Tokyo is what you expect of every modern capital – it is loud, it is colorful, it is electric and it is new. But it is also quiet in-between the gleaming skyscrapers and rushed cars, traces of history persist in retro hair salons, the tinkle of wind chimes and the elderly shop keeper shuffling around her tiny work space. Pair this softness with the dignity maintained in preserved shrines and the rules that govern everyday interaction; you’ll find that Tokyo is balanced. Tethered by historical remembrances and forward-facing attitude, this city oscillates between times.
Areas to Explore: Attractions & Things to Do
CENTRAL TOKYO encompasses several districts, including the stately avenues around Tokyo Station, Akihabara’s digital and 2D collections, upscale Ginza, canal-speared Kanda and Kagurazaka. The crowning jewel however, is the royal residence of the Emperor.
Tokyo Station – A landmark of red brick and western design, Tokyo Station exudes an air of solid strength. All roads that lead to Tokyo converge in this hulking building.
Tokyo Imperial Palace and Gardens – Tread where the imperial family of Japan lives; the moat-protected Imperial Palace and elegantly maintained gardens. To access restricted areas, join a guided tour and learn more about the Chrysanthemum throne.
Tokyo Dome – An impressive stadium that houses a veritable city of hotels, amusement parks, concert venues and more entertainments, Tokyo Dome can be picked out from miles away. Home to baseball team Yomiuri Giants, only premiere artists get to feature in its 55,000-capacity stadium.
Nihonbashi – Named after its 17th century trademark canal bridge, this quarter lives up to its namesake in strong architectural lines and sturdy presence. Matching strides with Tokyo Stock Exchange, Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi department store and CoredoMuromachi mall tends towards the modern and stylish in both cuisine and commercial pursuits.
Yurakcho – You can taste the tender grill on your tongue by virtue of simply walking through Yurakcho’s underpass food streets. Spilling out of narrow alleys is boisterous chatter loud enough to drown out the train roaring above the cozy eateries. Yurakcho is izakaya-hopping done right.
Kagurazaka – Traces of its Meiji roots remain in the pebbled pavements, back alleys and traditional cuisines present in Kagurazaka. Spirally out from the main street are reminders of previously existing teahouses, lacquerware stores mingling with European café restaurants in a fusion of appetites.
Ginza – Ginza does glitz and glam like nobody’s business. The sleek, luxury-branded Ginza Six and landmark WAKO mall labels Ginza as high-end, but not tastelessly so!
Akihabara – Celebrating popular culture is the vibrant and eccentric Akihabara, home to gamers, avid anime consumers and treasure cove of collectibles. Relive your childhood at old-school arcades or empty out your wallet for that limited idol figurine.
Jimbocho – The scent of books and aged parchment is infused in almost every shop in Jimbocho district. Literary relics, vintage movie posters and dated records inhabit hundreds of bookstores in this area, carving out a nook of pensive silence in an otherwise busy city.
ASAKUSA proves to be the merchant hub of Edo Tokyo, retaining much of its wood-awning covered streets, craft specialty shops and cultural sense. Amid the appreciative crowds and kimono-made tourists taking in the old-timey ambiance is the fiery Sensoji Temple, tempered by nearby Sumida River. Before night falls, take a twirl around Tokyo’s oldest Hanayashiki Amusement Park or hit up KappabashiDogu-gai for some kitchenware shopping. Under the veil of night, raise a toast at any outdoor yakitori restaurant before crossing Sumida River towards SkyTree Tower.
Sensoji Temple – Encased between the crackling Kaminarimon “Thunder” Gates is Tokyo’s oldest temple. A proud visage of red, Sensoji Temple marks the center of Asakusa. Adjacent Nakamise Shopping Street similarly recalls eras long gone, this orderly block of shops selling not only cutesy trinkets, but also traditional kaminariokoshisnacks. Rent a kimono and slip into the persona of another time.
Sumida River – Short cruises and relaxing walks will take you along Sumida River, providing a measure of peace after long hours of visual bombardment.
SkyTree Complex – Cross Sumida River and follow the towering beacon that is SkyTree Tower. Its double observatories sit at 350-meters and 450-meters high, offering resplendent sights across Tokyo city.
Edo-Tokyo Museum – Located at nearby Ryogoku is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, ready to impart history through 3D rendering and life-sized imitations of the average living quarters and food establishment. Interactive displays let you experience the weight of a merchant’s load and hard labor.
RyogokuKokugikan – The Sumo stadium isn’t just open for wrestling tournaments; you can sign up for tours of the wrestling stables where professional sumo wrestlers practice. There’s also an attached museum for your perusal.
YANEZEN and UENO exude a more nature-loving charm, cocooned by leafy canopies and slow-moving residential hubs. Charming Yanazen is comprised of three neighborhoods in a network of shrines-turned-cemeteries, whereas nearby Ueno is a sprawling recreational space.
