(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?
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
The city was segregated by caste and profession, divisions that
to a limited extent remain visible even today as Yamanote
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
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.
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
But it is really better to think of Tokyo as a series of towns that
have grown into one:
Harajuku | Akihabara
Hachioji <-- Shibuya --*-- Shitamachi --> Chiba
Ebisu | /
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
. To the east is Shitamachi
) and going down the coast you will eventually
. To the north and west is the suburbia of Saitama
and the tail of Tokyo-to
And down the southern coast lie Kawasaki
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.