See also: Where to stay in Tokyo
A veritable playground of historical riches, 24-hour entertainment and mouthwatering cuisine, Tokyo offers a sample of all that Japan has to offer. Amid the broad blocks of concrete and colorful display monitors are small family-run restaurants, charming shrines and serene parks. From the individualistic shopping of Ginza, Harajuku and Shibuya to the boisterous izakaya of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho and Yurakucho Gado-shita, the forest padded Meiji Shrine and Edo nostalgic Yanesen; there is something for everyone. Where does one even begin to unravel this startling, dazzling city? Start with this list of our best things to do in Tokyo for a quick introduction:
Embrace tradition at Sensoji Temple
Asakusa was once the epicenter of Edo Tokyo’s merchant district, its lingering trade roots evident in the blocks of specialty stores, crafts workshops, traditional restaurants and old-style awnings that provide cover. At the heart of this well-loved district is the ever popular Sensoji Temple, its vibrant pillars and bordered roofing drawing visitors like moths to flame. Advance through the imposing “Thunder Gate” Kaminarion to join the crowds milling about Nakamise Shopping Street, where neat lines of small stores sell trinkets, snacks and temple-themed souvenir.
Brave a walk across Rainbow Bridge
What many don’t know if that you can actually walk across Rainbow Bridge. Linking Odaiba and Tokyo, it is backed by the bay’s very own statue of Liberty replica. Take your camera and maybe a light cardigan; it gets windy out there.
An alternative view of Tokyo city
Skytree Tower is another popular landmark and for good reason. Offering a post-card perfect panorama from two decks, at 350-meters and 450-meters, visitors can look across Sumida River to downtown Tokyo from the east. Interactive maps and guides are available through the tower’s mobile app, pinpointing landmarks and attractions that you can zoom up on through viewing lenses. From base up are also restaurants, shops and galleries.
Spend a chill afternoon around Meguro River Canal
Fluttering foliage shade you along Meguro River Canal, pastel spring blossoms or summer greens alike stretching out kilometers to line the pedestrian path. The sweeping hubs of Naka-Meguro and Meguro usher in cozy cafés, boutique shops and concept stalls, attracting young crowds seeking a comfortable environment to hang out. Its soft setting plays the perfect backdrop for couples and romantic confessions, but anyone can refill their zen meter with an hour or two here.
Pray at Meiji Shrine
The grand, graveled paths of Yoyogi Park lead to the revered Meiji Shrine, sunlight filtering through the foliage to infuse the space with warmth. Wrapped within the bubble of the forested area, the spiritual air surrounding Meiji Shrine is easily felt, discouraging chatter in exchange for quiet prayers. Buy a charm for luck and protection or draw your fortune; if you receive a negative prediction, knot the paper along a special rack for the shrine maidens to purify and pray for your well-being.
Take a tour around royal grounds
The boulevard leading from Tokyo Station to Tokyo Imperial Palace may be an impressive chrome-building lined walk, but it can hardly stand against the impressive grounds at the end. Built around the ruins of Edo Castle are gardens and museums, the Emperor’s residence in close proximity. Whilst the expansive East Gardens, Kyoko Gaien National Garden and Kitanomaru Park are open to the public, access to inner quarters of the royal residence is closely regulated through guided tours. A particularly charming area during cherry blossom period, the Imperial Palace and Gardens are one of the best things to do in Tokyo.
People watching at Shibuya Crossing
Like loyal Hachiko waiting at the junction of Shibuya Crossing, you can park yourself down at the corner Starbucks and watch the never-ending crowd. A busy crossroad right outside Shibuya JR Station, it is no wonder the streets are hardly empty.
Seek out the Tokyo iteration of Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine
A lesser-known place of worship steeped in history and culture, Nezu Shrine is often overlooked for the more architecturally elaborate. Located within the quiet neighborhoods of Yanesen, the serene grounds are hemmed in by lush greenery and torii entrances. One of the oldest shrines in Tokyo, established in 1705, it is perhaps best known for its vermillion torii path along the hillside. The annual Azalea Festival held at Nezu Shrine contributes to what the local community touts as ‘the most beautiful spring scene’.
