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The modern capital city of Japan, Tokyo could be described as too good to be true. People dress in the latest fashions and experiment with the latest technologies, excellent restaurants serve up delicious food of all varieties, and the trendiest nightclubs keep going throughout the night.
The public transport system is punctual and one of the most efficient in the world; and shops and vending machines provide necessities and luxuries both day and night. All this is achieved in a city that is home to more than 13 million people, amid the confusion of bumper-to-bumper traffic, flickering neon signs, and a crush of humanity packing subways and sidewalks.
Amidst the hurly-burly, Tokyo remarkably remains one of the world's safest cities with a low crime rate and local people who are generally only too willing to spare the time and effort to assist a stranger.
With such a dense population, Tokyo is an urban maze of buildings that jostle for space in an unplanned jumble of grey concrete, which makes parts of it drab. The city fills a huge area that seems to go on forever, with no specific city centre, but rather a succession of districts grouped together. In the back streets, where timber houses line narrow lanes, there are reminders that this is exotic Japan: kimono-clad women prune bonsai trees and colourful neighbourhood festivals take place.
The city is an exuberant experience for visitors. It is home to many museums and is the largest repository of Japanese art in the world. Then, of course, it would take forever to exhaust the shopping possibilities in this megalopolis.
The more one explores Tokyo, the more it becomes obvious that one cannot judge a book by its cover. Inside the modern buildings the cultural life of Japan is very much alive and well. Interiors reflect the tranquil minimalist Asian style and taste of Japan.
Japan's Imperial Palace is regarded as the heart and soul of Tokyo, standing on a huge site that still bears the remains of Edo Castle, stronghold of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The present palace was completed in 1888 and is still home to the emperor of Japan. The palace is off-limits but its grounds and surrounds provide a much-needed green space for the city with Higashi Gyoen, site of the Edo Castle Keep, open to the public. On January 2nd and December 23rd each year, visitors are able to enter the inner grounds and see the imperial family make public appearances from the balcony. Guided tours of the palace are offered but only in Japanese, although an English pamphlet and audio guide are provided. These tours must be reserved in advance through the Imperial Household Agency.
To the north of the Imperial Palace lies the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, built long ago in 1869 to commemorate those two and a half million Japanese who died in war. Soldiers fought in the knowledge that their spirits would find rest and honour at Yasukuni in the afterlife. The shrine is confined behind a huge steel torii (gate), opening onto a long avenue lined with gingko and cherry trees, while the Worship Hall itself is a simple Shinto-style building. North of the shrine is the Yushukan Museum, containing war memorabilia, some of which is disturbing and thought-provoking, such as the human torpedo and kamikaze suicide attack plane.
This museum is dedicated to detailing Tokyo's history, culture and architecture. Edo was the old name for Tokyo when the country came under the rule of the warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Exhibits include a replica of an ancient Kabuki theatre, maps, photographs, and portrayals of the lives of the city's merchants, craftsmen and townspeople in days gone by. There are numerous interactive exhibits and many intricate models with such wonderful detail that binoculars are provided for visitors to better appreciate them. Traditional performances are held in the recreated theatre, which is not the only historic building to be recreated life-size.
In a small area west of Akihabara Station lies a bright cluster of electronics shops, manga and anime stores, and video game outlets. The suburb has been specialising in electrical equipment since the 1930s and is now regarded as the world's biggest and best electrical equipment enclave. Although the cheap and impressive technology draws many visitors, this is also a paradise for gamers and anime fans, with shops full of merchandise and numerous arcades. The arcades carry everything new and novel but also have many of the vintage games that are difficult to find these days.
The Asakusa neighbourhood in Tokyo draws visitors to admire the city's oldest temple, Senso-ji, founded in 628. The story goes that two brothers fishing in the nearby river netted a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and the statue kept turning up in their nets no matter how many times they threw it back. The brothers were inspired to enshrine it in a temple dedicated to the deity. The statuette is still inside, but never shown to the public, though pilgrims flock here every day seeking the favour of the goddess. For many visitors, the temple is one of the highlights of a visit to Tokyo, while the nearby Demboin Garden is a good spot to relax.
