Tokyo is a mega-metropolis of dizzying contradictions, both familiar and foreign. It has neon, skyscrapers, salaryman crowds, packed trains, cutting-edge architecture and futuristic technology. But it also has ancient shrines, plant-covered wooden houses, cycling grannies, old-school sweet shops and village-like lanes.
It is one of the planet’s most densely populated cities (as any rush-hour train journey will demonstrate), with a hyperactive skyline that changes as regularly as the sun rises and sets.
Yet it is also a city rooted in its traditions and in possession of a calm and efficient rhythm that belies its sprawling dimensions. Even though it’s home to an epic 13 million-plus population, trains run on time, there is no public litter and street crime is near non-existent. In short, it works.
There’s also the food – from sushi to soba, and everything in between. Tokyo is a nirvana for foodies, and has the world’s highest volume of Michelin stars in a city.
Shopping is another highlight. It’s worth bringing an empty suitcase to fill with the hard-to-resist futuristic gadgets, trend-setting garments and treasures from craft and design stores.
The first point to remember when choosing a place to start is that Tokyo is not really a centralised city, more of an urban patchwork of distinct neighbourhoods.
Top starting spots include Asakusa, an atmospheric old school neighbourhood that’s home to the city’s oldest temple; nearby Ueno Park, for its cultural museums plus great people (and dog) watching; Omotesando and Harajuku for a snapshot of the city’s fashion pedigree, from teen tribes to label lovers; Marunouchi for its sleek shopping complexes, restaurants and afternoon tea at luxury hotels; and Daikanyama, for a taste of stylish residential Tokyo, with its fashion boutiques and chic cafés.
Japan prides itself on its distinct four seasons, making Tokyo pretty much a year-round destination. That said July and August can be overwhelmingly hot and humid, while the first few months of the year are often bone-chillingly cold, despite crisp sunshine.
The best times of year are spring, especially late April and early May when the cherry blossom bursts into flower, and autumn, between September and December when the leaves are at their most beautiful.