Exude elegance in a kimono
Take cultural immersion a step further and slip into a kimono. Ranging from cheaper, light-weight yukata suitable for summer humidity to more ornate ensembles fit for colder seasons, rental shops offer your pick of traditional wear for the requisite photo op. You’ll find kimono rentals in vicinity of major temples and shrines, as visitors prefer to pair outfit to backdrop. Yukata on the other hand, is perfect to wear to festivals as many families and couples embrace the celebratory spirit by donning colorful cotton.
Float like a swan at Inokashira Park
Breathe deep and steer leisurely around Inokashira Park’s expansive pond, the leafy greens and spring blossoms creating the perfect setting for a brief respite. Regular boats aren’t enough to shield you, but these swan boats provide just enough cover if you need a snooze. If water isn’t your thing, wander the expansive trails within Inokashira Park before settling in for an oak-shaded picnic.
Sing top hits at karaoke
Can karaoke get any better than belting out Adele’s ridiculously high notes or jamming to your favorite anime soundtrack? Well, yes. Throw in some free-flow drinks and musical props for the upgraded Japanese package. Most karaoke establishments offer choice of one drink (obviously cheapest deal) or free-flow non-alcoholic beverages; there’s also a food menu and additional drinks for available for in-room purchase.
Reach new heights at Mount Takao
Delegate a day to this all-year hiking spot just a short commute away from downtown Tokyo. If the annual 2.5 million visitors isn’t an indication, Mount Takao’s eight hiking courses up the 599-meter elevation are made for hikers of all ages and ability. Trek to the top for some stunning views and claim your reward – a back-melting soak at the onsen bathhouse right by the mountain base. A cable car and chairlift is also available for leisure-seekers, linking the Takao 599 Museum at the base to the tengu worship Yakuo-in Temple at the summit.
Shine like a beacon with Tokyo Tower
‘Shining, shimmering, splendid’ doesn’t even begin to describe the view of Tokyo’s metropolitan, and the original observation tower sits like a flare in the middle of Tokyo. Tokyo Tower’s iconic red frame is the feature of many grounds-up photographs, but its 360℃ skyline view is unparalleled. Visit at dawn and dusk for two different vibes, where night allows a map of the awake and asleep. At the tower’s base is also a One Piece play and shop attraction for fans of this anime classic, including a café restaurant with a character-inspired menu.
Hit up a Batting Center
Wind up for a home run at any one of Tokyo’s batting centers; Shinjuku’s Oslo Batting Center being one of the easiest to find. Baseball fans and students gather to practice their swings, indulging in one of the nation’s favorite sports. Bat until your arms are sore, and then switch over to nostalgic entertainments such as air hockey, go-kart simulation and friendly competition at the basketball hoop.
Go old school at Jimbocho Book Town
There’s something nostalgic about the scent of musty parchment and faded titles, and Jimbocho Book Town has it in spades. With over 170 bookstores in the area, old Japanese scriptures are hardly the only things you’ll find. Think antique books, limited copies of European classics, vintage records and dramatic movie posters dating back to the 60s – these are all literary history.
Release your inner fashionista
Say good-bye budget and hello new wardrobe! Tokyo’s racks are made for the consummate shopper. Ginza’s luxurious brands deliver through massive shopping malls such as Ginza Six, chain Mitsukoshi and colonial-style wrappings of Ginza Wako. For hip and edgy fashion that runs from high school punk to Lolita and Goth, Harajuku and Shibuya’s street fashion presents an eclectic mix. Meanwhile, Shinjuku’s malls cater to more sensible and mainstream preferences, whereas Shimokitazawa is best for vintage pieces and thrifting. Between these choices, you’re set for a complete fashion revamp.
Delve into traditional performance arts
Just a few blocks away from Ginza’s upscale malls is the Kabuki Theatre. A timeless performance art that reimagines Japanese classic literature, Kabuki is a must on your checklist of cultural activities. Performed on a unique stage where a raised passageway extends through the auditorium to bring the act into audience space, this centuries-old art form impresses with dynamic stage sets and trained kabuki professionals. Expect live accompaniment stationed on and off stage, traditional Japanese instruments part of the layered performance.
