Tokyo is one of the most exciting cities in the world. Japan’s cool capital has something for everyone – from ancient temples and historic neighbourhoods to maid cafes and a giant Godzilla head. Unlike many cities around the world it’s pretty light on actual landmarks but experiencing it is a highlight of any Japan itinerary. Not sure what to get up to on your visit? Here’s my list of top things to do in Tokyo.
Top Things To Do in Tokyo, Japan
No visit to Tokyo would be complete without spending time in Shibuya. The district is akin to Tokyo’s beating heart – experiencing it goes a long way to understanding the city and modern Japanese culture. The shopping and entertainment area – full of malls, restaurants and clubs – can provide days’ worth of entertainment. The main highlight, of course, is the famous intersection in front of Shibuya Station. Standing at the crossing alongside hundreds of people and gazing up at the sea of neon signs and giant billboards all around you is pretty incredible. Then the lights go green and just like that you have one of the quintessential Tokyo experiences.
You will probably work this one out for yourself. Starbucks overlooks the intersection and the upstairs bit is a great vantage point for taking photos and videos of the intersection. You will need to buy a drink though and possibly wait for a decent spot by the window to open up.
Visit the ancient Senso-ji
Built in 628, Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of the city’s most visited sights. Legend has it that it was built in honour of the goddess Kannon, a statue of which appeared to two fishermen in a nearby river. Today the temple’s impressive main hall and five-storied pagoda are as close as Tokyo really gets to a proper landmark. There is plenty to see before you even get to the main complex, though! The Kaminarimon gate and its giant chochin (lantern) is the entrance to the 250m long shopping street packed with souvenir shops, traditional goods and delicious street food.
Arrive EARLY as the areas is very popular with tourists and Japanese alike. I stayed in a hostel just a few metres away and was able to arrive at 6:30 am where I could explore the grounds in peace and seeing locals go about their morning routines.
Opening Times: Main Hall: 06:00-17:00 (06:30 October to March) Grounds: Always open
Explore Ueno Park
Ueno Park is one of my favourite spots in Tokyo. The large public park is perfect for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. It also acts as a sort of a museum quarter with five calling the park home. The Shinobazu Pond is another highlight with the Bentendo temple hall on a small island in the middle and a chance to hire swan-shaped boats. There are multiple temples and shrines, plenty of delicious street food and even a zoo! You can even watch an amateur baseball game on a field close to the main station. Oh and did I mention that’s a popular spot to see the famous cherry blossom with over a 1000 trees along the park’s main walkway.
Ueno Park is home to National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Science Museum and the Shitamachi Museum. The entrance by JR Ueno station has a number of kiosks where you can purchase museum passes giving you discounted entry if you are planning on visiting more than one!
Opening Times: all day but shrine, museum and zoo opening times vary.
Price: Park and temples are free but museums and zoo have entrance fees (around £4-5/$7-8)
Get a glimpse of the royals at Tokyo Imperial Palace
The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Japan’s Imperial Family. Built in 1888 it’s located on the site where Edo Castle – seat of the Japanese rulers during the Edo period (1603-1867) – once stood. The palace itself is not usually open to the public but you can see it from a plaza which has great views of the palace and the Nijubashi Bridge or take a tour of the outer grounds. However, if you time your visit really well – you could get access to the inner grounds. On the 23rd December (Emperor’s Birthday) and 2nd January (New Year’s Greeting), visitors can get closer to the palace and even glimpse the members of the Imperial Family on the palace’s balcony.
Opening Times: The plaza is open all day (map location above). The palace inner grounds only open on the 23rd December and 2nd January
Release your inner geek in Akihabara
Akihabara is another Tokyo district that gives a great insight into a significant part of Japanese culture. The area is a mecca for anything otaku (sort of super fandom of popular culture, manga/anime and computers) and is full of electronic stores, arcades and themed cafes. Which doesn’t SOUND like everyone’s cup of tea, but believe me it’s an experience you won’t forget. Wander giant mega malls like Yodobashi Camera, rummage for retro video games and figurines and stop off for refreshments at maid and robot cafes. Come at night to drink in the atmosphere of this neon-lit world or on Sundays when the whole area becomes pedestrian-only. Trust me, this is one of the coolest areas to explore in Tokyo and if you are AT ALL into the culture Akihabara celebrates, you’ll be in heaven.
Visit the Tsukiji Fish Market
Checking out one of the world’s largest fish markets was one of my favourite experiences in Tokyo. Wandering along its many lanes, dodging the zippy turret trucks darting between gawping visitors and watching workers cut up the fresh morning catch samurai-style is fascinating. The bustling outer market is where you can sample all the so-fresh-some-of-it-is-still-alive seafood from the multitude of stalls and restaurants. Seafood lovers will be in their element and everyone else should still enjoy the organised chaos of the market. If you are really dedicated, you can visit the tuna auction taking place from 5am. Beware – places are strictly limited to 120 a day and many start queuing hours before!
The outer market gets ridiculously busy after everyone finished exploring the main wholesale area. My advice is to get to Tsukiji early (I arrived at 8am) to explore the outer market before the tourists arrive. Grab some cheap, tasty breakfast and wait for the inner market to open at 10am!
