Finding History in Futuristic Tokyo

Historic buildings in Tokyo at night

When it comes to fashion, trends, and electronic gadgets, Tokyo is often ahead of the rest of the world. The gleaming skyscrapers, towers, and lights give Japan’s capital a futuristic sheen. This is a city with many centuries of history, however. Before 1868 it even had a different name: Edo.

Shrines and buildings from long before the electric light are often nestled in parks and quiet places away from the bustle. Here are a few notable locations that will take you back to an earlier era.

The Imperial Palace of Tokyo

Chiyoda ward, Eidan Subway Takebashi station or Otemachi station

One of many historic pagodas tucked in around the gleaming skyscrapers of TokyoThe home of the Japanese Emperor was the Shogun’s castle before that, but since it was bombed during WWII, much of what you see as a visitor is not original: it was rebuilt in the traditional style. Some portions of the past remain, however, especially in the easy-to-visit East Gardens. Here you find the original foundation of the castle tower, plus moats, walls, entrance gates and several guardhouses. Naturally there’s an impeccably maintained Japanese garden.

To get insight into the history of the city, from the 1500s to the modern age, take a guided tour of the palace. You can see a model of what Edo looked like in its early days.

Toshogu Shrine

Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Ueno station

This is one of the few shrines in the city that managed to escape all the calamities that wiped out many others: the civil war of 1868, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and World War II. It is dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate and the man who made this city the capital.

Toshuga Shrine in Tokyo Japan

It was restored to glory earlier this decade. Come to see the artwork, murals, and samurai armor in an impressive building and then wander the gardens and see the large stone lanterns along the entrance pathway.

Rikugi-en Garden

Bunkyo ward, JR Komagome station

This garden is considered to be one of Tokyo’s most beautiful places for a walk and it dates back to the early 18th century. It was built for one of the shoguns and reproduces 88 scenes from history and Japanese poems. Several teahouses on the pond’s northwestern shore are good places for quiet conversation and relaxation after a long walk.


30 minutes NW from Tokyo by express train, or 43 minutes from Seibu Shinjuku

This is as close as you can get to the feel of Japan’s real historic capital, Kyoto, without traveling halfway down the country. If you take the Tobu Tojo Express train from Central Tokyo, around a half hour later you’ll step back in time to buildings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

For the oldest structure, find the Toke no Kane bell tower, ringing since the 1600s. Nearby are former warehouses that now house traditional Japanese restaurants. Save some room for sweets and stroll the candy shops from the 1800s along Kashiya Yokosho, a narrow lane paved in stone where you can see people still making hard candy.

Further afield, there was a castle built here in 1457, but now there’s just a building containing residences and offices from the mid 1800s. You can explore inside to see how the nobles lived and worked then. For more info see the local tourism site in English.

Hotels in Tokyo can be pricey, so get a fat points rebate by booking through Bonwi at that link. You could earn enough for a free rental car, a vacation hotel night, or even a flight. 

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