Nerd out at Akihabara
Akihabara screams of otaku heaven, digital advertisements and characters banners wrapped around the exterior of its dozens of buildings. Calling all gamers and anime fans, Akihabara offers floor-to-ceiling shopping of fan goods, English and Japanese manga, character models, newest game releases, cosplay costumes, posters; all the goodies you can think of. Mandarake and Animate are best known for anime and manga, whereas you can revisit childhood games at Club Sega arcade. Japan’s unusual maid cafés are also plenty – no doubt there’ll be girls in maid costumes coaxing you into their cafés.
Relaxing at Shinjuku Gyoen Park
A large oasis adjacent to the bustling Shinjuku shopping district, Shinjuku Gyoen is among the largest parks in Tokyo. Divided into three main sections for variety – a neatly landscaped French Formal Garden, a traditional Japanese garden complete with stone bridges across ponds, and a sprawling lawn in between them – visitors can spend hours picnicking, strolling and relaxing. Before you disappear back into the high-rises beyond its borders, drop by Shinjuku Gyoen’s greenhouses for more plant appreciation.
Join in the festivities
Blend into the crowds for a lively night of street food and game stalls. Japan celebrates almost everything, sometimes with extravagant pomp. Take Kanamara Festival’s giant phallus sculpture paraded across town as the example. For those timing their visit for spring, try to coincide with any of these three major events: Sanja Matsuri, Kanda Matsuri and Sanno Matsuri, famous celebrations that have people flocking from all over Japan.
Relax at a traditional Japanese garden
Rikugien Garden, aptly translated into the “Garden of the Six Principles of Poetry”, exemplify the perfect hideout for aspiring poets. Intimate and a ways from central Tokyo, the garden posits a tiny rest house next to the central pond. Sip at a bowl of hot matcha and sink into your reflections, or rent one of the two wooden tea houses to practice the artful tea ceremony. If you’re feeling restless, make your rounds through the paved paths between looming trees and wispy fauna.
Take in Tokyo from bottom-up
Why not admire Tokyo from a bit of a distance at sea-level? Draw on Heian tradition of combining fresh seafood and river boating with a cruise along Sumida River or around Odaiba. The Yakatabune Harumiya Cruise is solid option for visitors seeking a unique perspective of Tokyo’s skyline.
Izakaya hopping for crispy finds
Squeezed into some of Tokyo’s busiest districts are izakaya stores lined up in chain of boisterous laughter, the tangy smell of skewers permeating narrow alleyways. Whether you’re a salaryman entertaining your department or students in need of a study break, the pattern is universal: grab a bite, down your drink, and slide over to the next late-night stop. Don’t dismiss grilled innards too quickly; some of the best crunch-and-munch include ox’s tongue, chicken intestines and gullet.
Shop for nonsense at Don Quijote
Don Quijote doesn’t sell nonsense per say, but it sure has a bit of everything. Cheap electronics, caricature t-shirts, Halloween costumes and small souvenirs; Don Quijote is a treasure trove for things you never thought you needed. You might be amused by what you find, so give it a whirl.
Seek out an older Tokyo
There’s something mesmerizing about the way Tokyo preserves history, lingering traces found in patches of cobble-stoned paths, narrow alleys and wooden shop fronts. Quiet neighborhood Yanesen in particular retains much of Edo styling in its squat buildings and preserved shrines, untouched by World War II and the Great Kanto Earthquake. Similarly, streets around Iidabashi remain narrow and houses black façades typical of olden tea houses, reminders of its past as Meiji era’s tea house district.
Watch a sumo match
Strength and spirit are on full display at the Kokugikan sumo stadium. Major tournaments are only hosted several times a year, so be sure to check the competition schedules. Alternatively, you can learn more about this national sport at the adjacent sumo museum, or sign up to watch contenders train at the wrestling stables during off-season.
Visit Skytree Tower’s Aquarium counterpart
Poised in the same complex as Skytree Tower is Sumida Aquarium, which boasts Japan’s largest indoor open tank as its crowning exhibit. Stroll through the moody, surreal spaces between and below the tanks for a diverse display of aquatic plantation and sea animals. The aquarium is also home to a research laboratory.
