Photo Courtesy of Landon Nordeman
Riding high after its successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics, the capital city formerly known as Edo is a sprawling megalopolis characterized by a blend of ancient tradition and modern luxury. Greater Tokyo boasts a resume like that of an anime superhero—it has the largest urban population on Eart…h, an ultra-efficient public transportation system, more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris and New York combined, a high level of public safety, and four distinct seasons in which to enjoy it all. Combine this with zany, only-in-Japan attractions and entertainment, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for what is arguably the globe’s greatest city.
What to know before you go to Tokyo
Tokyo has four discrete seasons, with temperatures ranging from around freezing at night during the peak of winter to the high 90s in the height of summer. While it rarely snows in the capital, the humidity during January and February can make it feel colder than the reading on the thermometer. And the city’s asphalt and concrete retain considerable heat during the summer. Japan's "plum rain" season falls in early summer—tsuyu, as it is called in Japanese, is characterized by a light drizzle reminiscent of Seattle or London. September sees the advent of typhoons originating in the more southerly Pacific. These occasionally strike the capital, bringing high winds and downpours. Spring and particularly autumn are absolutely beautiful, with relatively low humidity. Cherry blossoms bloom in March and April, and brilliant fall colors characterize November. May is also a great time to visit, as daytime temperatures average 73 degrees with low humidity and mostly sunny days. Japan's busiest and most expensive travel seasons fall during Golden Week (the last week in April and first week of May) and New Year's. During these times Tokyo tends to empty out, as many residents return to their hometowns in the countryside.
Tokyo is serviced by two international airports, Narita International and Haneda. Narita is the larger of the two, sitting about 36 miles from the center of Tokyo in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. From here, downtown is accessible via a variety of trains and buses (or a very expensive taxi ride). Haneda, Japan’s largest domestic airport, is located in Tokyo proper adjacent to Tokyo Bay, and its relatively small size and location mean greater convenience but fewer flights and higher fares.
Tokyo enjoys one of the world’s largest public transportation systems. The city is crisscrossed by municipal and private rail, subways, buses, and taxis, meaning that pretty much any location can be reached with ease. Trains are amazingly efficient and punctual, and station signs are in English. Bus route maps, though, tend to be in Japanese only. Likewise, most taxi drivers speak limited, if any, English, so when you go out for a night on the town, bring a card from your hotel’s front desk or concierge with the name and address on it—to avoid anything getting lost in translation on the return trip!
A favorite activity on a summer or fall weekend is hopping aboard one of the water ferries that travel between Asakusa, Hamamatsucho, and Odaiba. It’s a great way to see the east side of the city while enjoying a refreshing craft beer in the process!
The Big Mikan is rightfully known as the culinary capital of the world and is a foodie's paradise. It offers a bewildering number and variety of both Japanese regional and international cuisines. Meals range in price from a couple hundred yen to amounts that may require you to take out a bank loan. Tokyo has an impressive 230 Michelin-starred restaurants, but the city's dining scene goes far beyond those stars. There are a mind-boggling 80,000 restaurants where one can enjoy everything from ramen to the world’s best French (yes, you read that right—the three-star Quintessence, located in the Shirokanedai neighborhood of Tokyo, is the reigning champ). The drink scene in New Edo is no slouch, either—bars and clubs are stacked atop one another in the more densely packed areas of the city. While many are straight-up run-of-the mill drinking establishments, some revolve around themes, running the gamut from maid’s cafes in Akihabara—where the waitresses dress up in French maid outfits—to decor modeled after a Gothic church, for starters. If you want to skip the atmosphere and jump straight into your cups, you can buy beer and liquor 24-7 from the ubiquitous convenience stores, and if you can’t be bothered to walk that far you can just buy your bounty from vending machines on the street—there are no open-container laws in Japan.
Tokyo offers not only a plethora of festivals, but also many museums and places to explore traditional handicrafts and customs. Certain neighborhoods are identified with aspects of Japanese and Tokyoite culture: Asakusa is known as the temple district, Shibuya as the go-to hangout for the young generation, and Shimokitazawa as the hotbed of the indie music scene. For a one-stop encapsulation of Tokyo’s history and Japanese culture, check out the Edo Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku, located next to the Ryogoku Kokugikan (Sumo Hall); this massive structure looks like an alien battleship and houses scale models of Edo-period (1603-1868) architecture and dioramas of daily life. It also features traditional Japanese dance performances.
For an experience that falls somewhere between a cultural excursion and a food outing, a trip to the Tsujiki Market is recommended. The three-hour walking tour organized by AFAR’s travel partner Context leads visitors deep into the market, where fresh produce, meat, and fish is sold alongside kitchenwares. Taste the freshest sushi, and sampling pickles, preserves, and dumplings and emerge with a deeper understanding of Japanese foodways and culture.
Festivals (known as matsuri) are abundant in Tokyo. Celebrations commemorate historic events and honor Shinto gods with massive fireworks displays and jubilees. Two of the largest festivals are the Sanja Matsuri, held at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa in mid-May to commemorate the three founders of the temple, and the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, held on the last Saturday of July over the Sumida River.
Tokyo's most-spoken language is Japanese. As for powering up your laptop or plugging in your hair dryer, the electric outlets may look like they'll accommodate your American power cords but the voltage is 100 instead of North America's 120 so they won't always work. Bring adapters.
read before you go
more about Tokyo
Yukari Sakamoto immersed herself in the food and beverage world in Tokyo working at Takashimaya department store's sake section and at the Park Hyatt Tokyo's New York Grill and Bar as a sommelier. She is the author of Food Sake Tokyo and offers tours to markets in Tokyo.
Jon Sheer is a professional photographer who lives in Tokyo. Also a professionally trained chef, his knowledge of food and flavors informs his choice in restaurants (as well as decisions by his stomach).
Erin Bogar has lived in Buenos Aires, Nagoya, and Tokyo. She writes about city life, art and design, food, and adventure travel. Erin enjoys meandering through art exhibits, drinking quality sake, hiking the mountains of Colorado, and studying Spanish and Japanese.