1. The Salaryman
He was the ultimate symbol of the country’s robust economy during the bubble era, but lately he’s become something more of a weary corporate drone — perhaps an apt representative of the state of the Japanese economy now.
Swarming through Tokyo’s jam-packed rush-hour train stations in their anonymous black suits, it’s the Japanese salarymen’s (or salaried workers’) characteristic diligence, loyalty, obedience to authority and strong emotional ties with fellow coworkers, that allowed corporate Japan to flourish in the best of times.
With young Japanese professionals now switching careers more frequently than ever and opting for work outside the corporate world, the loyal Japanese salaryman may be becoming something of an endangered species.
But surely, even when he’s gone, he’ll long be remembered as a significant component of Tokyo’s modern landscape and history, whether as a hardworking essential cog in the moneymaking machine that Japan was, or out binge drinking at the local yakitori-ya.
Yet catching a sumo wrestler out of the ring, his hair in a topknot and wearing a traditional-style robe, casually strolling the streets of Tokyo, remains a thrilling sight.
For a guaranteed sighting, it’s best to attend one of the three annual tournaments in Tokyo, held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
It was in Ryogoku that professional sumo was born, with the establishment of the Japan Sumo Association in 1925, although the sport can be traced to the Edo period, when competitors were allegedly ronin looking to find new ways to make a living.
Japan remains the only country in the world where sumo is practiced professionally.
3. Tokyo Trains and Subways
For most newcomers to Tokyo, having to navigate the city’s intricate train and subway system for the first time might seem like a thrilling adventure. But after a few trips, it’s likely to border on the traumatic.
Love it or hate it, the city’s train system is a huge part of many Tokyoites’ daily lives.
Without this complicated web of lines running both above and below ground, approximately 20 million commuters a day couldn’t make it into and around the city to their offices, meetings and various other daily jaunts.
Rail is the main mode of transportation in Tokyo, which has the most extensive metropolitan railway network in the world, with 882 interconnected rail stations in the Tokyo metropolis alone. Add in 30 different operators, 121 passenger rail lines and the fact that it’s all still expanding and you’ve got one hell of an infrastructure.
4. Shibuya Crossing
For visitors to Tokyo, it’s the best way to prove they made it right into all of the city’s iconic non-stop action and lights.
Shibuya crossing is without doubt one of the most recognizable and exciting spots in Tokyo today. Its unique scramble layout stops vehicles from all directions to allow pedestrians to flood the entire intersection every few minutes.
The three huge TV screens on nearby buildings overlook the area, which has been called the “Times Square of Tokyo.”
The crossing is located in front of Shibuya Station’s Hachiko exit and is reportedly Japan’s busiest intersection.
It’s a place Julian Worrall, a Tokyo-based professor of architecture calls, “a great example of what Tokyo does best when it’s not trying.”
It’s still inspires him, he says, 20 years after he first saw it, “with its kind of mad signs and the trains going overhead and just the people everywhere … it’s completely unplanned, just a natural outgrowth, like a beehive.”
5. Harajuku Girls
By the time Gwen Stefani brought her stylish Japanese entourage, the Harajuku Girls, to the attention of the American mainstream back in 2004, the unique youth street fashions emerging from the Harajuku district of Tokyo were already inspiring many fashion-savvy fans throughout the world.
Emerging full-force during the post-bubble era of the 1990s, inspired by pop culture and the desire amongst youth for more affordable fashion, the street fashion culture of Harajuku has produced notable and distinct looks, such as the Gothic Lolita, Visual Kei and Decora.
While it’s been noted that Harajuku Girls no longer gather in large numbers on Jingu Bridge or Takeshita-dori these days, Harajuku is still considered by many the street-fashion capital of the world.
In the early 1900s, the Ginza district was a new and upscale neighborhood in the center of the city. With its Western flair, characterized by large, fireproof brick buildings and wide, newly paved streets, it was the place young men and women would go to be seen.
However, in 1923 the Great Kanto earthquake leveled much of Ginza to the ground, leading to the wholesale reconstruction of the area. Now, almost a century later, it’s still as impressive as ever.
Younger shoppers are a less common sight, and those who are there are likely to be limited to window-shopping. Ginza is home to many flagship stores of top fashion labels such as Chanel, Dior and Gucci, and is recognized as one of the most high-end shopping districts anywhere.
Also known for its high concentration of upscale restaurants and bars, over the decades, Ginza’s served as a classy, much-visited entertainment hub for the city’s wealthy and elite, although with the country’s economic decline, some of the Ginza gloss seems to be fading today. Still well worth a sunny Sunday stroll, we say.
One ill-fated night, Godzilla, a giant radioactive reptile from the sea, climbs out from Tokyo Bay and attacks the city. After wreaking havoc and causing much death and destruction, he’s gone, but the Japanese army puts up a row of electrical towers along Tokyo’s coast to shoot 50,000 volts of electricity through the monster, should he come back again.
This is the plot of the original 1954 “Godzilla,” a campy action thriller that has a direct connection to the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945.
