- darkometer rating: 4 -
The capital city of Japan
and one of the largest conurbations in the world. Tokyo, even more so than New York
, stands almost metonymically for the very concept of a modern hyper-metropolis. And the cliché is justified. Those who don't like big cities will
find Tokyo taxing. On the other hand, though, Tokyo also offers more quiet corners and hidden-away serenity than the uninitiated may expect. It's also a lot safer than most other megacities in the rest of the world.
For the dark tourist it is not only the most likely entry point into the country, and thus a necessary stopover anyway, it also offers a range of dark sights of its own that are well worth checking out, though not all of these may necessarily appeal to everybody.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see: Tokyo may not play in the same league as some other big cities in terms of dark tourism, but it does offer a few rather special things. Here are the main ones, which are all given their own separate entries:
- Yasukuni shrine & Yushukan museum
– the controversial site of worship and paying respect to Japan's (dead) military "heroes", with a museum that is no less controversial in the skewed way in which it portrays Japan's involvement in WWII
- Chofu hangars
– a trio of concrete single-aircraft hangars from WWII, also far out in a western suburb.
- Yoshimi caves & WWII tunnels
– a site of ancient burial chambers plus underground military production tunnels underneath them, far out in Saitama Prefecture, 30 miles from Tokyo.
During my latest return visit to Japan in April 2019 I also tried to book a place on the guided tours offered at the Safety Promotion Center, run by Japan Airlines at Haneda Airport. However, I failed to get one as it was Golden Week when I was in Tokyo (a major holiday in Japan) and couldn't make any other alternative date offered. It's certainly something to try again next time. The Safety Promotion Center could just as well have been called “Air Crash Museum”, since it's mainly about the crash of JAL flight 123 which crashed in 1985 killing 520 people, the deadliest single-aircraft crash in history (though four people miraculously survived it). The Center has pieces of the wreckage, twisted passenger seats, personal belongings, even farewell notes from passengers (between the technical fault that caused the crash and the aircraft hitting a mountain, the plane tumbled through the air for half an hour). Those with a fear of flying should probably not visit this place. But I'd find it fascinating. By the way, the Center's mission, to heighten awareness (mainly in JAL staff) for safety and accident prevention, seems to have worked. JAL have not had a deadly crash since 1985. To join a tour at the Safety Promotion Center, which is open to the general public too, you have to make a prior reservation, by phone (see their website – external link, opens in a new window). JAL's main competitor ANA is said to have a similar centre for their own staff, but whether that is also open to outsiders, I don't know.
Other than that, there's little of specific interest for the dark tourist in Tokyo, though those more into WWII
history (see overlaps
, "25 Best WWII sites in the Pacific"
) may want to take a look at the sites associated with General MacArthur, the US general who was more or less in charge of the country in the wake of Japan's unconditional surrender to the USA
following the A-bombings of Hiroshima
MacArthur's former residence in Tokyo is behind the current US embassy, now serving as the ambassador's residence, i.e. you can't go inside. The Dai-Ichi insurance company building is where MacArthur had his HQ, i.e. his office. The room, complete with all original furniture, has been preserved as it was back then and used to be open to the public. In recent years (following 9/11
), however, it has only been opened on special occasions. But that may change again at some point. The building is located on Hibiya-dori by the moat of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.
Right opposite the Dai-Ichi building is the sprawling complex of the Imperial Palace, which was the "official" power centre during Japan
's years of military might up to WWII
. Still being the residence of the Japanese "emperor" (now only a ceremonial role), the palace is normally inaccessible to the general public, except for two special days in the year. The rest of the year you can only walk around the complex admiring its ramparts and moat and whatever bits of architecture you can spot poking out from within the closed-off quarters. The Imperial Palace is one of Tokyo's main sights and impossible to miss, just head west from the central station and you'll get straight to the main gate (cf. also Yasukuni
The city (and the whole area) has always been prone to earthquakes, and there have been some major ones over the years. The worst so far happened in 1923. It killed over 100,000 people and flattened large parts of the city … though of course there's nothing indicating this today. Slight tremors are commonplace almost daily. But the great fear is the Big One that is allegedly even overdue, going by historical statistics and seismic research. It could potentially turn out to be one of the biggest natural disasters ever, especially given the size of Tokyo's population today … You would have to be very unlucky indeed to happen to be there as a foreign tourist at that wrong a time, but still, there is a certain unnerving thrill of knowing that it could happen at any moment.
