With bright lights, teens in unique clothing, and food options galore – Tokyo sets itself proudly apart from the pack. There are endless ways to spend your time in this city, if you have a few days or a few weeks you will never cease to be amazed by the vibrancy that makes up these streets.
We spent two weeks in Tokyo and only scratched the surface of understanding the culture and uniqueness of this place. David and I want to highlight our top experiences and culinary treats. Here are our 13 must do in Tokyo:
1. Tokyo Station
This place has it all! Over 3,000 trains leave from here every day (both metro and Shinkansen high-speed trains). This place is always a hustle and bustle of local commuters and traveling foreigners. Beyond the rail lines is a multitude of shops and restaurants. Keep your eyes focused on Ramen Street where the best ramen chefs of Tokyo where offered a spot in one of these prime locations…no need to wander the streets. Rokurinsha always has a line out front. It is worth the wait. Their extra thick rice noodles are delicious. If you slurp up all the broth they will bring you more.
Character street is another must see while visiting Tokyo station. The street is lined with cartoons shops made famous in Japan. There are over 15 stores adorned with all the cute accessories to fill your life with Hello Kitty, Kurby, Pokemon, or whatever your heart desires. As you wrap up your shopping experience step outside to see Tokyo station lite up at night. There is no other building like it. The lights highlight the truly unique architecture.
2. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
I love a free tour, Here you can find one that is great for a several reasons. It meets next to the best tourist information spot in town, covers the history of Tokyo (including information on their current government systems), and takes you to their observation deck for a great view of Tokyo. Our guide was very informative and took time to answer questions about Japan and also passed along helpful recommendations. Tour information can be found here.
3. Isetan Mall (Food Court)
There are several department stores that host fancy food courts on their lower level, but this one is the best. The food is meant to be ordered and taken away with no seating offered around the shops. These food courts give you a great chance to see an array of Japanese favorite treats while shopping under one roof. The food here is high end so David and I would often just purchase snacks and lust after the fancy savory deli meals and dessert items.
4. Game Taito Station in Shinjuku
Arcade games are everywhere in Tokyo. Claw machines will fill entire rooms and extend into a several floor operation. We weren’t going to miss the opportunity to become expert gamers. David and I decided to master Arabian Jewel coin pusher arcade game. I can’t say we walked away the best of the best but we definitely did draw a small crowd once or twice. Take some time to explore the Game Taito Station. It is a huge part of the current culture. I recommend the one specifically in Shinjuku District, a vibrant neighborhood at night and a great area to explore.
5. Sushi Go Round
There is an array of sushi conveyer belt options. I would have loved to try them all! The sushi in Japan is amazing (of course) and I loved how these restaurants operated. Grab a seat and watch the food dance in front of you, wait for your desired dish and wash it down with the complimentary matcha green tea. My favorite sushi go round restaurant is pictured above. There is no english text but you can find it in the Shinjuku neighborhood.
6. Nakamise Shopping Street and Asakusa Shrine
There are many shrines and temples you can visit in Japan. Personally I don’t need to see them all, so I recommend just this one in Tokyo. You will enter the shrine via the Nakamise Shopping Street where you will be greeted by a gorgeous gate that holds a large lantern. Pass through the entry way and you will find yourself in one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan. Here you will find a variety of souvenirs and some traditional food. Keep walking straight to the end of the street where it will open up to the shrine and temple. Take time to enjoy all the rituals that take place here.
Tip: If you decide to get food from a vendor stay at their stall till you finish eating. It is considered rude to walk and eat.
7. Shibuya Crossing Street
This place is the essence of Tokyo with close to a 1,000 people crossing the street each time the light changes. It almost feels like a dance, the pedestrians glide past each other with grace and ease as if they practice this several times before. This certainly is one of the busiest intersections in the world. Watch and observe the chaos before jumping in and giving it a try.
8. Sumo Practice (Kyoto)
Sumo wrestling is a unique part of the Japanese culture, David and I were hoping to get a glimpse of a morning practice known as kyoto. If you are lucky enough you may be able to find a stable (where the wrestlers live and practice) that will take you inside to watch. We didn’t have much luck on that front. The easiest place to view them is at Arashio where there is a large viewing window at the back of the stable. Come early to get a nice close spot and enjoy the practice before the windows begin to fog. Information on watching at Arashio can be found here. It is customary to bring a gift for the stable master as a thank you. A bottle of sake is greatly appreciated.
9. Chanko and Sumo Stadium
After watching large sweaty men work out for a couple of hours you may be feeling hungry. Hungry like a sumo wrestler maybe? Chanko is a one pot Japanese stew made originally for sumo wrestlers or those who are hungry like one. There are several places to enjoy this yummy stew around the Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku kokugikan). Unfortunately tournaments only take place in January, May, and September. If you are interested in learning a bit more about it and seeing where the tournament takes place visit the museum inside the stadium.
More information can be found at: jnto.com
10. Takeshita Street
A pedestrian walking street filled with cafes and small shops. Most of the shops are geared towards a younger audience. With so many unique fashion trends in this vast city this is the place to see them on display. If you are looking to experience a local’s favorite shop stop by Daiso. Daiso is a glorified dollar tree but filled with unusual home goods and souvenirs as well as everything in between. If you forgot anything or want to feel a part of the hustle and bustle take a walk through this four story shop where each item is 100 yen (85¢ USD).
11. Mister Doughnut
This may be a bit of an off beat recommendation but if you are looking for a place to relax while on the road we loved Mister Doughnut. With unlimited refills on coffee (not something I found anywhere else) and cheap doughnuts, we were hooked. Try the pos de ring doughnut. They have a gooey center (have I mentioned we eat a lot on this trip).
12. Dominique Ansel Bakery
A bakery found in New York City with additional locations in London and Tokyo. Here is where the cronut was invented (well in the NY branch, but same recipe). It was a fun stop that felt like a slice of the states in the middle of Tokyo. If you are not feeling like a cronut after your doughnut I would still venture out this way. There are several sweet boutiques and coffee shops tucked in its neighboring alley ways. This is a more expensive part of town but even if you are window shopping the escape from the craziness is nice.
13. Piss Alley
Tucked into the Shinjuku district are the alleyways that make up this dingy spot. With locals and a few curious tourists tucking themselves into these restaurants they have seats for just a few patrons. I recommend coming for dinner or late night drinks. It is a perfect place to mingle with locals and put those signing and gesturing skills to work.
Final thought from Kelsey
Tokyo is vibrant with crowded streets and neon lights that fill the sky into the wee hours of the morning. You will fall in love with the people who call Japan their home and enjoy the hidden spots off the main drag. In all of it enjoy!
Final thought from David
This city is quirky in a way that you can’t help but love. Come here with an open mind and embrace the lifestyle. Soak up the culture of anime shops, epic food options, sumo wrestling practice, and the vibe of the very respectful Japanese people.
Check Airbnb – We had a great time staying at Airbnbs throughout Japan. Take a look before booking a hotel, you may luck out and score extra space and a laundry machine.
Take Trains – Taxies are expensive here. Take the metro whenever possible and ask a local if you have any questions. They are excited to help out even if there is a language gap.
Map plan – Tokyo is a big place! In order to organize the trip I made a list of all the things we would like to do and marked where they are located on a city map. This way we were able to clump our days by things that are close to one another saving us time and money by lessening hours we commuted on the metro.
Also – be sure to read our post on Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea!