Best things to do in Tokyo
Find out more about those top places in Tokyo
As the largest city on earth, Tokyo is the world’s beating heart. With more than eight million people living in the city center, and nearly forty million in the Greater Tokyo Area, the city is unsurprisingly a sprawling metropolis. More than any single attraction, it is Tokyo itself that enthralls visitors with its unrivaled vibrancy and diversity. While traces of old Japan are still visible if you look hard enough, the city is thrillingly modern. A highlight of Tokyo is the LED-lit Shinjuku entertainment district that offers an overwhelming array of high-class cocktail lounges, grungy dive bars, traditional Japanese taverns and in your face karaoke lounges. What is more, Tokyo is a remarkably affordable city with tickets to sumo wrestling and kabuki plays costing little and the vast Tsukiji Market is home to mouth watering street food that goes for bargain prices.
There is no experience on earth like a sensory overloading night out in Shinjuku. Perpetually neon-lit and packed with a dazzling array of weird and wonderful bars and karaoke joints, the area has something for everyone. For an unforgettable experience, head to Golden Gai, which is an enclave of eccentric tiny bars (many are no bigger than a couple of stools) that are popular with Tokyo’s alternative crowd of artists, writers and other bohemian characters.
The most famous temple in Tokyo if not all of Japan is Senso-ji, which is entered through the iconic Kaminari-mon. While the temple has origins in the 7th century AD, much of what stands today was built following World War Two as the ancient wooden structure was badly damaged during Allied firebombing campaigns. For the best experience arrive early in the day or late in the evening when the crowds of pilgrims who arrive to pray at the gold-clad image of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, have died down.
Constructed in the 1920s to commemorate the rule of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who transformed Japan from an isolationist and feudal state into a rapidly modernizing nation, Meiji-jindu is one of Tokyo’s most atmospheric Shinto shrines. While the shrine itself is impressive, it is currently undergoing renovations preparing for its 100th anniversary so the best way to experience the complex is by exploring its immaculate gardens, which were designed by the emperor himself.
One of Japan’s most treasured cultural exports are the breathtakingly animated films of Miyazaki Hayao, who founded the world-famous Studio Ghibli. At the studio’s museum you can explore the processes behind the production of iconic works such as Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away and more. The museum is one of Tokyo’s most popular attractions with tickets selling out months in advance so make sure to plan ahead.
While what remains of the complex is a mere fraction of its original extent, Tokyo’s imperial palace remains one of Japan’s most impressive attractions. The palace grounds can be explored freely and are the best place to admire its imposing stone walls and watchtowers while the interiors can only be visited as part of a guided tour, as much of the area remains the royal family’s private residence.
Arrive early in the day to sample the culinary delights of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. Despite the fact that the city’s main wholesale market has now moved location, the historic stalls at Tsukiji remain the best place to sample Japan’s finest seafood ranging from sea urchins to poisonous puffer-fish and the impressively large giant tuna. For the best experience, take a walking tour of the buzzy market where you will get to sample classical Tokyo gastronomy in the area’s best restaurants.
If you can tear yourself away from the allure of the world’s largest metropolis then the best day trip from Tokyo is to the iconic Mount Fuji, which is the de facto emblem of the Japanese nation. The mountain has a number of well maintained hiking paths that lead to the summit, which can be reached in roughly five hours. For those who do not want to hike, admiring the view from base camp is worth the trip alone.
No trip to Tokyo would be complete without experiencing the flamboyant and dramatic art form of kabuki theater. The best place to see these shows is at the historic Kabukiza where plays are spread over an entire afternoon or evening. While shows are entirely in Japanese, Kabukiza is one of the few theaters in Japan that offers moment by moment English translations through state-of-the-art headsets usually used by diplomatic translators. For the best experience, reserve tickets well in advance for premium seats.