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Discover Tokyo | Travel Guide | History, Inspiration & Tips

by Steven
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A journey through Japan starts in the capital Tokyo. And who does not have this great metropolis high on their list of destinations they would like to visit at some point in their life? And a few associations with this city are easily made: skyscrapers, technology and one of the safest cities in the world. But there is more. It also has a rich history, each district is different, of course, you can have delicious meals and it has some amazing sights that you should not miss during a visit. Have you become enthusiastic about Tokyo? Get inspired and discover in the Tokyo Travel Guide where to go…

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What you should know about its history before you go

Did you know that Tokyo suffered more casualties during World War II than the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined? The atomic bombs on the latter cities killed about 250,000 people; in Tokyo, the intense bombing had killed more than 400,000. Tokyo was in ruins, but it probably owes its super-modern character to that now. For the real history of the city, you have to look hard….

It was the new ruler Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616) who moved the centre of power from Kyoto to Edo in 1603. At the time still a small fishing village, but that changed with the construction of Edo Castle on the site of the current Imperial Palace. Within a few decades, the city had grown to more than 150,000 inhabitants.

History of Tokyo: The Kanto Earthquake
History of Tokyo: the Kanto Earthquake of 1923

The damage to the Sensoji Temple and the city of Tokyo was extensive during the Kanto Earthquake of 1923
But Tokyo has always been prone to major disasters. In 1657, the Great Fire of Meireki occurred, killing more than 100,000 residents. And in 1923, the Kanto Earthquake took place. Measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, it is estimated that more than 150,000 residents were killed. And finally, it has been mentioned before, the bombings during World War II caused more than 400,000 casualties. As for earthquakes and disasters, Japan is located in an area where earthquakes and typhoons can occur regularly.

1868 is a special year in Japanese history. After more than 250 years, the Edo Shogunate (1603-1868) came to an end. Emperor Meiji became the new leader of Japan and moved into Edo Castle. The name Edo changed to Tokyo and since 1868 it can call itself the capital of the country.

After World War II, the modernization of Tokyo and Japan proceeded rapidly. Especially in the ’60s things went fast and the city got the current character, as we know it today. Tokyo is a super-modern city, has suffered a lot in the past, but nevertheless, you can still discover a lot of history in the capital of the country. In the next chapter, you will read more about it….

Sightseeing – What to do in Tokyo?

Planning two, three, four or five days to visit Japan’s super-modern capital? To be honest, Tokyo, like Berlin and London, belongs to those cities where even after seven days you have only seen a small part of it. But if you only have time for the highlights, be sure to set aside 3 full days for it. Below you can read more about the best historical places in Tokyo.

Best travel time? Tokyo can be visited year-round. Temperatures in June, July and August are around 30 degrees. In the months of January and February, it is around 9 degrees. The best months are also just before the summer, May and June or just after the summer, in September, October or early November.

The Imperial Palace in Chiyoda, Tokyo

Visit the gardens of Kokyo, the current emperor’s palace

The heart of Tokyo is Chiyoda City, the place where Edo Castle once stood. Now, this is the palace of the current Emperor Naruhito. Drinking coffee with the emperor? That’s probably not in the cards, but you can visit the eastern palace gardens for free. Here you will find, in addition to a beautiful park, the foundations of the former Edo castle. You cannot visit the emperor’s palace, but you can visit the outdoor area, the palace gardens and Kitanomaru Park. For more information on a tour to Chiyoda, check out the GetYourGuide website.

Want to learn more about Edo Castle and explore the area yourself? Then read the article Imperial Palace | Follow the Route of the former Edo Castle.

The Amazing Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

Discover the city’s special temples

Kyoto is Japan’s city of culture, but that doesn’t mean Tokyo doesn’t have extraordinary temples and shrines. In fact, Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district is the busiest temple in the city, the country and even the world. It is dominated by a mysterious golden statue and has a history dating back more than 1,300 years. Also here you will find the Nakamise-Dori, the oldest street in the city and a great place for buying souvenirs. Want to know more about this special temple in Asakusa? Read the article Sensoji Temple | 5 special historical facts.

Another beautiful temple is the Meiji Jingu Shrine. This shrine was built around 1920 in honour of the country’s 122nd emperor, Emperor Meiji (1852-1911). Beginning in 1868, he led Japan to unprecedented industrialization and modernization, making it one of the best-developed countries in the world by 1910. The Meiji Jingu Shrine is located in the Harajuku district. Read more about it in the article Meiji Jingu Shrine | Commemorate the Emperor of Modernization.

Sake Barrels at the Meiji Jingu Shrine

Two other interesting shrines are the Zojoji and the Kaneji Temple. Zojoji Temple is located south of the Imperial Palace in the Minato district and Kaneji Temple is located north of this former castle in the Taito district. Both shrines were built between 1620 and 1625 and served to protect Edo from outside enemies.

Finally, looking for separate temples in Tokyo? Then head to the Yasukuni Shrine or Gotokuji Temple. Located on the northern border of Kokyo and Chiyoda, the Yasukuni Shrine is considered one of Japan’s most controversial shrines. Indeed, the register lists 14 convicted war criminals from World War II, including former Prime Minister Hideko Toji (1884-1848).

