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Tokyo is the capital of Japan. At over 12 million people in the official metropolitan area alone, Tokyo is the center of the most populated urban area in the world, Greater Tokyo (which has a population of 35 million people).
Tokyo brings the most modern wonders of technology, commerce and architecture side by side with the old, and has something for everyone.
Huge and varied in its geography, with over 2,000 square kilometers to explore, Tokyo prefecture (??? Tokyo-to) spans not just the city, but rugged mountains to the west and subtropical islands to the south.
Over 400 years old, the city of Tokyo grew from the modest fishing village of Edo (??). The former seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Imperial family moved to the city after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The metropolitan center of the country, Tokyo is the destination for business, education, modern culture, and government. (That's not to say that rivals such as Osaka won't dispute those claims.)
Language. It's easier than ever for English speakers to navigate their way around Tokyo without speaking any Japanese. Signs at subway and train stations include the station names in romaji (Romanized characters). There are also many districts of Tokyo (such as Roppongi) with establishments that cater specifically to gaijin (foreigners). Once you've decided to venture beyond the gaijin scene, however, the language barrier is more likely to become a problem, so it can be helpful to know some tips for ordering in restaurants, shopping in stores, and asking for directions.
Learning katakana is not difficult and most words written with it can be understood by English speakers so it can be useful even for people with no Japanese vocabulary. If you plan on asking for directions to Tokyo destinations, it especially helps to carry the name of the destination written in Japanese characters.
Expenses. The cost of living in Tokyo is not as astronomical as it once was. Deflation and market pressures have helped to make costs in Tokyo comparable to most other large cities. Visitors from San Francisco, New York or London will not be at all surprised. Travelers should budget a similar amount of money for their stay in Tokyo as they would for any other great city in Europe or North America.
Locals will know the bargains, but experienced cheapskates from anywhere in the world can get by with a little ingenuity.
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Tokyo has a vast array of sights, but the first items on the agenda of most visitors are the temples of Asakusa, the gardens of the Imperial Palace (in Chiyoda) and the Meiji Shrine (in Harajuku).
If you're looking for a viewing platform, the Tokyo Tower is the best known but a rather expensive choice. Another option is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building (in effect, Tokyo's City Hall) in Shinjuku. Its twin towers have viewing platforms that are absolutely free, and still offer a great view over Tokyo.
Probably the best view would be from the World Trade Center next to JR Hamamatsucho station which, although not quite as high, is near Tokyo Tower and the waterfront making the view more interesting.
A recent addition to the viewing platforms around Tokyo is Tokyo City View in Roppongi Hills, Roppongi -- admission is a steep ¥1500, but includes admission to the Mori Art Museum.
Another good option especially at night is the Rainbow Bridge at Odaiba, whose pedestrian walkways are free.
The city is dotted with museums, large and small, which center on every possible interest from pens to antique clocks to traditional and modern arts. Many of the largest museums are clustered around Ueno. At ¥500 to ¥1,000 or more, entrance fees can add up quickly, but the GRUTT Pass  allows access to 49 of them for a flat ¥2000 fee. The pass can be purchased from any participating museum and is valid for two months.
If it is for sale anywhere in the world, you can probably also buy it in Tokyo - at a price. Items to look for include electronics, funky fashions, antique furniture and kimono, and specialty items like Hello Kitty goods, anime and comics, and their associated paraphernalia.
Remember that, as usual in Japan, credit cards are only accepted in large stores, so carry plenty of cash.
Cameras and electronics
Ever since Sony and Nikon became synonymous with high-tech quality, Tokyo has been a favored place for buying electronics and cameras. Though the lines have blurred since the PC revolution, each has its own territory and stores: Akihabara has the electronics stores and Shinjuku has the camera stores, and both now sell mostly computers. There are branches in other major areas, but each side stays out of the other's traditional territory and products.
Battery-powered small electronics and still cameras made for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, (though you might have to deal with an owner's manual in Japanese). However, if you are buying other electronics to take home, it's best to shop at the stores in Akihabara that specialize in "overseas" configurations. You can get PAL/NTSC, region-free DVD players, for example. Also, keep in mind that Japanese AC runs at 100 volts, so using "native" Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the US standard 110V current is too much for many devices.
The stores advertising "duty free" only save you the 5% consumption tax and require you to have your passport with you to get the benefit. Still, it is worth taking into consideration if you are making a larger purchase.
The discount chains have better prices than small local retailers, but prices basically don't vary from one to the other. So if you know what you want, don't waste your time comparison shopping. Selection can vary, though, and one brand might be cheaper than a similar item at a different store. Bargaining for major items is expected, but the salespeople probably have prepared scripts for a week's worth of "this is normally as low as we can go, but hey, just for you..."
Most of the big chains have a "member's card" that gets you "points" which can be used as a discount on your next purchase, even if it's just a few minutes later. If you bring a card with your hotel address in Japanese, you can probably convince the sales person to give you a points card.
