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Last updated : Nov 2009
Tokyo Culture Guide
Tokyo Culture Guide - TravelPuppy.com
The legacy of the pleasure-loving people of old Edo, modern Tokyo continues to host a huge number of rituals, festivals, observances and celebrations. Beginning with the traditional New Year visit to major shrines, to pray for good fortune in the coming year, the Tokyo calendar is loaded with high days and holidays, from the extremely populist to the positively obscure. Some events mark a specific anniversary or date in the Buddhist calendar and are restricted to certain neighbourhoods, shrines or temples, while others, for example the spring cherry blossom viewing frenzy, occur citywide.

The traditional arts, also, flourish here, with traditional drama, martial arts, the flower arranging and tea ceremony all widely taught and performed. Tokyo is included on the touring schedules of many internationally famous dance, music, pop groups and art exhibitions, further contributing to the vibrancy of the local arts and entertainment scene. The Tourist Information Centre (tel: (03) 3201 3331) maintains a database of detailed information on the city’s festivals and the English-language magazines Metropolis and Tokyo Journal publish schedules of concerts, events and exhibitions.

The English-language booking agencies, Ticket Pia (tel: (03) 5237 9999) and Lawson Ticket (tel: (03) 5537 9999), are the major ticket merchants, and have outlets located around the city. Events are usually sold out and reservations should be made well in advance.


Those who love classical music are well catered for in Tokyo. There are plenty of resident symphony orchestras – such as the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra – and regular visits by touring orchestras, choirs and opera companies. There are many major venues, among them the Bunkamura Orchard Hall, 2–24–1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku (tel: (03) 3477 9999), with transport from Shibuya Station, Suntory Hall, 1–13–1 Akasaka, Minato-ku (tel: (03) 3584 9999), with transport from Akasaka Station on the Chiyoda underground line, and the beautifully designed new concert hall, Tokyo Opera City, 3–20–2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku (tel: (03) 5353 9999) with transport from Shinjuku Station.

Tokyo International Forum, 3–5–1 Marunochi, Chiyoda-ku (tel: (03) 5221 9000) with transport from Yurakucho Station on the JR Yamanote loop line, stages a range of cultural and musical performances in its 4 halls, on1e being 1 of the largest in the world, with 5,000 seats. Traditional Japanese musical performances, such as shamisen (string instrument) and taiko (drum), are sometimes held at Bunkamura (see above) and in smaller local venues.


Of Japan’s traditional dramatic arts, kabuki, with its beautiful costumes, elaborate staging and complex plots, is possibly the most accessible. Kabuki-za, 4–12–15 Ginza, Chuo-ku (tel: (03) 3541 3131), with transport from Higashi-Ginza Station on the Hibiya and Asakusa underground lines, presents regular performances and offers English earphone commentary. Performances are lengthy, sometimes lasting 5 or 6 hours, however, it is normally possible to purchase tickets for a single act.

Details on programs of other traditional performing arts, including noh (restrained and highly stylised drama, little has changed since Japan’s medieval era), bunraku (puppet theatre) and kyogen (short satirical plays, usually performed as intervals during noh dramas), can be acquired from the Tourist Information Centre (tel: (03) 3201 3331).

Modern Japanese theatre tends to be obscure and the language barrier is an added dissuasion. Much more accessible are the extraordinary review-style performances of the elegant all-female Takarazuka troop, held at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre, 1–1–3 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku (tel: (03) 5251 2001), with transport from Yurakucho Station on the Yamanote loop line.


International dance companies, varying from ballet to tango, regularly include Tokyo on their itineraries. Performances are usually held at Bunkamura, 2–24–1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku (tel: (03) 3477 9999). Butoh, an experimental, often times grotesque form of expressive dance created in Japan in the 1960s, has a devoted following among more avant-garde Japanese. Performances are held in various venues, and schedules are published in the event sections of Metropolis and Tokyo Journal.


Tokyo’s many cinemas are mainly situated in Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Foreign films are usually shown in their original language and subtitled in Japanese. However, tickets are costly and Hollywood releases usually lag months behind other countries. The last show starts around 1900, however there is sometimes a later show on weekends.

Daily news papers and event magazines publish listings of what’s on. Mainstream cinemas include Hibiya Chanter Cinema, 1–2–2 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku (tel: (03) 3591 1511), and Shibuya Tokyu Movie Theatre, Tokyu Bunka Kaikan, 2–21–12 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku (tel: (03) 3407 7029). Cinema Rise is a good arts cinema, 13–17 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku (tel: (03) 3464 0052).

Rather than written representations, Tokyo has always inspired strong images, from the ‘ukiyo-e’ woodblock prints of the Edo period to the films of the today. Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1986) and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) look at aspects of life in the city, while Katsuhiro Otomo’s acclaimed Akira (1988) is a sci-fi animation set in futuristic Tokyo. However, it is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) with which many Westerners are most familiar. Actually set in a future Los Angeles and filmed in Hollywood, the scenes of a dark, rainy, neon-studded cityscape are for many an enduring image of Tokyo.

Cultural events

Japan’s traditional neighbourhood matsuri (religious festivals) remain very much a living tradition. Happy and good-naturedly boisterous, they offer a very different look at the Japanese to that seen in an everyday or business setting. Starting at the local shrine, mikoshi (portable shrines) are paraded down the streets by men, women and children adorned in festival garb, accompanied by traditional music and dancing. Street stalls sell trinkets, snacks, and copious amounts of beer. Held in neighbourhoods all over Tokyo during the summer, the famous ‘big three’ are the Kanda Matsuri held in Kanda and the Sanja Matsuri held in Asakusa, both take place in mid May, and the Sanno Matsuri held in Akasaka in mid June. With 1000's of participants and several more spectators, these festivals are lots of fun but can be incredibly crowded and exhausting.

April is the time for cherry blossom viewing and it seems that everyone in Japan visits the city’s parks to picnic and enjoy the blossoms. During August, traditional Bon-odori dances are held underneath colourful lanterns to honour the spirits of the ancestors. The fun, extravagant and very un-Japanese Asakusa Samba Carnival is arranged by Brazilian–Japanese returnees and is held annually in late August on the streets of Asakusa. The annual Tokyo International Film Festival takes place in late October/early November at Bunkamura, 2–24–1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku (tel: (03) 3477 9999), and cinemas in the Shibuya area.

The 3 major sumo tournaments that are held annually in Tokyo are major events, as is the baseball season, which opens in April and runs through the summer until the championships in October. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s two giant trade fair venues host huge exhibitions year round, among the best known being the annual Tokyo Motor Show, which is usually takes place in late autumn.

Literary Notes

 Tokyo boasts Japanese authors as diverse as Kenzaburo Oe, 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, and Banana Yoshimoto, author of the cult novel Kitchen (1993).

 From the great ‘interpreter of Japan’, Lafcadio Hearn – one of the first foreign residents of Tokyo and from the foreign service wives of the 19th century, who delighted in the cherry blossoms and the dainty manners of the people – to Angela Carter, who pronounced Tokyo ‘an exceedingly pleasant place in which to live’, Tokyo has merited inclusion in many memoirs. These include the writings of Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Jean Cocteau and Charlie Chaplin.

 William Gibson’s novel, Idoru (1997), explores Tokyo’s technological future, and the darker side of the city is portrayed in Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble (1994) by Karl Taro Greenfeld.

 A Booker-shortlisted novel set in Tokyo is the amazing Number 9 Dream (2001) by David Mitchell.