From its early beginnings as a small fishing village known as Edo, Tokyo today is – like many great cities – utterly unrecognisable. To many, Tokyo symbolises the frenetic energy and hyper-modernity of Japan itself, but scratch beneath the surface, and peak between the neon-lit skyscrapers, and you can still find the elements of history and tradition Japan is equally famous for.
Tokyo – or, Edo, as it was called up until 1868 – first gained importance in 1603, when Tokugawa Ieyasu established his feudal government at the small castle town. A few decades later, Edo was not only Japan’s political centre, it had transformed into one of the world’s most populous cities; a status it still has today. Although the Emperor and capital of Japan did not move from Kyoto to Tokyo until 1868, with the Meiji Restoration. This move saw the city renamed as Tokyo.
A vibrant and cosmopolitan city, Tokyo boasts an endless range of shopping, entertainment, culture and dining choices, as well as centuries of history and plenty of attractive green spaces. Here’s a pick of some of the city’s highlights.
Japan is synonymous with fast-paced, futuristic technology, and the Akihabara district in central Tokyo reflects this. Renowned for its many electronics shops – from tiny one-man stalls to large electronics retailers lining along the main Chuo Dori street and its crowded side streets – you can find everything from the latest mod-cons to second-hand goods and electronic goods in Akihabara. The district’s character is ever-changing, and over the last decade or so, it’s increasingly emerging as a centre of Japanese otaku (diehard fan) and anime culture, with many shops and cafes specialising in anime, manga, retro video games, and even maid cafes where waitresses dress up like French Maids.
Tsukiji Fish Market
While Japanese cuisine offers more than the stereotypical sushi and sashimi, fish certainly remains a focal part. The Tsukiji Market is best known as one of the world’s largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products daily, and is especially famed for its tuna auctions. Over the years, it has become a major tourist attraction, thanks to the sights of the many kinds of fresh seafood and the hustle bustle atmosphere of scooters, trucks, sellers and buyers all hurrying around. Tourist demand has become such that certain areas of the market have been made off-limits to visitors, and the famous tuna auction is capped to 120 visitors per day, on a first-come-first-served basis.
Completed in 2012, the ‘neofuturistic’ television broadcasting tower, Tokyo Skytree, has already become a landmark of the city. Standing at 634m, it’s the tallest structure in Japan, and, at the time of its completion, the second tallest in the world. At the base of the tower, you can explore a large shopping complex with aquarium, but Tokyo Skytree’s real highlights are the two observation decks offering spectacular 360° views over Tokyo. Located at 350 and 450m respectively, these enclosed observation decks are the highest in Japan, and some of the highest in the world.
While Tokyo is seen as very modern, there are still places where its past can still be glimpsed. Asakusa is one such district, and is easily explored on foot, although guided rickshaw tours are popular, too. Here you will find traditional temples and shrines, popular shopping streets, and the nearby Sumida River and Park. During the Edo Period (1603 to 1867), the district was situated outside the city limits, and was a leading entertainment district, with a range of kabuki theatres and a large red light district. Even after the Meiji Restoration, Asakusa remained a popular area for entertainment, with the introduction of modern types of entertainment, including movie theatres. However, after large parts of the district were destroyed by air raids during World War Two, Asakusa’s entertainment district saw a decline in popularity. Asakusa is best known, and most popular, for the 7th century Buddhist temple, Sensoji.
Tokyo Skytree may be the modern emblem of Tokyo, but on the other side of the coin, Sensoji represents the city’s historic, traditional side. Dating back to the 7th century, and the legend of two brothers fishing out a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, from the nearby Sumida River, the temple was completed in 645, making it the oldest in Tokyo. Sensoji is also one of the most colourful and popular temples in Tokyo, and is first entered through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), the symbol of both Asakusa district and the entire city. From this outer gate, you walk along Nakamise, a shopping street of over 200m, which dates back over several centuries, and today offers typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukata and folding fans, along with various traditional local snacks, and leads you to the temple’s second gate, the Hozomon. Once through both these gates, the temple’s main hall and a five storied pagoda stand, although these are relatively recent reconstructions, following destruction in the Second World War. The Asakusa Shrine, standing a short distance from the left of the main building, dates back to 1649, when it was built by Tokugawa Iemitsu. The Temple, while renowned for its history and beauty, is also popular for the various events held throughout the year, including the annual festival of the Asakusa Shrine, the Sanja Matsuri, held in May, and the Asakusa Samba Carnival every August, and the Hagoita-ichi (Hagoita Market), which sells decorated wooden paddles used in the traditional game of hanetsuki.
