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.
Tokyo’s Hanazono Jinja Shrine is famous for its open-air antique market that is held on Sundays throughout the year. Antique markets have been held on shrine grounds for centuries. Hanazono’s market is famous for its deals on traditional kimonos, used books, art prints, and hanging scroll art, along with various antiques. In addition to the antiques market, the shrine is famous for two annual festivals. Tori-no-Ichi festival is held every November and is known for its varied and extensive comedy performances. The Bon Orodri Festival is held every August and allows guests to participate in traditional Bon dancing.
Established in the mid-17th century, Hanazono Jinja Shrine is one of Tokyo’s most historic and important Shinto shrines. Over the last several hundred years it has been damaged extensively in multiple fires, the worst of which occurred during World War II. To repair the damage, it has undergone multiple renovations and rebuilds.
Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science houses an impressive collection of hands-on science and natural history exhibits spread throughout the spacious, multistory complex. The museum collections are separated into two main areas, the Japan Gallery and the Global Gallery.
The Japan Gallery covers the natural history and biological diversity of the Japanese archipelago, including a pavilion dedicated to the archeological and cultural history of the Japanese people. Here you can learn about how the first humans made their way to Japan, cultural practices of Japan’s earliest tribes and rice cultivation in Japan and how it has changes the environment of the nation.
This shiny metal building in the Odaiba District is also known as the “Future Museum.” The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation is a great place to explore Tokyo's high-tech side and a fun excursion for both kids and adults.
Exhibits are based around four major themes: "Global Environment and Frontiers", "Technological Innovations and the Future", "Information Sciences and Technologies for Society" and "Life Science and Humans." All exhibits are explained in Japanese as well as English and volunteer staff answer questions and conduct scientific demonstrations.
A large area is dedicated to earthquakes, a huge issue in Japan, and here you can watch real time seismometers across the country vibrating. An enormous Geo-cosmos globe shows global weather patterns as they happen. The most popular exhibit however is ASIMO, a humanoid robot created by Honda who can walk, run and interact with humans.
Opened in 1940, this incredible museum located in the heart of Tokyo is home to an impressive collection of Japanese, Chinese and Korean art. Hundreds of antiques line the gallery halls—a sample of the even more expansive collection, which is combed through for monthly shifts in public art displays.
In addition to the rich artistic history of these Asian artifcats, travelers can explore the stone paths of the well-manicured grounds outside the galleries, where teahouses, sculptures and a glass-walled café designed by Kuma Kengo round out the museum experience.
Trendy shopping district Kagurazaka combines tradition with modern flair. The cobbled streets and original Edo and Meiji-era structures elicit nostalgic for the past, while fashionable vendors and modernized storefronts root the neighborhood firmly in the present. Kagurazaka is known as Tokyo’s French Quarter for the its concentrated French presence due to its proximity to two French schools. French cafes line the cobblestoned street.
In the Edo Period, Kagurazaka began at the outer edge of Edo Castle’s moat. This prime location ensured an upscale clientele in the entertainment district. The neighborhood was known primarily for its numerous geisha houses, some of which still exist today. Kagurazaka in modern times retains much of its old charm. Today, most of Kagurazaka’s business is in dining and shopping. It hosts the annual Kagurazaka Awa Odori Festival in July, which is famous for traditional dance and music.
The National Diet Building is the center of Japanese politics, as it houses both chambers of the Diet, or legislative arm: the House of Representatives, which meets in the left wing, and the House of Councillors, which meets in the right wing. Built in 1936, the building is constructed almost entirely of Japanese materials.
The building is iconic for its pyramid-shaped dome in the center of the complex, which made it the tallest building in Japan at completion. The interior is decorated with cultural artifacts and art pieces, such as bronze statues of the men who are credited with formulating Japan's first modern constitution. The building sits on land once inhabited by feudal lords, giving the spot even more historical significance. It is sometimes referred to as the House of Parliament or the Government building in Tokyo.
