Did you know that Tokyo is not actually a city in the truest sense of the word? It was abolished as an administrative unit in 1943. Tokyo now consists of 23 districts and forms the Prefecture of Tokyo together with the towns and villages in the Tama region located to the west and the southern Izu and Ogasawara Islands. It is also the centre of the Tokyo/Yokohama metropolitan region, which is the largest urban conglomeration in the world with 38.5 million residents. The Prefecture of Tokyo itself has about 13.9 million residents (correct in 2019).
The history of the former city goes back to the year 1446, when work started on building Edo Castle in what is now the Bay of Tokyo. This castle later became the imperial palace and gave the city its original name, Edo. The city did not obtain its current name, Tokyo, which means the ‘eastern capital’, until 1868, when it became the place of residence of the Tenno (Emperor), who had previously been living in Kyoto. The population grew during this time thanks to Tokyo’s development as Japan’s political and cultural centre and had already passed the two-million mark in 1910.
Tokyo now illustrates how historical sites, vibrant history and future visions can interact in a way that hardly any other urban areas do. It starts with the structure of the city: as the streets in Japan’s old capital were narrow and winding, they were unsuitable for road traffic. The city therefore constructed main roads and urban motorways, which radiated from the city centre, in preparation for the large numbers of visitors that were expected to attend the Olympic Games in 1964. Traffic involving private cars was further reduced as a result of bus services during the 1960s. Anybody who wants to get around the city quickly nowadays should really use the Tokyo underground network, which opened in 1927; it now has twelve lines and covers a distance of 300 kilometres in total; it is regarded as the most frequently used metro system anywhere in the world. Most of the stations have signs with English lettering and ticket machines for visitors who do not speak Japanese.
The underground system transports people not only to the frequently visited shopping streets and malls, but also to many of the more than 4,000 shrines and temples in Tokyo. These include the Asakusa Temple, which is also known as Sensō-ji or Kinryūzan, the oldest and most famous temple in Tokyo. After having been destroyed by fire, earthquakes and the Second World War, it has been reconstructed on several occasions and you can get to it from the Asakusa underground station on the Ginza line. You reach the temple area through a large gateway (Hōzō-mon), where you can rinse your mouth with water and cleanse it with smoke before entering. Nakamise-dori, a shopping street that is 250 metres long and has a large selection of stores and eateries offering home-made noodles, sushi, tempura and mochi as well as souvenirs, starts behind the first gate. The impressive Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) stands at the end of this street and is a world-famous photo motif. Statues of the Shinto gods, Fujin (the wind god) and Raijin (the thunder god), are found to the right and left of the front of the gate. The rear features statues of the Buddhist divinities Tenryu and Kinryu. The paper lantern, which is 3.9 metres high, under the gate’s archway bears the name of the temple.
It is only a six-minute journey by underground or a 15-minute walk from there to the foot of the Tokyo Skytree, which is 634 metres high; it was opened in 2012 and is the world’s highest television tower and the second-highest free-standing structure after Burj Khalifa. It is the perfect place for all-round view, which extends as far as Mount Fuji on a clear day. Although it was originally built to reduce interference between the broadcasting signals from the many high buildings, the base now houses a shopping centre and the tower has a café, restaurants, various stores and temporary exhibitions. The Skytree is also worth seeing at night because it is lit up with three changing standard patterns – and special colours are used for particular occasions.
The green spaces at the imperial palace, on the other hand, are traditional. The eastern garden, Kōkyo Higashi-gyoen, is the publicly accessible eastern part of the old Edo Castle site. Visitors can enter the garden through three gateways, Ōtemon, Hirakawamon and Kitahanebashimon, and it contains a plum tree grove, where all of Japan’s 47 prefectures have their own tree. There are also historical buildings such as the flat structures of the guards, the remains of the castle gate, the Suwa no Chaya teahouse, a concert hall and the Museum of the Imperial Collections. The northern part of the former castle site is now Kitanomaru Park. Not only the natural surroundings, but also the buildings provide some insight into the national culture. The octagonal sports hall, which was built for the 1964 Olympic Games, is not just used for traditional Japanese types of sports, but for concerts too. The National Museum of Nature and Science and the National Museum of Modern Art are also located nearby.
