Japan is made of five main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa. Over three-quarters of the 127 million people in Japan live on Honshu, the largest and most development island. Tokyo, the capital, lies on its eastern shore. “Tokyo” is actually used to refer to either Tokyo Metropolis, the 23 Special Wards of Tokyo, Tokyo Station, or even, sometimes, Greater Tokyo which includes seven of the prefectures that surround Tokyo Metropolis. Adding to the general confusion in the nomenclature is the fact that each of these wards refer to themselves as cities, so you end up with cities within a city within a metropolis, which helps no-one.
On a national level, Tokyo means Tokyo Metropolis—one of Japan’s 47 prefectures. It is comprised of two areas: the 23 special wards (what most people mean they they refer to Tokyo) and the rest—the cities and towns that lie to the west. It is best thought of as a constellation of cities that have, over the course of time, merged into one vast urban sprawl which is today home to over 13 million people.
Approximately three-quarters of the population of Tokyo Metropolis live within the 23 special wards, 13 of which make up what we can think of as central, old Tokyo, and the rest the outer wards. Visitors to Tokyo will typically spend the majority of their time these 13 central wards–which rather confusingly refer to themselves as cities in English—because the majority of the must-dos and must-sees are contained within these 13 wards. However, the outer wards, along with the cities to the west, should not be overlooked if you truly want to experience the charms of the capital.
Old Tokyo is associated with shitamachi (literally, “downtown”), a word which historically referred to the area northeast of Edo Castle (now the grounds of Tokyo Imperial Palace). The areas to the west were referred to as yamanote (“foothills”), where many of the shogun’s vassals held a place of residence in times gone by. However, the boundaries of old and new blurred over time—and so have these definitions. In modern parlance shitamachi is used to refer to a way of life rather than a geographical area; namely, the more laid-back, intertwined lives of the everyday folk that one could romantically think still retains a semblance of Edo period life.
Earthquakes, fires, and the air raids of World War II have meant that architecturally Tokyo is a young city compared with the capitals of Europe or Asia, and even structures such as Tokyo Imperial Palace, Nihombashi Bridge, and Meiji Shrine are barely 100 years old. But Tokyo’s rich history lies in its culture and customs, which have weathered the rapid changes of the past 150 years—and it is this clash of new and old that makes Tokyo such a captivating and fascinating city.