When former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited this temple after his resignation, China and South Korea saw it as an acknowledgement of the war crimes Japan carried out against both countries between 1900 and 1945. Gotokuji Temple, in turn, is popular for the sweetness of the shrine: the thousands of swaying statues of kittens that welcome you….

The special Zojoji Temple in Minato, Tokyo

Visit Tokyo’s extraordinary museums

For the best museums, head to Ueno Park. Around this park, north of the Chiyoda district, you will find a number of noteworthy museums. The most famous is the National Museum of Tokyo. Here you will find more than 100,000 objects and some of them have historically significant cultural value. It is the oldest museum in the country, belongs to the top 10 largest museums in the world and houses mostly Asian and therefore partly Japanese art. Other museums around Ueno Park include the National Museum of Western Art, the National Museum of Modern Art and the National Science Museum.

One place I can definitely recommend is the Edo-Tokyo Museum. This is located in the Sumida district. Here you can learn all about the history of Edo, present-day Tokyo from 1600 onwards. The exhibitions are nicely organized and the museum is housed in a very special building. Read more about the Edo-Tokyo Museum and the history of the city here.

The interesting Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida City, Tokyo

The historic gardens & parks

April is a popular month to visit Japan and take a look at the beautiful blossom gardens and parks of Tokyo. This makes for incredibly beautiful photos, but the gardens and parks are also beautiful to visit outside of that. One of the most beautiful gardens in the city is Hama Rikyu Onshi-teien (浜離宮恩賜庭園). Here once stood the residence of a feudal lord during the Edo Shogunate and was used as a hunting ground. Now you can mainly take a nice walk there experience a real Japanese tea ceremony in the tea house. Hama Rikyu Onshi-teinen lies south of Tokyo Station.

Another must see is Koishikawa Korakuen (小石川後楽園). It belongs to one of the oldest gardens in the city and was also commissioned by a feudal lord. Koishikawa Korakuen is located north of the Imperial Palace next to the Tokyo Dome.

Finally, Yoyogi Park, great to combine with the adjacent Meiji Jingu Shrine, and the aforementioned Ueno Park are fun to stroll through.

The fish markets of Tokyo

Japan and fish? That combination goes well together, just think of sushi, a delicious Japanese delicacy that is becoming increasingly popular in our country. Therefore, be sure to visit the new Toyosu fish market. Since 2018, this is the largest fish market in the city. Before that, Tsukiji was the largest but had to move to a new location. Still, you can go to both places for nice eateries with on the main menu: fish.

The Zojoji Temple and the Tokyo Tower in Minato

Discover the city from the sky

Tokyo is known for its many skyscrapers and unusual buildings. Much of it was created during the 1960s and 1970s. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji from one of the towers. This sacred mountain is about 3,700 meters high and is located 100 kilometers west of the capital. But where is the best place to enjoy the beautiful view?

The most famous tower is the Tokyo Skytree. This television tower in the Sumida district is more than 600 meters high and has become an icon of the city. However, it does not have a long history. Its construction was only completed in 2012. Buy a ticket online for this extraordinary building in Tokyo here.

A park with the Sky Tree, Japan
In the background, the Skytree. This is the tallest building in the city.

Another icon of the city is the Tokyo Tower. But wait a minute, doesn’t this one look like something? Indeed, inspired by the Eiffel Tower, in the Minato district stands this extraordinary structure. Its construction was completed in 1958 and symbolizes the rebirth of Japan as an economic power. Did you know that this tower is 16 meters higher than its big brother (actually small) in Paris?

Looking for a skyscraper that is free to visit? Then head to Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in the Shinjuku district. This government building consists of two towers with a height of about 250 meters. From the towers you have a beautiful panoramic view over the city and it’s completely free! All three buildings can be visited in the morning, afternoon and evening. A tip: do choose the right weather, otherwise you’ll have clouds around the towers like me…

Sumo Museum in Ryogoku, Tokyo
The Sumo Museum, next to the Edo-Tokyo Museum

Visit a sumo game

Sumo wrestling is among one of Japan’s most important sports. This tradition of obese men pushing each other out of the ring is probably more than 1,000 years old. Then it blew over from Korea to Japan where it was introduced to the Imperial Court.

Want to know more about this special Japanese tradition? Then go to the Ryogoku district, also called the Sumo district. Here you will find the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, where sumo competitions are held in January, May and September. You can also visit the Sumo Museum for free. Not a big museum, but nice to have seen.

The robot Gundam on Odaiba, Japan
The robot Gundam on the island of Odaiba

Discover Odaiba, the island of the future

Japan is the land of robots and technological progress. There is no place in Tokyo where you can discover the future than on Odaiba. Futuristic buildings, unusual hotels, modern shopping malls, and some interesting sights can be discovered here. Don’t forget to check out Miraikan, a science museum with interactive exhibits about technology and science. And also pay a visit to Diver City. Here you will find one of the most famous robots of this area, Gundam. You reach Odaiba via the self-driving monorail from Tokyo Station.

