To say Tokyo is filled with secrets would be an understatement. Every corner of this bustling city is home to a new surprise, which is what makes it such an enigmatic, magical place. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been here for a day or lived here a lifetime, there’s always something new to discover. Here’s a guide to some of our favourite lesser-known places to visit in Tokyo.
Before the world of Starbucks and hip, third-wave coffee shops, Japan was populated by the kissaten. A kissaten is an old style teahouse-coffeehouse hybrid, which has its own unique culture, one that’s a lot different from the typical espresso slinging shop. Like everything in Japan, the level of craftsmanship that goes into producing kissaten coffee is unparalleled, and unlike the rest of this non-stop city, should be enjoyed slowly and thoughtfully. One of the best places to try kissaten coffee is at Chatei Hatou in the centre of Shibuya.
Hidden right in the centre of the city, you’ll find Mannen-yu onsen. This traditional, tattoo-friendly onsen is located less than a five-minute walk from Shin-Okubo Station (the stop after Shinjuku on the Yamanote line). Also known as ‘Korea Town’, Shin-Okubo is a hotbed for incredible food and bizarre yet fascinating beauty outlets. Mannen-yu onsen is tucked away down a little side street that runs south off Okubo Dori; it’s not easy to find, but the journey you’ll go on to find it adds to its mysterious charm. Once inside, you’ll find a large collection of baths, including jet stream baths, extra hot baths and a plunge pool for cooling off. If you came a little unprepared, don’t worry as shampoo, soap, towels and other standard bathing amenities are provided.
If you’re on the hunt for some very cute but maybe not so cliché Instagram content, make your way to Setagaya to visit Gotokuji Temple. As you wander through the streets of Tokyo, chances are you’ll stumble across small kitty statues, known as maneki neko (literally ‘the beckoning cat’). These little figurines are said to bring customers luck and good fortune to business owners. Born from the legend of a feudal-era lord who found shelter in a temple after following a friendly and beckoning kitty, this temple is truly one-of-a-kind, populated by hundreds, potentially thousands of red and pink cat figurines. A five-minute walk from Gotokuji Station, it’s an easy place to visit from Shinjuku and Shibuya, and is said to bring good luck.
One of the most overlooked cultural quirks of Tokyo is its incredible publishing scene. The amount of bookstores, magazine outlets and passionate, independently run publishers is at times almost overwhelming, but endlessly fascinating. This lively local scene, in turn, inspires countless DIY creators. One of the best places to truly explore what’s happening in this community is by visiting Mount Zine in the heart of Meguro. Here in this hidden magazine, book and zine store, you’ll find an endless selection of independent and hard to find releases. All the stock here is completely updated every six months, so don’t expect to find dusty shelves.
Located in a Shibuya backstreet not far from the well-trodden tourist hotspots of Yoyogi Park and NHK Studio Park, Uplink is an indie cinema that regularly screens a selection of not-so-mainstream films, including documentaries, short films and experimental video. A great place to uncover the local underground creative scene, the cinema also has a café and a second-floor bookstore where you can spend time exploring the well-stocked shelves filled with design, art, indie and film-related titles.
As you wander through the neon-drenched streets of Shinjuku, there’s one slightly terrifying yet familiar face you’ll bump into: standing over the top of a cloud-tickling tower is the massive Godzilla statue that calls this corner of the city home. Inside the tower, you’ll find Toho Cinema, a massive cinema complex that regularly screens local hits and international blockbusters all day and deep into the night. If you want to catch a mid-week movie, but you’re on a bit of a budget, Toho offers discount tickets for 1,100 yen ($10 USD) on the first and 14th of each month. Every Wednesday is Lady’s Day, which means ladies can catch a movie at any time of the day for that same discount.
Wander through the less touristy streets of Shiodome and Shimbashi Stations and you’ll find this giant, brassy clock created by Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki. Its official name is ‘Nittele Oodokei’ and it stands at a staggering 10 meters (32 ft) high and 18 meters (59 ft) wide, with every inch of its face filled with intricate detail. Looking like a set prop from Miyazaki’s 2004 film, Howl’s Moving Castle (both of which were created during the same time), the clock comes to life at 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, and 8pm on weekdays, and features an extra show on the weekends at 10am.
Sitting on the southwest side of Shibuya Station, you’ll find a large stone face staring at the street. If you think it looks familiar, that’s because this statue is the inspiration behind the moyai emoji (big stone face emoji), which was created in 2015. This statue was a gift from Niijima Village, given as a token of celebration for Tokyo’s 100th anniversary as the capital of Japan. Although it may not be as famous as Shibuya Station’s other landmark Hachiko, it’s a unique and very often overlooked landmark. How many other people can say they met a real-life emoji?
Tokyo is currently in the midst of a vibrant third-wave coffee movement. It’s like a collision of old-school kissaten-style craftsmanship and Western, contemporary influences. The city is arguably becoming one of the most respected coffee hubs in the world. Visit Little Nap Coffee, a small, buzzing coffee stand tucked behind Yoyogi Park, to try some of the best coffee Tokyo has to offer.
Visiting Tokyo Skytree near the tourist-populated hub of Asakusa is one way to see the city from up high, but Tokyo is filled with other less crowded and free observation towers offering incredible views and none of the hassle. On the 46th and 47th floors of Caretta Shiodome in Shimbashi, you’ll find an impressive observatory offering panoramic views of the city and Tokyo Bay.