Home to almost 14 million people, Tokyo got its start as a sleepy fishing village called Edo. The town’s fortunes shifted after the military ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu established his base of power there in 1603. Edo—along with its prominence—grew rapidly, as the influx of feudal lords and workers gave rise to a uniquely dynamic culture.
In 1868, the metropolis displaced Kyoto as the capital of Japan and was renamed Tokyo. During World War II, air raids devastated the city, but in the decades of rebuilding and modernization that followed, Tokyo emerged as a global economic hub. Still, traces of the old town remain.
The result is a dizzying landscape of contrasts and serendipity—Shinto shrines and sculpted gardens set amid clusters of high-rises and warrens of alleys filled with shoebox-sized bars. A nexus of tradition and innovation, Tokyo never ceases to surprise. You’ll get lost in this sprawling metropolis (it’s nearly three times the size of NYC or Singapore), but that’s all part of the fun.
City of water
In ancient times, Tokyo relied on an intricate network of more than 100 rivers and canals, now concealed beneath tons of steel and concrete. Edo-era woodblock prints offer a glimpse of the city’s aquatic past, when boats ferried goods along the bustling waterways from warehouses that lined the Tokyo Bay.
Pollution from industrialization and the aftermath of the Second World War rendered canals and tributaries unusable; opting for more Western styles of building, the city filled in streams with concrete and constructed highways over rivers. Developments such as the Odaiba land reclamation project have attempted to revitalize the waterfront, and the city plans to increase its water transport options in the years to come. National broadcaster NHK released a documentary exploring the topic in July 2021.
Temples and shrines
Though more modest in number and grandeur than Kyoto’s temples and shrines, Tokyo’s places of worship have played a significant cultural role throughout history. One of the oldest shrines dating back to the 8th century, Kanda-myōjin is where Tokugawa Ieyasu paid his respects; during the Meiji period, it became one of the 10 shrines in Tokyo given special status by the emperor.
More than mere tourist attractions, these sites continue to serve a spiritual function for locals. More than 3 million people regularly flock to the Meiji Jingu shrine to pray at the start of the New Year, while fire rituals—accompanied by Buddhist chanting and taiko drumming—are performed daily at Fukagawa Fudo-do temple. In residential areas, fresh flowers and other offerings are constantly replenished at the miniature shrines and altars that dot the streets.
The historically working-class shitamachi (downtown) areas of eastern Tokyo are undergoing a creative transformation. In Kyojima, an aging neighborhood known for traditional crafts, artist-in-residence programs, and projects such as the Sumida Mukojima Expo (an annual art festival and other events held throughout the year inside renovated wooden tenement houses), are breathing new life into the community. Temporary shops and exhibitions can also be found along the main shotengai shopping street.
Young entrepreneurs are also collaborating with local artisans, renting retail spaces along the old shotengai (shopping streets) and introducing new businesses like the hip natural wine shop, apéro.
From neon jungle to silver screen
The Shinjuku neighborhood, with its frenetic jumble of towering skyscrapers and neon-lit blocks dotted with smoke-filled noodle joints, is fodder for filmmakers. The area famously inspired the set of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sipped cocktails against a backdrop of the glittering Tokyo skyline from the 4floor of the Park Hyatt hotel.
Writer Jake Adelstein’s memoir “Tokyo Vice” depicts the area’s seedier side, along with the hostesses and yakuza gangsters that populate the Kabukichō red-light district; a television drama based on the book, starring Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe, is set to premiere on HBO Max in early 2022.
From the meticulously manicured Hamarikyu Gardens, which were built in the 1century, to the moat-encircled grounds of the Imperial Palace and the cherry tree-lined lanes of Ueno Park, public gardens offer a welcome respite from hectic city life.
In recent years, large urban developments have cultivated green spaces on tower rooftops, along corridors connecting shopping complexes, and even above highways. The rooftop garden that sits above the newly built Miyashita Park commercial complex covers more than 100,000 square feet and features recreational facilities such as a sand-filled volleyball court. And, the ring-shaped Meguro Sky Garden—built above the junction of two motorways—brims with a variety of flora ranging from pine and cherry trees to bamboo.
Kawaii culture—the “cute” aesthetic that propelled the success of beloved manga and anime characters such as Sailor Moon and the entire cast of Pokemon—originated in Tokyo.
Working in his Nihonbashi boutique in the early 1900s, painter Yumeji Takehisa created illustrations depicting dreamy beauties with rounded features and large eyes. The designs were an instant hit, sparking a boom in cutesy products specifically aimed at young women. The motifs later inspired the look of Hello Kitty, the adorable character that was created in 1974 and helped turn Sanrio’s founder, Shintaro Tsuji, into a billionaire.
In his book “Pure Invention,” writer Matt Alt explores how the kawaii phenomenon and other pop-culture trends transformed Japan into a cultural superpower that has conquered the world’s imagination.
A culinary capital
The birthplace of sushi and ramen, Tokyo boasts more than 150,000 restaurants, with 226 Michelin-starred establishments—more than New York and Paris combined.
What makes the food scene so dynamic is the tantalizing mix of traditional and avant-garde cuisine: For lunch, you can slurp soba at Kanda Matsuya, a noodle specialist that’s been operating since 1884, and then have dinner at Florilège, where chef Hiroyasu Kawate blurs the lines between contemporary Japanese and French cooking, before finishing the night with a steaming bowl of tsukemen (ramen noodles with a dipping sauce) in Nakano, the neighborhood where the dish was purportedly invented.
Asia’s LGBTQ center
Thanks to high levels of safety and increasingly accepting attitudes, Tokyo has emerged as a popular destination among the queer community in Asia. After the Second World War, bars catering to gay clientele began appearing in the Ni-chome neighborhood of Shinjuku.
Consisting of only a handful of blocks, the area nonetheless features the largest concentration of gay bars in the city (and possibly, the world). On sunny weekends, lively crowds spill out onto the streets, clinking glasses to a house-music beat. More subdued pockets of queer culture can also be found along the quiet backstreets of Asakusa, an area once known as a gathering place for gay men in Edo times.
Drinking is so much a part of Japanese culture, there’s even a word to describe the way alcohol functions as a social lubricant: nomyunikeishon, a portmanteau of the words for drinking and communication.
From natural wine and sake bars to high-end tequila dens and swish cocktail lounges, the Japanese capital will never leave you high and dry. Watering holes are hidden in basements and alleyways, perched on swanky hotel rooftops, and tucked into high-rises. Creative concepts like The Bellwood, inspired by a Taishō-era coffee house, and swrl., which serves wine-based cocktails alongside pan-Latin fare, are adding a fresh perspective to the city’s renowned cocktail scene.
While non-Japanese account for less than 3% of the total population, the number of foreign-born residents has increased steadily over the past several years. In Tokyo, a number of thriving ethnic communities are adding to the cultural diversity of the capital.
Walk through the Shin-Ōkubo neighborhood and you’ll find shops specializing in Korean cosmetics and restaurants specializing in the latest food trends in Seoul. Edogawa-ku’s Little India holds an annual Diwali festival that attracts thousands of visitors, while the Asakusa Samba Carnival celebrates Brazilian culture.
Chinese enclaves are flourishing in areas such as Ikebukuro, and in recent years, a cluster of Burmese restaurants serving mohinga and Shan cuisine in Takadanobaba has popped up to cater to the growing number of immigrants from Myanmar. In the northwestern suburb of Yotsugi, the restaurant Little Ethiopia, owned by asylum-seeker Ephrem Haile, functions as an informal cultural center for the Ethiopian community.