Modern Tokyo conjures up (not inaccurate images) of brightly-coloured high-rise office blocks stretching into the sky, millions of pedestrians weaving in and out, and modern technology the rest of the world won’t see for years. But this ancient city also offers up plenty of history and cultural intrigue, with high-tech buildings sitting next to beautiful temples and shrines.
Originally a small fishing village, called Edo; Tokyo became the capital of Japan in the 19th century, when Emperor Meiji moved rule to the city and ended the great age of shoguns and samurais. For centuries, the borders of Japan were closed to outsiders, cultivating a unique and strongly guarded cultural identity. Although, these closed borders were lifted following the end of the Edo Period, this cultural identity still remains to an extent – however, external influences now play a greater role.
In the early 20th century, Tokyo grew at an incredible rate – creating the largest metropolitan city in the world, home to 37 million people. This blend of old and new has created one of the most amazing cities on the planet, and somewhere you simply have to visit, at least once.
Getting Around in Tokyo
Vast, sprawling and with endless things to see and do, navigating Tokyo is hugely important. Luckily thanks to the vast metro system and above-ground JR lines, getting around the 23 special wards of Tokyo is delightfully simple. Thanks to the famed Japanese ingenuity, and a desire to be as accommodating as possible, all public transport can be tackled with confidence, even if the Japanese language looks like a series of scribbles to you.
With 13 lines and 285 stations, Tokyo’s subway can get you anywhere in the city centre and stretching out to the further reaches of the metropolitan area. The system is full of helpful info to make sure you find your way around, with signs in English and even little animations to help you identify exactly where the train is at any given moment.
If you’re spending a few days in the city, we’d recommend getting a PASMO card which is a little like London’s Oyster card. It can even be used in other Japanese cities such as Kyoto and Osaka.
Tokyo also boasts above-ground, inner-city train lines operated by JR. PASMO can be used on these as well, and they are perfect for travelling slightly longer distances.
Taxis can be pricey in Tokyo, and as the city is so massive – a relatively short distance could soon start to rack up the Yen. We’d suggest a taxi only as a last resort, if you’ve missed the 11pm last subway journey.
Things to See and Do in Tokyo
Even if you were in Tokyo for a few months, you’d still find amazing new things to see and do every day. Here are just a few things we recommend you should try when visiting Japan’s amazing capital.
One of Tokyo’s best-loved and most beautiful Shinto Shrines, the Meiji Shrine is a stunning dedication to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Located in a relaxing park with traditional Japanese buildings and monuments, Meiji Shrine provides a wonderful insight into 19th-century Japan.
Despite being a restful site, the shrine is located next to one of the busiest regions of the city – Shibuya. From here, you’re able to enjoy more modern, but equally quintessentially Japanese experiences, such as the youth culture and fashion outlets of Takeshita Street.
Japan is quite unique in the respect many people follow two religions – Shinto and Buddhism. After heading to the Shinto shrine of Meiji, why not check out the Buddhist temple, Sensō-ji. A five-storey pagoda in traditional Japanese style, the temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.
On the approach to the temple is a few rows of shops and market stalls – giving you a chance to peruse for souvenirs and shop for sweet treats. Be careful, though, the Japanese don’t have the same sweet tooth as us Brits, and many of their sweets that look like chocolate, end up being bean curd.
Roppongi Hills Mori Tower
After all this culture, religion and history – it’s time to enjoy the modern Tokyo, and few places provide it so sufficiently as Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. A huge complex of shops, bars, restaurants, apartments and even a museum – Roppongi Hills may look like a skyscraper, but it’s more like a family day out!
At 54-storeys tall, we’d recommend heading straight for the top-deck viewing platform, for amazing vistas over Tokyo. The Mori Art Museum, which occupies floors 49-54, is also a must-see with a combination of Japanese and international artists contributing to the amazing collection.
Hachiko Memorial and Shibuya Crossing
One of the most famous scenes in Tokyo is Shibuya Crossing, the zigzag of multiple crossing points. Up to a 1,000 people at a time cross here, heading to the local department stores, office blocks and the nearby Shibuya Station.
And close by is the wonderful memorial to Hachiko, Japan’s favourite dog. The story goes that Hachiko would wait at Shibuya Station every day for his owner to return from work. Sadly, his owner died at work one day in 1925, but Hachiko continued to wait by the station every day for the next nine years. As a symbol of loyalty and friendship, Hachiko is remembered with a bronze statue outside the station, and people from throughout Japan visit to pay homage to this beloved canine.
Where to Eat and Drink in Tokyo
Whether you’re in the mood for traditional sushi and ramen, or want to try one of the city’s international eateries, there are plenty of dining options in Tokyo.
Renowned as the best sushi restaurant in the world, and the recipient of three Michelin stars, Sukiyabashi Jiro is the place to go if you’re keen to sample the finest in this Japanese classic. The restaurant is owned and operated by sushi master, Jiro Ono, and can be found next to a Ginza Line subway station.
However, you’ll have to be quick and fortunate to book one of the restaurant’s 10 seats – reservations are opened up for the month ahead on the first day of the month, and are snapped up super quick.
If you can’t get in, try the two-star sister restaurant in Roppongi Hills – operated by Jiro’s son, Takashi, probably the second-best sushi restaurant in the world.
Another great delicacy of Japan is wagyu beef, renowned the world over for the marbling of the meat which creates a bold, melt-in-the-mouth taste. If you’re keen to sample the best of wagyu in Tokyo, head over to Hakushu in Shibuya. The family-run business uses only the finest cuts of wagyu beef, prepared in front of your eyes by the skilled teppanyaki chefs.
If you’re just heading out for drinks, make sure you visit Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district. Whilst the rest of Shinjuku has been vastly built up, Golden Gai remains in its gloriously old-fashioned style. Golden Gai is made up of six alleys, connected by narrow passageways and home to over 200 tiny bars propped up and around one another. Each bar is about the size of a bedroom, and possesses its own character – providing the perfect chance to chat with the bartender and meet the locals.
The Local Drink: Sake
The rice wine of Japan is supped throughout the country, and Tokyo is no different. Although you’re perhaps more likely to see the locals with a beer or a whisky, you can get those anywhere. So, when in Tokyo, opt for the Sake – a great drink to share with friends. There are so many different varieties available, we’d recommend talking through them with your bartender or waiter. However, if we were to pick, we’d go for a dry sake, served warm.
Although Tokyo is landlocked, many itineraries offer the opportunity to visit the capital on an excursion. For the full range of cruises to Japan, head over to our dedicated page here or call our friendly sales team on 0808 274 6777.