Tokyo. The capital of Japan is an unmissable stop on a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. The largest city in the world, full of things to do and see, with almost 14 million inhabitants, mostly concentrated in the 23 special districts that we can consider “the center of Tokyo“. A group of districts, each with its own center and identity, amalgamated yet well defined.
A city that is a mix of tradition and modernity, where a thousand contrasts of Japan meet and mingle giving life to what is a city of a thousand faces, of things to do, of particular experiences, where everyone is able to satisfy his interests, whatever they are. In Tokyo there are traditional places, modern architecture, food, art, temples and video games. You can relax in nature or go shopping sprawling among the people. Whatever your interests are, in Tokyo is sure to find plenty of interesting things to do.
Outside this center there are others, let’s call them “sub-cities” which extend mainly in the western area up to the remote mountainous area of Okutama, but also in the sea, with the remote islands of Tokyo.
Usually, however, when you visit Tokyo, we refer precisely to the central area, where the main neighborhoods and must-see things are located. Although I always recommend exploring the less traveled areas and not following the flow of tourists, here a list of best things to do in Tokyo.
Asakusa and the Sensoji Temple
The gigantic lanterns and the red of Sensoji are the most classic and traditional images of Tokyo and one of the best things to visit in Tokyo. In Asakusa you can experience the traditional atmosphere without leaving the modern megalopolis. Ideal place for kimono rental and a rickshaw ride through its alleys full of small shops and culinary delights. A district that has developed around the oldest temple in the city, the Sensoji.
From its Kaminarimon Thunder Gate with the mighty 4-meter paper lantern, the long Nakamise-Dori street of sweets and souvenir shops takes you to the main hall of the Sensoji Temple, where you can buy lucky amulets, omamori, and draw your fortune card, omikuji.
If you are passionate about cooking, don’t miss Kappabashi, the street where you can buy bowls, cutlery, pans, knives, and everything related to kitchen utensils. It is also possible to create one of the famous plastic foods displayed in the windows of Japanese restaurants!
Akihabara, the paradise of anime and manga
Also known as Electric Town because it was once the place to find all the latest technological objects and above all, the components of the various gadgets, Akihabara today is an unmissable stop for all lovers of Japanese pop culture. Games, anime, manga, J-pop,…. In addition to many shops of action figures, manga-related merchandise, and finds from the dawn of technology (Super Potato is the perfect place for nostalgics of the first videogames), here you can they also find the maid cafè, cafes with hourly rates where you are served by girls dressed as waitresses (but there are also various “themes”) who, at the request of customers, engage in ballets inspired by idols. The food in these cafes is nothing exceptional, but the absurdity of the experience itself and above all observing the behavior of the Japanese patrons in suits who are exalted by dancing even lotus the stacchetti, is one of the things to do in Tokyo.
The Shibuya intersection and the Shinjuku lights
If thinking about the largest metropolis in the world, neon lights and crowds of people are what immediately leaps into your mind, the Shibuya and Shinjuku areas are the best places to visit in Tokyo to fully experience its modernity.
Shibuya is home to the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world and every day thousands of people meet in front of the statue of the dog Hachiko, whose story has moved the hearts of the whole world. Shibuya is the district of young people, full of shops and clubs aimed mainly at an audience of young adults.
Shinjuku, on the other hand, is the station that holds the record of annual number of passengers and is also one of the best areas to stay in Tokyo given the ease of reaching any area of Tokyo thanks to the many railway and subway lines that intersect here. Shinjuku is the city that never sleeps, the center of Tokyo’s nightlife with its neon lights and the (questionable) Kabukicho clubs. Stop at an izakaya, a sort of traditional inn where you eat and above all drink for a taste of Japanese nightlife, you can find many scattered throughout Shinjuku, but I recommend taking a stroll along Omoide Yokocho for some retro vibes. In Golden Gai, on the other hand, there are many micro-bars with very few seats. I absolutely recommend you to visit this area, but it is not certain that you will be able to have the opportunity to enter in one of these micro-bars because they don’t always accept foreigners, preferring instead Japanese customers who are used to paying the table-charge and who generally order several glasses of alcohol (unlike tourists who usually bring less income).
The western part of Shinjuku is called “Skyscrapers disctrict” because of its tall skyscrapers filled with offices. The ascent to the observatory on the 45th floor of the Metropolitan Government Building is free and offers a splendid view of the city, both day and night (open until 11.00 pm).
