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Tokyo - Japan
Tokyo is known for its booming economy and its always original, ever-changing culture. Those who come to visit this vast, bewildering metropolis of 12 million people will likely be overwhelmed. There is so much to see and do that planning ahead of time is essential.
You could say all roads lead to Nihonbashi since all distances to and from Tokyo are measured from here. Nihonbashi, "Japan Bridge," is centuries old, though the present Western-style structure only dates back to the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Once a prominent landmark, it is today dwarfed by buildings and an overhead expressway. Mitsukoshi, Japan's oldest department store, which still stands on its original site, and Takashimaya, another venerable shopping institution, are worth visiting here. Nihonbashi is also home to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, whose museum should be a stop for anyone interested in the economic history of the industrial and high-tech powerhouse that is Japan.
This is Tokyo's main business hub, and home to the country's three largest banks, as well as some of its most prominent companies, including Hitachi and Mitsubishi. Flooded daily with both businesspeople and tourists from all corners of the country, Marunouchi is a great place for touring the city's many impressive skyscrapers, including the Shin-Marunouchi Building, which houses over 150 stores, and is the tallest building in the Chiyoda Ward. Located between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace, two stunning examples of Japanese architecture, modern and ancient, visitors can begin their tour of this district the moment they step off the train.
Here you will find everything from department stores and boutiques, like the Sony Building and the famous Wako, to bookstores, bars, and restaurants that fit every taste and budget. The Ginza is the nation's showcase. It is to Tokyo what Fifth Avenue is to New York and Oxford Street is to London.
On the flip-side of the coin, the Ginza is also where visitors can experience some of the most refined aspects of Japanese heritage and culture. One example of this, Kabuki-za, the city's main Kabuki Theater since 1889, still puts on two shows daily.
This is one of the most lively wards in Tokyo, and encompasses Shinjuku and Harajuku, two popular districts for young people, and major centers of activity within the city that have the usual mix of department stores, shops, cafes and restaurants. The unique monument Hachiko, which commemorates a dog's loyalty to its master, can also be found right near Shibuya Station, where it commonly serves as a popular rendevous point for Tokyoites. The famous Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world, with some 4 million commuters passing through daily, is also located in Shibuya.
Harajuku comes alive on weekends when the young and trendy come to see and be seen. This is where Tokyo's fashion-forward attitude manifests itself most prominently, with no shortage of off-the-wall outfits and hairstyles to be found strutting up and down the streets, particularly Jingu Bashi just outside Harajuku Station. If you tire of fashion, however, just around the corner from the train station are the Meiji Jingu Shrine, one of the most beautiful and sacred shrines in Japan, and the adjoining Yoyogi Park.
By day or night, the Shinjuku district is a lively, neon-lit place with a bit of the atmosphere of New York's Greenwich Village. Looking for a smoke-filled jazz joint? You can find it here, along with ramen noodles shops, pachinko (gambling) parlors, and such global brand stores as Virgin Records, Tiffany and Gucci. There are also two major landmarks here: the Tokyo Tocho (Metropolitan Government Office), with its futuristic twin 48-story towers, and the huge Takashimaya Times Square department store, which is sure to sate even the most enthusiastic shopaholic.
Also located in Shibuya are the neighborhoods of Azabu and Hiroo, where many expatriates reside in expensive high-rise buildings. It is here that some of the most sought-after properties in Tokyo can be found, as well as some of the most sacred, such as Samboji Temple, an important religious site of the Shingon Buddhist sect. There are many small, independently-owned, shops, cafes and restaurants in the area as well, like the Thrush Cafe with its upscale beer garden atmosphere. Many foreign ambassies can also be found here.
This district is close to the popular Ginza. Check out the quaint yakitori barbecue chicken stalls that are set up beneath the district's raised train tracks, enjoy a quiet moment among the flower beds of Hibiya Park, or take in the sight of the impressive Imperial Hotel, which was erected along the park by imperial edict in the 19th Century, and once featured a building designed by the eminent American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. You could also join the many joggers who can be seen circling the 5-kilometer/3.1-mile periphery of the Imperial Palace grounds, on what is otherwise called the Imperial Palace Jogging Course, or stick to a leisurely stroll around the Palace East Garden.
A quick subway ride from Ginza will take you here, a place world famous for its raucous nightlife. Once a sleepy village, Roppongi is crowded with discos, clubs, bars, pubs and restaurants, including such trendy places as the Hard Rock Café and the massive Roppongi Hills mega-complex, which has just about everything a visitor could ask for, from stores to restaurants, and even a museum, all in one place. You can't miss it; it's iconic Mori Tower is 54-stories tall. Tokyo Tower, modeled on the Eiffel Tower, but taller, is also visible and easily accessible from here. Take the elevator to the observatory; you might catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji from up there on a clear day. Worn out from all the sightseeing? Take a soak at the Azabu-Juban Onsen, whose relaxing waters come from a natural hot spring 500-meters underground.