The next destination – whether you are an otaku or not – is Akihabara, the centre for everything that is related to mangas (the comic books drawn in Japanese style), anime movies (Japanese-style animated films), video games and electronic articles. The word ‘otaku’ (Japanese for ‘nerd’) relates to fans of particular types of anime movies, mangas or games. These media are not only consumed by children and young people in Japan and around the world, but also provide stories related to all conceivable genres. Nowadays, there are numerous subcultures, which have developed out of these fandoms. Visitors should not be surprised if they encounter costumed people with every possible hair colour on the street with young women dressed as maids thrusting leaflets into their hands and posing with visitors for photos. The mecca for otakus is not only worth seeing, but also includes a wide variety of shopping opportunities, such as the Mandarake department store, which offers a broad selection of merchandise – ranging from mangas to figures and even cosplay costumes – on several floors.
Those who prefer less oversized eyes and fictional characters should not miss going for a walk through the Harajuku and Shibuya districts. Tokyo’s young people show themselves here in many facets and subcultures, although the main focus is on bars, particularly karaoke, and evening entertainment.
The Ghibli Museum represents a balance between the crazy world of cartoons and the more sombre aspects of Japan. It is also a cultural asset. While almost every generation knows about Mickey Mouse and his inventor, Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki and the Ghibli Studio have only become world-famous outside Japan over the past 15 years. Similar to Disney, since 1985, Ghibli has mainly been producing cinema films, which span various fantasy worlds and historical periods and are drawn in anime style. The Ghibli Museum, which is located in Mitaka, shows drawings and film artists’ raw material from the original development of the works related to many films, including ‘Spirited Away’, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ and ‘Ponyo’. You need to book your visit early, but it is worth it because the Museum itself is constructed in the style of some of the well-known settings in the films. A series of short films has been specially created for the Museum and various ones are shown. The Ghibli hype is now so popular that a Ghibli Park is being opened in Nagoya in November 2022 and will provide other attractions that people can walk through from the film worlds.
If you have seen enough and would like to end your evening in a fitting manner, there is a huge selection of very different activities to see and hear in Tokyo. A quiet evening could possibly start with some bar hopping in Shinjuku and end in one of the countless karaoke establishments. If you want a more traditional evening, you can visit something like a kabuki theatre (traditional Japanese theatre, consisting of singing, dancing and pantomime), such as the Kabuki-za in the Ginza district. It was opened in 1889 and is now the only theatre to show full-length kabuki shows. There are matinee and evening performances – and you can also visit individual acts of plays illustrating different styles. However, a performance may often last more than four hours. By the way, the most famous actors and actresses are cheered on by their fans with loud shouts at key points.
If you would rather have something very bizarre and modern, the Robot Restaurant near Shinjuku railway station in the Kabukicho nightclub district is highly recommended. If you visit, you must arrive punctually 30 minutes before the start, because an entertainment show then follows, which might most aptly be described as a ‘robot/neon/anime/techno party’. The mixture of cinema, circus, complex choreographies, glittering costumes and neon colours captivates guests and, even if it is called a restaurant, you do not actually get round to eating anything. Explosions, lasers and loud music are the dominant features of the show. Tokyo definitely shows off its most absurd side here.
Regardless of whether you have enjoyed four hours of kabuki, a 90-minute robot show or other evening and night programmes: if you are still on your feet at 5 a.m. and have not yet seen enough, it is worth visiting the Toyosu fish market. The world-famous tuna fish auction starts at the fish market, which opened in 2018 and is located near Shijō-Mae railway station, at 5:45 a.m. A visit to the viewing platform is restricted to three groups of 40 people and has to be booked one month in advance. But even if you do not have a ticket, there are some windows through which you can observe the bustle and gesticulating of the traders for the coveted red gold of the sea (tuna fish). If you have developed a taste for the fish, you can eat some in one of the many restaurants in the Fish Wholesale Market building. We specially recommend Sushi Dai, the best sushi restaurant in Toyosu. There will inevitably be a queue, but you can obtain top-rate sushi here for just 4,500 yen (the regular price starts at 10,000 yen). We recommend the Okamase set (‘Trust the chef’) and you will spend about an hour there.
Tokyo is worth a visit at any time of the year. If, however, you start the New Year in the land of the rising sun, you can celebrate it in a temple, just like most Japanese people. The Meiji Shrine, which is dedicated to the Meiji Tenno (Emperor Mutsuhito, who ruled from 1867 to 1912) and his wife, Shoken-kotaigo, is not far from the Harajuku railway station. It attracts many visitors to the New Year’s festival every year. The special sights there include a wall with the sake barrels donated to the shrine, a torii (gate) at the entrance to the shrine and the extensive shrine forest. If you are lucky, you might see some priests and mikos (young women who work in shrines) in traditional dress. The shrine is also used for traditional Shinto weddings.
