Fifteen Things to do in Tokyo
Tokyo, the capital city of Japan, is a cosmopolitan metropolis bustling with life, a funky urban playground for anyone and everyone. Among the things Tokyo is renowned for are a delicious & artisan food culture, a burgeoning coffee scene, a thriving video game culture plus anything and everything manga & anime, a blossoming and often strange fashion style, an offbeat sports scene, and a blending of traditional Japanese culture with modern sci-fi cityscapes. Between all the old historical culture of Tokyo, all the new technology & modern reinvention, all the pop culture phenomenons there is a blend of the old & new that provides endless activities for any any traveler or local to do. With that said, here's 15 things for any traveler to do in technologic Tokyo.
1. Get Outdoors
Tokyo is a city renowned for not only its ultra-urbanized, technologically infused life, but for its beautiful natural scenes, most notably the selective parks featuring the indigenous and uncannilly beautiful cherry blossoms. A few suggestions (from my own experiences) to escape from the urban mayhem into a natural backdrop include:
- Yoyogi Park: Yoyogi Park is one of the greenest & cleanest places to get outdoors in Tokyo. Take your time perusing the different paths around the park going on a stroll with friends, convening wth nature in the midst of a bustling city, or simply doing whatever it is that blows your hair back. Inside the bigger portion of Yoyogi you can even make your way to the Meiji-jingu Shinto Shrine for a look into traditional Japanese culture & a brief history lesson.
- Royal Gardens: Inside the grounds of the Imperial Palace you can wander around the royal gardens where the Emperor of Japan (post 1868) took up residence. Feast your eyes on a plethora of bamboo plants, hibiscus flowers, cherry blossoms (when in season), and so much more greenery. If you're up for more nature, pay a small extra fee and tour the East Palace Gardens offering even more harmonious arranged displays of flowers & greens.
- Shinjuku Gyoen: It would be remiss of me not to mention Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, arguably Tokyo's most famous and quite sizable park. While I did not have the pleasure of strolling its walkways during my time in Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen is often recognized as Tokyo's signature park acclaimed for its gorgeous gardens and cherry blossom lined paths.
- Tokyo is home to so many more parks than this that I could write a guide solely on its park life. As I have not been to them all I will only mention a few in detail here. Other notably pretty parks include Ueno Park, Sumida Park, Chidorigafuchi, and so much more. Feel free to check out Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet for a more comprehensive guide.
- P.S. -- cherry blossom season typically begins mid to late April.
2. Vestiges of Historic/Traditional Japanese Culture
Japan is an amalgam of old and new, of ancient history and modern innovation. After enjoying its scenes of natural splendor, take a gander at some of Japan's vestiges of both ancient and modern history--both of which will be a drastically different and immersive experience for any Westerner.
Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine: Yoyogi Park is more than just an outdoor escape in a technologically fueled city. Home to lush greenery & some delicate gardens, Yoyogi Park is also home to the Meiji-jinggu Shinto Shrine honoring the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji--who opened Japan to the West in 1868--and his mistress. An insight into a significant point in Japan's history as Emperor Meiji headmasted the Meiji Restoration and Japan's initial opening to the West as well as a not too crowded taste of Shintoism, one of Japan's two primary religions.
Asakusa Shrine + Senso-Ji Temple: Located next to each other in Tokyo's Asakusa District are these two vestiges of Japanese Culture. The Asakusa Shrine is a tiered Pagoda style shrine paying homage to the three leaders founders of the Japan's oldest temple, Senso-ji. A colorful vestige of Japan's ancient history, Asakusa and Senso-ji are one of the most visited spiritual sites in the world, which means the grounds are often swarmed with hordes of tourists.
Imperial Palace: Constructed on the foundations of Edo Castle rests the seat of Japan's emperor and ruling leader. After the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled Japan in 1868, Japan's capital was relocated to Tokyo along with the residence of the royal family. The palace offers guided tours of limited portions of the grounds (inner grounds and buildings off limits) as well as tickets to wander the Imperial & East Gardens as well as the ruins of Edo Castle.