Asakusa & Ueno
Bustling centers of city life during the Edo period (1603-1868), these two districts belong to what Tokyoites call shitamachi, or "downtown." A must-see in Asakusa is Sensoji, Tokyo's oldest temple, the approach to which is lined by stores featuring colorful displays of traditional crafts, while the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, which attracts a crowd of more than one million people every year on the last Sunday in July, is a spectacle you won't want to miss.
At Ameyoko market street in Ueno, you can pick up unusual bargains ranging from dried squid to fake designer shirts. Culture buffs, however, should head for the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, both located in Ueno Park, Tokyo's first public park, established in 1873, that is also home to the 100-year old Ueno Zoo.
Sometimes called "Little Seoul", this district has a small section of nightlife, but it caters mostly to local yen-loaded patrons. The Kotohiragu Shrine is a good place to stop to pick up some good luck charms, while others might prefer to browse the wares for sale at the flea markets at Nogi Jinja Shrine, where you're sure to find a good deal. The Akasaka Act Theater, featuring everything from live music to drama to dance, is also located here, and is a great place to spend an entertainment-filled evening.
Also known as Akihabara Denki Gai, (Akihabara Electric Town), this is the major hub of Otaku, or "geek," culture. People looking to buy electronic gadgets, computer accessories and anime/manga videos, books, toys and games know to come here, where they can not only get good prices but also meet people who share their special interests. Due to a recent boom in popularity, the cramped stores of Akihabara, like Animate with its 8 sprawling floors of everything from comics to anime soundtracks, are always abuzz with hip techno-ites. Another popular store, Sofmap, offers a huge selection of consumer electronics to choose from, spread out over 7 floors, while the Nishikawa Duty Free Square specializes in assisting foreigners with their high-tech purchases.
This district is most often visited for the sweeping view from the top of Sunshine City's 60-story tall center skyscraper, Sunshine 60, which was one of the first skyscrapers to be built in earthquake-prone Tokyo. Sunshine City itself is definitely worthy of its name; you can get lost in this huge cluster of buildings for days. Within its many walls are an indoor amusement park, movie theater, shopping mall, museum and planetarium. There's clearly something to keep everyone happy here.
For inexpensive, traditional Japanese accommodations, the Kimi Ryokan is located conveniently close to Sunshine City, as well as transportation and other attractions. Many authentic but inexpensive dining options can also be found in Ikekuburo, including Nami for okonomiyaki (a type of savory pancake), Umehachi for tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), and Kaiten Yume Sushi, which sells sushi for as little as JPY99 per piece!
Ikebukuro is also the home of the well-known Ankokuron-ji Temple of the Nichiren Buddhist sect. It is said that it was on this site that Nichiren himself lived in a cave for three years, and wrote his famous religious tract entitled, "Rissho Ankoku Ron," one of his defining treatises. The temple was later established on the site in 1274.
This is the site of the Tokyo Dome, Tokyo's modern sports arena that can accommodate up to 56,000 spectators. Baseball games are most popular here, but there are also concerts and festivals in the off-season. The Koishikawa-Korakuen Garden is attached to the Dome, offering a tranquil escape for those looking to have some peace and quiet, while the Korakuen Amusement Park is also right next door, with a roller coaster and a huge arcade for those looking for a little more action. And as if that weren't enough stimulus, the rest of the area in the immediate vicinity, known as Tokyo Dome City, features everything a tourist might want, from shopping and restaurants to a luxurious spa.
For something different in Korakuen, however, take a timeout to visit Muryozan Jukyoji Temple, where you can learn about the Shogunate Period. Many other famous religious sites are also located in the area as well, including Tennoji Temple, with its beautiful and ancient cherry trees, and Gokoku-ji, a major Buddhist Temple that dates back to 1680.
Odaiba is an ongoing oceanfront development and artificial island, served by monorail, that has come to be commonly known as “Tokyo Teleport Town” in an effort to further cement it as a symbol of Tokyo's futuristic urban living plan. The Fuji TV Building is located here, along with one of the world's largest ferris wheels at Toyota's MegaWeb, several shopping malls, museums and even a full-size replica of the Statue of Liberty. Lovers of videogames must check out Sega Joypolis, where some of the most advanced simulation games abound, while toy collectors can join over 100,000 of their efellow enthusiasts in Odaiba at the annual Tokyo Toy Show.