Tokyo: The city that's stranger than fiction

Richard Lloyd Parry on how to embrace the extraordinary attractions of Toyko

There's no point apologising for Tokyo: it's teeming, sprawling but also, in the words of the historian Edward Seidensticker, "the world's most consistently interesting city". Tokyo proper is home to eight million people; add on the satellite cities and commuter towns and the total for the megalopolis is 30 million, almost a quarter of the Japanese population.

There's no point apologising for Tokyo: it's teeming, sprawling but also, in the words of the historian Edward Seidensticker, "the world's most consistently interesting city". Tokyo proper is home to eight million people; add on the satellite cities and commuter towns and the total for the megalopolis is 30 million, almost a quarter of the Japanese population.

Tokyo has the world's biggest station, the most extravagant street fashions, and the most kitsch and bizarre architecture. If crowds and excess and 24-hour city fever excite you, then it's the ultimate urban experience.

At first glance, much of Tokyo looks the same, but after a couple of days, the varied character of the city's districts - served by the immaculate and unfailingly reliable public transport system - reveal themselves. Tokyo is a city of tribes, each with its own gathering place - Shibuya, where Japanese schoolgirls loll in their extravagant make-up, tiny skirts and monstrous platform boots; Shinjuku, where gangsters, pimps and bar girls lurk beneath a Bladerunner landscape of skyscrapers and noodle bars; and Akihabara, where computer and electronics enthusiasts gather to buy the latest gadgets.

As the greatest and richest city in Asia, Tokyo also has its cultural side - the stiff but magnificent museums in Ueno Park, the great temple of Senso-ji and the Meiji Shrine, as well as the kabuki theatre, home of the most accessible of Japan's dramatic forms. And beneath the buzz and bustle there's a calm and innocence about the place, with its litter- free streets, cool and punctual subway trains and almost non-existent street crime.

It is impossible to be bored in Tokyo, and with the mountains, hot springs and ancient cities of northern and western Japan just a bullet train away, there is always somewhere to escape to when it all becomes too much.

When to go

November, when autumn turns the trees to red, and March, when the cherry trees blossom and the whole city picnics in the parks, are the loveliest times of the year, but the dry, bright winter is also nice. Summer is enervatingly hot, especially the month-long rainy season in June.

Getting there

British Airways (tel: 0845 7733377), Virgin (tel: 01293 747747), Japan Air Lines (tel: 0845 7747700) and All Nippon Airways (tel: 020 7224 8866) fly direct from London to Tokyo in about 12 hours, from £ 726 return. There are better deals to be had on the longer indirect flights, ranging from £ 400 return with Aeroflot (tel: 020 7355 2233) via Moscow (the cheapest of the cheap) to a classier connection via Helsinki on Finnair (tel: 020 7408 1222) from £ 567 return.

Getting around

Tokyo is vast, but its cheap, safe, clean and punctual trains and subways make it one of the most accessible of the world's great cities - unless you are taking a trip to remote parts outside the city, don't consider driving. At Narita airport, pick up copies of the excellent English-language maps published by the Japan National Tourist Organisation (see Further Information).

The above-ground Yamanote Line girds the city in an irregular loop, intersected by a dozen criss-crossing subway lines. Fares, starting at Y160 (£ 1), are purchased from vending machines; if in doubt, buy the cheapest ticket and make up the difference at your destination. Taxis are expensive (fares from Y660) but ubiquitous. Buses are complicated and confusing, unless you speak Japanese.

Where to stay

Accommodation in Tokyo is expensive, with a lack of affordable middle- range hotels. At the top of the range are dozens of world-class hotels, among them the exquisite Park Hyatt (tel: 0081 3 53221234), slightly out of the way in West Shinjuku, but blessed with the city's most fashionable western restaurant, the New York Grill. Singles and doubles from £ 300.

More central to the tourist attractions is the famous Imperial Hotel (tel: 0081 3 35041111), opposite the Imperial Palace, but no longer the Frank Lloyd Wright original. Singles cost £ 215, doubles £ 245.

The best up-market bargain in town is the Fairmont (tel: 0081 3 32621151), a small but comfortable hotel overlooking the Palace Moat at one of its most attractive spots. Singles £ 80, doubles £ 145.

Cheaper still, but centrally located in Nogizaka, is the plain but functional Asia Centre (tel: 0081 3 34026111). Singles £ 32, doubles £ 60.

For a taste of a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, in the city, try Ryokan Sawanoya (tel: 0081 3 38222251), in the old Nezu district. Singles £ 30, doubles £ 55.