The traditional dish on New Year’s Eve is toshikoshi soba noodles: buckwheat noodles in dashi stock, garnished with spring onions or kambaboko (fish cakes). The noodles represent the end of the year and the new beginning. The best way to eat them is to slurp them (which is considered to be particularly polite) and not bite them, because the length of the soba noodles represents the length of your own life.
Another highlight in winter involves visiting the onsen, hot springs, which are found everywhere on the islands thanks to Japan’s volcanic origins. A short train journey to the small town of Hakone, almost 100 kilometres outside Tokyo, provides a special experience. Located in the foothills of Mount Fuji, the region has been well-known for its thermal springs since the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Numerous onsen hotels enable people to swim in public or private hot springs and enjoy the view of Lake Ashi. The Hakone Ekiden, a long-distance relay race, takes place there for two days over New Year’s – from Tokyo to Hakone and back.
The blossoms of the ume, the Japanese plum tree, start in February, before the actual start of spring. The white to dark pink coloured petals have a sweet, fruity aroma and form the origin for hanami, the custom of viewing blossoms. The blossoms represent health and good fortune, elegance and dignity.
There is one thing that people from Tokyo, Japanese nationals and visitors from abroad associate with the country in spring: the cherry blossom period. The traditional festival takes place for two weeks from the end of March to the beginning of April. The Japanese name ‘hanami’ means ‘blossom show’, because the goal of the festival is to sit together and view the delicate pink blossoms. They are a symbol of a short, but fulfilled life, representing beauty, perfection and mortality, even at the peak of fame.
The cherry blossom is also Tokyo’s official plant. You can best admire it in Ueno Park, where there are more than 1,000 cherry trees, surrounded by some museums and Tokyo Zoo. According to tradition, families, groups of friends and colleagues meet there with picnic blankets and home-made dishes in order to admire the magnificent blossoms while eating together. Typical hanami snacks include yakitori (chicken skewers in sweet soya sauce), takoyaki (batter balls filled with octopus) and yakisoba (fried ramen noodles with fish, meat or tofu, vegetables and a special sauce).
A visit to Fujikawaguchiko, a town at the foot of Mount Fuji and right next to Lake Kawaguchi, is particularly worth a visit during the cherry blossom time. The Aokigahara Forest is not that far away either. We particularly recommend that you stay at one of the ryokan inns, traditionally furnished Japanese hotels. Sleeping on a futon mattress and tatami mats may initially sound daunting and uncomfortable, but they actually provide more padding than you might think. Modern beds are often offered to international guests too. You either take off your shoes at the hotel entrance or at the latest in front of the door to your room. Do not panic – they are collected by the hotel personnel and handed back again later. The bathrobes, which are often made available in the rooms, are called ‘yukata’, cotton robes, which you can wear both in the hotel and outside. You can often purchase them in the hotel – and the pattern often differs from one hotel to another.
Summers in Tokyo are hot: the daily temperature in July and August (after the rainy season) is about 30 degrees Celsius and the air humidity is high. The temperature in August does not fall below 25 degrees, even at night, which is why most Japanese people and hotels use air conditioning, which often creates a really cool interior temperature. While many residents of Tokyo themselves go on holiday, e.g. to Okinawa, there is still enough to see in and around Tokyo. Taking a walk along the tea fields outside the city (e.g. on the Izu peninsula) or visiting the museums will provide plenty of variety.
The Edo Museum, where the Edo period is clearly explained and which displays traditional buildings, clothes and utensils, is highly recommended. The Nihonbashi, the bridge, which traditionally is the starting point for all the roads in Japan, has even been reconstructed there. There is also a complete replica of a city residential building and the reconstructed façade of the Nakamura-za Kabuki Theatre. Unfortunately, the Museum is being completely renovated at the moment (as of August 2022). There is more Edo at the Edo Wonderland, an Edo-inspired theme park in the town of Nikko, not that far from Tokyo. You are not only able to admire the buildings, occupations and daily life of the Samurai and Ninja in the Edo period there, but even immerse yourself in their world.
The Tōkyō National Museum, Japan’s oldest museum, and the Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, are other attractions in the city. The National Museum collects and keeps works of art as well as archaeological finds from Japan and other eastern Asian countries. It has more than 110,000 exhibits, including 87 of Japan’s national treasures. The Miraikan, which is located on an artificial island in the Bay of Tokyo, explains the Japanese seismography network, and there are exhibits about technical studies on robots, cars and genetics and some related to space flight.