Wandering the side streets you may even come across "evacuation areas", open fields in between the built-up maze of the city, which serve as safe havens where people could take refuge from falling debris should a big earthquake hit. And coming across such a place (though usually it will be quiet and deserted) does indeed bring it home to the visiting tourist how precarious life ultimately is in this place.
By the way: the massive earthquake that hit northern Honshu in March 2011, brought especially horrific destruction through the subsequent tsunami, and also shook Tokyo was not yet the Big One that the city was bracing itself for … worse is still to come … Location:
almost right in the middle of the country, around Tokyo Bay, about halfway along the eastern coastline of Japan
's largest main island Honshu.
Google maps locators:
Haneda Airport JAL Safety Promotion Center: [35.5423, 139.7891]
Former MacArthur HQ: [35.676,139.761]
Access and costs: easy enough to get to by plane, a bit more demanding on the ground; generally quite expensive, but not necessarily to the excess one might expect.
Tokyo is easily reached by plane, from a plethora of departure points around the globe, and with a multitude of carriers. Most international flights use the newer Narita airport some 40 miles (60 km) away from the centre. Fortunately, it's connected to the city centre by the excellent (luxurious even) Narita Express (N'EX) train service (there are cheaper alternatives too, such as “limousine buses”; but by no means even think about going for a taxi – that would cost a fortune!). JR rail passes are valid on these trains – but you have to reserve a seat before boarding. You can do that easily at the train office at Narita airport, which you most probably will have to go to anyway to have your JR pass validated (see under Japan
). Otherwise buy a single ticket.
There's also Haneda airport, which is significantly closer to central Tokyo, having been built on an artificial island right in Tokyo Bay halfway between Tokyo central and Yokohama. This airport mostly handles domestic flights, but this includes vital services (with ANA) to Okinawa
! Haneda airport is connected to Tokyo's regular public transport system by means of its own monorail. So it's even easier to use.
Once you’re in the city, getting around
in this vast, crowded and busy metropolis is a bit trickier. But it is still fairly manageable even without any knowledge of Japanese. Especially the metro/local train networks are quite easy to use. At first the network maps may look extremely daunting, but the ticketing system couldn't be easier. You don't actually have to work out the fare yourself, simply get the cheapest ticket and then on exiting feed the ticket into one of the 'fare adjustment machines' and pay whatever may come on top. Piece of cake. Even better/easier is investing in an electronic travel card (called Suica and Pasmo), which you can get at stations or from machines and load (and top up) to the required amount. That way you never have to worry about ticket machines and they are also valid on different lines, including buses and JR trains, and even on the Kyoto metro and Hiroshima
trams. It really makes life easier.
The city's size and excessive crowdedness can make the experience a little stressful, but if you're psyched up for it it's quite doable. Just allow more time for travelling, or simply for getting your bearings, than you would (have to) in most other places. One crucial word of advice, though: do avoid rush hour! Being squashed in the middle of a sea of millions of commuters is more than most travellers' nerves could handle. Travel off-peak, though, and it's a breeze.
Using public transport is the easier part of navigating in Tokyo, actually finding an address is much trickier! The city has a quite bizarre, totally impractical system of house addresses: houses are not numbered by location on a street (only bigger streets have names anyway). Instead they're numbered according to when they were built, making addresses appear totally random. Even the Japanese used to struggle with this and every so often you could see just as puzzled looking locals, map in one hand, mobile phone in the other, asking for directions … And the main job that police officers still have in this low-crime metropolis is not so much enforcing law and order, but providing assistance to people who're lost and need directions! However, theses days smartphones with their maps and navigation features have alleviated this complication massively. These days you're more likely to be bumped into by people paying no attention to anything but the screens in front of their noses.
