The Best Temples and Shrines in Tokyo
See Some of the Best Japanese Historical Sights
Tokyo is one of the greatest cities in the world, and the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Japan. It has everything that’s good about Japanese culture - from excellent cuisine, friendly people, and convenience - with the excitement of other large world cities like New York or Hong Kong. With that image comes a common misconception, though - there’s no traditional Japanese culture in Tokyo. This couldn’t be farther from the truth - while Tokyo does not contain the amount of historical sights as other major Japanese cities (like Kyoto), there’s still enough to see and do for those who want a look at the traditional culture of Japan.
Probably one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of “Tokyo” and “history” is Meiji Shrine (also known as Meiji Jingu). Located in the west of the city, in the Shibuya area, Meiji Jingu was originally built as a dedication to the Meiji Emperor. Destroyed in the Tokyo bombings of World War II and rebuilt in the ashes of that conflict, today the Meiji Shrine is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Tokyo. You don’t have to be a history buff, or know much about traditional Japanese culture, to appreciate the beauty of its architecture and the forest that contains it.
Being located near the Harajuku neighborhood of Shibuya makes Meiji Shrine a great place for those who want to experience both sides of Japanese life - the traditional and the modern. It’s also close to Yoyogi Park, which is one of the best places in Tokyo for a stroll or picnic. Best of all, the Meiji Shrine is completely free, making it an excellent choice for those who want to save money in Japan.
Located in the center of Tokyo, the Imperial Palace is the residence of Japan’s royal family. Much of it is closed off to visitors, but there are still times of the year - such as holidays and special events - when tourists can access it. For the rest of the year, there are controlled, guided tours available in Japanese and English, though you have to reserve in advance (which you can easily do through the internet). The Imperial Palace East Gardens are the one part of the Palace that’s open all year round; while it doesn’t contain much in the way of shrines, temples, or traditional Japanese architecture, it does make for a nice peaceful stroll in one of the nicest areas in Tokyo.
If you’ve seen pictures of Tokyo, no doubt you’ve come across a few of Asakusa, which is the one neighborhood in the Japanese capitol which has the largest concentration of temples. Here you can catch a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture, as well as one of Tokyo’s more famous working class neighborhoods. There’s a lot to do and see here, but the highlight is Sensouji - the largest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The area is also littered with smaller gates, shrines, and artifiacts however, such as the famous Kaminarimon (thunder gate) which greets people first visiting Asakusa.
Besides getting a good look at traditional Japan, Asakusa is also a great place to pick up souvenirs, and shops and gift stands make up a large portion of the street leading up to Sensoji. It’s a more bustling and noisier area than say, Meiji Shrine, but that lends Asakusa its own unique atmosphere. It’s also not far from Ueno, which has an excellent park and some shrines of its own, not to mention some of the cheapest hotels in Tokyo. For those wanting to see Asakusa and other famous Tokyo neighborhoods from above, you can also check out the recently built tower Skytree.
Finally, some of the best traditional sightseeing is not in Tokyo itself, but rather on some of the cities surrounding it. You can easily get to Yokohama - Japan’s second largest city - for a look at Japan’s recent past and its opening to the outside world. There are also smaller towns, such as Odagawa, home to the only Japanese castle in the Kantou area. Tokugawa Ieyasu is also buried in the nearby town of Nikko. One thing to note about Tokyo, and Japan in general, is that even smaller towns have a lot that’s worth seeing. Many of them have great, smaller shrines and historical sites to visit, and if they don’t have that they’ll definitely have their own regional quirks or beautiful countryside views making them worth going to.
Despite its reputation as a concrete jungle without any history, Tokyo has something to offer just about anyone. History buffs would no doubt be better satisfied by the wonders of Kyoto, but Tokyo still has enough temples and shrines for anyone wanting a glimpse of historical Japan.