In its heyday, the Imperial Palace was the largest fortress in the world. Though little remains today, the palace occupies the site of the original Edo-jō, the Tokuwaga shogunate’s castle. Most of the complex is off limits but there are many free tours organised by the Imperial Household Agency that will enable you to see a small part of the inner compound.
The city’s oldest and most famous Buddhist temple, Sensō-ji is the epicentre of old-world Asakusa. It is Tokyo’s most visited temple which enshrines a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The temple is always busy so consider visiting during the week and in the evening, that way there will be less people and the buildings will be beautifully illuminated.
The people of Tokyo are obsessed with food. The city’s dining scene is vibrant and cosmopolitan and has a strong culture of eating out – popular restaurants are busy most nights of the week.
Though sushi is popular across Japan, in Tokyo it is hand-pressed sushi or nigiri-zushi that is favoured. Most sushi restaurants in Tokyo offer set meals, usually of 10 or 12 pieces of sushi, of varying price. In higher-end sushi restaurants the food will have already been seasoned by the chef, adding further seasoning is deemed disrespectful.
Ramen is a huge passion in Tokyo. Though originally imported from China, ramen is exceptionally popular in the capital and it is estimated there are over 3,000 ramen shops in Tokyo. Made with crinkly egg noodles in broth and served with toppings such as chāshū (sliced roast pork), moyashi (bean sprouts) and menma (pickled bamboo sprouts). Ramen should be eaten quickly so that the noodles don’t become soggy – that’s why you’ll often hear fellow diners slurping and sucking in air to cool their mouths.
For those with a sweet tooth, sweets in Japan are traditionally considered an accompaniment for tea. Now, however, many restaurants have adopted the custom of dessert and end a meal with a serving of sliced fruit or ice cream. Sweet shops or okashi-ya, are easy to spot – they usually have open fronts and items laid out in wooden trays.
Want to make Japanese cuisine like a seasoned pro? There are lots of cooking courses and food tours in Tokyo. Learn to make sushi, bentō (boxed lunch), udon and wagashi (Japanese sweets) at Buddha Bellies, take part in a course led by professional chefs and discover how to make vegetarian dishes, shōjin-ryōri (temple food) and soba noodles at Tokyo Cook, or head out on a market tour with A Taste of Culture.
You will never run out of things to do in Tokyo. From art museums to architecture and design, parks and photo opportunities, there is something on every corner of this fabulous city.
To get a feel for Tokyo’s natural beauty, head to Yoyogi Park, where cherry blossoms are resplendent in spring and its gink tree forest shimmers with gold in the autumn. City life slows down just a touch in this former Olympic village, which also served as a military parade ground and barracks for American soldiers after the Second World War.
Close to the Yoyogi Park is the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Established in 1920, the shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji who helped to open Japan up to the west. At the main shrine buildings, you may show respect by bowing twice, clapping your hands twice, making a wish then bowing once more.
There’s a mass of markets in Tokyo. Toyosu Market is Tokyo’s central wholesale market. The highlight for many visitors is the tuna auction, where wholesalers gamble on bluefin tuna brought in from all over the world. The auction, which starts around 5am and finishes by 6.30am, can be watched from a mezzanine level viewing platform – though only available to a limited number of visitors.
Tokyo’s traditional option is Harmonica-yokochō – with its low ceilings and aka-chōchin (red lanterns), this market began as a black market in the post-war days. Some of the vendors have been around for many years but there are also more contemporary options. Held in the courtyard of Tokyo International Forum, Ōedo Antique Market has hundreds of wholesalers dealing in retro and antique Japanese goods, from old ceramics and kimonos to kitsch plastic figurines and vintage movie posters. Head here if you’d like a traditional souvenir.
The idea of singing in public may send you running for the hills, but karaoke is one of Tokyo’s favourite pastimes. Forget what you know, in this city you could be belting out a tune in your own private suite in Lovenet, or from a jacuzzi at Aqua Suite. You could even find yourself singing with a live band at Gigabar, or following the Lost in Translation trail at Karaoke Kan.
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