Built in 1617 to deify Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate - the family that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868, the Toshogu Shrine differentiates itself from other Shinto Shrines with a wide palette of colors and lavish decorations. An impressive amount of gold leaf adorns the ornate structure. Sculptures - such as the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys greet visitors. It's believed that Toshogu, situated within an easy day trip of Tokyo, protects the capital and its people.
The shrine complex consists of more than a dozen religious buildings set within a forest of some 15,000 Japanese cypress trees planted in the 17th century. Made famous by the 300 carvings of mythical and symbolic beasts, such as dragons, giraffes, and lions, Toshogu is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Japan's most important and sacred destinations.
The Studio Ghibli Museum houses art and animation from the world-class Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, which produced the films Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle. With stand-out architecture, wonderful film showings, and great exhibits with stunning animation, this museum is a feast for the eyes.
Outside, a giant robot statue guards the Studio Ghibli Museum. The overall design of the museum is quirky and other-worldly, so that you feel like you are actually walking through an animated set.
The first floor of the museum houses its permanent collection and examines the history and culture of animation. The second floor has special exhibitions and films, showing both the work of Miyazaki and other celebrated animated films, like Toy Story and Wallace and Gromit.
Located atop Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, Mori Art Museum opened in 2003 as a place to showcase contemporary art and architecture. Unlike most museums, Mori Art Museum doesn’t maintain a permanent collection. Instead visitors enjoy a rotating calendar of temporary exhibitions highlighting some of the biggest names in contemporary art from Japan and abroad. Notable artists featured in the museum in the past include Tokujin Yoshioka, Ai Weiwei and Bill Viola.
Entrance to the museum includes access to Tokyo City View, an observation deck on the 53rd floor of Mori Tower with near 360 degree views of Tokyo below. Those who prefer their views al fresco can pay an extra fee to go up to the Sky Deck one floor up.
Monjya Street is situated on the man-made island of Tsukishima and is the main hub for monjayaki restaurants in Tokyo. Here, over 70 of these restaurants jostle for attention, coming up with unique flavors for their monjayaki (a type of crispy pancake with various savory fillings). The monjayaki is served uncooked in most cases, and hungry diners must first cook their food using a grill at their table before enjoying the fruits of their labor.
Some of the restaurants only specialize in monjayaki, while others also sell other food items, such as yakisoba. Aside from the food, Tsukishima has some beautiful scenery and is a fascinating mix of the ancient and the modern, making it one of Tokyo’s most interesting neighborhoods.
Like much of the Roppongi neighborhood, the National Art Center is sleek and innovative. The museum, designed by Kisho Kurokawa was designed to look like a melting iceberg with waving blue glass walls.
This center is unique among Tokyo art museums in that, instead of maintaining a permanent collection, it is a revolving door venue for art exhibitions from around the world. It has the largest exhibition space of any museum in Japan and can hold up to ten exhibitions at a time although it's usually not completely full.
While some of the shows require admission there are usually a few free exhibitions at any given time. The building itself is worth exploring for its sleek architecture, public spaces and restaurants perched high on wooden pedestals. Check their website for a rundown of what's currently showing.
During springtime, the parks and green spaces in Tokyo and around Japan come to life with colorful pink blossoms. Springtime is cherry blossom season, and for the best viewing in the city, head to Chidorigafuchi. With walkways, bridges, pavilions and boats plying the waters of the surrounding moat, there are plenty of places to view the spectacle in April when the sakura cherry trees bloom.
Located along the edge of the Imperial Palace moat, Chidorigafuchi is also home to a National Cemetery where the remains of the thousands of unknown Japanese soldiers who died in World War II were laid to rest. Early April typically represents the peak of cherry blossom season, but in the days and weeks following, it often appears to be snowing as the trees begin to drop their blossoms. Even if you can’t make it during springtime, the park makes for a pleasant green escape from the city throughout the year.
Located on the former site of the Ministry of Defense in Roppongi, Tokyo Midtown opened in 2007 as a multi-use entertainment district complete with apartments, office space, restaurants, shops, museums and park space. Tokyo Midtown comprises six different towers. The luxurious Ritz Carlton Tokyo occupies the top floors of Midtown Tower, while the Galleria building houses a four-floor shopping complex and the Suntory Museum of Art. The complex is also notably home to 21_21 Design Sight, a design gallery and workshop space created by architect Tadao Ando and designer Issey Miyake.
