Taken as a whole, Tokyo seems formidable. Instead, think of Tokyo as a variety of neighborhoods scrunched together, much like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Holding the pieces together, so to speak, is the Yamanote Line, a commuter train loop around central Tokyo, passing through such important stations as Yurakucho, Tokyo, Akihabara, Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinagawa.
Hibiya: This is not only the business heart of Tokyo, but its spiritual heart as well. Hibiya is where the Tokugawa shogun built his magnificent castle and was thus the center of old Edo. Today, Hibiya, in Chiyoda-ku, is no less important as the home of the Imperial Palace, built on the ruins of Edo Castle and today the residence of Japan's 125th emperor. Bordering the palace is the wonderful East Garden and Hibiya Park, both open free to the public.
Marunouchi: Bounded by the Imperial Palace to the west and Tokyo Station to the east, Marunouchi is one of Tokyo's oldest business districts, with wide avenues and office buildings. Since the turn of this century, it has undergone a massive revival, beginning with the replacement of the historic 1923 Marunouchi Building, with a 36-story complex of restaurants, shops, and offices, followed by construction of the Shin-Marunouchi Building, the Oazo Building, and the Peninsula Tokyo. Currently, the historic west side of Tokyo Station and the Central Post Office are undergoing renovations. At Marunouchi's center is the fashionable, tree-lined Marunouchi Naka Dori, home to international designer boutiques from Armani and Burberry to Tiffany & Co., as well as a growing number of restaurants and bars. Traveling in a long oblong around the perimeter of Marunouchi is the free Marunouchi Shuttle, operating daily from 10am to 8pm at 15- to 20-minute intervals.
Nihombashi: Back when Edo became Tokugawa's shogunate capital, Nihombashi (also spelled Nihonbashi) was where merchants set up shop, making it the commercial center of the city and therefore of all Japan. Nihombashi, which stretches east of Tokyo Station, still serves as Tokyo's financial center, home of the computerized Tokyo Stock Exchange and headquarters for major banks and companies. Two of Tokyo's oldest department stores, Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya, are also here. The area takes its name from an actual bridge, Nihombashi, which means "Bridge of Japan," that served as the starting point for all main highways leading out of the city to the provinces during the Edo Period; distances to other destinations were also measured from here. Today the bridge is overshadowed by super highways rising above it.
Ginza: Ginza is the swankiest and most expensive shopping area in all Japan. When the country opened to foreign trade in the 1860s, following 2 centuries of self-imposed seclusion, it was here that Western imports and adapted Western architecture were first displayed. Today, Ginza is where you'll find a multitude of department stores, international brand-name boutiques, exclusive restaurants, hotels, art galleries, hostess clubs, and drinking establishments. Although Tokyo's younger generation favors less staid districts such as Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinjuku, the Ginza is still a good place to window-shop and dine, especially on Sunday, when its major thoroughfare, Chuo-Dori, is closed to vehicular traffic, giving it a festive atmosphere. On the edge of Ginza is Kabuki-za, the nation's main venue for Kabuki productions but closed for renovations until 2013.
Tsukiji: Located only two subway stops from Ginza, Tsukiji was born from reclaimed land during the Tokugawa shogunate; its name, in fact, means "reclaimed land." During the Meiji Period, it housed a large foreign settlement. Today it's famous for the Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the largest wholesale fish markets in the world.
Shiodome: This new urban development project south of the Ginza has the usual skyscrapers with offices and hotels, as well as the Caretta Shiodome shopping mall. Most famous here is Hama Rikyu Garden, one of Tokyo's most famous gardens. From Hama Rikyu Garden, sightseeing boats depart for Asakusa in the north.
Akihabara: Two stops north of Tokyo Station on the Yamanote Line, Akihabara has long been Japan's foremost shopping destination for electronic and electrical appliances, with hundreds of shops offering a look at the latest in gadgets and gizmos, including Yodobashi Camera, Japan's largest appliance store. In recent years, Akihabara has also become a mecca for otaku (geek) culture, home of anime and manga stores and the Tokyo Anime Center. This is a fascinating area for a stroll, even if you aren't interested in buying anything. About a 12-minute walk to the west is Kanda, with many stores specializing in new and used books.
