Okay, so I lived in Tokyo for three months, right on the Yamanote line, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my life! I really love Tokyo and I thought I’d share some of the best tips I’ve gathered.
Perhaps the thing I love the most about this city is that it’s so walkable. The subway system is excellent, albeit a bit confusing, and it can take you pretty much anywhere you’d like for a pretty modest fee. And once you get there, there will always be a nice, clean sidewalk for you to experience the city from. Oh, and while you’re walking, don’t forget to check out the adorable manhole covers! They vary from county to county, but are always very pretty.
So here is a list of what I consider the best sights in Tokyo:
Shinjuku – This is, along with Akihabara, the area that’s most like the Tokyo you’ve imagined. The place is chock full of people and there are neon signs and giant animatronic displays everywhere. Go here and look at all the things and just enjoy being in the Tokyo from the movies, especially after dark, when everything is lit up and pretty. During the day it’s more like any other district really, except that on weekends they block off the main road (Shinjuku dori) and it’s all foot traffic. There is one department store I’m fond of on Shinjuku dori if you walk east along it. It’s a chain called OIOI and it’s at the crossing of Meiji dori and Shinjuku dori. Inside there are five stories of the most popular clothing styles (for dressing up/cosplaying), many of which you’ll see if you go to Harajuku during the weekend. What you can also do is to cross the road once you’re done in OIOI and you’ll find yourself in another cool little area, jam-packed with tiny and cozy restaurants.
North of Yasukuni dori is the Kabukicho entertainment district where you’ll find a ton of barkers (I remember one of them shouting “All you can drink, all you can touch!” after us at one point) and the pretty insane Robot Restaurant (it’s pricey, but you just can’t get this sort of entertainment anywhere else). There is also a large, and reasonably priced, capsule hotel in this area. A capsule hotel is a really cool experience (if you’re a guy, since they are usually for men only) if you haven’t tried it; essentially you get a hole in the wall to sleep in that measures roughly 1x1x2 m. Inside you have a little TV and a Star Trek-esque control panel for the lights and TV (the TV has two settings: porn or regular programming – took me a while to figure out). You get a locker to put your bags in, a pair of slippers and a kind of pajama to wear. You are expected to wear the pajama while in the hotel and only change into regular clothes for going out. On the top floor is a bath house where you have several hot and cold pools, a sauna and regular wash stations at your disposal, which is a very nice way to wind down your day before crawling into your hole and pulling the curtain shut. There actually is a mixed capsule hotel, reasonably close to Shinjuku, called Ace Inn. You won’t get the full Japanese experience, and there isn’t a TV inside the capsule. But at least you get a taste of what it’s like, and at a reasonable price.
Also worth visiting is the Shinjuku Goyen, which is a rather big and pretty park that you should go to if you happen to be in town during the cherry blossom flowering season (beware that it closes annoyingly early though; 16:00 if I remember correctly).
Probably my favorite area in Tokyo is the one around Harajuku Station (it’s on the Yamanote line, between Shibuya and Shinjuku). This is where the cosplayers congregate on weekends and if you’re lucky, you’ll see quite a few, usually on the bridge over the rails, between the park and Omotesando Street (actually, from what I hear, the cosplayers are no longer around and nobody really knows where they are now). Once you’re done with the cosplayers, you should head up the street, back towards the station entrance, go past it and then turn right across the street into Takeshita street. It’s easily recognizable since it has a large gateway, adorned with balloons and shit. Takeshita Street is just bonkers, in the best possible way; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve simply walked the length of it, just looking at all the wonderfully weird things and colourful people. There are a lot of fun shops here, so take your time and just enjoy the madness of it all.
After a while you have to cross Meiji dori over to Harajuku Street. Harajuku Street is not as much bonkers as it is cozy, and the whole area just has a very relaxed mood. Follow this street (ducking into the various cool clothing stores along the way) until you come to the first car street on your left, onto which you turn (to the right is another cozy street that will take you back out to Omotesando Street). Walk up this street, and when it forks, take the left prong until you come to the end of it. Now back up a few meters, and to your left is a very cool and super cozy treehouse café. Here you can get a light lunch, some oolong tea, and recharge your batteries for further adventures. When heading back, just go right where you previously took a left from Harajuku Street and follow the road back to Omotesando Street. Take a right here and walk up to the big crossing, here you have the rather spectacular entrance to Tokyu Plaza on the corner to your right and you should absolutely go in. On the top floor there is a super cozy Starbucks with a rooftop terrace to die for and on the floor below it are two really sweet knick-knack stores which you also shouldn’t miss!
