Strictly speaking, Tokyo refers to Tokyo Metropolis, the capital and one of Japan’s 47 prefectures. It is an urban sprawl which is today home to over 13 million people—a constellation of cities that have, over the course of time, merged into one vast metropolis. Approximately three-quarters of the population of Tokyo Metropolis live in eastern Tokyo in what are referred to as the “23 special wards”, with the remainder living in Western Tokyo, which accounts for approximately two-thirds of the land area.
The 23 special wards, which rather confusingly refer to themselves as cities in English, are what most people really mean why they speak of “Tokyo”. These 23 special wards have have been divided up into approximate geographical areas below. While there is no official breakdown of these 23 special wards, the area northeast of Edo Castle (now the grounds of Tokyo Imperial Palace) was historically referred to as “shitamachi” (literally, “downtown”), as it was here that the common folk used to dwell during the Edo period. The area to the west of the castle was referred to as yama-no-te (“foothills”), where many of the shogun’s vassals held a place of residence. Today we think of this area as central Tokyo.
Most visitors will spend the majority of their time in central and northeast Tokyo because many of the “must-dos” and “must-sees” are to be found here. The outer wards, however, along with western Tokyo should not be overlooked if you truly want to experience the charms of the capital.
Earthquakes, fires, and the air raids of World War II have resulted in a Tokyo that is architecturally young 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 Japan has seen over the past 150 years, and it is this clash of new and old that makes Tokyo such a captivating and fascinating city.
This area covers Shinjuku, Chiyoda, Chuo, Shibuya, and Minato. Unsurprisingly, these wards are the most expensive in the capital and home to a huge array of shopping districts, fashion centers, city landmarks, and night districts.
The five wards of Arakawa, Bunkyo, Taito, Sumida, and Koto are typically associated with “old Tokyo”. They are home to many famous tourist districts such as Asakusa, Ueno, Yanaka, and Tokyo Skytree Town.
With the exception of Ikebukuro and some areas of Bunkyo, these wards are less well trodden by tourists. They mainly consist of laid back residential areas and local commercial districts, although places like Akabane also serve as a transport hub into Tokyo.
Towns and areas along the Chuo Line (train line which cuts across Tokyo) are very popular due to their suburban feel and good access to central Tokyo. Indeed, Nakano is the most densely populated ward in Tokyo Metropolis. Not core tourist ground, but there are some great places to discover.
South Tokyo consist of Shinagawa, Ota, and Meguro. The former two are very commercial and industrial wards with not so much to tempt tourists, but Meguro has some of the most desirable areas to live in Tokyo and prices are accordingly high.
An hour on the train from Tokyo and it’s hard to remember that you are still in the capital: flowing rivers, small villages, and a more mountainous landscape if you push further enough west. While not everything is on the tourist map in this vast region of Tokyo, it does offer some easy and relaxing day trips when the hectic city all gets a bit too much.