Tokyo is busy, colorful, bright and wonderful. The Japanese capital will blow your mind and it just takes getting off the plane to realize that. At first, the excess of billboards, lights and signs you cannot read will overwhelm you. But you’ll be soon marveled by the whole thing and will definitely miss it when you return home. Tokyo is a big city and comparable to New York or London in terms of the trillion things there are to do; it’s just never ending. My goal is to give you an overview of the main attractions to visit as a tourist with no time to spare. Hope you enjoy Tokyo as much as I did!
Visit the world’s most famous fish market
Tsukiji Fish Market, located in the neighborhood of Ginza, is the biggest fish and seafood market in the world. It’s most famous because of the tuna auction that takes place here everyday at dawn. Visitors are allowed to the tuna auction but be warned that it requires you to queue at inconvenient hours of the night (before 3AM depending on the time of year). Alternatively, you can go early in the morning (around 8AM) to browse the market stalls and have some sushi for breakfast. As to which stall to eat in, Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai are the most popular ones. If the queues are way too long, just try any other; all of them are wonderful and probably the best sushi you will ever have! For full details, including opening times, check this article.
Enjoy cherry blossoms at the Shinjuku Gyoen garden
This place is a must for park lovers. One of the largest and most popular parks in Tokyo, it has three types of gardens: Japanese, French and English. It’s one of the best places to enjoy the cherry blossoms as it has various types of this. Can also be awesome to visit in autumn when the leaves change.
Feel Tokyo’s hustle & bustle at Shibuya
Also called Tokyo’s Times Square, Shibuya is one of the busiest and buzziest areas of Tokyo. Massive billboards and screens, shopping centers and hordes of people–that’s Shibuya. Your eyes will instantly find the Shibuya crossing, and massive scramble crossing where cars in every direction stop to let pedestrians inundate the crossing, walking in every direction and in a hurry. People watch, take some photos, do some shopping.
Play video games and visit a maid cafe at Akibahara
The neighborhood of Akibahara is famous for being the place to buy electronics and for being an otaku centre for manga, anime and video games. Walking around the area and entering the stores is just so much fun! Go to the SEGA building which is a couple of floors tall. I didn’t really play any video games per se—did lose tons of yens in teddy bear cranes though— but enjoyed looking at the people who were. You will find people of all ages playing, women and men, their concentration face on to a degree I’ve never seen.
Stroll by the Imperial Palace and its gardens
Prior to 1868, Tokyo was known as Edo, and the current Imperial complex is where the Edo Castle from the Tokugawa Shogunate was located. When the Tokugawa Shogun was overthrown, Japan’s capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo and the Imperial Palace was built. You cannot visit the Imperial Palace but you can visit the Imperial Palace Gardens. They are absolutely amazing, and they are also free! I did them without a tour and really enjoyed them but then learned there is a free tour (free for real, as Japanese people don’t accept tips) which could be interesting as this is quite a historical site.
Get to know Tokyo’s Red Light District: Kabukicho
Sober or drunk, Kabukicho’s sea of bright billboards will dazzle you. The area has a reputation because of the multiple hostesses and host bars, erotic entertainment clubs and love hotels present. It is also where you will find the famous Robot Restaurant, a theme restaurant where you can dine while enjoying a robot cabaret (well it’s not really all robots, but girls dressed as robots). If you are into such oddities, why not visit? Do book in advance, it’s cheaper and it sometimes sells out. If you decide not to go, it’s outside is still pretty cool, it’s colorful, there are giant robots for a photo op and there is a catchy/annoying song playing which will stay in your mind forever, so pop by.
We found one of our favorite bars in Japan here, a small rock bar where you can chose the songs you want to play from a list and the barman plays them. From CDs! It’s name is rock bar mother, find it here in Google maps. Last thing, bring cash! And lot’s of it – Kabukicho is expensive.
Soak up some culture at the Meiji Shrine
Meiji Jingu is a shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The shrine is located in a forest of more than a hundred thousand trees located, literally, in the middle of Tokyo. As an oasis in a dessert, when you enter the Meiji complex you feel relieved. You forget you are in the middle of the city’s madness and quickly start smelling nature again. If Tokyo is the only place you’ll visit in Japan, the shrine itself is a very good introduction to shintoism and it’s free. I also enjoyed the Meiji Inner Garden which is close to the shrine even if it’s not free.
Go for Karaoke!
Tokyoites are fans of Karaoke and hence there are tons of Karaoke bars around Tokyo! If you are a fan of Lost in Translation you can visit the Karaoke Bill Murray & Scarlett went to in the movie. It’s name is Karaoke Kan and it’s close to Shibuya station. Find Tokyo’s Best Karaoke Bars here.
Go designer (or window) shopping in Ginza
Ginza is the most famous shopping, dining and entertainment district in Tokyo. Here you’ll find massive department stores, cafes, restaurants and art galleries. Every well known brand has presence in Ginza, specially those in the luxury industry. I loved the Sony building and strongly recommend visiting it. It’s a multi-story building where you’ll find literally all sony gadgets. Most of them have probably not made it to your market and will never do so. So, if you are a tech fan, this is heaven. The topmost floors feature prototypes which do the most bizarre things, so don’t miss them! Last, check out Yurakucho Gado-shita, one of Tokyo’s most interesting dining districts. You will find it beneath the Yurakucho station. It features dozens of restaurants of all types. Even if you don’t eat, it’s really interesting to look at.
Sensoji temple & Nakamise market
Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest, most popular and most colorful Buddhist temple. And it has a nice legend. Japanese say that in 628 AD, two brothers fished out of Sumida River a statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy. But even though they tried to put it back into the river, she kept coming back to them. So they built a temple around her.
Between the first and second gate of the temple you’ll find a 200m street market called Nakamise. It’s, in my opinion, the best place to buy souvenirs. My favorite souvenir is the Daruma or Dharma doll. These japanese rounded dolls represent the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. The most traditional doll is the red one, but you can find them in many other bright colors as well. They have white eyes, but when you acquire one you should paint one eye and ask for a wish. Once your wish is fulfilled you would paint the second eye.
BONUS: check out Time Out Tokyo on your stay!
Tokyo is one of the few cities where Time Out shares temporary things to do within the day, weekend, week or month of your visit. It’s your chance to do stuff a local would do! And there are loads of free options! On my visit I attended Tokyo’s version of Oktoberfest and a cat focused exhibition for cat lovers thanks to Time Out. Definitely worth checking it out closer to your travel date.
Where to stay in Tokyo?
Regarding which neighborhood to stay in, anything relatively central is OK. Because Tokyo is so big, but so well connected it doesn’t really make a difference where you stay in as you’ll go around the entire city. I really can’t point one neighborhood or the other. I stayed in the APA Hotel in Nihombashi, it was perfect and cheap. Otherwise, I’ve pre-filtered the best Tokyo hotels here.
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