World Facts Index > Japan > Tokyo

To give you an idea where to go in the vast, bewildering metropolis that is Tokyo, here is a quick guide for the visitor. You could say all roads lead to Nihonbashi as all distances to and from Tokyo are measured from here. Nihonbashi (literally, "Japan Bridge") is centuries-old, though the present Western-style structure only dates back to the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and was once a prominent landmark. Nowadays, it is dwarfed by buildings and an overhead expressway. Mitsukoshi (Japan's oldest department store, still on its original site) and Takashimaya, another venerable shopping institution, are worth visiting.

Marunouchi-Otemachi is Tokyo's main business hub, but unless you want to visit Tokyo Station (also from the Meiji Period), renew your visa at the Immigration Center, or observe the Tokyo Stock Exchange, there is nothing much for the visitor here. Head for the Ginza instead. There you will find department stores, boutiques, bookstores, and eating/drinking places for every taste and budget. The Ginza is the nation's showcase. It's what Fifth Avenue is to New York and Oxford Street is to London.

Store prices are uniform throughout Japan, so there's no need to bargain. Just make sure you don't wander into some classy restaurant where you might get a shock from the high prices! Walking down Harumi-dori (one of Tokyo's few named streets) from the Ginza, you'll soon come to Yurakucho-Hibiya. Many airlines have offices here. Check out the quaint yakitori (barbecued chicken) stalls under the raised train tracks. Or enjoy a quiet moment among the flowerbeds in Hibiya Park. The Imperial Hotel, erected along the park by imperial edict, once featured a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. You could join the joggers on the 5-kilometer periphery of the Imperial Palace grounds, or stick to a leisurely stroll around the Palace East Garden. Also within walking distance are the Budokan, one of the venues of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; Chidorigafuchi, a stone-paved walk lined with trees that explode into glorious displays of sakura (cherry blossoms) in spring; Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial memorial to the Japanese war dead; and the imposing Diet (Parliament) building.

A quick subway ride will take you to Roppongi, world-famous for its nightlife. Once a sleepy village, Roppongi is crowded with discos, clubs, bars, pubs and restaurants, including such trendy places as the Hard Rock Café. Tokyo Tower, modeled on the Eiffel but taller, is visible and easily accessible from here. Take the elevator to the observatory - you might catch of a glimpse of Mt. Fuji's perfect cone. Nearby Azabu-Hiroo is where many embassies are located and a number of expatriates (the lucky few who can afford the sky-high rents) live. There is more nightlife at Akasaka-mitsuke (sometimes called "Little Seoul"), but it caters mostly to local yen-loaded patrons.

Young people congregate in three places: Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku. Both Shibuya and Shinjuku are major centers, with the usual mix of department stores, shops and eating/drinking places. A unique monument - Hachiko - by Shibuya Station commemorates a dog's loyalty to its master, and is known by practically every Tokyoite as a common meeting place. Shibuya encompasses Aoyama, a fashionable area dotted with designer boutiques and chic Parisian-style cafes. Shinjuku Station handles some 4,000,000 commuters daily, but don't be alarmed by the jostling crowds. Petty crime is virtually non-existent. In fact, the whole of Tokyo is safe and people are generally helpful and honest. By day or night, Shinjuku is a lively neon-lit place with a bit of the atmosphere of New York's Greenwich Village. A smoke-filled jazz joint? You'll find it here. Along with ramen (noodles) shops, pachinko (the Japanese answer to the slot machine) parlors, and such global brand stores as Virgin Records, Tiffany, and Gucci. There's even Barnys, an entire department store transplanted from New York. You'll also find two new landmarks here: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, with its futuristic twin 48-story towers, and the huge Takashimaya Times Square. Harajuku comes alive on weekends when the young and trendy come to see and be seen. Around the corner from the train station are the National Gymnasium, Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park, all Tokyo landmarks.

Already bustling centers in Edo times (1603-1867), Asakusa and Ueno belong to what Tokyoites call shitamachi (literally, "downtown"). A must-visit in Asakusa is Senso-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple, the approach to which is lined by stores featuring colorful displays of traditional crafts. At Ameyoko in Ueno, you can pick up unusual bargains ranging from dried squid to fake designer shirts. Culture buffs should head for the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park.

