Today’s restless metropolis began life as a humble fishing village called Edo (“Mouth of the Estuary”). The city’s founding date is usually given as 1457 when lord Ota Dokan built his castle on a bluff overlooking the river. Despite two major disasters, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that devastated half of Tokyo, and World War II where hundreds of thousands were killed, the city has transformed itself into a dizzying bundle of sights and sounds and it’s not surprising there are too many places to visit in Tokyo to tackle in one visit.
Tokyo is a vibrant city and there are many places to visit in Tokyo all-year-round. From the most famous landmarks in Japan to Owl Cafes and Ninja Restaurants, Tokyo is vibrant and full of life. You won’t be wondering what to do in Tokyo for long.
- 10 Places to visit in Tokyo
- What To Eat In Tokyo
- Nightlife in Tokyo
- When to visit Tokyo
- How to get around Tokyo
10 Places to visit in Tokyo
1- Tokyo Tower
From the 250-meter high vantage point at Tokyo Tower, the city sprawls endlessly in every direction spreading as far as the eye can see.
Distant skyscrapers lean into the sky and modern highways crisscross in a web of confusion.
The atmosphere sizzles and crackles with electricity.
It is fast and furious and filled with the sheer energy of 13 million human beings living, breathing and thinking in 2187 square kilometres of space.
2- Tokyo’s Gardens
It might come as a surprise to some that Tokyo contains many beautiful gardens that were once part of the estates of wealthy daimyo (lords).
Some of these gardens are hidden on the grounds of the city’s prestigious hotels and restaurants.
Others are secluded behind the walls of temples, shrines and former estates.
There is one very special garden on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.
Shaped by a harmonious blend of Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto traditions, Japanese gardens are mystical ancient places.
The natural forms of their rocks, plants, trees, and ponds create a peaceful haven for spiritual meditation and quiet contemplation, and their gentle beauty serves as a soothing refuge from the hectic pace of the city.
Two such gardens are Happo-en (garden that is beautiful from any angle) and Cinzanso (House of Camelia).
An adviser to the shogunate, Hikozaemon Okubo, lived at Happo-en gardens during the early seventeenth century.
Take a turn through its twisting pathways and pass 200-year-old bonsai trees and a central pond full of plump golden Koi.
Nestled amidst the trees is the delightful teahouse where visitors can partake in a traditional tea ceremony and learn that the art of drinking tea is as important as the art of brewing it.
The Chinzan-So garden makes use of the undulating topography of the grounds of the Four Seasons Hotel.
Stroll along the winding path to encounter various historic relics such as the 16th century Stone statues of Rakan which were carved in the images of Buddha’s priests, the serene Shiratama Inari shrine and a 3 story pagoda built 1000 years ago without the use of a single nail.
There are massive department stores and dazzling lights in the Ginza, Tokyo’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue.
If money is no object, arcades in the big hotels, such as the Imperial, Okura and New Otani, provide luxury gifts from Mikimoto pearls to Arita porcelain.
Asakusa is another area worth visiting, as it offers rows of shops selling traditional crafts among all its touristy souvenirs.
It also provides a charming and quaint environment to shop in.
Not far from the Ginza, Akihabara boasts several city blocks of Tokyo’s biggest concentration of stores selling electronic goods and gadgets alfresco-style along the pavement.
It can be bewildering with the big stores split into several outlets, each one a mega store of its own, with up to seven floors apiece selling everything from pocket calculators to electronic pets and plasma TVs.
There are also plenty of discount stores in Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro offering competitive, sometimes even cheaper prices, so it’s important to shop around and, though you might not get it, always ask for a discount.
If you’re fascinated by Sumo wrestling, attending a grand tournament is an exciting thing to do in Tokyo but they are held at certain times of the year.
If you’re not visiting during tournament time, look for the Sumo training houses in the Ryogoku area.
Some of the training sessions are open to the public.
It’s a good way to get a closer look at this centuries-old Japanese tradition.
