In many ways, Tokyo is a utopia. Its 37 million inhabitants have access to fully stocked shops that never close, a dizzying network of trains that never come late, countless incredible things to do and the safest streets in the world.
Quite how such a massive city holds together, even as the occasional earthquake threatens to bring it down, is a mystery – one to ponder as you take in its full grey expanse from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory. Access to the building’s viewing deck is free; pick a clear day and you’ll glimpse Mount Fuji rising imperiously over the city’s western edge.
Back on ground level, you’ll find yourself in the western half of Shinjuku, a buzzing district bisected by the tangle of train tracks leading to the 200-exit station (by far the world’s busiest, and a mini-metropolis in itself). To its east lies Kabuki-cho, one of Tokyo’s several nightlife hubs and home to the delightful Golden Gai: a one-block maze of impossibly narrow passageways that houses hundreds of tiny drinking holes. In neon-lit Shibuya, the closest thing Tokyo has to a heart, lie innumerable karaoke joints, obscure restaurants and less salubrious venues. Simply strolling along its streets is an energising experience in itself.
Contrary to its global media image, Tokyo isn’t all manga and fluorescent lights. Blaring jingles notwithstanding, it’s a surprisingly quiet city and nowhere more so than in its attractive landscaped gardens (Rikugien and Shinjuku Gyoen are good places to start). These often adjoin a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, in which you can observe Japanese religious rites while getting light-headed on incense. The monumental Meiji Jingu is the most impressive of the lot (time it well and you’ll get to witness a traditional wedding procession, kimonos and all). If this doesn’t leave you in a state of serenity, go purge your last lingering anxieties at one of the city’s famous public bathing spots, whether a fancy hot spring resort (onsen) or – for the more adventurous tourist – an unpretentious neighbourhood bath (sento).
An introduction to a city this big can only scratch the surface. But whenever you choose to visit, you can count on discovering a city that juggles the old and the new, the calm and the frenetic, without ever feeling too intimidating.
Museums and attractions
For an overview of Japanese culture head to D47 on the eighth floor of the towering Hikarie building in Shibuya. You’ll not only be able to see exhibitions based on each of the country’s 47 prefectures but a breathtaking view across the shimmering metropolis.
Delve into Tokyo’s past with a visit to the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, or get hands-on at the Shitamachi Museum where visitors walk through the homes and businesses of old downtown Tokyo – you can even have rummage through their drawers.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum offers the most comprehensive history of the city, with an awe-striking reconstruction of the Nihonbashi bridge and a traditional kabuki theatre. Alternatively, you could always make for the real deal at the 129-year-old Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza.
Tokyo is nothing if not high-tech, and a visit to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation is a must. Expect a giant globe mapping real-time global climate changes, an abundance of space age technology and, naturally, robots. Tech-heads will also love Joypolis, a virtual wonderland where you can simulate everything from snowboarding to hang-gliding (the only ‘non-virtual’ highlight is the Spin Bullet, a terrifying whirling rollercoaster).
The huge doughnut-shaped tank at Tokyo Sea Life Park will amaze children and adults alike or you could take a trip through the underwater tunnel at the Shinagawa Aquarium. Look out for green turtles, stingrays and sand tiger sharks and don’t miss the outdoor dolphin shows!
Museums and attractions details
D47 Museum 8F Shibuya Hikarie, 2-21-1 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. 03-6427-2301
The Japan Folk Crafts Museum 4-3-33 Komaba, Meguro-ku, Tokyo. 03 3467 4527.
Shitamachi Museum 2-1 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo. 03 3823 7451.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum 1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo. 03 3626 9974.
Kabukiza Theatre 4-12-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. 03 3545 6800.
The National Museum of Emerging Science & Innovation 2-3-6 Aomi (Odaiba), Koto, Tokyo. 03 3570 9151.
Joypolis 3F-5F, 1-6-1 Daiba, Minato, Tokyo. 03 5500 1801.
Tokyo Sea Life Park6-2-3 Rinkai-cho, Edogawa, Tokyo 03 3869 5152.
Shinagawa Aquarium 3-2-1 Katsushima, Shinagawa, Tokyo 03 3762 3431.
Where to see art in Tokyo
If you love Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classics (think ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ and ‘Spirited Away’), the Ghibli Museum is definitely a must see attraction. MoMA Tokyo certainly lives up to its New York counterpart and the National Museum of Western Art includes everything from 15th-century icons to Monet and Pollock.
Less known is Tokyo’s vast Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 1995 and houses both international and Japanese work. The Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, which always offers a vibrant showcase, is also underrated, as is the Mori Art Museum and Tokyo City View, which combines world-class art with spectacular views across the city.
If you prefer film to paint, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography houses the best collection of prints in the city. Meanwhile dance fanatics should take a trip to the National Noh Theatre or the Cerulean Tower Noh Theatre. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on Tokyo’s secret art spaces.
If you’re nearby, pop into Art Center Ongoing, Vacant or 3331 Arts Chiyoda (based in an old high school). Not only will you see exciting new exhibitors, but you may well stumble upon a dance performance, theatre show or book fair depending on the day.
Art gallery venue details
Ghibli Museum 1-1-83 Shimo-Renjaku, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo. 0570 05 5777.
National Museum of Western Art7-7 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo. 03 5777 8600.
The National Museum of Modern ArtTokyo 3-1 Kitanomaru Koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. 03 5777 8600
Museum of Contemporary Art 4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku, Tokyo. 03 5245 4111.
Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery3-20-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo.03 5353 0756.
Mori Art Museum and Tokyo City ViewMori Tower 52F-53F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo. 03 6406 6100.
Metropolitan Museum of PhotographyEbisu Garden Place, 1-13-3 Mita, Meguro-ku, Tokyo. 03 3280 0099.
National Noh Theatre 4-18-1 Sendagaya, Chiyoda, Tokyo. 03 3423 1331.
Cerulean Tower Noh TheatreCerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel B2F, 26-1 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku. 03 5728 0168.
Art Center Ongoing 1-8-7 Kichijoji-Higashicho, Musashino, Tokyo. 0422 26 8454.
Vacant 3-20-13 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo. 03 6459 2962.
3331 Arts Chiyoda6-11-14 Sotokanda, Chiyoda, Tokyo. 03 6803 2441.