Tokyo: Central and Eastern Tokyo

Tokyo: Central and Eastern Tokyo | West Tokyo

Central Tokyo

At the very heart of the city is the Imperial Palace. Except for special occasions such as New Year, only the Higashi Gyoen or East Garden and Kitanomaru Park are open to the public. The latter is home to the Nippon Budokan Hall, a name familiar to fans of Bob Dylan or Deep Purple among others. At the height of the bubble economy, the land which the palace and its grounds occupy was said to be equal in value to the state of California!

The nearby Yasukuni Shrine, was built in 1869 as a memorial to Japan's war dead. Despite the separation of religion and state, the shrine is often visited by prominent politicians, inevitably causing widespread protest mostly from other Asian countries. If you're overcome with a desire to see the Kokkai Gijido or National Diet Building and various ministries, they are located in the Kasumigaseki district, south of the Imperial Palace.

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine

National Diet Building

National Diet Building

More pleasant on the eye is Hibiya Park, the first western-style park in Japan, which includes the country's oldest concert hall, tennis courts, fountains and a collection of exotic trees. A short walk up Harumi-dori will take you to the famous Ginza district, famous for its shopping and ocean of neon. It is also home to a large number of exclusive (read insanely expensive) hostess bars. The main street, Chuo-dori is closed to traffic on Sundays and holidays, allowing you to stroll among the many department stores and boutiques. A few minutes walk away is the Kabuki-za theater, where you can take in this traditional art form. A bit further in the same direction is the huge Tsukiji fish market, probably the biggest of its kind in the world. To see the market at its busiest and most fascinating, you need to visit around 6am.

Eastern Tokyo

A bit to the north is Tokyo station and the Marunouchi business district. Traditionally there was not a lot to see here unless you're an investment banker but the area has undergone something of a transformation in recent years and now has a selection of good shops and restaurants. Although Tokyo station sees some three quarters of a million people a day, it is not the busiest in the city (that honour belongs to Shinjuku station to the west) but it's as sprawling and confusing as you might imagine. Further again to the north is Tokyo Dome, home to the Yomiuri Giants baseball team. It's also the usual venue for major rock and pop concerts, although because it was built as a sports stadium the acoustics are terrible.

Tokyo Dome

Watching baseball at Tokyo Dome

Close to Tokyo station on the Yamanote Line is the "otaku" or geek mecca of Akihabara. This huge "electric town" used to be known simply as the place to buy computers and the latest electronic gadgets, but it has expanded beyond that in recent years. Several new developments and access from the satellite city of Tsukuba (completed in 2006) have breathed a new economic vitality into the area. Events for fans of Japanese pop culture are held on almost a daily basis and there is also a large selection of duty free shopping for foreign tourists.

In order to see something of what is called shitamachi or old downtown, the best place to go is slightly north to Asakusa. Although some of the buildings are modern reconstructions, Asakusa continues to attract thousands of tourists daily, Japanese as well as foreigners. The main attractions are Sensoji or Asakusa Kannon Temple, Kaminarimon or Thunder and Lightning Gate and Nakamise Street which runs between them. This street in particular is a great place to buy uniquely Japanese souvenirs at reasonable prices. Sensoji is home to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Next to it is a five-story pagoda. The Asakusa area is the venue for one of Tokyo's biggest festivals, Sanja Matsuri, in March. This event is perhaps the best opportunity to see highly visible figures of yakuza gangsters in all their tattooed glory.

View along Nakamise Street to Sensoji

View along Nakamise Street to Sensoji

Sanja Matsuri

A scene from the Sanja Matsuri festival

The area also hosts Tokyo's biggest fireworks display on the Sumida River in the summer, an event that attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. Nearby is Kappabashi where just about every shop sells kitchen supplies. This is the place to buy those plastic food models that so many restaurants use for their window displays and tourists buy as souvenirs.

Dominating the skyline from across the river is the Tokyo Skytree. Opened in 2012 it is the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest structure. There are two observatories, the lower being at 350m with a capacity of up to 2000 people. For the brave, the upper observatory has a section of glass flooring that gives visitors a direct downward view of the streets 450m below.

Tokyo at night, Tower Tower, Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo at night, with Tower Tower in the foreground and Tokyo Skytree in the distance

A little further south in Ryogoku is the Kokugikan, where three of the six bi-monthly Grand Sumo tournaments are held. Except for the last few days of the two-week events, tickets can usually be bought on the day for this mammoth experience. The area is also home to many restaurants specializing in chanko nabe, the hearty stew that helps sumo wrestlers put on all that bulk. Definitely a good meal to try out in winter.

To the south, the area around Tokyo Bay has been considerably developed recently and on a fine day makes for an interesting visit. Much of the land has been reclaimed from the sea so if you're having premonitions about the next big earthquake to hit Tokyo, maybe you should avoid the area. Otherwise, just have fun relaxing on the artificial beach in Odaiba or visit the various malls and tourist traps in the area. Fuji TV has it's distinctive headquarters and studios there, and many related events are held throughout the year.

Further east, and strictly speaking not actually in Tokyo (it's in the neighboring Chiba Prefecture) is the major attraction of Tokyo Disneyland. You can expect to have pretty much the same experience as at any other Disneyland/World, with perhaps slightly longer lines (ridiculous on weekends, national holidays or when school is out) and Mickey Mouse speaking in Japanese. Access is via the Keiyo Line (not to be confused with the Keio Line!) from Tokyo station. A bit further east along the bay and you're in Makuhari, whose Makuhari Messe convention center is home to many major events and concerts.

Related content