Tokyo Orientation

Orientation: Learn the Complex Structure of Tokyo

Updated November 9, 2019 | by Chad A. Thiele, 23 year veteran of Tokyo.

To amplify your time in Japan, I think it’s important to get a basic understanding where each of the parts of Tokyo is located in relation to each other. It will help you travel around more efficiently — and give you a good sense of where you want to go.

So let’s get started.

Where is Tokyo Located?

First, let’s find the location of Tokyo in Japan. This will help set the stage for the rest of this guide. The black shape on the map below is Tokyo (and yes, that’s all it is, seems like it should be bigger huh?).

japan-tokyo-map-compressor.jpg

Let’s zoom in a bit. This is the full outline of Tokyo.

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You can see Tokyo is surrounded by the Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, and Yamanashi prefectures.

Notice I color coded the map into two halves? That is because you can break Tokyo into two main parts. Downtown and the suburbs (rather like most big cities around the world eh?).

Let’s see why this is an important distinction to understand.

Downtown Tokyo

This is the Tokyo you imagine when you hear the word Tokyo. The huge skyscrapers, traffic, pedestrians everywhere. The hustle and busy of busy, big city, life.

The heart of the “downtown” area of Tokyo is made up of 23 special wards. They’re kind of like a bunch of cities that came together to form Tokyo.

Many of these wards you may know of already, such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, or perhaps Chiyoda — where the imperial palace is located.

The important thing to think of here is that they are very busy, highly populated, expensive to live in, and are usually best accessed by train (as parking is quite expensive too).

Check out this map to see where each of 23 wards are located in relation to each other.

23 wards of Tokyo

You can dive more into the special wards of Tokyo on this Wikipedia page. Also, a site called Green & Turquoise has a great writeup about the special wards.

The Suburbs

To the west of the downtown area of Tokyo are the suburbs, referred to as the Tama area.

The suburbs of Tokyo

This is where most of the people who work in downtown Tokyo live (and then the commute to work each day — usually by train).

To put things into perspective, locate Tachikawa on the map. Can you guess how long it would take to commute from Tachikawa to let’s say… Nakano station (which is one of the downtown wards of Tokyo)?

Only 20-40 minutes (depending if you can catch the rapid train).

Note: the rapid train is one that skips many of the smaller stations along its route.

Shout out to my fellow U.S. military members. Yokota Air Base is the only U.S. military base in Tokyo. It’s located basically at the intersection of 6 cities in the Tama area: Tachikawa City, Akishima City, Fussa City, Musashimurayama City, Hamura City and Mizuho Town.

It’s about 40-60 minutes from Nakano station.

Districts (or Neighborhoods)

When you start hunting for places to enjoy in Tokyo, you’ll find locations are described by the district they’re in.

Take for example Ginza. It’s a popular location that many around the world have heard of. But it isn’t referring to a town within Tokyo. Ginza is a district in the Chuo ward.

You can think of districts as a sort of neighborhood. An area that has garnered its own unique name. In fact many websites will refer to these districts as neighborhoods in their menus.

In some cases the district matches the ward. For example, Shinjuku. It’s the ward, and there is a district.

There are many popular districts you may have heard of, but didn’t realize they were districts within a ward, such as: Roppongi, Odaiba, or Harajuku.

Take a look at the map below. Locate the Shibuya ward. Notice inside the Shibuya ward there is Harajuku and Ebisu. These are two popular districts inside of Shibuya.

Tokyo special wards map

Truth be told, you’ll hear the districts named so often you’ll forget about the wards altogether. Actually, even after many years living in Japan I don’t really pay much attention to the wards.

This is probably because when describing the location of places it’s important to be as specific as possible.

Often each district is known for something that makes it unique. For example, Roppongi is the nightlife hub of Japan. Akihabara is the electronics and anime capital. Ginza is the Beverly Hills of Japan.

Districts are only found in the 23 special wards (downtown) of Tokyo. The western suburbs are each their own city (with a couple exceptions that are too small to call cities. They’re called villages instead).

The Breakdown

Let’s recap real quick to wrap up this guide.

Tokyo, despite being the most populated, is but a teeny, tiny part of Japan (land-wise).

It is split into two halves. Downtown (the special wards) and the western suburbs (the Tama area).

Within the special wards there are districts (or neighborhoods if it’s easier for you to remember).

These districts are used to describe the location of places. And they are often known for something unique — something enticing that you’ll want to check out.

Before You Leave

The guide is complete but before you go do this one thing. Look at the map below. Find the place where you live (or are currently located).

Now just let this location sink in. Check out the surrounding towns (or wards if you happen to live downtown).

Take some time… don’t rush. Look around and orient yourself so when you do go exploring you’ll have an overall sense of direction. You’ll thank me later. 😉

That’s it for this guide. I hope you learned a bit and that you’ll find the information I shared with you helpful.

Enjoy Tokyo!


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