A History Lover’s Guide to Tokyo

Tokyo is a paradise destination for any history lover. From temples and gardens to performing arts and museums, Japan’s capital has it all.

May 23, 2024By Matt Dursum, BA Geography and GIS Systems

history guide tokyo


Tokyo is a city of contrasts. From brightly lit neon billboards, fast-paced lifestyle, and endless nightlife to the quiet and reflective temples and shrines tucked between office buildings and parks. Japan’s largest city is a unique destination unlike anything else on earth.


For history lovers, few cities are as exciting. Tokyo has been the center of Japanese culture, art, and politics for centuries. From museum collections to classical architecture, Tokyo showcases this richness for locals and visitors, making it one of the best places in the world for lovers of history.


Tokyo’s Origin Story 

tokyo tower temple
Tokyo Tower and Temple. Source: Pixels


For most of its history, Tokyo was called Edo. For centuries, the cities of Kyoto and Nara were the centers of political power in Japan. However, during the Tokugawa Period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, the powerful shogunate Tokugawa Ieyasu took power. Edo grew into the cultural and political center of the country with a population of around 1 million people by the 18th century.


The Tokugawa Shogunate oversaw Edo until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 re-instilled imperial rule and Edo became the official capital of Japan. Taking on the name Tokyo, the city industrialized and spread out from its original center. Today, old Edo is mostly unrecognizable. Before the towering skyscrapers and dense commercial and residential blocks, the city radiated out from Edo Castle. The old commercial heart of the city was the Sumida River. Along this major waterway, traders and merchants sold their goods. This was also where the city’s arts flourished. From Kabuki to ukiyo-e, Edo’s underground entertainment districts became the cultural hubs of a growing nation.

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The Legacy of Wars and Disasters

tokyo street life
Tokyo Street Life, Photo by Shigeki Wakabayashi, Source: Unsplash


As the city grew and modernized, two significant events would forever change it. The first was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. During this huge seismic event, over 140,000 people were estimated to have died. The city was rebuilt and, along with the start of the Showa Period in 1926, Tokyo saw its first subway lines, Haneda airport, and its first industrial port constructed. The growth of the city brought the population to over 6 million.


Then came World War II. Unfortunately, many of Tokyo’s original structures and landmarks were destroyed during air raids towards the end of the war in 1945. These buildings, including temples, shrines, castles, and palaces, were made of wood and when American bombs fell, they went up in flames. The worst day of bombing during World War II happened when over 300 American B-29 bombers released 1,500 tons of incendiary bombs on the city. More than 100,000 people, mostly civilians, lost their lives. The human toll was worse than that of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed around 70,000 and 46,000 people.


The fires obliterated an area close to 16 square miles, reducing it to ashes. It left about a million people without homes. Despite the devastation, there is unfortunately no publicly funded museum to memorialize these events. After the bombings and Japan’s loss in World War II, the city was rebuilt. Backed by one of the strongest economies the world has ever seen, the city became the world’s largest metropolis. Even after earthquakes, wars, and non-stop growth and expansion, the city is still full of must-see places brimming with history. Here are the places you should visit if you are a history lover.


1. Tokyo’s Imperial Palace

Tokyo Imperial Palace, Photo by Pierre Blaché, Source: Pixels


The Imperial Palace, or Kōkyo, has been the official residence of the Japanese Emperor since 1868. It was one of the important structures that was severely damaged by bombing raids during World War II. However, shortly after the war ended, it was rebuilt and is now one of Tokyo’s most visited historical landmarks. Castle walls and moats surround the beautifully manicured and tranquil grounds of the palace. Before Tokyo became the capital of Japan, the palace grounds were the site of Edo Castle, a sprawling complex that served as the seat of the Shogunate.


In 1868, the castle became the imperial palace after Japan unified during the Meiji Restoration. This was also when the Japanese emperor’s sovereign power was restored. From the new palace grounds, the emperor ruled over the country and saw its expansion and development into a global military and economic power. The current palace, built in 1968, houses the former emperor’s residence, the Fukiage Omiya Palace. It has six wings and a main building that was constructed to represent traditional Japanese architecture using steel and concrete instead of wood. Also within the grounds are the restored Momijiyama, Toukagakudo Concert Hall, and the stunning East Gardens.


2. Temples and Shrines

senso ji temple tokyo
Senso-ji Temple, photo by Benjamin Wong. Source: Unsplash


Although many were destroyed during World War II, there are still plenty of historical religious structures in and around the city. From giant temples to the tiniest stone shrines, you’ll find plenty of sacred historical landmarks just a short walk from Tokyo’s subway stops. The oldest and most famous religious structure in Tokyo is arguably Sensoji Temple. This beautiful temple was built in 645 and has survived earthquakes, wars, and fires. It sees more visitors than any other temple in Japan and is one of the most visited religious centers in the world.