The film’s director and co-writer, Ishiro Honda, was allegedly so shocked by the devastation from the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima that he created the monster to act as a metaphor for the devastation.
More than 50 years later, Godzilla (whose name is an amalgam of the Japanese for gorilla and whale) is as instantly recognizable as ever around the globe — the freak monster inextricably tied to Japanese culture and Tokyo for evermore.
8. Tokyo Dome
With its huge white dome roof, the city’s “Big Egg,” or Tokyo Dome, in Bunkyo Ward is definitely hard to miss. It’s one of the world’s largest roofed baseball stadiums, built in 1988, with 55,000 seats.
And the famous pliable Teflon roof is supported by nothing more than air, thanks to a slight increase in air pressure inside the structure.
Tokyo Dome is best known as the home of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, but the all-weather stadium also hosts other sports events, exhibitions and concerts. In December 1988, Michael Jackson held nine shows in the arena as part of his Bad World Tour.
The area outside is called Tokyo Dome City and includes a small amusement park, complete with rides like the 80-meter-tall Tower Hacker and Thunder Dolphin roller coaster in case the event inside doesn’t provide enough thrills for the day.
9. Roppongi Hills
On April 23, 2002, Roppongi Hills was unveiled to the public in the Roppongi district of Tokyo’s Minato Ward and was immediately hailed as a monolith that would change the landscape of the metropolis forever.
Owned by building tycoon Minoru Mori, the mega-complex is made up of offices, residential apartments, a hotel, shops and restaurants, movie theaters, a museum, a major TV studio, an outdoor amphitheater and even a few small parks.
Mori stated at the time that his vision was to build a place where people could live, work, play and shop with no commuting, thereby increasing their leisure time and quality of life, and perhaps even adding to Japan’s international economic competitiveness as a result.
Unfortunately, much of Mori’s dream hasn’t come true for mainstream Tokyo, but the modern mega-complex did introduce a new, convenient (but expensive) concept of city living for Tokyoites and expats and gave rise to modern types of “communities” like the neighboring Midtown and Omotesando Hills complexes.
10. The Imperial Palace
“I want all citizens of Japan to remember everyone who has been affected by the devastation, not only today but for a long time afterwards … and to help with the recovery,” said the 77-year-old figurehead.
For most Japanese people, the Imperial Family continues to be a revered institution, and the Imperial Palace, their primary living quarters, is thus undoubtedly regarded as one of the most significant landmarks in the country.
Built in 1868, the Palace was nearly destroyed during the air raids on Tokyo during World War II, but was completely rebuilt by 1968.
For the many foreign visitors who continue to visit the palace annually, perhaps its minimal and refined look — characteristics also often attributed to Japanese culture and people — are a big part of its allure.
11. Tokyo Disneyland
When it re-opened after a month-long hiatus due to the Tohoku earthquake, some visitors had already been lined up for hours, waiting eagerly to get back into the “happiest place on earth,” as it’s branded.
It’s not an uncommon sight on weekends to spot dreamy-eyed young Japanese couples cuddled up on trains in Tokyo, with their Mickey Mouse balloons and Tokyo Disneyland souvenir bags. For the city’s young, Disneyland is an important and convenient day escape into romance and fantasy.
Opened in 1983, Tokyo Disneyland was the first Disney park complex to be built outside the United States. It’s owned by Oriental Land Co. Ltd., not the Walt Disney Company.
A popular slot in many Tokyo vacation itineraries for Japanese and foreign tourists alike, it pulls in some 25 million visitors a year and since opening has added a certain, magical, element to Japan’s capital.
12. Tokyo Tower
There’s already more than enough hype surrounding the new Tokyo Sky Tree, a 634-meter-tall radio and broadcasting tower slated to open in May of 2012. But it’s doubtful the “new Tokyo Tower,” as it’s already being dubbed by some will ever replace the orange-and-white original in hearts and minds.
For over half a century since its grand opening in 1958, Tokyo Tower, located in the central Minato Ward, has been a symbol and centerpiece of Japan’s capital city, and a must-see for visitors.
Standing 333 meters tall and modeled on the Eiffel Tower, it’s still the world’s tallest self-supporting steel tower and attracts more than 2.5 million tourists annually.
Recently, the tip of the tower was somehow bent in the March 11 earthquake, which adds even more character to the popular landmark.
13. Tsukiji Fish Market
So, it’s not surprising that tourists from Japan and abroad continue to try and get there before the break of dawn to catch all of the early morning auction action, which peaks between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m.
The Tsukiji market is said to process 2,000 tons of seafood a day, that comes in from all over the world. It opened in 1935, after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 destroyed its predecessor, the Nihonbashi fish market.
Although there are hundreds of products on show, from seaweed to whale meat, one of the most spectacular sights is the daily tuna auction, where the giant fish are laid out on floor for inspection by expert bidders.
However, since the March 11 earthquake, visitors have been prohibited from attending, so check before you go.
That’s our pick of just a handful of the things, people and places that make Tokyo stand out. Let’s have your thoughts in the comments below on the good stuff we didn’t have room to mention.