Tokyo wears many hats as the most populated metropolitan area in the world, with over 13 million residents, as the capital of fashion, gourmet food, and (obviously) Japan. Yet, to much confusion, Tokyo isn’t a city — or at least hasn’t been “Tokyo City” since 1943. Rather, it’s one of 47 prefectures of Japan.
I attempted to put Japan’s classification in more comparative terms, from largest to smallest, and the American equivalent in parentheses. It goes: region (directional region, such as Northeast, Southwest, etc.), prefecture (state), ward (county), city/district (city), town/village (town). So, in essence, Japan has 47 “states.”
From suburbs to cityscapes, its islands to its national parks, Tokyo is huge (13,572 km2 as a whole and the metropolitan area 1/7 that size) and more than just the bright neon signs commonly associated with it. Shinjuku is Tokyo, Shibuya and Harajuku are Tokyo, but there are also the Izu Seven Islands and the mountainous area around Okutama—all in Tokyo. Got it? Good.
Tokyo, located in the Kanto region of Japan on the island of Honshu, is divided up into two sections: the special wards and Western Tokyo. The special wards, or tokubetsu-ku, are the area around Tokyo Bay that used to be Tokyo City, made up of 23 “special wards” or “counties.” Of the special wards, eight make up the central wards of the Tokyo Metropolitan area: Bunkyo, Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Taito and Toshima. Western Tokyo is comprised of cities and villages typically referred to as “bed towns” for salary men who work in the metropolitan area. The most common ones are probably Machida, Hachiōji (with popular Mount Takao) and Chofu. The most Western areas of Okutama and Ome make you already feel miles away from the city, as beautiful mountains and refreshing rivers will await you.
The governor of Tokyo administers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Shinjuku and presides over all of Tokyo. Yet each of the 23 special wards, 26 cities, five towns and eight villages of Tokyo have their own local governments, complete with mayor and council.
The 23 special wards are commonly what tourists seek out in Tokyo, so here’s a comprehensive list of these wards and what you can expect to find at each:
Adachi-ku has many parks and cultural landmarks. The Nishiarai Daishi in Nishiarai is one of the major temples in the Kanto region, visited most frequently at the New Year. The Tokyo Budokan in Ayase is a sports facility with training areas for martial arts and kyudo, or Japanese archery.
Arakawa-ku is a smaller, more suburban area of Tokyo. It was the area in which Kozukappara, execution grounds used from the mid-1600s to 1873 and now has a commemoration statue near Minami Senju Station. More popular areas include the Arakawa Amusement Park and the Arakawa Natural Park, which has ponds, baseball fields and tennis courts.
Bunkyo-ku, one of the eight central wards of the Tokyo Metropolitan area, encompasses an incredible amount of landmarks from Tokyo Dome to Yanaka Cemetery. Hatoyama Hall, or Otowa Goten, is a Western-style residence home to the formation of the Liberal Democratic Party by former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama. There are many gardens in which to ponder amongst the flowers, and the Koishikawa Ukiyo-e Art Museum for lovers of the traditional screen-printed art.
Chiyoda-ku is an area with many well-known attractions, as it is the second of eight central wards. Akihabara is the hub for all things electronic and anime. The Imperial Palace and its gardens are located just across the street from the Marunouchi business district and Tokyo Station. The National Diet Building is also located in Nagata-cho, Chiyoda, and is where the bicameral legislature of Japan meets.
Chuo-ku has many sights to offer as the third of eight central wards. Ginza is Tokyo’s most expensive shopping district, and also in Ginza is the major kabuki venue called Shinbashi Enbujo. Chuo also contains the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the famous Tsukiji Fish Market.
Edogawa-ku is located at the easternmost point of Tokyo. There, you can view the Edogawa Boat Race Course and the Kasai Rinkai Park, which has an aquarium, bird sanctuary, garden and the Diamond and Flower Ferris Wheel. The park is also a popular area to view the bloomed cherry blossom trees in spring.
Itabashi-ku has two main botanical gardens: Itabashi Botanical Gardens and Akatsuka Botanical Gardens. Also in this area is the Joren-ji Temple and Daibutsu (large statue of Buddha) of Tokyo.
Katsushika-ku has many historical and spiritual landmarks. These include the Narihira-san Tosen Temple (a Buddhist temple that has the “Bound Jizo”, or statue, of Ooka Tadasuke, a famous judge during the Edo period) and the Shibamata Taishakuten (a Buddhist temple founded in 1629). Further more it is the setting of the famous and longest running manga series Kochikame.
Kita-ku lies north in the Tokyo Prefecture. It has many parks, gardens and shrines. Most notably are Asukayama Park, full of cherry blossom trees; Furukawa Garden, the host of the annual Rose Festival during May; and the Oji Shrine.
Koto-ku is bursting with life and things to do, as it is located on Tokyo Bay. Notable sights include Tokyo Big Sight (a large exhibition center), Ariake Coliseum (home of the Japan Open Tennis Championships), Yumenoshima Tropical Greenhouse Dome, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and Tokyo Gate Bridge.
