Japan: Part 1, Tokyo
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
I’ve always said to those around me that if I could have chosen one destination to sell outside Latin America, I would have gone for Japan in a heartbeat. Why? Japan has the most amazing wow factor of any country I’ve ever visited. Now that’s a big statement for someone in the travel industry, but believe me when I tell you that Japan really does deliver the most incredible experience. In Tokyo alone, I felt like I could have wandered aimlessly for days on end with no plan, yet each day would have brought something wonderful.
My original plan was actually to cover my entire Japan itinerary in one post, however I quickly realised that there is so much to go through that it would be wiser to break things up and focus on Tokyo to begin with. Therefore, in this post you’ll find some fun and varied ideas for what to do in Japan’s capital. My map below will help to give you an idea of what's where.
1 - Metropolitan Tower
I would avoid Tokyo Tower and instead head to the Metropolitan Tower in Shinjuku. The views are just as good and it’s free. With Japan being one of the most expensive countries I’ve ever visited, I can tell you that little savings like this can go a long way. On a good day also, you can catch a glimpse of sites such as Tokyo Tower and Mt. Fuji. Be aware though that only the South Observatory Tower is currently open. The North Observatory Tower is closed for renovations and is not due to re-open until January 2020.
Any extra tips?
Following your trip up the tower, head eastwards to Shinjuku Gyoen Park. It’s a 20 minute walk away, and if you’re still suffering from jet lag by this point, this gorgeous spot in the centre of Tokyo will provide a welcome retreat for an hour or two. After some downtime, head to the north of the park to amble through the Shinjuku Garden Greenhouse and admire the tropical flora, and if you head to the south side of the park you’ll find a wonderful little pagoda at the edge of a pond in which to relax.
2 - Robot Restaurant
How can I describe this place? I doubt there is anywhere else you will visit in Tokyo (and maybe the whole of Japan) that is as great a sensory overload as the Robot Restaurant. It's a hugely entertaining place though, and is a must-do for anyone looking for the weird and crazy side to Tokyo.
Walking through the entrance, you’ll immediately see giant robot chairs on the side where restaurant goers can sit for a photo before making their way downstairs. In the lower section you’ll find every colour of the rainbow with mirrors and TV screens all around, accompanied by pumping J-Pop, strobe lighting, and choreographed dancers and robots. As I’ve said, this place is absolutely insane but well worth doing. Just note that anyone suffering from epilepsy should steer well clear.
3 - Golden Gai
An absolute must-do is a visit Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, a series of 3/4 alleyways running parallel to one other, each of which has rows of tiny and characterful little bars (some of which seat only 4-5 people!). The beauty of this place is that no 2 bars are the same, and if you pop your head inside you’ll notice that each has its own story to tell. All bars list the cover charge (if applicable) on their doors, and you’ll find this to be the perfect place to grab a drink and unwind over a chat with fellow travellers and locals. Back out on the street, the nest of old telephone wires hanging overhead amidst the flickering lights makes for a great photo. Even if you don’t fancy a drink, I’d highly recommend a night-time wander around this fascinating little district.
4 - Shibuya Crossing
For a view of the world’s busiest crossing, head to Shibuya for the famous Shibuya Crossing. ‘The Scramble’ plays host to over 1,000 pedestrians at peak times, and is one of Tokyo’s most visited spots. It’s also appeared in several films, including 2003’s Lost In Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson . You’ll find tourists photographing this crossing from every possible angle, which is a challenge in itself as it is absolutely massive.
Any extra tips?
I recommend that you head to the busiest Starbucks in the world in the Q1 building to appreciate the enormity of this crossing. If you fancy a more bird’s eye view, head to the roof terrace in Magnet shopping complex. It costs ¥300 to access the terrace, but you will be well rewarded with the views.
However, in addition to any photography I strongly recommend you cross this intersection yourself to get a feel for the sheer number of pedestrians here. If it’s raining though, you’ll have to do some serious umbrella dodging.
5 - Asakusa
One of Tokyo’s oldest districts, Asakusa is home to the famous Sensoji Temple, a fabulous sight and well worth a visit. Be prepared though, to reach here you’ll have to patiently work your way through the little pedestrian intersection, either side of which is lined with stalls selling t-shirts, postcards, street food and a variety of other souvenirs. You’ll find plenty of rickshaws this historic district of Tokyo also, so if you fancy a little tour of the neighbourhood whilst resting your feet, this is certainly something to consider.
Any extra tips?
I would strongly suggest that you visit Tokyo Kart for an incredibly fun go karting ride around the streets of Tokyo! After a safety demonstration, you’ll each don a onesie depicting characters from the Super Mario series before hopping into your go kart for an exciting convoy drive round the city. Be prepared to be waved at by many of the locals, but don’t use your horn. Drivers rarely beep as it is considered impolite. Even if you’re not an experienced driver like me though, one of the school's instructors will take you through various safety procedures and the meaning behind the road signs. Take comfort in the fact also that the Japanese are renowned as safe drivers. Whilst the day drive we did was great fun, why not consider a night-time drive to really catch Tokyo and its city lights at its finest? Just don’t go throwing banana skins behind you or driving over road markings expecting a turbo boost.
