Here’s our selection of 20 things to do in Tokyo, Japan.
Tokyo is vast and ever-changing. It has been done to death on travel blogs and in guidebooks but you can never quite capture it. For that reason, we didn’t want to write down what we think you ‘shouldn’t miss’ or ‘must see’ places. But here are 20 things we really enjoyed on our last two visits.
1. Take in some iconic Tokyo scenes in Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku
What do you think of when someone says ‘Tokyo’ or even ‘Japan’? Chances are, if it’s not temples, it’ll be something along the lines of skyscrapers and huge crowds. This is only one side of Tokyo though and there is a lot more to it, and Japan as a whole, than this kind of thing. These crazy areas are worth seeing though: you won’t get such orderly chaos anywhere else.
Another classic image of Tokyo that springs to everyone’s mind is of lots of neon signs lining the streets at night. You can find this in various places, but these particular streets are in Nishi-Shinjuku. They’re where the final scene in ‘Lost in Translation’ was shot.
2. See the city from the Tokyo Bay water bus
A ride on the Tokyo water bus is a perfect activity to combine with a trip to the sumo (blog on that to follow) because you can get on the boat from just outside, near Ryohoku station.
The water bus is also a very good vantage point for viewing the Asahi Flame, better known as the ‘golden turd‘. It’s a giant stainless steel golden sculpture on top of the Asahi Beer HQ, visible in our second photo below. Meant to look like the frothy head on a pint of Asahi, it rather missed the mark.
3. See Rainbow Bridge at night
After the water bus, you can get off near Rainbow Bridge, a very pretty suspension bridge all lit up at night. We ate at TY Harbor restaurant here, which was pretty swank but still had that lovely laid-back Japanese atmosphere when it comes to food. And it had its own brewery next door.
4. See the Tokyo skyline from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
To really take in the magnitude of Tokyo, it has to be viewed from above.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, in Shinjuku, has two free observation decks on the 45th floor of both of its towers, from which you can see Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, and even Mount Fuji in good weather. The north tower one is open late at night.
There’s a cafe and a shop selling goods from every single prefecture in Japan – each one is known for being ‘the home of’ a specific type of udon noodles or bamboo shoots or some other nonsense and you can see the whole collection here.
We went at dusk, which made for some beautiful hazy light before an impressive sunset.
5. See Tokyo Station at night from the Shin-Marunouchi building
Another beautiful view can be seen from the terrace of the Shin-Marunouchi building. We went in both the day and night over our trip and it’s definitely better at night. You can see the strangely un-Japanese looking Tokyo Station all lit up. With its clock faces and red brick, this station stands out against the sleek skyscrapers.
We returned in the day when we were in the area and needed to have some lunch. There are so many restaurants to choose from inside the Marunouchi building and lots have English menus, which is a huge help when you don’t have anyone to translate. The view of Tokyo Station wasn’t as impressive in the day, though. It was actually better to go round the other side of the building’s terrace, from where you could see the Imperial Palace gardens.
6. Visit Character Street and find the cutest capybara shop
After you’ve stared at Tokyo Station from the Shin-Marunouchi building, you’ll want to go inside it. And if you like cute (‘kawaii’) things, you’re going to be pleased. It’s home to Character Street, an indoor shopping area with all kinds of characters you’ll know, like Hello Kitty and Pokemon.
But those well-known ones are nothing compared to Kapibara-san in the Kyrutto Shop. Kapibara-san is an adorable capybara (everyone knows what a capybara is, don’t they? Putting that link in just in case). He has a llama friend and a chick friend. He’s cutest in baby capybara form (basically a little ball with a face) and we had to buy one, as well as a llama-san. We also have a sweater and a lanyard for work…
There really are no limits to the amount of cute crap you can spend your money on here.
7. Have a go at playing Mario Kart in an arcade
If you’re brave enough, you can venture into an arcade and attempt to play something. A Japanese arcade is, obviously, about a million times more intense than an arcade at home. They are usually massive and packed to the rafters with those grabby claw games and all kinds of video games.
We really like Mario Kart and managed to find it in a Namco Arcade. Playing it in car seats with steering wheels was much more fun than being sat at home playing it on the settee. The machine even took photos of us and made us into the characters.
8. Have a ride in a lacy taxi
This was one of our favourite things on our first trip to Japan. Taxi drivers cover their seats with white lace. Absolutely baffling and wonderful. The cars are fairly old-fashioned, boxy things outside, and then when you get in, you’re met with this elegant, spotless world of embroidery. The doors open and close themselves. The drivers often wear a hat and white gloves.
Like in most places, it isn’t the cheapest or most environmentally friendly form of transport, but you should have a quick go just for the experience.
9. Go for the full Japanese karaoke experience (alcohol required)
Karaoke in Japan is, like everything there, intense. It’s not a half-hearted drunken warble at 3am into a tinny microphone at your local Tiger Tiger club. Oh no. It’s a serious business.
The one we went to, Rainbow Karaoke in Shibuya, wasn’t just a karaoke booth but a karaoke experience. You got a drum set, keyboard, guitar, microphone: the works. A full-on band for you to murder any number of chosen songs with.
The rooms are connected to reception with phones and you can order food and drink on them, which magically appears within minutes. Karaoke is Caroline’s idea of hell but the alcohol helped to numb the pain. Marginally. Chris enjoyed tapping the drums.
