As the political and cultural center of Japan, Tokyo is not only the capital and largest city of the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s also among the world’s most popular travel destinations. But for many visitors, especially for those who have never visited a large city, much less the world’s largest metropolitan area, Tokyo can be tremendously overwhelming. Fortunately, with aid of a helpful sightseeing guide and a city filled with friendly people who often go out of their way to help travelers, the notion of exploring this fascinating city in the Far East is actually far easier than ever imagined. To make trip planning that much easier, this travel guide highlights five of the most popular of the 23 special wards comprising Tokyo, all conveniently located next to one another within the heart of the city.
How To Get Around Tokyo
As one of the world’s most populous cities, the most practical way to get around Tokyo is with public transportation. While Tokyo has an extensive network of transportation systems, visitors only need to consider taking subway trains. Since public transportation is not practical for every traveler, another great way to visit the city is with a sightseeing bus.
The capital city has two distinct subway systems — Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway — and offers 13 subway routes (Metro with nine, Toei with four) that are color-coded and identified by letters of the alphabet. Both subway companies offer the same system map and Tokyo Metro offers a direct link to popular attractions, making it fairly simple to find a particular destination. With one of the world’s largest subway system, the system map may be confusing, but for most visitors, the subway is very affordable and highly recommended. On the other hand, it’s also recommended to avoid taking any subway trains during the morning and evening commutes, unless absolutely necessary. Even then, trains run every two or three minutes during rush hours, lessening the chance of waiting long for a ride. Both Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway require different sets of tickets online or at subway stations, although a Common One-Day Ticket is valid for both systems.
It’s not generally necessary to take any of the JR East trains within the city of Tokyo. But the city’s primary train system is generally suggested to other popular destinations within the greater metropolitan area, such as Tokyo Disneyland. For destinations in other parts of Japan, including Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima, the best method of transportation is with the famous high speed Shinkansen (bullet train) from Japan Railways (JR).
For travelers who find public transportation too difficult and/or confusing, tour buses are a nice alternative. Among the most popular business offering sightseeing buses are Hato Bus, offering trips like half and full day tours and Tokyo Sky Bus, with a convenient hop-on, hop-off service. Other recommended tour operators for city bus tours are Japan Gray Line and JTB Sunrise Tours. For visitors interested in a walking tour or food and drink tours, the top recommendation are Japan Wonder Travel, the Backstreet Guides, Tokyo Walking Tours and Travelience. Another recognized source for outstanding Tokyo city tours is through Viator, which also offers notable trips to Kyoto, Mt. Fuji and Kamakura.
The Chiyoda ward is best known as the location for the Imperial Palace, the official residence of the Emperor and Empress of Japan. However, it’s also known as the country’s political center, the home to all of the major government buildings like the National Diet, Tokyo High Court and the Prime Minister’s official residence. The enormous inner grounds of the Imperial Palace are generally closed to the public and only open on the Emperor’s birthday of Dec. 23 and on New Year’s Day. However, the Imperial East Gardens are open to the public all year except on Mondays, Fridays and special occasions, and guided tours are available through a reservation process with the Imperial Household Agency. Other notable attractions within the Chiyoda ward are the Tokyo Central Railway Station, Yakusuni Shrine, the Akihabara district and legendary Budokan arena.
To many, if not most, visitors, the Chūō (central ward) ward may not be instantly recognizable as a popular Tokyo destination. On the other hand, its most famous district is Ginza, widely recognized as one of the world’s most luxurious shopping areas, reminiscent of New York’s 5th Avenue and Paris’ Champs-Élysées. Filled with skyscrapers, enormous streets, plenty of neon and an endless flow of pedestrians, the Ginza is also one of the city’s premier centers for dining and entertainment, with illustrious Michelin three-starred restaurants like Yoshitake and Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten led by master sushi chef Jiro Ono and the city’s leading kabuki theater, Kabuki-za. Aside from the fact that the Ginza district is truly a must-see in Tokyo, another section of the Chūō ward is equally fascinating in its own right — the always lively Tsukiji Market, the world’s largest fish and seafood market located in its namesake district.
