In some respects, Tokyo is better thought of as a constellation of cities with a population of 13 million people. It is a hugely diverse metropolis spanning mountainous regions to the west with some of the busiest stations in the world to the east, and even within the 23 special wards each area has a very distinct feel and character. All of which means that working out where to go and what to see during your time in the capital can be a frustrating process. To give you a helping hand, below (in no particular order) are ten of the best Tokyo experiences.
1. View the City at Night
Tokyo’s numerous skyscrapers mean that the city can be viewed from just about any angle. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji, but night time without doubt provides the most memorable experience. There are several dedicated viewing decks dotted around the city (some free, some not) and many of the office blocks and commercial high-rises contain restaurants on the top floor with window facing counter seats so you can take in the warm glow of Tokyo Tower over dinner or a drink.
2. Enjoy the Gardens
Tokyo’s landscaped gardens are immaculately kept and glorious during the cherry blossom season and in autumn when the leaves turn red. Moreover, entrance is only a couple of hundred yen. See here for more details.
3. See the Sumo
From its rich history to the pre-bout pageantry, sumo is rightly Japan’s national sport. It has changed very little over the past 400 years, and watching from the seats of Ryogoku Sumo Hall is an unforgettable experience. Major tournaments, known as hon-basho, are held during the odd-numbered months and last for 15 days. Hon-basho are held in Tokyo in January, May, and September, with Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka hosting the event in the other months. See here for more details.
4. Breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
If you can take the early morning start then the tuna auction followed by a sashimi bowl in the outer market is the true way to see Tsukiji Fish Market. The wholesale market will move to Toyosu at some point in the future so this may be the last chance to hear the cries of the auctioneers in the market that has stood since 1935.
5. Meiji Shrine / Harajuku / Omotesando Dori
Meiji Shrine is one of the most famous and beautiful shrines in the capital and Omotesando Dori, the boulevard that was built to lead up to it, is one of the capital’s best shopping streets. This fashionable area of central Tokyo makes for an excellent day of exploring.
If you could only visit one place in old Tokyo it would have to be Asakusa: Senso-ji Temple is one of the city’s most iconic structures and the Five-Storied Pagoda at night is something to behold. Nakamise, which leads up to the temple, is one of Japan’s oldest shopping streets.
7. A Night under the Rail Tracks
Many of Tokyo’s train lines (in particular the famous Yamanote Line) run above ground, sometimes directly overhead. Eateries located under the rail tracks are known in Japanese as gado-shita (“under the girders”) and their shack-like appearance, complimented by plastic chairs and overturned crates, gives visitors a palpable sense of everyday life in the city. The one kilometer or so of track between Shimbashi and Yurakucho is one of the best areas for the gado-shita experience.
8. Drink in a Yokocho
These ramshackle drinking alleys can be found throughout the city. The most famous are Golden Gai, a motley collection of tiny bars known for their celebrity patronage and dilapidated appearance, and Omoide Yokocho, a small warren of yakitori eateries, but others such as Nonbei Yokocho in Shibuya arguably provide a more authentic experience. A good place to strike up a conversation with the locals.
With its neon lights, television billboards, pop music-playing public speakers, and constant throngs of people, Shibuya is the closest you’ll get to the stereotypical image of Tokyo. The scramble crossing outside the station—a four-way intersection into which hundreds of people collide when the traffic lights turn red—is reputedly the world’s busiest.
10. Relax at a Day Onsen
You don’t need to travel to regional Japan and the mountains to experience the hot springs. Although not particularly well publicized, Tokyo has many day onsen hidden in its backstreets. The fact that they are not always easy to find means they don’t often feature in guidebooks. But after a day on your feet sightseeing, lying in the natural spring water (clear, cloudy, amber-colored, and even jet black!) that flows into the baths is the perfect way to relax. See here for more details.