With its signature combination of neon-lit strips, Shinto shrines, and world-class cuisine, Tokyo is a city that can go from bustling to serene at the turn of an alley. Shinjuku, the city’s sprawling central district, encompasses the winding alleys of the historic Golden Gai neighborhood; the manicured gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden; and the red-light district of Kabukicho, where robots and samurais dance side by side in the Robot Restaurant. Nearby Tsukiji Fish Market and Kokugikan Sumo Stadium and Museum offer high-octane experiences, while the serene Asakusa Temple, Ueno Park, and Meiji Shrine—surrounded by 1,700-year-old cedar trees—provide a healthy dose of calm. Get your sightseeing in with panoramic city views from Tokyo Skytree, one of the world’s tallest buildings; shop ‘til you drop in Shibuya, Ginza Shopping District, and Harajuku, birthplace of “kawaii” culture; or opt for a cruise around Tokyo Bay or on the Sumida River, a truly idyllic experience during “sakura” (cherry blossom season). Alternatively, you can hang with the locals and go kart around Akihabara, one of the best places for electronic stores and gaming arcades. If you’re a nature lover, no visit to the capital of Japan is complete without heading to Nikko National Park and Mt. Fuji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site iconized by its snow-capped summit. The legendary mountain is a 2.5-hour car journey from Tokyo, making a visit to Mt. Fuji’s 5th Station—as well as on-the-way attractions such as Lake Ashi and the hot springs (onsen) of Hakone—achievable in a day.
When to Visit: Sakura (cherry blossom season) is indisputably the best, albeit busiest, time to visit Tokyo. The peak of the season varies each year according to the weather, but blooms are generally at their brightest from late March to early April. If you want to avoid the crowds, fall (September to November) is a great time to see Japan’s natural landscapes drenched in autumn colors.
Getting Around: Due to its status as the world’s largest city, Tokyo doesn’t lend itself well to walking. The best method of getting around is the metro, an efficient yet mind-boggling transport system of multiple branches. Make your life infinitely easier by getting a PASMO, a prepaid travel card that will save you from lining up at ticket machines and trying to decipher Japanese characters to determine ticket costs.
Tipping: In Tokyo, tipping is not customary, even though excellent service comes as standard. In restaurants, bars, and taxis, don’t be offended if your tip is refused — profuse thanks receive much more of a warm welcome.
You Might Not Know… For a unique cultural experience, don’t miss an early-morning tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, where colossal tuna fish are snapped up for sushi in seconds. Viewing the free public auction is on a strict first-come, first-serve basis, so ensure you arrive at least two hours early to register.
The Open-Air Museum in the suburb of Hakone is an easy train ride from Tokyo and a great place to spend a sunny day. This sculpture park contains hundreds of works by both Japanese and Western artists ranging from elegant to surreal and spread out over 200 acres.
Bring your camera, because many surprising photo opportunities await you: a massive three-ton head turned on it's side, vibrant dancing geometric shapes and giant zombie hands that reach into the sky in an ode to the movie Shaun of the Dead. Start your tour at the rainbow colored stained glass tower with a staircase to the top for a view of the massive park. All of the sculptures are framed by naturalistic trees, fields and mountains. Kids (and possibly adults) will enjoy the massive Children's Pavilion with it's innovative and colorful play structures.
The eerily quiet Aokigahara Forest calls out for lost souls. This forest, situated at the northwest base of Mount Fuji, has a long and storied history in Japanese mythology as a place of evil, demons, and paranormal activity. It’s not all ancient history, though; today, Aokigahara Forest sees more suicides per year than anywhere in the world other than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The forest has several nicknames, including the “Sea of Trees,” and – less flatteringly, “Suicide Forest.” Locals around the area say that people come into the forest for three reasons: hikers looking to see the splendid ice caves that dot the deep forest floor; people attracted to the stories and looking to see the carnage for themselves; and those people who do not plan to return. Suicide has become such a problem in the Aokigahara Forest that local authorizes have taken steps to curb it.
