Most of the clichés are true. Tokyo is a neon-wrapped, hectic playground where Hello Kitty is a deity, trains are never late, vending machines are everywhere, and food doesn’t always lie still on your plate. Ancient and pop culture vie for space (pop culture usually wins), and there’s an insatiable thirst for innovation, which means the Japanese capital always seems a step or two ahead of your imagination. Like many major cities, Tokyo is a series of distinct districts, each with their own quirks, charms and chagrins. We’ve selected the ten essential areas and flitting between these distinct parts will give you a sense of Tokyo’s magnificent megalopolis.
Like Ginza and the upwardly mobile Marunouchi, Aoyama is big-brand heaven. Christian Dior, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Tod’s are all represented, but Prada, with its Herzog & de Meuron-designed bubble-glass high-rise, is still the highlight of the area. And things got better (or worse, depending on your point of view) with the opening of the Tadao Ando-designed Omotesando Hills in 2005. The brainchild of the corporation behind multi-use mini-city Roppongi Hills, the far smaller Omotesando version is almost entirely devoted to retail, with flashy fashion brands hogging the bulk of the floor space. Unless you’re heading to one of the posh eateries inside, this monument to Mammon is best experienced from the other side of the street, preferably after dark when the glass panels of its façade emit their chameleon-like ambient glow. Despite the prevalence of top-tier fashion names, Aoyama is distinctly more accessible than Ginza, with better nightlife to boot. The tree-lined avenue Omotesando runs through the heart of Harajuku and Aoyama, blurring the boundaries between the teen haven and its grown-up neighbour.
Long before Roppongi and Shibuya figured on anybody’s radar of interest, Asakusa was the place for entertainment in Tokyo. For a couple of centuries, until around 1940, this area adjacent to the eastern bank of the Sumida river was far and away the most exciting and dynamic part of town. It’s a fine example of shitamachi, the low-lying districts of the city where the commoners lived cheek by jowl until Tokyo’s population began drifting westwards in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1923 and fire bombing in World War II. Today a sense of faded grandeur hangs over the area. For the visitor the greatest appeal lies in the Asakusa Kannon Temple. It is this temple complex and its environs that have helped make Asakusa one of Tokyo’s prime tourist attractions. In later years, Asakusa thrived due to its proximity to Yoshiwara, the largest area of licensed prostitution in Edo (as Tokyo was originally known). Seeking refreshment before the evening’s activities, Yoshiwara’s clientele headed for Asakusa. The area’s entertainment ranged from magicians to comedians to performing monkeys. The area also flourished as the centre of kabuki, a massively popular form of entertainment whose actors were idolised like rock stars. Nowadays, Asakusa is popular for its olde-worlde charms, having resisted the rampant development that characterises most of Tokyo. As well as Hanayashiki, its quaint theme park, and the many restaurants and drinking dens, Asakusa also offers two great souvenir-shopping opportunities. For the more touristy stuff, Nakamise Dori has a plethora of all the most obvious gifts – from chopsticks to kimonos. A few streets away is the restaurant industry’s wholesale district, Kappabashi Dori, where an enormous range of lacquerware and utensils awaits.
Whenever the economy slumps and most of Tokyo becomes cost-conscious, Tokyo’s fanciest district carries on regardless. Ginza is, was and always will be the epitome of extravagance. Ladies saunter the wide streets dressed head to toe in luxury brands, shopping for more of the same. Come nightfall, come the politicians and businessmen on bottomless expense accounts to quaff overpriced drinks poured by kimono-clad staff. For the rest of us there’s Ginbura (‘Ginza strolling’), a tour of the numerous small art galleries that dot the area, or a day of high culture at the Kabuki-za. Committed shoppers can choose from over 10,000 shops crammed into Ginza’s eight main blocks (chome), many of them selling goods at boom-era prices. Tiny shops selling traditional items such as kimonos, wagashi (Japanese sweets) and go-boards sit quietly amid an increasing number of big brand flagships from the likes of Gucci, Cartier and Chanel. Competition between these luxury heavyweights has seen them commission stores with spectacular façades, and the exteriors of Mikimoto, Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton are all worth a look for design fans. For those wishing merely to window-shop, Ginza’s unusually wide pavements offer a less congested experience than most of Tokyo. From noon each weekend it gets even easier, as cars are banished from the main street, Chuo Dori, creating what is known as hokousha tengoku (pedestrian heaven). Cafés spill out onto the road, lending the area a relaxed, almost European feel.