Opening Times: Outer Market – 05:00-14:00 (times vary), Inner (Wholesale) Market – from 10:00am, Tuna Auction – 5:25-6:15am (restricted to 120 visitors per day.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, checking out different Tokyo districts is one of the best way to sightsee in the Japanese capital. Shinjuku is a bustling business and entertainment area that’s full of things to see and do. It’s home to some of Tokyo’s best shopping, a skyscraper district, parks and even a red-light district. Pop culture fans would love the Gracery Hotel and its fire-breathing Godzilla head or the famous Robot Restaurant. Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest and is useful for day trips out of the city (just try not to get lost!).
The 240 metre tall Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has free observation decks on the 45th floors of its twin towers. It’s a great, wallet-friendly way to see the city from up high.
Bar hop around Golden Gai
Shinjuku should be on any Tokyo itinerary in its own right, but it’s the small Golden Gai area that was one my highlights in the capital. Six narrow alleys, criss-crossed with even smaller passageways, house over 200 tiny bars and eateries in an area formerly known for prostitution. Some of the places have English signs and menus but the fun is in checking out random places and engaging with the locals. I sat in an American themed bar talking politics with patrons who didn’t speak a word of English – we did manage to agree Brexit was a bad thing! The area doesn’t really get going till later in the evening so come around 9-10pm for the atmosphere or earlier to explore in peace. Bear in mind that photography/video is technically prohibited.
Grab food at Nagi. It was the best ramen I have ever tasted. It was also endorsed by legendary ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky – and if it’s good enough for him, it’s definitely good enough for me! Then grab a beer at 5 Gallons or any of the bars dotted around the area!
Escape to Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu)
Meiji Jingu and the forest that surrounds it are a welcome respite from the bustling city that surrounds them. It was built in 1920 in honour of Emperor Meiji who modernised Japan and was one of the influences of it becoming prominent on the world stage. One of Japan’s most visited shrines, it’s a pleasant stroll from Harajuku station. You’ll pass huge torii gates, colourful sake barrels and dense forest before arriving at the shrine. You can explore its grounds, make offerings or scribble your wishes on wooden ema tablets. I definitely recommend a visit, especially on a hot day when the cover of the trees is a blessing.
Opening Times: Meiji Shrine – Sunrise to sunset, Inner Garden – 09:00-16:30 (until 16:00 November to February), Treasure House – closed until autumn 2019
Price: Meiji Shrine – Free, Inner Gardens – ¥500 (£4/$5.50)
Walk Takeshita Street, Harajuku
Once you’ve explored the tranquil Meiji Shrine, it’s time to dive straight back into the Tokyo craziness. Takeshita Dori, which starts across the road from Harajuku Station, is a 400 metre shopping street, primarily catering to young people. Shops, fast food joints and colourful crepe stalls line the street and this is where fashionable teenagers come to pick up the coolest threads. It’s fun to explore and some of the streets off Takeshita have some interesting spots but the crowds that are usually found here may put some off.
Where: Map – Takeshita Street is right opposite Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line.
Opening Times: Shops tend to open 11:00-20:00 but café and bar opening times will vary
Get cultural at the National Art Center
If art is your thing, the National Art Center is a great option to while away a few hours. Japan’s largest art museum is unique in that it has no permanent collections. Instead it serves as a venue for smaller, temporary exhibitions. It’s a great place to check out Japanese and Western artists. Check what’s on as you may stumble upon something unique. When I visited, an exhibition of Art Noveau painter Alfons Mucha’s pieces was the first of its kind outside his native Czech Republic.
Opening Times: These vary depending on day and exhibition. Check the latest information here.
Price: Differs by exhibition
Try incredible Japanese food
I’ve talked about Japanese food on this blog before. It’s soooo delicious and I recommend trying as much as you can! Tokyo has earned its status as one of the gastronomic capitals of the world. It has the most Michelin stars out of any city in the world but is also perfect for eating on a budget. Try and visit an izakaya (Japanese pub) for tasty inexpensive small plates or look out for ordering machines outside of restaurants – these are fast food places where you order before you even come inside! Don’t be afraid to try stuff from the street food stalls either – such as delicious yakitori and takoyaki.
Visit Tokyo’s themed cafes
If “quirky”, “unusual” and “novelty value” are among your requirements for a café, then visiting Tokyo is like hitting the jackpot. Twice. In a row. If you can think of any theme or concept, there is a very good chance that there is a Tokyo café out there for you. From rabbit and owl cafes to robot restaurants and bars where you are served by girls in maid outfits, Tokyo has you covered. There are goat cafes, pop band cafes and video game character cafes. There is even a vampire café! You could even do a “café crawl” and experience a few of them in one go!
The way the cafes work is quite simple – you either pay a cover charge for admission or are required to purchase a drink or two. Make sure you check before you go in though – some charge hourly.
Get a bird’s eye view from the Tokyo Skytree
The Tokyo Skytree is a 634 metre broadcasting tower that became the world’s tallest freestanding comms tower in the world when it was completed in 2012. The impressive structure houses shops, cafes and restaurants as well as an observation deck. On a clear day there are impressive views of the city and beyond.
Opening Times: 08:00-22:00 daily
Price: From ¥2060 (£13/$18). For the detailed ticket information, click here.
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