Here’s my selection of 20 unique 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, I didn’t want to write down what we think you ‘shouldn’t miss’ or ‘must see’ places. But here are 20 things I really enjoyed on my last two visits that aren’t your generic big sights.
1. Buy a clear plastic umbrella to fit in with the locals
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 dashing about. You’ll naturally see this kind of thing in the bustling Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku areas. But look closer and there are always these clear plastic umbrellas involved, come rain or shine. They’re cheap and last ages. Mine is still withstanding the worst British rain on my way to and from work. If you can shove one in your suitcase, do it. Even summer in Japan can spring a shower on you and ruin your hair and nobody wants that.
2. See the city and the ‘golden turd’ from the Tokyo Bay water bus
Of course the impressive buildings and the city in general going by are great but let’s get onto the important bit. The water bus is mainly a very good vantage point for viewing the Asahi Flame, better known as the ‘golden turd‘. Yes, really.
Behold, a giant stainless steel golden poo sculpture on top of the Asahi Beer headquarters, visible in my second photo below.
It’s meant to look like the frothy head on a pint of Asahi, but it er.. rather missed the mark.
3. Visit Rainbow Bridge at night
After doing the water bus, you can get off near Rainbow Bridge, a very pretty suspension bridge that’s all lit up at night. It’s apparently a popular spot for couples on dates and you can see why, although personally I prefer the golden turd.
While here on our last trip, we ate at TY Harbor restaurant just by the bridge. It 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: bonus. So have some grub there if all the twinkly lights aren’t enough to entertain you.
4. Look down on the whole Tokyo skyline at dusk
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. Depending on time of year (you can check the sunset times online), you can do this before or after your evening meal and get some proper Instagram-worthy pictures.
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 last trip to Japan and it’s definitely better at night. You can see the strangely un-Japanese looking Tokyo Station all lit up. You might have seen this in the day with its clock faces and red brick, but at night it’s even prettier.
Bonus tip: we returned to the Marunouchi building the next day when we were in the area and needed to have some lunch. There are so many restaurants to choose from insid and lots have English menus, which is a huge help when you don’t have anyone to translate and you’re very tired. The view of Tokyo Station wasn’t as impressive in the day, but it was actually better to go round the other side of the building’s terrace. From there, you could see the Imperial Palace gardens looking all tiny in the distance.
6. Visit Character Street and find the cutest capybara shop
Okay, this is my favourite thing to do in Tokyo (after eating ALL OF THE FOOD) and it’s certainly unique.
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. Tokyo Station is home to Character Street, an indoor shopping area with all kinds of characters you’ll know, like Hello Kitty and Pokemon, and even more you might not know.
It’s these more unique and unusual creatures that are worth further investigation… Enter Kapibara-san in the Kyrutto Shop (click that YouTube link there and good luck getting the tune out of your head).
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 his bezzy mate llama-san. We also have a sweater, a flannel for removing makeup, and a lanyard for work. I really do wear it round the office as a grown 30-something woman. Such is life.
Take it from me, 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 without looking a) lost or b) generally incompetent. A Japanese arcade is, obviously, about a million times more intense than an arcade at home in the UK. They’re usually massive and packed to the rafters with those grabby claw games and all kinds of video games, along with all the beeping and dinging noises you’ve ever heard in your life all being played at once and back-to-front.
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 in our pyjamas. The machine even took photos of us and made us into the characters. Deeply disturbing, but it didn’t stop us shoving our day’s spends into it for more.
8. Have a ride in a lacy taxi
Alright, this isn’t exactly a hidden gem but if like me you try to walk/use trains to avoid paying for taxis on your travels, you might end up missing this bizarre experience unless you actually seek out a taxi journey.
Taxi journeys are one of my favourite things to do in Japan, and this isn’t all because I consistently pack inappropriate footwear and end up crippled on day two.
Taxi drivers cover their seats with white lace. It is absolutely baffling and completely 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. It’s all very, very different from taxis in every other country I’ve been to. Maybe take a photo to send to your local taxi firm when you get home, just to give them some constructive criticism. You’ll probably get blacklisted, but it’ll be worth it.
Like in most cities, taxis aren’t the cheapest or most environmentally friendly form of transport, but you should have a quick go just for the experience.
9. Go all-in on 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. It does still need the drunken element though. Karaoke is my idea of hell but the alcohol helped to numb the pain. Marginally. Chris enjoyed tapping the drums.
The karaoke we went to, Rainbow Karaoke in Shibuya, wasn’t just a karaoke booth but a karaoke experience. If anything qualifies as unique, it’s this bad boy. You get a drum set, keyboard, guitar, microphone: the works. Yep, a full-on band for you to murder any number of your chosen songs with.
The karaoke rooms are connected to reception with phones and you can order food and drink this way, which magically appears within minutes. Welcome to Tokyo.
10. See the skyscrapers from Shinjuku central park
This park isn’t really a major tourist attraction at all, but it’s one of those places you get a totally different view of Tokyo.
While it doesn’t have the wow factor of some of Tokyo’s most 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 odd.
FYI, 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 (we visited in January). 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?! Answers
on a postcard in the comments.
11. Have a day at the sumo
If you visit Tokyo in sumo season, GO. Even if you hate sport. It’s unlike anything else.
I have a separate blog post about how to watch sumo in Tokyo so won’t go into detail on it here too, but will just emphasise three things:
- You have to cram yourself into a little box on the floor, sat on cushions.
