FACT: at a very young age, I have stumbled into the bemusing world of anime (Japanese animations) and manga (Japanese comics). Right then and there, I have become deeply enraptured with Japan’s culture and customs, and then over the years, my love for this wonderful yet often eccentric country continued to grow. So when I finally saw an opportunity to go on a trip to Japan last March of this year, you could just imagine how ecstatic I was as I booked my plane ticket!
For thee said trip, I’ve set it to last for a span of 2 weeks with a huge chunk of my days (5) wholly dedicated to the bustling and dynamic city of Tokyo… YES, that long (and I still felt like it wasn’t enough). You see, it IS a really massive city, and if you’re really pressed on time, I believe that in order for you to at least get a good “feel” of it, you need to be there for at least 3 days.
TRIVIA: With over 13.5+ million people across an area of 2,000+ km2, Tokyo — which is officially called as the Tokyo Metropolis — actually comprises of: 23 special wards, 26 cities (Tama Area), 3 towns + 1 village (Nishi-Tama District), and several outlying islands. Not a lot of people know this… but the core or most populous part of Tokyo (which us, travelers, typically go off to) mainly comprises a select few places within the 23 special wards.
As seen above, the purple area in Tokyo is where the 23 special wards are found, and only some of the places in these wards are where tourists typically visit. (Image from Wikipedia)
Each of these special wards have their own major districts, and traveling from one district to another can take an hour — or more! Once you take all of these facts (the size, the travel time, and the complexity of the metropolis) into consideration, you should get an idea by now that it could be a stressful task for you to research and organize your itinerary.
BUT fret not. Luckily for you, I’m here to lighten your task as I give you the ultimate lowdown of the TOP things to do in Tokyo — as grouped by the most popular special wards and then further sub-divided by major districts!
Through this way, you can surely streamline your Tokyo trip easily and in no time.
…You can thank me later. *wink*
RELATED READ: Sample Japan Itineraries
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» How to get around Tokyo?
From the airport. As a foreigner, you will be coming in by plane via Tokyo’s main international airport, Narita Airport (IATA: NRT) that is located nearly 70km northeast of the city. (In case you’re wondering where to look for the best flight deals, my go-to platforms are Momondo, Kayak, and Skyscanner.)
In order to get to the metropolis, you can:
- Ride a shuttle that goes to major hotels in the city (around 3,000 yen = $30~)
- Ride the train. Depending on what district you’re heading to, the price can vary. If you want to head off to Tokyo Station, ride the Narita Express which will take 55 minutes and priced at around 2,900 yen = $28~
- Ride a taxi, which would be the most expensive at the range of 20,000 to 30,000 yen = $195~ to $295~
From districts within Tokyo. You could flag down a taxi, ride the bus, rent a bike or go on foot; but if you want to be efficient and fast, the trains are the way to go! I will warn you as early as now: Tokyo’s train system is dense and extensive — so it can be very confusing. However, all throughout my stay in Tokyo, I’ve managed to make it less complicated by simply using Google Maps (mapping my point A and point B and then checking out the directions for the subway/train/bus).
NOTE: Google Maps doesn’t work offline if you want routes or transportation schedules, so I recommend that you get a pocket WiFi or a SIM Card to stay connected online
When it comes to tickets, there are several types that you can choose from but what I would highly recommend is that: if you’re only planning on traveling INSIDE Tokyo, buy the prepaid IC cards (Suica and Pasmo) — if you’re rather traveling inside AND outside of Tokyo, that’s a different matter since I would then recommend that you buy a JR Pass.
By the way, these prepaid IC cards are not discounted but they can be used in any train or bus in the city; thus providing you utter convenience. To make the best ticket-buying decision for the kind of trip that you’ll be doing, check out this guide.
» What to eat and drink in Tokyo?
I’ll be listing below the top restaurants that I know of per special ward (labeled by their specialty); however, for a more detailed breakdown of the things that you MUST eat and drink in Tokyo, do watch out for my future blog post that discusses this!
» Helpful Japanese phrases?
It’s no news that NOT a lot of Japanese people speak English; so it helps to know and practice some basic phrases beforehand. Otherwise, feel free to whip out your Google Translate app at any time in case you’re in a tough bind — I’ve done this several times and it’s a huge help.
- Hello: Konnichiwa (Kohn-nee-chee-wah)
- Thank you (normal): Arigatō. (Ah-REE-gah-tohh)
- Thank you (less formal): Arigatō gozaimas (Ah-REE-gah-tohh goh-zahy-mahs)
- Thank you (informal): Dōmo (DOHH-moh)
- Yes: Hai (Hai)
- No: Iie (E-eh)
- Goodbye (long term): Sayōnara (Sah-yohh-nah-rah)
- Goodbye (informal): Ja ne (Jahh neh)
- Excuse me: Sumimasen (Soo-mee-mah-SEN)
- I’m sorry: Gomen nasai (Goh-men-nah-sahy)
- Is there someone here who speaks English?: Dareka eigo ga hanasemasu ka? (Dah-reh-kah ey-goh gah hah-nah-seh-mahs kah?)
- Help!: Tasukete! (Tahs-keh-teh!)
- Cheers!: Kanpai!(Kan-pie!)
Translated as “field of a thousand generations“, Chiyoda is named as the political center of Tokyo. After all, it is here where you can find many of the main government institutions of Japan such as the Emperor’s seat at the Imperial Palace, the Supreme Court, and more.
