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Describing Tokyo to someone who has never been there is a formidable task. After all, how do you describe a city that -- as one of my friends visiting Tokyo for the first time put it -- seems like part of another planet?

To be sure, Tokyo is very different from Western capitals, but what really sets it apart is its people. Approximately 12.5 million people reside within Tokyo's 2,100 sq. km (811 sq. miles), and almost one-fourth of Japan's total population lives within commuting distance of the city. This translates into a crush of humanity that packs the subways, crowds the sidewalks, and fills the department stores beyond belief. In some parts of the city, the streets are as crowded at 3am as they are at 3pm. With its high-energy, visual overload, Tokyo makes even New York seem like a sleepy, laid-back town.

And yet, despite its limited space for harmonious living and some of the crime inherent in every major city, Tokyo remains one of the safest cities in the world. No matter how lost I may become, I know that people will go out of their way to help me. Hardworking, honest, and helpful to strangers, the Japanese are their country's greatest asset.

With Tokyo so densely packed, it comes as no shock to learn that land here is more valuable than gold. Buildings are built practically on top of each other, shaped like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to fit the existing plots of real estate. More than perhaps any other city in the world, Japan's capital is a concrete jungle, stretching on and on as far as the eye can see, with a few parks but not many trees to break the monotony. Fires, earthquakes, wars, the zeal for modernization, and the price of land have taken their tolls on the city, eradicating almost all evidence of previous centuries. It's as though Tokyo was born only this morning, with all the messy aftermath of a city conceived without plan and interested only in the future.

Thus, first-time visitors to Tokyo are almost invariably disappointed. They come expecting an exotic Asian city but instead find a megalopolis, Westernized to the point of drabness. Used to the grand edifices and monuments of Western cities, visitors look in vain for Tokyo's own monuments to its past -- ancient temples, exquisite gardens, Imperial palaces, or whatever else they've imagined. Instead they find what may be, quite arguably, one of the ugliest cities in the world.

So, while Tokyo is one of my favorite cities, my appreciation came only with time. When I first moved here, I was tormented by the unsettling feeling that I was somehow missing out on the "real" Tokyo. Even though I was living and working here, Tokyo seemed beyond my grasp: elusive, vague, and undefined. I felt that the meaning of the city was out there, if only I knew where to look.

With time, I learned that I needn't look farther than my own front window. Tokyo has no center, but rather is made up of a series of small towns and neighborhoods clustered together, each with its own history, flavor, and atmosphere. There are narrow residential streets, ma-and-pa shops, fruit stands, and stores. There's the neighborhood tofu factory, the lunchbox stand, the grocery shop, and the tiny police station, where the cops know the residents by name and patrol the area by bicycle. There are carefully pruned bonsai trees gracing sidewalks, and wooden homes on impossibly narrow streets. Walk in the old downtown neighborhoods of Asakusa or Yanaka and you're worlds apart from the trendy quarters of Harajuku or the high-rises of Shinjuku. Neighborhoods like these make Tokyo lovable and livable.

What's more, once visitors get to know Tokyo better, they learn that you can't judge Tokyo by what it looks like on the outside, for this is a city of interiors. Even those concrete monsters may house interiors that are fascinating in design and innovation. In the basement of that drab building could well be a restaurant with wooden beams, mud walls, and thatched ceiling, imported intact from a farmhouse in the Japan Alps; on its roof could be a small Shinto shrine, while the top floor could house a high-tech bar or a tony French restaurant with dreamy views over the city.

And beneath Tokyo's concrete shell is a thriving cultural life left very much intact. In fact, if you're interested in Japan's performing arts as well as such diverse activities as the tea ceremony or sumo, Tokyo is your best bet for offering the most at any one time. It is rich in museums and claims the largest repository of Japanese art in the world. It also gets my vote as the pop-art capital of the world, so if you're into kitsch or anime (Japanese animation), you'll be in high heaven. And if you're into style, you'll find Tokyo a mecca for cutting-edge fashion and innovative design.

While Tokyo isn't representative of all of Japan, just as New York isn't representative of the entire United States, it's a fairly good barometer of where the country is heading, if not the world. I can't imagine being bored here for even a minute.

Did You Know?

  • Tokyo has been the capital of Japan only since 1868; before that, Kyoto served as capital for more than 1,000 years.
  • Ten percent of Japan's total population lives in Tokyo -- more than 12 million residents. Almost a quarter of Japan's total population lives within commuting distance.
  • Tokyo's workers commute to work an average of 90 minutes one-way. Shinjuku Station handles the most train and subway passengers in all of Japan -- more than three million people a day, giving it an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the busiest rail station in the world. More than 60 exits lead out of the station.
  • Tokyo suffered widespread destruction twice in the last century -- in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and from World War II firebombs. In both instances, more than 100,000 people lost their lives.
  • During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Edo (former Tokyo) witnessed almost 100 major fires, not to mention countless smaller fires.
  • Tokyo sprawls over 1,288 sq. km (497 sq. miles), yet most streets are not named.
  • Rickshaws originated in Tokyo in 1869; 4 years later, there were 34,000 of the people-propelled vehicles in the capital city.
  • Park space in Tokyo is woefully inadequate -- just 4.52 sq. m (5 1/2 sq. yd.) per capita, compared to 45.7 sq. m (55 sq. yd.) in Washington, D.C.
  • According to government 2008 estimates, approximately 3,400 homeless were living in Tokyo, mainly in city parks and along riverbanks. There are 15,750 homeless nationwide, a big decline from the peak of 25,296 in 2003, the first year records were kept.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.