There is plenty of fun to be had at Tokyo Disney Resort, reminiscent of the themepark found in California. Opened in 1983, it has gradually developed a character of its own and grown into one of the most popular amusement parks in the world. It offers unique attractions and an interesting fusion of American and Japanese culture, combining novel treats and old favourites among the seven different themed lands. Consisting of Disneyland Park and DisneySea Park, it's the premier attraction for kids in Tokyo.
Close to Ueno Station and enclosed in the beautiful, spacious park of the same name, the National Museum is host to the largest collection of Japanese art in the world. Exhibits range from antique kimonos and delicate pottery to woodblock prints and archaeological finds. The vast collection is displayed on a rotating basis with at least 4,000 artefacts visible at any time, so the museum always has something new to offer. The museum consists of five different buildings containing numerous galleries, so one needs sufficient time to do it justice. The Imperial Gift Park is a lovely place to enjoy a stroll, with big ponds and shaded areas to rest; the grounds also contain some other cultural institutions, including a zoo, the Metropolitan Art Museum, Bunka Kaikan Cultural Hall, the Western Art Museum, and the National Science Museum. There should be something here to interest the whole family and all the educational attractions can easily fill a whole day of sightseeing.
Inokashira Park is a tranquil oasis amid the bustle of Japan's capital city and is often lauded by locals and visitors as the best urban park in Japan. The park contains a temple dedicated to the goddess of love, a petting zoo and an aquarium, and is lively with musicians, artists and street performers. One of the more popular attractions in Inokashira Park is the Ghibli Museum, featuring displays on popular animated films such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle. Possibly the best activity to enjoy in Inokashira is a drift in one of the swan-shaped paddle boats around the lake, its reflective water particularly romantic in March and April when overhanging trees are in full bloom.
Modelled after the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower is more colourful and serves a technological purpose. Functioning chiefly as a television and radio antenna, it's also one of the city's premier landmarks and a proud symbol of Japanese culture. At 1,091 feet (332m), it's the tallest structure in Tokyo and a great vantage point from which to take in the city. There are two observation decks in the tower, both with magnificent 360 degree panoramic views. At the base of the tower is the four-storey FootTown where visitors will find restaurants, the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, an aquarium, theme park rides and the Gallery DeLux, a display of holographic technology and imagery.
Built in homage to the Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, the Meiji Jingu monument is located in a 175 acre (70ha) evergreen forest and consists of two main areas. In the inner Naien, there is a garden featuring shrines and a treasure museum holding articles belonging to the Emperor and Empress. In the outer cloister, the Gaien, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery presents murals depicting significant events during the Meiji rule. Today, traditional Shinto weddings are held in the hall and newcomers to Japan are always intrigued when witnessing the unique Shinto wedding procession. The lush grounds are wonderful to explore, providing sanctuary from the busy city at any time of day.
Kids will be kept busy for hours on end at Tokyo Joypolis, one of the world's most famous theme parks. Apart from all the rides and games, there are several shops and a wide selection of restaurants to choose from. The park provides hours of entertainment for the whole family and is a wonderful attraction for a rainy day. The queues can get frustratingly long though, so it's best to go during the week, either early in the morning or in the evening.
Though not everyone's ideal holiday destination with children, Tokyo is surprisingly well geared towards kids on holiday. With a dazzling array of technological attractions, scientific museums, and a rich and colourful history, children should find there is plenty to explore in Tokyo.
The Baji Equestrian Park is a great place to take kids to watch horse shows and even have a pony ride, or for a more exhilarating day out, head to the Tokyo Dome City where children can enjoy countless rides and games at the amusement park and parents can relax and pamper themselves in the spa. The Tokyo Metropolitan Children's Hall is also a great attraction for kids to enjoy. With its indoor gyms, computers, crafts areas, mini-theatre, and rooftop playground, it is Tokyo's largest public facility for children.