Travel back in time at Edo-Tokyo Museum
There might not be a time portal at Edo-Tokyo Museum, but the life-sized replicas of merchant districts and olden housing comes close. Smaller, scaled models of Edo castle, city districts and cultural scenes grant visual cues of life back in the day, and complementary information boards showcase how governmental systems have changed. The year-to-year and day-by-day lifestyle is better demonstrated with interactive displays, such as weighted gold pieces and shouldering market goods. A smaller exhibit bridges the past and present by detailing the gradual technological advances that led to the Japan today.
Pray for luck at Gotokuji Temple
We could all do with more luck in our lives and Gotokuji Temple is where it is at. Before the eyes of thousands of ceramic maneki-neko (the lucky cat), offer a 50-yen coin and ask for their blessings. You can even purchase your own lucky cat to bring home; may your life be filled with fortune!
Checklist the museums in Ueno Park
Tokyo is all about efficient allocation of space; Ueno Park is an all-in-one consortium of museums, zoo and park. Over 110,000 artifacts and art are on permanent display at Tokyo National Museum, whereas Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum focuses on more modern and contemporary pieces. The Museum of Nature and Science is a natural pair with Ueno Zoo for the nature-minded. Visitors who simply want some peace and quiet can enjoy a walk around Shinobazu Pond and the plaza square, the main avenue a prime cherry blossom viewing location when spring sweeps across Ueno Park.
The best of Disney amusement parks
Commute from central Tokyo for a full day’s fun or plan an overnight stay at Tokyo’s Disneyland and DisneySea. With the two destinations conveniently side-by-side, you should indulge in both for a comprehensive choice of rides, seasonal events and resorts. Meet your favorite Disney characters in the day before waving them off with a final bombastic parade come evening. In summer months, DisneySea may edge out for best choice as the water rides are guaranteed to keep you cool and smiling.
A city within in city: Roppongi Hills
A complex encompassing offices, residential blocks, shopping mall and museum in one, Roppongi Hills is likened to a ‘city within a city’. Modern and upscale, the design of the complex is experimental and in perfect complement to the concept brands hosted within the shopping area. Most notably, visitors go for the art museum in Mori Tower. Featuring new exhibitions every few months, it celebrates art across all mediums.
Hit up night time Kabukicho
Kabukicho, or Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, is a night time hotspot. Neon signs come to life in a cacophony of color and noise as office workers and university students flock to its numerous bars and izakaya. Overnight entertainment isn’t limited to clubs and karaoke; small arcades and manga cafés stay open to entertain. Forget the last train; foray into jazz and reggae at live music bars and party until sun up.
Check out the cute animal cafés
If you just want some cuddle time thanks to a no-pet rule at home, Tokyo’s animal cafés are right for you. Ranging from typical cat and dog cafés to the more exotic hedgehog and owl cafés, visitors can choose which animal to enjoy a hot cuppa with. Do respect rules set by the staff and be gentle when handling these precious animals; it may be a good idea to research ethical cafés beforehand and avoid those that treat their inhabitants without care.
Eat under the tracks
Tokyo pampers with its generous spread of regional cuisines and desserts from both east and west, but local flavor is best sampled at its under-the-tracks eateries. Mingling in the tight spaces of Yurakucho’s Gado-shita are the slurps of slick udon noodles and the rich aroma of yakiniku grills, interspersed with the occasional bar and sleek restaurant. For more humble fare, head out of city center to Koenji’s underbelly, Koenji Street a tunnel of laid-back stalls and alternative bars.
Take day trips out to Hakone or Yokohama
Tokyo’s diverse sights extend out of its city borders to nearby Hakone and Yokohama. Nestled in a mountainous valley is Hakone, a small town known for its traditional Japanese inns and languid hot springs. Hakone also houses Lake Ashi and spaces where art meets the outdoors, including Hakone Open Air Museum and the Venetian Glass Museum. Green carpeted mountains and restorative hot springs lure in countless visitors every year. In contrast, Yokohama sparkles with port charm. Visitors can walk along the coast and bask in fresh sea breezes, or head up Landmark Tower for a breathtaking view of the coast.
The best advice given when it comes to exploring Tokyo is to lose the map. Let your eyes guide you towards the attractions, small or big. Who knows? You might stumble upon a hidden temple or garden between office blocks, or local thoroughfare not in any travel guides.
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