The Tokyo Metropolis is located in the eastern part of Honshu and encompasses some 23 central wards that are home to more than 8 million people alone, as well as cities, bed towns and even islands located more than 1800 kilometers away. As the capital of Japan, Tokyo is the seat of government, home of the Imperial Family, and headquarters of almost every major Japanese corporation. While the population of Tokyo is comparable to that of other major world cities such as New York, London, and Beijing, the conurbation of which it is the center spills into the surrounding prefectures and is said to be home to around 30 million people, making it one of the most densely populated urban centers on the planet.
Despite its large area and dense population, Tokyo is known to be an exciting, yet manageable city in which to live. Tokyo is extremely safe and clean, and features an extensive and punctual public transportation system which makes the city relatively easy to navigate. Whether it be sprawling modern shopping complexes, more 3-star Michelin restaurants than even Paris, or traditional Japanese shops pitching everything from gourmet rice crackers to 50 different varieties of miso paste under one roof, Tokyo is truly a Mecca for shoppers. Old temples and shrines can often be found alongside modern high-rise buildings, always serving as a reminder of how Tokyo retains many Japanese traditions while embracing new ideas and technology.
Tokyo is a very modern city where technology can be found everywhere in daily life, from vending machines that offer both hot and cold drinks (and bottles of whiskey!) to taxi doors that open automatically and bathtubs that fill themselves to just the right level at the touch of a button. On top of all of this, the Japanese penchant for perfection and attention to detail in presentation, whether it be fashion or food or any product, consistently impresses first time visitors.
In short, Tokyo has something for everyone.
Tokyo streets are not not laid out on a grid pattern. . Buildings are not numbered in order, streets often do not have names, and when they do, they sometimes have more than one! For the first time visitor, this can make navigating the myriad streets and alleyways a very daunting task
Fortunately, Tokyo has no shortage of landmarks and notable spots, and memorizing these familiar points that allows long-term residents to maintain their sanity. In no time at all, you will be meeting friends next to the Hachiko statue in Shibuya, learning to turn right after the Segrafredo to get to the National Azabu Supermarket in Hiroo, and spotting the robot-themed totem pole in Roppongi in order to locate the American-preschool.
The original Tokyo road system was created during the Edo Period, with the Imperial Palace located in the center demonstrating its position of importance and power. Major routes to the palace radiate outward and cross major roads which form concentric circles around the palace.
Tokyo Metropolis consists of 23 wards, or “ku” with the central urban area located conveniently inside the JR Yamanote circular train line. This central area includes business, entertainment, and residential districts and has some of the most expensive land prices in Japan, if not the world.
Each of the various neighborhoods in Tokyo has its own distinctive atmosphere. The most popular expatriate areas are Minato-ku, Shibuya-ku, Setagaya-ku, and Meguro-ku, with Minato-ku being by far the most popular amongst expatriates. Most of these areas have grown around embassies and international schools over time. Naturally, anyone moving to Japan has his or her own priorities for choosing a neighborhood in which to live: the commute to office or school, prevalence of expatriate infrastructure, etc. And Tokyo does not fail to disappoint. The following is a brief description of what makes so many of Tokyo’s major neighborhoods unique.
Minato-ku is home to many embassies and foreign firms and has the largest population of expatriate residents in Tokyo.
Many artists, businessmen, and celebrities reside in the upscale Azabu area, which also is home to Tokyo’s largest expatriate community. Rents are higher in comparison to other popular expatriate neighborhoods. There are many embassies and international schools – including Nishimachi International School – located in the Azabu area, along with the very popular Nissin World Delicatessen supermarket, specializing in imported foods and beverages. Azabu Juban’s main street features traditional Japanese shops and western-style restaurants and cafes.
Hiroo is another convenient, centrally-located neighborhood, with many tree-lined streets and western-style homes and apartments, making it popular with foreign residents. The wooded Arisugawa Park is nearby, as is National Azabu Supermarket. The International School of the Sacred Heart is also in this area, as well as the Jewish Community Center.
Foreign residents wishing to try out Tokyo nightlife often head to the many restaurants, clubs, and bars of Roppongi, many of which are particularly popular with young people. Both Roppongi and Akasaka are home to Japanese and western style venues, many of which operate all night long.
There are many large foreign companies with offices in the Roppongi and Akasaka areas as well. Two large and well-known complexes, Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, are located in Roppongi and are comprised of offices, residences, shops, hotel and other commercial and leisure spaces. The popular ASIJ Early Learning Center is located in Roppongi Hills and the Franciscan Chapel Center is close to Roppongi Crossing.
