Tokyo is vast. Like, really really vast. There are such a plethora of things to do and places to see that it can be hard to fit everything in when planning for a visit. There are districts in this glittering neon metropolis that cater for everybody from bustling shopping areas to beautiful parks, wild nightlife spots to serene religious sites. This guide should fill you in on some of the more interesting parts of Tokyo and help inform you of the must see local sights and activities.
Shibuya is most famous for its crowded crossing which is said to be the busiest in the world. Arrive as the lights turn red and marvel at how quickly the sidewalks fill up with people waiting to cross this enormous intersection. It really is something else to witness so many people jostling for a good position along the limited expanse of kerb available. To get a good bird’s eye view of the madness, try and get a window seat at the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing – this, for obvious reasons, is easier said than done, however!
Hidden amongst the hurried crowds you might also want to hunt out the bronze statue of Japan’s most faithful (and famous) dog, Hachiko. Hachiko met his owner at Shibuya train station each day without fail until one evening his master did not show up as usual. He had died, unbeknownst to his four-legged friend, who persisted in showing up at the spot for a further ten years until his own death in 1935. The Japanese, impressed by the dog’s unshakeable loyalty, petitioned for a statue to be erected in the exact spot it had sat each day, waiting in vain for its owner’s return. The original statue was smelted down during WWII but the current sculpture was recommissioned in 1948 and still stands to this day. The story was used as the basis of an American film starring Richard Gere.
As well as these train related sights, Shibuya also offers a wide range of shopping and dining opportunities. Shibuya 109, a corner mall that cannot be missed, is the favourite haunt of gyaru – girls with bright orange tans who look distinctly like Oompa-Loompas – and provides a unique chance for some unusual people watching. Heading out from the central point of Shibuya crossing offers a chance to do some brand name and bargain clothes shopping. There are a wide number of shoe stores on the main streets of Shibuya, some selling styles only available in Japan, so anyone with a trainer obsession will be in their element. It is worth checking out A Bathing Ape even if you are not a fan of their outlandish clothing for the interior design of the store alone. Restaurants are present at nearly every corner specialising in everything from ramen, katsu, curry and, if you are feeling particularly controversial, whale. If you are an avid gamer there are a number of arcades you can frequent – if, like me, you are a fan of rhythm games then Club SEGA has you covered. Other players are generally well-mannered and will give up their machine for you if you look like you are waiting for a turn.
Akihabara is Tokyo’s Electric district, specialising in computer components, gaming culture and memorabilia, anime and manga. The area is filled with arcades, video game stores, duty-free shops and, if this is your kind of thing, maid cafes where you can be doted over by young things dressed up in costume. On Sundays the main street in Akihabara is closed to traffic allowing for large crowds to flood the area – this either means you’ll have a blast mixing with like-minded individuals or be frustrated by the choking mass of bodies. Depending on which category you fall into, make sure to attend or avoid that day!
If you are a gaming aficionado, then you owe it to yourself to visit Akihabara. Not only does the area provide the cheapest prices for gaming hardware and software but it also has the biggest range of gaming goodies in the capital, too. Whether you are a collector of rare or classic games, into limited edition consoles or are fond of more modern offerings, Akihabara will have you fully covered. There are plenty of shops selling figurines and collectables of your favourite Japanese games and cartoon characters if you are into otaku culture. In addition, don’t be surprised to see your favourite icons milling about the streets or attempting to draw you into specific stores. Nearly every storefront and skyscraper is plastered with images of the self-same characters, as well as advertisements for the latest and upcoming video game releases.
If you are looking for parts to build your own PC then there are literally hundreds of different stores and stalls you can visit in order to pick up the bits and bobs you need at the best prices. Many of the shops in Akihabara offer duty-free to foreign visitors and, as long as you have your passport with you so they can attach your receipt to it, you can purchase these electronics as well as many other gifts and claim your tax back before you leave the country.
Arcade gamers will be spoilt for choice in Akihabara. Within the gloomy confines of these gaming monoliths you can find classic cabinets for games such as Street Fighter II, Raiden, Gundam and much more. More recent options such as the many Hatsune Miku rhythm game variants that find release in Japan are also readily available. Be sure to purchase one of the cards the machine offers you as you can save your progress on them and continue from where you left off last time! Pay careful attention to the imagery on screen as, even with no Japanese language skills, it is still possible to acquire one pretty easily.
