There’s an endless amount of things to do in Tokyo. It’s huge with probably about 10 different ‘downtowns’ and you can pretty much get lost just wandering around. But I’ve come up with the 10 things I recommend (the places I always take people) and a few of the common sites I think are skippable.
Please feel free to add ideas or give your opinion in the comments!
Asakusa is a really old temple complex in the heart of Tokyo. It’s very ‘touristy’ but it’s a great place to take people who are new to Japan. You can get the temple experience and there are a lot of places to buy good souvenirs and little gifts. Also, there is some awesome tempura nearby.
The temple complex itself is almost always crowded with tourists from Japan as well as the rest of the world. But I recommend also just walking around the area. It has an old-town Tokyo feel that’s really cool.
This is another tourist trap that’s one of those ‘must-see’ places. It’s the heart of young folks’ fashion in Tokyo and you can see some pretty wild styles. There is also lots of shopping at hip and trendy stores, and massive crowds of people that make walking difficult. Another thing to do there is to see…
Meiji Jingu is an old shrine located just steps away from Harajuku. It’s a cool contrast actually – an old shrine surrounded in dense forest right in the middle of the hip area of Tokyo. I actually don’t venture that far into Harajuku (I don’t do well in crowds and I’m not a shopper) so I like the shrine side of the station.
There’s kind of an interesting people-watching thing going on here as well. I don’t know why, but all of these young trendy-looking women (many dressed in ‘Lolita goth’ fashion), stand on the bridge you have to cross to get to the shrine and there are these guys taking pictures of them. Usually, nobody’s talking. Weird. There are also sometimes bands playing on this bridge.
Shinjuku’s one of the crazy downtowns of Tokyo and I like it for just wandering around and people-watching. Not so much anymore because I live here and it’s become sort of ordinary, but when I first came to Japan to visit, I’d just pick an exit at the station (there are lots!) and walk in any random direction.
There’s lots of shopping and the nightlife is good with lots of bars and clubs. There are also good restaurants and there’s a big park called Shinjuku Gyoen that’s cool to stroll through.
If you’re at all into Studio Ghibli movies, you’ll love the Ghibli Museum. It’s located near Kichijoji Station in the western area of Tokyo. It shows you how the cartoons are made and has stuff from the movies like the Cat Bus from ‘Totoro.’ There’s also a giant robot on the roof. It’s a really unique place even if you’re not really into Ghibli (and a great place for kids).
Odaiba is a new part of Tokyo that’s built on the bay. It has shops, restaurants and attractions including a huge Ferris wheel, an indoor water park, and stuff like that. What’s coolest about Odaiba in my opinion are all the views of Tokyo and the Rainbow Bridge. I’m not much into the shopping, but this is a place my parents always like to check out when they visit.
Near Ryogoku Station you’ll find the sumo arena. This is a really old part of Tokyo called Shitamachi and you’ll see sumo wrestlers walking around. I recommend checking out sumo match – that’s one of those ‘must see’ things to do in Tokyo. You can also eat like a sumo wrestler at a chanko nabe shop where they serve a hearty stew that sumo wrestlers eat as part of their training.
This is a small local market that’s near Ueno Station. It’s a much more unique shopping experience. They’ve got all kinds of local stuff like dried seaweed and snacks you won’t see anywhere else. Ueno Station is another cool area to just stroll around with all kinds of historic sites.
Tokyo Sky Tree
Tokyo Sky Tree is the world’s tallest tower. It’s a broadcasting tower and it’s supposed to be finished this month (February 2012). It’s cool and futuristic and inside there are restaurants and observation decks. It’s located in Sumida which is also a cool area for strolling around, and it’s close to the sumo arena and Asakusa so you can make a day of it.
Narita is not in Tokyo but it’s where the Tokyo airport is located, so close enough. Although it’s far, it’s my favorite place to take visiting friends and family. Because it’s close to the airport where everybody flies out, it makes a great site to see the day you leave. It’s a massive temple complex that’s much more impressive than the temples in Tokyo in my opinion. Behind the main temple is a huge park full of ponds and gardens. The town is also cool, with its old winding roads full of local craft and snack shops.
Things To Avoid
There are a few places I’d recommend avoiding. One is the Tsukiji fish market. This is a hot tourist spot where you can get your picture taken giving a ‘thumbs up’ and grinning next to a giant tuna fish! The only problem is that it’s not actually a tourist attraction. It’s a market where people are trying to buy stuff. In Japanese, the word for folks who get in the way is jama. I wouldn’t go unless you want to buy something.
I’d also skip the Imperial Palace. Sure, it’s historical and it’s where the Emperor actually lives (I think). But there’s LOTS of walking and not much to see. Most of the time you’re not allowed to go inside and when you are, you get a nice view of a huge stone wall. I took my parents there and we got tired and went somewhere to eat.
I was going to include Shibuya as a place to skip, but it all depends on what you want to see. I guess the reason I wanted to leave it out is that I hate going there for any reason, but then again, I’m not a visiting tourist! At Shibuya you can see the statue of Hachiko which is basically just a small statue of a dog, and you can see the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world right outside of the station. Yeesh. There’s also lots of shopping.
I’d also recommend avoiding riding the train during rush hour. Don’t take trains that are bound for central Tokyo in the mornings or trains going out in the evening. Unless, of course, you want to enjoy the cultural experience of barely being able to stand on tip-toes while some businessman’s elbow is jammed into your ribs.