Like the Chūō ward, Minato is better known internationally for its districts, as well as one of Tokyo’s most distinctive attractions. Perhaps the most famous section for both locals and visitors is Roppongi, one of the city’s leading centers for nightlife and entertainment, with a seemingly incalculable number of restaurants, karaoke bars and host and hostess clubs, although some businesses are not recommended for tourists. Like many other parts of Tokyo, Roppongi is also aglitter with multi-colored neon lights and lively retail stores, along with constant processions of people. Other must see attractions in the Minato ward are the iconic Tokyo Tower, with its panoramic views of the cityscape, and Tokyo Skytree ( the world’s second tallest), Zojoji Temple, the artificial island of Odaiba and the National Art Center. Many of the city’s most prestigious restaurants can also be found in Minato, led by high profile places with award-winning chefs like Kanda, Nihonyori RyuGin, Saito, Yukimura and Aragawa, repeatedly named the world’s most expensive restaurant and best known for its signature Tajima beef dish.
In a city filled with dazzling lights, the Shibuya ward and its namesake district is Tokyo’s answer to Times Square. But the number of people who pass through New York’s famed “Crossroads of the World” daily seems astonishingly miniscule compared to the largely overwhelming Shibuya Scramble Crossing, with a reported 100,000 people passing through every hour and 2,500 with each signal change, making it the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. As another one of the city’s premier shopping centers and home to a major train station, the Shibuya district is a hands down, must-see major attraction for sightseers. However, if the notion of endless gargantuan crowds seems a bit overbearing (and it easily could), there’s another fashionable spot worth visiting in Shibuya known as Harajuku. Primarily catering to a hip, young crowd, the place in Harajuku to go is Takeshita Street, a pedestrian walkway filled with boutique shops and cafes and an assorted collection of fashion conscious shoppers. Other recommended spots to visit in Shibuya is Meiji Shrine, featuring one of the city’s most prominent toriis (traditional Japanese gate) and Bunkamura Museum of Art, one of the country’s leading art museums.
When visitors hear about densely crowded subway trains in Tokyo, it’s most likely Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest transportation hub. But this massive station also serves as the gateway to Shinjuku ward, an intriguing mixture of skyscrapers, upscale retail stores, radiant lights and peaceful settings. The perfect place to get away from the sheer masses of Shinjuku Station lies just southeast in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a stunning 150-acre public green space which is currently Trip Advisor’s top attraction in Tokyo and renowned for its captivating cherry blossoms in the springtime. But Shinjuku is also known for Kabukichō, said to be the largest entertainment district in East Asia, known for its pachinko (Japanese arcade game) parlors, host and hostess clubs and thousands of other colorfully lit bars and restaurants. Other notable attractions to visit in Shinjuku ward are Opera City Concert Hall, the fascinating Golden Gai — known for its collection of small, shanty-like drinking establishments — the twin observation decks at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buidling and the yet to be completed National Olympic Stadium, the site for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
Must-See Bonus Attraction
Although it lies outside of the city and requires a train ride of about 60 minutes, the Great Buddha of Kamakura is truly a must-see attraction, especially for first-time visitors. One of Japan’s most beloved national treasures, the Great Buddha is a bronze monument of Amida Buddha, the central figure of the Buddhist religion. The Great Buddha, also known as Daibutsu, rests upon the remains of the Kōtoku-in temple, dating back to the 13th century. Standing more than 40 feet tall and weighing more than 120 tons, the Great Buddha is the second largest Daibutsu and among the most famous statues of Buddha in the world. The Kamakura train station can be best reached via the JR Yokosuka line from Tokyo Station, JR Shonan Shinjuku line from Shinjuku Station or with Odakyu Railways, although the latter takes 90 minutes from Tokyo. From the Kamakura station, visitors can walk the remaining 1.5 miles or transfer to the Enoden railway line and deboard at Hase Station, about a five minute walk from the temple grounds.
Related: Backpackers Guide To Asia
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering national/international travel for CBS Local and all things San Francisco for CBS San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. He may be contacted via Twitter or Linkedin .