Japan is made up 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 developed island. Tokyo Metropolis, the capital and one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, lies on its eastern shore.
Tokyo Metropolis is comprised of two areas: the 23 special wards of Tokyo and west Tokyo. 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 are referred to as central Tokyo and old Tokyo. Visitors will typically spend the majority of their time in these 13 wards (which, rather confusingly, refer to themselves as cities in English) because the majority of the must-dos and must-sees are to be found there. The outer wards, however, 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 north-east of Edo Castle (now the grounds of Tokyo Imperial Palace). In modern parlance, however, 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. The areas to the west of the castle were referred to as yama-no-te (“foothills”), where many of the shogun’s vassals held a place of residence. Today we think of these areas as central Tokyo. However, the boundaries of old and new have blurred over time such that today some parts of “old” Tokyo like Tokyo Skytree Town are anything but.
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.