For the dark tourism sites listed above, however, you could possibly get by without such modern helpers, and won't need to ask for directions, if you follow the instructions given in the relevant chapters. And if you do look a bit lost, chances are that some friendly Japanese person, eager to practise some English, will come to your rescue without you even having to ask. This happened to me on several occasions in Tokyo. (Elsewhere in Japan
it's a very different story and the language barrier is much tougher to overcome there …). But if you want to have the back-up of smartphone navigation you may want to invest in a local SIM card or even hire a phone (one hotel I stayed at in Ginza even supplied this service free of charge; and this did indeed prove very helpful in finding my way to the rather more obscure and far-out locations – see above
Accommodation options in Tokyo are naturally plentiful. The top-end international chain hotels can be shockingly pricey, but you can also find some pretty good bargains if you search thoroughly and shop around.
A peculiar type of accommodation are the so-called "love hotels", mostly found in Shibuya. These are not quite as dodgy establishments as it may sound. Primarily they are for both still "courting" as well as already married couples who simply need a bit of space (in space-deprived Tokyo) and maybe also a bit of inspiration for a few intimate hours. Hence some of the rooms offer more than just basic facilities and can be flamboyantly (and thematically) decorated. But they are open for everyone, in theory. The accommodation on offer comes in two types: "stay" and "rest". The latter is what you think it is, usually a couple of hours, usually during the day. But you can also actually stay overnight (quite innocently) – and it can be a bargain for those travelling on a shoestring … the downside is: you can't book ahead and rooms for overnighting are only available from ca. 7 p.m. or so.
Food & drink
in Tokyo are an experience in itself. For real foodies there can hardly be a more exiting place, and this applies both to the top-end establishments (Tokyo has more "star"-adorned restaurants than anywhere else) as well as to cheap-and-cheerful eateries at the other end of the spectrum. The familiar sushi-sashimi options popular in the West are plentiful in Tokyo too, only generally much better in quality, but the real excitement starts beyond those familiar concepts. See also under Japan in general for more tips ...
Finally, for those after craft beer the good news is that the scene has taken Tokyo by storm and there are now many dozens of specialized craft beer bars and izakaya restaurants with good choices – and Japanese brews are easily on a par with the highest international standards. The bad news is: it's expensive! A large glass of IPA will mostly set you back 1000 JPY or more. Some happy-hour offers or special deals may soften the blow here and there, but it's never really cheap. You can find plenty of detailed guidance online. Personally, my favourite out of the six or seven places I tried was “Ibrew” in Yaesu (near Tokyo Station), which I also found wasn't quite so excessively expensive; the established “Popeye” in Ryogoku was pretty cool too, especially for the wide choice (70 taps!), but a real cash-eater if you're not careful.
Time required: For just the main dark sites listed here, three or four days may just about be sufficient, two or three more would be better (and less stressy). Going beyond dark-tourism attractions you probably won't run out of places to discover for many weeks on end. So being selective and preparing ahead are of the essence!
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Tokyo will also be the most likely entry point for visitors from abroad – and from here regular and easy train links provide access to e.g. Hiroshima
in western Honshu. A true dark tourist should combine Hiroshima with a visit to Nagasaki
too, the only other such destination of this kind, and in some ways the even more tragic one.
From Tokyo you can also head north, including to go on a Fukushima Tour
, and to Sendai, north Honshu's biggest city (a 90-minute shinkansen ride from Tokyo), especially for excursions to Ishinomaki
There are regular domestic flights from Tokyo's Haneda airport to Naha/Okinawa
too, site of the deadliest battle of the Pacific War and home to some related, particularly dark sites.
