The iconic flashing lights of downtown Tokyo city cannot be denied. Crosswalks are busy with dozens of pedestrians zig-zagging to head to work, hop on the metro, or sip a quick coffee with friends. Storefronts are buzzing with neon signs and haphazard sound effects to grab the attention of passersby.
Yet this is only half of all that encompasses life in Tokyo. In fact, the booming metropolis of 13.5 million residents has a softer, more tranquil side as well. Though the city is made up of approximately 13,500 square kilometers, the greater metropolitan area of Tokyo spreads over 2 million square kilometers. Tokyo is just as much a major tourist attraction for the city center as it is for the neighborhoods sprinkled along the perimeter, full of friendly faces, culture, and tradition.
As my year teaching English in Korea was coming to a close, and coincidentally approaching my birthday weekend, I wondered what would be the perfect way to celebrate the two occasions. That’s when I remembered that a Japanese friend of mine was back home after travels and living in the heart of Tokyo. After being so close to the island nation all year, but never yet having made the journey, it seemed like the perfect chance to see what life in the city was all about. My travel to Japan did not disappoint, and your holidays to Tokyo are sure to follow suit.
From fresh seafood cuisine to hundreds of years old monuments, to quirky stores and cafes, Tokyo has it all. Check these items off your trip to Japan, and you’re sure to have a trip full of lifelong memories. It’s time to start searching for flights to Tokyo.
#1 Shibuya Shopping District
It’s impossible to make a Tokyo itinerary without including a stop in Shibuya Shopping District. All of those classic images of lights, colors, sounds, and busied crisscrossing of downtown Tokyo most likely come from Shibuya Shopping District, the heart of all things fashion and entertainment. It’s famous for youth culture and fashion trends, and of course the congestion of pedestrians, best seen when ascending the metro at Hachiko Exit.
Shibuya is best accessed via the metro, where passengers will depart at Shibuya Station. Day or night, this part of Tokyo comes alive for all to enjoy.
If you’re craving more of Japanese trendy but wacky fashion taste, check out other shopping districts such as Center Gai and Koen Dori.
#2 Sushi Making Lessons
Once you and the family have worked up an appetite, it’s time to see what traditional Japanese cuisine is all about. It’s one thing to do some street-side and restaurant sampling, but why not see what goes into making one of Japan’s most famous dishes of all time: sushi.
All over the city, couples and families can take part in this nearly sacred tradition, spanning hundreds of years. Cooking classes range from a formal setting in a cooking school or restaurant to those prepared in the comfort of a talented chef’s home. Participants will have a chance to learn about the history of the food, key ingredients, and cooking techniques, and then finally try their hand at it.
Some of the best known and most reputable sushi cooking schools in Tokyo include YUCA’s Japanese Cooking, Mayuko’s Little Kitchen Japanese Cooking Class, Tokyo Kitchen Japanese Cooking Class, and Cooking School Yuka Mazda.
It’s advised to make class reservations in advance. Most class spots can be purchased on the Internet to ensure availability.
Although the city has something to offer all year round, the best time of year hands down to visit Tokyo is in late March and April, when the cherry blossoms are blooming and the weather in Japan is mild. One of the best places to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo is at Chidorigafuchi. This public park, set aside city skyscrapers, parallels a sort of Japanese Central Park. Chidorigafuchi moat is one of 12 that surround the Imperial Palace. Better yet, visitors and locals alike can rent boats to take full advantage of the scenery—harder to get a much better point of view than that of some of the most important palaces in all of Asia. The boathouse is open in summer months from April until November, each day from 11:00 until 5:30 p.m., except on Mondays when it is closed. Boats can be rented for up to 30 minutes at a time, ranging from about $5-7, depending on peak season.
Chidorigafuchi is best accessed by metro, with a short walk to follow. The closest metro stations include Kudanshita Station, Hanzomon Station, Toei Ichigaya Station, and Takebashi Station.
#4 Temples Visits
Transport yourself back in time with some of Tokyo’s most beautiful traditional temples. Temples are sprinkled throughout the city and in all corners of the country. Although they tell a story of religious history and tradition, they also provide insight about religion and spirituality in Japan today.
Kanda Shrine (Kanda Myojin): The Kanda Shrine dates back over 1,000 years. Earthquakes and fires caused significant damage to the temple in the past, although the building that stands today has been restored to its former glory. Visitors can arrive at the temple via the Ochanomizu metro station.