The Fuji Five Lakes are a group of lakes situated at the northern base of the majestic Mount Fuji, around 100 kilometers west of Tokyo. These lakes are Lake Motosu, Lake Shoji, Lake Sai, Lake Kawaguchi, and Lake Yamanaka. Along with its incredible scenery, the area offers ample opportunities for hiking, camping, and fishing. It also features hot springs, museums, and even one of Japan's largest and most popular amusement parks, Fuji-Q Highland. Lake Kawaguchi is easily accessed and offers a wealth of things for visitors to see and do. It’s also a great starting point for climbing Mount Fuji for those inclined to do so, and also popular with Tokyo locals escaping the heat and pace of the city, particularly during the summer. The largest lake is Yamanaka, while perhaps the most picturesque is the horseshoe-shaped Shōji. Elsewhere, Sai and Motosu are great spots to set up camp and enjoy water-based activities such as boating and fishing.
You'll want to grab an (english language) map upon entering this large park that stretches across Shinjuku and Shibuya. There is a lot of ground to cover here.
The park is split into gardens of three distinct styles: French formal, English landscape and Japanese traditional. Not surprising the Japanese section is the most interesting and beautiful with waterlily ponds, artfully trimmed bushes and statues. The nearby Taiwan pavilion is an elegant spot for photos.
The original gardens date back to 1906, but were destroyed and rebuilt after the war. The diverse and well manicured gardens are great for wandering, taking photos or having an afternoon picnic. The garden has over 1500 cherry trees trees that burst into vivid blooms in late March or early April. It's a favorite spot for blossom viewing and can be very crowded during those times.
Considered to be Tokyo’s best green space, the Hama Rikyu Gardens offer a Central Park-like experience with Tokyo’s skyscrapers towering in the background. The sprawling garden originally served as the duck hunting grounds for Tokyo’s feudal lords more than 300 years ago. Today, the pools, bridges, ponds, tea houses and viewing pavilions are perfect for a quiet morning or afternoon outdoors.
Birdwatchers can spot the herons, ducks and other migrating birds who take up residence around the many ponds. For a different kind of wildlife spotting, visit the park’s most unique asset, a saltwater tide pool that rises and falls with the ocean. The teahouse on an island in the middle of the tidal pond is a pleasant place to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. Hama Rikyu certainly isn’t one of Tokyo’s best spots for cherry blossom viewing in spring, but you’ll still be able to see them and without the crowds of the city’s more popular viewing points.
For kitschy souvenirs and trinkets to bring home as gifts or mementos of your time in Japan, there’s really only one place to shop, and that’s Nakamise Street. The name roughly translates to “Street of Inside Shops,” and you’ll find both sides lined with stores selling knickknacks, souvenirs and snacks.
The shopping street owes its existence to the Senso-ji Buddhist temple, dating back to the seventh century. The temple has drawn in enough devotees over the centuries to spawn a thriving commercial district. The shops once served as homes for the temple servants who cleaned the grounds, but now it’s wall to wall shops. Here you’ll find folding fans, kimonos and their accompanying wooden sandals, Edo-style colored glassware and the typical lineup of tourist trinkets. Save room in your stomach to sample some of the traditional Japanese snacks sold along the street, particularly the savory rice crackers, Azuki bean paste and sticky rice cakes.
The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku's Kabukicho district (red-light district) may well be unlike anything you’ve seen before. A sort of sci-fi Japanese cabaret starring giant robots, this show is loud and proud, both visually and audibly, with its flashing lights, multiple mirrors, and huge video screens accompanied by the sounds of taiko drums and pumping techno music.
There are four 90-minute shows every night, in which dancers in dazzling costumes perform alongside robots, giant pandas, dinosaurs and more. At one point, neon tanks come out to do battle with samurais and ninjas. It’s a surreal place that needs to be seen to be believed!
There are several options for attending the show. You can pre-purchase entrance tickets for several different time slots, or you can bundle the entrance ticket with a dinner package.
Akihabara, also called Akihabara Electric Town, is the go-to district in Tokyo for electronics, anime and manga products. Hundreds of electronics stores line the neighborhood streets, selling everything from computer parts to home goods and ranging in size from small stalls to mainstream chains. North of Akihabara Station sit stores selling video games, popular manga comic books, card games, costumes and souvenirs.
