Nothing quite prepares you for Tokyo; love it or hate it, the restless capital of Japan, home to twelve million people, packs a powerful punch. Initial impressions can be off-putting: ugly buildings are tarted up with eyeball-searing neon and messy overhead cables, pavements teem with crowds and roads are clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Yet behind the barely ordered chaos lie remnants of a very different past. Step back from the frenetic main roads, and chances are you'll find yourself in a world of tranquil backstreets, where wooden houses are fronted by neatly clipped bonsai trees; wander beyond the high-tech department stores, and you'll find ancient temples and shrines. In this city of 24-hour shops and vending machines a festival is held virtually every day of the year, people regularly visit their local shrine or temple and scrupulously observe the passing seasons. And at the centre of it all is the mysterious green void of the Imperial Palace - home to the emperor and a tangible link to the past.
It's almost impossible to be bored in Tokyo and 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. With money to spend, you can pick up the coolest fashions, eat in fabulous restaurants and dance in the hippest clubs. But you'll also be surprised how affordable many things are. Cheap and cheerful izakayas (bars that serve food) and noodle shacks far outnumber the big-ticket French restaurants and high-class ryotei, where geisha serve minimalist Japanese cuisine, while day tickets for a sumo tournament or a Kabuki play can be bought for the price of a few drinks. Many of the city's highlights are even free: a stroll through the evocative Shitamachi area around Asakusa and the major Buddhist temple Senso-ji; a visit to the tranquil wooded grounds of Meiji-jingu, the city's most venerable Shinto shrine, and the nearby teenage shopping mecca of Harajuku; the frenetic fish market at Tsukiji; the crackling, neon-saturated atmosphere of the mini-city Shinjuku - you don't need to part with lots of cash to explore this city.
High-speed limited-express and Shinkansen trains put several important sights within day-trip range of Tokyo, including the ancient temple and shrine towns of Kamakura to the south and Nikko to the north. Mount Fuji, 100km southwest of the capital, can be climbed between June and September, while the adjoining national park area of Hakone offers relaxed hiking amid beautiful lakeland scenery, and the chance to take a dip in an onsen - a Japanese mineral bath.
Financial scandals, economic doldrums and the Sarin gas attack by terrorists on the subway in 1995 have left Tokyo less ebullient than it was in the "bubble years" of the mid-1980s. But, as the millennium approaches, this precocious 21st-century city can afford to take a breather and let the rest of the world catch up.
Legend says that a giant catfish sleeps beneath Tokyo Bay, and its wriggling can be felt in the hundreds of small tremors that rumble beneath the capital each year. Around every seventy years the catfish awakes, resulting in the kind of major earthquake seen in 1995 in Kobe. There is a long-running, half-hearted debate about moving the Diet and main government offices out of Tokyo, away from danger. Yet, despite the fact that the city is well overdue for the Big One, talk of relocating the capital always comes to nothing. Now, more than ever before, Tokyo is the centre of Japan, and nobody wants to leave and miss any of the action.
When to visit
One of the best times to visit Tokyo is in the spring, usually from April to early May, when flurries of falling cherry blossom give the city a soft pink hue. October and November are also good months to come; this is when you'll catch the fireburst of autumn leaves in Tokyo's parks and gardens.
Avoid visiting during the steamy height of summer in August and early September, when soaring humidity has Tokyoites scurrying from one air-conditioned haven to another. From January through to March temperatures can dip to freezing, but the crisp blue skies are rarely disturbed by rain or snow showers. Carrying an umbrella in any season is a good idea, especially during tsuyu, the rainy season of June, and in September, when typhoons occasionally strike the coast. Note that many attractions shut for several days around New Year, when Tokyo becomes a ghost town. In mid-February cheap accommodation can be near impossible to secure as high school seniors from around Japan descend on the capital to sit college entrance exams.
Before deciding when to visit, check the city's calendar of festivals and special events, which range from grand sumo tournaments to the Sanno and Kanda matsuri (festivals) held alternate years (see Festivals, p.228 and Sports and Martial Arts, p.235).