Yanaka – Nowhere speaks of more tranquility than Yanaka, a neighborhood untouched by wars and the Great Kanto Earthquake. Low-lying cables skim the squat buildings, whether cozy homes or the pebble-lined Yanaka-Ginza Shopping Street. You’ll feel at home amid cat motifs, wood-bound cafés, small handicraft stores and family-run restaurants.
Nezu Shrine – A lesser-known shrine recognized for its likeness to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari-taisha, a miniature toriigate path threads through its forested border.
Ueno Park – Describing Ueno Park as an open air recreational space seem inadequate. While you can expect the tree-lined squares, decorative fountains and padded pond, Ueno Park also houses Tokyo National Museum, Toshogu Shrine, Ueno Zoo, the National Museum of Western Art and other attractions. It is particularly popular for cherry blossom viewing.
HARAJUKU, SHINJUKU, SHIBUYA are undisputable fashion and youth culture centers of Tokyo. Eclectic collections dominate the streets, while department stores range from trendy fashions to high-end goods. Music bars, thriving clubs and karaoke rooms coexist alongside revered shrines and tranquil parks.
Yoyogi Park & Meiji Shrine – Two-in-one attraction, Yoyogi Park’s spacious walkways are shaded under leafy canopy where they lead towards Meiji Shrine. Pray for health and fortune at the iconic Meiji Shrine.
Takeshita Shopping Street – A wacky collection of edgy clothing and accessories spill out onto Harajuku’s main shopping street, featuring equally dynamic themed cafés.
Omotesando – Adjacent to Harajuku’s main shopping block is the slightly more upscale Omotesando, boutique shops featuring concept brands, thrift items, leather goods and higher-end chain stores.
Shinjukugyoen Park – Acting as a green oasis outside of Shinjuku’s main bustle, Shinjukugyoen Park offers up sprawling English lawns, carefully landscaped French Gardens and a beautifully crafted Japanese traditional garden.
Shinjuku shopping – Huge shopping malls steal the show; take your pick of Lumine EST, KEIO Mall, Shinjukusubnade, Odakyu Department Store, Marui, NEWoMan and Mylord.
Shibuya Crossing – One of the most photographed places in Tokyo, Shibuya Crossing exhibits the city craze as people hurry to their destinations.
Shibuya shopping – More shopping can be found in Shibuya, including Shibuya 109, Hikarie Mall and shops lining its main streets.
Other neighborhoods to explore include Ebisu, Daikanyama, Meguro, and Shimokitazawa, hipster hubs of boutiques, comfortable cafés, canal walks and small eateries.
Things to Eat
Ramen, tempura, yakitori, shabu-shabu, soba, donburi, katsudon… there’s so much to eat in Tokyo. Bringing in samples from every region and a multitude of foreign cuisines, the city caters to all tastes and budget ranges.
Don’t just make reservations at Michelin-starred restaurants because family-run restaurants hand down generations of secret recipes. For a unique live-like-a-local experience, eat under the tracks!Yurakcho, Kanda and Kichijoji’s underpass food streets bring the community together.
Best Time to Visit
As a city that experiences all four seasons, Tokyo’s innumerable charms change with the weather. Peak travel seasons tend to coincide with the blossoming of spring flowers and the fiery brush of autumn, but Christmas cuts in as a surprising contender as well. Summer is oft overlooked due to a sharp spike in temperature, but clear skies open up a myriad of outdoor activities.
There is no best time to visit, because Tokyo caters to every preference. If you are intending on travelling during the peak months around Easter, October to November, Christmas and New Year however, do book ahead for quality accommodation at reasonable price.
Do’s and Don’ts
Visitors are hardly expected to know Japan’s strict social etiquette, but here are a few key tips to smooth your way:
- Silence is golden especially on public transportation. It’s not pleasant to have people shouting over your heads in a cramped environment, and Tokyo-lites are notorious for keeping order. Phone calls should be taken outside of trains.
- Be patient and don’t push your way through crowds or fight your way to the head of the queue. Your turn will come.
- Don’t blow your nose in public as it shows a lack of hygiene awareness. Excuse yourself to the bathroom, of discreetly sniffle at a handkerchief.
- Say “thank you” and treat everyone with respect. Acknowledge others with a nod of the head, or a shallow bow.
- You may notice how there’s a startling lack of rubbish bins in such as clean city; people keep their trash with them to discard at home or at convenience stores. Recycling plays a big part in their daily lives.
- Note when it is required to take off your shoes, such as when entering someone’s house, traditional inns and certain restaurants.
- There is no tipping culture; Japanese people pride themselves in quality service. Some restaurants may include a 10% service charge and leave it at that.