No trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to its legendary capital city. Where else can travellers visit the world’s most famous fish auction, pray at a 1,000-year-old temple and eat out on the charmingly named Piss Alley all in one day? These are the 20 things you must do when you’re in Tokyo.
Eat the freshest sushi in town at Toyosu Fish Market
Tokyo is famous for its superb sushi, and one of the best places to get your hands on some is the Toyosu Fish Market. In 2018, the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market relocated to Toyosu, and the latter now hosts the market’s renowned daily tuna auction. You can still visit Tsukiji, though, where the historic outer market’s food stalls and restaurants remain in business.
The well-worn neighbourhood of Asakusa and its main attraction, the sacred temple Sensō-ji, are must-visits – there’s nothing else quite like them in Tokyo. The classical temple, with its iconic red lantern and the charming Nakamise shopping street that lines its approach, will transport you to Japan of old. Nearby is Hanayashiki, the oldest amusement park in the country.
Visitors can explore the fashionable Harajuku, Omotesandō and Aoyama neighbourhoods in a single day. But if you only go to one, make it Harajuku. The colourful area’s Takeshita-dōri (Takeshita Street) is the place to go for offbeat style, such as Lolita, a Japanese fashion inspired by Victorian and Rococo clothing. Continue your shopping trip at the high-end brands in Omotesandō, admiring the stunning architecture along the way, and finish up in the art galleries and cafes of cultured Aoyama.
Tokyo’s Electric Town wows visitors with its sheer volume of anime, manga and gaming paraphernalia. Discerning shoppers will be able to find everything they need to complete their collection – comics, DVDs, detailed figurines, trading and playing cards, costumes, magazines and an endless supply of knick-knacks. It’s also the place to check out Tokyo’s quirky maid cafes.
Historically, the shitamachi (low city) was where less-affluent Tokyo residents worked and lived. Today, few places remain in Tokyo where you can experience the old world, but with its ramshackle, frozen-in-time atmosphere, Yanaka Ginza shopping district is one of them. Head to the Yuyake Dandan staircase, which has been featured in TV series and films – it’s a picturesque spot to snap a few photos. There’s also a sizable population of adorable stray cats in the area.
Ryogōku is the capital of sumo culture in Tokyo, and the place to go for all things sumo. The district is home to a large number of sumo stables, some of which might let you watch their early-morning practices for free. You can also learn about the history of the sport at the Sumo Museum or eat at the sumo-themed restaurant. But for the ultimate experience, take in a match at the Ryogōku Kokugikan, where thousands of fans gather to watch Japan’s most popular sport.
You can easily spend an entire day at Tokyo’s largest park, Ueno. Originally the grounds of Kaneiji temple, the extensive, cherry-blossom-tree-filled park is also home to the Tokyo National Museum, the city’s most popular art museum, along with the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the underrated Shitamachi Museum, among others. Spend an afternoon museum hopping, and finish up with a picnic surrounded by Ueno’s gorgeous foliage.
The nightlife in Shibuya is unrivalled. You can spend an entire evening sipping cocktails 30 floors up or rocking out at an underground DJ bar. Alternatively, why not sip a sake at the traditional Shōwa-era bars by the train tracks, before checking out the area’s clubs and live music venues? Whatever you’re looking for in a night out in Tokyo, you’re sure to find it in Shibuya.
Spend an evening exploring the world’s tallest tower, the 634-metre-high (2,080-foot) Tokyo Skytree. Check out the boutiques on your way up to the observation decks, where you’ll get unrivalled 360-degree views of the city – on clear days, you might even be able to see Mount Fuji. Skytree Town (also known as Solamachi) at the base of the tower is where you’ll find many sleek shopping and dining options.
Although Omoide Yokocho translates literally to Memory Lane, this narrow, historic street – one of many yokocho in Tokyo – is better known as Piss Alley. Despite its somewhat off-putting moniker, this bustling, atmospheric collection of small bars and food stalls is a Tokyo favourite for eating and drinking. The main dish you’ll come across is yakitori – skewered meats that pair perfectly with Japanese beer and sake.
The Meguro River lends Nakameguro a special charm. Here, you’ll find cool cafes, restaurants and the odd boutique selling handmade, eco-friendly handicrafts for the modern flower child. While there, it’s also worth popping by its classier neighbour, Daikanyama, which is characterised by winding lanes, one-of-a-kind speciality shops and superb dining.
Kabuki is a traditional Japanese dance drama that has wowed audiences for hundreds of years with its elaborate costumes, makeup and spectacular sets. Originally opened in 1889, Kabuki-za has been rebuilt four times, most recently in 2013. It’s the chief kabuki theatre in the region and still retains its historic charm.
The Japanese royal family – the longest-running hereditary monarchy in the world – resides at this beautiful castle complex in Central Tokyo. Bookings must be made for tours of the Imperial Palace grounds, but the Imperial Palace East Garden is open to visitors year-round. On the other side of the moat, Chidori-ga-fuchi is a popular cherry-blossom spot.
The construction of Meiji Shrine, which was built in honour of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, was completed in 1920. With its thickly wooded grounds, sky-scraping torii gates and close proximity to tourist spots such as Harajuku, Omotesandō and Shibuya, it’s easy to see why it remains one of the city’s most popular Shinto shrines.
Shibuya Crossing, also known as the Shibuya Scramble, is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world in terms of foot traffic. The nearby Hachikō Statue, which immortalises the dog who waited for his owner every day at Shibuya station even after his master’s death, is a popular meeting spot.
The Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s oldest professional baseball team, call the Tokyo Dome home. Catch a game or spend some time browsing the nearby Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball arrived in Japan during the Meiji era, and it has swiftly become the most popularly played and supported sport in the country.
Make your way to Ōedo-Onsen Monogatari for a traditional-meets-modern onsen experience. This Edo-themed hot-spring park even lends out colourful yukata (summer kimono) to all guests so you can look the part. Be aware that onsen etiquette dictates that those with tattoos can’t enter – if you have one that’s small enough, try to cover it up.
Take part in a tea ceremony at Hamarikyu Onshi Teien
This traditional Japanese strolling garden was once the property of the Tokugawa clan, the local shoguns (rulers) that presided over the Tokyo area when it was known as Edo. A seawater moat surrounds Hamarikyu, and entry is possible via a water taxi from Akasaka. Be sure to visit the antique teahouse located within its walls, Nakajima no Ochaya, for the full tea ceremony experience.
A maze of narrow alleys filled with two-storey bars, Golden Gai makes quite a contrast against its surroundings, the glitzy megalopolis of Shinjuku. Most of the bars here are so small that they can only accommodate a handful of customers, meaning that seating charges are hefty, but soaking up the local charm makes the extra yen worthwhile. Note that, while Golden Gai has become popular with visitors from abroad in recent years, every now and then you’ll still encounter the odd “Locals Only” sign or chilly reception to newcomers.
Head out of Tokyo city for a day-trip to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Here, you can embark on a hike to the summit of Mitake-san (Mount Mitake), where you can pay your respects at the ancient Shino shrine along the way, perhaps stopping to shop and dine at the nearby village.