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Cities in the Spotlight: Tokyo, Japan

Updated: Mar 11

Here comes another trip, this time we are headed to Asia. More specifically, Tokyo, Japan.


Tokyo City Information

Tokyo, officially the Tokyo Metropolis, is Japan's capital and most populous city. Formerly known as Edo, its metropolitan area (13,452 square kilometers or 5,194 square miles) is the most populous in the world, with an estimated 37.468 million residents as of 2018; the city proper has a population of 13.99 million people. Located at the head of Tokyo Bay, the prefecture forms part of the Kantō region on the central coast of Honshu, Japan's largest island. Tokyo serves as Japan's economic center and is the seat of both the Japanese government and the Emperor of Japan.

Tokyo is the second-largest urban economy worldwide by gross domestic product after New York City and is categorized as an Alpha+ city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network. It is also Japan's leading business hub as part of an industrial region that includes the cities of Yokohama, Kawasaki, and Chiba. As of 2021, Tokyo is home to 37 companies of the Fortune Global 500. In 2020, the city ranked fourth on the Global Financial Centres Index, behind only New York City, London, and Shanghai. Tokyo is home to the world's tallest tower, Tokyo Skytree, and the world's largest underground floodwater diversion facility, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel (located in Kasukabe, Saitama, a suburb of Tokyo). The Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, opened in 1927, is East Asia's oldest underground metro line. Recognized as one of the most livable cities in the world, Tokyo was tied fourth with Wellington in the 2021 Global Livability Ranking.

The city has hosted multiple international events, including the 1964 Summer Olympics and 1964 Summer Paralympics, the 2020 Summer Olympics and 2020 Summer Paralympics (postponed; held in 2021), and three summits of the G7 (in 1979, 1986, and 1993). Tokyo is an international research and development hub and is likewise represented by several major universities, most notably the University of Tokyo. Tokyo Station is the central hub for Japan's high-speed railway network, the Shinkansen; Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is also the world's busiest train station. Notable special wards of Tokyo include: Chiyoda, the site of the National Diet Building and the Tokyo Imperial Palace; Shinjuku, the city's administrative center; and Shibuya, a commercial, cultural, and business hub.


Tokyo Historical Significance

Tokyo was originally a village called Edo, in what was formerly part of the old Musashi Province. Edo was first fortified by the Edo clan, in the late twelfth century. In 1457, Ōta Dōkan built Edo Castle. In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu moved from Mikawa Province (his lifelong base) to the Kantō region. When he became shōgun in 1603, Edo became the center of his ruling. During the subsequent Edo period, Edo grew into one of the largest cities in the world with a population topping one million by the 18th century. Edo was still the home of the Tokugawa shogunate and not the capital of Japan (the Emperor himself lived in Kyoto almost continuously from 794 to 1868). During the Edo era, the city enjoyed a prolonged period of peace known as the Pax Tokugawa, and in the presence of such peace, the shogunate adopted a stringent policy of seclusion, which helped to perpetuate the lack of any serious military threat to the city. The absence of war-inflicted devastation allowed Edo to devote the majority of its resources to rebuilding in the wake of the consistent fires, earthquakes, and other devastating natural disasters that plagued the city.

This prolonged period of seclusion however came to an end with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853. Commodore Perry forced the opening of the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate, leading to increased demand for new foreign goods and a severe rise in inflation. Social unrest mounted in the wake of these higher prices and culminated in widespread rebellions and demonstrations, especially in the form of the "smashing" of rice establishments. Meanwhile, supporters of the Emperor leveraged the disruption that these widespread rebellious demonstrations were causing to further consolidate power by overthrowing the last Tokugawa shōgun, Yoshinobu, in 1867. After 265 years, the Pax Tokugawa came to an end.