If you are looking for a quick, cheap and delicious bite to eat then I can highly recommend Star Kebab. They offer chicken, lamb or beef as meat choices and there are a selection of sauces to spice things up – their extra hot sauce is a real killer and will have you chugging water ineffectually for some time! They also offer a loyalty card which, when filled, can be exchanged for free grub – this is easily achievable even during a short stay in Tokyo as, once you have tried the place, you’ll almost definitely end up going back for second helpings. You get additional stamps for taking on the extra hot sauce if you’re brave enough to try it!
Shinjuku station is a major transport hub in Tokyo and is the busiest train station in the world. As such, the surrounding city is full of delights and the wide main streets and labyrinthine back alleys boast huge electronic stores and fashion outlets such as UniQlo and Bic Camera, a vast choice of international restaurants to dine at, hundreds of izakayas to drink in and arcades that stay open 24/7 to cater for insomniac gamers and midnight thrill seekers. Don’t be afraid to go down what might look like the less inviting back streets as they house many hidden gems in the guise of smaller independent restaurants, bars and stores. Shinjuku also claims its own mini-Akihabara area in Electric Street which offers plenty of chances to pick up Japanese games, electronics and media or, if you are feeling more sadomasochistic, take a sound thrashing from a seasoned veteran of the Tokyo arcade scene. I’d never been beaten at Virtua Tennis until I landed in Japan and was flattened with consummate ease, a humbling defeat that haunts me to this day…
Be sure to hunt out the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings if you wish to take in a sky-high vantage point of the compact streets, the isolated pockets of nature Shinjuku hides and some of the taller buildings from a better perspective. Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, a fancier version of the London Gherkin, houses three of Tokyo’s educational institutes and is worth a closer look if you get the chance – you’ll often pass artistically designed posters advertising the HAL Tokyo design college it houses on billboards around the area. Don’t panic if you notice a giant dinosaur’s head peering at you from amidst the buildings; it isn’t a marauding monster but a model built to commemorate one of Japan’s most famous exports, Godzilla. You can find him in the Kabukicho area and if you arrive at the right time you can witness a brief show with plenty of flashing lights, sound effects and gratuitous smoke machine usage.
If you wish to find serenity within the midst of this frenetic district there are a wide selection of parks within walking distance. The best of these beautiful spots include Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden with its myriad of different topiary and garden stylings from across the globe and Shinjuku Chuo Park which is very close to the Government Buildings and has some nice water features to admire. The one park experience that is not to be missed when in and around Shinjuku, however, is the area surrounding Meiji Jingu Shrine. This gorgeous spot houses a number of sights including a tranquil walkway between massive towering trees, a barrel filled monument paying homage to Tokyo sake brewers, huge towering torii gates and of course the beautiful Meiji Jingu itself. There is plenty to keep you busy here for a good long while and more than enough opportunities to satiate a tourist’s photographic curiosities. There is even more reason to visit these parks during Hanami season when they take on a brief pink coat which draws out Tokyoites in their droves to drink and celebrate under this fleeting wave of colour.
Harajuku is the centre of Tokyo’s alternative youth culture and draws in youngsters from many of the varied and unusual cliques Japan is home to. If you arrive on a Sunday you can witness a great many strangely dressed Japanese from groups as varied as gyaru and rockabilly to lolita and cosplay. The best place to look for these groups is on the bridge just down from Harajuku train station and at the gates of the nearby Yoyogi Park.
Takeshita Dori is Harakjuku’s most famous street and is a great area to peruse for unusual and niche clothing. There is ample opportunity to pick up a sweet treat and you can indulge yourself with ice cream of innumerable flavours or try a delicious crepe stuffed with plentiful fillings of your choice. You can even buy your dog a fetching bumble bee outfit if you keep your eyes peeled for the pet clothing store near the very end of the street. Get there early if you wish to avoid the crowds as, once the day begins proper, the number of people present can become overwhelming.
Harajuku also caters for more mature and wealthy fashionistas with Omotesando, a kilometre long fashion avenue that hosts a great number of brand name outlets, fancy eateries and upmarket cafes. The streets off Omotesando are well worth checking out and have independent stores that fall into more reasonable price ranges and offer some unique and interesting fashion styles and brands often only found in Japan. Those with retro-chic ideals will love the second hand boutiques specialising in the clothing of yesteryear although some of the prices can be absolutely eye-watering – I once spotted a well-worn pair of Nike Air Jordan that would have cost my entire monthly wage and then some!