10. See the skyscrapers from Shinjuku central park
This park isn’t a major tourist attraction at all, but it’s one of those places you get a bizarre view of Tokyo. While it doesn’t have the wow factor of some of Tokyo’s popular gardens, it’s surrounded by skyscrapers and that makes for some really impressive scenery. From the little rose garden, the contrast between pretty flowers and 50-storey buildings is really striking.
Oh and that sandy-grey stuff on the ground in our photo below is grass. Yes, even grass in Japan is confusing. Apparently, it turns this colour over winter. This was really baffling to us because grass in Europe stays green all year unless there’s serious snow. Is this just a Japan thing or does it happen in other countries?!
11. Have a day at the sumo
We have a blog post about this separately, but if you visit Tokyo in sumo season, GO. Even if you hate sport. It’s unlike anything else.
12. Have a day being a ‘railfan’ at the Tokyo Railway Museum and train-themed bar
If you like trains, a day at the Tokyo railway museum and drinks in Kiha, a train-themed bar, will be right up your street. We have a separate blog post about Japanese train geekery so have a look at that if you feel you could pass as an official Japanese ‘railfan’!
And yes, that is us in train-based fancy dress attire there. That happened.
13. Eat all of the food
We’re not even going to attempt to describe or name the many, many places we ate in the centre of Tokyo. Just go and try everything. Okonomiyaki, donburi, yakitori, sashimi, takoyaki, ramen, udon, tempura, tonkatsu, gyoza, all the desserts… all of it needs to be eaten while in Japan. You may have eaten it at home but it is never the same.
Having just said we’re not going to attempt to name any specific restaurants, we just have to give this place a shout out for its exquisite sashimi. Sorry, the name in English is beyond our googling capabilities. If you have a Japanese-speaking friend, go there. If you don’t, then still go there and hope for the best. The menu was even a bit beyond our Japanese-speaking friend Tom, with so many weird and wonderful types of fish available that we’d never heard of.
Like we said in our recent blog on western Tokyo, of all the things to do in Tokyo, or Japan, eating is the best. But it’s impossible to narrow down ‘where to eat’ in any given area, because there’s just so much choice and none of it is bad.
14. Drink too much craft beer
Tokyo is hot on craft beer at the moment.
We went to a brilliant craft beer bar called PDX Taproom, themed around the beer and culture of Portland, Oregon, USA, which is where Chris had his stag holiday (‘batchelor party’ for our American readers). This bar was Chris’s favourite, although it’s amazing that he remembers anything about it due to the speed at which the beer was disappearing. The aforementioned karaoke followed.
BrewDog Roppongi was another drinking spot we frequented a few times. Everyone knows what a BrewDog bar is like: there’s one in nearly every big European city these days. We’ve all been there, done that. So while it’s nothing unusual, it does serve good beer and our friend is the manager of the Roppongi branch, so do go there and spend lots of money. If you go and tell him you’ve read this blog, he will give you free beer. Probably. Not. Also, on your way there through Roppongi there are some good views of Tokyo tower at night, which we’d never noticed before. Roppongi isn’t a very nice area of Tokyo though, to be honest. It’s the only place you’re always bumping into other foreigners and tourists, and the only place in our entire time in Japan that we’ve ever seen litter. Fine for a quick wander and some drinks though.
Last but not least, DevilCraft Kanda is our pal Tom’s office local and serves a good array of craft beer from around the world. It had friendly, English-speaking staff and a cosy atmosphere.
15. Enjoy all the bakeries and patisseries for breakfasts
This isn’t necessarily just a Tokyo thing: it’s a thing throughout all of Japan. But we sampled quite a few while in Tokyo so we thought we’d include it here.
Bakeries and patisseries in Japan are the best in the world.
There. We said it. Better than France? Sweden? Italy? Yes. Sorry. Japan just does everything best. The bready breakfast goods are out of this world and there is never anything you don’t want to eat again.
Our standard morning routine on holiday is that Chris heads out to purchase some breakfast goods and we eat them in the hotel room while getting ready. We used to bother with hotel breakfasts, but they mean you have to get up earlier and they can take ages and aren’t always great. Something bought locally that can be eaten while you straighten your hair is much better. Japan is no exception to this rule. A particular highlight was an amazingly soft, slightly sweetened bun with cream and honey inside. Oh and a green tea flavour scone-meets-bread thing.
You don’t have to go to a fancy, expensive bakery to get something exquisite. We had some of the best from Vie de France – a chain in many train stations.
16. Go to a food hall (depachika)
Walking through a Japanese food hall (depachika) is one of the most intense experiences you can have. Like everything in Japan, the orderly chaos is astounding, the choice is overwhelming and of course, all the food is exceptionally good.
Food halls are on the bottom floor of department stores. You have to walk for a good ten minutes to get from one end to the other and everything is just delicious-looking. Especially all the cheese.
17. Find some blossom
It’s a cliché but it’s so nice. Even when we went to Tokyo in January, there were a few plum and cherry blossom trees already showing some buds and it would be really pretty in spring.
18. Go into a pharmacy
We’ve mentioned this before but… just how much stuff is there? What’s going on? Help. The same applies to other shops, but there’s something extra mental about pharmacies. You just don’t get this kind of madness in Superdrug.
19. Just wander about taking it all in and see all the different areas: from the skyscrapers to winding low-rise streets
Of course, the best thing there is to do in Tokyo, or Japan in general, is to just wander around gawping at everything. There’s just so much going on that we can never tire of it. Make sure you don’t just stay around the bustling centre – try going somewhere like Asagaya or Koenji to see another side to it all.
20. Get lost
It has to be done at least once. Someone will help you.
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