On the other hand of the spectrum though, you’ll also find a quirky side to Chiyoda via Akihabara (ordinarily called as Akiba).
Dubbed as the otaku* cultural center and tech shopping district of Japan, walking through Akihabara’s main street called as Chuo-dori will already give you an idea of what this district is all about. You see, Japan may have an amazing olden culture, BUT it has also developed an equally amazing modern culture over the recent years, and it is in Akihabara that you can get a glimpse of this somewhat wacky ‘evolution’.
*Japanese term for people who have obsessive interests commonly towards anime and manga. A synonymous word in English would be ‘geeks’.
Some of the top things to do in Tokyo’s famed Akihabara are the following:
– Play in the video game arcades –
We have tons of video game arcades in the Philippines — HOWEVER, they’re not as insanely amazing, bright, exciting, and numerous like what Tokyo has! The first time that I saw these rows of neon infernos in Akihabara, I was floored. I glanced to my right and there were girls joyfully hitting big drums to some hip beat, I looked to my left and there were guys jovially punching away at buttons playing Tekken, I looked up and there were several more floors of this
madness ‘happiness’! I whispered, “I wanna live here.” Seriously, this was a gamer’s dream! …Though even if you’re not into games, this spectacle is something that I think you must absolutely witness and try. (One of the most known gaming arcades in Tokyo would be Taito Station.)
– Visit a Maid café (Meido kissa) –
A lot of people in Tokyo love to cosplay — a form of roleplaying where people wear costumes to represent a character (often found in animes and mangas). One of the good ol’ favorites of the Japanese when it comes to cosplaying or ‘dressing up’ are waitresses dressed in those frilly Victorian maid costumes. In line with their ‘character’, they will even act as if they’re servants and then treat others as their masters. Now apply that idea to a café, splash it with small games, cutesy demeanor, brief performances and picture-taking with ‘customers’ and that’s where you get the famed maid cafés of Japan. It’s quite an experience, I’m telling you! (There are plenty of them spread out across Tokyo. To book an experience, go here). NOTE: On the other hand, there are also butlers cafe in Tokyo! (A well-liked one is located in Shibuya).
– Shop or window shop for otaku merch –
No matter if you’re not an otaku, it’s quite nice to do a quick stop by places like Mandarake or Tokyo Anime Center in order to get a closer look into the lifestyle. Mandarake, a gigantic 8-floor complex that is full of merchandise related to anime and manga, is the best go-to space if you’re a hardcore otaku or at least a knowledgeable one at that; whereas I believe that a visit to the Tokyo Anime Center is best done first by people who have no idea of the otaku scene in order to gain a better understanding of it.
– Eat at the Gundam cafe (for the Gundam fans!) –
If you know what Gundam is and you’re a fan, surely a stopover here needs to be included in your things to do in Tokyo! However, be advised that the waiting time can take a while since there are a lot of other fans, just like you, who want to try out this themed cafe. If otherwise you have no idea what Gundam is, it’s a popular mecca anime series back in the 70s that lead on to generate billions of profit and which eventually become one of the well-known icons of Japan. In fact, a life-sized version of a Gundam robot has been erected in one of the major districts: Odaiba (discussed below).
– Purchase cheap tech gadgets at Yodobashi –
Other than being the otaku culture that’s rampant in Akihabara, there’s also an ongoing craze for home electronics here! The perfect site to shop for such things? Yodobashi! I’ve proven that the items here are cheaper than in Europe or even in the Philippines; but for sure, there are other cheaper smaller stores around. But the thing is: if you have time to visit only 1 tech store in the district, then this 9-storey building is your best bet!
– See the Kanda Myojin Shrine –
Amidst the sea of ‘weirdness’ and tech advancements, you can escape to the Shinto shrine of Kanda Myojin that has enshrined 3 major kami (spirits) — two of which belongs to Japan’s Seven Gods of Fortune who, as the title goes, bring luck and success. Still and the same, since it’s nearby Akihabara, it promotes itself as a protector of gadgets too. Truth be told, they hold ceremonies to ‘secure’ electronics, and the shrine even provides charms for such.
As I’ve stated earlier, Chiyoda is referred to as the political center of Tokyo and it is here in Marunouchi where you will see the aforementioned government institutions. (Apart from this fact, Marunouchi is also one of Japan’s great business districts).
– Imperial Palace –
This is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan and it’s actually a massive park surrounded by moats. It contains buildings including the palace, private residences of the Imperial Family, offices, museums, and more. Currently, the Imperial Palace is open to the public except on Mondays, Fridays, and special occassions; however, no buildings can be entered.
– Chidorigafuchi –
Located just at the northwest section of the Imperial Palace is this moat section that’s commonly called as Chidorigafuchi Park. This area is highly recommended during sakura (cherry blossoms) season as it is one of the best spots for hanami (cherry blossom viewing). To add: they regularly light up the trees at night during that period and then you can even rent boats there!
– Tokyo Central Railway Station –
This is the busiest railway station in Japan in terms of number of trains per day and it’s quite a sight to see! For starters, you’ll instantly find this building because of its red brick appearance — a look that survived from when it was first opened in 1914.
– Tokyo International Forum –
With its sleek curves of steel and glass, this is but one of the many architectural wonders in Tokyo that I recommend that you must see! As the name suggests, the Tokyo International Forum is a multi-purpose hall venue that houses concerts, exhibitions, and more.