Asakusa retains a hint of a Tokyo from years gone by and is most famous for Senso-ji temple and the Kaminarimon gate. The Kaminarimon gate is a large red wooden structure that has been subjected to many indignities throughout its existence such as unintentional fire and bombing raids that have razed it to the ground on numerous occasions. Flanked on either side by statues of the gods Fujin, Raijin, Tenryu and Kinryu, it is most recognisable for the huge red lantern that hangs from its centre – be sure to study the base of the lantern for an intricate and beautifully carved wooden dragon.
Senso-ji itself is accessed via Nakamise Dori which is a long shopping street that sells traditional Japanese goods, local snacks and delicacies and souvenirs. Shin-Nakamise Dori runs adjacent to Nakamise and offers much of the same produce but provides overhead cover should your visit coincide with unpleasant weather conditions. The Hanayashiki Amusement Park is located a short distance from Senso-ji and has a Ferris wheel, rollercoaster and other quaint attractions. At the end of Nakamise Dori is a second attractively decorated gate named Hozomon and beyond that, finally, lies the temple complex itself.
Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple. The spotlessly manicured grounds encompass a five-storey pagoda, Japanese garden, the temple’s main hall and other smaller structures. If you visit at night artistic lighting will reveal these structures in all their vibrant glory. Sanja Matsuri takes place in and around Sanso-ji temple and is one of Japan’s wildest and busiest religious festivals. Nearby roads are closed to traffic and people flock to the area in great numbers to celebrate – between 1.5 and 2 million each year. The festival takes place over three to four days starting on the third weekend of May each year.
The Asahi Beer Tower with its distinctive fireball motif is another famous local sight worth looking for and the complex offers up a number of restaurants if you are still peckish after stuffing your face walking down Nakamise. The building is situated on the Sumida river which also has a pretty park running along its shores should you fancy a quiet stroll. The park also hosts a yearly fireworks show near the end of July.
If you want to see temples in the south of Japan you go to Kyoto. In the north you go to Kamakura which is why, although it’s actually in Kanagawa and not Tokyo, I decided to add it to this list. Although the temples and shrines in Kamakura aren’t as grand in scale as what Kyoto offers, there are still many beautiful sites worthy of your time. The greatest photo I’ve ever taken was in Kamakura so it holds a special place in my heart!
There are lots of places of interest hidden within the streets of Kamakura. As an added bonus, people from around the area are generally much more friendly and approachable than their near neighbours in Tokyo. Locals with some English will enthusiastically practice their language skills with willing participants and even the Japanese-only speakers will greet you warmly when passing in the street.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is Kamakura’s biggest and most famous shrine. The large site has a number of bridges and torii gates to admire and the Genpei ponds and adjoining canal are extremely picturesque with their heavy blanket of floating lotus. Maiden is an outdoor stage and those arriving at the right time will rewarded with numerous colourful and entertaining performances. There once stood an ancient ginko tree said to be over 1,000 years old but it was flattened by a storm in 2010. The stump of this fledgling Methuselah remains and has begun to harbour shoots of new life. Hokokuji Temple is another lovely spot to call in on. It has some luscious gardens to enjoy and there is a tranquil tea house nestled beneath the shade of a thick bamboo grove where you can sample Japanese matcha tea. Jomyoji Temple offers some similarly attractive gardens and more opportunities for quiet contemplation. In Kamakura you can walk for hours and still stumble on new things to see, so I’d suggest wandering at your leisure and keeping your eyes open. You can barely turn a corner without finding a new temple or shrine to check out so you can spend a good deal of time getting lost here.
A short walk from Kita-Kamakura station will lead you to one of the area’s many hiking trails. If you follow this trail into the hills you will be treated to some sumptuous views of the surrounding woodland and shimmering Sagami Bay off in the distance. Following this trail to its end will bring you out onto a busy road which, if followed, will lead you directly to Kamakura’s Great Buddha which is the second largest in Japan. Entry to the Kotoku-in temple compound which houses it costs ¥200 and is well worth the outlay. The streets beyond the big Buddha are replete with cafes, ice cream and snack bars and souvenir shops if you want to relax for a while. Store owners are slightly more proactive here than in other areas you might have already been and will jabber away at you and try and pull you into their premises. Keep your eyes peeled for the small store that sells nuts and other nibbles coated in a variety of odd flavours – there are plenty of free samples to be had and some really unique treats to separate you from your cash.
