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.
Shinagawa is smaller than some of the aquariums in Tokyo, but it's full of interesting exhibits and is a great way to spend a few hours. There are over 300 species of sea life divided into sea-surface and sea-floor exhibits. The centerpiece of the aquarium is a domed tunnel that winds through a massive tank, letting visitors experience full immersion while staying completely dry. The sheer amount and variety of fish is mind boggling.
Some of the best parts of the aquarium are the aquatic mammal exhibits. It's delightful to watch the animals play in the spotted seal observation building. There are also dolphin and sea lion shoes daily where you can watch the mammals jump and do tricks. Be careful though- the front rows will get soaked! If you're brave enough to sit up close you can buy a poncho to keep you dry.
Known colloquially as NMW, this government owned museum focuses on acquiring and displaying prominent western artwork. In keeping with this theme the squat reinforced concrete main building was designed by the famous french architect Le Corbusier. It's the only one of his designs in the Far East and is a provisional UNESCO site.
The museum exhibits works ranging from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. In the main building you'll find paintings from the 18th century and earlier. The New Wing houses more modern paintings, as well as the drawings and prints collections. The collection includes greats like Monet, Miro and Van Gogh as well as more lesser known artist. Scattered around and outside of the museum are fifty sculptures by Rodin.
Across the bay from Tokyo Disneyland you will easily spot the distinctive glass dome of the city's largest aquarium. Located in Kasai Rinkai park, this government run aquarium is an inexpensive alternative to some of the city's flashier sea parks while still being quite impressive in its own right.
The exhibits each focus on sea life from a different environment: the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and an extensive exhibit on the local Tokyo Bay. In the watery blue depths you'll encounter giant spider crabs, deep sea isopods, hammerhead sharks and more. There's an enormous theater style tuna exhibit. Outside of the water you'll encounter a waterbird sanctuary featuring puffins and a fun penguin exhibit. The park is also oddly home to Japan's largest Ferris Wheel.
If you find the site of animals in small cages depressing, Tama Zoological park, one hour outside of Tokyo, will perk you right up. Spread out over 129 acres, animals are free to roam in spacious naturalistic habitats. It's a great place to observe native Japanese animals like macaques, Sika deer and Yezo brown bears as well as more exotic species from around the world.
The zoo is split into four major sections: the Asiatic Garden, African Garden, Australian Garden and Insectarium. Tokyo has a special relationship with its international twin area of New South Wales, so the Australia section is particularly well outfitted with koalas, kangaroos and more. Other highlights include a reproduction Asian swampland, a successful elephant breeding program and a lion bus which allows visitors to view the lions in a safari setting.
Home to Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, Haneda is one of two major airports serving the Tokyo area. Several low-cost carriers also call this transport hub home, but travelers report some difficulty in finding affordable flights in and out of Haneda. Still, efficient immigration and close proximity to city center make it one of the busiest airports in Asia.
Haneda has three terminals, two of which are connected by underground walkways. A free bus carries travelers between main terminals and smaller jet bridges every five minutes, insuring a smooth transition from the building to the gates.
Terminals 1 and 2 are home to dozens of shops, open-air restaurants and even an observation deck, providing the perfect escape for travelers facing long layovers. (Terminal 2 even has a hotel for those who get stranded by canceled flights.)