Yurakucho is a striking yet relaxing contrast to the nearby upscale Ginza district, mainly because of its traditional-looking restaurants that are built beneath the train tracks of the JR Yamanote Line — called as Gado-shita (which literally means: below the girders). As a visitor, I assure you that one look at Yurakucho will make you feel as if you’ve taken a trip back in time during Japan’s early postwar period! Nowadays, a lot of Japanese salarymen have made this location as their favorite dining place after work as they flock to izakaya (Japanese-style bars highlighted by their red lanters called as akachochin) and yakitori (grilled skewered chicken dishes) restaurants.
READ: Non-Touristy Food Tour in Tokyo’s Yurakucho, Ginza, & Shimbashi
In English, Chuo means “Central Ward” and it was given this name because of how it has been the main commercial center of Tokyo as per history — but of course, these days, this is being challenged by the mammoth: Shinjuku. Nevertheless, the most well-known major district of Chuo would be Ginza which is quite a favorite of shopaholics!
Regarded as one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world, Ginza is a heavenly location for shoppers because of its upscale shopping scene full of virtually every big international brand that exists. The icing to the cake? These brands are often housed in such ostentatious-looking structures that can make your eyes drop in amazement and wonder!
– Walk and shop through Chuo Dori –
As the main shopping street in Ginza, you will find here all the major brand shops, department stores, and restaurants possible. Come night time, you will definitely be feasting upon its blinding yet beautiful neon lights. Some of the notable buildings here would be that of the Wako (that has the iconic Hattori Clock Tower), Hermes, Dior, and Zara among many others. But if you want the best ‘festive’ experience of this street, I suggest walking through here on weekends from 12PM to 5PM (until 6PM during April to September) because it is customarily closed to automobile traffic — an event known as ‘Pedestrians’ Paradise’.
– Come across a depachika –
Depachika is a combination of the words depato (department store) and chika (basement). In Japan, most of the big department stores such as that of Mitsukoshi have their basement floor made into some sort of food market — but actually, if I have to describe it myself, I will call it as a ‘food theme park’ because you can get to have a fun yet quick introduction into the VAST variety of Japanese food there. Besides, the stalls are very generous with giving away samples too; so if you’re on a budget, you really don’t have to buy something (though it will be respectful to do so, naturally).
– Nakagin Capsule Tower –
Have you watched the Wolverine movie made in 2013? Filmed in Japan, there was one structure there that caught my eye and it was a building that looked like it was made of stacked washing machines! This was apparently inspired by the existing Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza which is basically a rare example of the architectural ‘Japanese Metabolism’ style. Originally a residential area, the rooms here are like tiny pods — much like the famous cramped Japanese capsule hotel rooms: designed for a single person with a built-in bed and TV. Regrettably, the building is slowly deteriorating and it might soon be up for demolition; that’s why, I suggest sighting this unique structure before it gets taken down.
– Watch a kabuki show at the Kabuki-za Theater –
Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama best known for its elaborate costumes, eye-catching make-up, and exaggerated movements. As one of the 3 major classical theatre art forms in Japan, it would be a pleasant thing for you to witness a kabuki play as a part of your ‘things to do in Tokyo’. And where best to watch it other than in its principal Tokyo theater, right? Kabuki-za Theater has plays almost every day and regular tickets for a single act can cost around 2,000 yen ($20~). If you want to watch an entire play, it will cost more of course; but a single act should be a nice initial immersion.
– Dine at Sukiyabashi Jiro –
There are several Michelin restaurants in Ginza and one of the 3-star ones is Sukiyabashi Jiro which is arguably one of the best sushi restaurants in the world. Run by sushi master Jiro Ono who has been featured in the world-known documentary film: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, securing a reservation here can be extremely difficult — apart from the fact that eating here can be pricey (their omakase course menu is around 30,000 yen or $300~). However: the experience will be WORTH IT. Tips for reservations? Best to do a phone reservation a month before your intended visit; but, do it at the 1st day of that month. Furthermore, it’s easier or preferable to book via a local, a regular (it’s really great if you have connections), or a prestigious hotel (case by case).
Translated to: “reclaimed land”, Tsukiji is best known for its fish market which is said to be the largest in the world, considering that it handles more than 2,000 tons of 450 seafood types daily.
– Visit Tsukiji Market –
Fish is a big business in Japan and the Tsukiji Market is a marvelous point for observing this lively industry. It has an inner section where most of the wholesale proceedings take place, and then an inner section where retail shops and restaurants exist. As a tourist, there are three things you can do here: attend the tuna auction, walk around the market, or eat the freshest sushi (or seafood) that you can ever taste. For the auction, there are only 120 limited spots available and you can apply at the Osakana Fukyu Center at Kachidoki Gate from 5AM (it’s a 1st come, 1st serve basis). For a more detailed guide on this as well as proper etiquette — since this is a professional business environment — read this guide. But in my opinion, you really don’t need to visit the auction. It’s best to leave the spots for the locals who really want to do business. Besides, strolling around the market is already a great way to enjoy it all. Meanwhile, for tasting excellent and fresh sushi, I would recommend Shutoku 2-Goten (apart from the popular Sushi Dai which can get really long queues). NOTE: By November 2016, the fish market is set to relocate to Odaiba’s Tosoyu. If you want a day tour here, book an experience with KKday.
– Lounge around Hama Rikyu –
Situated beside Tokyo Bay, Hama Rikyu is a lovely traditional-style garden that features picturesque ponds and a teahouse. It’s a nice venue to relax in after you are done with the hustle and bustle of the Tsukiji Fish Market.