**Be aware that in order to do any go karting in Tokyo, in addition to your drivers’ licence, you must have an international drivers’ permit. This permit can only be obtained in your home country, and you must bring a passport-sized photo in addition to your drivers’ licence. In the UK at least, you can arrange to purchase this international permit on the day through most larger post offices.**
6 - Toyosu Fish Market
If you’re looking for something really local, I’d strongly recommend a visit to Toyosu Market. This is Japan’s largest fish market, and 5.30am every day, restauranteurs gather at the auction to bid for the freshest catches from all over Japan. The experience is very different to nearby Tsukiji, where the market used to take place, as Tsukiji’s nest of alleyways and tightly-nit stalls gave some real old-world charm. However, as a result of Tsukiji’s air-conditioning system struggling to cope in the summer heat (the market here opened in 1935) and with property developers eager to move in on Tsukiji, the decision was made to move to Toyosu.
The experience at Toyosu is quite different, with all fresh catches laid out in a large, state-of-the-art distribution centre. Whilst tourists are not allowed to walk through the centre, you can grab a free ticket to the upper-floor observation windows to watch the action commence. You aren’t able to hear anything in the observation deck, but it's been rumoured that from the end of 2019, microphones will be installed for you to hear the sounds of the market at auction time. If you want to head to the observation deck, I would suggest that you get there early though to make sure you get a good view of the proceedings. If you’d like to be closer to the action, perhaps apply for a lottery ticket to watch the proceedings from ground level. Click here for more information on this.
Any extra tips?
In addition to visiting Toyosu Market, I suggest you jump on the subway for a 15-minute trip to Tsukiji to get a comparison of the two areas. Despite the fish market moving away from here, the outer market that sells cooking utensils and delicious fresh seafood has remained in Tsukiji. Wander the nest of alleyways here before popping into a local eatery for a bowl of fresh yellowfin tuna and sticky rice accompanied by a cup of matcha tea. If you’re looking for a souvenir or two, the local shops that I mentioned above spill out onto the street with all sorts of goodies. I managed to pick up some beautiful lacquered wooden bowls and chopsticks - a lovely gift for friends and family back home.
7 - Akihabara
Head to Akihabara to see the massive array of department stores dedicated to anime, manga and arcade gaming, each of which are favoured Japanese past times. The lights are as bright outside as the noise is loud inside the arcada department stores, but it’s a real experience and if you visit at night, you’ve got a whole world of photo opportunities. The area is also well known for its Maid Cafes which I personally wasn’t a fan of, however you will find plenty of these dotted throughout this district.
Any extra tips?
I recommend you head into one of the stores and grab a headset to try some VR (virtual reality) gaming. It doesn't matter if you aren't into gaming - you’ll just me all the more amazed at how far technology has come! Whether you’re fighting your way round a spaceship, playing golf or walking a tightrope between two scyscrapers, there are few better countries in the world in which to experience this.
8 - The Imperial Palace
Incorporate a bit of history during your stay with a visit to The Imperial Palace, situated on an island in the centre of Tokyo. Covering over 2 square miles, you have The Imperial Palace in the west, where the imperial family lives, and The East Gardens, where you will find Edo Castle (Edo was the former name for Tokyo). Like Shinjuku Gyoen Park, this area is a lovely spot to walk around for an hour or two to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, and will most provide a fascinating contrast to other famous castles like those in Kyoto and Himeji that you may visit later on in your trip. If you’re lucky enough to visit during Cherry Blossom season in April though, head to Kitanomaru Park in the north of the island and follow the Chidorigafuchi walking path. Here you’ll see the cherry blossom bursting forth from the trees on either bank of the moat.
9 - Mt. Fuji (not on map)
The official climbing season for Mt. Fuji is from July to August, and you may wish to avoid visiting Tokyo during these months anyway due to the sweltering heat in summertime. Also, if you visit out of climbing season, it’s hardly a loss as the most impressive aspect of Mt. Fuji is seeing it from afar. If you fancy a day trip out of Tokyo, take a bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal to Lake Kawaguchi. From here, head to Chureito Pagoda for one of the most photographed - but admittedly hugely impressive - views of Mt Fuji.
Ultimately, Tokyo is huge city with an incredible amount to offer, and anyone who has visited would almost certainly state that my list contains just a fraction of what Tokyo has to offer. However, hitting these main highlights will offer a real variety of experiences during your time in Japan's capital, and I'm sure you will leave with many fond memories.
I'll begin work soon on the next part of my trip, which was Kyoto, Japan's former capital. Keep an eye on things here, and let me know below if you have any must-do activities in Tokyo.
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