Edo was renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital) on September 3, 1868, as the new government was consolidating its power after the fall of the Edo shogunate. The young Emperor Meiji visited once at the end of that year and eventually moved in in 1869. Tokyo was already the nation's political center, and the emperor's residence made it a de facto imperial capital as well, with the former Edo Castle becoming the Imperial Palace. The city of Tokyo was officially established on May 1, 1889. The Tokyo Metro Ginza Line portion between Ueno and Asakusa was the first subway line built in Japan and East Asia completed on December 30, 1927. Central Tokyo, like Osaka, has been designed since about 1900 to be centered on major railway stations in a high-density fashion, so suburban railways were built relatively cheaply at street level and with their own right-of-way. Though expressways have been built in Tokyo, the basic design has not changed. Tokyo went on to suffer two major catastrophes in the 20th century: the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, which left 140,000 dead or missing; and World War II.

In 1943, the city of Tokyo merged with the prefecture of Tokyo to form the "Metropolitan Prefecture" of Tokyo. Since then, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government served as both the prefecture government for Tokyo, as well as administering the special wards of Tokyo, for what had previously been Tokyo City. World War II wreaked widespread destruction of most of the city due to the persistent Allied air raids on Japan and the use of incendiary bombs. The bombing of Tokyo in 1944 and 1945 is estimated to have killed between 75,000 and 200,000 civilians and left more than half of the city destroyed. The deadliest night of the war came on March 9–10, 1945, the night of the American "Operation Meetinghouse" raid; as nearly 700,000 incendiary bombs rained on the eastern half of the city, mainly in heavily residential wards. Two-fifths of the city were completely burned, more than 276,000 buildings were demolished, 100,000 civilians were killed, and 110,000 more were injured. Between 1940 and 1945, the population of Japan's capital city dwindled from 6,700,000 to less than 2,800,000, with the majority of those who lost their homes living in "ramshackle, makeshift huts".

After the war, Tokyo became the base from which the United States under Douglas MacArthur administered Japan for six years. Tokyo struggled to rebuild as occupation authorities stepped in and drastically cut back on Japanese government rebuilding programs, focusing instead on simply improving roads and transportation. Tokyo did not experience fast economic growth until the 1950s. After the occupation of Japan ended in 1952, Tokyo was completely rebuilt and was showcased to the world during the 1964 Summer Olympics. The 1970s and the 1980s brought new high-rise developments. In 1978, Sunshine 60 – the tallest skyscraper in Asia until 1985, and in Japan until 1991 – and Narita International Airport were constructed, and the population increased to about 11 million in the metropolitan area. The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum has historic Japanese buildings that existed in the urban landscape of pre-war Tokyo.

Tokyo's subway and commuter rail network became one of the busiest in the world as more and more people moved to the area. In the 1980s, real estate prices skyrocketed during a real estate and debt bubble. The bubble burst in the early 1990s, and many companies, banks, and individuals were caught with mortgage-backed debts while real estate was shrinking in value. A major recession followed, making the 1990s Japan's "Lost Decade", from which it is now slowly recovering. Tokyo still sees new urban developments on large lots of less profitable land. Recent projects include Ebisu Garden Place, Tennōzu Isle, Shiodome, Roppongi Hills, Shinagawa (now also a Shinkansen station), and the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station. Buildings of significance have been demolished for more up-to-date shopping facilities such as Omotesando Hills.

Land reclamation projects in Tokyo have also been going on for centuries. The most prominent is the Odaiba area, now a major shopping and entertainment center. Various plans have been proposed for transferring national government functions from Tokyo to secondary capitals in other regions of Japan, to slow down rapid development in Tokyo and revitalize economically lagging areas of the country. These plans have been controversial within Japan and have yet to be realized. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of the northeastern coast of Honshu was felt in Tokyo. However, due to Tokyo's earthquake-resistant infrastructure, damage in Tokyo was very minor compared to areas directly hit by the tsunami, although activity in the city was largely halted. The subsequent nuclear crisis caused by the tsunami has also largely left Tokyo unaffected, despite occasional spikes in radiation levels.