In recent years, Akihabara has become famous for its "otaku" culture, or diehard anime and manga fans. It is a great place to people-watch and see "cosplay," short for costume play, in which fans dress up as their favorite characters in anime and manga. Numerous maid cafes are found in this area as well, where you’ll find a dining experience in which the servers dress as maids and other characters.
Famous for its architecture and nightlife, this small neighborhood in the heart of Tokyo is comprised of narrow alleys and passages lined with roughly 200 informal bars, clubs and food stalls. Old school buildings are just a few feet wide, some of the most popular bars seat only five or seven people, and streets are so narrow that travelers must walk single file.
Despite these cramped quarters, Golden Gai is a popular destination for visitors to Tokyo and draws local artists, musicians and writers to local watering holes. With the highest number of bars per square meter in the world, this lively spot is the perfect place to pop in for a drink, meet some locals and experience the girt (and charm) of Tokyo night life. Travelers say most bars charge a cover, but once inside, drinks are cheap and strong.
Located in Tokyo’s popular Shinjuku ward just north of the world’s busiest rail station, you’ll find a small alley called Omoide Yokocho. The historic alley, known locally as Memory Lane or Piss Alley depending on who you ask, is in fact one of Tokyo’s more authentic and atmospheric dining destinations.
Don’t let the negative nickname deter you. Today, it’s a bit of a misnomer anyway. In 1999, the entire alley was destroyed in a fire. It has since been rebuilt in much the same way and with the same old world Postwar Tokyo atmosphere, but with one notable exception. The alley now has bathrooms. The nickname “Piss Alley” harkens back to the days when no such facilities existed. As you walk down the narrow alley, you’ll see tiny bars and restaurants tightly packed together on either side with the occasional tattered red paper lantern lighting the way.
The Kokugikan Sumo Stadium, also known as the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, is Tokyo’s largest indoor sports arena hosting sumo wrestling tournaments. Sumo is Japan’s most popular sport, so catch an incredible show with up to 10,000 other spectators and find out what sumo is all about.
Each Sumo tournament lasts fifteen days, and the matches begin with amateurs and end with advanced sumo wrestlers. Tournaments are held only six times a year, so grab a seat while you still can.
The Sumo Museum, known as Nihon Sumo Kyokai, is attached to the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium and is open year-round. It is a great place to learn about sumo’s important place in Japanese culture.
The 47-foot (14-meter) tall bronze Buddha statue of Kotokuin (Great Buddha of Kamakura) is only the second tallest statue of Buddha in Japan though likely the most recognizable. The seated figure is that of Amitabha Buddha, worshipped by Japanese Buddhists as a deity of salvation. The statue was completed in 1252 after the site’s previous wooden Buddha and its hall were damaged in a tsunami in 1248. Hundreds of years later, you can still see traces of the original gold leafing. The identity of the artist who cast the statue remains a mystery.
The temple of Kotokuin where the Buddha statue resides falls under the Jodo Sect of Buddhism, the most widely practiced branch of the religion in Japan. While the Great Buddha is the real draw, visitors can tour the temple grounds to see the four bronze lotus petals originally cast as part of a pedestal for the Buddha, as well as the cornerstones of the hall that originally sheltered the statue.
Omotesando is an attractive, well-groomed, tree-lined street between Shibuya and Minato in Tokyo. Designed as an entranceway to Meiji Shrine, the street pays homage to the deified spirits of Emperor Maiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.
In modern years, Omotesando has earned a reputation as one of the most fashion-forward neighborhoods in the world, with high-end shops all within close range of one another. Some of the brands featured in this area include Louis Vuitton, Prada and Dior. Due to its chic style, Omotesando is also a prime location for people-watching. Many of Tokyo's elite can be found shopping and dining here.
There are many large rail stations in Tokyo, but none have quite the elegance and history of Tokyo Central Railway Station. The station sits near the Imperial Palace grounds in the Ginza district. The classical look of the main facade is fashioned after Amsterdam's main station. In 1921, Prime Minister Hara Takashi was assassinated at the south gates. Much of the station was damaged during World War II and is constantly being renovated and improved upon.
