While Tokyo may seem like a familiar city to some, it’s so big and multi-faceted, there’s always something new to uncover. If you have a keen interest in Japanese culture and history – and want a taste of bustling modernity outside of the west – there’s hardly a better place to explore. Onward, then, to the towering capital of Japan.
A brief history of Tokyo
It’s hard to imagine, given Tokyo’s modern size of about 38 million people, that the city started as a modest fishing village called Edo. That was back in the 1100s CE. By the 1500s, the ruling shogunate had made its home in the city, which boosted the population significantly. In fact, by the time imperial power returned to the city in the 19th century (following protracted conflict between the supporters of the shogun and supporters of the emperor), it had grown in size to more than 1 million – impressively large for its time.
It was only in the later 1800s, during the reign of Emperor Meiji, that the longstanding capital of Edo was renamed Tokyo (roughly translating to “Eastern Capital”). Thereafter, the country’s new capital enjoyed massive growth and infrastructure development, converting it into the world-class destination city it is today.
Unfortunately, however, Tokyo suffered tremendous damage over the centuries due to war, earthquakes, and fires. Rebuilding has almost become a way of life for residents, though modern engineering has made the city better prepared for natural disasters. These days, active reclamation projects are the focus, working to preserve buildings and structures from the city’s past. This is critical for the Japanese, who greatly honor the past from which they came.
Tokyo is a first-class, first-world city. You’ll find the transportation is modern and punctual; all western amenities can readily be found in hotel rooms and restaurants; and the people are polite and helpful. However, as with all foreign destinations, it’s important to understand the customs of the Japanese so as to not offend anyone accidentally. A lot of the native customs are centered on deference to others; with that in mind, we recommend reviewing these Japanese etiquette tips to be sure you’re in the know.
Also, be sure you have a credit card you can use abroad (these are widely accepted) and local currency (Yen). Some places only take cash so it’s a good idea to have some on hand.
Lastly, Japanese is, unsurprisingly, the lingua franca throughout the city. While you won’t be expected to know it – and you’ll likely find many Japanese who know some English – make an effort to learn a few key phrases. Also, have a dictionary or translation app handy to help you navigate in and around the city.
How to get there and get around
Tokyo’s international airport (aka Narita Airport) is likely where you’ll fly in. It’s wholly modern, so you’ll find everything you need on the ground – including charging stations and WiFi. It’s also served by major U.S. airlines like American and United; they even run direct flights from major American cities.
To get into the city, we recommend taking the Narita Express Train. You can get a roundtrip ticket (to cover your trip into town and your trek back at the end of your trip) for around 4,000 ¥ ($37). Seating is reserved, too, so you don’t have to worry about finding a spot.
Once in the city, you’d do best to use public transportation to get around; finding parking can be a pain and the city is very crowded. The city’s bus and rail lines are clean, punctual, and affordable, so there’s not much reason to endure the hassle (and cost) of renting a car.
Where to stay
While compact, Tokyo is made of many different neighborhoods, each with its own personality. You can get just about anywhere via public transit, so it’s really a question of what neighborhood suits you best. For our money, we opt for Shinjuku (the shopping and bars/restaurants are fantastic) or Ginza (prime for its posh hotels, shopping, and proximity to major landmarks).
If you choose Shinjuku, you can’t go wrong with a stay at Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku. The rooms are simple – a plus in our book and perfect for undistracted relaxation – and the views of the city are spectacular. Rooms run around 9,000 ¥ ($85) per night, making it a very affordable option.
If posh is more your thing – especially if you want to be near key sites like the Imperial Palace and Tokyo’s famous fish market – then go with Ginza. You can’t go wrong with a room (or suite) at the five-star Peninsula Tokyo, although the luxe living will cost you a bit extra. Rooms run 64,000 ¥ ($600) or more a night. However, you do get serious pampering: mood lighting, surround sound, and daily newspapers are just a few of the included treats.
As with most modern cities, you can also find worldwide chains that offer rooms across Tokyo. Hyatt, Hilton, and The Ritz-Carlton are all in attendance, though generally are a bit pricier than more modest, local hotels.
What to do/see
What isn’t there to do in Tokyo? In all seriousness, there is a wealth of activities to keep you busy while you’re in the city. It’s hard to hit them all, but we recommend starting with a tour of the city’s greatest landmarks. These include the Imperial Palace, the Tokyo Dome, the Tokyo National Museum, and several ancient temples, as well as a slew of gardens and parks. For more information, use our guide to the best Tokyo landmarks.
When you’re done checking off the requisite landmarks, be sure you spend some time exploring the great shops and malls of the city. If you’re staying in Ginza, you’re already set; this is considered the 5th Avenue of Tokyo, where high-end boutiques and luxe chains abound. Head to the Shibuya neighborhood if you’re looking for something with a youthful vibe – you’ll find second-hand stores and quirky clothing outlets that give your shopping a bit more edge. For a more mall-esque experience, head to the base of the Skytree where the indoor Tokyo Solamachi will feed your retail appetite.
You also can’t go to Tokyo without experiencing tea – and yes, it’s a whole experience. One of our favorite spots is Tokyo Saryo; it’s clean, crisp, and gives you ample instruction on how best to enjoy local green brews. Plus, you can do full flights; this side-by-side exploration of tea is what really opened our palates to its leafy possibilities.
Oh, and for some nighttime fun, we highly recommend doing some bar hopping – and dabbling in karaoke. There are many karaoke bars in Tokyo; the best ones have both great drinks and costumes as part of the whole affair. Here are a few to get you started.
Where to eat
Food is our favorite part of almost any trip and Tokyo is no exception. Not only do you have a wealth of world cuisines at your fingertips, but you also have the best Japanese fare anywhere. While it’s hard to pick favorites, we do have a couple of easy recommendations.
With no website and no discernable social presence, Ise Sueyoshi (Nishiazabu) would be hard for unschooled tourists to discover – but you can find the address if you Google it. Similar to Western prix-fixe preparation, the Kaiseki-styled approach to dining here is perfect for sampling the chef’s bounty of seafood, noodles, and other-worldly creations. Sake pairings are available (and recommended), while each element of the meal contributes to an overarching story that is your multi-course meal. If you can get in, take the opportunity. You won’t regret it.
Ichiran is actually a chain, but always worth a stop if you’re in a pinch for a meal. Get the Tonkatsu Soup with ramen – the unique pork broth and tender noodles just hit the spot every time. (Oh, and if you can handle a little heat, pour some of the house red sauce on top – the mouth-tingling mix of heat and umami flavor is to die for.)
Speaking of noodles, if you’re a fan of yakisoba (stir-fried buckwheat noodles), then make your way to the digitally under-represented Yakisoba Mikasa in the Chiyoda neighborhood. The noodles are a bit flatter than what you’re likely used to seeing, but slicked with that tangy, peppery sauce and topped with a fluffy egg omelet – mmm, amazing.
For a final “all-out” experience, make a reservation at Florilège, a worldly, prix-fixe concept inspired by poetry. That’s right; get a seat here and you’ll enjoy a quasi-emotional experience that delivers food with verse and feeling – supported by the chef’s own explanations of each dish. Open your mind (and palate) to a brand-new culinary adventure, as you’ll find everything from beloved Western foie gras to abalone ragù in the mix. Savor it.
It’s hard to let this grand city go, but when your trip has come to an end, we encourage you to turn your eyes to the southeast, where Thai food (and cultural) exploits await.