Tokyo is a sprawling city of the future. Neon signs, skyscrapers and robots sit next to the very best of traditional Japan – shrines and temples, beautiful gardens and parks, and a respect for old customs. Japan’s capital is so big it often feels like a collection of cities. There’s the cutting edge of Shinjuku and Shibuya, the flashiness of Ginza, the quirky J-Pop centre Harajuku and nods to the past in eastern districts like Ueno, Asakusa and Ryoguku, where backpackers will find grand temples, old alleyways and sumo stables.
Tokyo is brimming with shops, restaurants and bars. The hard part is deciding where to begin! You don’t need lots of money to enjoy it either. From vending machines to thrift stores in Shimokita selling vintage clothing, there are plenty of ways for backpackers on a budget trip to get stuck in.
The city has shown through its history that it is comfortable rebuilding and moving forward, whether after devastating earthquakes or the effects of bombing during WWII. Another bout of building and design is coming – Tokyo is due to host the 2020 Olympics, and it is giving a number of areas a revamp, including the waterfront area around Tsukiji Fish Market. With a love of life in the fast lane and an endless mix of sights and activities, Tokyo is cherished by travellers whatever their budget.
Tokyo – the most populous city in the world (the 2015 count was 38 million!!) – started out many hundreds of years ago as a sleepy fishing village. At that time it was called Edo, “gate to the river”, because of its location at the mouth of the Sumida River. Its transformation into a bustling city began in the 1600s when it became the capital of a shogunate led by warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu. In just over a hundred years Edo became the most populous city in the world, but it remained largely cut-off from the rest of the world.
All of this changed in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration and the return of authority and power to the Emperor. It was at this point that the name Tokyo (meaning Eastern capital) came into being and the imperial capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Within 50 years, Japan went from being an agrarian, feudal society run by the Samurai class to a fully industrialised, modern nation-state with a powerful military. Tokyo was at the centre of this transformation. The influx of foreign influence and interaction had an impact on fashion, art, sports, music, literature and more, putting Tokyo on the map as a city of culture. That mix of foreign ideas, adopted with a unique Japanese twist, is still a hallmark of the city today.
Tokyo was hit by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and then bombed during second world war. It was not until the 1950s that the city recovered as the Japanese government began a series of major public works to restore infrastructure, develop heavy industry and provide housing. This recovery accelerated through the 1960s when the new Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympic Games, and then culminated in the heady boom of 1980s Japan and then the bust of the 1990s – a slowdown Tokyo and the rest of Japan is still recovering from. The Tokyo you see today, with the giant video screens, amazing transport system, technology and modern architecture, is the end product of its remarkable recent history.
Things to do
A city of this size has an endless list of things to do that caters to all tastes and all budgets. There are, however, a few unmissables – all of which feature in The Dragon Trip’s Japan backpacking tour. Let’s start with the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. Every morning thousands of tonnes of fish and seafood are hauled off boats and sold to suppliers and restaurants across Tokyo. It is a totally unique spectacle. The highlight for visitors is the Bluefin Tuna auction and, of course, the opportunity to try the fish yourself in one of the sushi stalls in the outer market. It’s definitely worth the 5am start!
Many other things to do in Tokyo involve exploring different areas. People watching in Harajuku is a must-do. This is where Japanese teenagers dress up as goths, lolitas, punks or whatever else and hang out. The shops in Harajuku cater to the young, J-Pop crowd so be sure to have a browse.
Harajuku is not far from the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the Meiji Imperial dynasty. The Shinto shrine stands in a beautiful forested area and makes a nice respite from the city’s hustle and bustle.
Looking around Shinjuku and Shibuya, especially at night when the neon signs stand out and the restaurants and bars are jumping, is an absolute must. There are shops, restaurants and bars to suit everyone, from yakitori stands in “piss alley” (don’t worry, they have toilets nowadays) to department store canteens and Michelin-starred restaurants. Those on a budget Japan tour or backpacking solo should look for izakaya-style pubs in Shinjuku, perhaps in Golden Gai, where drinks prices are cheap. Shibuya is famous for its six-way crossing and the roads like Centre Gai that run off it and keep hordes of young Japanese revellers entertained with nightclubs, bars, and game centres.
The Akihabara area is geek heaven! Even if you’re not an anime or manga fanatic, it’s a fascinating insight into one of the world’s great subcultures. There are plenty of gadget stores too so have a browse and find out about the latest Japanese gadget trends – it’s a glimpse into the future!
The Sensou-ji Temple in Asakusa, in the north-east of Tokyo, is certainly worth a visit. It is the oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, set within one of Tokyo’s old low-rise districts. Not far from Asakusa, in neighbouring Sumida City, is SkyTree Tower. The viewing deck at the top gives one of the best views of the Tokyo Skyline. It’s a great way to take in the sheer scale of the city.
