Tokyo is a city of surprises — ancient temples are nestled among modern skyscrapers and you're just as likely to see someone wearing a cosplay costume as you are to see someone dressed in a traditional kimono. And even though Tokyo is the most populated city in the world, the streets can be almost eerily silent. You'll find every modern convenience (and then some), but because Japan was closed off to the rest of the world for many years, tech evolved in a way that reflects the Japanese psyche, English is not widely spoken, and the far-reaching effect of globalization is still minimal.
Best Time to Go
The best time to visit Tokyo is in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom (typically March to April) and in the autumn, when the weather cools and the fall colors pop (between September and November). That being said, the weather in Tokyo is fairly temperate — even in the winter — although it can be hot and humid from late June to the end of August.
How to Get Around
Trains: It's not shocking that trains are the preferred method of transportation around Tokyo. The city is so big the train system is divided into two companies: the Tokyo Metro and the Toei Subway. Between the two, there's nowhere in Tokyo you can't access. Just keep in mind that because of Tokyo's sheer size (and amazing train coverage) the metro and subway map can be confusing —make sure to download the Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists app before you set out.
Buses: Because the train system is so easy and comprehensive, most people skip the bus. But, it does exist. The Toei Bus runs throughout Tokyo and to neighboring suburbs.
Taxis: There are several taxi companies in Tokyo — all sporting various colors. In addition, you can hop in an Uber.Car service: There are private car services aplenty in Tokyo — including Tokyo Car Service and Blacklane.
Top places to visit in Tokyo
1. Tour the Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace
The chief attraction of Tokyo's Marunouchi district is the Imperial Palace (Kōkyo) 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.
Tours of the Imperial Palace are available (pre-registration required) and include the Kikyo-mon Gate, Someikan (Visitors' House), Fujimi-yagura ("Mt. Fuji View" Keep), the East Gardens and Inner Gate, the Seimon-tetsubashi bridge, and the Imperial Household Agency Building (be sure to plan).
Another fortress that can be visited is Edo Castle (Chiyoda Castle). Built-in 1457, it's located in Tokyo's Chiyoda district.
2. Shop 'Til you Drop in the Ginza District
Street Scene in Ginza District
Ginza is Tokyo's busiest shopping area and it's as iconic as Times Square in New York and much older. It has 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 (see #12 below), home to traditional Kabuki performances, as well as the ShinbashiEnbujōTheatre in which Azuma-Odori dances and Bunraku performances are staged.
3. Visit the Sensō-ji Temple
The Sensō-ji Temple
In the Asakusa district of Tokyo, the exquisite Sensō-ji Temple (Kinryū-zanSensō-ji)) - the city's most famous shrine - stands at the end of a long street market hosting vendors selling masks, carvings, combs made of ebony and wood, toys, kimonos, fabrics, and precious paper goods.
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 of a visit include seeing the Kaminari-mon Gate with its 3.3-meter-high red paper lantern bearing the inscription "Thunder Gate," as well as 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).
Also of note are the fascinating temple doves, said to be Kannon's sacred messengers. Be sure to drop a coin in the Omikuji boxes near the entrance, from which you can retrieve a piece of paper that will tell your fortune.
Afterward, be sure to explore the rest of the 50-acre temple precinct with its warren of lanes. If you can, revisit the temple at night for a completely different (and far less crowded) illuminated experience.
Asakusa Map (Historical)
4. Stop in at the National Museum of Nature and Science
Dinosaur skeleton at the National Museum of Nature and Science
Located 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.
Now completely renovated and modernized, the museum also boasts a reputation as one of the country's busiest and largest museums, housing a vast collection of some 250,000 materials related to natural history and science.
These include many fascinating interactive displays on space development, nuclear energy, and transportation, each 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 history of the Japanese people, including traditional customs and outfits. In the Global Gallery (Chikyūkan) you'll see many excellent scientific and technology displays, including robotics and vintage vehicles.
5. Enjoy Nature at Ueno Park and Ueno Zoo
Ueno Park and Ueno Zoo
A paradise-like oasis of green in the heart of busy Tokyo, Ueno Park (Ueno Kōen) 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 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. Be sure to also visit the 17th-century Toshogu Shrine (NikkōTōshō-gū), with its 256 bronze and stone lanterns.
Another highlight here is Ueno Zoo (Onshi Ueno Dōbutsuen). Opened in 1882, it is Japan's oldest zoo and is famous for the pandas presented by the People's Republic of China.
While it's a large attraction and houses more than 3,00 animals representing some 400 species, having a fun monorail connecting its various components can help speed up a visit (and make it even more enjoyable).
The Aqua-Zoo, one of the largest aquariums in Asia, is also worth a visit, especially if you're traveling with kids.
Ueno-Park Map (Historical)
6. Wander through the Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo National Museum (ōkyōKokuritsuHakubutsukan) houses more than 100,000 important works of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian art, including more than 100 national treasures.
Opened in 1938, the TNM, as it's usually known, includes highlights such as numerous Buddhist sculptures from Japan and China dating from the 6th century to the present, as well as fine collections of old textiles, historical weapons, and military equipment.
Also noteworthy are its large collections of historical Japanese clothing and Asian ceramics and pottery. Important artwork includes Japanese paintings from the 7th to the 14th centuries, and another must-see is the museum's exquisite collections of Japanese and Chinese masterpieces of lacquerwork of various centuries, including examples of lacquer-carving, gold lacquer, and lacquer with mother of pearl. There are also many fine examples of calligraphy.
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