Four other areas are worth mentioning: Akihabara, the shoppers' paradise for anything electrical and electronic; Ikebukuro, most often visited for the sweeping view from the top of Sunshine City, one of the first skyscrapers in earthquake-prone Tokyo; Korakuen, site of an amusement park and Tokyo Dome, a modernistic sports (mostly baseball) arena that can accommodate up to 56,000; and Odaiba, an ongoing oceanfront development, served by monorail, that looks like the nucleus of the city of the future.

History of Tokyo

Though archeological studies have established that the islands of Japan were already inhabited several millennia before Christ, the history of Tokyo is relatively recent. It does not start until 1603 AD, when Tokugawa Ieyasu proclaimed himself shogun and moved the seat of government from Kyoto, home of the imperial court for nearly 1,000 years. Edo (the name of old Tokyo) began as nothing much more than a scattering of villages around Ieyasu's castle, site of the present Imperial Palace. It was only in the latter half of the 19th century that it took on the name Tokyo, meaning Eastern Capital to distinguish it from Kyoto in the west.

Under Ieyasu's rule, Japan was for the first time unified, putting an end to bloody wars between rival factions. In 1615, Ieyasu's armies annihilated the Toyotomi clan, squashing the last opposition to his absolute power. Ieyasu's successors kept a tight grip on the government, enacting the closed-door policy in 1639 which imposed a total ban on contact with the outside world. From then on, until the advent of Commodore Perry in 1853, Japan remained isolated, save for closely monitored transactions with Chinese and Dutch traders.

Ironically, the Tokugawas' one-party rule led to political stability. Following its turbulent past, the country settled down to a welcome period of peace and prosperity. Edo grew and flourished in what is known as the Edo Period (1603-1867), and by the mid-18th century it was inhabited by over a million people, exceeding both London and Paris in population and land area. Though the imperial court continued to reside in Kyoto, Edo gradually evolved into a bustling center of commerce and industry.

Ieyasu introduced a four-tiered class system, topped by the samurai or warrior class, which greatly reduced the influence of the old nobility. Nurtured by the patronage of the rich merchant class, new popular art forms emerged, such as kabuki and ukiyo-e. Comparable to the rise of the bourgoisie in Europe, this shift from the court and aristocracy enabled the populace to express itself in art. It is said that popular Japanese culture has its roots in the Edo Period.

It is amazing that the Tokugawa shogunate retained the reins of government virtually unopposed over so long a period of time, but corruption and incompetence finally led to its decline and fall. Also, in the latter half of the 19th century, the Western powers were increasingly calling on Japan to open its doors to trade. By the time the black ships of Commodore Mathew Perry steamed into Uraga in 1853, the greatly weakened Tokugawa shogunate could muster very little resistance.

This marked a crucial turning point in Japanese history. Not only did it open Japan to external trade, but it ushered in the country's rapid Westernization. Following the resignation of the last Tokugawa shogun, the whole country, headed by Emperor Meiji, plunged into a frantic drive to catch up with the West. With full powers restored to the emperor, the court was moved to Tokyo from Kyoto, making Tokyo the official capital of the country.

Even today vestiges of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) can still be found in Tokyo. The present educational system is based on reforms introduced during the period, and today many school children still wear uniforms patterned after European models from the late 19th century. Both the Diet (Parliament) and Bank of Japan were established during the period, and today these two institutions continue to dictate the political and financial affairs of the country. Even baseball, the most popular sport in Japan today, was introduced during the period. In the Meiji Restoration, one can see the seeds of modern Japan.

Though greatly devastated by fires following the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and again during the Second World War (1939-1945), Tokyo was soon on its feet again, spearheading what has been called Japan's postwar economic miracle. Under the occupation forces commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, the city witnessed the writing of a new constitution that introduced the separation of religion and state, universal suffrage, human rights, and the renouncement of war. With this new political and social order, Tokyoites, and the Japanese as a whole, focused all their energies on economic recovery and development. The result is what the visitor sees in Tokyo today - a cosmopolitan city that is truly the country's political, economic and cultural center, and which plays a leading role in global affairs. No small feat for a place that was once just a scattering of small feudal villages!


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