If you continue on down the main road you will eventually end up at Yuigahama beach which offers a nice way to wind down after a long day of temple hopping. During the summer the beach becomes very popular and is frequented by hundreds of super buff gents who have spent the whole year waiting to shed their clothing and families splashing around in the sea. There are plenty of bars along the seafront that sell alcohol but be aware that drinking on the beach itself is prohibited. If you take your own drink to the beach you’ll probably be collared by one of the security patrols that maraud the shoreline and have your booze politely confiscated.
Mount Takao is one of my favourite places in Japan. Accessed via the Chuo line and then the Keio Takao line, the mountain offers a plethora of sights and attractions. Hiking trails are many and varied, from the mostly paved and leisurely trail number one (it’s not uncommon to see fashion-conscious Japanese ladies trekking up Takaosan in stiletto heels!) to more strenuous and adventurous tracks that twist and turn steeply and narrowly along the edges of the mountain. I saw my very first wild snake on one of these more difficult trails so keep your eyes peeled for and be careful of the local wildlife! If you take trail number one, allocate about 90 minutes to an hour to reach the summit. If the thought of the climb scares you rigid, there is a cable car that will take you most of the way to the top. Utilising this method, however, will, in my opinion, suck much of the fun out of your visit. Views from the top are spectacular and there are plenty of areas to have a rest and a bite to eat before you consider heading back down. If you are fortuitous enough to catch perfect weather conditions, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji way off in the distance. Hardcore hikers might wish to push on from the top of Mount Takao and undertake the large network of trails that lead to the nearby mountains ranges – just be sure you allocate enough time to arrive back at your starting point before nightfall.
Takaosan isn’t all about the views from the summit. Mount Takao is closely associated with Tengu and there is a large mask in homage to him at Takaosan-guchi train station. There are a number of restaurants and stores surrounding the cable car station which are a good way to fill up on goodies and refuel before you undertake the arduous skyward journey. On your way to the top the mountain you will pass a number of interesting sights including Yakuoin temple where incense sticks burn almost continuously and fortunes and lucky charms can be purchased from nearby stalls. There is a monkey park which is home to over 40 Japanese macaques that also incorporates an attractive flower garden which is included in the price of your ticket. Along the slopes of the mountain are a number of traditional teas houses and shops which sell refreshments and souvenirs and be sure to take advantage of the numerous vending machines adjacent to the main trails to help fend off thirst and fatigue.
During the summer months visitors can attend the Beer Mount area which offers 90 minutes of all-you-can-drink and -eat for a meagre ¥3,500. When a foreign visitor arrives don’t be surprised to see the faces of the staff drop a little – we tend to go at the unlimited alcoholic drinks option far more enthusiastically than the locals do! The level of food present is of a very high standard with many varied options available. The site is conveniently located near the cable car for anyone who wishes to descend in comfort or takes the all-you-can-drink offer a step too far!
The great majority of tourists to Tokyo will want to take in some sumo action during their stay. If this is the case, then a visit to the 11,000 capacity Ryogoku Kokugikan (Sumo Stadium) is on the cards. 15 day tournaments take place here in January, May and September and are the optimal times to plan a visit. It isn’t uncommon to bump into sumo wrestlers in the streets surrounding the stadium during these events and, more often than not, they are happy to pose for photographs with enthusiastic fans. People who have an interest in the history of sumo can make a call at the stadium’s free museum to find out more about one of Japan’s most popular sports. Many nearby restaurants serve chanko-nabe (sumo stew) if you want to try eating like one of these big guys. If you do make a visit be sure to take your own snacks and drinks with you as the day’s events can stretch on for some time – just be aware that food and drink is not allowed in the immediate vicinity of the ring.
Edo-Tokyo Museum is also located in Ryogoku and is a treasure trove of information for anyone with an interest in Japanese history and culture. Viewed from the correct angle, the museum looks a little like a colossal, angular pig and is easy to identify owing to its unusual architecture. The museum, unlike other tourist hotspots in Japan, fully caters for English speaking audiences and all displays come with an explanation you’ll be able to decipher. Almost every era of Tokyo’s past is covered within the museum walls telling of the city’s transformation from its humble beginnings to the modern metropolis it is today. The open-plan floor layout allows plenty of space for a number of sizeable and impressive reconstructions including a life-size Nihonbashi Bridge which is one of the museum’s more striking displays. As well as large scale offerings the museum also has displays of traditional Japanese artworks, clothing and household items.