Summers in Japan are accompanied by two unmistakeable noises. The first is the sustained, rhymical chirping of the cicadas, which are found on tree trunks or the walls of houses at this time of the year. The other one is the gentle ringing of wind chimes or bells, known as furin. They comfort people in the humid summer heat when a small breeze will cause the bells to start to move. They are also called the ‘sound of summer’ and you can find them at many shrines and temples or in souvenir shops.
There are many ‘matsuris’ or people’s festivals, which provide cheer during the summer in Tokyo, but the Edogawa Fireworks Festival is very special and is held in Toritsu Shinozaki Park along the banks of the River Edogawa every year, normally on the first Sunday in August. 14,000 fireworks are let off within 75 minutes at this festival. We recommend that you travel there early and plan plenty of time for your return journey as the festival regularly attracts about 1.3 million visitors and most of them use the underground to travel to and from the event. If you want to avoid the ritual squeezing into full underground carriages, which is well-known during rush hour, it is better to spend a little more time on your picnic blanket under the stars. Ice-cooled sōmen noodles are a popular dish at matsuris, at noodle bars or at home. The white relations of the soba noodles made from wheat have a short cooking time, are often cooled in cold water with ice cubes and are served with a sweet/salty dip sauce and various toppings. They are the perfect savoury but light meal for the humid summer months.
While spring and summer are the most popular times of the year for people to travel to Japan, autumn in Tokyo provides very special festivals, events and experiences.
Just like the cherry blossoms in spring, admiring the change in colour of the leaf canopies above Tokyo’s parks and along the shrines and temples is one of the traditional annual events. Following a few typhoons in early autumn, the weather remains stable and pretty warm, even into November. The small, deep-red leaves of the momiji trees (Japanese maple) and the brilliant yellow ginkgo trees are the most striking ones. The most popular place for residents of Tokyo to observe the autumn leaves spectacle is the Yasakuni Shrine, the gardens at the Meiji Shrine or at Hamarikyu Park, which is located along the river.
Halloween is naturally a global autumn festival, and even if western festivals such as Christmas and Easter do not have the same significance in Japan as in our country, this festival is still celebrated in style. Anybody who does not want to miss a Halloween party of a different kind should go to the Shibuya junction on 31 October. A huge street party with more than one million people takes place there every year and costumes are an absolute must. The surrounding bars and clubs also put on special Halloween events during this night.
Tokyo Disney Resort is more child-friendly. It also organises activities related to Halloween in September and October and they are included in the normal admission price. By the way, if you want less Disney and more anime as a theme park, then go to Universal Studios Japan. You will find attractions on games and series such as Super Nintendo World, One Piece, Attack on Titan and Sailor Moon there.
Anybody looking for a soup to warm up in autumn, despite the warm temperatures, will find one quickly: ramen soups, which typically contain noodles, meat, seaweed and shiitake mushrooms, are available all over the place – whether in konbini (convenience stores), from vending machines or freshly prepared at small restaurants. The Tokyo Ramen Show takes place in the Komazawa Olympic Park from 24 October until 4 November. It features all kinds of different styles of noodle soups – and people can naturally eat them too. Michelin star ramen is available at Nakiryu, by the way, but be prepared for long queues, particularly at lunch time. However, you do not have to pay the earth for it, as already mentioned. Ramen has become part of the staple diet of all the social classes as the ‘ultimate soul food’.
Japan isolated itself from the outside world for centuries during the Edo period. Only the Chinese and the Dutch, who were the only Europeans to have a residence permit in Japan on the artificial island of Dejima off Nagasaki from 1639 onwards, were allowed to travel to the country. Japan is now the world’s third-largest economy and an export-orientated country, which depends on importing raw materials. Japan’s largest industrial region is located between Tokyo and the port city of Yokohama and it is dominated by heavy industry. Alongside this, chemical products, cameras, machines, metal goods, foodstuffs, optical devices and textiles as well as consumer goods are all made there. The Japanese railway network, which was built during the Meiji period between 1868 and 1912, has Tokyo as its hub and many of the main lines radiate out to all the different parts of the country from there. Several Shinkansen high-speed routes were opened from 1960 onwards to ease the pressure on railway routes caused by the many millions of commuters.
Tokyo’s two main airports are Haneda and Narita International. The Port of Tokyo forms one unit with the western Port of Yokohama and the eastern Port of Chiba. More than 90 per cent of international imports and exports in terms of volume are shipped by sea. More than 360 million tonnes of goods are handled every year. In addition to sea routes, road transportation is the most frequently used means of delivery in Japan.
The Rhenus Group, the international logistics specialist, launched business operations in Japan in 2016 and operates two sites in Tokyo and has another branch in Osaka.
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