3. Tokyo: City of Museums
Tokyo is a city overflowing with culture, history, and art. If all the spiritual endowed vestiges of ancient culture are any indication, Japan has a more than scintillating history. As such there are a plethora of museums dedicated to Japan's feudal past and culture of samurais, from Tokyo's National Museum housing a vast collection of art and archaeology mostly pertaining to Japan to the Japanese Sword Museum housing a curated collection of swords to the Samurai Museum detailing the life of the ancient Japanese samurai. On top of this, Japan generated its own kitschy art forms in Anime & Manga that can be seen on display in Tokyo's Manga Museum. Between all the museums the city of Tokyo offers it's hard to go wrong, just find the one that calls out to your individual taste the most.
- Tokyo National Museum: Tokyo's largest art museum holds a treasure trove of Asian, primarily Japanese, art and archaeological. Check out beautiful sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, archaeological artifacts, and much more endowed with glimpses into Japan's history.
- Japanese Sword Museum: One thing most Westerners are quick to point out is the history of samurai culture in Japan. In fact, samurai culture and sword-smithing has served as one of the overarching stereotypes in Hollywood of Japanese culture, most notably Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. The Sword Museum provides not only informational background on the sword-smithing process transforming tamahagane into the forged katanas, but also a display of some these incredibly artisanal, immaculate, sharp swords.
- Samurai Museum: Here one can find more of a historical and cultural background on how samurai culture originated, what it was like during its golden age, and how it still plays a role in Japanese culture today.
- Mori Art Museum: For a taste of east asian curated contemporary art, check out the Mori Art Museum, home to contemporary art collections primarily curated from Japan and the rest of (south)East Asia. If more modern art is more your taste this is most likely your best move.
- Suginami Animation Museum / Tokyo Animation Center / Ghibli Museum: These museums are dedicated to Japan's bright, colorful, and original art genres of anime and manga. A must see for any lover of anime and/or manga or anyone interested in the genesis of a whole genre of art.
4. People Watch Amongst the Metropolitan Madness at Shibuya "Scramble" Crossing
My first sight of Japanese (as well as Asian) culture was in Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing, also known as Scramble Crossing. Shibuya Crossing is like the mechanical heart of Tokyo between the brightly adorned skyscrapers, mayhem of the multi-directional crosswalks and streets, and endless ebb and flow of foot traffic. Newly minted to Japanese (and Asian) experience, my first night in Tokyo was spent posted up on a concrete bench in Shibuya Crossing, Kirin beer in hand, watching the people passing through Tokyo's Times Square. The humans building up at the crosswalks as auto traffic skittered through the maze of lights; the cars stopping and building as the humans cascaded across the white-striped asphalt towards their destinations; the endless and ever-changing gallery of faces, humans of Tokyo. Dropping into there was a culture shock to say the least. Other places where people watching could certainly be a trip include bright Electric Town Akihibara, Takeshima street in Harajuku, Shinjuku's red light district, old town Asakusa, or whatever catches your eye.
5. See Tokyo's Sci-fi Cityscapes Skyborne
Tokyo Skytree: The highest manmade point in Japan, the soaring Tokyo Skytree offers a magnificent 360° view of the city--and on super clear days all the way out to Mount Fuji. To truly appreciate the immensity of Tokyo's metropolitan reach, an aerial perch is a power move. Tickets are $20 to rise 350 meters into the sky at the lower observation deck, and another $10 to reach the peak observation deck 450 meters high. Both offer panoramic 360° views of the city. Bonus points if you ascend the Skytree and climb Mount Fuji within 24 hours--would be an ascent to the two tallest points in Japan, one manmade and the other natural.
