A fuel-injected adrenaline rush into a neon-bright future, TOKYO (東京) is a mercurial metropolis flashing by in a blur of conflicting images. Obsessed with the latest trends and fashions, the world’s largest city – the heart of which is home to at least eight million people – is also fiercely proud of its heritage. Lively neighbourhood festivals are held virtually every day of the year, and people regularly visit their local shrine or temple and scrupulously observe the passing seasons in manicured gardens.
Caught up in an untidy web of overhead cables, plagued by seemingly incessant noise, its freeways often clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, this concrete-and-steel conurbation may seem the stereotypical urban nightmare. Yet back from the frenetic main roads are tranquil backstreets, where dinky wooden houses are fronted by neatly clipped bonsai trees; wander beyond the hi-tech emporia, and you’ll discover charming fragments of the old city such as temples and shrines wreathed in wisps of smoking incense.
The fact is that centuries-long experience of organizing itself to cope with the daily demands of millions of inhabitants has made Tokyo something of a model metropolitan environment. Trains run on time and to practically every corner of the city, crime is hardly worth worrying about, and shops and vending machines provide everything you could need (and many things you never thought you did), 24 hours a day.
With so much going on, 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. It need not be an expensive one, either. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how affordable many things are. Cheap-and-cheerful izakaya – bars that serve food – and casual cafés serving noodles and rice dishes are plentiful, the metro is a bargain, and tickets for a sumo tournament or a kabuki play can be bought for the price of a few drinks.
Browsing the shops and marvelling at the passing parade is mesmerising – the next best thing to having a ringside seat at the hippest of fashion shows. The city’s great wealth and relative lack of planning restrictions have given architects almost unparalleled freedom to realize their wildest dreams. Likewise, in Tokyo’s uber-chic bars, restaurants and clubs you’ll see today what the rest of the world will get tomorrow. You may not figure out exactly what makes it tick – and you’re sure to get a little lost while trying – but the conclusion is inescapable: Tokyo is a fun, seductive and addictive experience.
The city’s founding date is usually given as 1457, when minor lord Ōta Dōkan built his castle on a bluff overlooking the Sumida-gawa and the bay. However, a far more significant event occurred in 1590, when the feudal lord Tokugawa Ieyasu chose the obscure castle-town for his power base.
By 1640 Edo Castle was the most imposing in all Japan, complete with a five-storey central keep, a double moat and a spiralling network of canals. A bewildering warren of narrow, tortuous lanes, sudden dead ends and unbridged canals was created to snare unwelcome intruders. Drainage work began on the surrounding marshes, and embankments were raised to guard the nascent city against floods.
The daimyō (lords) who were required by the shogun to spend part of each year in Edo were granted large plots for their estates on the higher ground to the west of the castle, an area that became known as Yamanote. Artisans, merchants and other lower classes were confined to Shitamachi, a low-lying, overcrowded region to the east. Though growing less distinct, this division between the “high” and “low” city is still apparent today.
During two centuries of peace, during which time Edo grew to be the most populous city in the world, life down in the Shitamachi buzzed with a wealthy merchant class and a vigorous, often bawdy, subculture of geisha and kabuki, of summer days on the Sumida-gawa, moon-viewing parties and picnics under the spring blossom. Inevitably, there was also squalor, poverty and violence, as well as frequent fires; in January 1657, the Fire of the Long Sleeves laid waste to three-quarters of the city’s buildings and killed an estimated 100,000 people.
A year after the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, the emperor took up permanent residence in the city, now renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital) in recognition of its proper status. As Japan quickly embraced Western technologies, the face of Tokyo gradually changed: the castle lost much of its grounds, canals were filled in or built over, and Shitamachi’s wealthier merchants decamped to more desirable Yamanote. However, the city was still disaster-prone: in 1923 the Great Kantō Earthquake devastated half of Tokyo and another 100,000 people perished.
More trauma was to come during World War II. In just three days of sustained incendiary bombing in March 1945, hundreds of thousands were killed and great swathes of the city burnt down, including Meiji-jingō, Sensō-ji, Edo Castle and most of Shitamachi. From a prewar population of nearly seven million, Tokyo was reduced to around three million people in a state of near-starvation. This time, regeneration was fuelled by an influx of American dollars and food aid under the Allied Occupation, plus a manufacturing boom sparked by the Korean War in 1950.
By the time Emperor Hirohito opened the Tokyo Olympic Games in October 1964, Tokyo was truly back on its feet and visitors were wowed by the stunning new Shinkansen trains running west to Ōsaka. The economy boomed well into the late 1980s, when Tokyo land prices reached dizzying heights, matched by excesses of every conceivable sort, from gold-wrapped sushi and mink toilet-seat covers to huge building projects such as the Odaiba reclamation in Tokyo Bay.
In 1991, the financial bubble burst. This, along with revelations of political corruption, financial mismanagement and the release of deadly Sarin gas on Tokyo commuter trains by the AUM cult in 1995 – a particularly shocking event in what is one of the world’s safest cities – led to a more sober Tokyo in the late 1990s.
In the new millennium, as the economy recovered, so did the city’s vitality. Events such as the 2002 World Cup, plus growing interest in Japanese pop culture and the delicious food scene have contributed to more curious overseas visitors heading to Tokyo, with some staying on – making the capital feel more cosmopolitan than it has ever been. District after district has undergone structural makeovers, starting with Roppongi and Shiodome back in 2003. The latest megadevelopment was the 2012 Tokyo Sky Tree at Oshiage, east of the Sumida-gawa, which is Japan’s tallest structure.