Tokyo’s size can be daunting to a newcomer, but like the city’s nine million residents, you’ll find that’s just more to love. The public transit system is vast but efficient, and the city is filled with hidden gems and unique experiences.
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A visitor here could get lost in the charms of a single neighborhood, or follow the crowds from sunrise to sunset. (Or maybe the next sunrise.) You won’t be able to see everything in one trip, no matter how long, and that’s fine. It just means you’ll be coming back.
Tokyo has dozens of neighborhoods, from quiet residential suburbs to bustling urban shopping destinations. Here, we’ve collected some of the most popular, interesting and offbeat.
Ginza – The most expensive piece of real estate in Japan is located in Ginza, and when you first visit this exclusive neighborhood, you’ll understand why. Fendi, Dior and Gucci have flagship stores here, and luxury boutiques and malls line the main streets. It’s a high-end shoppers dream – even if you’re just window shopping. Check out Kabuki-za, Tokyo’s largest kabuki theatre.
Shibuya – This colorful, trendy neighborhood is home to one of the most familiar scenes in Tokyo for outsiders. Tall buildings, glowing neon billboards and the famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world where up to 3,000 people cross per green light. Some of the best shopping in Tokyo can be found here.
Roppongi – Tokyo’s most accessible nightlife district for visitors. Packed with clubs, bars and restaurants, this is where the fun never stops. It has also has a reputation as a cultural center with its offerings of several art museums, including The National Art Center (Japan’s largest art museum,) Mori Art Museum and Suntory Museum of Art.
Asakusa – Get to know old-school Tokyo in Asakusa. This charming, quiet neighborhood is the home of Sensoji, one of Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temples.
Shinjuku – Skyscrapers, gardens, shrines and nightlife – Shinjuku is a great choice for the traveler who wants a central location to explore. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is here, and if you’re planning to leave Tokyo for another destination within Japan, you’ll find all (rail) roads lead to the massive Shinjuku Station.
Akihabara – This neighborhood is known for electronics, technology and nerd culture of all kinds. This is a great place to shop, whether you’re looking for unique souvenirs or retro electronic components. If you love gaming, the loud, colorful arcades have to been seen to be believed.
Shimokitazawa – Full of vintage clothing stores, coffee shops and tiny live music venues, this neighborhood is a hipster paradise. Microbrew or cold-brew – you’ll find them both here.
Harajuku – Harajuku has a reputation for youthful trends and street style, but there’s so much more to explore here. Grab some take-out and have a picnic in Yoyogi Park, where there’s always something going on. Need a break from the crowds? Neighboring Meiji Jingu Shrine is set within dozens of acres of calming cedar forest.
Odaiba – This man-made island is home to some unique futuristic architecture and stunning views of Tokyo from the water. Check it out as you head for the modern National Museum of Science and Innovation. Here, you can board a water bus to cruise Tokyo Bay or ride down Sumida River to Asakusa.
What To Do
Have you ever seen a $600,000 fish? A little bit of luck (and a very early wake-up call) and you just might! That’s almost as much as a single bluefin tuna sold for at the Tsukiji fish market in early 2017. It’s unlikely that your trip to watch this seafood auction take place will be quite as exciting, but it’s still a chance to see top chefs, suppliers and buyers for top restaurants around the world select the very best from the daily catch. This is for early risers only – tickets to the public observation area are only distributed directly before the auction, and the line can start as early as 3-4am. If you need a bit more beauty sleep, the outer part of the market is open to the public after 10am, and the stalls are packed with the freshest seafood you can find in Tokyo. Eat at one of the many stalls offering fresh caught sashimi or sushi.
Looking for an escape from the city? Meiji Shrine is easily reached by taking a train to Harajuku Station, and it’s surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of gardens and green space. You can stroll through the cool, quiet cedar forest and get away without ever leaving Tokyo. If you’re rested and ready for more action, Yoyogi Park is right next door, and this large, busy park is the perfect place to catch an outdoor performance or picnic on the grass.
What To See
For a true “overview” of Tokyo, you have some options. Tokyo Tower is a familiar silhouette – it was built after the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris. Here, you can look down on the center of Tokyo from an observation point 500 feet above the street. If you want to go higher, head to the Tokyo Skytree – this TV broadcast tower is the tallest building in Japan. Its two observation decks are joined by a glass-walled spiral ramp, providing a continuous view of the city as you climb to the upper deck, nearly 1500 feet above ground level.