The Ryogoku area is also in the east of Tokyo and is famous for one thing: Sumo. This is where you’ll find the Ryogoku Kokugikan, the famous Sumo arena where the most prestigious tournaments take place. Tournaments are fairly infrequent and tickets are pricey. But, there are also Sumo stables in the area which offer the chance to watch Sumo wrestlers go through their training routines. It’s a cheap way for backpackers or those on a budget to this ancient sport up close.
Beautiful nature is not far from Tokyo’s outskirts. Hiking some of the trails on Mount Takaosan is a great day trip from Tokyo. It’s around three hours to get up and down the mountain, including a stop at a temple. And remember – walking and hiking are cheap, which is great if you’re on a Japan backpacking tour.
When to Visit
Tokyo is blessed with the full four seasons. Summers are fairly hot and humid, with temperatures peaking in August at an average of 26⁰C. The rainy season is in June and July, so be prepared to use an umbrella or duck for cover!
Winters in Tokyo are cold and clear – January is the coldest month, at an average of 5⁰C, but it is also the driest. Winter temperatures rarely get below freezing for long periods and snowfall is quite rare.
Spring in Tokyo is famous for the cherry blossoms coming into bloom in March and April – an event of national importance every year. Temperatures are mild and pleasant in Spring, but be prepared for the odd cold snap.
Autumn is another great time to visit Tokyo. Trees turn red and golden and the sweaty summer temperatures are long gone. September to November is ideal for exploring the city and seeing the rest of Japan in a Japan budget tour.
What to Eat
Tokyo rightfully deserves its reputation as one of the world’s great food cities. There’s amazing food for every budget, whether you’re on a backpacker tour or able to spend more. The bigger question is whether you’ll have enough time to sample all its delights. After all, this city has more restaurants than any other in the world. You can find specialties from all over Japan in Tokyo.
Sushi and sashimi is a great place to start your culinary adventure. Tokyo does it better than anywhere else – no surprise given it’s a coastal city with the world’s best fish market. Many of the best sushi restaurants are incredibly expensive, often located in areas such as Ginza. But a great way to try sushi and sashimi if you’re on a budget tour is to try one of the restaurants on the fringes of Tsukiji fish market. It’s still a bit of a splurge if you want a full sushi set, but there are also restaurants that serve dishes like Donburi – large bowls of rice, topped with sashimi and uni (urchin roe) – that are slightly cheaper.
The variety of noodles available in Tokyo is staggering. Ramen noodles come with so many different broths and extra ingredients, but there are a few classics to look out for: shoyu ramen comes with a soy based broth (a clear light brown colour); tonkotsu ramen is a rich, beige pork broth; shio is the lightest broth; and Tsukemen ramen involves dipping the noodles into a separate bowl of broth. Then there are spicy and miso varieties, seafood based broths – the list is endless! But make sure you try ramen at least once when in Tokyo.
Once you’ve had enough ramen, give udon or soba noodles a try. Udon is the thicker, slightly chewier variety (normally white) and soba are made from a buckwheat and wheat mix, which usually results in a light brown coloured noodle. Soba is sometimes served cold with a simple sauce on the side. Noodle stands are a great way of having a cheap, filling meal – the ideal backpacking pit-stop.
A staple across Japan and especially Tokyo is yakitori – meat on skewers, marinated in a soy-based sauce and grilled over charcoal. It is often served along with beer and is delicious and cheap as you order by the skewer. You can also have vegetables skewered and served in the same way. Another classic dish during an evening of drinking is okonomiyaki. It’s a dish that originates from other parts of Japan, but you’ll see it all over Tokyo. It’s a grilled savoury pancake, onto which you can choose whatever toppings you like. The base is normally made of eggs, water, flour and grated sweet potato.
Look out for delicious Japanese-style hotpot dishes. The main varieties are sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Sukiyaki is a mix of beef and vegetables grilled in pan with a soy and sake broth, which makes a slightly sweet marinade. When ordering shabu-shabu, you cook the slices of beef and the other ingredients yourself in a boiling broth.
Finally, the Japanese do so many unique sweets and desserts – too many to list in detail here. But be sure to try something made with mochi, a type of rice cake. Usually it is slightly sweetened and then an array of other flavours and colours are added. The squishy texture is totally unique – you’ll either love it or hate it. Tokyo is full of bakeries and shops putting a Japanese twist on Western desserts, whether adding sweet red bean paste or matcha to croissants. Then there are classic street snacks like taiyaki, a fish shaped waffle stuffed with anko red bean paste.