By the way, this little island southwest of the station has a history. In 1853, the leaders of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) had 6 forts built here with cannons to defend the city from sea attacks. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that people discovered the island and invested over 10 billion in Odaiba. And the result can be seen…

Statue of Liberty and the Rainbow Bridge
View from Odaiba of the Statue of Liberty and the city’s most famous bridge, the Rainbow Bridge

Accommodation – Where to stay in Tokyo?

In total, Tokyo has 23 neighborhoods which are in turn divided into all districts. This makes it quite difficult to figure out where to stay. To make it easier, you will find a map below. The center of the city, as already mentioned, is Chiyoda with the Imperial Palace. The districts around it are the most important in Tokyo. The best places to stay are Minato, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Taito and Chuo. In addition, you are in any case dependent on the subway to explore the city. Yet there are a few districts that are really just a little bit more fun than the rest.

The 23 districts of Tokyo
The 23 districts of Tokyo
Source: By Tokyo-all-wards.jpg: Abrahamiderivative work: Rudloff (talk) – Tokyo-all-wards.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11987202

Overnight in a Ryokan in Asakusa (Taito)

Historically, the district of Asakusa, in the north of Tokyo is among one of the most enjoyable districts. Although this district, like the rest of Tokyo, was heavily damaged during World War II, it still exudes a lot of history. The main attraction is the Sensoji Temple, but you are also close to Ueno Park (all the museums) and towards the east the Tokyo Skytree. The Nakamise-Dori is the oldest street in the city and here you can eat delicious food or buy Japanese souvenirs.

The district of Asakusa was the entertainment area of Tokyo before 1940. It now has relatively few high-rise buildings and if you are looking for accommodation, book a room in a Ryokan. A Ryokan is a typical traditional Japanese hotel, so with futons (thin mattresses) and typical Japanese decor. Super nice to spend the night there. Look here for a nice accommodation in the Asakusa district.

The oldest street of Tokyo, Nakamise-dori
Nakamise-Dori, one of the oldest streets in Tokyo in the Asakusa district

Games, Manga and Neon advertising? Spend the night in Akihabara in Chuo

Are you a big fan of technology, animation, manga, and neon advertising? Then stay overnight near the Akihabara district in the Chuo neighborhood. In the 1960s, many technology companies settled here and since then that technological character has never left. Are you a real Otaku, a “geek” who is obsessed with Anime and Manga? Then this district is really for you.

I stayed in Grids Akihabara Hotel & Hostel, in a quiet part of this district. I’m not a fan of Manga, but that’s not necessary either. I found Grids Akihabara to be a fine accommodation in Tokyo. Downstairs there is a café where you can have a drink and upstairs you have a common room for contact, although it was quite small. Nevertheless, definitely recommended for a stay in this beautiful city.

The special district of Akihabara in Tokyo, Japan
Akihabara, a special piece of Tokyo

The trendy Roppongi in Minato

If you are more of an evening and nightlife type, look for a stay in the Roppongi district. Located south of the Imperial Palace, this area in the Minato district is a great base for exploring Tokyo. Besides the many cafes, bars, and discos, you will also find a number of interesting museums, such as the National Art Center and Mori Art Center. And do not forget to visit the Roppongi Hills. This is a mega-complex with luxury office buildings, cinemas, shopping malls, skyscrapers, hotels, and so on. It was the real estate trader Minoru Mori who financed this project around 2000 and can be seen as a city within a city.

Other interesting districts?

Of course, there are a number of other districts where you could stay. Think of the entertainment areas of Shibuya and Shinjuku. And in Shibuya you will find Harakuja, the area also called the fashion capital of Tokyo because of the unique street fashion you will find here. In short, it mainly depends on what you like. For the next time in Tokyo, I would personally choose Asakusa…

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

Transport – How to get to Tokyo and around?

By Air: Tokyo has two major airports. For international flights, the main airport is Narita International Airport. This airport is located about 60 kilometres east of Tokyo. It takes about 1 hour by train to reach the city centre.

International flights also arrive via Haneda International Airport. This airport is located 20 km south of Tokyo and is one of the busiest in Asia. Japanese people use the aeroplane more than the high-speed railway line. And that has everything to do with the cheap price of air tickets. In general, Haneda Airport is used for domestic flights.

Metro: The Tokyo Metro is extremely convenient (and necessary). There is a difference between a private company (Tokyo Metro) and a government one (Toei Subway). Tickets are available for 24, 48 or 72 hours.

Train/Bus: Tokyo has a number of major train stations. The most important and central station is JR Tokyo Station in the Marunouchi district. Next to the station is also a bus station (JR Expressway Bus Terminal) for long-distance buses to Kyoto and Osaka, among others. Other large train stations can be found in Shinjuku and Ueno.

When does my train leave?
Use the Hyperdia website to plan your route through Japan. The website tells you exactly where you have to change trains and what the price of your journey is. Handy, right?

Next destination in Japan?

Continue your trip through Japan to Nikko National Park, Nagano or to Mount Fuji and the 5 lakes.

Do you have any comments, tips, or ideas about this Tokyo Travel Guide? Feel free to leave a message below.

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