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Tokyo Imperial Palace
Japan's Imperial Palace is regarded as the heart and soul of Tokyo, standing on a huge site that still bears the remains of Edo Castle, stronghold of the Tokugawa shogunate. The present palace was completed in 1888 and is still home to the emperor of Japan. The palace is off-limits but its grounds and surrounds provide a much-needed green open space for the city with Higashi Gyoen (East Garden), site of the Edo Castle keep, open to the public. On January 2nd and December 23rd each year visitors are able to enter the inner grounds and see the Imperial family make public appearances from the balcony. Guided tours of the palace are offered, but are only in Japanese, although an English pamphlet and audio guide are provided. These tours must be reserved in advance through the Imperial Household Agency. Be sure to take along your passport when you go to reserve a spot. In spring the gardens are awash with colour when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, particularly along the castle moat. Year-round the Imperial Palace is bustling with lots to see including a few small museums, some wonderful landscaping and many symbolic ornamental touches like the plants from every prefecture dotted strategically around the palace.
To the north of the Imperial Palace lies the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, built long ago to commemorate the Japanese war dead and now regarded as home to the souls of about two and a half million who perished in conflict, mostly in the Pacific War of World War II. Japanese soldiers fought in the knowledge that their spirits would find rest and honour at Yasukuni in the after-life. The shrine has caused controversy for various political reasons over the years since it was built in 1869 in honour of supporters of the emperor, killed in the run up to the Meiji Restoration. More recently, with regard to the country's constitution, that requires the separation of state and religion, cabinet ministers have been criticised for attending anniversaries of Japan's defeat in World War II held at the shrine. The shrine is confined behind a huge steel torii gate, opening onto a long avenue lined with gingko and cherry trees. The Worship Hall itself is a simple Shinto style building. North of the shrine is the Yushukan Museum, containing war memorabilia, some of which is disturbing and thought-provoking such as the human torpedo and kamikaze suicide attack plane. The shrine and museum will be fascinating for those interested in military history.
Tokyo's museum dedicated to detailing the city's history, art, culture and architecture through the medium of visual displays is an impressive, not to be missed attraction. Edo was the old name for Tokyo from its foundation in 1590 when it became the seat of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun. Exhibits include a replica of an ancient Kabuki theatre, maps, photographs and portrayals of the lives of the city's merchants, craftsmen and townspeople in days gone by. It is a huge museum which takes a few hours to explore properly and should captivate people of all ages. There are numerous interactive exhibits and many intricate models with such wonderful detail that binoculars are provided for visitors to better appreciate them. Traditional performances are held in the recreated theatre, which is not the only historic building to be recreated life-size. If you are interested in Tokyo's general history then this is the best museum to start with to get an overview of the city's development; a wander around the Edo-Tokyo Museum will enrich your experience of the city. Volunteers give regular free tours of the museum and many of them speak fluent English. There is good English signposting and information throughout the museum. A small restaurant attached to the museum provides tasty meals at a reasonable cost.
Tokyo's electronic wonderland has become world-renowned. In a small area near Chuo-dori Avenue, west of Akihabara Station, are clustered more than 250 electrical appliance and electronics shops, many of them now dealing in computer hardware and software, where expert staff can answer queries and visitors can browse through the showrooms of major manufacturers. There are duty-free shops and various events to draw attention. The suburb has been specialising in electrical equipment since the 1940s and is now regarded as the world's biggest and best electrical equipment enclave. Although the cheap and impressive technology draws many visitors this is also a paradise for gamers, geeks and anime and manga fans, with shops full of merchandise and numerous arcades. The arcades carry everything new and novel but also have many of the vintage games that are difficult to find these days. The neighbourhood is a riot of colourful advertising and a fun place to do some people watching, if nothing else. There are a lot of restaurants and fast food joints to try out and some funky themed eateries. Akihabara is also an entertaining area to stroll around at night, when everything is lit up and neon.
The Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo draws visitors to admire the city's oldest temple, Senso-ji, founded in 628 AD with a quaint legend attached to it. The story goes that two young brothers fishing in the nearby river netted a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and the statue kept turning up in their nets no matter how many times they threw it back. The brothers were inspired to enshrine it in a temple dedicated to the deity. The statuette is still inside, but never shown to the public, though pilgrims flock here every day seeking the favour of the goddess. There are also numerous festivals associated with the shrine, and a hugely popular firework display is held on the Sumida River every summer. Tourists enjoy the visit to the temple mainly because the approach is a colourful pedestrian lane, Nakamise Dori, lined with shops and souvenir stalls. The area has become touristy but it is still a stronghold for ancient traditions and a wonderful place to do some people watching. For many tourists the temple is one of the highlights of a visit to Tokyo; the temple complex is usually bustling with activity and there is lots to see and do. Nearby, the Demboin Garden is a good spot to grab a break from the city crowds.
