Few cities are more prone to stereotyping than Tokyo, with its Blade Runner-esque neon canyons, nutty street fashions, sky-high prices and all-round high-octane urban intensity. All the above are indeed there – in spades – but the real Tokyo for the most part confounds expectations. Visitors are rarely prepared for the other side of the city, so unlike its raucous alter ego: the quietness of the subway, the peaceful residential streets, the old-fashionedness of the place.
These days, years of low inflation and a healthy exchange rate mean that Tokyo is far cheaper than it used to be and often astonishingly good value. The streets are safe, the restaurants consistently excellent and the transport system the most efficient of any major city. The service is outstanding, as is the attention to detail – whether it’s in the presentation of food or gift wrapping in shops. Even the most critical travellers are likely to be charmed by the courtesy they encounter.
Leaving Japan is like emerging from a cosy cocoon into a harsh, brusque world. Well-heeled foreign residents, frankly, have the best of all worlds: the low crime, the good food and service and the high standard of living, without the social and family obligations that the Japanese often wish to escape from.
There are certain irritations – limited green space being one – but overall they are a small price to pay to live in this unique city. The Tokyo region is vast, with a population of 12.5 million people, or 10 per cent of Japan’s total population. It is a 2,187-square-kilometre prefecture of its own, comprising 23 special wards, 26 cities, five towns and eight villages. Tokyo proper (the central district of 23 wards) is a mystery in some ways. Just how has an industrialised city of 8.5 million people, with the highest population density in Japan, come to where it is today without suffering all the usual social ills, the crime and inefficiency, of urban living? Long may it remain so.
Population: 8.5 million (12.5 million greater Tokyo).
International flights: 62 carriers serve 99 cities/36 countries. Over 120 flights a day to US & Canada; 35 to Europe, dozens to Asia.
Crime: murders, 125; domestic break-ins, 13,637 (greater Tokyo, 2005).
State education: there are no fees for tuition or textbooks in state schools for the period of compulsory education. Tokyo has six prominent universities. In 2006 97.7 per cent of students went on to high school.
Health care: Japan has a system of universal health coverage, although how it applies to individuals varies according to factors such as age and work status. Private health insurance is rare in Japan.
Sunshine: annual average, 1,903 hours.
Temperature: in January the average temperature is 6.8C, in July 25C.
Wired: phone coverage in Tokyo is ubiquitous. Most people access the internet through their mobile phones, and as a result free wireless access is limited. This is set to change as Tokyo plans to go completely Wi-Fi.
Tolerance: Tokyo has a discreet but thriving gay scene, although many remain silent about their orientation in the workplace. Strict immigration and asylum policies mean that Tokyo is less racially diverse than other major cities. In 2005 there were 360,000 foreigners in the city. Japan in some ways is behind other countries on gender equality.
Drinking and shopping: no problem getting a drink at 01.00 (or 03.00) in Tokyo. The city is paradise for shoppers – 11.00 to 20.00 daily (department stores open earlier). Convenience stores (conbini) are a part of daily life in Japan and are open all hours.
Transport: Tokyo has a clean and efficient subway system. Cabs cost ¥660 (€4) for the first 2km and are worth it for a polite ride with lacy seat covers.
Local media: five major national dailies plus one Tokyo daily; four of the five publish both morning and evening editions. Plus tabloids and daily sports papers.
International media: a number of English language papers are printed in Japan: International Herald Tribune/Asahi, Daily Yomiuri, The Japan Times, Financial Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal Asia plus The Nikkei Weekly.
Green space: 4 per cent of the city.
**Access to nature:* in summer, Tokyo citizens flock to beaches in Chiba to the east of the city, or Kamakura and Hayama to the south, which are all an hour by train.
Environmental initiatives: there is a strict recycling policy for household rubbish.
Monocle metrics: It’s cheaper than London, shopping doesn’t get better and the residential lanes off the main streets are properly cosy.