A blinking, blaring string of neon signs and jumbo-trons coats the thick night crowd beneath in pale light. The human mass collides and weaves through itself, finally clustering at the turnstiles of Shinjuku station. A girl dressed as a French maid hands fliers to gawking, photo-snapping Akihabara geeks. Tucked away in a winding web of tumble-down back alleys, a tiny, bustling bar serves up salted grilled fish and overflowing cups of cold sake to smoking patrons with ties loosened and voices raised. The click of high heels precedes a smartly dressed woman toting bags concealing immaculately packaged purchases down tree-lined Omotesando, her profile reflected sharply in the dark glass behind.
A buttoned-down business man on his lunch break tosses a coin, claps his hands together, bows, and prays at a shrine just off the congested road. He sits at a nearby bench and unwraps an ingeniously wrapped onigiri, quietly enjoying his lunch and periodically checking his cell phone. A lone soft drink vending machine stands sentinel at the head of a rice field on the edge of town, its flickering light illuminating the greenery beneath. A narrow neighborhood marketplace hosts a chorus of welcoming shouts, as vendors hawk fresh produce, seafood, pickles, and other specialties. Large, brilliant, sumptuously red apples fetch a price of around $5 each, while squids still wriggling go for next to nothing.
In a metropolis of nearly 13 million, these are just a handful of images to be found among a nearly indefinable network of loosely connected neighborhoods and cities. A train ride in any direction through Tokyo reveals one crowded urban center after another, each offering a different take on the city's unique culture and indomitable spirit.
The “Electric City,” Akihabara appeals to the otaku (geek) crowd with its gigantic electronics outlets, manga and toy stores, and maid cafes. Akihabara is a necessary stop for anybody hoping to catch a glimpse of high nerd culture. Head down the narrow alley under the JR train line tracks and you'll be in an uber-otaku paradise: piles upon piles of switches, transistors, tubes, LEDs, and anything else the electronics enthusiast needs for his tinkering.
Tokyo's historic heart, Asakusa is home to the impressive Senso-ji temple, among many other cultural sites. The whole place feels a little bit like Disneyland, with everything done up to preserve an overall historic feel. Asakusa is the place in Tokyo to stock up on all those traditional trinkets and crafts you'll want to bring home. A day in Asakusa should be spent perusing street stalls while nibbling on traditional snacks made fresh in front of you.
The area within and right around the JR Yamanote train loop is a mish-mash of government and corporate offices, landmarks (like Tokyo Tower and the Imperial Palace), and shopping districts (like Tokyo Mid-Town) that can be best described as Central Tokyo. It's the heart of Tokyo, hosting some of the city's most important sights, even if it's difficult to pin a single characteristic on this urban core.
Across the Sumida River, the eastern swath of Tokyo is largely a residential area. But, that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of important sights to take in. Tokyo evolved and grew from east to west, meaning that this is one of the best places to experience the everyday life of old Edo. Fittingly, Ryogoku – the country's most important sumo stadium – is here, as well as an abundance of traditional shops and restaurants.
Ebisu and Daikanyama
Although they run right into each other around Ebisu station, these two hip neighborhoods present two decidedly different takes on cool. Sophisticated Ebisu goes modern, with the Sky Walk leading from the station to pristine Yebisu Garden Place, where the Yebisu beer museum – and its excellent tasting room – is not to be missed. It's also the location of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Many of Tokyo's finest restaurants call Ebisu home, and there are plenty of gourmet options that won't break the bank.
Harajuku and Aoyama
Does your mental picture of Tokyo include gothic lolitas and cosplay kids? Then Harajuku on a Sunday is probably the place for you. It's the mecca for Tokyo's vibrant youth culture. The Jingu Bashi bridge connecting Harajuku with adjacent Yoyogi Park (Tokyo's largest) is the main gathering point for all those alternative kids with a mainstream cause. Yoyogi Park is also a wonderful patch of green in a notoriously brown and grey city, and is a kind of magnet for congregations of every alternative subculture known to man, from visual kei to rockabilly.
Ikebukuro is one of Tokyo's Big 3 centers, along with Shinjuku and Shibuya. Compared with the other two, however, Ikebukuro is best described as “homey,” lacking some of the sheen and veneer of Shinjuku. However, Ikebukuro station is the second-busiest in Japan and there are several excellent shopping areas – like Sunshine City – that provide plenty of entertainment for people just arriving from the outskirts of town.
Odaiba and Ariake
The island of Odaiba was originally built as a defense against General Perry's Black Ships in 1853, but now serves as an ultra-modern playground for the city's residents and tourists alike. Huge shopping complexes, convention centers, and excellent museums (like the Miraikan) draw big crowds here on the weekends. The Fuji Television studios are here, as well as the Tokyo Big Sight convention center. It's worth the trip for the view from the monorail across Rainbow Bridge alone.
Roppongi's line-up of bars and nightclubs is the main reason to come here. It offers a surprisingly western take on night life, and foreigner-friendly establishments abound. This also means that it's the only place in Tokyo where you're likely to get hassled by club employees trying to get you into their place. But, Roppongi is an unmatched mecca for all-night festivities in a city that can hit the sack surprisingly early.
Setagaya is the most populous of Tokyo's 23 special wards, and the large area is home to some fun, unique neighborhoods, like Sangenjaya and Shimo-Kitazawa. Setagaya is known mainly as an upscale residential district, and it's a good place to take in everyday Tokyo life. Hop on the Setagaya Line streetcar – one of only two left in the city – for a trip back in time to a more peaceful, laid back Tokyo. Expansive Komazawa Park, built for the 1964 Olympics, is also here.
Shibuya buzzes with energy from the famous crowds of people swarming Hachiko crossing. Center Gai – the neighborhood's dominant shopping street – showcases Shibuya's funky feel, with shops like Condomania and Tokyu Hands catering to hip patrons. Get lost on the streets radiating from the station and find a bar or club that suits your taste; you're sure to find it in Shibuya's eclectic mix.
Although it straddles Tokyo's western fringes, Shinjuku can in many ways be considered the city's center. The busiest train station in the world is here, as is a plethora of the finest restaurants, hotels, and bars to be found. Shinjuku gyoen (garden) is arguably the most beautiful in Tokyo, as are the neighborhood's men and women dressed for a night on the town. Nightlife is plentiful here, and done in a decidedly Japanese style, especially if you head to the more traditional Kabukicho and Golden Gai areas.
Ueno is Tokyo's eastern hub, offering dining, drinking, and entertainment with a slightly more traditional tilt. Ueno Park is here, home to a complex of museums and natural attractions that can't be beat in Tokyo. Stick to the side alleys and back streets, and you'll get a taste of the old Tokyo, complete with yakitori stalls, rickety izakayas, and discount shops.
West Tokyo, like East Tokyo, is very much a residential district – perfect if you want to get a look at how Tokyoites live and play every day. You'll find acres of pedestrian arcades, jam-packed with tiny boutiques, traditional markets, and casual eateries, to explore. The homes here are decidedly more trendy than those in the east, and neighborhoods like Kichijoji play host to shopping streets that let you take a glance at the everyday lives of Tokyo's twenty-something residents.
Oedo Tsukijishijo or Hibiya Tsukiji station
2-2-1 Nihonbashi-Kakigara-cho, Chuo-ku
Royal Park Hotel