On the edge of the Orient,
- the last great conurbation before the yawning chasm of the Pacific Ocean - is one of the world's most perplexing cities. On the one hand, gaudily hung about with eyeball-searing neon and messy overhead cables, plagued by seemingly incessant noise, often clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic and packed with twelve million people squashed into minute apartments, it can seem like the stereotypical urban nightmare. Yet behind the barely ordered chaos lie remnants of a very different way of life. Step back from the frenetic main roads and chances are you'll find yourself in a world of tranquil backstreets, where wooden houses are fronted by neatly clipped bonsai trees; wander beyond the high-tech department stores, and you'll find ancient temples and shrines. In this city of 24-hour shops and vending machines, a festival is held virtually every day of the year, people regularly visit their local shrine or temple and scrupulously observe the passing seasons. And, at the centre of it all, is the mysterious green void of the
- home to the emperor and a tangible link to the past.
In many ways Tokyo is also something of a modern-day utopia. Trains run on time; the crime rate is hardly worth worrying about; shops and vending machines provide everything you could need (and many things you never thought you needed) 24 hours a day; the people wear the coolest fashions, eat in fabulous restaurants and party in the hippest clubs. It's almost impossible to be bored here and first-time visitors should be prepared for a massive assault on the senses - just walking the streets of this hyperactive city can be an energizing experience. You'll also be surprised how affordable many things are. Cheap-and-cheerful
(bars that serve food) and noodle shacks far outnumber the big-ticket French restaurants and high-class
serve minimalist Japanese cuisine, while day-tickets for a sumo tournament or a Kabuki play can be bought for the price of a few drinks. Many of the city's highlights are even free: a stroll through the evocative
(low city) area around Asakusa and the major Buddhist temple
; a visit to the tranquil wooded grounds of
, the city's most venerable Shinto shrine, and the nearby teenage shopping mecca of
; the frenetic fish market at
; the crackling, neon-saturated atmosphere of the mini-city
- you don't need to part with lots of cash to explore this city.
Even if you don't arrive in Tokyo, chances are you will end up here or pass through on your way to other parts of Japan, since the capital is the major
. Every day, scores of Shinkansen (bullet trains) speed up to the far north of Honsho or south to Kyushu, while flights, buses and ferries connect Tokyo to the far-flung corners and islands of the Japanese archipelago.
The only time Tokyo is best avoided is during the steamy height of summer in August and early September, when the city's humidity sees its citizens scurrying from one air-conditioned haven to another. October and November, by contrast, are great months to take in the spectacular fireburst of autumn leaves in Tokyo's parks and gardens. Temperatures dip to freezing in the winter months, though the crisp blue skies are rarely disturbed by rain or snow showers. April is the month when Tokyoites love to party beneath the flurries of falling cherry blossoms - one of the best months to visit the capital. Carrying an umbrella is a good idea during
, the rainy season in June and September, when typhoons occasionally strike the coast.
Legend says that a giant catfish sleeps beneath Tokyo Bay, and its wriggling can be felt in the hundreds of small tremors that rumble the capital each year. Around every seventy years, the catfish awakes, resulting in the kind of major
seen in 1995 in Kobe. There is a long-running, half-hearted debate about moving the Diet and main government offices out of Tokyo, away from danger. Yet, despite the fact that the city is well overdue for the Big One, talk of relocating the capital always comes to nothing. Now, more than ever before, Tokyo is the centre of Japan, and nobody wants to leave and miss any of the action.
Other useful information
for tourists (each section contains more specific sub-sections):