When they were building Meiji Jingu, Tokyo’s largest Shinto shrine, they couldn’t have imagined that the surrounding area would develop into a youth fashion mecca of the quirkiest order. A stretch of pavement just in front of the shrine’s main entrance is where the cosplayers gather each weekend, dressed as gothic nurses or twisted Lolitas or straightforward cartoon characters, striking poses for the tourist cameras. The source of many of their threads is Takeshita Dori, the congested artery of teenybop culture that leads from Harajuku Station into the heart of ‘Ura-Hara’, the trendier backstreets that house many of the city’s hippest urban labels. It’s no coincidence that Pharrell Williams and NIGO® chose this area for their streetwear stores Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream Store.
Marunouchi, meaning ‘within the moat or castle walls’, is Tokyo proper. It’s the home of the Imperial Palace, the site of Tokyo’s geographical zero marker Nihonbashi and the centre of the capital’s financial and political activity. More recently it has also become a consumer centre, with numerous high-rise shopping and dining complexes popping up. For tourists the big draw is still the Imperial Palace, home of the Japanese royals since 1868. Although the main grounds are out of bounds for all but two days a year (Jan 2, Dec 23), the East Gardens are well worth a wander, and there are plenty of photo-ops from the outside. Much to the dismay of the Imperial household, you can also now get a good peek from the neighbouring skyscrapers, although most of the vantage points have been leased as office space. The other major sight in the area is the notorious Yasukuni Shrine and its adjacent war museum, the Yushukan. As both the national war memorial and home to the souls of 14 Class A war criminals, the shrine has become a focal point for nationalists. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive shrine set in spacious grounds that include a Noh theatre and sumo ring. Locals have been lured here by the revamped Naka Dori, lined with big foreign brand boutiques, and a pair of more affordable high-rises, the Marunouchi Building and Shin Marunouchi Building. As the area abuts the consumer frenzy of Ginza, it’s best to approach it as a respite from, rather than an extension of, your spending.
The traditional heart of Tokyo’s hedonism has half a century of revelry to its name. Its main drag is packed with establishments that satisfy the visceral needs of the expat party crowd. Think tequila shots, deafening music and fast-track mating rituals. But recently Roppongi has developed a more wholesome side as home to the city’s two grandest consumer complexes and the stunning new National Art Center, Tokyo. Back in 2003 Roppongi Hills opened to great fanfare, and its popularity has yet to wane. Official figures claim 100,000 visitors each weekday, rising to 300,000 at the weekend. Tokyo Midtown followed in 2007, just a stone’s throw from its predecessor, with a remarkably similar template of luxury hotel, upscale dining, mainstream fashion and major art museum. Midtown also boasts Tokyo’s tallest tower, but Roppongi Hills’ Mori Tower has a spectacular observation deck, complete with the city’s best art museum in the middle. If anyone expected these upscale mini cities to put the squeeze on the sleaze, they underestimated the party power of Old Roppongi. The two sides of Roppongi continue to co-exist in relative harmony.
Shibuya is the bright, brash centre of Tokyo’s teen culture. The area’s innumerable shops, cafés, clubs, bars and restaurants are geared towards Tokyo’s youngsters, making it fast, fun and affordable. Daytime is all about shopping, with music and fashion dominating the stores, but when darkness falls and the neon is switched on, myriad clubs, bars, live venues and less salubrious establishments keep the area throbbing till dawn. The JR Station’s Hachiko exit is the gateway to most of the area’s attractions. Straight ahead is the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing and diagonally opposite is the narrow, pedestrianised street known as Center Gai, which offers a rather dull shopping or dining experience, but a wonderful people-watching opportunity. This is the catwalk for some of Tokyo’s most garish trendsetters, who mill around in the latest bright fashions. The likely source of their threads is 109, a nearby ten-storey cylindrical collection of boutiques. The store’s most committed ambassadors are known as gyaru – an approximation of the English ‘gal’. They have become the icons of Shibuya, but the youth culture bubbling around these streets extends to the hip hop crowds, clubbers and trendy, design-savvy youths. The one demographic missing from Shibuya is grown-ups, who tend to steer clear of the cacophony. Despite the area’s long-standing reputation as an after-hours schoolyard, some hefty investment has been made in an attempt to push Shibuya’s image upmarket. First, a trio of train operators joined forces to tack Mark City on to the side of the existing station. Then came the grand Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, with its many attractions. Most recently, a Tadao Ando-designed extension to the station opened, with a new train line making it even easier to get to this rowdy commercial hub.