Nowadays the station is the busiest in all of Japan in terms of train volume with over 3000 trains passing through and 381,704 passengers every day. It's the starting point of many Shinkansen trains as well as JR Trains and the Tokyo Metro. It's an excellent place to people watch- just make sure to stay out of the way of the busy commuters!
Ameyoko Shopping Street, short for Ameya Yokocho (candy store alley), is one of Japan’s most popular shopping streets, famous throughout Tokyo for its cheap prices and the wide variety of products on offer.
As the name suggests, the alley was once filled with candy shops. In the years following World War II, candy shops gave way to black market stalls selling illegally imported American goods. Today, you won’t find much of either. What you will find is a range of clothing, accessories, cosmetics, spices and foods in more than 400 shops. For many locals, the New Year season means taking a shopping trip to Ameyoko to pick up traditional New Year’s foods like fish cakes, crab and roe. Even if you’re not in the market for Japanese food products, a stroll down Ameyoko Shopping Street still makes for an enjoyable experience. Soak up the atmosphere, pick up some souvenirs and sample some traditional street snacks from the local vendors.
Hanayashiki in Tokyo is proud to lay claim to being the oldest amusement park in Japan. It opened in 1853 as a flower park, but is now packed with an array of eateries, shops, and theme park attractions, ranging from the oldest steel-track roller coaster in the country, to rideable robot pandas. Other rides include a merry-go-round, a small ferris wheel, a haunted house, a drop ride named the Space Shot, and a spinning one called Disk ‘O’. It also has a 3D theater and a range of attractions for smaller children.
Located in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa neighborhood, Hanayashiki is divided into three themed areas: Fantasy & Dreams, Mystery & Panic, and Full of Excitement. Naturally, Hanayashiki is especially popular with children, although adults will be sure to appreciate the sense of nostalgia that this traditional theme park evokes.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, more commonly known as Tokyo City Hall or Tochō, is one of the most distinctive and famous buildings in the Tokyo skyline. Tokyo is a huge city and their governmental offices are huge too, taking up three city blocks with three immense buildings.
The tallest is Tokyo Metropolitan Main Building No. 1, built to resemble both a computer chip and a gothic cathedral. It splits at level 33 into two twin towers which stretch to a height 48 stories, making it the tallest building in the city for many years.
Both towers have observation decks free to the public on level 45, 202 meters high. On really clear days, you might even spot Mt Fuji to the west. The view from the southern tower is considered slightly better but the northern tower remains open later, making it more suitable for night viewing.
Engaku-Ji Temple is a nearly perfect example of Zen Buddhist architecture. Located in the city of Kamakura, to the south of Tokyo, it is one of the most important temple complexes in Japan and ranked second among Kamakura's Five Mountains, or monasteries.
The temple was founded in 1282 by a Chinese Zen monk and has withstood numerous fires and other rials over the last 750 years. It's the oldest example of Tang Chinese architecture left in Japan. The most prominent features are the 16th century reliquary hall, which claims to house one of the Buddha's teeth, and a huge 14th century temple bell. Engaku-ji is prettiest to visit in Autumn when the vibrant fall foliage accentuates its minimalist lines. Inside the park area are numerous tea houses, restaurants and gardens.
The best way to find Yurakucho Yakitori Alley is to follow the grill smoke. Tucked away under the train tracks of the JR Yamanote Line, this alley is a place for an open-air dining experience, complete with master yakitori chefs who man small, individual stalls and serve up grilled meats, vegetables and beer. Adventurous eaters can take advantage of menu items that make use of entire animals, with specialties consisting of chicken liver, heart and intestines. The outdoor venue is well known among local businessmen but is a hidden off-the-beaten-path gem for tourists.
Yakitori Alley stretches for nearly half a mile under the train tracks (about 700 meters). The rustic area has seen development in recent years, and with this, more traditional, enclosed restaurants have also opened up alongside the open-air food stalls. The old, gritty atmosphere persists, however.