Tokyo is Japan’s expansive and ever-bustling capital city. You often hear Tokyo described as “another big city” but within this impossibly large metropolis there are nuggets of culture, history, and deliciousness to be found. Tokyo welcomes you with vibrant neon lights, architectural icons, fashionable residents, and the most complex rail system I’ve ever seen.
Like many large cities, there are micro-cultures and atmospheres formed in each of the suburbs of Tokyo. Wherever you stay, it is ideal to venture out and sense the differences between the boroughs. But no matter where you end up, you won’t be going without. Everywhere we seemed to wander, there was never a shortage of shops, malls, food halls, teeny tiny eateries, and entertainment.
Although it can be easy to get swept up in the bright modern lights of areas like Shibuya, it is important to get out and see some areas of cultural significance, too. Visiting markets, shrines, and narrow wooden streets, can you give you a sense of Tokyo’s history and put the city into perspective.
THINGS TO DO IN TOKYO
Lights and Scramble Crossing in Shibuya
The Shibuya Scramble Crossing is probably the first thing that comes to your mind when you envisage Tokyo. Shibuya is Japan’s answer to Times Square with tall buildings covered in bright, flashing LED screens. The famed crossing, is a five-pronged pedestrian crossing which, as soon as it is time to cross, is inundated with hundreds of pedestrians walking in every direction. It really is something you have to see to believe!
The action is best experienced by doing the crossing for yourself, but it is also visually fantastic to view the crossing from above. If you want a view without any price tag, head up the escalators into Shibuya station and enter the glass walkway. From the walkway, you get a full and direct view over the crossing. If you feel like having a hot drink and you watch the organised chaos below, you can go to the Starbucks which beautiful glass windows overlooking the crossing, or the more up-market L’Occitaine Café which has much more expensive beverages, but a more up-market feel.
Time Needed: 30mins
Nearest Station: Shibuya Station
Tucked away in the back streets, it is easy to miss Omoide Yokocho. The narrow wooden streets are lined with stunning red lanterns and rising steam from the busy eateries. Each little eatery has a busy kitchen with a bench for eating. The restaurants are packed full of people enjoying conversation, freshly cooked food, and warm sake. ‘Atmospheric’ doesn’t even begin to describe Omoide Yokocho. If you are lucky enough to see a spare seat at one of the eateries, don’t pass up on the opportunity to eat here.
Time Needed: 30mins
Nearest Station: Shinjuku Station
Meiji Shrine was constructed in 1920 as a dedication to the first modern Emperor of Japan, Emperor Meiji. Despite being located adjacent to busy Harajuku, the shrine complex is embraced in the serenity provided by a dense forest.
The complex is entered via large wooden Torii gates and meandering paths. Eventually the main shrine buildings are reached. Meiji is a beautifully constructed shrine and is very much an active part of life in Tokyo. Although it is popular, Meiji Shrine still remains peaceful and immaculate. If you are in Tokyo, a visit to places like Meiji Shrine gives a great insight into Shinto culture in the country’s capital.
Time Needed: 1 hour
Nearest Station: Harajuku
Seeing The Skyline
When you are wandering around Tokyo, you get a real feeling that the place is massive but you never quite know how massive until you see it from above. It is a view that can only be described as epic with the city stretching as far as the eye can see. The view is most beautiful at sunset, and from some viewing points Mount Fuji can even be seen in the distance.
There are many different options for soaking up the skyline view of Tokyo. The most famous is Tokyo SkyTree which opened in 2012 which is the tallest and provides the best views but it costs over 1,000 yen and can be quite crowded. Another option is the iconic red and white Tokyo Tower (although the observation deck is still being renovated).
The best deal? Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The building lets you go up to the 42nd floor for free and provides panoramic views over Tokyo. Although the view isn’t quite as good as places like Tokyo SkyTree, there are vastly fewer people so you can enjoy it much more.
Cost: Free (Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building)
Time Needed: 30mins
Location: 2 Chome-8-1 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo 163-8001, Japan
Tsujiki Fish Market
This is Tokyo’s oldest still-functioning fish market. Generations have worked here to supply the city and its restaurants with fresh fish. Early in the mornings (seriously early) you can visit the fish auction, however the number of people allowed in is restricted so you have to arrive even earlier to secure a place. Exhausted from all our exploring, the early morning start did not appeal but the markets sound exhilarating so if you’re up to it, definitely try it.
