You will literally never be short of things to do in Tokyo, even if you’re a regular visitor like me. The Japanese capital seems to always be bustling, full of life and variety with it’s many different districts waiting to be explored. The full range of Japanese experience can be had here, from historic temples and shrines to modern mayhem.
I’ve been to Tokyo four times now and so have a decent list of things to do that this Ultimate Tokyo guide comprises of. Enjoy!
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Where to stay in Tokyo
Tokyo is a huge city with many neighbourhoods. I’ve stayed in Asakasa, Shibuya, Ebisu, Tokyo Bay and Ginza in my many trips to the city and have always found the accommodation options to be plentiful and extremely hospitable.
The Japanese are famous for their cleanliness and politeness and I definitely found this to be the case everywhere I stayed.
I definitely recommend staying in Shinjuku, Ginza or Shibuya areas for plenty of shopping, eating and other activities. For the Ginza area, The Mercure Hotel is a great option or to go a little further upscale, try the Millennium Mitsui Garden Hotel just around the corner.
For the Shibuya and Ebisu areas, The Westin at Ebisu is truly excellent and for a slightly less luxe experience and price tag (but amazing location), the Shibuya Tobu Hotel is located just a stone’s throw from the famous Shibuya Crossing.
How to get around in Japan
Luckily for tourists, Japan has one of the most incredible public transport systems in the world. For most tourists who are planning on visiting Tokyo and a couple of other Japanese destinations (like Osaka or Kyoto), you’ll want to take advantage of the JR Pass.
This pass issued by Japan Rail gives you access to the Shinkansen (bullet trains) plus any other non-bullet JR trains. It also means you don’t have to fluff around at the ticket stations each time you want to ride the train. It also comes with a free JR Pass Guide which will help you make the most of your travels.
JR Passes are available for purchase for 7, 14 or 21 days and they will save you a lot of cash, especially if you are planning to travel around the country a bit. There’s also plenty of local JR lines in Tokyo, so the pass will also assist you in getting around the city.
What to do in Tokyo
I fell in love with this scramble crossing when I saw Lost in Translation and when I first saw it in person back in 2011, it was even better. Now, it’s my favourite out of all the things to do in Tokyo. It’s free, it’s amazing to watch and it’s even more awe inspiring when you’re down amongst the throngs of people crossing the street.
The Starbucks opposite Shibuya station offers a bird’s eye view with coffee in hand, but I prefer the free Shibuya station views from the first floor.
Offering up the most remarkable views of Tokyo that stretches as far as the eye can see, the Tokyo Skytree is easily recognisable in the city skyline. On a clear day, you can see as far as Mount Fuji, poking its snow-capped peak above the buildings.
The Tokyo Skytree is near Asakasa and Senso-ji, so I’d recommend doing both in the same day as it can feel a little far away from the centre of Tokyo. I’d also recommend pre-booking tickets as lines can be very long.
Tokyo’s largest and oldest temple, the red roof and pagoda of Senso-Ji can be easily spotted from the Tokyo Skytree. It is one of the most visited spiritual sites in the world. Pay 100 JPY to get receive your fortune from the temple grounds and watch the locals rinsing their hands with small wooden ladles to purify themselves before visiting.
Visiting around New Year may make entering the temple itself a bit challenging as Japanese flock to temples between 1st – 3rd January each year on the National Holiday, but the atmosphere in the temple grounds is incredible and features lots of locals wandering around in traditional dress.
This quirky, kitschy shopping street in Harajuku really captures the essence of the ‘young’ Japan. It’s in this area and surrounds that the true ‘Harajuku’ fashion can be found. Wander the streets and the malls either side and marvel at the bizarre and funky fashions on sale.
Takeshita Dori also has several famous Harajuku crepe stalls as well as a stand making fairy floss bigger than your head. My favourite stall, though, is the amazing clothing shop for dogs complete with Woody from Toy Story costumes for your pooch.
Right next to the madness of Harajuki exists this large and peaceful Shinto shrine. The entrance to a park is marked by giant wooden torii gates and through these gates is a stroll through a wooded area up to the entrance of the shrine. It’s hard to believe that this park is in the middle of bustling Tokyo, but that’s Japan for you – a country of surprises.
If you visit Meiji Jingu on a weekend, you might be lucky enough to spy a Japanese wedding there. I’ve been lucky on a couple of occasions!
Tsukiji Outer Market
Even though the wholesale market has moved out to Tokyo Bay, the Tsukiji Outer Market is still the place to be for fresh seafood and sushi breakfasts. A short walk from Ginza station, this impressive street selection of tuna, crab meat, sea urchin and even white strawberries is a fantastic way to start the day.