Tokyo Disney Resort
There is plenty of fun to be had for the young and young at heart at Tokyo's Disney Resort, in many ways virtually a carbon copy of the theme park found in California in the United States. The Tokyo amusement park was opened in 1983 and it has gradually developed a character of its own, growing into one of the most popular amusement parks in the world and considered by many to have surpassed its American predecessor. The park now has many unique attractions of its own, and a fusion of American and Japanese culture which is interesting, but you will still find all the old favorites. The resort consists of Disneyland Park and DisneySea Park, along with several hotels. It is divided into seven different themed lands: World Bazaar, Adventureland, Westernland, Critter Country, Fantasyland, Toontown and Tomorrowland. Visitors can expect attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and many more, which are all included on this huge site, and are very well-maintained and presented. The Tokyo park is known for its cleanliness and smooth operations but visitors should expect crowds and come prepared for some queuing. The premier attraction for kids in Tokyo, the Disney resort is unmissable for families.
Tokyo National Museum
Close to Ueno Station, and enclosed in the beautiful, spacious park of the same name - also called the Tokyo Metropolitan Imperial Gift Park - the National Museum boasts the largest collection of Japanese art in the world. Exhibits range from antique kimonos and delicate pottery to woodblock prints and archaeological finds. The vast collection is displayed on a rotating basis with at least 4,000 artefacts visible at any time, so the museum always has something new to offer. The museum consists of five different buildings containing numerous galleries, so one needs sufficient time to do it justice. The museum allows great insight into Japanese culture, history and art and is a great first-stop in Tokyo as some knowledge of the culture enriches all the other attractions. The Imperial Gift Park is a lovely place to enjoy a stroll, with big ponds and shaded areas to rest; the grounds also contains some other cultural institutions, including a zoo, the Metropolitan Art Museum, Bunka Kaikan Cultural Hall, the Western Art Museum and the National Science Museum. There should be something here to interest the whole family and all the educational attractions can easily fill a whole day of sightseeing. If you are travelling with children in Tokyo, be sure to visit the Ueno Zoo, which is the oldest zoological garden in Japan. Boasting exotic animals such as giant pandas, polar bears, Indian lions, Sumatran tigers, wolverines and gorillas, children of all ages will love this zoo. It also features a Small Mammal House, Reptile House and even a petting zoo where children can meet Okapis and aye-ayes, two very rare species.
The dormant volcano of Mount Fuji, 62 miles (100km) southwest of Tokyo, has been revered since ancient times and no exploration of Japan is complete without visiting the mountain that is known fondly as 'Fuji-san' by the locals. Its symmetrical 12,388-foot (3,776m) cone towers and snow-crowned summit have become as symbolic of Japan as the country's own flag, featuring in poetry and art through the ages and considered a holy site in Japanese culture. The mountain, which is the highest in Japan, has many historical and mythological associations; for instance, ancient samurai used the base of the mountain as a remote training area, near the present day town of Gotemba. The closest town to the volcano is Fuji Yoshida, from which buses leave frequently for Fuji's 'fifth stage' (the usual jumping-off point for hikes up the mountain) from outside the train station. There are six trails to the summit, of which the Kawaguchiko Trail is the easiest, being quite manageable even for children and the elderly as long as they have stamina and good shoes. Overnight huts are available for those wanting to stay a night or two on the mountain. The official climbing season is from 1 July to the end of August as in winter snow makes the ascent too dangerous.
The city of Kamakura, about 30 miles (50km) southwest of Tokyo, at the base of the Miura Peninsula, was the political powerhouse of Japan in the middle ages and the seat of government for most of the 13th century. Because of its historic importance Kamakura boasts numerous monuments, temples and shrines which are of interest to sightseeing tourists. As an added bonus the city sports some sandy beaches and good hiking trails in the nearby wooded hills so that a day or two can be spent very happily in the city enjoying both the natural and historical attractions. Kamakura's many sights are too numerous to detail individually, but most important of them all is the Great Buddha. This bronze statue of the seated Amida Buddha is located in the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple and, standing at almost 44ft (13,35m) high, it is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan after that found in the Todaiji Temple in Nara. The Kamakura Great Buddha was cast in 1252 and was originally contained in the temple hall. A tidal wave (tsunami) washed away the temple in the late 15th century, but the Buddha prevailed and has since stood triumphantly in the open. Kamakura is a very popular daytrip from Tokyo, but many visitors will find that they want to spend at least one night in the city to fully appreciate all it has to offer.
While visiting Japan's largest city, Tokyo, it is quick and easy to pay a visit to the country's second largest metropolis as well: Yokohama can be reached in less than 30 minutes by train from Tokyo, lying south of the capital. The main reason for visiting Yokohama is to marvel at its futuristic new city centre, and perhaps take a stroll through Japan's largest Chinatown. Yokohama's Chinatown, entered through four colourful gates and teeming with restaurants and shops, was developed after the city became one of the first Japanese ports to be opened to foreign trade after generations of isolation ended in 1859. Chinese traders flocked to the city, establishing a cultural neighbourhood. Minato Mirai is the new central city area around the harbour, characterised by the Landmark Tower, rising to 971ft (296m). Visitors can ride to the tower's observation deck in the world's second fastest elevator, travelling at 41ft (13m) a second, for a view that on a clear day stretches as far as Mount Fuji. The city also boasts the tallest inland lighthouse in the world, the Yokohama Marine Tower. The city is a commercial hub with wonderful shopping opportunities and restaurants and a fun nightlife.
