Of all the Asian megalopolises that people in the west picture in their heads when they think about cities on this side of the world, Tokyo tops the list. Leading the rise of the East through much of the latter half of the 20th Century, before China took over the reins towards its end, the endless vistas of steel and glass skyscrapers have burned themselves into the consciousness of those who picture Tokyo – and Japan as an extension of that – as a city/society from the future.
While Tokyo definitely embraces change wholeheartedly, and this change has defined its role as a cultural ambassador of bleeding edge technology and civil planning, it also retains elements of its colourful past as the centre of the mighty Japanese empire. It also retains its rich religious life, deemed necessary by many city residents, even with the progress of the modern day and age making life easier than it has been before.
Crisscrossed by one of the world’s largest mass transit systems, the largess of this metropolitan area should not intimidate you. Instead, go ahead and strap in, hold on, and get ready to experience one of the most unique cultures in the world – modern, cute, yet with a strong link to the past, even as it marches relentlessly towards the future.
Looking at a recently acquired tourist map can be intimidating, and can make you prone to paralysis via indecision, so allow us to break your mental stalemate by suggesting some can’t miss sights to get the ball rolling on your tour of Tokyo. Many travel professionals consider Sensōji to be the most important religious sight in the entire city. Being related to the Buddhist faith, it is said that this massive complex contains some of the ashes of the original Buddha, but for most, the attraction of this place lies in its numerous architectural highlights. The first one that you will likely notice is Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, a massive arch with four large statues embedded in it, and a giant red lantern that hangs above main passageway. Other components within worth mentioning include the Hōzōmon, which houses many of the temple’s treasures, the Kannondō, where tons of worshippers pray with smoking incense, and the Gojūnoto, which is a pagoda where a portion of the ashes of the Buddha are reputedly stored.
Tokyo’s other major faith, Shinto, has its faithful pray at the Meiji Shrine, built after one of the emperors of the old empire of Japan (Emperor Meiji) passed away in 1912. Built on the site of a flower garden that he and his wife frequented throughout his reign, the many torii gates, murals from the time of his reign, and the forest in which this spiritual shrine is located all make this place well worth a visit on your tramping across the metropolitan district of Tokyo.
Staying on the subject of emperors, the Imperial Palace is a highlight that you should save for last on your trip here, so the last memory of this surprisingly culture rich city is an unforgettable one. A legitimate castle in its own right, this impressive structure, surrounded by a moat and stone walls, has served as home for the imperial family since 1868. While the buildings and gardens are off-limits to the public (except on January 2 and December 23), free guided tours are offered of all other areas within the complex. Note that these tours are extremely popular, so book your space online before heading over to avoid disappointment.
Sushi fans get ready: the Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the world’s largest fish markets, with virtually every creature of the sea, from tuna to fugu on display and for sale. Also, don’t forget to set your alarm: the market opens at 5 am, and is jam-packed with tourists and buyers/sellers shortly thereafter. Those looking for the freshest bite of seafood that they’ve ever had in their life can find it in building 6 at the fish market, or in the streets just outside the market. Not the cheapest sushi in the world, but they also represent unparalleled value, as the same sushi rolls served in more upscale restaurants in the city centre would cost double or even triple of what you will pay here for breakfast!
Those who fancy themselves as big fans of anime should pay a visit to the Ghibli Museum. An important note before even getting on the plane to Japan: international visitors must buy their ticket for this museum before they leave home, so be sure to do this or risk massive disappointment. Once inside, you will be overjoyed by the multiple examples of the works of one of Japan’s most famous anime studios, from the Robot Solider on the roof, to the Cat Bus (giant stuffed cat), to the random painting, artwork, and sculptures from this companies’ long illustrious history.
After all these explorations, the sun is probably getting rather low in the sky: that means it’s time to party! There are many places in Tokyo to let your hair down, but in particular, three sectors of the city stand out: the urban entertainment districts of Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ginza. In Shinjuku, after getting a spectacular sunset view from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, head out into the streets to sample the nightlife, which can get pretty wild in this part of town. Those who wish to party with the younger crowd would prefer to head to Shibuya, where university students gather on the weekends to blow off steam. Got cash to flash? Then get thee to Ginza, where you can rub elbows with Japan’s upper class (or those that aspire to be). Bring lots of ¥10,000 notes!