Tokyo Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace, residence of Japan’s Imperial Family, replaced the former Edo Castle, which was once the seat of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan between 1603 and 1867. Set in a large park, sprawling out over 1.32 square miles, surrounded by moats and massive stone walls, the current Imperial Palace was in fact built on the same site of the former castle it had replaced. Following the Meiji Restoration, a new Imperial Palace was completed in 1888, although this was destroyed during the Second World War, and rebuilt in the same style afterwards. Parts of the Imperial Palace gardens, including the East Gardens, are open to the public, while the inner grounds of the palace are only accessible to visitors on two days of the year – 2 January (New Year’s Greeting) and 23 December (Emperor’s Birthday) – during which visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds, and watch as members of the Imperial Family make several public appearances on a balcony.
Japan is famous for its pop cultures and extreme fashions, and the Harajuku district is the centrepoint for Japanese teenage pop culture, focusing around Takeshita Dori (Takeshita Street) and its side streets. Here, you’ll find trendy shops and fashion boutiques, as well as used clothes stores, crepe stands and fast food outlets. By some contrast, Omotesando is another famous shopping street in this district, and is often referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees. Twice the length of nearby Takeshita Dori, Omotesando is a broad, tree-lined avenue home to famous brand name shops, cafes and restaurants. Beyond teenage culture and shopping, Harajuku is also home to one of Tokyo’s major shrines, Meiji Jingu.
One of Japan’s most popular shrines, Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji – the first emperor of Modern Japan – and his consort, Empress Shoken. The shrine regularly welcomes more than three million visitors for the year’s first prayers (hatsumode) in the first days of the New Year, more than any other shrine or temple in the country. Located near to the busy Harajuku district, the shrine grounds are entered through a massive tori gate. Set in sprawling grounds with approximately 100,000 trees, the shrine grounds are an oasis of tranquillity away from the thriving, bustling city outside. Visitors can take part in typical Shinto activities, such as making offerings at the main gall, buying charms and amulets, or writing out wishes on an ema, although the grounds’ walking paths make for excellent relaxing strolls. Built in 1920, eight years’ after the Emperor passed away in 1912, the Shrine was later destroyed during World War Two, before being rebuilt shortly afterwards. The grounds also include the Meiji Jingu Treasure House, constructed a year after the Shrine was opened, featuring many interesting personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress, including the carriage which Emperor Meiji rode to the formal declaration of the Meiji Constitution in 1889.
Another busy cultural hub of the city, Shibuya usually refers to the popular shopping and entertainment area found area Shibuya Station, although it is actually one of the twenty-three city wards of Tokyo. From the station’s Hachiko Exit, a large intersection glows vividly with large, neon advertisements and giant video screens, much like New York’s Times Square, and is a recognisable landmark of the area, popularly photographed and filmed, not least because it gets flooded by pedestrians every time the crossing light turns green. The streets surrounding Shibuya are attributed as the birthplace of many of Japan’s fashion and entertainment trends, and the area has a reputation as a centre for youth fashion and culture. Packed full of shopping, dining and nightclubs, and thanks to its supersized, super-bright advertisements and giant screens, the area is one of Tokyo’s most colourful and busy districts.
Between 1612 and 1800, Ginza was the site of a silver coin mint, and it was from this that the district took its name; ginza meaning ‘silver mint’ in Japanese. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the area evolved as an upmarket shopping district, and its central Chuo Dori street is lined with high end shops and boutiques, and most pleasant to visit on weekend afternoons as the street closes to automobile traffic and becomes a pedestrian-only zone. The area is also notable as one of the most expensive real estate areas in Japan, with one square meter of land in the centre of Ginza worth over ten million yen. Populated with department stores, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, night clubs, and cafes (serving $10 cups of coffee), here you’ll find a strong presence from every leading brand name in fashion and cosmetics. You’ll also discover one of the best places to see kabuki, with almost daily performances held at the Kabukiza Theater, which was reconstructed and reopened in April 2013. While the building closely resembles its predecessor, it does have the addition of a skyscraper standing above it.
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