A guide to cool and crazy Tokyo
Tokyo may be the capital of Japan, but it is also the capital of cool. Tokyo is known for its ultra-hip street style, eye-catching architecture and quirky nightlife. In Tokyo truly anything is possible.
The atmosphere and look of Tokyo are reminiscent of Manhattan, only many times bigger. Navigating this metropole, which spans over 800 square miles and has 13,5 million inhabitants can be an overwhelming experience. Luckily, Tokyo has an excellent metro system that will take wherever you need to go.
Next to the modern, high-tech side of Tokyo exists a traditional, peaceful side as well. The stark contrast can be felt in the many parks, shrines and temples nestled between skyscrapers and hidden behind busy streets. So take refuge there if the urban jungle starts to overwhelm you.
A bit more chaotic than the rest of Japan, Tokyo is still extremely well organised, safe and clean. The Japanese are a polite and hospitable people. There is no need to worry about getting ‘Lost in Translation’, these days plenty of Japanese speak a few words of English, especially those in tourism and hospitality positions. You will find them eager to help make your stay the best it can be.
Best place to stay in Tokyo:
A city as big and Tokyo has plenty of accommodations for all tastes and budgets. Finding the best place to stay in tokyo can be daunting. Airbnb has a large selection in Tokyo for groups or travellers looking for a bit more independence. The most popular area to stay is Shinjuku as it is conveniently located in the public transportation network, relatively affordable and a very fun neighbourhood. Budget travellers are better off looking for a hostel in Asakusa, the backpacker district.
Tokyo 5 day itinerary Day to day
It pays to rise early to watch a sumo wrestling training. Attending the training is free, and at Takasago Beya they are used to foreign tourists. After the practice, you can dive right into Tokyo’s tourist masses by visiting the Senso-Ji temple. This Buddhist temple is one of the most popular spots in Tokyo for both foreign and domestic tourists. Expect large groups of Japanese tourists in rented kimonos looking for the perfect photo spot. The large incense burner in front of the temple exudes smoke that can be rubbed onto the skin for blessings and good fortune.
Close to Senso-Ji lies a small market selling all kinds of trinkets as well as food. Stop at one of the sushi restaurants for a quick lunch. The conveyor belt style dining brings your food to your seat, and the plates are colour coded according to price.
Senso-Ji lies in the middle of Akasana, the popular backpacking district. This is noticeable from the large number of shops, hip bars and restaurants. Wander around and take in the bustle of tourists and locals.
Once you have looked around, take the metro to Tokyo National Museum. This classic museum has a wealth of traditional artefacts on display and offers a great introduction to Japanese culture and history.
River dinner cruises might be considered tacky in some places, but in Tokyo, they are the hight of sophistication. Locals enjoy them as well as tourists, and it is a great way to see a new side of the city.
Your second day requires an early rise to catch Tokyo’s iconic tuna auction. There are 120 spots available for visitors at the Tsukiji fish market, and tourists start lining up around 5 am for one of the coveted seats. There is no guarantee of a bidding war, but the fish themselves are an impressive sight. That sushi is not just for dinner or lunch is proven at the stalls around the market where the freshest breakfast sushi in the world is served.
To reward yourself for the early morning, head to Omotesando. This shopping street is nicknamed the ‘Champs Elysees’ of Tokyo due to the glamorous designer stored that line the road. A stark contrast to the expensive elegance of Omotesando is the Harajuku neighbourhood. This trendy neighbourhood is known for the edgy street-style and ‘Harajuku girls’ who can be seen walking around on Sundays. Cat street to the left of Omotesando and Harajuku to the right are treasure chests of vintage clothing and every hipster’s shopping dream. From Harajuku, it’s a short walk to Shibuya crossing. Pictures of this enormous intersection adorn travel websites all over the world. But it is even more impressive in person. The best view to watch the masses of people cross the street in all directions is from the second floor of the Starbucks café.
