I’m often surprised by the negative views I hear about Tokyo when I travel overseas. Based only on Japan’s long economic malaise, many people who’ve never set foot in the place seem to have formed an image of an ugly, congested, polluted, and boring city.
The positive experiences of a South-African friend who recently visited me in Tokyo with his teenage daughter convinced me just how wrong such preconceptions are. Father and daughter alike had nothing but good things to say about the city.
In fact, their enthusiasm inspired me to make a list of the six things I like best about Tokyo.
1. Few traffic jams, little pollution
Japan built a network of elevated expressways crisscrossing Tokyo in preparation for the 1964 Olympics. This means most traffic passes above, rather than through, the city. A large and efficient network of subways and railways further reduces the number of cars at ground level. The result is clean air and a great environment for cyclists, pedestrians, and joggers (always seen running around the Imperial Palace).
Who’d expect such a thing in the capital of the world’s greatest car-building nation?
2. Clean and safe
Japanese people are very tidy. No one litters. Shopkeepers scrupulously scrub down the sidewalk outside their stores. Vandalism and graffiti are almost non-existent. There’s also zero street crime. Elementary school children commute to school unaccompanied. Women can walk anywhere at any time of day or night without fear. Indeed, one experience my South African friends really enjoyed was wandering the city streets late into the night.
Tokyo isn’t just clean and tidy. It has no bad neighborhoods.
3. The most Michelin-starred restaurants
There’s a huge range of eateries in Tokyo. Along with Japanese classics like sushi, tempura, and sukiyaki, international cuisine – Thai, Korean, Italian, French – are widely available. In the 2013 Michelin Guide, Tokyo had 14 three-star, 53 two-star, and 175 one-star restaurants, making it the city with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Of course, no one can eat at Michelin-starred restaurants on a daily basis, but even Japanese fast food outlets like Tenya (tempura) or Yoshinoya (boiled beef on rice) offer healthy and tasty meals at reasonable prices.
Let me go out on a limb here: In Tokyo, there’s no such thing as bad food.
4. Warm-hearted people
Tokyo is a busy place, but people still have the time to be friendly. If you get lost in the subway, someone will always come up to help you find your way (though their English may not be the best). When it’s raining, restaurants will offer you a free umbrella when you leave. Forget something in a cab, shop or restaurant and it’ll be returned to you 99% of the time.
In Tokyo, everyone is made to feel thoroughly at home.
5. Exciting sub-cultures, ancient traditions
The favorite Tokyo neighborhoods of my South African friend’s teenage daughter were Harajuku (a global center for teenage fashion); Akihabara (the Mecca of manga and animation); and Tokyo Disneyland (the world’s most successful Disney theme park). For people less interested in funky new trends, traditional old Japan can be enjoyed in riverside Asakusa or temple-rich Yanaka. The city also has plenty of parks.
Tokyo has something for everyone.
6. A constantly changing city
Big Japanese real estate developers such as Mori Building and Mitsui Fudosan have created mixed-use developments like Roppongi Hills (2003) and Tokyo Midtown (2007). Combining offices, apartments, hotels and shops with restaurants, art galleries, movie theaters and green spaces, these developments constitute exciting new cities within the city. Mitsubishi Estate, another large developer, has spent a decade transforming Marunouchi, a formerly drab office district opposite Tokyo Station, into a European-style neighborhood of cafes, shops, and tree-lined boulevards. The Tokyo Skytree—the world’s highest freestanding broadcasting tower at 634 meters (2,080 ft)—is a must-see. I guarantee it will blow your mind.
Tokyo’s urban environment is getting better all the time!
Ultimately, the most amazing thing about Tokyo must be its sheer size. At 37 million people, the metropolitan area has almost twice the population of Delhi, Mexico City, New York, or Shanghai. Somehow, Tokyo manages to fuse the teeming energy of a developing country capital where new things are always being created with the smooth running of a developed country capital.
With more and more people around the world moving into megacities this century, I believe that Tokyo presents a fantastic example of an organic urban ecosystem that genuinely works. I’d encourage everyone on LinkedIn to come over and check out the biggest and—at least in my book—best city in the world. For me, Tokyo is the ultimate 21st-century city.