Near Harajuku Station you can also find the very nice Yoyogi park. If you go here in the weekend, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see a traditional wedding at the shrine in the middle of the park. The huge tori gates and the display of sake barrels are very nice too. Speaking of Yoyogi, by the way, if you go to Yoyogi station (one stop north of Harajuku on the Yamanote) you can get the best coffee in Tokyo at Tom’s (take a look at the postcard in the window and you might recognize me!).
Tsukiji Fish Market – This is absolutely the number one sight in Tokyo, if you ask me. You may think that you’ve seen fish markets before, but trust me, nothing like this. The cool thing about this place is the sheer variety and weirdness of the sea critters you see. It’s also awesome to just see these people working here, cutting up huge tuna fishes using half-meter long knives, gutting teeny tiny fishes you’d think no one would bother eating, or just sharpening their knives. Be aware that you are at the work place of these people though, so do your best to stay out of the way of the fishermen. The inner market opens up for visitors at 9 am, and you should make sure that you are there on time to get the best experience. If you’re early, there’s plenty to see in the outer market while you wait.
Getting to the Tsukiji Market is a bit of a pain though. Assuming you’re on the Yamanote line you need to change at Hamamatsucho and walk a bit to get to Daimon Station. From there you hop on the Hanzomon line and get off at Tsukijishio and use exit A1, from there is just a short walk to the entrance. It’s a bit confusing, because you first pass through a gateway of sorts where you have a vegetable market on your right and shops on your left, but no fish in sight. This is the so-called outer market (there are also some stalls selling very yummy noodles). You have to continue on for a few hundred meters before you get to the inner market. Beware of all the electric trucks zipping around, they’re all over the place! Allot about an hour to get there, more if you’re not a seasoned traveler. It seems the market is due to move during 2016, so don’t waste time! I’m sure the new location will be good too, but it probably won’t have the charm of this place.
Shibuya – This is where you find the so-called scramble crossing, which you’ve probably seen on TV a few times. It’s a lot of fun to just sit at the conveniently placed Tsutaya Starbucks and look down at all the people crossing every time there is a green light. It’s almost magical how they almost never bump into each other, even if it’s raining and everyone has an umbrella. If you stay to the west of the scramble crossing there are a lot of fun shops, including a six-story Tokyu Hands store that you should absolutely visit, and a super upscale fruit store that sells the cuboid watermelons you may have seen online (I can’t remember the exact location of the fruit store, but I think it’s on the southwest corner somewhere, close to the L’Occitane). Stay away from the northeast side of the crossing, that area is a bit seedy with mostly love hotels and such.
Akihabara – No trip to Tokyo is complete without a trip to Akiba. Here you will find lots of electronics shops, giant toy stores filled with anime figurines, sex shops, and a lot of maid cafés. If you’re a video game nerd, I can heartily recommend a visit to Super Potato, which is a five-story video game memorabilia store. They sell mostly Nintendo stuff and you can get everything from an old Game & Watch to giant stuffed Yoshis.
You’ll find Super Potato on the west side of Chuo dori, along with a lot of the maid cafés. A maid café is something rather uniquely Japanese; basically you pay premium to get waited on by super cutely dressed Japanese girls that look and act like stereotypical young girls. Now, it’s not at all as creepy as it sounds, and there aren’t any uncomfortable sexual undertones, just a lot of childish cuteness. Also in Akihabara is something else that’s pretty unique; an owl café! You may have heard of cat cafés before, which basically are cafés where you go and get to play with cats for an hour. This is the same idea, but with owls. You don’t get to play with them exactly, but you get to hold them and pet them. You need to make a reservation though, because the time slots fill up pretty quickly. It’s also very hard to find, since the entrance is rather nondescript and down a bit of a side street, so make sure you have lots of time to spare when going there.
Shimokitazawa – Somewhat of a hidden pearl in Tokyo, Shimokita is a small bohemian neighborhood a bit outside the immediate city center. It has a very cozy vibe and I heartily recommend taking an afternoon to stroll around here. It doesn’t take long to fully explore it but you should take your time here and browse the cool clothing stores. They also have a lot of very nice knick-knack stores, ideal for souvenirs.
Asakusa – The home of Tokyo‘s oldest temple and also where you can find the Tokyo Sky Tree – the new TV tower, taking over for Tokyo Tower. Tickets are pretty annoying to come by, because booking online is Japanese only, but if you go there in person you can get them as well. When I was there it had just opened, so tickets were pretty much impossible to get, but I’m sure it’s much easier now. I do think Tokyo Tower is much cooler, but not nearly as high. The temple (Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest) is worth a trip here though, and even though the market in front of the temple is very touristy, you can find a lot of nice souvenirs at reasonable prices.
