Large Japanese cities are split into administrative units called wards (or ku in Japanese). The city proper of Tokyo consists of 23 such wards:


Note that the name of the ward is also often used to mean the area immediately around the ward's main train station.

The capital of Japan. (that was the easy part, now it gets harder...)

Calling Tokyo a "city" is a bit like calling the universe "big" or the sun "hot". Sure, it's true, but it just gives no idea of the sheer scale we're talking about here... The entire Tokyo metro area (Tokyo, Yokohama, Chiba and Saitama) has 30 million people. (That's one and a half times the population of the continent of Australia.) This area covers 3000 square kilometers, giving a population density of 10000 people per sq.km. Take the elevator to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, the highest building in Tokyo, and you will see nothing but concrete stretching as far as the eye can see. But how did this gigantic metropolis form?

History

What is now Tokyo used to be just a little fishing village called Edo (江戸), "the gate of the stream", referring to its location at the mouth of the Sumida River on the eastern side of the Japanese main island of Honshu. But in 1603, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, lord of Kanto and ruler of all Japan after his victory in the battle of Sekigahara, decided to move the nation's capital away from the decadent Heiankyo (present-day Kyoto) into his own domain. This started what is now known as the Edo era, and within a century Edo had 1 million inhabitants. The city was segregated by caste and profession, divisions that to a limited extent remain visible even today as Yamanote (山の手), the area of the samurai elite, and Shitamachi (下町), the literal downtown of the common folk. In the center was Edo Castle, begun in 1457 but expanded into the largest castle in the world by Ieyasu and his successors.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Tokyo was renamed the Eastern Capital (東京, correctly romanized Tôkyô with two long O's) and the deposed shogun's castle became what still remains the Imperial Palace. With the opening of the port of Yokohama and the railway to Shinbashi, Tokyo started to modernize at a frantic pace and the central Ginza quarter, rebuilt along Western lines, became the place to be. Alas, the dual calamities of the 1923 Great Tokyo Earthquake and the extensive firebombing during World War II left Tokyo a smoking pile of rubble, with approximately half a million people killed in total and nearly all pre-Meiji structures burned to the ground. Given the sheer scale of the devastation, the city rebounded amazingly fast, but the shoddy concrete buildings hastily thrown up after the war remain an omnipresent eyesore.

Orientation

If you look at a map, the center of Tokyo is the Imperial Palace, and in fact all distances in Japan are measured from nearby Nihonbashi Bridge. But it is really better to think of Tokyo as a series of towns that have grown into one:


                                Saitama
                                   ^
                                   |
                          Shinjuku-+-Ikebukuro
                            /            \
                        Harajuku   |    Akihabara
           Hachioji <-- Shibuya  --*-- Shitamachi --> Chiba
                         Ebisu     |      /
                            \            /
                         Shinagawa-+-Shinbashi
                                   |       
                                   v
                          Kawasaki, Yokohama

not to scale, the loop is actually much longer vertically than horizontally

The place to start orienting yourself is the loop of the Yamanote Line, which runs around the center. Within the loop are the palace, the nightclubs of Ginza, the bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki, the companies of Akasaka and most of the places where people work. On the Yamanote itself are the massive shopping and entertainment centers such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara. To the east is Shitamachi (incl. Ueno, Asakusa) and going down the coast you will eventually reach Chiba. To the north and west is the suburbia of Saitama and the tail of Tokyo-to (Shimokitazawa, Kichijoji, Hachioji). And down the southern coast lie Kawasaki and Yokohama.

Getting Around

Especially given its size, Tokyo has quite possibly the best public transport system on the planet. The subway goes everywhere quickly, comfortably and reasonably cheaply, and commuter trains will get you to points more distant. And no, the subway is not nearly as crowded as you have heard, unless you happen to be going in the wrong direction at the peak of rush hour.

On the minus side, walking and biking are not very realistic options unless you have a lot of time and energy. Travel by car is slowed, buses are best avoided and the worst flaw of public transport is that it all stops between 1 and 6 AM, leaving you at the tender mercy of Tokyo's exorbitantly priced taxis.

Places to Go, Things to See

I won't even touch this one! Pick any place listed above at random, or take a peek at Tokyo's Best Stuff for a few suggestions.

So What's It Really Like?

I think that Tokyo is like a bowl of lumpy porridge, but with lots of muesli stirred in and neon sauce dribbled on top. For most part, it's really quite horrendously ugly, with totally nondescript concrete buildings and a spiderweb of utility cables overhead everywhere you go. But look a little deeper and you'll find gems of amazing beauty. Within Tokyo are shrines and night clubs, sculpted gardens and Blade Runner architecture, museums and brothels, Hello Kitty kids, garish yamamba and geisha old enough to be your grandmother. Tokyo has some of the world's best places to eat, drink, party, study and even have sex. And thanks to its sheer size, you'll never run out of new places to explore, new people to meet. I've been to or lived in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Cairo, Hong Kong and nothing compares. (However, I do gather that Shanghai has a pretty good shot for the #2 spot.)

Still, as a place to live, instead of just visit, Tokyo has its downsides. As firmly as ever entrenched in the spot of the most expensive city in the world, insane land prices result in tiny apartments and mind-numbingly long commutes. Pollution has become less of a problem, but it's still rare to be able to see Mount Fuji, not all that far away. And, as a foreigner, you'll face all the problems you would elsewhere in Japan, with the language barrier to cross and subtle discrimination.

But hey -- come for a visit. You just might finding yourself joining the ranks of those who stayed for a lifetime.

Notable neighborhoods of Tokyo include Akasaka, Akihabara, Aoyama, Azabu, Ebisu, Ginza, Hamamatsucho, Hiroo, Ichigaya, Ikebukuro, Jiyugaoka, Kasumigaseki, Kudan, Kyobashi, Marunouchi, Meguro, Nagatacho, Nakano, Nihonbashi, Nippori, Odaiba, Okubo, Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Shinbashi, Shinjuku, Shirokane, Takadanobaba, Tsukiji, Ueno, Yotsuya, Yoyogi and Yurakucho.

It should also be noted that Tokyo is more than a city... it is a prefecture as well, or more specifically a 都 metropolis. The 23 wards only account for 8.4 million of the metropolitan population of 12.1 million: the rest live in other cities to the west of The City. The other cities are:

  1. Tokyo (23 wards) 8,397,000
  2. Hachioji 554,000
  3. Machida 406,000
  4. Fuchu 240,000
  5. Chofu 215,000
  6. Nishi Tokyo 189,000
  7. Kodaira 183,000
  8. Mitaka 177,000
  9. Hino 174,000
  10. Tachikawa 171,000
  11. Tama 146,000
  12. Higashi Murayama 146,000
  13. Oume 142,000
  14. Musashino 136,000
  15. Higashi Kurume 115,000
  16. Koganei 114,000
  17. Terushima 109,000
  18. Kokubunji 103,000
  19. Higashi Yamato 80,000
  20. Akiruno 80,000
  21. Komae 78,000
  22. Inagi 76,000
  23. Kiyose 73,000
  24. Kunitachi 73,000
  25. Musashi Murayama 66,000
  26. Fussa 61,000
  27. Hamura 56,000
The islands of Oshima, Hachijo Shima, Miyake Jima, and Iwo Jima (among others) are also under the authority of the Tokyo metropolitan government, although only the first three have any notable population.

Tokyo Metropolis accounts for a third of the megalopolis' population: the rest live in Chiba, Saitama, Ibaragi, and Kanagawa prefectures.

Tha capital of Tokyo Metropolis is in West Shinjuku. The current governor is Ishihara Shintaro.

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