Asakusa: Located in the northeastern part of central Tokyo, Asakusa and areas to its north served as the pleasure quarters for old Edo. Even older, however, is the famous Sensoji Temple, one of Tokyo's top and oldest attractions. Asakusa also has a wealth of tiny shops selling traditional Japanese crafts, most clustered along a pedestrian street called Nakamise Dori that leads straight to Sensoji Temple; the street's atmosphere alone makes it one of the most enjoyable places to shop for Japanese souvenirs. About a 15-minute walk west is Kappabashi-dougugai Dori, lined with shops dealing in kitchen appliances, plastic food, pots and pans, and everything else needed to run a restaurant. When Tokyoites talk about shitamachi (old downtown), they are referring to the traditional homes and tiny narrow streets of the Asakusa and Ueno areas.
Ueno: Located just west of Asakusa, on the northern edge of the JR Yamanote Line loop, Ueno retains some of the city's old shitamachi atmosphere, especially at its spirited Ameya Yokocho street market, which began life as a black market after World War II and is spread underneath the Yamanote train tracks. Ueno is most famous, however, for Ueno Park, a huge green space comprising a zoo, a concert hall, a temple, a shrine, and several acclaimed museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, which houses the largest collection of Japanese art and antiquities in the world. North of Ueno is Yanaka, a delightful residential area of traditional old homes, neighborhood shops, and temples; several of Tokyo's most affordable Japanese-style inns are located here.
Shinjuku: Originating as a post town in 1698 to serve the needs of feudal lords and their retainers traveling between Edo and the provinces, Shinjuku was hardly touched by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, making it an attractive alternative for businesses wishing to relocate following the widespread destruction. In 1971, Japan's first skyscraper was erected here with the opening of the Keio Plaza Hotel in western Shinjuku, setting a dramatic precedent for things to come. Today more than a dozen skyscrapers, including several hotels, dot the Shinjuku skyline; and with the opening of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (TMG) in 1991 (with a tourist office and a great free observation floor), Shinjuku's transformation into the capital's upstart business district was complete. Separating eastern and western Shinjuku is Shinjuku Station, the nation's busiest commuter station, located on the western end of the Yamanote Line loop. Surrounding the station is a bustling shopping district, particularly the huge Takashimaya Shinjuku complex and the many discount electronics stores. Shinjuku is also known for its nightlife, especially in Kabuki-cho, one of Japan's most famous -- and naughtiest -- amusement centers; and in Shinjuku Ni-chome, Tokyo's premier gay nightlife district. An oasis in the middle of Shinjuku madness is Shinjuku Gyoen Park, a beautiful garden for strolling and with a tranquil Japanese garden at its center.
Ikebukuro: Located north of Shinjuku on the Yamanote Line loop, Ikebukuro is the working person's Tokyo, less refined and a bit rougher around the edges. Ikebukuro is where you'll find Seibu and Tobu, two of the country's largest department stores, as well as the Japan Traditional Craft Center, with its beautifully crafted traditional items. The Sunshine City Building, one of Japan's tallest skyscrapers, is home to a huge indoor shopping center and aquarium, while Jiyugakuen Myonichikan is a former girls' school-turned-museum that draws visitors because of its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Harajuku: The mecca of Tokyo's younger generation, Harajuku swarms throughout the week with teenagers in search of fashion and fun. Takeshita Dori is a narrow pedestrian lane packed elbow to elbow with young people looking for the latest in inexpensive clothing; at its center is Harajuku Daiso, a ¥100 discount shop. Harajuku is also home to one of Japan's major attractions, the Meiji Jingu Shrine, built in 1920 to deify Emperor and Empress Meiji; and to the small but delightful Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, with its woodblock prints. Another draw is the Oriental Bazaar, Tokyo's best shop for products and souvenirs of Japan. Two Sundays a month, nearby Togo Shrine holds an antiques flea market. Linking Harajuku with Aoyama is Omotesando Dori, a fashionable tree-lined avenue flanked by trendy shops, restaurants, and sidewalk cafes, making it a premier promenade for people-watching.
Aoyama: While Harajuku is for Tokyo's teeny-boppers, nearby chic Aoyama is its playground for trend-setting yuppies, boasting sophisticated restaurants, pricey boutiques, and more cutting-edge designer-fashion outlets than anywhere else in the city. It's located on the eastern end of Omotesando Dori (and an easy walk from Harajuku), centered on Aoyama Dori. The upscale Omotesando Hills shopping center on Omotesando Dori stretches from Harajuku to Aoyama.
