Once upon a time, it was known as “808 villages”: numerous towns on marshy land, all connected into a conurbation. It’s not so different today – except it’s no longer villages but veritable cities, all connected into one massive metropolis – Tokyo.
This jungle of neon, glass, and concrete hides so many gems we couldn’t cover them all in hundreds of articles. Things to see and do in Tokyo are spread over a vast area, so it’s good to know what to expect from each part of the city.
Here’s a basic introduction, a simple travel guide to Tokyo Metropolitan Area to help you start exploring it on your own!
Tokyo: From Edo-gawa to Fuji Mountain
Carrying a name with a simple, straightforward meaning – “the Eastern Capital”, Tokyo (東京) is a city so big it’s really not a single city as we know it – rather, it’s a collection of many cities.
Tokyo rose to prominence around the 1600s when it became the shogun’s base, and by mid-18th century, it already grew bigger than London with over 1 million inhabitants. Back in the day, the conurbation was called Edo, but in 1868, it was renamed and finally made capital of Japan (after Kyoto).
Today, Tokyo stands proud as the most populous city in the world.
The large city is a maze of streets narrow and wide. It’s guarded by the stark, perfectly-shaped, volcanic mountain that inspired many of the most famous artists of Japan: Mt. Fuji. Tokyo’s lifeblood flows through 4 main rivers: Tama, Arakawa, Sumida, and Edo (or Edogawa, a river after which the city was originally named) and over a 100 rivers and canals redirected underground, built over, or blocked.
A view of the city from Tokyo Bay with the imposing Mount Fuji in the background
Upper and Lower Tokyo
Most of Tokyo is positioned in the Musashino Plain, surrounded by mountains to the east and the Tokyo Bay (Pacific Ocean) to the west.
Though it’s far from mountainous, Tokyo was historically divided into the hilly highlands (山の手, Yamanote, literally “mountain hand”) and the lowland basins amid rivers and streams (下町, Shitamachi, “low city”). The border is somewhere along the Sumida river.
Not purely geographical, the historical division between Yamanote and Shitamachi is rather based on class differences back in the day of samurai. While feudal lords built their homes on higher ground, the working class centered near the rice-bearing waterways.
To this day, we divide Tokyo into the affluent Yamanote and the residential Shitamachi, though the latter is home to many rich neighborhoods.
The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo
The area spreads over many cities, and even across prefectures – more or less, some parts of Tokyo Metropolitan Area reach into every prefecture of Kanto.
Officially, Tokyo is a conurbation of 62 cities, towns, and villages – but what we’d call “downtown Tokyo” is a network of 23 “special wards”, or the 23 ku of Tokyo. Like most of the 62 municipalities, the special wards are somewhat autonomous, and partly governed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Did you know you could use the word “Tokyo” and talk about either the prefecture, special wards, OR the metropolitan area? Or, for example, if find yourself in Shinjuku – it could be the special ward or a general area around the Shinjuku station, which covers a few other wards. This gets confusing in English, but it’s easy to distinguish in Japanese!
Read on, because this just might be a lifesaver on a metro or the Yama-no-Te train line that makes a loop around the highlands of the city (the Yamanote area).
What are Tokyo Special Wards and how do I recognize them?
The special wards are usually translated as “cities”, along with many other Japanese municipality designations, but (unless you have some paperwork to do) it’s simpler to view them as an equivalent to boroughs or parts of city.
It’s easy to recognize special wards by the character 区 (ku) at the end of their names. Here, we use the English names, but we do include the KU in our Japanese spelling – this can help you get around using the map, street signs, or listening to directions.
As you get further from downtown Tokyo, you reach other cities – these are likely also part of Tokyo Metropolitan Government, but they’re distinct cities with cultures and atmospheres of their own. Saitama, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Sagamihara, Chiba, and many other places will have their names end with 市 (shi) – city.
Today, we dive into the special wards, or the 23 KU of Tokyo.
1. Chiyoda (千代田区)
Arriving to Tokyo Station, the heart of Tokyo, you’re in Chiyoda.
Chiyoda is a touristy green space situated around the Imperial Palace, the seat of the Emperor.
As a political center of the country, Chiyoda is also the home to government institutions like the National Diet (legislature building) and the Supreme Court. The commercial district, many international and domestic companies have their headquarters here.
Along with the neighboring Chu-o and Minato wards, Chiyoda comes alive during working hours – and the crowds disperse at night.
But Chiyoda is not all politics and trade. Here, you’ll also find the Nippon Budokan, a famous arena and concert hall, and Akihabara district, the world-famous electronics, appliance, video game, anime, and otaku (geek) culture center!
Tokyo Imperial Palace
2. Chuo (中央区)
Situated right by the Sumida River, Chuo is the old downtown, the historical center of Tokyo (and Edo’s Shitamachi before it). Today, a large commercial center.