On a sunny day, why not pack a picnic and the Frisbee and head off to Shinjuku Park, or Hama-Rikyu Sunken Garden, for a stroll or just to admire the cherry trees and blossoms. Or for those days when the weather turns bad and outdoor activities for kids are no longer an option, visit the Panasonic Center.
Alternatively, soak up a bit of culture at one of Tokyo's many museums, such as the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Museum of Maritime Science, or the National Science Museum. You'll find a number of skating rinks, sports clubs, and swimming pools dotted around the city.
Tokyo has a humid subtropical climate and four distinct seasons. The summer months (June to August) are hot and sticky due to an unpleasant level of humidity, while winters (December to February) can get fairly cold. The warmest month is August, which averages 81°F (27°C), and the coolest month is January, averaging 42°F (6°C). Summers can be rainy and Tokyo's rainy season usually lasts from early June to late July. The rain is not constant and the city still gets plenty of sun over this period. Typhoons are most likely to affect the city in August and September. Snowfall is common in the city in January and February. The best time to visit Tokyo is in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn.
Tokyo is one of the world's great cities for foodies. Not only is there a fabulous variety of premium eateries, with collectively more Michelin stars than Paris, but the wonderfully diverse and exciting world of Japanese cuisine reaches its highest peaks here.
From kaiseki, the elaborate and expensive multicourse fine dining experience, to street classics like noodle dishes, deep-fried , mouth-watering pork, and chicken grilled on skewers, Tokyo has it all in abundance.
Then there is the perennial Western favourite, sushi, impeccably served in a thousand different varieties around the city. For a light meal on the move, you can also grab a lunchtime box from any convenience store and find a seat in the many quiet enclaves amid the city bustle. For an unforgettable experience, treat yourself to a pricey but incredibly fresh sushi breakfast at one of the restaurants near the Tsukiji Fish Market in Chuo.
You can also visit the basement level of nearly any department store, which will contain a number of shops selling prepared foods. Piece together your own meal, or just browse the free samples. Note that these stores will begin discounting their food around 7pm.
Chopsticks are used in most restaurants, except those serving mainly Western cuisine. However, you can ask for other utensils. When eating noodles, it is quite normal to pick up the bowl and drink from it, using the chopsticks to eat the solid bits. Slurping is also normal; in fact, it is said to improve the flavour of the food and is seen as compliment to the cook.
In most restaurants, you will be given a wet towel known as before eating. Use this to freshen up by wiping your face and hands. While ordering in a restaurant without an English menu can be intimidating, many restaurants have plastic food models on display, and most offer set menus with popular combinations.
Tipping is not customary in Japan, and attempts to provide gratuity are likely to be met with confusion. At more upmarket restaurants a 10 to 15 percent service charge may be added to your bill. Smaller restaurants and roadside stalls will not accept credit cards.
This well-known establishment has become something of a tourist landmark in Roppongi, probably because of its delicious yakitori cuisine and reasonable prices. Yakitori is the Japanese version of the barbecue, with chicken, beef, pork, or fish kebabs grilled over oak coals, served with large bowls of crudité vegetables like crisp raw cabbage, carrots, and courgettes. Nanbantei offers bargain lunch menus and specialities like namban-yaki (grilled beef dipped in hot miso) and asapura-maki (green asparagus wrapped in thinly sliced pork). Open for dinner only, Monday to Saturday, with the last order at 10.30pm.
Decidedly opulent, the lavish La Tour D'Argent, like its famous sister in Paris, sets the standard for French haute cuisine. The high standard of the food and décor is only matched by the prices in this celebrated establishment situated in the New Otani Hotel. The house speciality is the duck, specially flown in daily from Brittany in France. Other highlights on the menu are pigeon and fricassee of lobster. It is all prepared by chefs trained at the Paris restaurant and an impressive wine list accompanies the outstanding menu, which changes seasonally. Closed Mondays. Dinner only. Reservations essential and dress code is jacket and tie.