The Imperial Palace of Tokyo is the official residence of the Japanese Emperor. Most of the Palace itself is closed to the public, but if you join an official guided tour, you can see the grounds (but not the interior) of this historic complex. The sprawling East Gardens, however, are open to the general public, and they are spectacular no matter the season. You can even see some of the Palace’s original features, like the thick walls and surrounding moat.
Tokyo is filled with temples and shrines, in both the Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Numerous festivals take place throughout the city year-round, so unless you’re planning your trip to coincide with a specific one, look up what’s happening during your stay to ensure you don’t miss out on a fantastic cultural opportunity. Sensoji Temple is a Buddhist temple and Tokyo’s oldest, established in the 7th century. The large temple halls are beautifully carved, and a five-story pagoda rises above the courtyard. Close by is the Shinto shrine of Asakusa. This newcomer was built in the 1600s, and together with Sensoji comprises one of the most famous temple complexes in Tokyo.
If you’re outside of regular commute hours (after 9am, before 5pm), a great way to see the city is simply to take in the sights by train. There’s so much city passing by right outside the window, and if you spot something you can’t bear to miss, you can always get off. Just make sure you remember where you started!
Roppongi is the place to be if you’re looking to party the night away. This neighborhood is famous for the many bars and nightclubs where locals rub elbows with visitors and expats. Karaoke is popular here (as it is in many other districts of Tokyo), so get acquainted with karaoke, Tokyo-style. Karaoke parlors here often feature private booths, and many serve drinks and snacks so you can sing until the sun comes up.
Izakaya are a type of Japanese pub where delicious bar food is washed down with beer and sake. You’ll find them everywhere in the city, whether large or small, and they’re a great place to unwind and absorb Japanese drinking culture.
Tokyo With Kids
Children around the world are captivated by Disney magic. Book a hotel within the Tokyo Disney Resort for easy access to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. If you’ve ever been to Disneyland, you’ll find the Japanese version comfortingly familiar, with a few hometown twists. Tokyo DisneySea is a unique ocean-themed park where guests can ride in a Venetian gondola, take a ferry between attractions and head under the sea to explore the world of The Little Mermaid.
For fans of Japan’s beloved Studio Ghibli animated films, the Ghibli Museum can’t be missed. This ivy-covered building features rotating exhibitions, character statues and life-size recreations of some of the films’ settings that curious children will be thrilled to explore. Just be sure to book ahead – tickets go on sale only once a month, and they often sell out quickly.
Ueno Zoo is the oldest zoo in Japan, and children of all ages can enjoy the over 400 species that make their home here. The most famous residents will require braving a crowd, but it’s worth it – the zoo’s Giant Pandas never disappoint. Young children will enjoy the Tokyo Fire Museum, a small, free attraction featuring big red trucks from years past and a rescue helicopter simulator.
Off the Beaten Path
Go drinking in the Shinjuku Golden Gai (Golden District). Here, more than 200 tiny bars are packed into an area the size of a city block – most seat no more than 5-10 customers at a time, and some are standing room only. Many of these bars are for locals only, so make sure there’s a menu posted in English outside before you step in to make sure you’re welcome.
Is the summer heat getting you down? Do as the locals do and escape the city for the beach. There’s several within a few hours’ train journey of Tokyo, but the beach near Enoshima is one of the prettiest. Enjoy the ocean breezes as you relax on the sand or explore the shrines on picturesque Enoshima Island.
Tokyo is an international city, filled with delicious food no matter what you’re craving. If you’re cold, warm up with nabe – Japanese one-pot meals, served at the table. There’s many different kinds, some of which may sound familiar, like shabu-shabu (simmered in a light broth and dipped in sauce) and sukiyaki (simmered in a sweet and salty broth, then eaten with raw egg), and they can come filled with all sorts of meat, vegetables, noodles and tofu. If you’re escaping the heat, try zaru soba instead – cold buckwheat noodles served with a flavorful dipping sauce.
Ramen is another must-eat meal. Tokyo is filled with ramen shops, and each one has its own special preparation, from the broth and noodles to toppings like meat, soft-boiled egg and onion.