Simply wander the streets, point out what you’d like and hand over your JPY to the vendor. Or if you’re more into a sit-down meal, hop into one of the many sushi restaurants and enjoy unique and fresh sushi that you just won’t get anywhere else in the world.
You can also get even deeper into the workings of the Tsukiji Fish Market by taking a guided tour with a knowledgable local who can explain the history of the market and the different stalls that you’ll see.
The Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is an imposing structure near Tokyo Central Station. Though it’s not possible to access the inner area unless on a guided tour, it is permitted to wander through the vast park surrounding the palace and there’s a great photo spot in the park where the palace and the bridge and pond leading inside are all in shot.
The East Gardens are also usually open for a wander and they’re wonderfully pretty.
Probably not worth the visit alone unless you’re a big Godzilla fan, but if you are wandering around the Hibiya area, you might be interested in popping past the newly minted Godzilla Square to see a 3m high replica of the monster who appeared in the 2016 film, Shin Godzilla. It is a fun spot to wander past and take a photo and won’t take long to visit.
Shinjuku Robot Restaurant
An absolute tourist trap, but a totally wacky, hilarious and must do experience for those wanting to see the zany side of Japan. A warning, though. Booking ahead is ESSENTIAL otherwise it will be booked out and you’ll find yourself sitting in the waiting line hoping someone doesn’t show up to claim their tickets. It’s not the cheapest activity, either, but I think well worth it to have a silly, fun night out.
An eclectic collection of tiny bars in the back alleys of Shinjuku, Golden Gai makes for an amazing night out. A lot of the bars are members only, but a number welcome tourists. Beware that there usually will be a cover charge to enter the bar, but the experience makes it well worth it.
Imagine a bar the size of a cupboard with five people and a bartender crammed in. What a way to meet people!
Izakayas are quintessential Tokyo, where salarymen go to drink and eat after the work day is done. Tengu Sakaba, located in the lowest level of Ginza 6, is an awesome spot to experience life and food in Japan over a warm sake.
My boyfriend actually discovered this place a couple of years ago and when I told him I was going to Tokyo, he insisted I visit this place that he calls ‘smoky den’. I’m pretty sure it got that nickname because, like most izakayas, smoking is permitted inside so they all seem to have a hazy air quality as cigarettes mix with the smoke of the yakitori grill.
Ginza Shopping District
If high end fashion and window shopping is your thing, Ginza is the district to visit. All the major brand names are here and some of the architecture on the buildings is quite remarkable. Some impressive storefronts include the always-beautiful Dior, the snake covered Bulgari, the suitcase-like Louis Vuitton and the world famous Prada building.
This area is also beautiful at night as the shops light up the street.
Now, this might sound super touristy, but Tokyo Disney is actually a hell of a lot of fun (and not just for the kids). In fact, Tokyo Disney was the first Disney park I ever visited and I loved how happy and fun it was. The Japanese locals dressed up in Disney costumes, too, which I’ve never seen in any other Disney parks before and those who weren’t in costume were part of the sea of Mickey Mouse ears throughout the park.
If you only have a couple of days, then I’d give it a miss, but if you have little ones, you’re a massive fan or you have a bit more time, then definitely get out to either Tokyo Disney or Tokyo Disney Sea.
You can also stay at Tokyo Disney if you’re having a Disney-centred holiday. Book private transfers from the airport to Disney here.
Tokyo Central Station
The amazing front of the Tokyo Central Station feels almost like a European train station design. For me, it brought up all kinds of images of Amsterdam’s Central Station with its towers and beautiful angles. For the best view of the station, you can walk up from the Imperial Palace and get the full frontal view of the entire structure.
Then I’d recommend hopping over to the Kitte shopping centre rooftop for a birds eye view for free!
Tokyo International Forum
This amazing building with a huge glass atrium is shaped like a ship’s hull. It’s a remarkable feat of architecture and its another great free spot in Tokyo to visit. You can enter at your leisure and wander through, but I’d definitely recommend scaling up as far as you can go to get the bird’s eye view looking down to truly appreciate the size and expanse of the design.
Located only 5 minutes from Tokyo Station and about 12 minutes from the Imperial Palace, it’s possible to see all three in an afternoon.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
If you’re on a budget and don’t want to fork out cash for the Tokyo Skytree, then the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building observation deck is the perfect place to go and get an amazing view of Tokyo.
Open from 9.30am – 11pm most days, you can either get a beautiful day view of the sprawling Tokyo region including Mt Fuji views if you catch a clear day or an incredible night time view of the Tokyo city lights. Or heck, it’s free – you can do both!
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