6- Toyosu Fish Market
The famous Tsujiki Fish Market closed in October 2018 and has moved to a different location.
Now known as the Toyosu Fish Market, gone is the chaos of the messy and noisy Tsujiki.
Toyosu is well organised, with direct access from the station and well-marked out areas with tuna displayed behind glass.
There’s a tuna auction section as well as a general fish market.
Toyosu market is open from 5 am to 5 pm (closed on Sundays).
7- Shibuya Crossing
Take a selfie as you scramble across the Shibuya Crossing along with hundreds of thousands of people.
The crossing is the busiest in the world and is bedlam when the lights turn green.
Halloween is a fun time to visit when thousands of people gather dressed in costumes.
Another reason to visit Shibuya is one of the trendy places to visit in Tokyo and home to contemporary culture in Japan.
Akihabara is the place to go if you’re keen on Japan’s Otaku culture and electronic products.
Otaku culture encompasses electronics, gaming and anime but even if you aren’t, walking the streets of Akihabara is entertainment itself.
The area is also home to the strange phenomenon of Maid Cafes, where waitresses dress up in cutesy maid uniforms.
Head to Harajuku’s boutiques and malls to shop for trendy fashion.
Takeshita Street is the place for teenage fashion while Omotesando Meiji Streets are where you’ll find major malls like PARCO and Tokyu Plaza.
It’s also worth taking a Harajuku pop and fashion culture tour to help you understand some of the weird sights.
10- Kanda-Miojin shrine
If you’re in Tokyo at the right time, take yourself to the Kanda-Miojin shrine where the Setsubun Festival will take place.
You can get there by train with a Japan Rail Pass and do ask for help at the station if you need it.
The Setsubun festival ushers in spring and good luck and shoos away winter blues and past misfortune.
To do so, families, corporations and all those who can skip work (it is not a national holiday) gather at various shrines and other locations to re-enact an old, rural tradition: throwing roasted beans to the four corners of the compass shouting ‘Evil spirits, go away!’.
In the past, the patriarch of the family would don a devil or ogre mask and the children would chase him, throwing beans at him.
Nowadays, people go to organised sessions where celebrities, cheerleaders in manga costume and corporations throw beans (in neat little pouches) and sweets from a balcony or raised platform to the crowds below.
You’ll be amazed at the orderly fashion in which this ceremony takes place.
A certain number of people are allowed into rope enclosures every few minutes, so everybody has a chance to catch some bounty.
The opening parade is the eeriest as Edo period uniformed Firemen file in chanting old and haunting songs.
It is also very reassuring to see JAL pilots and crew at the balcony throwing beans to the crowd and thus assuring another year free of misfortune.
What To Eat In Tokyo
Eating out at one of the numerous local restaurants is an experience and not as much of challenge as it used to be.
Although very little English is spoken, ordering via tablet has bridged the language gap.
Cheap Eats in Tokyo
There are plenty of local fast food options.
Ramen noodle shops and tempura shops are the staple of students and offer delicious, quick and inexpensive fillers.
Japanese-style lunch houses can be found everywhere in the city.
Lunch sets, typically around $15 are a bargain and usually include a drink, salad and entree.
A more leisurely traditional set lunch at one of the many gardens is a little more costly yet peaceful and relaxing experience.
Fine Dining in Tokyo
The Sony store combines food and shopping with Japanese precision.
It is laid out over seven themed-floors with a couple of restaurants on each floor starting with the very expensive Maxim’s on the ground floor, yes the same as in Paris.
Even the Japanese waiters speak French with reasonably authentic accents.
Kobe beef is a legendary delicacy of Japan, a type of beef that is so well marbled that it flies right off the charts for prime grading in any other country.
It tastes smooth, velvety and sweet with a subtle savoury tang that lingers on the palate like a rare perfume, the beef version of a melting moment.
It costs an obscene amount of money per kg because the cows are fed on beer and massaged individually.
Cat and owl cafes
Tokyo has an amazing array of world-class restaurants and surprisingly good underground eateries (literally underground, as there are kilometres of underground wide, sparklingly clean arteries connecting platforms.