On September 7, 2013, the IOC selected Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Tokyo thus became the first Asian city to host the Olympic Games twice. However, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Olympic Games took place from July 23, 2021, to August 8, 2021. It is also unclear how the city will deal with an increasing number of issues, urging scholars to offer possible alternative approaches to tackle the most urgent problems. Although COVID-19 has impeded the growth of many industries, the real estate market in Japan is yet to be negatively impacted. Japanese real estate has become one of the safest investments for foreign investors around the world. As of 2020, the Greater Tokyo Area is the world's largest urban area with over 38 million residents, making it as its largest metro area.


Travel to Tokyo

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Yoking past and future, Tokyo dazzles with its traditional culture and passion for everything new. More than any one sight, it's the city itself that enchants visitors. It's a sprawling, organic thing, stretching as far as the eye can see. Always changing, and with a diverse collection of neighborhoods, no two experiences of the city are ever the same. Some neighborhoods feel like a vision from the future, with ever taller, sleeker structures popping up each year; others evoke the past with low-slung wooden buildings and glowing lanterns radiating surprising warmth; elsewhere, drab concrete blocks hide art galleries and cocktail bars and every lane hints at possible discoveries. In Tokyo, you can experience the whole breadth of Japanese arts and culture. Centuries-old forms of performing arts still play on stages, and sumo tournaments draw crowds; every spring, Tokyoites head outside to appreciate the cherry blossoms – a tradition older than the city itself. There are museums covering every era of Japanese art history and also ones that focus on the contemporary – challenging the old distinctions between art with a capital A, pop culture and technology. But there's a playful side to all of this, too: Tokyo is, after all, a city whose public artworks include a scale model of an anime robot.

When it comes to Tokyo superlatives, the city's food scene tops the list. But we're not just talking about the famous restaurants and the celebrity chefs: what Tokyo excels at is consistency across the board. Wherever you are, you're not far from a good, if not great, restaurant. It's a scene that careens nonchalantly between the highs and lows: it's not unusual for a top-class sushi restaurant to share the same block as an oil-spattered noodle joint, and for both to be equally adored. Tokyoites love dining out; join them, and delight in the sheer variety of tastes and experiences the city has to offer. Tokyo can seem daunting at first: the subway map – a tangle of intersecting lines – is often compared to a bowl of noodles. But once you get out there, you'll be surprised by how easy it is to navigate. That subway can take you everywhere you want to go; trains are frequent (though sometimes uncomfortably crowded) and almost always on time, and stations are well-signposted in English. That's not to say you won't occasionally find yourself frustratingly disorientated, but locals are generally eager to help you get back on track.


Must See Sites

Tokyo National Museum; If you visit only one museum in Tokyo, make it the Tokyo National Museum. Here you'll find the world's largest collection of Japanese art, including ancient pottery, Buddhist sculptures, samurai swords, colourful ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), gorgeous kimonos and much, much more.

Ghibli Museum; This museum is the heart of the Studio Ghibli world, a beloved (even 'adored') film studio responsible for classic, critically-acclaimed animated titles like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo and Princess Mononoke, among countless others. Unlike Disney World, this is a museum, not a theme park, but the levels of fandom on show are likely to be just as intense. Master animator Miyazaki Hayao, who co-found Studio Ghibli and directed some of its best-known works, designed the museum, and kids will become immediately captivated by the fairy-tale atmosphere, from the spiral staircases seemingly leading to dead ends to the replica of the giant cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro. Fans will enjoy the original sketches on display, as well as the host of original short films playing at the small on-site Saturn Theater. The museum also houses exhibitions relating to the history of animation, plus a popular gift shop, a good-quality restaurant and a reading room.

Shibuya Crossing; Rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing is like a giant beating heart, sending people in all directions with every pulsing light change. Nowhere else says ‘Welcome to Tokyo’ better than this. Hundreds of people – and at peak times upwards of 3000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions at once, yet still to dodging each other with a practised, nonchalant agility.

