The Wishlist: A Culture Vulture’s Guide to Tokyo

See the temples and shrines of Tokyo
See the temples and shrines of Tokyo | © Nick Wood / Unsplash
Photo of Culture Trip Travel Team
9 September 2019

Culture Trip brings you The Wishlist – a ready collection of travel ideas inspired by what you love. Discover things to do, where to stay, and the best spots to eat and drink.

Tokyo was designed to confuse people. No, really. During the Edo period, dead-end streets were deliberately built into the city to confuse outsiders (and stop them reaching the shogun’s castle).

While the confusion is no longer created intentionally, there is something captivating about Tokyo’s contrast of cultures. From the flashing neon lights of Akihabara to the historic backstreets of Asakusa, Tokyo is a city where ancient traditions meet hyper-modern trends.

So whether it’s your first, fourth or 15th time visiting the city, Culture Trip is here to help you find the best things to eat, drink, see and do.

Things to do in Tokyo

Tour Tokyo’s temples and technicoloured streets

Shrine, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
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The first stop on this tour is the Meiji Jingū Shrine, where many traditional Shinto Japanese weddings take place
The first stop on this tour is the Meiji Jingū Shrine, where many traditional Shinto Japanese weddings take place | © Paul Quayle / Alamy Stock Photo

From ancient Buddhist temples to cutting-edge technology, Tokyo embraces the modern and the spiritual in equal measure. To get a true sense of this sprawling city, this tour of contrasts starts with a trip to the serene Meiji Jingū Shrine, shrouded by evergreen broadleaf trees. Just a stone’s throw away is Harajuku, home to Takeshita Street. Here, you’ll find food stalls, clothes shops and groups of young people dressed head to toe in kawaii fashion. Then it’s on to Akihabara, where you can pick up a bargain or two from the various tech stores and shop for comics and video games at seven-storey-high otaku manga emporiums.

Practise gratitude at a Japanese tea ceremony

Buddhist Temple
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Traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
A traditional Japanese tea ceremony is a calming experience | © ILYA GENKIN / Alamy

Immerse yourself in Japanese culture by taking part in a traditional tea ceremony at Gion-ji Temple. Focussing on mindfulness, gratitude and hospitality, the ceremony has been around for over 1,000 years. Guided by the temple’s head priest, begin by boiling water in an iron kettle and whisking matcha. Then sip your tea from beautiful ceramics and finish off with wagashi sweets to leave you feeling refreshed, calm and ready to take on Tokyo.

Watch a sumo tournament at Ryōgoku Kokugikan

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Ryōgoku Kokugikan is the largest sumo hall in Japan
Ryōgoku Kokugikan is the largest sumo hall in Japan | © ThomasClavier / WikiCommons
Get a taste for the country’s sporting culture at Ryōgoku Kokugikan – the largest sumo hall in Japan. Although this structure is not the original built in 1909, it is still an impressive sight and a great place to immerse yourself in this popular Japanese sport. If you can, try to catch the Grand Tournaments when they’re in town. And if you need a little help understanding the rules, there’s a museum on-site that’ll give you some pointers.

Catch a show at Kabuki-za

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For something a little less energetic, head to Ginza’s Kabuki-za the largest and most prominent kabuki theatre in Tokyo. Kabuki is a type of dance drama that has wowed audiences for hundreds of years with its elaborate costumes, make-up and sets. Performances are held regularly here, and tickets can be bought online in advance.

Step into the ancient streets of Yanaka

Archaeological site, Historical Landmark, Shrine
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Visit historic sites on the Old and Nostalgic Tokyo: Half-Day Yanaka Walking Tour
Visit historic sites on the Old and Nostalgic Tokyo: Half-Day Yanaka Walking Tour | © Get Your Guide

If historic Japan is more your vibe, then embark on this walking tour of Yanaka. Stroll through the neighbourhood, paying your respects at shrines and temples that have been around since the Edo period. A highlight is the Nezu Shrine, which was built in 1706. Just don’t forget your camera!