Otherwise, the outside area of the fish market is open throughout the day. The markets are bustling with locals and tourists alike funnelling through the small, awning lined streets. Small stalls and shops sell all kinds of seafood as well as other Japanese delicacies. Whether you grab your food to go, or choose to sit in one of the tiny restaurants, you are bound to find something delicious to try.
Time Needed: 1 hour
Nearest Station: Shimbashi
Location: 5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chūō, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan
Authentic Sushi Train
The food in Japan is so much more extensive than we see back home in Australia, although one thing that has made it over are sushi trains. So we had tried sushi train before coming to Japan, but the experience in Tokyo felt very different. If you are looking for sushi trains in Tokyo, try smaller and more local restaurants rather than chains so you get the experience that differs from home.
We stumbled upon one in the Shinjuku area and it turned out to be our favourite meal in Tokyo. A handful of sushi chefs were slicing up fresh fish right in the middle of the round belt, produced more plates of sushi than humanly possible. As soon as someone ate a plate, a new one would instantly replace it. The restaurant was crowded with locals sitting shoulder-to-shoulder enjoying the food.
Everything was beautifully simple with only a few different styles of sushi being prepared and each plate only costing either 110 or 210 yen. The simplicity made it seem a lot more authentic and easy to navigate. With the delicious taste and welcomed affordability, it was no surprise that people had towers of empty plates to match their satisfied stomachs.
Harajuku is the vibrant district which shot to fame through its bright colours and fantastically out-there fashion sense. Well-known for shopping, there are several streets in Harajuku where you can get the best sense of the place. My favourite area is Takeshita Dori and its surrounding streets. Here is where the true colours lie with small shops packed with shirts, shoes, and accessories.
Once you have soaked up the sights and sounds of Takeshita Dori, heading to Omotesando will give a look into high-end Tokyo. The street is lined with tall trees and all the designer shops you can imagine. It is fascinating to window shop in Omotesando and get a glimpse of the flashy side of Tokyo.
Time Needed: 1 – 2 hours
Nearest Station: Harajuku
GETTING AROUND TOKYO
It is possible to get around Tokyo by taxi. Taxis are high quality and well-maintained in Japan, but they won’t be as quick or cheap as trains.
The rail system in Tokyo is pretty complicated but if you can get a grip on it, it is the best way to get around the city. If you have a JR Pass then the JR lines in Tokyo are included. There are also metro lines and the Shinkansen. The trains are quick, clean, and on-time. Everyone is incredibly polite and quiet in the trains so it doesn’t feel like your standard public transport experience. ICOCA cards can be purchased and topped up to give you access to the metro lines. The Narita Airport Express also runs from the major stations in Tokyo.
Tokyo is a great city to walk around because it is buzzing with activity. The city is very big though, so I would recommend catching the train to areas where you have a few things to do and then walking around the area once you get there.
WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO
Tokyo is bursting at the seams with hotels, with a good mix of local hotels and international chains. Hotels aren’t the most affordable or authentic way to stay in Tokyo, but they do come with all the conveniences.
Ryokans and Guesthouses
Ryokans and guesthouses are worth staying in during your stay in Japan. Traditional guesthouses will give you the opportunity to get local advice, sleep on futons, and immerse yourself in Japanese life. Although Kyoto would be my pick to stay in a ryokan, you can also do it in Tokyo.
There are plenty of Airbnb properties in Tokyo to choose from with a range of locations and prices. The major benefit of an Airbnb is that you can experience Tokyo like a local. Airbnb can be a great way to stay in some of Tokyo’s most iconic areas, like Shibuya, for really affordable prices.
Staying in a capsule hostel is a pretty unique experience to try in Tokyo. The idea of a capsule hotel definitely confused me to begin with. Where do I put my bags? Is it safe? Is it claustrophobic? But the price made me put these concerns to the side and try it.
Turns out all of these things have been carefully considered and staying in a capsule hotel is a relatively private, yet affordable, way to stay in Tokyo. I stayed in Nihonbashi Bay Hotel which is just a stone’s throw from Tokyo Station. The floors are divided into men’s and women’s and each floor had about 25 capsules. You pull down the curtain at the end of your capsule for privacy. The capsules themselves are spacious and immaculately clean, coming with a USB port, power points, a coat hanger, a TV and headphones. Outside the capsule room is a large room of lockers to store all luggage; within the lockers there were slippers, awesome Japanese-style pyjamas, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and a wash cloth provided. The bathrooms are shared but, again, cleaned to perfection and with completely private cubicles. For the price, staying in a capsule hotel like Nihonbashi Bay Hotel is an amazing things to try and definitely something to write home about!
WANT MORE JAPAN?
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