Japan: 24-hour Tokyo
FROM the heated toilet seats to the birdsong piped through the railway stations, Tokyo is a city unlike any other. You'll find all the pop-culture chaos you associate with the uber-modern Japanese metropolis beside the serene calm of a Buddhist shrine and the broad sweep of a public park.
It means if you find yourself with only limited time in the city, you have to plan it well, but on the upside there are few cities that run as efficiently as Tokyo. Once you've decided where to go, you'll get there quickly.
From the airport, the Narita express train will take you to the key central stations - Shinagawa, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro - in about 90 minutes. From there you can catch super-efficient suburban trains.
The metro train service is your best way to get around. Get some advice from your hotel concierge on which stops you need for the attractions you want to visit. The rest is easy - the train map is colour-coded and the lines are numbered. Pay attention to your surroundings; some of the stations can be confusing, with above- and underground lines converging.
Where to eat
Tokyo is famous for its gourmet restaurants, but you can also find culinary treasures by being a little brave and wandering down the odd staircase or back street. Again, if you don't speak Japanese you'll need a little creative sign language to make your order, but you'll generally be assisted by willing staff and in many cases those delightful plastic representations of the dishes on the menu.
Get an overview
Several skyscrapers have viewing platforms which will give you an awe-inspiring outlook on the city. Try the Mori Tower, a 54-storey high-rise in the newish precinct of Roppongi Hills.
The first few levels of the tower are home to retail outlets and restaurants; near the top are the Mori Art Museum and the City View platform. And from the rooftop heli-pad you can admire the vista in the open air.
On a clearish day the exclamation mark on the panorama is Mt Fuji, which sits like a school model of a volcano, draped in a snow blanket. In any conditions, the most striking thing about the view is that you can't see the edges of the city in any direction.
For Tokyo's high end, you need to head to Ginza - a mecca of luxury retail where the broad streets are lined with Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Tiffany and massive flagship stores for brands like Sony and Apple.
Or head into one of the department stores, which are in a league of their own. Especially worth visiting are the food halls, where handcrafted pastries, cakes and sweets are testament to that famous Japanese devotion to detail. Here you'll also find strawberries so perfect they look like they're made of plastic - retailing at six for $80. Nobody said Tokyo was cheap.
If pop culture is your thing, the Harajuku district is about a 10-minute walk from the palace. It is particularly famous for the "Harajuku girls", who wear outrageous clothing and make-up and promenade outside the railway station. From the station it's a quick walk across the road to Takeshita St, a narrow shopping strip filled with the cheap clothing stores, novelty shops and food stalls that you associate with the Japan of anime and video games.
Change the pace
Right beside the mania of Takeshita and Harajuku station is the serenity of Meiji Shrine. Named for an emperor who died in 1912, the tree-lined shrine is as calm, cool and contemplative as Harajuku is vivid and noisy.
For another taste of Old Japan, visit Sensoji temple and the five-storeyed pagoda. They're in one of the oldest parts of the city and are guarded by the famous Thunder Gate. The temple is a tourist Mecca and the street running from the gate to the temple is lined with souvenir and food stalls. Fabric, screenprinting and clothes shops are a a block or two away.
Before you go
Many English speakers are put off Tokyo by perceived language difficulties. It's harder to find English speakers here than in many other destinations but that doesn't stop you finding your way around.
Get as much information as you can before you go and, if possible, learn words like "hello", "excuse me", "sorry", "goodbye" and "thank you very much". You're most likely to find English speakers around the airport or larger hotels so make use of them for directions.