What to see and do

If you have only one day in Tokyo, spend the morning in Asakusa and the evening in Shinjuku. The former is at the heart of Shitamachi, the "Low City" which is the last remnant of old Edo, as Tokyo used to be called. Its principal attraction is the great Buddhist temple Senso-ji, which retains its popularity and charm despite having being razed and rebuilt after countless earthquakes, fires and wartime bombing raids. Visitors pose for photographs in front of the "Thunder Gate", a massive red wooden structure in which two burly Buddhist deities stand guard over the temple. Along the avenue leading into the temple precincts is a row of shops selling traditional goods which make fine souvenirs - paper fans, umbrellas, lucky charms, rice crackers and even Japanese swords.

The temple was founded in the seventh century, although the longest- surviving building is only 350 years old and the main hall was rebuilt in 1958. From a distance, however, with its steeply raked roof and crowds of worshippers, visible through a haze of incense smoke, it's a stirring sight. The temple stalls sell talismans, postcards and fortunes.

Seven hundred yards west of Senso-ji is a road called Kappabashi-dori, which is the place to buy a unique Japanese souvenir: the glistening plastic food models displayed in restaurant windows.

Shinjuku is opposite in atmosphere, a metropolis within a megalopolis, and the area that epitomises the most dramatic features of modern Tokyo: teeming crowds, an epic railway station (allow yourself at least 20 minutes to get lost in it), visionary high-rise architecture, multiple department stores and a maze of neon-lit snuggeries devoted to the "water trade" of drinking, entertainment and sex.

Start your evening beneath the giant TV screen of Studio Alta, the most popular Shinjuku meeting place. Behind here is Kabukicho, one of the sleaziest and most atmospheric corners of Tokyo. Despite the many peep shows, sex cinemas and "no-pants" coffee shops (the waitresses lack pants; the floors have mirrors), Kabukicho is extremely safe compared to equivalent quarters in other cities, and you can steer between the temptations to cheap (and conventional) bars and restaurants serving great ethnic food, especially Thai.

On the other side of the railway lines, in West Shinjuku, the atmosphere couldn't be more different: a cool, impersonal district of fine hotels and offices, dominated by Tokyo's biggest concentration of skyscrapers - including the magnificent City Hall, designed by the granddaddy of Japanese architects, Kenzo Tange.

Food and drink Bars and restaurants serving Japanese, Asian, and world cuisine of all descriptions are found throughout central Tokyo, stacked one on top of the other, 20-high. The first step is to decide what you want - sushi, tempura fish, ramen noodles or sukiyaki hotpot? For a bit of everything, served in a cosy setting with hearty mugs of beer and sake, go to a Japanese izakaya, a cross between a pub and a farmhouse restaurant. Order sashimi moriawase (a selection of raw fish, fresh that morning), yakitori (chicken grilled on wooden skewers) jaga imo (potato hotpot) and tofu sarada (bean-curd salad) washed down with nama biiru (draught beer), sake, or ume sawa (plum wine cocktail). Dinner for two shouldn't be more than £ 32. Izakayas are found all over Tokyo - ask in your hotel for the nearest. Nightlife The legendary Roppongi district is Tokyo's international playground - the traditional party place of Tokyo's expatriate tribes, from icy European models, through bullet-headed American marines, to Brazilian cocktail waiters and ferociously slinky, miniskirted Japanese girls. The Lexington Queen is where visiting celebs like to hang out. Younger types go to Bar Isn't It, Motown or Salsa Cariba, a Latin American bar full of real Latin Americans.

Out of town Two hours' train ride north is Nikko, the mountainous site of the opulent Tosho-gu shrine, built in the 17th century to glorify the memory of Japan's founding shogun. An hour south is the beautiful town of Kamakura, Japan's 13th-century capital and a mini-Kyoto of temples, shrines, gardens and museums. Hakone, to the south-west, is an area of hot springs and lakes within sight of Mt Fuji.

Deals and packages Creative Tours (tel: 020 7495 1775) offers a five-night package staying at the Shiba Park Hotel for £ 2,138 per person including flights, transfers and a half-day guided tour.

For £ 766 per person, ANA World Tours (tel: 020 7478 1933) offers five nights at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel-New Tower, including economy flights and b&b accommodation.

Further information In the UK, contact the Japan National Tourist Organisation, Heathcote House, 20 Savile Row, London W1X 1AE (tel: 020 7734 9638). In Tokyo, the Tokyo Information Centre is at 3-5-1 Marunouchi Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (tel: 0081 3 32013331).

* Richard Lloyd Parry is the author of 'Tokyo, Kyoto & Ancient Nara', (Cadogan Guides, £ 15.99).

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