Several historical shrines in the city are highlights for any history lover. Hie Shrine, located near the National Diet Building, is one of the oldest and most celebrated shrines in the city. Although it was mostly destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt. Today, it holds a national treasure and hosts one of the city’s most popular cultural festivals, the Sannō Matsuri.


Nearby in Ueno Park, is Toshogu Shrine, another must-see religious monument in the city. Toshogu Shrine is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogunate who initiated the Tokugawa Period. Inside the beautifully ornamented wooden structure are more than a dozen intricately carved buildings and treasures.


Yushima Tenmangu, located in the Bunkyo ward, is a beautiful and historic Shinto shrine founded in 458. The shrine is devoted to Sugawarano Michizane, a revered figure honored as the god of learning throughout Japanese history. During the entrance exam period, students come to the shrine for academic blessings to pass their tests and get into the schools of their dreams. As long as you don’t come during exam time, you’ll find the shrine to be a peaceful place to explore.


3. Top Museums

tokyo national museum
Tokyo National Museum, photo by Luke Galloway. Source: Unsplash


Right when you arrive, you’ll want to experience Tokyo’s diverse museum scene. The first stop on your list should be the Tokyo National Museum. This is the city’s largest and oldest museum and houses a huge collection of artifacts from every period of Japan’s history. You’ll see over 100 national treasures, including preserved samurai swords, Buddhist carvings, and classic art. If you love architecture and learning about the Edo style of building and city planning, a visit to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Museum is a must. This beautiful space in the suburb of Koganei showcases Edo and early Showa Period buildings that have been relocated and reconstructed. You’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time wandering through the grounds.


For another step into the Edo period, head to the Fukagawa Edo Museum near the Kiyosumi Gardens. This small but exciting museum takes you through recreations of traditional Edo homes and the lives of commoners. You’ll learn how the people of Edo lived and worked and see firsthand the daily activities that got them by.


For military history enthusiasts, the Japanese Sword Museum is a must. In the Ryogoku neighborhood, this modern building houses blades spanning from the entirety of Japan’s military history. You’ll see perfectly preserved swords and personal artifacts of Japanese samurai and Daimyo. Also in the Ryogoku neighborhood is the Sumida Hokusai Museum. This beautiful metallic space showcases artworks and personal artifacts from Edo’s most world-famous artist and cultural icon, Katsushika Hokusai. The artist, known for his Ukiyo-e prints including the Great Wave off Kanagawa, brought Japanese art into global stardom, over a century after his death.


4. Architectural Wonders

tokyo timo volz
Tokyo Tower, Photo by Timo Volz. Source: Pixels


Even though Tokyo sits in an earthquake zone, the city doesn’t lack tall buildings. Look carefully amongst the modern skyscrapers and you’ll find architectural masterpieces. Many of them barely survived the firebombing of World War II but remain intact as fine examples of late Meiji and early Showa Western-style architecture.


Tokyo Tower is by far the most recognizable building in the city and a global icon. Since its construction in 1958, the tower stood as the country’s tallest tower until Tokyo Skytree overtook the title in 2012. They modeled the freestanding tower after France’s Eiffel Tower. Today, it’s one of the most visited structures in the city. Climbing to the main deck observation platform is on many people’s lists of the top things to do in the city.


In Tokyo’s heart, near the sprawling green spaces surrounding the Imperial Palace is Tokyo Station. This gorgeous brick building was built in 1908, shortly after the Russo-Japanese War. Although the original three-story building was severely damaged in the firebombing of World War II, its iconic brick facade survived. Today, you can visit the rebuilt station and even hop on a train from there to explore the surrounding Kantō region.


5. See Tokyo’s Traditional Performing Arts

Traditional Theater Performance, photo by Susann Schuster. Source: Unsplash


For any history lover, no experience can top off a visit to Tokyo’s classical arts performances. Although Japan is full of centuries-old art forms, nothing is more iconic than Kabuki Theater.


There are many places in Tokyo to see a Kabuki performance, but none more celebrated than Kabuki-za. This beautiful performance space was originally built in 1889 and is one of the most celebrated buildings in Tokyo’s Ginza District. Kabuki originated as a theater style for the common people and has since become a timeless tradition that’s preserved in dozens of institutions in the city. If you can catch a live performance here, you’ll be sure to round off your ultimate Tokyo experience.

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By Matt DursumBA Geography and GIS SystemsMatt is a freelance writer and journalist from Michigan who’s currently living in South America. When he’s not writing, Matt is studying languages — so far Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and French — visiting museums, surfing, and traveling.