Good old English steak and kidney pie in the heart of Japan? Charles Dickens himself would feel at home in Tokyo's British pub which serves up a variety of ales and a down-to-earth atmosphere helped along with wooden beams, sprung floors, hand-painted pub signs, and dried hops. It also offers live music every night of the week. The menu is reasonably priced and consists of several traditional British favourites such as cottage pie, accompanied by heaps of potatoes, and vegetables. Closed Mondays.
The twin restaurants of La Granata and Granata Moderna are situated in the basement of the Tokyo Broadcasting Systems building, but the Italian cuisine on offer is top level. La Granata offers a traditional ambience with check tablecloths and brickwork, while Granata Moderna is elegantly modern with mirrors and stained glass. Both offer delicious pasta specialities.
It is worth waiting in line to sample the fare at Tokyo's most renowned tonkatsu (deep fried pork) outlet. Waiters take orders while patrons queue for a spot at the well-worn Formica-topped tables, watching the hustle and bustle of the dozens of busy cooks in action. The reward is delectable treats like hirekatsu (fillet of lean pork) reishoki, or rosukatsu (loin cut), crunchy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth tender on the inside, or perhaps a tasty kushikatsu (skewered meat with onions). Tonki is closed Tuesdays and the third Monday of every month.
Roti serves some of Tokyo's most authentic American grill and rotisserie cuisine. The ambience is relaxed and causal, the waitstaff friendly and helpful, and the food delicious. Many expats frequent this eatery due to its wide selection of beers and old favourites such as the deluxe blue cheese burger, char-grilled steaks, and sticky Shanghai style pork ribs and the classic Mexican tortillas and jalapeno cheese dip. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Booking recommended.
Every summer, Japan prepares for its numerous fireworks festivals. The biggest is the display over the Sumida River, with spectacular multicoloured layers that blossom into the Tokyo night sky to awe the millions of spectators gathered along the banks or in boats. The highlight is a dazzling competition between highly acclaimed fireworks manufacturers, making the display all the more exciting because the rivalry is fierce. One of the best ways to experience the event is to go cruising on the river and enjoy the display from the water, before partying into the early hours.
Heralding the beginning of spring, cherry trees burst into a riot of pink and white blossoms all over Japan. The cherry blossom, or sakura, is the country's national flower and a symbol of the country. For many years, the Japanese have celebrated the cherry blossom annually. Depending on the local conditions, it usually starts in Okinawa in January, reaching Kyoto and Tokyo in late March to early April, and Hokkaido in late May. The festival is celebrated with hanami parties under the trees and picnics, drinking, singing and dancing. Street stalls are set up and musicians serenade the merry picnickers, many of whom are decked out in outrageous costumes and masks.
Sanja Matsuri is the biggest of Tokyo's three great festivals, along with the Kanda and Sanno. The annual celebrations honour the three resident deities of the Asakusa Shrine, whose shrines are paraded in elaborate palanquins called mikoshi. Carried by dozens of men in traditional garb, they're surrounded by chanting worshippers. Some 100 other mikoshi are also carried, intended to bring blessings to the area's inhabitants. About two million people visit Asakusa to pay tribute and celebrate over the three days of the festival. The festivities begin with the Friday afternoon Daigyoretsu Parade.
The Japanese Grand Prix usually falls towards the end of the Formula One season and has over the years provided much excitement, crowning 13 title champions. The Suzuka track has fast-gained a reputation as one of the most challenging on the circuit. The event is very well-supported by locals and foreigners alike, with many F1 fans travelling from around the world to attend. If a World Champion is crowned, the ceremony adds extra excitement and there are raucous afterparties to enjoy.