The best part? If you want a more immersive affair, there are FREE English audio guides you can avail of which already includes self-guided walking courses throughout the garden. (You can pick these guides at the entrances: Otemon and Nakanogomon Gate).
Minato is mainly packed with various embassies and multi-national firms; yet it does have 2 major districts that are a must-see on your list of things to do in Tokyo!
As a man-made island, it was orginally built to protect the city against possible sea attacks; today however, the island transformed into a futuristic business and residential area. In here, you can find…
– Fuji TV Area –
This is called as such because of how the Fuji TV Building (one of Japan’s biggest TV stations) towers above everything else. As a visitor, you could definitely go into Fuji TV’s observatory deck that’s located in the circular portion of the establishment. Other things to see around here would be the shopping mall Decks Tokyo Beach, the plaza of DiverCity Tokyo Plaza where the giant Gundam robot is displayed, and the scenic Rainbow Bridge (which looks dashing at night, and where you can also find a replica of the Statue of Liberty.)
– Palette Town –
If you’re up for some serious entertainment and shopping spree activities, I suggest that you head on to Palette Town! In here, you can find the following venues: Venus Fort (a mall that looks like a European town), Toyota Mega Web (car showroom where you can test drive cars), and Leisureland (large gaming complex).
• OTHER THINGS TO SEE = Odaiba Onsen Theme Park
Are you up for partying?! If your answer is a resounding YES, then you should come dive into the best night club scene over at Roppongi! This district is famous among locals and expats alike — which is not surprising given how Roppongi Hills is one of Japan’s richest and largest property developments.
– Drop by the Mori Tower and Tokyo Midtown –
As the centerpiece of Roppongi, Mori Tower is primarily an office building; but its lower floors are filled by more than 200 shops and restaurants and its top floor has an observation deck that will give you a glorious view of Tokyo (entrance is at 1,800 yen ($18~) that’s open from 10AM to 11PM (1AM on Fridays and Saturdays). Below Mori Tower, you will find a giant spider sculpture called Maman which means ‘mother’ in French. This is made by the artist Louise Bourgeois. NOTE: Tokyo Midtown is yet another building that you can go into if you’re up for more shopping and entertainment!
– Appreciate Japanese art and culture in the district’s museums –
There are 3 museums in Roppongi that are worth your time. First and foremost would be the National Art Center (Kokuritsu Shin-Bijutsukan) which is Japan’s largest art museum. The quirky thing about this is that it’s an ’empty museum’ — meaning that it does not have permanent exhibitions; yet it permits any temporary exhibitions, and this set-up has been successful so far. Next would be the Mori Art Museum in Mori Tower that showcases both contemporary and internatonal modern art. Lastly is Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Midtown which focuses more on traditional Japanese art.
– See the Tokyo Tower –
At a height of 333 meters, this nearby tower is like a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Made after Japan’s post-war rebirth, this used to be the country’s tallest tower — until Tokyo Skytree was made in 2012. Despite this fact, the tower’s prime location is still a splendid place to see a panoramic view of the city. There are 2 observatories here: the main one at 150m high and the special one at 250m high. Entrance is at 900 yen ($9~) for main observation deck and 1,600 ($16~) yen for both decks. To book your tickets, go here.
– Go crazy at Roppongi’s nightclubs –
The strip full of clubs and bars in Roppongi can be a dizzying encounter for a first-timer such as you; so it’s actually best if you visit this with a local. Otherwise, just a bit of advice: avoid the men (generally African men) who would try to push you into going to their clubs! More often than not, those are seedy ones and later on, they might even overcharge you. For the best clubs to go to, I suggest Jumanji55, V2 Tokyo, or Club Brand Tokyo which all have a good mix of locals and foreigners. Now, like any other night out that you may do, always keep your wits with you and be vigilant — but, above all: have fun! NOTE: The legal drinking age in Japan is 20.
As a major city center, Shinjuku has the busiest train station in the world (Shinjuku Station), it houses the administration center for the Tokyo government, and holds a plethora of amazing thing to do in Tokyo!
– Have a picnic at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden –
Best visited during sakura and fall season, Shinjuku Gyoen is just a stone’s throw away from Shinjuku station and it is surely one of the city’s largest and most favoured parks. In here, you will find three different gardens, a traditional Japanese landscape garden, a French garden, and an English landscape garden. There is even a lovely greenhouse near Okido Gate that you can visit.
– Go on top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building –
Towering at 243m, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has two towers and each of these have an observatory which visitors can visit for FREE in order to get a bird’s eyeview of Tokyo. I personally recommend the southern tower since it shows a better ‘side’ of Tokyo (closes at 5:30PM), whereas the northern tower is best for night shots since it closes later into the night (until 11PM).
– Walk around Kabukichō –
This is the entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku which is sometimes called as the “Sleepless Town”. Unlike Amsterdam though that features prostitutes on the windows of their buildings, Kabukicho has a more subdued collection as it only includes hostess clubs, love hotels, massage parlours and more. Unless you want to avail these kinds of services, as a regular tourist, I just find this as an interesting place to see in Tokyo. Rest assured, I felt entirely safe walking around here as it didn’t feel too seedy. Truth be told, one particular thing about Kabukicho that I best liked to see or observe were the pachinko parlors. Pachinko is an insanely popular game in Japan that somehow resembles pinball. FACT: gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, and as a way to somehow ‘appease’ gamblers, pachinko is what they resort to. Balls won from pachinko are NOT exchanged directly for money at the parlor; but instead, are exchanged for prizes or tokens. Certainly, it was VERY captivating to see this as rows and rows of machines and people are in constant motion. I would even often wonder how long a person has been playing there if I see containers full of balls beside him/her!
