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Huge and var­ied in its geography, with over 2,000 square kilo­me­tres to ex­plore,tokyo Me­trop­o­lis spans not just the city, but rugged moun­tains to the west and sub­trop­i­cal is­lands to the south. But that’s hardly what you’ll no­tice as a first-time vis­i­tor. In­stead, the one thing that hits home is the sheer size and scale of the con­crete jun­gle which you’ve just en­tered. You could stand atop any of the enor­mous sky­scrapers, and all you’d see in ev­ery di­rec­tion is more sky­scrapers, stretch­ing to the end of the hori­zon.

Tokyo is vast: it’s best thought of not as a sin­gle city, but a con­stel­la­tion of cities that have grown to­gether. Tokyo’s dis­tricts vary wildly by char­ac­ter, from the elec­tronic blare ofak­i­habara to the Im­pe­rial gar­dens and shrines of Chiy­oda, from the hy­per­ac­tive youth cul­ture of­shibuya to the pot­tery shops and tem­ple mar­kets ofasakusa. How­ever, the ad­van­tage to this is that, if you don’t like what you see, you can sim­ply hop on the train and head to the next sta­tion, and you will find some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent.

The sheer size and fre­netic pace of Tokyo can in­tim­i­date the first-time vis­i­tor. Much of the city is a jun­gle of con­crete and wires, with a mass of neon and blar­ing loud­speak­ers. At rush hour, crowds jos­tle in packed trains and masses of hu­man­ity sweep through enor­mous and be­wil­der­ingly com­plex sta­tions. Don’t get too hung up on tick­ing tourist sights off your list: for most visi­tors, the big­gest part of the Tokyo ex­pe­ri­ence is just wan­der­ing around at ran­dom and ab­sorb­ing the vibe, pok­ing your head into shops sell­ing weird and won­der­ful things, sam­pling restau­rants where you can’t recog­nise a sin­gle thing on the menu (or on your plate), and find­ing un­ex­pected oases of calm in the tran­quil grounds of a neigh­bour­hood Shinto shrine. It’s all per­fectly safe, and the lo­cals will go to some­times ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to help you if you just ask.

In­deed, the ma­jor­ity of the lo­cals don’t speak a word of English, but they’re all too happy to help any lost tourists. It’s not un­com­mon to see small groups of Ja­panese res­i­dents point­ing and mim­ing for con­fused visi­tors in the hopes that they’ll be sent in the right di­rec­tion. Don’t be afraid to make

con­tact with lo­cals, as, in our ex­pe­ri­ence, they’re as friendly as can be.

You prob­a­bly will need to ask for help at some point dur­ing your visit. To get around, there’s no bet­ter way to understand the city than by tak­ing the trains and sub­ways. How­ever, the mass tran­sit sys­tems are highly con­fus­ing—lit­tle sig­nage is in English, and the sheer scale of the sys­tem makes pen­e­trat­ing it that much more dif­fi­cult.

The defin­ing rail line in Tokyo is the JR Ya­man­ote Line, which runs in a loop around cen­tral Tokyo; be­ing in­side the Ya­man­ote loop is syn­ony­mous with be­ing in the core of Tokyo. You can think of it

al­most as an enor­mous version of the Lon­don Un­der­ground’s Cir­cle Line. Al­most all inter-re­gional JR lines and pri­vate lines start at a sta­tion on the Ya­man­ote, mean­ing that it’s a good ref­er­ence point for ex­plo­ration to all the var­i­ous sites.

In terms of the sites, to get into the cul­tural spirit of Tokyo, it’s best to opt for the tem­ples of Asakusa, the gar­dens of the Im­pe­rial Palace and the Meiji Shrine. All are of­ten packed to the point of burst­ing, so it’s best to turn up early to avoid the queues. How­ever, they’re cer­tainly worth ex­pe­ri­enc­ing as they’re so at odds with the man-made me­trop­o­lis out­side. Within th­ese tem­ples you get quiet havens of seren­ity, and in­ter­est­ing insight into Ja­panese cul­ture and tra­di­tion. The city is also dot­ted with mu­se­ums, large and small, which cen­tre on ev­ery pos­si­ble in­ter­est from pens to an­tique clocks to tra­di­tional and mod­ern arts.

Tokyo has many com­mer­cial cen­tres for shop­ping, eat­ing and sim­ply wan­der­ing around for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the mod­ern Ja­panese ur­ban phe­nom­e­non. Each of th­ese ar­eas have unique char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as the daz­zling Shin­juku, the youth­ful Shibuya and the up­mar­ket Ginza. Th­ese ar­eas are bustling through­out the day, but they really come into life in the evenings, when the neon lights come into force and daz­zle the senses.

For yet more sen­sory over­load, be sure to visit one of the nu­mer­ous view­ing plat­forms around Tokyo, which pro­vide as­ton­ish­ing views of the city. Tokyo Tower is prob­a­bly the most fa­mous, but if you’re go­ing for the high­est point of the city, opt for the view­ing plat­form in the Tokyo Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gov­ern­ment build­ing. Other top view­ing spots in­clude the World Trade Cen­tre Build­ing at JR Ha­ma­mat­su­cho sta­tion, which of­fers great views of Tokyo Tower it­self, as well as the city’s wa­ter­front.

There’s plenty else to see and do, and it would take a life­time to com­plete the ul­ti­mate bucket list in a city as vast as Tokyo. Other high­lights in­clude a trip to a lo­cal sento, or pub­lic bath. And, if you visit at the right time in spring, you might be lucky enough to ex­pe­ri­ence a pic­nic in the park dur­ing the cherry blos­som.

Th­ese are all dis­trac­tions, how­ever, from the main event, which is the in­cred­i­ble vast­ness of Tokyo it­self. You can make a trip to the city into any­thing you want, but just be sure to revel in the mad­ness of the hustle and bus­tle of life in one the world’s dens­est cities.

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