New York Bar: The famed bar from Lost in Translation. Live out your own version of the cinematic experience for yourself at this aerial perch. Lose yourself in a drink or six or seventeen masquerading as a confused and culture shocked Bill Murray and you may even find yourself lost in translation too.
6. Splurge on some Sensational Sashimi & Sushi (or any Japanese food really)
It would be a major oversight if I didn't mention Tokyo's sensational and oishi (delicious) food scene. One of the premier culinary destinations of the world, Tokyo is the destination for the world's best sashimi and sushi. Check out the early morning Tsukiji Fish Market for an insight into the delightful culinary culture behind sushi with a live tuna auction, morning sushi breakfast counters, even the opportunity to fish for your own breakfast!
If you're not down for an early morning venture or the fishy aroma of the pungent Tsukiji Market, don't be overly frugal and skip on a sushi splurge. Don't like seafood? Go for some other signature Japanese eats like world class ramen, a soup-style dish of (usually wheat) noodles in a meat/fish broth, and one of the unquestionable staples of Japanese cuisine; Yakiniku BBQ (translated as 'grilled meat' in Japanese) is a new style barbecuing Western food (originating in Korea), cooking bite-sized pieces of meat & veggies over a personal wood-charcoal mini-grill; or gyoza, the Japanese take on dumplings, borrowed from Chinese Jiaozi (dumplings) during World War II: thinner & more delicate, but pan-fried. Other considerations include the oddly themed restaurants found singularly in Japan like the Kill Bill restaurant, Robot Restaurant with robotic performers synced to bright laser lights, or even the restaurant serving brain-shaped foods.
Sashimi & Sushi:
Kaikaya (by the Sea) [Shibuya]: Sit at the counter at one of Tokyo's more noteworthy, acclaimed, and oishi sushi joints for a front row seat to the intricate preparation of your own meal and even an explanation by the culinary wizards at work.
Tsukiji Market: catch or buy your own freshly caught tuna in the pungent fish market
Ippudo Ueno Hirokoji Ramen [Akihibara] -- traditional style restaurant with a long wooden noodle bar, a few different styles of ramen, friendly service, and reasonable prices. Hands down the best ramen I've had in my entire life. You can eat past being full and still not feel bad about it its so good. While it was one of only a few ramen/noodle dishes I had the chance to have in Tokyo, most travel & blogging websites have this place towards the top of their list.
Yakinuku Japanese BBQ:
Manten [Yoyogi] -- a wide variety of meats are offered, friendly staff and spacious/stylistic environmen
Tiger Gyoza Hall [Shibuya] -- short walk from Shibuya Crossing and relatively near the mayhem there, it appeared to be a rather local stop-off for dumplings & gyoza. Open late, the place had ambient & mellow vibes and a wide-ranging menu specializing in Gyoza. Great for trying some interesting Japanese eats--like a "1,000 year old" duck egg--or simply having a late night gyoza gorge.
7. High Fashion in Harajuku
Tokyo is more than famous for its vibrant, bizarre, and experimentally glamorous fashion whose home rests along the streets of Harajuku. Americans may be familiar with Harajuku fashion sense thanks to Gwen Stefani, of No Doubt, who used four back-up dancers dressed in bright, gaudy Harajuku fashion styles playing on Westerner's stereotypes of Japanese style. While her portrayal may be considered unintentionally racist, she made Harajuku fashion visible in American pop culture. For a personal exploration of the bizarre, eccentric, wacky, zany eye candy of Japanese style take a walk down Harajuku's Takeshima Street.
8. Scope Japan's Offbeat Sports Scene
Japan's two most noteworthy sporting endeavors involve baseball and sumo wrestling. If you're a fan of America's favorite pastime, don't miss out on the multi-faceted experience of a baseball game featuring a sporting event unlike any other you've been to. Between the baseball themed foods and beverages, cute and dolled up Japanese women serving booze, and even an onsite amusement park (at Tokyo Dome home to the Yomiuri Giants), it would be quite the day. Not into baseball? Want something even more different? If you're in Tokyo at the right time, sumo wrestling tournaments are a can't miss. It's Japan's national sport, their take on wrestling, and unlike anything a Westerner will ever see at home--would be a trip and a half. They happen ever month or two (sadly my timing was inpportune) so check out the grand schedule of tournaments online.