– Drink your fill at Golden Gai –
Made up of a network of 6 narrow alleys connected with even smaller passageways, Golden Gai is a fascinating site to go to for a drink. With over 200 tiny bars and eateries, it can undoubtedly provide you a glimpse of Tokyo’s past when it used to be filled by more narrow lanes and such. However, don’t let the looks of these bars fool you; though they are small (fitting only around 5 customers), the prices are not exactly cheap. After all, they typically serve well-off clients such as celebrities, musicians, artists, etc. But don’t back out just yet because even if most bars only welcome their ‘regulars‘, you as a foreigner can still get to experience the glory of Golden Gai because there are those who welcome non-regulars — this is best signified by the English menus that they would display outside their bar. (Take note that these bars don’t open until around 9 or 10PM).
– Better yet, eat and be entertained at Robot Restaurant! –
Tokyo, the land of the weird (as some would say), lives up to its name because it does offer several themed restaurants like that of The LockUp (prison-like), Zauo (fish for your own food), and Alice in Wonderland Restaurant (self-explanatory). But the most entertaining and bizarre themed restaurant I’ve visited? That would be Robot Restaurant! A structure of glitz, lasers, and robots, my ‘ordeal’ in this restaurant was… undescribable — in a good way! More than the simple bento boxes that they serve, what you actually should be here for is the entertainment show that they offer. It is just so eclectic that it will blow your mind away (again, hopefully in a good way, haha).
READ: My Crazy Robot Restaurant Experience in Tokyo
– Eat at Omoide Yokocho or at Shin-Okubo Koreatown –
Omoide Yokocho or more commonly called as “Piss Alley” is not as disgusting as it sounds. Based right next to the train on the west side of Shinjuku Station, this is a place that’s almost similar to Yurakucho near Ginza — except that Omoide Yokocho features more varied tiny eateries that serve ramen (Japanese noodle dish), sushi, kushiyaki (skewered grilled meat), among many others. The shops predominantly only speak Japanese; but as a foreigner, it’s not hard to just point your order to them.
– Shop at Don Quijote –
Don Quijote or ‘Donki’ for short is a discount chain store in Tokyo that is iconic not only for its normal items (that can be very cheap) but also for its whole range of amusing products that can border on unique or absurd… think cosplaying costumes, breast-shaped pillows, eccentric eyewear, NSFW products, etc. For one thing, these can all make for funny gifts or souvenirs to take home! (By the way, all of their products are sectioned per theme by floor — which can reach up to 9 floors.)
– Catch sight of a life-sized Godzilla –
Japan’s famous giant monster and pop culture icon, Godzilla, can be seen in Shinjuku atop Toho Cinemas. It’s a nice spectacle because he looks like he’s taking a peak from the building above — seconds away from wreaking utter havoc. Now, he is easy to spot since he is positioned in Kabukicho and even near the Don Quijote shop at Yasukuni Dori street. But I did notice that not a lot of people would notice him at first because the individuals around me only started taking photos of him when they saw me taking shots over his direction. So… keep your eyes peeled!
– Stop by the Samurai Museum –
As a Japanophile, I have also been enchanted by the culture and history of the samurai (or bushi) — Japan’s notable military warriors. Their noble era may have ended in 1868 but their story lives on in places like the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku. Adults can enter for a fee of 1,800 yen ($18~) in order to see the impressive exhibits; but the highlight of this place are probably the experiences that you can try: photo shoot with basic samurai gear (500 yen $5), sword battle performance with an actor (free), samurai calligraphy lesson (500 yen or $5~), and professional photo shoot with full samurai gear (starts at 32,000 yen or $320~).
***IMPORTANT NOTE: Plenty of people would recommend that you go to Tokyo’s well-liked animal cafés such as those of a: cat café, owl café, rabbit café, goat café, etc. But personally, I don’t think I can bring myself to recommend it as well… The way I saw it, though the animals are incredibly cute — add the fact that it’s euphoric to be surrounded by them as you eat some snacks — I rather felt that the space provided for all those animals was NOT enough. And given this small space, they were always subjected to strangers/visitors who would always want to touch them (even if they don’t want to) or bother them (to the point that they go to such lengths of mildly pulling them to get a photo, harassing them while they’re resting, etc.).
Besides, I found such a strong contrast to the animals behavior (especially those of cats in a cat café) towards their true-blue handlers vs. the café’s guests — which just shows that they would much rather want to be left alone rather than to be touched by constant new faces that they haven’t warmed up to yet. Overall: I leave it up to you to decide what you would do, but these are my two cents about the whole ‘animal café’ idea.
Much like Roppongi, Shibuya is referred to as a major nightlife area; however, I believe that it is more prominently regarded as a major shopping and entertainment venue especially because of its strong youth presence towards fashion and culture.
I was flying from Europe when I first arrived in Tokyo, so you could imagine how tired I was when I landed around midnight… My accommodation was located in Shibuya and as I pushed myself through the crowd of people in Shibuya Station (yet another one of the busiest stations in Tokyo), I felt my weariness growing more and more… but ‘lo and behold, the moment I stepped out near the Shibuya Crossing — I was blown away. EVERYTHING was beaming with color, energy and life and I can’t help but feel my stress slowly melting away!
That’s how vibrant Shibuya is.
