Tokyo is a city that offers a vast array of spectacular and surprising attractions, but if you truly want to experience the history of the city and understand its ancient spirit, there are three places you simply have to visit. First up is the Imperial Palace, surrounded by beautiful gardens – which turn pink in cherry blossom season – and the original moat. The palace can be visited by the general public just twice per year, on 2 January – to mark New Year – and on 23 December, the birthday of the current Emperor, though guided tours of some parts of the building and gardens can be booked all year round.
Also well worth a visit is the Meiji Shrine, situated in Yoyogi Park in Shibuya. The largest and most popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo, it was built in honour of Emperor Meiji and his wife Shōken. The distinctive gates to the shrine (known as torii), made from cypress wood, are the largest in Japan. With a bit of luck, you might even be able to see a Shinto wedding, during which the atmosphere will be so solemn it will seem almost surreal.
And last but certainly not least, despite the crush of believers and tourists, don’t mis out on a visit to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, which gives you a chance to experience what the atmosphere would have been like in Tokyo at the beginning of the century. Visitors enter through the Kaminarimon or "Thunder Gate", atop which sits the largest paper lantern in Japan.
Shopping for all
If you want everything and you want it now, a good bet is the Odaiba district, which is home to many large shopping centres such as Venus Fort, inspired by European Baroque cities, and Aqua City, where two storeys are dedicated to restaurants and various brands.
Even more unique is DiverCity, with an actual-size Gundam model to welcome visitors. If you want something a little more bizarre (if that’s even possible), take a stroll down Takeshita Dori, the most iconic street in the Harajuku district. This hub of youth fashion is completely pedestrianised and features anything from merchandise stores to creperies, vintage boutiques and trendy bars where you can get something to eat and dance the night away. Alternatively, head to Tokyo Character Street, which is full of stores of Japan’s best-loved characters (Lamù, Sailor Moon, Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Ultraman), or to the Shybuya district, where thousands of young people meet up every day to go shopping, or even to one of the underground shopping centres in Shinjuku.
If you’re interested in picking up something more exclusive, go to Ginza, one of the poshest and most chic shopping districts in the world, where you’ll find stores from the leading fashion brands (Cartier, Gucci, Chanel, Armani) as well as more casual shops and electronics stores such as the Sony Building, an eight-storey temple of cutting-edge technology.
Finally, regardless of your personal preferences, you can’t afford to miss a voyage among the neon lights, maid cafés and gashapons (vending machines for toys) that line the streets of the Akihabara area, also known as Electric Town. With rows and rows of computers, tablets, telephones, videogames and cameras, the sheer quantity of products makes our western concept of a megastore seem pale in comparison.
More than just sushi
Many people believe that Tokyo is the new capital of global gastronomy. In addition to its huge variety and intricate recipes, one of the most distinctive features of Japanese cuisine is the meticulous attention given to presentation. It’s not hard to find a good restaurant in Tokyo, with every district serving up its own speciality.
If you want to try tendon (a dish of rice, tempura and sweet soy), your best bet is to head to a traditional restaurant in Asakusa, while ramen (a broth served with noodles and various other ingredients) lovers should go to the underground Ramen Street in Tokyo station. Tsukishima Monja Street is home to around 60 restaurants where you can try different types of monjayaki (pan-fried batter with various ingredients).
Other popular dishes include delicate buckwheat soba noodles, fugu, or pufferfish, which contains a potentially deadly toxin and can only be eaten when prepared by an expert, and unagi – steamed and then grilled eel. Last but not least, don’t forget to try Japanese street-food speciality dango: rice flour dumplings in various colours, cooked on the grill.
Tokyo is second to none when it comes to extravagant trends. Eccentric, colourful, spirited, imaginative… the Japanese capital is like a never-ending, open-air fashion show. Harajuku is without doubt the most vibrant area in terms of youth culture. As you walk through its streets, you’re bound to encounter girls dressed in the Lolita style, moving like fragile porcelain dolls decked out in lace, mini umbrellas, bows, baskets, heels and flowers.
Another style sub-culture is Ganguro, whereby girls apply copious amounts of fake tan, dye their hair in gaudy colours, go big on the make-up and dress scantily. The futago koude trend of dressing identically is also popular.