Imperial Palace; The Imperial Palace occupies the site of the original Edo-jō, the Tokugawa shogunate's castle. In its heyday this was the largest fortress in the world, though little remains today apart from the moat and stone walls. Most of the 3.4-sq-km complex is off limits, as this is the emperor's home, but join one of the free tours organised by the Imperial Household Agency to see a small part of the inner compound. Surrounding the palace is Kōkyo-gaien, a 115-hectare national garden, which includes public green spaces, moats and museums. The pretty East Gardens are open to the public all year round, and can be entered without a guide.

Sensō-ji; Tokyo’s most visited temple enshrines a golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), which, according to legend, was miraculously pulled out of the nearby Sumida-gawa by two fishermen in AD 628. The image has remained on the spot ever since but is never on public display. The present structure dates from 1958. Sensō-ji is always busy, particularly on weekends; consider visiting in the evening to see it with fewer people and the buildings beautifully illuminated.

Meiji-jingū; Tokyo’s grandest Shintō shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken, whose reign (1868–1912) coincided with Japan's transformation from isolationist, feudal state to modern nation. Constructed in 1920, the shrine was destroyed in WWII air raids and rebuilt in 1958; however, unlike so many of Japan’s postwar reconstructions, Meiji-jingū has atmosphere in spades. Note that the shrine is currently undergoing renovations bit by bit in preparation for its 100th anniversary, but will remain open.


Must Try Food & Drink

Nigiri; Nigiri or nigirizushi is a special kind of hand-pressed sushi where the meat is sliced and pressed on top of sushi rice. It was developed in Tokyo (then called Edo) during the 1800s. Sometimes, nori seaweed is used to wrap the whole concoction and keep it together. The topping is usually seafood such as shrimp, tuna, haddock, or eel, and it should always be fresh and of the highest quality. Traditionally, nigirizushi is paired with shiso leaves, wasabi, soy sauce, or pickled ginger. It is sometimes garnished with daikon and salted seaweed. The dish is traditionally eaten by hand, in a single bite.

Oyakodon; Oyakodon is a poetically named dish meaning father and child, referring to the fact that both the chicken and the egg are used in the dish. It consists of a bowl of white rice that is topped with chicken, eggs, and chopped scallions. The eggs are poured over the rice before they have completely cooked, and the cooked rice finishes the job and helps the eggs to solidify. This simple dish is served in numerous Japanese eateries, such as soba restaurants. Oyakodon is especially popular at lunchtime, since it is easy and quick to prepare, which is a crucial fact for many Japanese businessmen. In addition to Japanese fast-food restaurants, oyakodon can also be bought from numerous street vendors. It is recommended to eat it as the Japanese do, from the bottom up, so that there is always some of the topping covering the white rice.

Tsukemen; Tsukemen is a noodle dish from Japan that is eaten in a unique way. Cold noodles are dipped in the accompanying soup, broth, or sauce, which are served hot in a separate bowl. The noodles can also be dipped in vinegar or spiced up with chili sauce before consumption. Unlike ramen, where the boiled noodles are placed in the soup bowl, tsukemen is characterized by first washing the noodles with water, which stops them from expanding. It is said that tsukemen is ideal for summer because it provides the wonderful flavors of ramen without the extra heat. The dish was invented in 1955 by Yamagishi Kazuo, a chef at Taishoken Ramen Restaurant, who discovered it when he ate the noodles with the leftover broth and soy sauce. With a few tweaks, he placed the dish on the menu and called it Tokusei Morisoba, and ever since then, the dish gained popularity. Today, it is a standard menu item in most ramen restaurants with a wide variety of broth bases, such as tomato or miso.

Okoshi; Kaminari-okoshi, often called merely okoshi, is a popular Japanese confectionery, similar to rice crispy treats. The main ingredient in okoshi is expanded rice, created by roasting rice grains until they pop. A mix of sugar and butter or corn syrup is used to hold the rice together, and after the additional ingredients have been added, the mixture is formed or pressed in trays, left to dry, then cut into square shapes. This crispy Japanese treat first appeared during the mid-Edo period in Japan and was primarily sold by street vendors in the vicinity of Buddhist temples in Asakusa, one of the districts in Tokyo. Originally, peanuts were added to enrich okoshi, but modern versions also include other nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, or sesame seeds, along with other exotic and interesting flavors such as matcha green tea or caramel. Most okoshi is nowadays factory-produced, created in an array of unusual flavor and color combinations, and sold in decorative, colorful boxes. In the Asakusa area, there are still traditional street vendors who prepare this brittle snack and demonstrate the entire procedure. Okoshi is still the most famous souvenir of the Asakusa area.