- You’ll probably get to chuck said cushions around at the end, joining in with one of the few times a Japanese audience gets rowdy.
- You might not have a clue WTF is going on most of the time, but you’ll thoroughly enjoy it all.
12. Spend the day becoming a ‘railfan’
Did you know ‘railfans’ are a thing in Japan? They’re a sort of train-based superfan. So if you like trains, there’s loads of stuff for you to do. And if you don’t like trains, you’d better pretend you do because they’re taken very seriously.
I have a whole post about Japanese train geekery and train-themed things to do. Have a look at that if you feel you could pass as an official Japanese ‘railfan’. I waffle on in more detail there, including letting you know about the quite frankly amazing Tokyo Railway Museum (you can pretend to drive trains AND play all the noises) and Kiha, a train-themed bar where you can dress up as a train driver in a not-weird-at-all way.
And yes, that is me, Chris and our pal Tom in full train-based fancy dress attire just below. That happened. We weren’t even drunk at this point. Should I be admitting this? Soz.
13. Eat all of the food you can find, including non-Japanese food
I’m not even going to attempt to describe or name the many, many places I love eating at in Tokyo. Of all the things to do in Tokyo (or Japan in general) eating is the best.
With Japanese food, there’s so much delicious stuff. You’ve got okonomiyaki, donburi, yakitori, sashimi, takoyaki, ramen, udon, tempura, tonkatsu, gyoza, all the desserts… and all of it needs to be eaten while in Japan. You may have eaten Japanese food at home, but it is never as good. If you don’t know what something is, eat it anyway.
But what you might not have thought of is eating non-Japanese food in Japan. I know that sounds stupid and of course, you’ll want to eat plenty of the actual Japanese stuff, but because Japanese chefs are so good they’ve actually managed to adapt and improve many other countries’ and cultures’ foods. Go to a French, Chinese, Italian, American, Vietnamese, or Mexican restaurant on at least one evening of your trip. You’ll be in for a treat.
14. Drink too much craft beer
Forget saké, Tokyo is hot on craft beer at the moment.
We went to some brilliant craft beer bars in Tokyo. Here are some of my favourites:
- PDX Taproom – this is 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 – another drinking spot we frequent on our Tokyo trips. I know, I know, everyone knows what a BrewDog bar is like: there’s one in nearly every big city these days. We’ve all been there, done that. So while it’s nothing unique to Tokyo, it does serve good beer and our friend is the manager of the Roppongi branch, so do go there and spend lots of money. Also, on your way there through Roppongi there are some good views of Tokyo tower at night, which I’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 I’ve ever seen litter. Fine for a quick wander and some beer though.
- DevilCraft Kanda – this is our pal Tom’s office local and serves a good array of craft beer from around the world. It has friendly, English-speaking staff and a cosy atmosphere.
15. Go to all the bakeries and patisseries
Amazing bakeries aren’t necessarily just a Tokyo thing: they’re a thing throughout all of Japan. But I sampled quite a few of them while in Tokyo so I thought I’d include it here.
You know what I was saying in #13 on this list about foreign food in Japan being better than in its own country? Well…
Bakeries and patisseries in Japan are the best in the world.
There. I said it. Better than France? Sweden? Italy? Yes. Sorry. All these countries that do incredible sweet treats will have to sit down. Japan just does everything best. Their 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. Happy gorging!
16. Get out of your depth in a food hall (depachika)
Walking through a Japanese food hall (depachika) is one of the most intense experiences you can have in Tokyo.
Like everything in Japan, the orderly chaos is astounding, the choice is overwhelming and of course, all the food is exceptionally good. Can you tell I’m on a food-based roll at the moment? No pun intended.
Food halls tend to be on the bottom floor of department stores. You have to walk for a good 10 minutes to get from one end to the other and everything is just delicious-looking. Especially all the cheese.
17. Find some plum blossom
Blossom in Japan is a cliché but it’s so nice isn’t it?
But instead of going for the madness of cherry blossom season, when everyone goes crazy for that pink stuff and takes time off work to frolic among it, hunt out plum blossom instead.
Plum blossom flowers earlier and isn’t as renowned as its cherry friend, but it’s just as charming. Even when we went to Tokyo in January, there were a few plum blossom trees already popping out. It usually kicks off in February though.
18. Go into a pharmacy even if you’re not ill
Just how much stuff is there in a Japanese pharmacy? Why is everything so bright? 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. Get off the beaten track and find 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 I can never tire of it.
Make sure you don’t just stay around the bustling centre and high-rise craziness though. Try getting the subway to somewhere like Asagaya or Koenji to see another side to Tokyo. These areas are far from the tourist crowds but are absolutely packed with tiny little bars, shops and cafés as far as the eye can see.
20. Get lost (deliberately, if you don’t manage it by accident)
It has to be done at least once on any trip to Tokyo. You’ll be fine though. Someone will help you. I think Japan is one of the few places in the world where I can guarantee you’ll have a polite and helpful saviour within minutes, even if you have a massive language barrier. And that’s one of the many reasons I bloody love it.
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If you enjoyed this post, you may also like my other Japan blog posts:
- Planning your first trip to Japan: what you need to know
- Tokyo – off the beaten track
- Himeji Castle
- Naoshima art island
- Kobe – one day in the floral city
- Tokyo – train-themed things to do
- Tokyo – how to watch sumo
- Nara – home of the tame deer.
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