– Walk through the busy but colorful Shibuya Crossing –
Probably the most prominent landmark of the district, the Shibuya Crossing in front of Shibuya Station’s Hachiko Exit is flooded by people everytime the crossing light goes green — a definite mesmerizing display that’s backdropped by the large neon boards and video screens. Naturally, this has become a commonly filmed and photographed spot in Tokyo, and if you want a nice view from a vantage point, I suggest going to the QFRONT building where a big Starbucks cafe can be found.
– Say hello to Hachiko –
Hachiko is the name of an admired Akita breed dog in the Japanese culture back in the 30s who exemplified superb loyalty to his owner even after his owner’s death. Up to this day, Hachiko has been remembered for these amazing traits and that’s why this bronze statue of him that was put up in 1934 in front of Shibuya Station remains to be a well-revered point in Japan.
– Sing your heart out in a karaoke –
One must NEVER leave Japan without trying a typical Japanese karaoke! If you’re not from Asia, karaokes are not like the ones that you see in Europe or the USA where the person goes on stage and sings in front of strangers in a bar as they sing along to the song on TV — NO. Asian karaokes are more personal and ‘closed’ so you can unleash your singing powers in a sound-proof room with people that you actually know. Of course, these Japanese karaoke rooms are high-tech and are even well-decorated depending on the place you go too. Rainbow Karaoke in Modi is incredibly stylish, Karaoke Kan is famed for being the location of the movie (Lost in Translation)’s karaoke scene, or for the more standard chain, Big Echo is a good one.
– Shop till you drop in Shibuya! –
As I walked through Shibuya during my 1st day in Tokyo, I instantly noticed how everyone were donning gorgeous outfits! Everyone was soooo fashionable and I had to joke that amidst them, I felt like I was in peasant’s clothing… LOL. This all made sense since the Japanese are into fashion; couple that with the fact that Shibuya is a mecca for shopping, then it’s expected. For the best shopping streets to go to: Center Gai, Koen Dori, and Spain Slope. For a distinct must-visit? That would be the complex of Shibuya 109!
– Check out the Love Hotel Hill –
This is where you can find the biggest concentration of love hotels in Tokyo, and though it’s not a typical item on a ‘things to do in Tokyo’ list, it can be an amusing thing in itself especially if you’re traveling with your loved one — largely because of how the rooms are delightfully themed. Just be warned though that some love hotels don’t accept same-sex couples or even two foreigners. Nevertheless, you can ‘rest’ in a room for 1-4 hours at around 1,500 yen ($15~) per hour or ‘stay’ in a room overnight for as low as 7,000 yen ($68~).
– Go party! –
Like I’ve previously mentioned, other than Roppongi, Shibuya is another awesome district for partying. Two of the most brilliant clubs would first be the mammoth super club ageHA with over 4 dance floors, an outdoor pool, and an outdoor dance tent; and second, the laser-filled Womb club with its identifiable giant mirror ball.
The Japanese are most likely the most fashion-forward people that I have ever seen. You don’t believe me…? Just go to Harajuku district and you’ll see for yourself how right I am!
– Enjoy Takeshita Dori –
The birthplace of Japan’s fashion trends, Takeshita Dori is a narrow street that’s filled with captivating shops and cafes. It’s an extremely sought-out place in Tokyo (especially by fashionistas) so it can get very crowded here especially on weekends. Some of the things you shouldn’t miss out? The entrance — take a photo here as you see yourself flashed on the screen. And then there’s also the 100-yen shop: Daiso Harajuku, street fashion store: Pink Latte, etc..
– Explore Omotesando –
If Paris has Champs-Elysees, Japan has Omotesando. If Takeshita Dori is more for low to mid-level shoppers, Omotesando is more for the older or wealthier shoppers. One shop though that’s different from most of the establishments in this locale, which I think is worth looking at, is Kiddy Land. It offers a range of cute toy merchandises that are not only for kids but for the kids-at-heart!
– Be a lolita for a day at Maison de Jullieta –
Kawaii (cute) culture is a ‘thing’ among the Japanese and one of those kawaii fashion styles would be the sweet lolita look. In Maison de Jullieta in Harajuku, you can dress up as one — complete with costume, makeup and hair arrangement at a price of around 10,000 yen ($97~)!
– Dine at Kawaii Monster Cafe –
In line with Harajuku’s colorful splash of colors and eccentric atmosphere, there exists the Kawaii Monster themed cafe! With over 5 seperately themed areas, the cafe is like a rainbowholic’s paradise where every corner is filled with kawaii decoration and Instagram-worthy scenes. (Plus, the costumed staff who each have their ‘personalities’ will serve you oversized sweets that can last you for hours!)
– Take a purikura! –
Purikura runs like a photo booth — but ‘leveled up’ in a Japanese kind of way. Through these machines, you can take photos of yourself or your friends in a studio-esque booth; after which, you will be digitally-enhanced. By that, I mean automatically Photoshopped in a kawaii manner: bigger eyes, whiter skin, and narrower face. To take it a step further, you can even add stickers on it or even false eyelashes or whatnot to your face before printing the photos out. (You can find these booths in Harajuku at places like Uratake’s Girl Style or Purikura Shop Noa, and all over Tokyo’s arcade shops — often put on the top or basement floor).
– Drop by Meiji Shrine –
Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji (1st emperor of Japan) and Empress Shoken, the vast Meiji Shrine is a great tranquil ‘escape’ from the hectic Harajuku. As a visitor, you can partake in the routine Shinto acts: buying amulets, writing out your wish on an ema (wooden plates), and making offerings at the hall. (For proper behavior when visiting a shrine, you can read this guide). TIP: If you want to witness a traditional Japanese Shinto wedding, head here around 10AM and try your luck!
