Impossibly vast, overwhelmingly chaotic, yet strangely intuitive, Tokyo is one of those great cities you have to experience at least once. And what an experience it is! The megacity is a feast for all the senses. You might be watching bug-eyed as pedestrians swarm across Shibuya crossing, belting out the latest J-Pop with new friends in a karaoke bar, feeling the warm waters of an onsen gently pummel away your cares, catching a whiff of smoky incense at Senso-ji, or wolfing down a delicious bowl of something that resembles a plastic model you pointed at in the window. All can be enjoyed on your Japan vacation.
Tokyo is a city of endless possibilities, but here are some of the best, narrowed down into four potential plans for when you’ve got the day free. Still, don’t feel pressured to hit all the major tourist attractions. This city is more about exploration and experiences, so take it one neighbourhood at a time, and don’t be afraid to get lost. The easy-to-navigate public transit network goes everywhere.
Essential Tokyo and Tales of Old Edo
Start your day at Ueno Park and dive into the Tokyo National Museum. Take in your fill of art and history from Japan and beyond, then return to the park for some fresh air. Maybe collect your thoughts at Ueno Toshogu Shrine before diving into the bargain-hunting chaos of Ameyoko Market. If you’re looking for a few low-cost gifts or souvenirs that are distinctly Japanese, this is the place to come. You’ll find abundant food options around here too.
After lunch, walk or take the train to Asakusa, home to the famed Senso-ji Buddhist temple. Dating back to the 7th century, this is Tokyo’s oldest temple, fronted by one of its most historic markets. Just to the west of the temple, you’ll find another popular shopping area, then take in some more of Tokyo, either from the top of the spectacular Tokyo Skytree, or from a Sumida River cruise. If you’d prefer a more in-depth look at the city and its history, drop in at the Edo-Tokyo Museum instead.
No visit to Tokyo is complete, on your Japan vacation, without a night out in Shinjuku. From rowdy Japanese pubs to tiny bars (be they sushi, ramen, alcohol, or otherwise) that seat only a half dozen patrons, you’ll find it all here. There’s even a robot cabaret if you fancy the ultimate kitschy, yet undeniably impressive night out. For a taste of “traditional” Tokyo nightlife, visit the Golden Gai, or if you’d prefer a free night-time view, zip to the top of the Metropolitan Government Building, which is open until 11pm.
Tokyo’s Coolest Sunday Out
For young people in Tokyo, Sunday is a day to shake off the shackles of the school or work week and let individual style and passions shine. And so, to Harajuku and Akihabara we go!
Start your day at Harajuku, but before you head into the malls for people-watching, pay your respects at Meiji-Jingu Shrine. You might even happen upon a traditional Shinto wedding. Wander back through the forest to Harajuku to see young, creative Tokyo at play. Zip down the tourist-crammed Takeshita Street as quickly as possible, keeping an eye open for the few cosplayers that remain. Then explore the unique creations of the nearby malls, where you’re more likely to see young shoppers rocking their Harajuku best. Collectors of physical music may also find their nirvana, as Tokyo music lovers of all ages are still very much devoted to CDs and vinyl.
In the afternoon, hop the train to Akihabara, spiritual home of Tokyo’s famed otaku culture. A catch-all term for people with “obsessive interests,” nowhere is otaku more alive than in Akihabara, Tokyo’s electric town. Here, gamers, geeks, cosplayers, tech-heads, and plenty of onlookers come to indulge their many and varied interests across every colour of the geek spectrum. Browse floors and floors of games, toys, electronics, and cutting-edge gadgets, go retro on some classic video games, or pull up a chair at one of the district’s famous maid cafes for a kitschy but highly memorable experience.
In the evening, take the train to Shibuya station, then steel your nerves for crossing the world’s busiest scramble, Shibuya Crossing. The Starbucks overlooking the crossing is the most popular vantage point to look back and see the madness first-hand. Just be sure to buy something if you decide to make use of it. Afterwards explore Shibuya, or take the train up to Shinjuku for some bar-hopping.
Fresh Air, Fresh Seafood, and Fresh Ideas
Spend a few hours wandering Hamarikyu Gardens, an exquisite example of Japanese garden design and a wonderfully serene way to start your day. A short walk away, Tsukiji Fish Market will close the gates on its current location for the last time in May 2018, thus ending one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist rituals on a Japan vacation… the early morning tuna auctions. What will remain is the extensive Outer Market, which is a great place not just for souvenirs, but practical Japanese kitchen items, ingredients, and of course, food! It goes without saying you can also enjoy arguably the world’s freshest sushi at the eateries here, so it’s easy to track down lunch on any budget.
Once you’ve had your fill of fish, feed your cultural appetite with a one-act ticket at Kabukiza. These inexpensive tickets offer you a taste of Japan’s most revered theatrical form, and acts last just over an hour, making them easy to slide into your sightseeing day. Just be sure to hire an English audio guide, and don’t worry about not seeing the whole play. Acts at Kabukiza are performed out of sequence, so parts of different plays may be performed throughout any given day.
After enjoying one of Japan’s finest traditions, ride the Hibiya Line to Roppongi Hills for a glimpse of its future. A city within a city, Roppongi Hills is a network of buildings where office and residential apartments are seamlessly connected with a vast utopian mall. Even so, a visit here isn’t so much about shopping. Just immerse yourself in the experience and exploration. If you feel like an art fix, step inside the eye popping Mori Art Museum, or zip to the observation deck for sweeping sunset views over Tokyo.
After dark, Roppongi is home to a number of Tokyo’s best restaurants and its hippest gaijin-friendly nightlife.
High Culture and High Kitsch
Tokyo is all about contrasts, and so is today’s itinerary. Step away from the tourists of Ueno Park and dive into Yanaka, located just to its north. This leafy residential neighbourhood feels like “traditional” Tokyo, and is dotted with temples and art galleries, perfect for a few hours of wandering, lost in thought. In the afternoon, spend an hour or two exploring the malls of Odaiba, an artificial island that is Tokyo’s unabashed go-to spot for kitschy fun. Like a small “Japanese Las Vegas” (minus the casinos) the area combines vast shopping malls with oddball art, futuristic architecture, and gorgeous views of the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Bay.
Afterwards, unwind with an onsen experience. There’s none more memorable – or kitschy – than nearby Ooedo Onsen Monogatari. Part public bath, part theme park, your hosts invite you to choose a very fetching yukata robe before alternating between the relaxing gender-segregated baths, and the entertaining arcade games that line the interior halls (ninja star throwing, anyone?). Recharge your tired feet, on your Japan vacation, with a bracing walk through the outdoor wading pool, and bask in the unmistakably Japanese camp of it all.
Relaxed and refreshed, hop the train (you’ll need to make a couple of connections) bound for a slightly more “authentic” evening in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo’s effortlessly cool Bohemian quarter. Street art, vintage goods, easygoing cafes and eateries, and funky local bars make this one of the city’s most eclectic and entertaining neighbourhoods.
6 Reasons Tokyo is My Favourite City Break on an Asia Tour