My favourite place: Tokyo, Japan

The latest in our historical holiday series sees Lesley Downer discover the ancient heart of one of the world’s most modern cities

With its huge bell and five-storey pagoda, Sensoji Temple is one of Tokyo's most popular –and venerable – landmarks. (Photo by Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Visiting Tokyo is like stepping into the future. Everything feels clean and bright and new. I get up earlier, walk faster, join the crowds hurrying along the streets, gaze up in admiration at the latest modern architecture, all steel and glass, extraordinary curves and angles.

But Tokyo’s brash modernity is only one side of this sprawling, glorious city. It also has its quiet spots where, despite American firebombing in the Second World War, the atmosphere of the old city survives. Old houses ramble along lanes just wide enough for a bicycle, temple bells toll, and you can still find the occasional canal for which Tokyo was once famous.

I fell in love with Tokyo nearly 40 years ago. I’ve explored nearly every corner, depending on what book I’ve been working on. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, and each has its own history and flavour.

Tokyo has two names and two distinct stories. In 1590, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu took a fishing village called Edo as his powerbase. He unified the country and became its first shogun.

Under Ieyasu’s descendents, Japan was largely closed to the outside world and enjoyed 250 years of peace. Edo grew into a vast city, as prosperous as Paris. It was a beautiful place crisscrossed with canals. Westerners called it the Venice of the East.

Spread across the hills to the west was the high city where the 260 daimyo – regional overlords rather like the barons of the medieval era – maintained their palaces, guarded by battalions of samurai. Every year or two, most travelled from their provincial lands to Edo to pay homage to the shogun. Right at the heart was Edo Castle. It’s now known as the Imperial Palace, but you can still see the granite ramparts and the plaza where the populace knelt as the great lords passed by in their palanquins. To this day, subway lines cannot pass underneath and aeroplanes may not fly above the palace.

But the vibrant heart of the city was the warren of lanes to the east – the low city where the townsfolk lived. Here, men enjoyed the pleasures of the ‘floating world’. Woodblock-print artists like Hokusai plied their trade, courtesans presided over salons while geisha shimmied along the narrow streets. You can still experience the bustle of the low city in Asakusa, where crowds surge up Nakamise street to pray at Sensoji Temple, with its huge bell and five-storey pagoda. The temple is Tokyo’s oldest – founded in 628 and rebuilt after its destruction in the Second World War. Meanwhile, two museums recreate the flavour of old Edo: the Fukagawa Edo Museum and the Edo Tokyo Museum in the Ryogoku district.

This whole world came abruptly to an end in 1853 when the American commodore Matthew Perry and his four gunships pushed into Edo Bay, threatening the city. Fifteen years later, after a civil war, the Emperor Meiji was restored as figurehead and travelled in grand procession from Kyoto to Edo. Edo was reborn as Tokyo (‘Eastern Capital’).

The Ginza district, classy to this day, embodies the glamour of the post-Restoration period. There, the first rickshaws clattered, gas lamps glowed and the first brick buildings appeared. In 1872, the first trains puffed into the new station in nearby Shimbashi, the grandest of the Tokyo geisha districts and home to the Kabuki-za, the city’s principal theatre for the 400-year-old kabuki drama form.

Visiting Tokyo is like stepping into the future. But its modernity is only one side of the city

Tokyo was a sophisticated, thriving city when, in 1923, an earthquake reduced it to rubble. The Second World War saw it flattened again, and when the Americans arrived in 1945, Tokyo was a sea of ash.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a turning point. Highways appeared, soaring over the city on stilts. A broad, tree-lined boulevard – ‘the Champs-Elysées of Tokyo’ – swept up to the Olympic Stadium in the Yoyogi district.

Prosperity had arrived, but with it came protest, erupting in the underground alternative scene in the Shinjuku district, a place that still has an edge of excitement. If anywhere is Blade Runner city, it’s here, vertical neon signs blazing like the banners of a samurai army.

Tokyo in the 1980s felt like the most glamorous place on Earth. New, jaw-dropping buildings sprang up, designed by some of the world’s greatest architects. Fashion, art and theatre all blossomed.

Today’s city is a little less frenetic, but it continues to feel prosperous, serene and safe. It still feels like the future.


Advice for travellers

Best time to go

Common wisdom tells you to go in spring for the cherry blossom, and autumn for the maple leaves. But Tokyo is a year-round city. Apart from June (the rainy season) and September (typhoon season), every month has its delights.

Getting there

Tokyo has two airports. Haneda is closer to town, with a monorail taking visitors into the city. Narita, once the only international airport, is further away, and you get into the city by limousine bus, subway or train.

What to pack

Walking shoes you can easily slip into and out of for visiting temples, teahouses, traditional restaurants and people’s homes. Also take plenty of money and smart clothes for dining out.

What to bring back

Bags and other things made from kimono fabric, pottery and knick-knacks from the Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku; cheap woodblock prints from Jimbocho; books on Japan from Kinokuniya in Shinjuku; and fashion from the stylish shops in Omotesando.

Readers’ views

Visit the Kaneiji Temple in Ueno where six shoguns are buried. Look for bullet holes in the walls where the shogun’s soldiers made their last stand against the imperial forces. @HistorySkills

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Lesley Downer is a historian and author who has written extensively on Japan. Her most recent book is a novel, The Shogun’s Queen, set in 19th-century Edo (Bantam, 2016)