Tokyo (pronounced “toh-kyoh” and opposed to “toh-kee-yo”) is the capital of Japan, and the densest city in the world.
To give further perspective on how populated it is in such a small space, Tokyo is home to the two busiest train stations in the world: Shinjuku Station and Ikebukuro Station, both located on the central and circular Yamanote Line. If you visit either of these stations during rush hour in the morning or evening, you are liable to get shoved aside from a throng of people as wide as the Pacific Ocean.
Regardless, Tokyo is one of the most fascinating places in the world to visit. Buckle up and get ready to learn about the brains and beauty of Japan, where modernity meets traditional values.
A Brief Overview and History
Tokyo has not always been the capital of Japan. The capital has moved around the country, due to wars, feuds, remapping, and changes in tradition over millennium. Traditionally, the central city of Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan. In those times, Tokyo was known as “Edo.” The Edo area rose to political prominence during the Edo Period, and became the capital of Japan only recently. It also got a name change to Tokyo, which has the meaning of “eastern capital,” as Tokyo is considered to lay in Eastern Japan.
Contrary to popular belief, Tokyo is not a city, that is, not in the strictest sense. Instead, Tokyo is considered a “metropolitan area” and is comprised of 23 cities (known as “special wards”) and many villages and towns on the outskirts. But don’t worry – even the Japanese call Tokyo a “city” in everyday conversation. Think of it as like New York City, before the boroughs were all adopted into one city.
Now, for the great things to do around Tokyo!
Tokyo Tower and Zojo-ji Temple
From just about anywhere in Tokyo you can see the Tokyo Tower, the red structure that bears a resemblance to the Eiffel Tower in France. This tower is representative of Tokyo and is the city’s symbol. Once it was the main transmission tower of the area, but now it’s mostly defunct and instead serves as a landmark. You can visit the tower and, for a small fee, go to the top and have a wonderful 360 degree view of the whole metro area. There is also an aquarium in the basement and many gift shops and cafes.
Next door to the tower is the Zoji-ji Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo, and the largest temple dedicated to the Chinzei branch of Jodo-shu Buddhism in the world. The temple is easy to visit. At any time of day you can smell the burning incense and see how the neighbourhood interacts. Certain times of the year allow special viewings of the treasures kept inside. Check in advance for the best time to visit.
The Imperial Palace and Park
Tokyo is the home to Japan’s royal family, the only royal family left in East Asia, and holding the only emperor left in the whole world. While the palace is inaccessible to the public, you can still stop and venture into the Imperial Park on the outskirts of the imperial property. The park is open throughout the year to the public, and you will find it a very tranquil place to visit in the midst of this bustling metro. You’ll find many picnickers and joggers here. Once a year the inner gardens open to the public so that the emperor may address his people. Guided tours are also available – in English, no less!
Harajuku Shopping On a Sunday Afternoon
For a glimpse of modern Japanese culture, you should definitely check out the Harajuku district in Shibuya on a Sunday afternoon. Not only will you be surrounded by the hottest shopping Japan has to offer, but you will also get to see a piece of youth culture, often talked about abroad: cosplaying. This is where people dress up in costumes, usually of their favourite TV characters. Cosplayers will hang around the area on Sundays, and most are open to you taking photographs of, and with, them. You can also see the latest punk and “Lolita” fashions that are popular in Japan.
Ueno Park during Cherry Blossom Season
In North Eastern Tokyo is Ueno Park, one of the biggest parks in Tokyo. Surrounding the park are many national and historical museums that will have wonderful exhibitions to visit at all times of the year. But if you go to the Ueno area during the cherry blossom viewing season of late March and early April, you will see a wonderful cultural treat. It is popular in Japan to have a picnic with friends beneath blossoming cherry blossom trees, and Ueno Park is the best spot to do it. Enjoy the revelry of early spring with old friends and new. It’s one of the only times of the year when public drinking is considered more or less okay.
Take In the Japanese Fish Market
If you want the freshest sushi in the world, then you must get down to the Japanese Fish Market in southern Tokyo. There you can see the daily early morning auctions from the latest catches. This fish is sold all over the world, and the chaos is a marvel to watch. You can also buy the cheapest versions of the best sushi you have ever eaten.
Tokyo, Japan is one of the greatest cities in the world. It is a place where modernity fuses with the traditional buildings of old; where politeness meets the desire to blast forth into the future. Visiting Tokyo is a fun and life-changing experience for the better. You have never been so close to humanity as you have been in Tokyo, the world’s cultural and technological capital. A week in Tokyo is like a week in a totally different dimension.