Each year, the Tokyo International Film Festival exclusively screens new and exciting films in cinemas around Roppongi Hills. Film buffs enjoy world premieres by top local and international filmmakers, as well as vote for a favourite film in the Audience Choice category. It's viewed as one of Asia's most famous and competitive film festivals and accredited by the FIAPF, the International Federation of Film Producers. The Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix remains the most coveted award, handed out to the winner of the best film. The festival has conventional screenings, fun open-air cinema, screenings with voiceovers and celebrity appearances, as well as lectures, seminars and workshops.
The nightlife in Tokyo is spectacular. The city has everything from geisha bars to jazz clubs, dive bars referred to as 'shot bars' to themed dance clubs. It is legal to drink out in the streets and vending machines even stock cans of beer.
A good way to enjoy Tokyo's nightlife is in an izakaya, a pub-style watering hole serving food and drink. Western-style bars are much more expensive than those with local flavour, though chains like The Hub have happy-hour prices that are more reasonable.
Roppongi is the top nightlife district in Tokyo, where the locals are very friendly to (Westerners). Be wary of hostesses and patrons who try to lure you into one of the district's many gentlemen's clubs, where drinks are prohibitively expensive.
Shibuya also has a number of nightclubs, and Shinjuku is home to both Tokyo's red-light district and its most popular gay bars. Women are advised not to walk around alone in these areas late at night. For less expensive bars that cater to students and backpackers, go a little further to the Shimokitazawa, Koenji, and Nakano districts.
Many bars and lounges impose a table charge, which includes snacks like nuts or chips. Not all venues charge and policies vary, so ask before you order anything. Note that the legal age for both drinking and smoking in Japan is 20.
Those looking for a more cultured evening can catch a traditional kabuki performance at the Kabuki-za theatre in Ginza - it is possible to attend and pay for only one act as opposed to the whole production to get a taste for the art form. Other popular forms of theatre include the restrained and refined noh, and bunraku puppet theatre.
You can also see traditional Western music performances by the Tokyo and NHK Symphony Orchestras at various theatres around Tokyo. Check the Japan Times for concert information. For detailed nightlife listings, grab a copy of the free Metropolis publication.
Tokyo has refined shopping into an urban art form and essential cultural experience. The result is quite possibly the most futuristic shopping environment in the world, in which you can purchase everything from underwear to watermelons from vending machines while never interacting with a human. The city is at the cutting edge of fashion and design, as a wide-eyed stroll through the Ginza and Shibuya districts will confirm.
Tokyo is also famous for its electronics stores, the biggest concentration of which can be found in Akihabara, Tokyo's 'Electric Town'. Despite the wide range, you will struggle to find genuine bargains and don't expect to negotiate too much on price. Nevertheless, Akihabara is a colourful and exciting shopping district and the manga and anime stores will delight many.
Shopping malls have also been taken to another level in Tokyo. Shinjuku Station is surrounded by multi-level shopping stores selling everything under the sun. Big name chains such as Keio and Isetan can be accessed directly from the station. They both offer tax-free shopping and European language assistance. For a more upmarket department store experience, visit Mitsukoshi, which has several branches throughout the city.
Tokyo isn't known for flea markets, but two that are worth a visit for artisan-style gifts are Togo Shrine in Harajuku, on the first and fourth Sundays of each month, and Nogi Shrine, on the second Sunday of each month. There are many small markets around the various temples and shrines.
Essential purchases in Tokyo include traditional items like Daruma dolls and crafts such as ceramics and chop-sticks. Kimonos are another good purchase although those made from pure silk, as true kimonos are, will be expensive. On a more modern note, the very latest gadgetry and electronics are on offer. A good place to browse for souvenirs is the Oriental Bazaar and Omotesando, both of which offer good value and plenty of interesting human scenery.
One of the surprising aspects of shopping in Tokyo is that despite the vast buildings and slick modernity surrounding everyone, there are still traditional neighbourhoods and quiet districts to be found. Here you can find specialist stores selling unique and frequently handmade items such as micro-brewed or beautiful lacquerware.