Tokyo Tower – The Japanese answer to the Eiffel Tower. Kind of annoying to get to, I usually just went to Hamamatsucho station (Yamanote line) and walked up Shibakoen Street (you won’t get lost since you can see the tower the entire time). It’s maybe a 25 minute walk but if that doesn’t scare you, then it’s a pretty nice one. (if you don’t feel like walking though, you can take the Tokyo line to Kamiyacho station, use HyperDia to figure out the Tokyo metro system) Afterwards you can take a walk through Ginza if you want. Don’t expect to shop much there, since it’s almost exclusively super expensive brand stores, but window shopping is fun and there are lots of pretty lights to look at. Also, Tokyo is very safe at night, so you shouldn’t have any problems walking around.
Odaiba – Home to the “life size” Gundam statue and not that much else. Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo Bay and to get there you need to first go to Shimbashi, there you follow the signs to the Yurikamome line, which is a monorail that takes you out to Odaiba. Aside from the Gundam, there isn’t much else here except shopping malls – though one of them has an indoor amusement park, called Sega Joypolis, which is kind of cool. Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio rents the entire place for him and his staff every time he’s in Tokyo.
Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka – If you like the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki, you owe it to yourself to visit the Ghibli Museum. I’ve been there twice, and it’s absolutely the best museum I’ve ever been to and well worth the huge pain in the ass it is to get tickets to. What you have to do is to go to a Lawson store (the Japanese 7-Eleven basically) and try and make the clerk (who speaks no English whatsoever) help you buy a ticket. Now, if you’re only in town for like a week, you likely won’t get any ticket because all the time slots are already sold out, but you should absolutely try anyway. The Mitaka neighborhood is pretty cozy in and of itself, but probably not enough to warrant a visit if you aren’t going to the museum.
Roppongi – If you want to go out and party, this is the place to go. Keep in mind that cover charges are often akin to highway robbery though, and that the subway stops at around midnight. So have your address written down in Japanese (cabbies aren’t good at English) or just keep on clubbing until dawn (subway starts again at around 5 am, if memory serves). Other than clubs, there really isn’t much to see here, aside from Roppongi Hills Mori Tower maybe, which has a pretty swanky mall attached.
Kappabashi – If you have time to spare, Kappabashi is certainly worth a visit. It’s another one of those places that you’ll have a hard time finding anywhere else. It’s basically one street where you can find everything you need in order to open up your own restaurant. And I mean everything. You can get cutlery, china, chairs, tables, a sign, a giant plastic lobster to hang over the sign, staff uniforms, pre-printed menus with prices and all, cooking equipment, beautiful knives, plastic replicas of food to put in the window, coffee makers, chopsticks, tea pots. It’s pretty cool to just browse all the stuff, and maybe even buy a few things. I bought very nice handmade kitchen knives for a pittance, for instance. A recommended souvenir are the little plastic sushi bits that you can get as a phone strap or a kitchen magnet, they look just like the real thing!
Kamakura is a nice half-day trip if you want to get out of the city for a bit. Here you will find more temples than you can shake a stick at. You get here by taking the Yokosuka line from Shinagawa station (on the Yamanote line) and it takes about an hour. I would suggest getting off in Kita-Kamakura where there are a couple of temples right by the station. There are also patches of bamboo forest here, maybe not as nice as the ones in Kyoto, but good enough for photos if you choose your angle carefully. When you’re all templed out you can walk down the only street in town until just before you cross the rails, you make a right turn into what looks like just another temple. But there is actually a path leading into the forest here where you can walk all the way to Kamakura proper. In Kamakura is a bunch of more temples if you have the energy, otherwise you can just stroll around a bit before hopping back on the train to Tokyo.
Eating – My two favorite Japanese foods are probably ramen and tonkatsu. Ramen can be found almost anywhere, just ask someone on the street if you can’t find a place and make sure you get some gyoza with your ramen. Tonkatsu is a deep fried pork chop, served with shredded cabbage and a malt vinegar sauce. I cannot overstate how good it is and you absolutely have to try it. The chain WAKO has really good tonkatsu for a good price, while Saboten is also good, but overpriced. You should also try at least one kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi), where the sushi go round and round on small plates and you just pick the ones you like and then afterwards the server scans your stack of plates to figure out what you have to pay. Japanese curry is very different from other places; it’s cheap, good and you can choose how spicy you want it. CoCo Ichibanya is nice and you can find it pretty much everywhere. Hawaiian burgers are also a thing that you should try (Teddy’s Bigger Burgers in Harajuku is good but you can find them pretty much everywhere), kebab (yes, really! Tokyo has some of the best gyros I’ve eaten, look for Turkish flags), yakiniku (fatty beef that you fry yourself at the table), tempura (a variety of lightly breaded deep-fried things) and maybe soba (the Japanese take on noodles, often served cold with sashimi). If you’re really adventurous you should try fugu – the poisonous blowfish that has to be prepared just right, or why not some chicken sashimi? That’s right, that’s raw chicken breast…