Tokyo is the world's ultimate city. In terms of size, skyline and population, it's unrivaled. But the seemingly endless cityscapes don't leave much room for nature or the environment. While stereotypical images of Japan include lush gardens, forests and mountains, the city of Tokyo is usually represented in mainstream media (and popular imagination) as an utterly urban place.

Of course, Tokyo is not completely void of green and actually has some impressive environmentally friendly traits. Its train system is the envy of every other modern metropolis in the world. Its food scene, while the subject of controversy among some conservationists, is filled with locally grown (or caught) food and characterized by a growing demand for organic products. Decades of pollution reduction and a new commitment to greener construction practices point to a cleaner future.

Perhaps Tokyo's bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics (see "A green future?" below), in which it outlines plans for the greenest Olympics of the modern era, will change popular perceptions about the city, even if the Games are ultimately awarded to another contender.

Sleep green

Tokyo's hotel scene is defined by large sleep factories that put a premium on comfort and design at the expense of everything else.

Small, traditional guesthouses, known as Ryokan, go against that trend. These wooden inns provide comfortable, authentic experiences without many of the high-tech, energy-eating extras found at larger hotels. Many of these places have gardens and are located in quiet neighborhoods away from the noise and chaos. Of course, this being Tokyo, no matter how out-of-the-way a location feels, there's a always a train station nearby.

Some larger boutique hotels are approaching their relationship with Mother Nature in rather unique ways. The Celestine Hotel has several green features, such as paper products that aren't made from trees and biodegradable packaging materials for bath products. And there's also an unusual twist: Staff uniforms are made from 100 percent recycled materials.

Appreciate green culture

Despite the perceived absence of expansive green spaces, there are plenty of places in Tokyo where nature thrives.

This is most evident when the cherry trees (sakura) blossom in late March and early April. Ueno Park takes on a festive atmosphere as people who've spent the winter indoors come out to appreciate the almost surreal colors on the trees. The rest of the year, Ueno, Tokyo's largest park, is a popular spot for a glimpse of greenery, though some visitors might find it somewhat grungy and used.

Less centralized parks and gardens in Tokyo offer a different kind of experience. Rikugien is a classical Japanese park with forests and well-manicured gardens and lawns arranged around a large pond. The garden has a 300-year history. It, along with other historic natural areas, like the Meiji Shrine adjacent to the chaotically busy Shibuya train station, offer a bit of respite from Tokyo's seemingly all-encompassing urbanness.

Go green

Tokyo has the best mass transit system in the world. The network of subways, light rail, buses and taxis make it possible to go anywhere in the vast metropolitan area without getting behind the wheel (or even needing to walk very far). In addition, most cities are connected to Tokyo via rail. Though there are plenty of taxis on the streets, a bit of subway savvy is all you'll need to get around.

Tokyo's bike scene is quite evident, especially outside the busy commercial centers. The entrances to most train stations in the city are littered with bikes that people use for the first part of their morning commutes. There are even underground parking lots for bicycles at some stations. Tourists can get in on the cycling scene by purchasing a decent, second-hand bike for a surprisingly low price.

Eat green

Japanese are the leading buyers of organic foods in the world, with domestic sales totaling between $32 billion and $43 billion per year. Recent scares of tainted dairy products imported from China have indirectly promoted the use of natural and organic foods in the mainstream.

Tokyo is one of the top restaurant cities in the world. Fresh products are at a premium, meaning the closer to the source a food is when served, the more it's desired. Locally grown or caught food can be found at the smallest sushi shops and the largest, most popular eateries in the city. Foodies will be delighted by this obsession with freshness and greenies with the low carbon cost that comes from food with a short journey from harvest to plate.

A green future?

Tokyo seems to be searching for a greener future. Its bid for the 2016 Olympics is centered on creating a low-cost, carbon-negative event. Rather than building new structures, many existing spaces, including some of those used for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, will be renovated and reused. This is contrary to almost every other Olympics in recent history, where the games were preceded by massive construction efforts. Also, the proposal calls for the events to be centralized, with travel kept to a minimum because all venues will be within 10 miles of the Olympic village and central stadium. Plans also call for a solar power plant to be built in Tokyo Bay and carbon credits to be sold to offset the emissions produced by the hundreds of thousands of people who will fly to the Games.

After Beijing and Athens, two cities with massive pollution problems who went overboard while building for Olympics, Tokyo's toned-down, greened-up event would be a welcome change. At the very least, the bid will show the world that Tokyo is more than a big city; it's intent on building up its green elements to make a cleaner, more natural future.

(MNN homepage photo: Ken@Okinawa/Flickr)