Once you are done shopping, you can sit down in Yoyogi park, a favourite among locals. The park is especially beautiful in the spring during the cherry blossom season. In the middle of the park stands the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine.
Head to Han no Daidokoro Kadochika for dinner. The chefs show off their skills by grilling the Kobe beef in front of you, making for an entertaining as well as a delicious meal.
Start your third day at the Edo Tokyo museum, which is dedicated to the history of Japan during the Edo period. The museum houses an interesting exposition including many scale models of towns and houses from that time.
In walking distance lies a beautiful art museum, the Sumida Hokusai museum. Sumida Hokusai is Japans most famous ukiyo-e artist, a genre of woodblock prints and paintings. The practice and history of ukiyo-e is a part of the museum’s permanent collections. His most famous painting ‘The Great Wave’ also hangs in the museum as well as a range of other prints and sketches from this world-renowned artist and his students.
On your way to the Sumida Hokusai museum stop at Ellie’s café for a coffee, piano music and perhaps a pair of shoes as they sell those as well.
After the museums, get a completely new perspective on Tokyo from atop the Tokyo Skytree. This digital broadcasting tower has a restaurant at 345 meters above ground providing you with excellent food and an even better view. Note that young children are not welcome at dinner and the lunch menu is significantly more affordable.
The art of origami is much more than simply folding paper. At Origami Kaikan you can take a course in this traditional Japanese art and learn more about the history.
Close to Origami Kaikan lies one the establishments of MOCHA, a chain of Cat Cafés. These cafés are incredibly popular in Japan. For a fee of 200 yen per 10 minutes, you can drink a hot beverage and play with the many cats in the café.
Escape the skyscrapers in Tokyo’s Imperial Gardens. Most of the walled-in premises are open to the public and entrance is free of charge. The beautiful garden is an oasis in the middle of the city and includes an orchard, iris ponds and some historical buildings. The park is reminiscent of Central Park in New York with office building and hotels rising behind the tree line. As all Japanese parks, it is impeccably maintained, and you might even spot some gardeners picking weeds by hand.
From the Imperial Garden, it is a short metro ride to Shinjuku, the beating heart of modern Tokyo. Walking around Shinjuku it is easy to feel like you’re in a sci-fi movie. Everywhere you look there are stores and restaurants piled on top of each other with bright neon billboards advertising everything from clothing to karaoke. If you take a peak down Kabukichu street, you may even catch a glimpse of a certain famous Japanese monster perched on top of the Gracery hotel.
The highlight of Shinjuku’s neon jungle is the Robot Restaurant. Entrance tickets are required for this one of a kind establishment where the entertainment is provided by bikini-clad women operating giant robots. A crazy night out is a given in Shinjuku, whether you choose to try your hand at karaoke or have a drink in Piss Alley. Officially this block of bars and restaurants is called Memory Lane and grew as a place for locals to dine and drink in post-war Japan. It is still more shabby than chic, with cheap alcohol and snacks and an authentic atmosphere. Adventurous eaters should try the bites served at ‘Morning Wood’ at their own risk.
Tokyo certainly has enough to keep you entertained, but for your last day, explore the surrounding area with a trip to Mt. Fuji. The famous dormant volcano is a striking sight and a one-hour bus drive from Shinjuku station. It offers a challenging two hike for experienced climbers during specific seasons. The best views of the mountain are seen by taking the cable car up Mount Tenjo at Lake Kawaguchiko. You can spend the day walking around the town and shopping for Fuji themed souvenirs. Families with your children can also visit the Fuji-Q theme park where you can ride a rollercoaster with Mount Fuji as an impressive backdrop.
Once you return to Shinjuku station, go shopping for quirky souvenirs at Tokyu hands, a multi-story warehouse that has, well, everything. The top floor houses an array of restaurants with different international cuisines. Without a doubt the best is Din Tai Fung, a chain of dumpling restaurants that serves Michelin worthy soup dumplings.
Tokyo at night
A huge number of restaurants, bars and clubs to choose from, means that Tokyo at night offers something for everyone.