Food and drink in Tokyo

Eat at KITAOHJI for a true taste of Tokyo

Restaurant, Japanese, $$$
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For a traditional Japanese dining experience, right down to the smallest detail, look no further than KITAOHJI. Using seasonal ingredients from different regions of the country, KITAOHJI serves an array of dishes, from sashimi to wagyu, to showcase the best of Japanese cuisine. The waitresses also serve you wearing kimonos. And if you choose to dine in a private room, take in the decor that’s been carefully designed with history and tradition in mind.

Nightlife delights, from Golden Gai to Kabukicho

Historical Landmark
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Grab a drink in Kabukicho on this tour
Grab a drink in Kabukicho on this tour | © Nicolas Maderna / Alamy Stock Photo

So, you’re ready to hit the town, but where do you start? Tokyo’s Shinjuku district has one of the most vibrant nightlife scenes in the world. And this bar-hopping night tour will take you through its pulsating streets to the spots tourists often miss. First is Golden Gai, an alley packed with Japanese izakaya where you can drink (responsibly) to your heart’s content while enjoying delicious smoky yakitori (chicken skewers). Then it’s on to Kabukicho, a cheerfully grungy entertainment district where you’ll rub shoulders with a diverse crowd of office workers and drag queens.

Sip sake at Akaoni

Bar, Restaurant, Japanese, $$$
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If you’d prefer something a little more sedate, try Akaoni a classic sake bar and izakaya. The translation of Akaoni is Red Devil and beginners must be careful – they take their sake very seriously here! Once inside though, you’ll be impressed with the warm, down-to-earth atmosphere. And with more than 100 varieties to choose from, including a seasonal option called namazake (that’s raw, unpasteurised sake), you’ll be sure to find the sake that suits you.

Where to stay in Tokyo

Tradition meets modernity at Hotel Niwa

Boutique Hotel
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Rooms are bigger than the standard room in Tokyo, Hotel Niwa, Tokyo
Rooms at Hotel Niwa are bigger than the standard room in Tokyo | Courtesy of Hotel Niwa, Tokyo

Cut inauspiciously out of a high-rise in a discrete neighbourhood in Tokyo, this charming hotel has the look and feel of a ryokan with a contemporary twist. Rooms at Hotel Niwa feature shoji screens and tatami-inspired carpeting, but with stylish, high-tech amenities. Of the two restaurants on-site, check out Yukuri for a relaxed kaiseki (multi-course) dining experience set in a Zen garden.

Everything you need to know

Authentic accommodation at Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa

Boutique Hotel, Hotel
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The rooms at Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa feature tatami flooring and futon bedding
The rooms at Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa feature tatami flooring and futon bedding | Courtesy of Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa /

If Hotel Niwa is a modern ryokan, then Kamogawa Asakusa is straight out of the old school. This inn features an array of authentic touches, including tatami flooring and futon bedding, a tea set in every room, massage services, a large public bath, tea rooms, and Japanese breakfast and dinner. The location is another big plus: it’s only a two-minute walk from Kaminarimon Gate and Sensō-ji Temple.

Everything you need to know

Luxury at Hotel The Celestine Tokyo Shiba

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Enjoy the impressive Tokyo skyline from the comfort of your bed, Hotel the Celestine Tokyo Shiba, Tokyo
Hotel The Celestine Tokyo Shiba combines form and function | Courtesy of Hotel The Celestine Tokyo Shiba

Hotel The Celestine Tokyo Shiba is a great choice for those looking to explore the capital’s most historic sites. The hotel is located just south of Shiba Park, where you can find the Tokugawa Mausoleum, Zōjō-ji Temple and the mysterious Shiba Maruyama Kofun, an unknown ancient tomb from the fifth century. Luckily, the hotel provides a useful map of the Edo-period spots for easy navigation. Throughout its luxurious rooms and wellness spa, Hotel The Celestine Tokyo Shiba balances modern functionality with traditional Japanese design.

Everything you need to know

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These recommendations were updated on September 9, 2019 to keep your travel plans fresh.