Akihabara is home to manga and maid cafes, where the waitresses dress up as manga characters and even the décor is inspired by the world of Japanese comics. You’ll also be able to see young people engaging in cosplay here – the practice of dressing up as characters from films, comics or cartoons – while the pop trend is also widespread, with young girls tottering about on vertiginous wedges and heels.
Experience the city
The best way to experience the spirit of Tokyo is of course to get a first-hand taste of its day-to-day life. Why not head to a sumo contest at one of the many gyms in Ryogoku or take a naked dip in thermal waters before enjoying a massage at a typical onsen?
Cat lovers can also visit a cat café (such as Neko no Mise), where visitors can cuddle up with cats of all breeds and colours, while fans of opera could enjoy a kabuki show at the Kabuki-za theatre, the most famous in all of Japan. Early risers can visit Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world, which holds a renowned tuna auction every day at dawn, before rounding off the day with a dinner at one of Tokyo’s excellent sushi restaurants.
Day trip to Narita
The elegant city of Narita, around 60 km from Tokyo, is popular with Japanese but known to tourists only as the site of the country’s biggest international airport. In reality, it is a magical place seemingly caught in time, with plenty of museums and lush gardens. Every year, Narita hosts celebrations in Naritasan Shinsho-ji, its large Buddhist temple, which are attended by millions of Japanese.
The temple is just a short walk from the station and comprises several buildings dating back to the late 18th century, set in a huge park spanning over 100,000 square metres.
To enter Japan you need a valid passport and a return ticket (or ticket showing the continuation of your journey).
For stays under 90 days, Italian citizens and all citizens of the EU, EEC (Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein), Switzerland, Great Britain, Ireland, San Marino, Monaco, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand do not require a visa.
Citizens of Brunei, Thailand and Indonesia may only spend 15 days in Japan without a visa, while citizens of the UAE may stay for 30 days only.
In 2007, a new immigration law was introduced according to which extremely detailed checks (digital fingerprints and facial photography) were brought in for all foreigners entering the country, regardless of the reason for travel.
Without doubt, the best time to visit Tokyo is the spring. While it can be a little cold in the mornings and evenings, the climate is generally mild and the sky clear – and the spectacle of the cherry blossom is a thing of rare beauty.
Summer in Tokyo is hot and particularly humid, with heavy showers common between late June and mid-July. At the end of the rainy season (July and August), during which temperatures can soar to 35°C, the days become progressively fresher as autumn approaches before temperatures drop in winter, when snow can fall.
During spring and early summer, Tokyo hosts a number of traditional festivals. In May, Sanja Matsuri celebrates the foundation of the Sensoji temple in Asakusa, while the historic Kanda Matsuri sees thousands of people take to the streets around the Kanda Shrine. Sanno Matsuri, held in June, while Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival in July is most spectacular events of the year, with thousands of fireworks exploding above the skyscrapers of Tokyo. Chiyoda’s Mitama Matsuri is another stunning event, during which thousands of lanterns light up the night sky.
Videogames lovers will want to head to Tokyo Game Show (late September) to enjoy wonderful animation and discover the latest tech innovations, while manga fans have Tokyo Anime Fair (March) in Odaiba – the world’s biggest festival of Japanese and international animations.
Last but not least, if you’d like to get an introduction into the world of sumo wrestling, big tournaments are held every January, May and September at the Kokugikan arena in Ryogoku.
Tokyo is a unique mix of modernity and tradition. A place where eccentrics (lovers of cosplay, punk, rockabilly, Lolita culture…) coexist in perfect harmony with women dressed in kimonos, students in uniform and professionals in the good old suit and tie. It’s an extraordinary city that sees new trends and styles – often extravagant and spectacular – created every year. A city where huge megastores and futuristic skyscrapers loom over ancient temples, zen gardens and traditional ryokan hotels. Home to 37.5 million inhabitants, Tokyo is the most populous area in the world. Its streets are constantly full and traffic is often chaotic, and yet – thanks to the unparalleled organisational abilities of the Japanese – the city still succeeds in showcasing its ordered elegance to visitors.