Inokashira Park is a tranquil oasis amid the bustle of Japan's capital city and is often lauded by locals and visitors as the best urban park in Japan. The park contains a temple dedicated to the goddess of love, a petting zoo and an aquarium, and is lively with musicians, artists and street performers. There are frequent free magic shows and other entertainments for kids to enjoy. One of the more popular attractions in Inokashira Park is the Ghibli Museum, featuring displays on popular animated films from the studio of the same name, including Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. The park is beautiful year-round but the best time to visit is in spring and autumn when the colours are at their most magnificent. Inokashira Park gets very crowded in the spring when the cherry blossoms are flowering and it is best to arrive early in the morning to avoid the crowds and make the most of the spectacle. Possibly the best activity to enjoy in Inokashira is a drift in one of the swan-shaped paddle boats around the lake. Floating along in the reflective water is particularly romantic in March and April when the trees overhanging the water are in full bloom. The park is a must for anybody visiting Tokyo.
The Tokyo Tower is modelled in the vein of the Eiffel Tower in France, only in true Japanese style, it is more colourful and serves a technological purpose. Tokyo Tower functions chiefly as a television and radio antenna but it is also Tokyo's premier landmark and a proud symbol of Japanese culture, celebrating the country's industrial and technological success. At 1,091 feet (332m) it is the tallest structure in Tokyo - in Japan in fact - and a great vantage point from which to take in the city. There are two observation decks in the tower, both with magnificent 360° panoramic views. Admiring the city from this high vantage point is only one aspect of the tourist's experience at the tower, however. At the base of the tower, tucked snugly under its 'legs', is the four-storey Foot Town. Inside Foot Town visitors will find shops, restaurants, a wax museum, the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, an aquarium and the Mysterious Walking Zone, which is not as spooky as it sounds. It's a display of holographic technology and imagery which is fascinating. The top floor of Foot Town is an interactive art gallery, featuring optical illusions which can be manipulated by visitors. There is lots to see and do and the Tokyo Tower should delight people of all ages.
A hop, skip and jump away from the Harajuku Station, the Meiji Jingu is an easily accessible shrine and worthwhile stop for tourists in Tokyo. Built in homage to the Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, this monument is located in a 175 acre (70ha) evergreen forest and consists of two main areas. In the inner Naien there is a garden featuring shrine buildings and a treasure museum holding articles belonging to the Emperor and Empress. In the outer cloister, the Gaien, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery presents murals depicting significant events during the Meiji rule. It also consists of a sports arena, the National Stadium, and the Meiji Memorial Hall, which was an important political meeting place during the Meiji era. Today traditional Shinto weddings are held in the Hall and newcomers to Japan are always intrigued when witnessing the unique Shinto wedding procession. The lush grounds are wonderful to explore early in the morning when they are peaceful and empty, and the gardens provide sanctuary from the busy city at any time of day. There is a lot to see and do in the complex, which can easily take a few hours to explore properly and should delight the whole family.
A little boy's dream come true, Joypolis Sega will thrill and entertain children of all ages. Offering rides, games and much more, kids will be kept busy for hours on end in one of the world's most famous theme parks and enjoy rides such as Spin Bullet and games such as Halfpipe Canyon, Sky Cruising and Dinosaur King. There is also an indoor rollercoaster, a 3D cinema screening a special Sonic movie, a caricature booth, and a stage for live entertainment. Apart from all the rides and games there are several shops and a wide selection of restaurants to choose from (visitors should note that they can't take any food or beverages into the park with them). The park is lots of fun, even for adults, and its reputation is justified; however, although Joypolis Sega once seemed almost futuristic, with groundbreaking forms of entertainment and gaming, the rest of the world has since caught up and things like 3D cinema are no longer as novel as they once were. Despite this, the park provides hours of entertainment for the whole family and is a wonderful attraction for a rainy day. The queues can get frustratingly long so it is best to go during the week, either early in the morning or in the evening.
National Children's Castle (Kodomo-no-Shiro)
A great diversion for a rainy day if you are travelling with kids in Tokyo, the National Children's Castle was built to commemorate the International Year of the Child and will certainly keep young minds and bodies happy and busy. Each floor of this large building has its own theme and these include an open air playground on the roof, a space in which to celebrate music and play instruments, an art area where kids can experiment with paint and paper, a basement swimming pool (only open on weekends), and a play area with climbing walls, ropes and slides to occupy the active children. There is plenty of space for games and group activities and there are some organised performances and events. The staff guide and supervise kids in some of the areas and if adults need some amusement there are some great shopping opportunities in the area. The Children's Castle is best suited for kids aged between three and nine, although this is just a loose guide. There are areas for toddlers and babies as well. Although popular the castle is big and it seldom gets unpleasantly crowded. It is a great facility for parents with young kids who need to blow off a little steam and take a break from traditional sightseeing.