Yoyogi is an adjacent neighbourhood in Harajuku and what’s notable here is the wide Yoyogi Park — which is also just next to Meiji Shrine. This park is actually a striking contrast to that of the neighbouring shrine (especially during the mornings) because it is a typical meeting place for Japanese people from all ‘walks of life’.
Since it’s just near the trendy Harajuku, you will normally find crowds of band members, lolitas, cosplayers, and fashionistas in interesting clothing (they’re sometimes concentrated around Jingubashi or the bridge near Meiji Shrine). Taking photos of these people in fancy clothing is perfectly fine, but it’s best if you ask for permission first since not all of them are there to please the crowd — they’re usually just there to hang out or do practices etc.
TIP: Go there during Sundays and you can witness the rockabilly dancers. They basically look like Elvis’ clones given their leather clothing and gelled hair, and they always dance so lively and are more than willing to be photographed. There’s no set schedule so it’s a matter of luck if you spot them!
The most noteworthy attraction that you should visit in Sumida would have to be the Tokyo Skytree. At 634m, it is the world’s tallest tower and the world’s 2nd tallest structure (after the Bhurj Khalifa in Dubai).
It is primarily a television and radio broadcast site for the Kanto Region; but for travelers, you can visit the large shopping complex, aquarium, and planetarium that are located at its base.
And of course, for sky-high views of the city, Tokyo Skytree has two observation decks and you can read this guide in order to know more about entrance and ticket prices.
BONUS TIP: It’s in this area where you can find Ryogoku Kokugikan, the sporting arena where Japan’s national sport, sumo, is held. If you’re in Tokyo during January, May or September, come watch a Grand Tournament here!
This special ward is the smallest among all of Tokyo’s wards, but despite its size, there are a lot of landmarks and must-dos that you shouldn’t skip!
Ueno is best known as the home of Ueno Park — a large public area that used to be a part of Kaneiji Temple (formerly one of the city’s wealthiest temples). Today, after Kaneiji suffered destruction during the Boshin Civil War, the grounds were converted into what Ueno Park is currently: an expanse that consists of several museums (Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum for Western Art and National Science Museum), the Ueno Zoo, and the lovely Shinobazu Pond.
And with over 1,000 cherry blossom (sakura) trees in the park, it is a fantastic choice for sakura-watching during the time of late March to early April.
A major district in Taito that can be easily explored on foot, Asakusa is said to be the center of Tokyo’s shitamachi (“low city”) — which means that it’s an ‘olden’ district where you can get a feel of how Tokyo was in the past decades.
– Dress up in a traditional kimono –
This is your chance to try on Japan’s elegant traditional wear: a kimono! Putting on a kimono can be VERY intricate, but don’t worry because there are rental shops spread out throughout Japan (catered both to men and women) that let you wear it outside for a day for a price that starts at 5,000 yen ($46~). And when in Tokyo, where best to do this than in Asakusa which will serve as a perfect backdrop (given its olden environment), right? I went through this experience myself in Asakusa and it was a joy to walk around town in my kimono! I felt like a legit Japanese woman too, especially since some locals and tourists were mistaking me for one as they either throw compliments or take photos. Finding a good rental shop can be tricky though since most of the owners don’t speak an ounce of English; rest assured, with my guide below, you can find manage just fine!
READ: How to Rent a Japanese Kimono for a Day
TIP: To get the most out of your ‘look’, go rent a traditional Japanese rickshaw too while touring Asakusa!
– See Asakusa’s top shrine and temple –
It’s important for you to know as early as now that a Japanese shrine and temple are different. First things first: a shrine is dedicated for the Shinto faith, whereas a temple is dedicated for Buddhism. Some distinct differences to also take note of is that Shinto shrines usually use the suffix ‘jingu‘; they have a torii gate and a purification fountain at the entrance. Buddhist temples use the suffix ji n their name; they always house an image of Buddha (of course) and have a large incense burner on front. Asakusa has a renowned shrine, Asakusa Shrine (Asakusa-jinja) and a renowned temple, Senso-ji (which is actually Tokyo’s oldest temple). The Asakusa Shrine is located just east of the large Senso-ji which has an impressive “Thunder Gate” called as Kaminarimon (which is a symbol of Asakusa and Tokyo) and a shopping district, Nakamise-dori, where you can buy local snacks and accessories (you must try the senbei or rice crackers, and Ningyo-yaki or small cakes).
TIP: If you can visit in mid-May, go to Asakusa and join the spectacular Sanja Matsuri (festival) held by the Asakusa Shrine as a part of your things to do in Tokyo.
– Head over to Sumida River –
For a leisurely stroll, go over to Sumida River and lounge by Sumida Park which stretches on both sides of this body of water. Like what you’d expect, there are cherry blossoms here which come alive in spring, and then during July on its last Saturday, this becomes a great spot for viewing the Sumida River Firework. NOTE: If you see a golden building with an odd golden structure on top that looks like a tear drop, that’s the Asahi Beer Tower with its ‘Asahi Flame’.