See also under Japan
Combinations with non-dark destinations: All darkness apart, Tokyo is such a cool place to visit in its own right, with so many outstanding attractions you just don't know where to begin. It's absolutely impossible to even attempt any kind of representative overview here, so only a few randomly selected recommendations:
As much of Tokyo was bombed flat in WWII
there's little in the way of ancient/traditional architecture (same as in many places in Germany
) – but that's more than made up for by modern architecture
, of which Tokyo has more than its fair share. Fans of outrageously modern structures will have a field day (or two or three) in Tokyo. The bizarre Fuji TV building in Odaiba is just one example, The Super Dry Hall of the Asahi brewing complex in Asakusa is another, as is the downtown Tokyo International Forum. But there are countless discoveries to be made on a smaller scale all over the city.
The latest super-scale architectural addition to Tokyo's skyline is the massive SkyTree tower in Sumida in the north-east of the city – at 634 metres (over 200 feet) it's the tallest structure in Japan and indeed at the time it was finished (2012) the second tallest structure in the world (and the very tallest classed as a “tower”). You can go up to observation decks at 350 and 450 metres.
This new “high-light” of construction now outshines the older but still iconic Tokyo Tower
, built in 1958 and 333 metres high (ca. 1100 feet). It's similar in height and construction type to the Eiffel Tower in Paris
, but is painted a striking red and white (like a lighthouse), apparently to comply with air safety regulations that clearly no longer hold (since the SkyTree remains a plain white). There are observation decks here too – but at only about half the height of those of its newer taller competitor.
Those in search of a glimpse of Japan
's exuberant youth culture should head for the Harajuku
district – especially on a Sunday when the city's Gothic Lolita lot are out parading. If you go on a different day of the week, at least the shops in the nearby streets can give you an indication of the weirdness levels fashion can aspire to in Tokyo.
Speaking of shopping and weirdness, both are generally well catered for in Tokyo. With regard to nightlife Roppongi is the main district to head for. One of Tokyo's shopping Meccas is the Shibuya
district. One little detail worth looking out for here (apart from the adverts for the "love hotels" – see above
) is the little dog statue on a small square outside Shibuya Station: this commemorates a most loyal canine companion who for over 10 years after his master's death still continued to wait here by the station. Just beyond, Shibuya crossing is the prototype of a busy Tokyo intersection – and because you will have seen images of this on television screens and in newspapers so many times before beholding it for real can feel almost deja-vu-like,
If you need a break from all the weirdness and noise and masses of people, the parks, such as those around the Imperial Palace, can offer some peace and quiet. But even just wandering off into a side street can provide a sudden unexpected oasis of calm. Here you can quickly find that Tokyo is not just all about hypermodern buzz. Both sides of Tokyo seamlessly merge when it's the cherry blossom season – then Tokyoites flock to the parks in droves to take photos or simply picnic between the cherry blossom trees. They are really quite beautiful, though, it has to be admitted.
See also under Japan
- Tokyo 01 - Shibuya crossing
- Tokyo 02 - densely built-up
- Tokyo 03 - Ginza shopping area
- Tokyo 04 - green bottom skyscraper
- Tokyo 05 - in cherry blossom season
- Tokyo 06 - who let the dog loose
- Tokyo 06b - earthquake evacuation zone
- Tokyo 06c - cemetery
- Tokyo 07 - Budokan
- Tokyo 08 - Sumo wrestling stadium
- Tokyo 09 - Sumo wrestler glorification
- Tokyo 10 - Rainbow Pride
- Tokyo 11 - off-the-tourist-trail
- Tokyo 12 - apartment block making the Tokyo SkyTree in the distance look small
- Tokyo 13 - SkyTree from below
- Tokyo 14 - Roppongi and Tokyo Tower by night
- Tokyo 15 - old established department store in Ginza
- Tokyo 16 - Tokyo Station old building
- Tokyo 17 - Tokyo Station, modern Yaesu side
- Tokyo 18 - complicated-looking metro but quite easy to use
- Tokyo 19 - harbour and skyline