As the capital of Japan, Tokyo has a reputation for being one of the - if not the - most innovative cities on the planet. Bursting with people, this high-tech land where vending machines dispense watches as liberally as they do candy bars, toilets come with more buttons than aeroplanes and robots are actually a reality, is impossibly sleek and yet curiously jumbled at the same time. But with some of the most quirky and unusual attractions on the planet, more Michelin star restaurants than any other city, a delicious array of street food, themed cafes and even more oddly themed hotels, Tokyo is an absolute dream for the explorer with an imagination.
Home to an astonishing 38 million people, Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area. Despite this, it’s probably best thought about as a collection of smaller cities, all bundled together. Here are just a handful of the highlights...
Chiyoda: It’s fair to say that almost everything that happens in Japan has been touched, in one way or another, by the Chiyoda district. Home to the nation’s government ministries and legislature, as well as a number of corporate headquarters, it's where all of the big decisions are taken. Sitting within this area are The Imperial Palace, the interconnecting Chidorigafuchi Moat (a great place to see the cherry blossoms) and the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours the country’s war dead, as well as a number of individuals considered war criminals by other countries.
Shibuya: This is the Tokyo that you’ve seen in the pictures: tall buildings, neon signs piled high, people weaving in and out of each other at the world’s busiest street crossing. A popular district for shopping and socialising, Shibuya is where you’ll be able to visit a national monument, refresh your work wardrobe and then sing your heart out in a private karaoke room, all within a few minutes’ walk.
Harajuku: When it comes to fashion in Japan, the district of Harajuku can be considered the colourful, eccentric capital city. Actually a sub-district of Shibuya, it’s lined with boutiques, street art and street performers, and is a hub for the young and experimental. The best thing to do around here? Just wander about people watching - there will be someone that catches your eye. On a Sunday, a walk around Yoyogi park will give you the best of all worlds: teenage Geisha Goths, 50-something T-Birds, and beautiful surroundings.
Shinjuku: If you’ve ever had trouble picking the right exit from the subway, then Shinjuku station might not be for you - it has almost 200 of them. But when (if) you can make it out alive, then you’ll find an area teeming with life, with sites including a Samurai museum and a number of mega department stores. It’s also got a vibrant bar scene, as well as being home to Asia’s largest gay district. Shinjuku Gyoen, a large park, is one of the best spots in Tokyo to see the cherry blossoms which bloom here in early April, earlier elsewhere in the city.
Koenji: If there’s one word to describe Koenji, it’s got to be cool - and in a country where everything seems cool, that takes some doing. With an expanding creative scene, it’s more or less where the hip young things of Harajuku go when they leave the goth makeup behind and graduate from the park into proper adulthood. Art hotels, underground bars, chilled out cafes and vintage stores all abound, and it’s a paradise for live music and cheap eats. 10/10 definitely worth a visit.
Goats, hedgehogs, Alice in Wonderland, colourful Kawaii monsters and ninjas - you name it, Tokyo’s got a cafe for it. Among the oddest though has got to be the Cuddle Cafe, where you can pay to have a coffee and curl up for a nap in a stranger’s arms at the same time. The weirdness doesn’t stop at cafes either, because there’s also an enormous selection of themed restaurants to keep you busy during your time in the city; the infamous Robot Restaurant, for example, sees rival robot armies battling it out to pop music, complete with lasers and strobe lighting.
Robots and goats to one side, there’s also an (almost) infinite number of more ‘straight down the line’ venues to dine in. If you can handle your spice then pay a visit to Karashibimisoramen Kikanbo to taste ramen like it’s meant to be done - but don’t say we didn’t warn you about the kick. And don’t pass up the opportunity to visit the world’s largest fish market, Tsukiji Market, for the freshest, most authentic sushi you will ever taste. What could be better?
Tokyo Narita International Airport is 43km from the city and has good transport links into the centre. The city is also the hub of Japan’s high-speed rail network, and there are direct trains to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka roughly every 15 minutes.