Harajuku and the Meiji Jingu Shrine
The emblem of Tokyo’s contrasts is found in Harajuku, an area famous above all in the 90s as the center of histrionic fashion for young Japanese people: lolita, gyaru, and the various cosplays that could be found along especially Takeshita-dori. This area is full of colorful shops and crazy foods, as well as countless animal cafes where you can pamper various animals, from classic cats to minipigs. There is also a bit of street art (in the area called Ura-Hara above all) and the large tree-lined avenue that is somewhat reminiscent of the Champs-Elysees continues to Omotesando and its elegant high fashion shops.
All this is located “in front” of the Harajuku station, while “behind” the station, there is an oasis of peace in which the city’s noses disappear muffled by the rustle of the branches of the trees donated from all over Japan to the Meiji Shrine, the most important Shinto Shrine in the city dedicated to Emperor Meiji (the one who “opened” Japan to the West) and his wife.
A huge torii portal welcomes the visitor and a walk in nature accompanies him to the main hall of the Sanctuary, where he can pray and write about the Ema, the wooden votive tablets, his own desire.
The most populous city in the world is also one of the greenest. There are many city parks and gardens where tourists and residents love to stroll. Many of these gardens originate in the feudal period and their beauty amazes and relaxes even today. There are gardens to admire while strolling, resting from time to time on the benches or in the tea houses or refreshment points, while in others you can lie down on the grass and rest or eat your snack, especially during the cherry blossom season.
Among the gardens of Tokyo, definitely worth visiting is the large Ueno Park, where in addition to the passing of the seasons there are also temples and shrines (including the Tosho-gu), a pond of water lilies and many museums, including the very rich National Museum.
Ueno park is also famous for the zoo with pandas, but personally this is not an attraction that I would recommend you to visit…. however pandas are a bit of Ueno’s symbol and for this you will find them represented a little ‘everywhere in the area, from train tracks to panda-shaped food.
Odaiba, Toyosu and the Teamlab Museum
To visit the newest and most technological Tokyo, take the Yurikamome, a driverless elevated train that passes through the buildings and on the Rainbow Bridge, before arriving at the artificial island of Odaiba. Here are several shops (I recommend taking a snack break on the fourth floor of Deck’s: Takoyaki Museum and Showa atmospheres!) A Statue of Liberty and a life-sized Gundam that does a small light show every two hours. There are also several museums, including the Miraikan, the museum of future sciences, where you can admire the progress of Japanese technology and the androids and the immersive museum Teamlab, the Japanese collective for its installations of lights and effects in which you immerse yourself literally.
Also here, there is also the Toyosu area, where the largest fish market has been moved and a short distance away, the Ariake and Harumi areas, the newest in the city, developed to host several Olympic venues for Tokyo 2020 and the same Olympic Village.
The two towers of Tokyo: Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower is one of the symbols of Tokyo. A structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower (but taller) and its unmistakable orange and white color. Born as a communications tower, it is now surrounded by tall buildings (including that hideous monster under construction destined to be the tallest skyscraper in Japan -.- “), but when you see it appear in the distance it is always exciting… a bit like when you can see Mount Fuji! Don’t miss to visit the nearby Zojoji, a very important temple where the funeral of former Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe was also held and where the Jizo statues dedicated to children are lined up never born or died prematurely.
If you want to see Tokyo from the top of a tower, I recommend the more modern Sky Tree, opened in 2012 and with a height of 634mt, a height that makes it the tallest tower in the world. The height is not accidental, but was choosen because reading the numbers with the second reading, we get “Musa(n)shi”, which was the ancient name of the region in which Tokyo is located.
Visit of the Imperial Palace
In what we can consider in some way the “Center of Tokyo” stands the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor resides and it is possible to attend his greeting twice a year: on January 2 for New Year’s greetings and on the day of his birthday (February 23). It is forbidden to enter the Imperial Palace, but it is possible to visit the internal courtyards by taking part in the free tours organized twice a day or to visit, always free of charge, the splendid East Gardens. If you happen to be in Tokyo during flowering, don’t miss Chidorigafuchi, the pond behind the Imperial Palace, which is one of the best and most popular places to see cherry blossoms in Tokyo.
Ginza, architecture and boutiques
Refined buildings designed by the best architects house high fashion shops and famous international brands. Even without shopping the expensive windows, taking a stroll through the posh Ginza district is a Tokyo must. Admire the elegance and attention that each shop offers to customers, as well as the interesting forms of modern buildings among which the traditional form of Kabiku-za, Tokyo’s famous Kabuki theater, stands out.
On Sundays the main street of Ginza is closed to traffic and walking around admiring the refined shop windows is definitely an experience to try in Tokyo and daydream a bit. In the area there are also several cafes and restaurants at affordable prices, but of very high quality.
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