Chuo is the home to Ginza (銀座), a famous district named after the former silver mint, now the site of many luxury stores and financial institutions. You’ll find the lovely dragon-statue-decorated Nihonbashi (“Japan Bridge”) nearby.
Nihonbashi Bridge, built in the 17th century
3. Minato (港区)
The area of Minato ward is home to many of the tallest skyscrapers in Japan, including the Azabudai Hills, Toranomon Hills, Midtown Tower, and Roppongi Hills.
It’s also where you’ll find a famous landmark of the city and the second-tallest structure in Japan – the Tokyo Tower. Built in 1958 and standing proud at (a few centimeters short of) 333 meters, Tokyo Tower is a red-and-white Eiffel Tower replica that served as the main broadcast tower until it was replaced by the Tokyo Skytree in 2012. It has an observation deck very worth the visit!
Very nearby, you’ll find a lovely park with a little waterfall – that’s right, in the heart of the city! If you find yourself in Tokyo in the fall, don’t miss the spectacular sight of red maple leaves and the Tokyo Tower in the back.
Another symbol of friendship between Japan and France lies on Minato’s artificial island Odaiba – a small Statue of Liberty replica (one of three in Japan).
If you spend the night in Minato, make sure to visit Roppongi – a famous “western-style” nightlife spot in Tokyo. Japan’s oldest Hard Rock Café is located here.
The Tokyo Tower reaches skyward
4. Shibuya (渋谷区)
Shibuya, a bustling district at the heart of Tokyo, is the hub of Japan’s fashion, entertainment, culture, and commerce, making it an essential stop for anyone exploring Tokyo.
It’s known for some of the best-known images of Japan:
- The Hachiko statue, devoted to a heartbreaking story of a dog’s loyalty to its owner.
- The colossal pedestrian scramble crossing – this multi-cornered intersection comes alive with hundreds of people with every green light, making for an impressive sight. An estimated 300 000 people cross the street here every day.
- The crazy fashion of Harajuku in Takeshita street, and the high-end fashion of the Shibuya 109 skyscraper.
- the Meiji Shrine (明治神宮, Meiji jingu), dedicated to one of Japan’s most influential emperors, and its adjacent Yoyogi Park – a large green oasis in the middle of Tokyo’s dense urban area.
See it all from above – a great way to take in the sights of Shibuya (and take a glance as far as Shinjuku) is from high up. Shibuya Sky, a 46-floor observation deck provides spectacular sights of the area with a 360° view.
See the Shibuya crossing in action – an impressive amount of people cross the intersection with each green light
5. Shinjuku (新宿区)
Considered by many the city center of present-day Tokyo, Shinjuku is lively and crowded 24/7.
The major commercial and administrative center by day becomes a vivid entertainment district at night. Suffice to say that the Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world.
This large place has a lot of variety to offer. Here are some of the most interesting:
- Okubo (or Shinokubo), previously a Korea-town and now a veritable Asia-town is the home of diversity in Tokyo.
- Kagurazaka, previously a hanamachi (geisha neighborhood) and today Tokyo’s “little Paris” with its cobbled streets and fashionable cafes and stores.
- Arakicho in Yotsuya, a great place to eat with its many small restaurants and izakaya.
- Kabukicho, a famous nightlife spot, sporting after-hours fun (only for adults).
- Golden Gai, a bar-hopping paradise for people that enjoy an intimate nightlife atmosphere and live music.
- Shinjuku ni-chome, an oasis for the LGBTQ population of Japan.
- Takadanobaba, a residential and nightlife area popular with students.
- Waseda, the home to one of Japan’s most prestigious universities and its large greenery-surrounded campus.
- Shinjuku Gyo-en, a huge park (about 3.5 km in circumference), ideal for a leisurely stroll as an escape from the bustle of Shinjuku.
Fun fact – Shinjuku was the target of the legendary fantasy monster Godzilla 3 times. That’s why you’ll find a huge Godzilla statue in Kabukicho, Shinjuku.
6. Bunkyo (文京区)
Bunkyo is Tokyo’s cultural center, housing many universities, libraries, many large parks, and places of worship. It was the home to many of the most important scholars and writers in the Meiji era (Japan’s “age of enlightenment”, 1868-1912), most notably Natsume Soseki.
A common reason to visit Bunkyo is its huge stadium for high-profile sports and music concerts, the Tokyo Dome.
Head to Tokyo Dome in Bunkyo for the best concerts in town
7. Nakano (中野区)
Close to the busy streets of Shinjuku but known as a great place to live, Nakano is a great neighborhood to spend time in.
This area has a lot to offer – from its vintage residential streets, a range of both traditional and modern restaurants and izakaya in the scenic Fureai Road, a beautiful and crowded shopping street covered with a quaint sunroof, the Nakano Broadway, an otaku paradise selling manga/anime paraphernalia both new and old, to a multitude of ramenshops all across the ward.