Shinjuku is the neon-lit Tokyo you’ve seen in the movies. It’s the largest sub-centre and easily the most cosmopolitan area, with luxurious department stores, sleazy strip clubs, smoky jazz bars and gay porn shops all just a few blocks from each other. The area is divided into two distinct east and west sections by the JR Yamanote and Chuo train lines. The clean-cut west is home to the city government, corporate skyscrapers and the luxurious Park Hyatt Tokyo, the hotel made famous by the film ‘Lost in Translation’, while the cacophonous east offers everything from big-brand shopping to neon-lit sex parlours. It is also a major transportation hub. In fact, Shinjuku Station is the busiest in the world. Those photos you’ve seen of commuters being pushed on to crowded trains by uniformed guards in rush hour? Shinjuku Station, every morning of the week, from 7.30am onwards. Get up early and take a camera, but don’t expect there to be much room on the platform. And with over 50 exits, miles of tunnels and several different levels, it’s also the station you’re most likely to get lost in – which means it’s essential to know which exit you need. Compared to the gastronomic wonderlands of Ginza, Roppongi or Aoyama, Shinjuku falls a little short in terms of top-class dining options. But there are plenty of cheap and cheerful restaurants and izakaya, or Japanese-style pub, and it boasts two of the best drinking areas of the capital: the San-chome district, which is packed with friendly, affordable music-oriented bars, and Golden Gai, a tiny patch of land on the edge of the red-light action. Over 250 of Tokyo’s tiniest drinking establishments are squeezed into Golden Gai’s character-laden alleys, but the reception for new faces ranges from convivial to downright hostile. A few blocks from Golden Gai is the capital’s gay scene – eerily quiet by day, pounding with energy each night.
Long before feng shui gained a foothold in the West, China’s ancient rules of geomancy were being applied in feudal Japan. And it is thanks to feng shui that Ueno came into being. In the seventeenth century, as a one-time fishing village was developing into the administrative capital that would become Tokyo, shogun Tokugawa Hidetada was advised to build a great temple north-east of Edo Castle to guard against the evil spirits that were apt to enter from that inauspicious direction. So, in 1625, he duly installed a massive complex of 36 temples in Ueno. Only a hint of his complex remains, but the land that the temples occupied is now Ueno’s best-known feature – its park. Ueno Koen (Ueno Park) was Tokyo’s first public park when it opened in 1873, but just five years earlier it had been the site of the bloody Battle of Ueno between supporters of the new Meiji government and warriors loyal to the Tokugawa shogun. The government won, but in the process much of the temple complex was destroyed. Nowadays the park is home to a zoo, a grand shrine and museums. It’s also a prime cherry blossom spot in spring. Ueno’s other main attraction is the Ameyoko market, where more than 500 stalls are shoehorned into a 400-metre stretch. As well as fishmongers and fruit and veg stalls, there are scores of small shops selling cheap jeans, trainers and goods ‘inspired’ by international designers. It is also a reliable source of hard-to-find foods and spices.
When the frantic pace of Tokyo starts to wear you down, come to Yanaka, a picturesque spot that has somehow survived many of the upheavals of the past century. Although a geographical neighbour, low-key, low-rise Yanaka is a world away from the grand museums and huge, brash street market of Ueno. It survives as an endearing place where life seems to potter along more or less just as it did a century ago. The area is also home to Tokyo’s highest concentration of temples, ranging from the grand to the humble. The temples were moved here from elsewhere in Tokyo following the 1657 Long Sleeves Fire, which destroyed much of the city. Yanaka has led something of a charmed life ever since, escaping destruction in both the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the air raids in World War II.
Time Out Tokyo Guide (5th edition published in 2007)
Area Feature : GINZA
Tokyo's most expensive everything
Times change but Ginza remains. A Zen koan? Hardly; it`s simply a fact of life in Tokyo. No matter how bleak the economic prospects appear, Tokyo-ites and tourists alike will still flock to the centre of Tokyo elegance. Other areas, notably Marunouchi and Aoyama, have raised their game in the last few years, but Ginza is still the steadfast bastion of sumptuous and pedigreed department stores, and the stage for international brands taking their first plunge in Japan. Likewise, Ginza is where you’ll find politicians and businessmen on bottomless expense accounts quaffing overpriced drinks in the company of kimono-clad bar staff. Less affluent Tokyoites simply come to dream.
As urbanisation revolutionised the capital during the 19th-century [style?, as explained above] Meiji period, Ginza became the first part of Tokyo to be rebuilt in red brick rather than wood. Red brick was thought to offer greater protection from natural disasters, a theory disproved in 1923 when the area was razed by the Great Kanto Earthquake. Unfortunately, not one single red brick from Ginza’s first golden era survives today. However, what does survive is a resilient, bustling and always elegant commercial and arts centre of the city.