9. Lose Yourself in Japanese Pop Culture and Nightlife
One of the favorite pastimes of Japanese youth is hitting the karaoke clubs on party nights. Many places offer private booths where you can belt out classic American jams without fear of embarrassment or, if you're feeling adventurous, a few offer public stages where you can perform to a crowd of intoxicated individuals. If singing isn't your shtick, venture to one of Tokyo's night clubs where you can dance the night away instead. In recent years Tokyo has gained worldwide recognition for its burgeoning techno scene. If you're a lover of techno, deep house, underground dance music in general then check out Womb, one of the more premier night clubs.
10. Get Lost in the World Epicenter of Video Game Culture
Tokyo is home to some of the world's most renowned and influential video game and electronic companies: Nintendo, Atari, Sony, Capcom, Sega, and so many more. Explore the Akihibara District ("Electric Town") for a total immersion into Tokyo's video game culture and electronic obsession. This place is total gamer paradise. Drop into a kitschy arcade to play some Pachinko, an electronic superstore for the newest gadgets and technologies, geek out as an otaku (fanboy or fangirl) in gamer's mecca, or even a French maid cafe to refuel on some food and drinks while being served by a cute waitress dressed like a video game princess (often from Super Mario).
11 . Absorb the Oddity of Tokyo Sexuality
The French Maid cafes are the tip of the iceberg. Stereotypes paint the typical Japanese male as a sexually repressed being due to absorption in business and video game culture. While not entirely accurate, its also not entirely inaccurate (about 40% of Japanese men ages 18-34 are virgins). For those with a stronger sexual appetite, check out the (in)famous vibrator bar (requires female companion for entry) or check into a love hotel where couples can rent rooms by the hour for the coital interactions.
12. Conquer Claustrophobia in a Capsule Hotel
Down for a strange night of sleep or a conquering of claustrophobia? Try a night at one of Japan's famous capsule hotels where you'll slumber in your own personal personal sleeping pod. Designed for the on-the-go Japanese business man just needing a crash pad, these capsule hotels are unlike any lodging a Westerner will experience. After a night out sampling some sashimi & sushi, bouncing around pubs, or hitting the Japanese underground for some techno, come back and crash in your own personal pod to get some rest before another day (or night) out in Tokyo.
13. Caffeinate at an Animal Cafe
Japan is one of the few places in the world home to animal cafes, most notably the cat and owl cafes. Enjoy your morning coffee in the company of feline friends or alongside a furry little avian buddy at an owl cafe. How many people can say they've enjoyed a coffee with an owl on their arm? That would make quite the story.
P.S. -- Japan is credited as the originator of cold brew coffee (from Kyoto), so a cold brew coffee would be a double whammy on your agenda.
14. Escape the city for a Day / Weekend Trip
Mount Fuji trek: Of anything I could personally recommend doing in Tokyo, it would be making the journey out to and up Mount Fuji. Whether you head out to do it in a few hours for a sunrise trek--as I did, or plan it in stages over the course of a day by staying at the way-stations on your ascent, a sunrise view of the Japanese landscape is uncanny, to say the least. Hiking up through the clouds and into the sky is a feeling that is hard to beat.
15. Strip Down at an Onsen
After wild and fast-paced days around Tokyo, wind down at a traditional Japanese bath house featuring hot and cold hot spring mineral baths. You'll strip down to your most bare in a communal environment (with those of the same gender), so not for those who have a strong case of stage fright. Well worth the rejuvenation though! A total cleanse for the body as well as the spirit with a relaxing spa day of the Japanese variety--perfect for restoring yourself after a trek up Mount Fuji.