8. Taito (台東区)
The smallest of Tokyo wards, Taito, rocks lower-rise buildings than the rest of the city and safeguards its oldest treasure: the Senso-ji temple (浅草寺).
Built in the year 645, Senso-ji is an ancient building and one of the most famous temples in Japan, celebrating the bodhisattva Kannon. Located in the historic neighborhood of Asakusa (浅草 – yes, those are the same characters as the “Senso” of Senso-ji), the place is a beautiful blend of tradition and quiet modernity.
If you’re traveling to Taito with family, don’t miss the Ueno Zoo.
The Kaminarimon gate and the 5 story pagoda of the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Taitou
9. Sumida (墨田区)
Right in between the Arakawa and Sumida rivers, this ward offers a combination of traditional sights and modern landmarks.
Sumida’s skyline is dominated by the tallest structure in Tokyo (and third-tallest free-standing structure in the world) – Tokyo Skytree. Opened in 2012, the Skytree is a digital TV broadcasting tower that took the job from Tokyo Tower. At 634 meters tall, the observation deck on top of Skytree offers breathtaking views of the city.
Nearby, you’ll see memorable structures such as the golden Asahi Flame (marking the Asahi breweries headquarters) and an enchanting sculpture by Loren Madson named “Echo” near the Kinshicho station (a popular Pokemon GO spot).
If you venture further into the Ryogoku district, you’ll get a feeling of how life was in the old days: don’t miss the Edo-Tokyo Museum devoted to exploring life in the time of Edo, traditional gardens, and two famous sumo wrestling halls called Ryogoku Kokugikan now used for various sports.
A testament to Sumida’s historic importance, the famous ukiyo-e print artist Hokusai was born, lived, and worked in Sumida ward. You can visit a museum devoted to his work here.
10. Koto (江東区)
Blessed by many rivers and canals, Koto used to have a prominent lumber industry – today transformed into waterfront parks and promenades. One thing remains – the incredible greenery of the place, and rows upon rows of trees.
If you’re looking for best sushi in Japan, don’t miss the Tokyo Fish Market. The area is home to the largest fish market in the world.
Rocking some of Tokyo bay’s best landfilled islands, Koto was the hub of Tokyo Olympics particularly for its many sports centers, playgrounds, and fields. It’s simply a must-see for athletes and sports fans.
11. Shinagawa (品川区)
Also positioned on Tokyo bay, Shinagawa has a beautiful harbor and a cool Aqua park for a great day out with the whole family. It’s a big commercial and transportation hub, dotted with high rises and skyscrapers.
From the old days, Shinagawa was a major transport station. In fact, it was a major post office stop and the first stop on the main road between Tokyo (Edo) and Kyoto, so it’s no wonder that many businesses (hotels, restaurants, shops, and so much more) opened here.
12. Meguro (目黒区)
Famous for its cherry blossom viewing festival around the Meguro River, the ward of the same name is a sweet residential area with plenty of greenery and a few popular dining and nightlife spots.
It’s home to several temples, museums, and other institutions of culture. Most notably, the Meguro Persimmon Hall, an advanced classical music concert hall.
While Meguro typically refers to the ward, some people may use the designation to talk about the area around the Meguro Station, which covers area of other wards too. Meguro ward is very close to several commercial centers, yet it provides great living conditions, so it’s a popular residential area.
13. Ota (大田区)
Physically the largest ward of Tokyo, Ota is the first ward many visitors to the city see – as the location of the fourth-busiest airport in the world, the Haneda International Airport.
While Ota hides many secrets and lovely sights, it’s a largely residential area. If you find yourself around, visit theIkegami Honmon-ji temple (池上本門寺), a pretty sight with a five-story pagoda, and historically significant as the place where the Nichiren school of Buddhism is founded.
14. Setagaya (世田谷区)
Setagaya, the most populous ward of Tokyo, is a popular upscale neighborhood to live for families and students, thanks to its proximity to Shibuya, several universities, and a rich offering of coffee shops and book stores. It’s quiet and peaceful, and worth a visit for a few landmarks.
It’s the location of a remarkable traditional sento – public bath house, the Myojinyu sento dating back to 1957 and rocking an inviting exterior that looks like a Showa-era temple.
Carrot tower – not particularly impressive from the outside, the orange, 26-floor Carrot tower offers a free observation deck for all visitors. Simply enter and take the elevator up!
Gotokuji Temple, almost unnoticeable in a quiet Setagaya residential area, is a cute hidden gem – this quiet place of worship has hundreds of Maneki neko (the Japanese lucky cat) statues around its grounds! In fact, this temple is the cute cat’s very birthplace – the lucky figurine was supposedly created after a white kitty saved the life of an unassuming samurai lord by making him move away from a place struck by thunder just seconds later!
