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Tokyo Travel Guide

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For many, arriving in Tokyo is quite a shock; not the cultural shock they expected, rather the shock of how westernised Japan's capital city actually is. In short, Tokyo's appearance is as far away from the quintessential Japanese city of their dreams as they could imagine. There is good reason for this; the City has virtually been destroyed twice. Once by an earthquake in 1923 and a second time by US air strikes during WWII. In truth, the very fact that Tokyo not only survived, but went on to rebuild itself to such phenomenal proportions is proof positive that you are in Japan; they are after all amongst the most resilient hard working people on the planet. Once the initial surprise has passed and you start to examine the City more closely, you realise just how Japanese Tokyo really is. Ignore the looming office blocks, car jammed overpasses, glitzy hotels and neon clad entertainment emporiums and look to the streets themselves. There you'll find an underbelly, where tradition is still alive and kicking, where myriad tiny stores sell groceries, where women in kimonos bow to each other on the sidewalk, where beautifully manicured bonsais stand in tubs and children play old-fashioned games down winding alleys. Focus on this and your adventure will begin.

Despite the devastation, small pockets of old Tokyo still exist, in particular around Asakusa in the heart of old downtown, home to traditional theatres, music bars and some less salubrious entertainment establishments. Asakusa's most famous relic is the lovely Sensoji Temple, built in the 17 century in honour of the Goddess of mercy, Kannon. Visitors can buy a fortune stick and if it poses more questions than solutions you can simply throw it away. Another great place to feel the Tokyo vibe is Nakmise Dori, where vendors have peddled there wares for over 300 years; here you can buy souvenirs and gifts and snack on delicious inexpensive food.

Those looking for something a little more elegant and far more peaceful should pay a visit to the wonderful Hama Rikyu Garden. Surrounded by water on three sides, it is accessed by boat and is one of Tokyo's finest examples of Edo period design. Within the garden is a pond, an inner tidal pool, bridges draped with wisteria, moon viewing pavilions and teahouse. Other gardens of note include the iris garden at the Meiji Jingu Shrine , which was opened in 1920 in honour of its titular Emperor and Empress, and the 17th century Demoin Garden, designed by the eminent tea master and designer to the shoguns, Enshu Kobori. There is even a classy cocktail bar, the Garden Lounge that overlooks a beautiful 400year old garden.

If you're looking for entertainment, Tokyo has just about it all. Its major museums are world class, often recreational - the Edo-Tokyo Museum is dedicated to the period, and includes renovated 17th century farmhouses, workshops and stores and the Boso-no-Mura Museum is a reconstruction of how people lived in the Chiba prefecture 200 years ago. Cream of the crop is the National Museum, home of the best collection of Japanese art in the world, along with archaeological and Buddhist exhibitions and sections dedicated to China and Korea. Sumo is Tokyo's favourite sport and matches take place during January, May and September; it all starts around 10am and runs till early evening, with the top wrestlers appearing after 3.30pm. Japanese are renowned for embracing and emulating western culture, particularly fashion and music, so you'll find countless American Rock Venues, Irish and English bars - of note is the Cavern Club where the entertainment consists of look-alike Beatles tribute bands and the Double Decker Bus, which is a coffeeshop by day and a bar by night. Many of the trendier clubs stay open well into the early hours and there are plenty of great restaurants, noodle bars, live shows, concerts, theatres and strip bars in the busier areas around Shinjuku, Veno, Akasusa and Ginza.

Despite its aggressively western fašade, Tokyo is still deeply rooted in Japanese tradition. The people are always courteous and consider shows of anger to be rude and a sign of weakness. Many believe that the new-wave yuppies are a sign of the beginning of the end of the old ways but, for now, even this sprawling, high-rise metropolis seems able to balance 21st century business ethics (or lack of) with traditional values. If nothing else, to most visitors Tokyo is intriguing, to some it is quite unfathomable, but to virtually everyone its appeal is undeniable.

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