– Partake in a Japanese tea ceremony –
Highly influenced by the principles of Zen Buddhism and a well-respected hobby, the Japanese Tea Ceremony (also known as the ‘Way of the Tea’) is a traditional cultural activity that is elaborate and refined, and in which matcha or powdered green tea is prepared and drunk by a host. To be frank with you: this is a very long ceremony where you will sit motionless for hours as you follow a set of guidelines… but it is a striking example of Japan’s amazing culture that is exceptional for immersing one’s self with. For a good place to try this in, go to Nadeshiko.
– Have dinner with a Geisha –
Geishas or maikos (geisha in training) are traditional high-class Japanese entertainers. They’re NOT prostitutes. If you want to book them for a private dinner, they’re VERY expensive and that’s mainly because of the training they went through and the expensive clothing that they wear which can range from $30K to $80K. Nevertheless, it is now possible to book such a once-in-a-lifetime experience with GoVoyagin at a much affordable price. Anything cheaper than the price stated here are most likely ‘furisode‘ or non-genuine ones. TRIVIA: Geishas have truly dwindled down in numbers but most of them can still be found in Kyoto (the birthplace of geisha culture), apart from Tokyo and other parts of Japan.
READ: Interview with Kimicho, a Geisha in Tokyo
– OTHER Things to See –
• Hanayashiki = said to be Japans oldest amusement park (built in 1853)
• Asakusa Engei Hall = a great place to watch kabuki, rakugo, manzai comedy skits, and other Japanese performances
- Attend a festival! If you can book your tickets at any time, I would recommend that you wrap it around a day wherein one of Tokyo’s festivals (matsuri) is happening! Colorful and vibrant, partaking in these kinds of events will be something that you will remember fondly for the rest of your life. For a complete list of festivals in Tokyo, see here.
- Eat. Eat. EAT! This goes without saying, but yes please: stuff yourself crazy with all the typical Japanese food that you have ever heard of! This is the perfect opportunity to reward yourself with authentic Japanese fare and sweets: sushi (go eat it at a unique sushi belt restaurant), ramen (noodle soup), tempura (deep fried seafood + vegetables), tonkatsu (pork cutlet), mochi (rice cake), dango (steamed dumplings) and MORE.
→ Watch out for my upcoming post that will discuss in detail the top food that you must eat while in Japan!
- Konbinis are your best friend! Some people say that eating in Japan is expensive; but that’s NOT true! If you know where to go and where to look, you can dine for cheap. For instance, one of the most affordable places that you can ever get food from would be Japan’s konbini (convenience store). I kid you not: Japan’s konbini is ABOVE any convenience store that may ever exist worldwide and that’s mainly because… they might actually have everything you might ever need (food, mail, delivery, utilities, tickets, etc.). And mind you: their food is good-tasting — which come in SO many varieties! I seriously think that if I were to stay for several months in Japan, I still won’t be able to consume ALL the interesting food and snacks that I saw there.
- Go and enjoy the vending machines! Japan has a LOT of them — too many in fact, and they do not only offer drinks (hot + cold) but even food. But that doesn’t stop there because some vending machines even offer some other unusual items like: amulets, batteries, cigarettes, seals, t-shirts, toys, umbrellas, books… There is also a vending machine that sells used panties. Err… Yep, the Japanese can really put almost anything imaginible in their vending machines, that’s for sure.
- Watch a sumo match! How about a game of sumo (a Japanese wrestling sport)? I watched a match in Osaka when I was in Japan and I loved it — it was intense! I originally wanted to watch a match in Tokyo, but I was too late for the booking. The 3 grand tourmanents happen in January, May and September and Tokyo’s National Sumo Hall is Ryogoku Kokugikan. I suggest that you check out the schedule and book your tickets with BuySumoTickets.com because I had a smooth time dealing with them.
→ Watch out for my upcoming Sumo post and guide!
- Marvel at Japan’s ‘genius’ toilets. This might not be a ‘big’ thing for you, but for me, it was — and I find it worth mentioning in this post… But okay, it’s not exactly a ‘thing to do’ but more of a ‘thing to expect’ because I honestly think that the Japanese has the toilet experience all figured out with their elaborate ‘bidet toilets’! Basically, these have many advanced features that you will rarely see outside of Japan, some of which are: seat warming, deodorization, ‘behind’ washing, and background music. It’s crazy AND fun! So feel free to experiment with it when you’re using one. (When I left the country, I made a mental note to myself that the toilets in my future house will be the same as that of Japan’s).
- Go to other nearby towns! If you could extend your stay, you should travel to the surrounding areas in Tokyo such as that of Nikko, Kamakura, Hakone (to see Mt. Fuji up close), and Yokohama. There are loads of things you can do in these places that you can’t do in Tokyo: visiting a ryokan (traditional inn), hiking to several nature trails and falls, etc.
→ Watch out for my upcoming guide for this topic!
- …Or if you have more time, go further out of Tokyo and go to places like Kyoto, Hokkaido, Hiroshima, Osaka, and more!
→ Watch out for my upcoming posts about this!
There is undeniably a TON of other things that you can do and see in Tokyo that can last you a LIFETIME — but for a short-term trip, I believe that the list above is enough of a summary for helping you decide on the BEST activities and sights to set your eyes on.
I may have visited Tokyo for 5 days, but I truly felt like I have barely scratched the surface… it’s just too huge and rich! Because of that and more, you bet that I will be coming back again (and again and again!) to this incredible capital that seemingly has EVERYTHING that I can ever ask for in a city.
As for the country as a whole, Japan is what I have surely expected — and more! In fact, starting now, I will NOT hesitate in saying that it is one of my top 3 favorite countries of all time… and I have a hunch that you will feel the same way soon. Enjoy!
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