Shibuya: Located on the southwestern edge of the Yamanote Line loop, Shibuya serves as an important commuter nucleus. More subdued than Shinjuku, more down-to-earth than Harajuku, and less cosmopolitan than Roppongi, it caters to bustling throngs of students and young office workers with its many shops and thriving nightlife, including more than a dozen department stores specializing in everything from designer clothing to housewares. Don't miss the light change at Shibuya Crossing near the Hachiko statue, reportedly Japan's busiest intersection, with its hordes of pedestrians, neon, and five video billboards that have earned it the nickname "the Times Square of Tokyo" (and a spot in the movie Lost in Translation).
Ebisu: One station south of Shibuya on the JR Yamanote Line, Ebisu was a minor player in Tokyo's shopping and nightlife league until the 1995 debut of Yebisu Garden Place, a smart-looking planned community of apartments, concert halls, two museums (one highlighting Sapporo Beer, the other Japanese photography), restaurants, a department store, and a first-class hotel, all connected to Ebisu Station via moving walkway. The vicinity east of Ebisu Station, once a sleepy residential and low-key shopping district, has blossomed into a small but thriving nightlife mecca, popular with expats who find Roppongi too crass or commercial.
Roppongi: Tokyo's best-known nightlife district for young Japanese and foreigners, Roppongi has more bars and nightclubs than any other district outside Shinjuku, as well as a multitude of restaurants serving international cuisine. The action continues until dawn. Nearby Nishi Azabu, once a residential neighborhood (many foreigners live here), offers a quieter and saner dining alternative to frenetic Roppongi. Between Roppongi and Nishi Azabu is the eye-popping, 11-hectare (27-acre) Roppongi Hills, Tokyo's largest urban development with 230 shops and restaurants, a first-class hotel, a garden, apartments, offices, a cinema complex, a playground, and Tokyo's highest art museum, on the 53rd floor of Mori Tower. Astonishingly, Roppongi Hills was upstaged in 2007 by the 10-hectare (25-acre) Tokyo Midtown, which boasts Tokyo's tallest building, a Ritz-Carlton, a medical center, 130 fashion boutiques and restaurants, apartments, offices, a garden, and the Suntory Museum of Art. Nearby is The National Art Center, Tokyo, focusing on changing exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.
Akasaka: Close to Japan's seat of government and home to several large hotels and a small nightlife district, Akasaka caters mostly to businessmen and bureaucrats, making it of little interest to tourists. It does, however, boast some good restaurants; in recent years, so many Koreans have opened restaurants and other establishments here that it has been dubbed "Little Korea."
Shinagawa: Once an important post station on the old Tokaido Highway, Shinagawa remains an important crossroads in large part because of Shinagawa Station, a stop on the Shinkansen bullet train and on the southern end of the Yamanote Line loop. Home to several hotels, it has also witnessed a major blossoming of office construction in recent years, making it a serious rival of Shinjuku's business district. Other than the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art and Sengakuji Temple, however, there's little here to attract sightseers.
Ryogoku: Located outside the Yamanote Line loop east of the Sumida River, Ryogoku has served as Tokyo's sumo town since the 17th century. Today it's home not only to Tokyo's large sumo stadium and museum, but also to about a dozen sumo stables, where wrestlers live and train. You can often see the giants as they stroll the district in their characteristic yukata robes. In 1993, Ryogoku became a tourist destination with the opening of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which outlines the history of this fascinating city.
Odaiba: This is Tokyo's newest district, quite literally -- it was constructed from reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. Connected to the mainland by Rainbow Bridge (famous for its chameleon colors after nightfall), the Yurikamome Line monorail, the Rinkai Line, and a vehicular harbor tunnel, Odaiba is home to hotels, Japan's largest convention space, several shopping complexes (including the very fancy Venus Fort), futuristic buildings (including the Kenzo Tange-designed Fuji TV building), several museums (such as the Museum of Maritime Science and the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation), a hot-spring public bath that harkens back to the Edo era, a monolithic Ferris wheel, the Panasonic Center showcasing its products, and Megaweb (a huge multimedia car amusement and exhibition center sponsored by Toyota). For young Japanese, Odaiba is one of Tokyo's hottest dating spots.