The museum also boasts a sister site in the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum which is located some distance away in Koganei Park. This site provides visitors with the opportunity to explore any number of historical Japanese buildings from bathhouses to upper-class domiciles and is worth the long journey if the Ryogaku museum has whet your appetite for Japanese history.
There are a number of parks nearby if you need a moment or two of quiet with Kiyosumi Garden being one of the nicest. Its serene pond, immaculate gravel garden and shaded wooded area make it a perfect location for a short breather or a period of reflection.
Fans of My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and the other charming Studio Ghibli movies should do their utmost to get along to the Ghibli Museum. Located on the outskirts of leafy Inokashira Park in Mitaka, this whimsical museum – designed by Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki himself – is replete with models and buildings designed with the studio’s memorable characters and settings in mind. There are a great deal of things to see and do at the museum that promise to keep both young and old engaged and in a state of constant wonder. Some of the many activities available include: catching a first-hand glimpse of how Ghibli movies come into being; watching an original short animation that can only be seen at the museum; marvel at the giant Robot Soldier on the building’s rooftop; have a snack at the Straw Hat Café; and – if you’re young enough! – clamber on a giant cuddly Cat Bus! There is a comprehensive museum shop that will allow you to pick up a souvenir or ten before you leave!
A visit requires booking in advance as the attraction is immensely popular and daily places are few and far between. When I attended my ticket had a still from a movie reel in it – I’m not sure if this is still the case but, if it is, the item makes for a nice collector’s item and memento of your visit. Tickets start at ¥100 for 4-6 year olds and max out at a very reasonable ¥1000 for over 19s.
Click here to visit the Ghibli Museum website for more information.
If history, science or culture is the name of your game then a visit to Ueno and its many museums is an absolute must. You’ll find the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, The International Library of Children’s Literature and the National Museum of Nature and Science nestled within this district.
Ueno Park is a fine spot to come and observe the changing of the seasons and is especially beautiful during cherry blossom season. The park also incorporates Japan’s oldest zoo which is home to lots of beasties and critters from around the world including pandas which, unsurprisingly, are the zoo’s main attraction. The nearby Ueno Toshogu Shrine is well worth a visit and glitters majestically in the day’s sunshine owing to its splendidly gilded exterior.
Ueno Ameyoko Shotengai offers the chance to experience a Japanese open-air market with vendors selling a vast array of wares such as foodstuffs, clothing, spices and traditional knick-knacks. Known as candy store alley, the market gets its name from the fact that it was specialised in selling sweets and other indulgences. The mingled scents and fragrances that fill the air and the cacophony of storekeepers’ voices is an experience in itself and make the site worthy of a visit.
Yanaka offers up more residential, everyday side of Tokyo. There is a laid-back and pleasant rhythm to the place which is in complete juxtaposition to some of the more manic surrounding areas. Yanaka was always the place I went to unwind when I lived in Japan and I found strolling the quiet streets always put me at ease.
Yanaka Ginza is the district market and is a quaint exhibition of the daily necessities of Japanese life. Household good, foodstuffs, sweets (be sure to pick up some manju, buns with various tasty fillings) and other items can be purchased from its collection of stalls. At the nearby tourist information centre, tourists can immerse themselves in Japanese culture by taking part in a calligraphy or ink painting class, dress up in traditional Japanese outfits or learn to play a Japanese instrument.
The most contemplative place in Yanaka is its enormous cemetery, home to over 7,000 graves. It might sound melancholy to suggest walking around an area where locals bury their dead but it can actually be a rewarding and worthwhile thing to do. The grave markers are likely of a style most westerners won’t have seen before and many are adorned with Buddhist sculptures, often dressed in colourful garments brought as offerings by the descendants of the deceased. Some are more rustic in design with intricate messages engraved into huge slabs of stone. Every now and again golden statues will appear, looming over the more prevalent and modest markers.
As would be expected near such hallowed ground, there are a large number of temples and shrines to be found around the cemetery, many of the them extremely beautiful and immaculately well kept. Tennoji Temple, accessed through its large contemporary entrance, is situated on the cemetery’s outskirts. It is a particularly attractive site with neatly manicured gardens and praying bronze Buddha.
Pushing on and exploring the streets further will uncover other hidden gems including some modern architectural designs in amongst all the traditional buildings and a fantastic olde-worlde sake store with a massive selection of plonk to choose from.