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Top 10 Off The Beaten Path Activities In Tokyo

Tokyo evening skyline | © marc emer/Flickr
Tokyo evening skyline | © marc emer/Flickr
Tokyo’s rich mix of history, modern sensibilities and unabashedly off-beat quirkiness make it a world all on its own. Every year millions descend on sightseeing hot-spots in search of the authentic Tokyo experience, but there is a lot more to this sprawling metropolis than its biggest tourist destinations. We’ve gathered 10 things to add to your to-do list for the next time you visit.

Grab a cuppa at Tokyo’s hidden coffee shop

A small, unassuming sign in the front yard is the only hint of anything out of the ordinary in the quiet residential area of Omotesando where one of Tokyo’s most interesting coffee shops hides in plain sight. Omotesando Koffee is tucked away in an inconspicuous traditional wooden townhouse, complete with shrubbery and quaint wooden benches just outside the door. You would be forgiven for thinking you were about to walk into someone’s home. Inside, the house is empty but for lone barista and owner Eichii Kunitomo standing behind a wooden counter with his La Cimbali coffee machine, armed with a variety of baked snacks. The charming fusion of modern and traditional aesthetics make Omotesando Koffee a unique spot for a good chat and great coffee.

Spend an Afternoon at Hanayashiki

Stuffed into its own little corner of the Asakusa district just east of central Tokyo is Japan’s oldest amusement park. The name Hanayashiki, meaning “flower viewing place,” harkens back to its quiet beginnings as a scenic garden which first opened in 1853. It was fully developed as an amusement park in the late 1800s during Japan’s industrial revolution. Today, this densely packed park boasts 22 attractions and rides including Japan’s oldest roller coaster, a Japanese-horror inspired haunted house, Ninja and kimono demonstrations and daily music performances. Hanayashiki might not be highest on the list of must-see attractions, but its campy charm makes it worth the visit, especially for theme park enthusiasts and history buffs.

Address: 2 Chome-28-1 Asakusa, 台東区 Tokyo 111-0032, Japan

Take a Trip to the Parasite Museum

The morbidly curious among us might find themselves drawn to the oddities on display at the Meguro Parasitological Museum. The only one of its kind in the world, this tiny museum and research facility was founded 1953 and houses over 60,000 specimens, 300 of which are displayed to the public. The exhibits range from the fascinating to the grotesque as informational posters give way to photographs and jars filled with samples. A tapeworm measuring an astonishing 8.8 meters is the museum’s point of pride and is displayed in a large glass case for all to admire. The gift shop stocks a variety of amusing souvenirs such as preserved parasite key rings and parasite t-shirts.

Address: 4-1-1 Shimomeguro, Meguro, Tokyo 153-0064, Japan

Meguro Parasitological Museum © Guilhem Vellut/Flickr

Go on a Bar Crawl in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai

With its dimly lit alleyways, graffitied walls and bawdy signs, Golden Gai is a universe away from the brightness of Shinjuku. The 6 narrow streets that make up Tokyo’s lively bar neighborhood are an architectural wonder left over from old Tokyo, with over 200 micro bars and dining establishments lining streets too narrow for a car to fit through. This former black market hub attracts an eclectic crowd, from poets and musicians to video game enthusiasts. Most of the establishments are so small they can only accommodate a handful of people, some as few as three or four. No matter their size, each has its own unique personality, specifically catering for everyone from hardcore punks to French cinephiles. Whatever your niche, you are sure to find you dream haunt in Golden Gai.

Go bargain hunting in Book Town

Jinbocho, nicknamed Book Town, is a small unassuming college neighborhood in Chiyoda. Home to roughly 180 book-related businesses, it is also Tokyo’s publishing hub and the center of second-hand book shopping in Japan. Bibliophiles from all over Tokyo are drawn here in search of rare manuscripts, vintage magazines, collectors’ editions and good deals on used books. Most items will be in Japanese, but there are enough shops selling foreign books to keep any book lover prowling the shelves for hours.

Have your gadgets blessed at the world’s geekiest temple

In its long history, the Kanda Myojin Shrine has been moved twice before arriving at its current location in Chiyoda. Originally erected in 730, it was rebuilt in 1934 after being destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Not far from the ornate red and green buildings of this Shinto shrine is the Akihabara district, nicknamed Electric Town for its status as Tokyo’s technology hub. It is only fitting then that the more gadget-inclined are welcome to receive blessings and protections for all their electric goods. For a small donation, visitors can have their phones and laptops blessed in intricate ceremonies or take home elaborate talismans designed to look like circuit boards which guard against grievances like identity theft and hard drive failures.

Address: Japan, 〒101-0021 Tokyo, 千代田区Sotokanda, 2−16−2

Kanda Myojin Shrine

Grab a bite in Piss Alley

Piss Alley (Shomben Yokocho), or Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho) as it is also known, is home to over 60 ramshackle bars and closet-sized food stalls. Located in a dingy backstreet of Shinjuku, Piss Alley is so named for its previous lack of toilet facilities and the tendency for heavy drinking patrons to relieve themselves wherever possible. Every evening this local hotspot is packed with people and the smoky smells of grilling meat. Here you can sample a variety of Japanese street food such as the popular yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and motsunabe (pork or beef offal stew). Most of the menus are in Japanese only, but a good rule of thumb for curious foodies is to go where the crowds are. The braver among us might stop by Asadachi, one of Piss Alley’s most infamous restaurants, where patrons can expect to dine on delicacies such as grilled salamander, frog sashimi, and raw pig testicles.

Take in a show at the Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant’s cabaret show is a spectacle that can only be likened to a live action video game. Each show runs for about 1 hour and features loud techno music, taiko drumming and garishly bright light displays. Located in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red light district, this sci-fi fever dream is an exercise in camp excess that has to be seen to be believed. Though billed as a dining establishment, Robot Restaurant’s main draw is its massive flashing LED screens, crazy graphics, over the top robot battles and glowing neon tanks. Sit back in wonder as oversized pandas, lithe dancers and women in sparkling bikinis move across the stage in outrageous choreographed routines.

Address: Japan, 〒160-0021 Tokyo, 新宿区Kabukicho, 1−7−1 新宿ロボットビル

Robot Restaurant © Danny Choo/Flickr

Get lost in Shimokitazawa

Shimokitazawa, or Shimokita for short, is a small district popular with Tokyo’s young and trendy. More laid back than Harajuku but with just as much character, Shimokitazawa is a labyrinth of narrow streets and buildings crammed with stylish restaurants, bars, theaters and live music venues. A bargain hunter’s dream, Shimokota is best explored on foot so as to properly take in the multitude of quirky shops selling second hand clothing, vintage records and rare and unusual odds and ends that you won’t find anywhere else.

Shimokitazawa © choo chin nian/Flickr

Reflect at Todoroki Valley in the heart of the city

Tokyo’s last remaining natural gorge lies in a valley lush with greenery and dotted with mossy stone shrines. There is a quiet peace to the place and the only sounds to be heard come from the birds and the rushing of the water. It is quite surreal to imagine that a place like Todoroki Valley could exist in the middle of the densely populated Setagaya ward. A path follows the creek for a distance of roughly 1km, passing small colorful bridges and a stunning Japanese garden until it comes to an end at Buddhist temple Fudo Yodoroki, near Tatsuzawa Fudo no Taki waterfall. This is the perfect place to clear one’s mind after experiencing the hustle and bustle of the city.