The weekend ‘Ginbura’, or Ginza strolling is a time-tested Tokyo tradition; from noon at weekends cars are banned from the main street, Ginza Dori (also called Chuo Dori), creating what is known as hokousha tengoku (pedestrian heaven). Ginza`s wide streets host throngs of people swinging carrier bags with designer logos and cameras to snap photos of some of the most noted building projects of recent years.
Crammed into Ginza’s eight main blocks (chome) are over 10,000 shops, many of them selling goods at Bubble-era prices. Bolt-hole shops selling traditional items such as kimonos, wagashi (Japanese sweets) and go-boards sit side by side with brand giants such as Gucci and Cartier. Foreign retail chains tend to choose to have their first Japanese outlets in prestigious Ginza before opening up elsewhere.
The heated and flashy competition to attract Ginza shoppers has led the biggest names to commission stores with spectacular façades. Star architects have even made tourist attractions of stores for Mikimoto Ginza 2 (2-4-12 Ginza) by Toyo Ito, Maison Hermès (5-4-19 Ginza) designed by Renzo Piano, Louis Vuitton and Chanel, whose building boasts top French chef Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Beige Tokyo on the tenth floor. More recent and particularly spectacular architectural editions include the stunning Swarovski “Crystal Forest” (8-9-15 Ginza) by Tokujin Yoshioka, the minimal yet arresting showcase for Tiffany & Co. (2-7-17 Ginza) by Kengo Kuma, and the modern elegance of Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas’ 12 storey Armani Ginza Tower (5-5-4 Ginza).
If you`re attracted to art on a smaller scale, Ginza hosts some of the more eminent galleries in Tokyo. Many of the designer buildings such as Maison Hermès, Chanel, and Armani Ginza Tower also house galleries. Aside from the more well-known spaces, such as Tokyo Art Gallery, INAX Gallery, and Wacoal Ginza Art Space, there are three standouts that represent a fresh take on Ginza's artistic side.
Galleria Grafica Tokio
Representing mostly contemporary artists, this gallery is a great way to see the best of Japan’s contemporary art scene. In addition to domestic artists, Galleria Grafica also exhibits art from international artists, and hosts a collection of prints from greats including Picasso, Klee, Kadinsky, Warhol, Hockney, Degas and others. The ground floor is a rental space, and not only showcases painting and prints, but also sculpture and installation art. Galleria Grafica is one of Tokyo`s heavy-hitters; it regularly participates in the legendary Art Basel festival.
After reopening in 2001, Shiseido Gallery, run by cosmetics giant Shiseido, is now one of the largest spaces for art in Ginza. Despite the name, it's more of a kunsthalle than a commercial gallery. It hosts important group and solo shows by contemporary Japanese and international artists such as Nakamura Masato and Roman Signer, plus occasional retrospectives and fashion-related shows. Even the building is a work of art, designed by Ricardo Bofill.
Vanilla is a rare find in Tokyo. As one of the few erotic art galleries in the city, it holds a wide variety of exhibitions from artists of different stylistic sensibilities, from drawing and painting, to photography and multimedia.
Shopping and art aren't the only draws in Ginza. Two of Tokyo's most famous locations are also in the area. As the city implements ongoing “improvements” to help increase tourism, and its bid for the 2016 Olympics, two landmarks will be forever changed in the near future.
The home of kabuki . Reserved seats are pricey, but a single act of the day-long programme can be enjoyed for around ¥1,000. You’ll have to queue for tickets, and opera glasses are essential, but it’s a good way to get a taste of Japan’s traditional performing arts. Enjoy this legendary theatre while you can, performances will end in April 2010 and the building (opened in 1889) will be razed to make way for a newer one, a plan which has caused major controversy both in Japan and abroad.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The famous early morning wholesale seafood market is known for it’s wavering as much as the fish. After a short ban on visitors, which met with public disappointment, visitors are now allowed in once more. Then, the market was slated for relocation to Toyosu, however the poorly chosen site was not up to standard. Now a national issue, the relocation of the Tsukiji fish market has resulted in large scale cleanups at the new site, planned for use in 2014. In the meantime, harness your jet-lag or just your night out by heading over early. Though the tuna auction area is off-limits save an hour in the early morning, you can still see the mind-boggling variety of sea creatures on sale for consumption. Most of the business is over by midday, but take advantage of the location to have some sushi for breakfast; it’s the freshest and best in Tokyo.