It also has crazy themed cafes such as the Owl Café, where you share space with startled looking owls, and Cat Cafés, where you can pet the felines that leap onto your lap.
It also has Ninja restaurants in a maze of dark passageways populated by pretend ninjas who might attract the young.
If you want to experience a Japanese traditional dinner (in the old Kyoto kaiseki style) but without the rituals and in a vibrant atmosphere, try Giro Giro in the old quarter of Kagurazaka, Shinjuku (Giro Giro Kagurazaka Daily 5.30 pm to 12 am).
Fixed degustation menu of ten dishes at 4500 yen per person 5-30 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku. Reservations: 03-3269-8010. Nearest Station: Ushigome Kagurazaka (Oedo Line) Kagurazaka (Tozai Line) Iidabashi (JR Chuo Line).
This location is quaint and unexpected being as it is so near the high rises of Shinjuku but it looks like Kyoto’s Gion district with cobbled streets, dark little lanes and fleeting sightings of geisha on assignment.
Many Italian and French Michelin starred restaurants are located here too.
Giro Giro (sometimes spelled Guilo Guilo) is on a quiet, very narrow alley lined by small lights on the ground.
Once in the restaurant, the vibe is intense.
The open kitchen has a team of chefs who don’t mind engaging in lively repartees with customers from their open kitchen.
There are private alcoves upstairs but the action is certainly around the kitchen.
The 10-course degustation dishes are not only delicious but the presentation – from the hand-thrown plates to the absolute perfection of the plating design- is top class.
The wine and sake list is extensive and no matter how modern you get in Japan, tradition is always present:
This Setsubun–themed dish, part of the 10-course menu at Giro Giro – Kyoto, shows all the elements of the Setsubun Festival: the roasted beans, the holly leaf and the presence of sardines (in the countryside, sardine heads used to be burnt at the end of winter to scare away evil spirits).
Nightlife in Tokyo
Tokyo’s nightlife and entertainment options run the full gamut, from grand Kabuki theatres to broom-cupboard bars and live music venues.
Most of the action can be found around the city’s lively places such as Ginza, Shibuya or Shinjuku.
On the cultural side, all of Japan’s major performing arts can be sampled in Tokyo, from stately No (the oldest in its theatrical repertoire) to Buto (the country’s unique contribution to contemporary dance).
However, the one not to be missed is Kabuki with its larger-than-life heroes, flamboyant costumes and dramatic finales.
When to visit Tokyo
Winter in Japan is a wonderful time to explore and winter in Tokyo may be cold but you will be spending time commuting from one place to the other mainly underground or in well-heated train stations.
All buildings are kept at a steamy temperature and the temperature indoors is often a little too hot.
To help you plan your Japan trip read:
How to get around Tokyo
Tokyo Station is a historic site and travelling by train along with about half a million people is quite an experience.
Travellers should avoid being there at rush hour.
The 100-year-old Marunouchi side of the station has undergone extensive renovations and it is now restored to its pre-war condition (the station as most all of Tokyo was badly fire-bombed during WWII).
I particularly like the main dome under which the Travellers Help office sits, staffed by English-speaking experts who provide information on how to get from A to B.
If you, like me, get disoriented despite maps, there is always a kind person who will show you how to get to where you are going.
This is the beauty of Japan: its people.
As a travel writer, previous visits to Japan were organised trips from beginning to end and all I had to do was follow the guide all along thinking what a daunting task it would be to find a train on my own.
This time I am exploring Tokyo without a guide and discover that the system works (everything is well signposted in English) and there is always help at hand so, that Japan Railpass will serve you well.
Do not leave home without it (you can only purchase it from outside Japan).
Getting under the skin of Tokyo requires a degree of enterprising as in such a busy metropolis it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it all.
But if you persevere and seek beauty you will find it; not least in the helpfulness of its inhabitants.
Thank you, Tokyo, can’t wait till I am back…