The home of the Maneki neko, Gotokuji temple, beckoning visitors to Setagaya ward
15. Suginami (杉並区)
Adjacent to Shibuya, Suginami is a residential area with plenty of greenery and friendly faces.
Suginami is not the most visited, but it’s one of the most cheerful Tokyo wards with many festivals and parades year-round! Jazz lovers shouldn’t miss out on the Asagaya area, famous for its live music bars and vibrant nightlife. Once the tunes make you hungry, hop to Ogikubo, the birthplace of Tokyo-style soy sauce ramen!
16. Toshima (豊島区)
Toshima is best known for an area called Ikebukuro, a popular shopping center catering to the otaku culture, and especially female anime and manga fans.
However, Toshima, the rest of it being a quiet residential neighborhood has a few more points of interest too. If you enjoy traditional-looking Japanese neighborhoods, don’t miss its Zoshigaya area.
Back in the day, the ward was known for plant nurseries, and the most popular kind of cherry blossom tree, the Somei Yoshino Sakura, takes root here.
17. Kita (北区)
Kita is a lovely residential area in the north of Tokyo (its name literally translates to “north”).
It’s blessed with four rivers – Arakawa, Sumida, Shingashi, and Shakujii. The waterfronts and Kita’s many parks are spectacular locations to go for hanami – the cherry blossom viewing season.
Asukayama Park in Kita is known for its fall cherry blossoms – as its special kind of sakura prefers the cold season to bloom.
18. Arakawa (荒川区)
Despite its name, the Arakawa River doesn’t flow through Arakawa ward. Instead, the ward borders Arakawa’s smaller sister, Sumida River.
Arakawa Ward offers a more relaxed and residential living experience within the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. It’s a place where you can enjoy a mix of nature, culture, and local traditions while still having easy access to the city’s urban attractions.
It’s rich with parks, so it’s a great place to go if you’re vying for some greenery. Arakawa is also one of the few places in Tokyo where you can still ride the tram – Tokyo Sakura Tram runs here.
19. Itabashi (板橋区)
Itabashi is a great place for families, a quiet and cheap residential area with many schools and two botanical gardens. It’s not particularly popular with tourists, but it’s a great place to stay if you’re visiting.
If you don’t feel like traveling to Kamakura to see the big Buddha, you may head north and see Tokyo’s largest Daibutsu (Buddha statue), at 13 meters tall, sitting peacefully in its throne of Lotus, in Itabashi’s Joren-ji temple.
Tokyo Daibutsu in Itabashi
20. Nerima (練馬区)
Nerima is close to the central commercial wards and yet mostly low-rise, and wonderfully green, with many cherry and ginkgo trees in its parks.
However, being the very birthplace of the anime industry, Nerima is best known for its entertainment. From “The Tale of the White Serpent” to “Astro Boy”, legendary Japanese cartoons were created in Nerima. To this day, many anime studios have their headquarters here, and the area has a few animation museums that will delight anyone who considers themselves an otaku.
In addition to anime culture, Nerima is also home to the famous Harry Potter theme park.
21. Adachi (足立区)
This big northern ward has a rather suburban feel with low-rise buildings and residential amenities. It’s known for its affordability and diverse community, a popular choice for families and young professionals seeking reasonably priced housing options within Tokyo.
Beside the lower costs of most amenities, Adachi offers plenty of green spaces between the river banks of Arakawa and Naka River, several small temples, and a laid-back atmosphere.
22. Katsushika (葛飾区)
If you’re nostalgic for the vibe and feel of old Edo, visit this northern ward!
Katsushika is a quiet ward that preserves the atmosphere and architecture of old, Showa-era Japan. With its many temples and shrines, small stores, lovely gardens, and idyllic riverbanks, Katsushika showcases deep-rooted traditions and cultural significance.
In the iris garden of Katsushika
23. Edogawa (江戸川区)
Tokyo’s easternmost ward carries the name of its big river, Edogawa, after which this ancient city was named too. It has the unmistakable Shitamachi spirit, and the right blend of residential tranquility and recreational opportunities, making it an appealing place for both locals and tourists.
Edogawa is rich with museums, gardens, and waterside attractions (check out the Sea Life Park).
Tokyo Sea Life Park aquarium
Exploring Tokyo, One Ward at a Time
Each of Tokyo’s 23 special wards has its own unique charm and attractions, making the city a diverse and exciting destination for travelers. From the bustling streets of Shibuya to the tranquil parks of Katsushika, there’s something for everyone to discover in this vibrant metropolis.
So, whether you’re interested in exploring the city’s rich history, indulging in its culinary delights, or immersing yourself in its pop culture, Tokyo has it all (not to mention that the whole prefecture of Kanto would be worth exploring, too!).
Enjoy your journey through this incredible, immense city!