Tokyo, the capital city of the parliamentary democratic monarchy of Japan, is also home to the Emperor's Palace and the seat of Government and Parliament. In East-Central Honshu, the largest of Japan's main islands, this heavily populated city is well worth exploring. One of the world's most modern cities in terms of its infrastructure and design - due largely to the 1923 earthquake and the devastation of WWII - Tokyo also holds the title of the world's most expensive city in which to live (it's also one of the easiest to get around thanks to its superb rail and subway networks). The cultural side of Tokyo is famous for its numerous museums; theaters; festivals; internationally noted cuisine; and professional sports clubs, including baseball, football (or soccer), along with traditional Japanese pursuits like Sumo Wrestling. It's also a city rich in music and theater, with numerous venues featuring everything from Japanese to modern dramas, symphony orchestras, and pop and rock concerts.
1 The Imperial Palace
The chief attraction of Tokyo's Marunouchi district is the Imperial Palace with its beautiful 17th-century parks surrounded by walls and moats. Still in use by the Imperial family, the Imperial Palace stands on the site where, in 1457, the Feudal Lord Ota Dokan built the first fortress, the focal point from which the city of Tokyo (or Edo, as it was then) gradually spread. As famous as the palace is the Nijubashi Bridge
leading to its interior, a structure that takes its name ("double bridge") from its reflection in the water. Other notable features include the two-meter-thick wall surrounding the palace and its gates, one of which leads to the East Higashi-Gyoen Garden, one of the few areas open to the public (the main Palace Gardens are only open twice a year, on January 2nd and April 29th, when crowds flock here to catch sight of the Emperor). One fortress that can be visited is Edo Castle
(Chiyoda Castle), built in 1457 and located in Tokyo's Chiyoda district.
2 Ginza District: Shop 'til you Drop
Ginza is Tokyo's busiest shopping area and is as iconic as Times Square in New York, and much older: it's been the commercial center of the country for centuries, and is where five ancient roads connecting Japan's major cities all met. Lined by exclusive shops and imposing palatial stores, the Ginza district is also fun to simply wander around or, better still, sit in one of its many tea and coffee shops or restaurants while watching the world rush past. At weekends, when everything is open, it's a shopper's paradise as traffic is barred, making it one of the world's largest pedestrian zones; come nightfall, gigantic advertising panels on its many buildings bathe Ginza in bright neon light. It's also where you'll find the famous Kabuki-za Theatre
, home to traditional Kabuki performances, as well as the Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre
in which Azuma-odori dances and Bunraku performances are staged.
3 Asakusa and the Sensō-ji Temple
In the Asakusa district of Tokyo, the exquisite Sensō-ji Temple - the city's most famous shrine - stands at the end of a long street of shops where masks, carvings, combs made of ebony and wood, toys, kimonos, fabrics, and precious paper goods are on sale. Dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, the temple was established in AD 645 and retains its original appearance despite having been rebuilt numerous times. Highlights include the Kaminari-mon Gate with its 3.3-meter-high red paper lantern bearing the inscription "Thunder Gate;" the famous and much-loved Incense Vat, reputed to drive away ailments (you'll see people cupping their hands around the smoke and applying it to the part of their body needing healing); and the fascinating temple doves, said to be Kannon's sacred messengers (they also tell fortunes by pulling cards from a deck). Afterwards, be sure to explore the rest of the 50-acre temple precinct with its warren of lanes.
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo 111-0032
4 National Museum of Nature and Science
In Tokyo's Ueno Park
, the superb National Museum of Nature and Science (Kokuritsu Kagaku Hakubutsukan) opened in 1871 and is one of the country's oldest museums. Completely renovated and modernized, the museum houses a vast collection of materials related to natural history and science, including many fascinating interactive displays on space development, nuclear energy, and transportation, allowing visitors a unique insight into the latest scientific and technological advances. Highlights of the Japan Gallery (Nihonkan) include numerous exhibits of prehistoric creatures and the Japanese people, including traditional customs and outfits, while the Global Gallery (Chikyūkan) features many excellent scientific and technology displays, including robotics and vintage vehicles.
Address: 7-20 Uenokoen, Taito, Tokyo 110-8718
5 Ueno Park and Zoo
A paradise-like oasis of green in the heart of busy Tokyo, Ueno Park is the city's largest green space and one of its most popular tourist attractions. In addition to its lovely grounds, the park also boasts a zoo, aquarium, and numerous temples and museums to explore. Criss-crossed by pleasant gravel paths, this 212-acre park includes highlights such as a trip on a small boat on the reed-fringed Shinobazu pond, around a little island with its Bentendo Temple; visiting the 17th-centuryToshogu Shrine with its 256 bronze and stone lanterns; or strolling around Ueno Park Zoo. Opened in 1882, it is Japan's oldest zoo, famous for the pandas presented by the People's Republic of China. The Aqua-Zoo, one of the largest aquariums in Asia, is also worth a visit, especially if traveling with kids.
Address: 9-83, Ueno Park, Tokyo, Kanto 110-8711