This trendy area is a fashion Mecca for Japan’s young, with stores offering the latest in Japanese fashion, along with some of the most established designer goods. The area is mostly commercial in nature, with upscale boutiques, fashion salons, and fine restaurants; but it is also dotted with residential areas as well. The Aoyama-Dori (avenue) and Omotesando areas are crowded with shoppers and tourists on the weekend; despite this, a much more tranquil atmosphere awaits nearby, in the form of the many parks and sports facilities found surrounding the Meiji Shrine.
This is a residential area with both Japanese and Western-style homes. Shirokane is within walking distance of Meguro Station and with the addition of subway lines passing through this area, and connecting neighboring Kanagawa area to downtown Tokyo, there has been a marked increase in shops, restaurants and pedestrian activity. There are children’s playgrounds and small international schools located in this area, along with the children’s hall close to Shiroganedai station. The Institute of Nature Study is also located in this area and its grounds are a wonderful place to stroll.
Takanawa is a quiet residential area close to Shinagawa and Gotanda stations. Around Shinagawa station, there are many hotels popular due to their proximity to trains serving Narita and Haneda airports.
Shinagawa is also the closest station to the Immigration Bureau; and there are many restaurants, bars, stores and hotels located in and around the main Shinagawa station complex.
Shibuya includes many well-known commercial /residential districts and also borders large green spaces such as Meiji and Yoyogi parks. Its many shops and restaurants are popular with young Japanese and foreign teenagers alike, who flock here during the evenings and weekends for shopping and entertainment. It is also home to several large department stores and Tokyu Hands, a do-it-yourself store popular with foreigners.
Many cultural facilities such as Bunkamura, Kanze-Nogakudo (Noh theater), Shoto Art Museum, and Toguri Museum of Art are here.
The British School (nursery to 3rd year) campus is also located in Shibuya, halfway between Shibuya and Harajuku stations.
This is another very trendy, hot area, popular with young Japanese and foreign residents as it seems there is always something new, be it boutiques, restaurants or cafes. The neighborhood often earns high rankings in Japanese surveys as the place Japanese would most like to live in.
The area is within walking distance to Shibuya and Ebisu stations, with the Tokyo Baptist Church also located nearby.
Even though Shoto and Kamiyamacho are located within walking distance from the busy and crowded shopping and nightlife district of Shibuya, they are quiet, high-class residential areas showing again the many contrasts of Tokyo lifestyle. The residences are relatively large by Japanese standards, and also there are not many large apartment buildings.
This quiet residential area has a nice mixture of Japanese residences and high-rent housing for foreigners. Tree-lined streets and proximity to Yoyogi Park makes these areas ideal for families and individuals looking for gracious suburban living. There are several major train and subway lines providing convenient transportation to all parts of Tokyo and is convenient for families whose children plan to attend the American School in Japan.
Setagaya-ku is the second largest ward of Tokyo’s 23 wards. There are both quiet residential areas and spacious green spaces, some with small vegetable farms.
This area is only a 10 to 15 minute train ride to Shibuya, yet is a peaceful and pleasant suburban area with small apartment buildings and detached homes, green spots and a comfortable residential atmosphere. A large shopping center is in Futako Tamagawa station, located very close to Tama River which divides Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture. The green spaces spanning both sides of Tama River have cycling and running paths, playing fields and areas for enjoying a barbeque or picnic during nice weather.
St. Mary’s (boys) and Seisen (girls) international schools are located nearby.
Traditionally, many wealthy Japanese have chosen to live in the upscale Denenchofu and Jiyugaoka areas. Many foreign residents also enjoy living in Denenchofu with its large detached houses and small parks and proximity to Tama River. There is a very definite suburban feel to Denenchofu that many foreigners especially find comfortable, as it was built based on a rural city design, by a British city planner. Many German speaking foreigners choose to live in Denenchofu area since it is convenient to the German School and the German School has several bus stops in the area.
Jiyugaoka is another pleasant residential area, but is also famous as a commercial area with shopping on all sides of the main station that includes many restaurants, cafes and boutiques. There is easy access to Shibuya by train and the National Den-en international supermarket is located nearby.
Shinjuku-ku is famous for its business and commercial areas around Shinjuku station. The skyline is dotted with clusters of high-rise hotels and buildings, including the Tokyo metropolitan government buildings.
In addition to its modern hotels, office buildings and shopping complexes, Shinjuku retains some of its older residential areas and an old-style “downtown” feeling and is also the location of Shinjuku Gyoen park.
There are many French residents living in the Ichigaya and Iidabashi areas since the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of France and the French School (Lyoocee Franco-Japonais) are located here. The residential area retains the beauty of and feeling of old Japan and has a tranquil atmosphere.
Photo: Wikimedia - "Hibiya Park09bs3200" by 663highland (CC BY-SA 3.0 )