With the advent of the large-format electronics retailers (Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sofmap, Yamada Denki) there is less and less reason to fight the crowds and haggle in Akihabara. In fact the culture of Akihabara has been morphing from consumer electronics towards anime (often of a sexual nature.)
Shibuya and neighboring Harajuku are the best-known shopping areas for funky, youthful clothes and accessories. Note that, almost without exception, clothes are sized for the petite Japanese frame.
Department stores and exclusive boutiques stock every fashion label imaginable, but for global labels prices in Tokyo are typically higher than anywhere else in the world. The famous Ginza and Ikebukuro's giant Seibu and Tobu department stores (the largest in the world) are good hunting grounds. Recently, Roppongi Hills has emerged as a popular area for high-end shopping, with many major global brands.
Handicrafts and souvenirs
The easiest places to find Japanese-themed handicrafts and souvenirs are Harajuku's venerable Oriental Bazaar and the Nakamise arcade in Asakusa. Both also have wide selections of clothing in foreigner-friendly sizes, which can be very difficult to find elsewhere. Quality can be dubious though, especially in Nakamise, so for high-end items like kimonos, swords and antiques it is better to consult reputable specialist dealers.
Bustling open-air bazaars in the Asian style are rare in Tokyo, except for Ueno's Ameyoko, a legacy of the postwar occupation. Yanaka Ginza in the Shitamachi Taito district, a very nice example of a neighborhood shopping street, makes for an interesting afternoon browse.
There are often small flea and antique markets in operation on the weekend at major (and minor) shrines in and around Tokyo.
Tokyo is probably one of the safest cities you will ever visit, and Japan in general is one of the safest places to visit in the world. Street crime is extremely rare, even late at night, and continues to decrease. However, "little crime" does not mean "no crime", and common sense should still be applied as anywhere in the world.
Take the usual precautions against pickpockets in crowded areas and trains. The red-light and nightlife districts can be a bit seedy, but is rarely dangerous. Note some small, back-street drinking establishments in red-light districts have been known to charge extortionate prices.
The police are a resource you can turn to for help. You will rarely find yourself far from one of the numerous local police boxes(koban), usually staffed by one or two police officers. Don't hesitate to go to the koban if you are lost, they have great local maps (in Japanese). Some police officers will also speak basic English. Give them a try. Also, if you carry travel insurance, report any thefts or lost items at the koban. They may have forms in English as well as Japanese.
Like the rest of Japan, earthquakes give Tokyo a little shake from time to time. Most of them are totally harmless but be aware of safety procedures. Don't put heavy objects in high places, especially above your bed. If you're indoors and you feel a shake, extinguish gas burners and candles and watch above you for falling objects - shelter under a table or a doorway if necessary. If you're outdoors, stay away from brick walls, glass panels and vending machines, and beware of falling objects.
If you make it as far out as Izu Islands, note that visitors to Miyakejima Island are currently required to carry a gas mask, due to volcanic gases. Those in poor health are advised against travelling to the island.
From Tokyo, the entire surrounding Kanto region is your oyster. Particularly popular destinations nearby include:
- Take a boat ride on the Sumida River from Asakusa.
- Enjoy a soak in a local "sento" or public bath. Or one of the onsen theme parks such as LaQua at the Tokyo Dome (Taito) or Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba.
- Go to an amusement park such as Tokyo Disneyland or the more Japanese Sanrio Puroland (in Tama), home to more Hello Kittys than you can imagine.
- Check out the hip and young crowd at Harajuku's Takeshita-Dori (Takeshita Street) or the more grown up Omotesando.
- In the spring, take a boatride in Kichijoji's lovely Inogashira Park, and afterwards visit the Ghibli Studios Museum (well-known for their amazing movies, like Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke), but you will need to buy tickets for these in advance at a Lawson convenience store.
- Sing karaoke at any karaoke box in town!
- Lose yourself in the neon jungle outside major train stations in the evenings. Shibuya and east Shinjuku at night can make Times Square or Piccadilly Circus look positively rural in comparison - it has to be seen to be believed.
- Take the Yurikamome elevated train across the bay bridge from Shimbashi station to the bayside Odaiba district, and go on the giant ferris wheel - the largest in the world until recently.
- Take a stroll through the Imperial Palace's East Gardens (open to the public daily at 9am, except Fridays).
- Have a picnic in a park during the cherry blossom (Sakura). Unfortunately Sakura only lasts for about a week.
For more information on Tokyo, visit the source at Wikitravel
- Hakone - for hot springs and views of Mount Fuji
- Kamakura - home to dozens of small temples and one Big Buddha
- Nikko - grandiose shrine and burial site of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu
- Tokyo Disney Resort - with Tokyo Disneyland (just like the ones everywhere else) and Tokyo DisneySea (an only-Japan theme park which includes some unique rides and some imported rides from Disney parks outside of Japan)
- Yokohama - Japan's second-largest city
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