscrapers, many shops, night clubs and other entertainment venues vie for your attention. It’s also the location of Kabukicho, the red-light district. It’s quite an experience. You’re surrounded by advertisements, many of which are spoken audio through speakers from different directions.
Sleep in a capsule
It’s not for people with claustrophobia, because these are tiny sleeping compartments. There is not much more than a bed and a television. The capsule hotels in Japan are cheap, and quite an experience if you’re used to space and quiet. They’re everywhere in Tokyo, and mostly resemble a dog kennel…
Earthquake Museum: Learn about the power of Mother Nature
One of the most important parts of Japanese culture is remembering loved ones, another is respect for nature. This ties in closely with the effects of the earthquake that destroyed Tokyo and the surrounding area on September 1st in 1923. Most houses and building were destroyed, and more than 140.000 people were killed. The museum focuses a lot on the human drama that an earthquake causes, but also how people learn to deal with forces of nature.
Experience a Sumo wrestling match
Sumo wrestling is still very popular with the locals in Japan. If you’re interested in seeing how tense a match can get, you can visit the Tokyo Dome. It’s a huge sports complex where you can also find lots of restaurants, a hotel and an amusement park.
Experience traditional hospitality
If you’d like to experience the Japanese culture, you can choose from several traditional forms of accommodation. For example, a ryokan (inn) or a minshuku (bed & breakfast). It will give you a chance to meet local people and learn about the culture. Do keep in mind that it will be quite different to accommodation in the western world: the floor is covered in tatami mats, and you’ll sleep on a futon on the floor, which you may even need to lay out yourself. There are often no chairs, but you’ll have a low table, a kotatsu. Bathrooms are usually shared and you’ll likely be able to try a traditional Japanese bath.
Enjoy the view from Tokyo Tower
The viewing platform on this tower is at 250 metres and gives the best panoramic view of the city. If the weather is clear you can even see Mount Fuji in the distance. The best time (but also the busiest) is at sunset, you’ll see dusk set in, and millions of lights and advertising signs light up one by one. You can see how the atmosphere in the city changes between day and night. The tower itself is also light up at night time.
Dance the night away at Womb
According to the magazine DJmag, Womb in Tokio is one of the best nightclubs in the world. It’s reminiscent of a space station thanks to the many lights and lasers they use. A lot of famous western DJs play here as well, so the crowd is a good mix of locals and tourists.
Celebrate the Sanja Matsuri festival
This ancient Shinto festival is best known for its procession, in which three small replicas of temples (known as a mikoshi) are carried around the streets of the Asakusa district. It also involves music, dancing and traditional clothing – and there are the temple bearers who have to carry the replica. The mikoshi are very heavy, so it’s not an easy job. The festival takes place every third weekend of May.
Take part in proper Japanese karaoke
Karaoke has taken the world by storm, you can do it pretty much anywhere. But it’s also still extremely popular in Japan where it originated. If you like to belt out a tune, or want to witness how the Japanese ‘honour’ western music, you must visit a karaoke bar. There are many to choose from, though the most famous is called Fiesta and is in Roppongi. And you have to agree, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching someone completely go crazy to their favourite tune!
A perfect time to go is in spring (March to May). The climate is temperate and many flowers and trees will be in bloom, something that the Japanese are very fond of.
The summer (June to August) is generally quite busy, and it can rain quite a lot in June.
Another good time to travel to Tokyo is in autumn, (September to November), when there are lots of festivals.
Winters in Tokyo aren’t extremely cold and it’s also relatively quiet. You could combine a visit to Tokyo with a ski trip to the Japanese mountains.