Meguro-ku interestingly has many religious establishments, including both Buddhist and Catholic, and there are also several foreign embassies and consulates. The trendy neighborhood of Naka-meguro is extremely popular during the cherry blossom season, with hundreds of cherry trees along the river, and there are lots of small and unique cafes and restaurants, too.
Minato-ku is perhaps the biggest hub for foreigners, accumulating a large number of foreign embassies and home to many expatriates, and the fourth of the eight central wards. Roppongi is an area best known for their nightlife and also the location of the Roppongi Hills complex and Gonpachi, the restaurant featured in the film “Kill Bill”. Tokyo Tower, the National Art Center, and Aoyama Cemetery are also located here.
Nakano-ku is located on the west side of the Tokyo metropolitan area. Its Nakano Broadway is infamous for is multiple floors of specialty shopping, manga, anime and idol group music. Also, Hall Park is a point of interest, as it has 11 statues of famous philosophers in its “garden of philosophy” and was founded by philosopher Dr. Inoue Enryo.
Nerima-ku, as a former farmland of radishes, burdocks and potatoes, is most famously known for the birthplace of anime and has many production studios. There are also many parks, like the beautiful Shakujii Park, and the amusement park called Toshimaen that includes three roller coasters, a water park, and it is a place for regular Cosplay events.
Ota-ku is the southernmost point of Tokyo. It’s the location of Haneda Airport, Ikegami Honmon-ji (a Buddhist temple founded in the 13th century by Nichiren, a monk of the Kamakura period) and Senzoku Pond, where Nichiren allegedly washed his feet. Additionally, the Omori Shell mound site is located here, formed in the Jomon period and founded by Dr. Edward Morse.
Setagaya-ku is a more subdued area of Tokyo with a lot of residential housing. However, it comes with a few extremely trendy neighborhoods, like Shimokitazawa or Sangenjaya, with lots of affordable shops, small art galleries, great izakayas (bars), cafes, as well as small theatres and live music clubs. The atmosphere is very local and laid-back, and you will easily forget that you are still in central Tokyo, just a stone's throw away from Shibuya.
Shibuya-ku is one of the more famous areas of Tokyo, being a major fashion and nightlife center and the fifth of eight central wards. Very famous is also the statue of Hachiko, the loyal dog that met his owner at Shibuya Station every day when the professor came back from teaching agriculture at the University of Tokyo, and waited at the station every day for nine years after the professor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and subsequently did not return to the train station. Also in Shibuya are Ebisu, Harajuku, and Yoyogi.
Shinagawa-ku is probably mostly known for its Shinkansen station and its numerous large and modern business hotels around it. The atmosphere however changes if you go for a stroll to discover the surroundings; you will come across shrines, houseboats and bayside cafes. Also note that Shinagawa hosts a few interesting institutions, such include The Institute for Research in Human Happiness, as a hub for the religious and spiritual movement of “Happy Science” founded in 1986; the National Institute of Japanese Literature, which has a large archive of original texts and microfilms; and the Tennozu Studio of TV Tokyo.
Shinjuku-ku is the location of the metropolitan governing center of Tokyo and is the sixth of eight central wards. Notable sites include Golden Gai, a slew of small bars and clubs commonly frequented by musicians, artists, journalists and actors; Kagurazaka, one of the last geisha districts also named “Little Paris”; Nishi-Shinjuku, the skyscraper neighborhood of this ward; Shinjuku Gyoen, the famous large park of Shinjuku; and Tokyo Opera City.
Suginami-ku has many animation studios, such as Bones and Sunrise. Suginami Animation Museum has the history of Japanese animation also detailed in English, and the Suginami Kokaido is the concert hall at which the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra performs.
Sumida-ku is home to the skyscraping Tokyo Skytree. The National Sumo Stadium of Ryogoku Kokugikan is the venue for most sumo matches, but also hosts the New Year celebration and has a sumo museum. The historical Tokyo Irei-do, or Tokyo Memorial Hall, is dedicated to the unidentified persons of the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Bombing of Tokyo, and other disasters. Fans of classic Edo period art will want to wander down Hokusai-dori, named after the ukiyo-e artist who created “The Great Wave of Kanagawa.” The headquarters of Asahi Breweries is also located here, marked by the “Flamme d’Or.”
Taito-ku is teeming with history and culture and is the seventh of the eight central wards of the metropolitan area. Ueno Park is the first and oldest park in Tokyo, established in 1873. There you’ll also find Ueno Zoo, a must-see with red pandas, giant pandas, elephants, lions, puffins and more. Asakusa has the famous seventh-century Sensoji and a market street filled with suitable souvenirs. Yanaka Ginza is a great traditional shopping street with a small town vibe, just adjacent to Nippori Textile Town.
Toshima-ku is the eighth central ward of Tokyo. It has Sunshine City, the center of entertainment in Ikebukuro; the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space; Myonichikan building of the Jiyu Gakuen Girls’ School, which was designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1922; and many other historical and art museums.