Ahh, Tokyo, the neon city in the heartland of the rising sun. Like a vivid dream, it can take you for the wildest of rides -- ceasing to grow crazier and weirder only when you decide to hit the brakes yourself.
At first the sheer number of people -- more than 35 million in the greater metropolitan area -- will bewilder you. But then, as you become lost in the anonymity of it all, you will begin to craft a series of inimitable Tokyo moments that will come to define the city on your very own terms.
Will you stroll the high-end shopping boulevards of Ginza and Omotesando with Tokyo's fashion elite? Shall you let your inner nerd fly to grand new heights of geekery inside one of Akihabara's towering game centers? Nightlife? Not even a question. When the city's rail system stops around midnight, the young night is only beginning to revel. And when you're ready to relax, no matter whether you want to take a solitary stroll, lie in the grass with a book and a beer, or simply watch groups of people doing everything from juggling to reenacting great sword battles, Yoyogi Park will welcome you into its vast green acres.
For a first-time visitor to Asia, Tokyo makes for a wonderfully accessible gateway. It's immaculately clean, incredibly safe for travelers and relatively painless to navigate. North Americans will find Japan remarkably Westernized, yet the sights will be different enough from the norm to keep you excited and engaged.
The city is well networked by the best rail system on Earth. Be prepared to navigate and master the city's web of trains and subways, as riding the rails is the optimum way to travel around. (Avoid taking a taxi unless you're ready to part with a handsome sum of yen.) The service of all trains is so punctual you could set a watch to it.
Tokyo has been the capital of Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the area was known as Edo. Over its history, the city has suffered huge catastrophes inflicted by both man and nature. The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 killed more than 140,000. Decades later, nearly half of Tokyo was set aflame when the United States heavily bombed the city in 1944 and 1945. But from the ashes of that war grew a powerful new city, first showcased to the world at the 1964 Olympic Games. Power and wealth grew rapidly in Tokyo, and by the 1980's Japan was poised to be the dominant force in the world economy, with Tokyo at its helm.
However, that bubble of prosperity burst, and Japan stayed economically stagnant for the better part of the last two decades. Then on March 11, 2011 the Great Tohoku Earthquake rattled the city to its knees. Japan is powered heavily by nuclear energy, but the crippling of the Fukushima nuclear plants some 125 miles northeast has left the neon city of Tokyo glowing a little less brightly. It's common today to see anti-nuclear protests. Japan will never be the same, for much of the damage of 3/11 is irreparable. But resilient as ever, Japan lives on. Today traveling to Japan and Tokyo is safe. And Tokyo is wide open and ready to win you over.
Photos: Return to Japan After the Earthquake
--written by James A. Foley