Tokyo Midtown also features two green spaces. Hinokicho Park, a former Edo-era private garden, is now a Japanese-style garden open to the public. Neighboring Midtown Garden is a popular picnicking spot, especially in late March and early April when its cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Architecture buffs flock to Akasaka Palace, or the State Guest House, in Tokyo to admire the sole neo-Baroque-style Western building in all of Japan. Built in 1909 on the grounds of a famous Edo-era estate, the building was intended to be the Imperial Palace for the Crown Prince. By the mid-1900s, however, the palace had become the State Guest House, an official accommodation for visiting foreign dignitaries. Today, Akasaka Palace is a designated National Treasure of Japan and is open to the public in the summer months.
Since transitioning into the State Guest House in 1975, the palace has housed visiting monarchs, presidents and prime ministers from around the world, as well as political and diplomatic conferences and events. The building was constructed out of brick and reinforced by steel frames, making it thus far resistant to fires and earthquakes. It is one of Japan's best remaining examples of a Meiji-era structure.
Step back in time to the Edo period (1603-1857), one of Japan's most intriguing eras, at Edo Wonderland. This theme park recreates history in impressive and accurate detail with a replica Edo period town, complete with actors in period costumes, ninja demonstrations, period-appropriate architecture and theater performances featuring courtesans and feudal lords. Visitors can eat at restaurants selling Edo-style food, rent and purchase costumes to wear in the town and buy souvenirs related to the time period.
Some of the most popular attractions in town include the Haunted Temple, decorated with spirits and demons found in Japanese folklore, and the House of Illusions, filled with trick mirrors. Kids and adults alike enjoy the Ninja Trick Maze, a challenging labyrinth, Edo Wonderland is entertaining as it is a history lesson on an era that came to define Japan.
Tokyo City View Observation Deck may be the sleekest of the city's many observation centers. You can find it on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower, which is the centerpiece of the new and modern Roppongi Hills building complex. The Sky Gallery is a 360 degree panoramic observation room split into three separate sections. Gallery 1 offers a view of Tokyo Tower and Odaiba, Gallery Two showcases Yokohama and Mount Fuji and Gallery 3 overlooks Sibuya and Shinjuku. The cost of admission allows you to enter all three. For an extra fee it's possible to visit the Sky Deck, an even higher open air rooftop observation center.
Also included in the price of admission is entry to the adjacent modern art museum which spotlights a rotating series of exhibitions. If you have more money to spend there is a planetarium show as well as several bars and restaurants.
Even if you don't have a burning interest in Japanese architecture this open air museum of restored Meiji period buildings is a fun and offbeat way to spend an afternoon.
The buildings, spread out over many acres of parkland, are all authentic historical buildings either relocated or reconstructed from various places in Japan. This is one of the only places to see buildings of this style as most have been destroyed by redevelopment and earthquakes. There are middle class homes, bathhouses, working shops and restaurants, even the former residence of a prime minister. It's possible to explore both the inside and outside of many of the buildings, which are full of historical artifacts. The effect is surreal. Film buffs may find some of the buildings look familiar; Hayao Miyazaki visited here for inspiration when making the famous film Spirited Away.
If you're burned out from sightseeing and just want to kickback and have some fun like the locals do, you'll find what you're looking for at Tokyo Dome City, a massive entertainment complex in the Bunkyo district. The area's centerpiece is the Tokyo Dome: the world's largest roofed baseball stadium. The dome, also known as The Egg, is the home stadium of the Yomiuri Giants and Nippon Ham. It can seat up to 55,000 people, and often fills up for popular matches. If you have a chance, catching a game offers a uniqe insight into Japanese sports culture.
Also in the area you'll find a small but fun amusement park (the roller coasters are a highlight), an arena for boxing and martial arts known as Karakuen Hall, a 43-floor hotel, bowling center, shops and eateries. A recent addition is the LaQua Spa onsen complex.