Kamikaze; Although some claim that it originated during the 1970s as a classic disco cocktail, the elegant Kamikaze cocktail was probably invented in Tokyo after World War II, during the American occupation of Japan. Kamikaze, which means divine wind in Japanese, is made with equal parts vodka, triple sec (orange liqueur), and freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice. It is often served as an apéritif, straight up in a cocktail glass, typically with a lime or lemon twist. It is recommended to pair Kamikaze with pasta dishes or spicy chicken wings.

Taiyaki; Taiyaki is a Japanese fish-shaped cake that is often consumed as a snack, made from flour and filled with azuki sweet bean paste. It is usually served warm and is often found at most taiyaki stands at any winter festival in Japan. Most people believe that this sweet treat originated in Tokyo during the Meiji era, but taiyaki became extremely popular in 1976 with the emergence of a beloved children's song called Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun (Swim! Taiyaki). It is said that the best taiyaki is characterized by a crisp shell that has been baked to a golden brown color, and although there are many different flavors and varieties of taiyaki today, the basic taiyaki still remains a favorite.

Menchi katsu; Menchi katsu is a traditional Japanese dish and a type of katsu. This ground meat cutlet is made with a combination of ground beef, ground pork, onions, panko breadcrumbs, oil, eggs, milk, black pepper, and nutmeg. Once shaped, the patties are dredged in flour, beaten eggs, and panko breadcrumbs, then fried in hot oil until golden and crispy. The dish is usually served with white rice, miso soup, and the thick and tangy katsu sauce on the side. Menchi katsu originated in Tokyo and it dates back to the Meiji Era. Nowadays, some of the best menchi katsus can be found at butcher shops, where they use the freshest meat to form the cutlets.

Sakuramochi; Sakuramochi is a traditional Japanese dessert that is made to depict sakura (cherry blossom), so the rice cake is usually pink in color. Most of the times, sakuramochi contains red bean paste and it is covered with a salty cherry blossom leaf, which some people consume together with the rice cake, and some don't. Although the sweet treat is sold throughout the year, it can be found most easily in spring, when cherry blossoms are in season. It is believed that sakuramochi was invented in 1717 in Edo by a guard named Yamamoto Shinroku, using the leaves from the trees along the Sumida River. He started to sell his new treats; people loved them, and that is how sakuramochi was born. Today, there are two versions of sakuramochi, the domyouji mochi from Kansai, consisting of steamed rice filled with anko and wrapped with a leaf, and the chomeiji mochi from Kanto, made with a pink crepe instead of rice.

Anpan; The round, golden brown anpan is a popular Japanese pastry which consists of a wheat bun that is usually filled with sweetened red bean paste. Traditionally garnished with poppy or black sesame seeds, anpan is a delightful combination of the sweet filling, soft interior, and a crispy crust. This incredibly popular snack was invented in 1875 by a former samurai, Mr. Kimura, who turned to baking and established the legendary Kimuraya bakery. His invention was an instant hit, and to this day anpan buns remain as one of the most famous Japanese pastries.

Gunkanmaki; Gunkanmaki is a sushi variety that consists of sushi rice that is formed into an oval shape and is then wrapped with nori seaweed. The piece is finished off with a topping that traditionally includes fish roe such as ikura (salmon), kazunoko (salted herring), or uni (sea urchin). The name gunkan, which translates as the warship, was influenced by the oval shape reminiscent of a battleship. Gunkanmaki originated in 1941 at Kyubey, a small shop located in Tokyo’s Ginza that has since earned its name as one of the top sushi restaurants in the world.


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