If there’s ever been a city where it’s hard to choose between all the sights on offer, it’s Tokyo. It’s one of the world’s largest cities and has attractions to satisfy every kind of traveller. So how can you choose the essentials? Very carefully. We’ve put together a list of the 10 essential things to do in Tokyo on Japan tours. Especially in this case, we have to stress that this list is not exhaustive. If you think you can wrap up the whole Tokyo experience with 10 individual highlights, you’re mistaken, but these are all essential things to do and if you didn’t do them while in the city, you’ve missed out on the defining experiences.
Visit the Meiji Shrine
Tokyo, like all cities in Japan, has a lot of temples and shrines. The Meiji Shrine is one of its greatest. It’s one of the most significant Shinto shrines in the country as a whole. Located in a large park in Harajuku, the Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the former emperor of Japan who opened up the country to the West in the late 19th century. It consists of several massive wooden buildings, some of which are completely closed off to the public, which venerate the deified emperor and provide a place of solitude and reflection for locals and foreign visitors alike. It offers a little peace and quiet in one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world.
Wade through the crowds at Senso-ji
Like the Meiji Shrine, this is one of the key temples and shrines in the city. In fact, it’s the oldest existing temple within the city borders (although it was restored following World War II) and the most important Buddhist temple in the region. Located in the older neighbourhood of Asakusa, Senso-ji is dedicated to the Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and is said to contain an ancient painting dedicated to the bodhisattva (which is off limits to the public). Its red wood will catch your eye from blocks away, as will the five-story pagoda that sits just to the southwest of the main temple. You’ll also notice the crowds. Senso-ji is arguably Tokyo’s most popular tourist landmark and on Japan tours, you’ll find yourself jostling for room alongside thousands of other people around the main temple or in the street market near the Hozomon Gate. It’s still worth going. Few temples anywhere in the world are as overwhelmingly beautiful.
Climb the Tokyo Skytree
There are two famous towers in Tokyo: Tokyo Tower and the Skytree. Tokyo Tower is the more iconic of the two. It looks like a red-and-white version of the Eiffel Tower and when it was built in 1958, it was Japan’s tallest structure. The Skytree was built in 2011 and easily displaced Tokyo Tower as the tallest structure in the country. In fact, it’s the second-tallest freestanding structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa (although a new building is sure to outdo it soon enough). If you have to choose between the two, choose the Skytree as the view from its heights is marvellous. You can circle the observation deck and enjoy 360° views of the city, and if you happen to visit on a clear day, you can even spot Mt. Fuji in the distance. A city like Tokyo that’s defined by skyscrapers and glittering lights deserves to be seen from as high a vantage point as possible.
Stroll through Ueno Park
Tokyo is home to a lot of parks, but Ueno Park is one of the largest and it happens to be located in one of the oldest parts of the city. In cherry blossom season during early-to-mid spring, the park is ground zero for hanami parties, where people revel in the sight of the glorious bloom. But the park has many attractions all year round, not least of which are several pagodas and temples, a well-equipped zoo (complete with pandas), and the Tokyo National Museum, which will fascinate amateur historians or anyone wanting to see pristine samurai armour and woodcut paintings. It’s also close to quiet neighbourhoods that are worth getting lost in for a few hours in the afternoon, if only to experience a taste of what Tokyo is like away from the neon lights and bustling crowds.
Cross at Shibuya Crossing
If there’s a busier pedestrian crossing in the world, I haven’t heard of it. Shibuya Crossing is located right next to Shibuya Station’s Hachiko exit (named after the faithful dog, Haichiko, who’s immortalized in a statue just to the south of the scramble). It sees thousands of people cross all directions of the intersection each time the traffic stops. It’s a remarkable sight whether you’re in the midst of the crowd or watching from a coffee shop in one of the buildings overlooking it. It’s also a quintessential experience, as the crossing has defined Japan for several decades now. One of the coolest things about Shibuya Crossing is how people seem to materialize out of nowhere the second the crossing lights turn green; you may think there aren’t many people around to cross the street, but the second the traffic stops, people appear from each which way to flood the crossing. It’s even better at nighttime, when the streets are aglow with neon. There’s no better encapsulation of Tokyo’s metropolitan bustle.
Enter the future in Akihabara Electric Town
Akihabara Electric Town is the centre of all things otaku, the computer and fandom-obsessed subculture that’s come to be an essential part of modern Japan. If you’re looking for anime-themed bars, maid cafes, pachinko parlours, and multi-story arcades and electronics stores, this is the place to go. Even if you don’t like anime or rarely play video games, you’ll want to stroll through the streets of Akiba at nighttime to see the neon lights, fanciful costumes, and get a taste for neo-Tokyo on Japan tours.
Relax in the Imperial Palace Gardens
Tokyo has many lovely gardens, but the Imperial Palace Gardens are among the most gorgeously manicured. They’re located on the east side of the palace, across a moat from Tokyo Station. While we’d love to have the Imperial Palace itself on this list, it’s only open to the general public a couple of days a year (although you can sometimes arranged private guided tours on other days). So we’ve gone with the lovely gardens that showcase the outer walls of the palace and let you experience a taste of Japan’s gardening prowess and natural beauty in the centre of Tokyo.
Go bar-hopping along the Golden Gai
You should explore Shinjuku at nighttime, when the crowds flooding out of the world’s largest train station stroll through the neon-soaked streets in order to find a place to unwind. It’s the quintessential Tokyo of the modern era, all neon signs, large crowds, and endless opportunities for distraction. You could head to the ritzy hotels in Shinjuku to admire the crowds and lights from bars several stories above the city, or you could experience the ultimate in kitsch with a show at the Robot Restaurant, but for the most memorable night out in Shinjuku, barhop along the narrow avenues of the Golden Gai. This small neighbourhood of Shinjuku comprises six alleyways and has around 200 miniature bars within its tightly-packed quarters. The bars typically only have enough room for six to 10 guests, which forces you to bond with others at the bar and keep moving in order to let others get in on the fun.
Eat some sushi at the Tsukiji Outer Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market is no more, as the inner market that was home to the famous tuna auction and all the bartering and butchering and shipping moved from the old warehouse in Tsukiji to a new building at the Toyosu Fish Market in eastern Tokyo. It’s unfortunate that the inner market is no more, but you can still head to the outer market to browse through shops and find some of the best sushi in the city. It’s worth spending a morning here, as chefs and shoppers alike travel to the market to buy some fresh goods and take advantage of the many restaurants in and around the Outer Market. There’s no better spot for fresh sushi in the world. Just be sure to go early to avoid long lines, as the quality of the sushi here is an open secret.
Visit the Ghibli Museum
I hesitated putting this on the list as it may seem too niche, but the films of Studio Ghibli only grow more popular with each passing year, and the Ghibli Museum located in the western suburb of Mitaka is the best spot to learn about the history of this illustrious Japanese studio and see exhibitions on its most famous creations, from the catbus and the titular Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro to the witch Kiki and the talking cat Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service to the incredible spirits and monsters of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki designed the museum itself, making it one of the most distinctive buildings in a city with many memorable buildings. You’ll have to buy tickets online in advance to visit (buy at least two months in advance, if you can), but the museum is worth visiting for any traveller on Japan tours who loves movies or any families visiting Japan together.
You could spend weeks in Tokyo and still not see all the essential spots in this massive city, but these 10 things to do will ensure you see a collection of the city’s highlights and come away from a Japanese vacation with several lasting memories.