Tokyo's public transport system is one of the most efficient in the world and is clean and safe, combining an extensive train network, 13 underground subway lines, and a bus system. Visitors usually find the trains (JR) and subways the best way to get around, although the complexity of the underground network can be intimidating; rush hour, from 7.30am to 9am and 5pm to 7pm, should be avoided. Most stations have English signs.
Because lines are owned by different companies, transfers between trains or subways usually require a transfer between different train systems, with different ticketing systems that can be confusing. Subway tickets are bought at vending machines. The bus system is more complicated for visitors as most destinations are written in Japanese only and bus drivers don't speak English.
Taxis are convenient but never cheap, particularly during rush hour. Taxis can be hailed on the street, except in some central areas, where they only pick up from taxi ranks. Drivers speak little English. Driving a car in the city is not advised. Walking around the city is a delight and the best way to go sightseeing, when possible.
Sightseeing in Tokyo can bring about sensory overload if you're not careful. Animated billboards, the buzz of a densely packed and highly energetic population, and glittering gleaming architecture all compete for your attention. One thing is certain: you'll never be bored.
The transport system is excellent, good value, and easy to figure out, even for Westerners. However, the best way to view the city remains the oldest way: on foot, walking the streets, taking in the multitude of sights and sounds on your way. You'll be sure to find plenty of unexpected treasures, from little temples on side streets, to the warm smiling welcome of a local shop keeper.
Tokyo really does have something for everyone. Honeymooners come to cultivate romance amid the cherry blossoms; shoppers will find exactly what they're looking for and plenty on top of that; and backpackers can find ways to take in the culture without breaking the bank.
The temples and museums listed below are well worth your time, or you can lose yourself in the neon lights of Shibuya, check out the hip Harajuku girls in Takeshita Street, and take the elevated train from Shimbashi station to the bayside district of Odaiba, and ride on the giant Ferris wheel.
If you're curious, you can also take a class in any number of traditional Japanese art forms, including calligraphy, tea ceremonies, martial arts, massage, flower arranging, and meditation. Tokyo has a number of neon-lit pachinko parlours with men, women, and children trying their hand at the popular game. Japanese sports such as baseball and sumo wrestling are also fun ways to get a taste of Tokyo culture.
The dormant volcano of Mount Fuji has been revered since ancient times, its symmetrical 12,388-foot (3,776m) snow-crowned summit as symbolic as the country's own flag. It features in poetry and art through the ages and is considered a holy site in Japanese culture. The highest mountain in Japan, it has many historical and mythological associations, with ancient samurai using the base of the mountain as a remote training area. The closest town to the volcano is Fuji Yoshida, from which buses leave frequently for the most popular hiking routes. There are six trails to the summit, of which the Kawaguchiko Trail is the easiest, being quite manageable even for children and the elderly.
Kamakura was the political powerhouse of Japan during the middle ages and the seat of government for most of the 13th century. Because of its historic importance, it boasts numerous monuments, temples and shrines. As an added bonus, the city sports sandy beaches and good hiking trails in the nearby wooded hills. One of the most important sites of interest is the Great Buddha: a bronze statue of the seated Amida Buddha located in the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple. Cast in 1252 and standing almost 44ft (13,35m) high, it's the second largest Buddha statue in Japan after that found in the Todaiji Temple in Nara.
The main reason for visiting Yokohama is to marvel at its futuristic new city centre and perhaps take a stroll through Japan's largest Chinatown. Entered through four colourful gates and teeming with restaurants and shops, Yokohama's Chinatown developed after the city became one of the first Japanese ports to be opened to foreign trade after isolation ended in 1859. Chinese traders flocked to the city, establishing a cultural neighbourhood. Minato Mirai is the new central city area around the harbour, characterised by the Landmark Tower, rising to 971ft (296m). Visitors can ride to the observation deck in the world's second fastest elevator for a view that can stretch as far as Mount Fuji.
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