Meiji Jingu Shrine: When you visit Meiji Jingu Shrine, you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the wilderness, even though Harajuku is just a five-minute walk away. The temple, set in a heavily forested park is said to defy the spirits that played an integral role in modernizing Japan. The shrine is a hotbed of activity on the first of the year when visitors and locals come for their annual greeting.
Yasukuni Shrine: Although the beauty here at Yasukuni Shrine is unmistakable, visits, especially by political figures, are sometimes controversial. This temple is said to pay homage to the country of Japan during the period of Imperialism. For neighboring countries such as China and South Korea, this creates some tension. Nevertheless, this temple provides a peaceful garden walk, and the host of some of Tokyo’s largest festivals. Visitors can arrive at the temple via Kudanshita Station.
#5 Tokyo Tower
Ready to see Tokyo from a new perspective? At 333 meters (1,092 feet) in height, Tokyo Tower is 13 meters (42 feet) taller than its inspiration, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The tower, finally completed in 2012 after the construction of more than 50 years, symbolizes the country of Japan as a major economic power.
Today, visitors can climb the 600 steps (or take an elevator) to the tower’s main observatory. The tower also includes a special observatory that gives a bird’s eye view of the city’s major skyscraper. Just next to the tower are souvenir shops, restaurants, and One Piece Tower, an indoor amusement park for kids.
Visitors can reach the tower via many different metro routes, including Onarimon Station on the Mita Subway Line, Akabanebashi Station on the Oedo Subway Line and Kamiyacho on the Hibiya Subway Line. Admission to the main observation deck alone is about $8. For access to both observation decks, visitors will pay $14. Tokyo Tower welcomes visitors all year round, from 9:00 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
#6 Tsukiji Market
Visiting the Tsukiji Market is a must for getting a behind-the-scenes look at local produce vendors, but especially, Japan’s famous fish industry. This market is so famous on an international scale, in fact, that over 2,000 tons of seafood are shipped in and out of its doors daily.
This is not your average small Sunday morning market with the locals. Wholesale businesses and large restaurants come to take part in the renowned tuna auctions and other fish sales. The tuna auction is a sight to see, ranging in size from a small human child to a grown adult. The auction is limited to 120 visitors per day; if you want to be one of those people, you’ll have to start your day early. Gates first open at 5:00 a.m., and visitors are slowly let in until about 6:15 a.m. The rest of the market is open from about 5:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Admission is free.
It’s important to note that visitors can currently reach the market by taking the metro from Shinjuku Station to Tsukiji Shijo Station. However, there are city plans in the works to move the market to Toyosu in the near future.
#7 Tokyo National Museum
Stopping by the Tokyo National Museum is just one of the things to do in Tokyo to get a better appreciation for the country’s rich history. Tokyo National Museum is the oldest and largest in Japan. Over 110,000 artifacts include Buddhist statues, scrolls, ceramics, weapons, and period-specific architecture models. The museum also exhibits western-inspired designers and traditional Japanese gardens and teahouses.
All museum literature is available in fluent English. The museum is located about a 5 or 10 -minute walk from Ueno Station. The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m/ daily, until 8 p.m. on Fridays and 6 p.m. on weekends. Mondays. the museum is closed. Admission is about $5.50.
# 8 Shinjuku Gyeon National Garden
Shinjuku Gyeon National Garden, much like Chidorigafuchi, provides a city respite in the middle of it all. Locals spread out picnic blankets on the fresh lawn, visitors peek inside the greenhouse gardens, and tourists who come between November and December can check out the breathtaking fall foliage. The Garden is broken up into the Japanese Garden, the English Garden, and the French Garden. For visitors who come in spring and wonder where to go in Tokyo to check out the cherry blossoms, this is another great opportunity.
Shinjuku metro stop is a ten-minute walk from the “New South Exit” of JR Shinjuku Station or five minutes from Shinjukugyoenmae Station (Marunouchi Subway Line). The park is open daily from 9:00 to 4:30 p.m. and is closed on Mondays.
#9 Tokyo Station
There’s a history lesson that awaits visitors at Tokyo Station, first built in 1914. Tourists who come to visit the historical monument will automatically note the red brick facade that stands out against the tall, glass skyscrapers behind—a building that looks more like the university buildings of Cambridge and Oxford University than anything visitors may first associate with Japan.
During World War II, Tokyo Station was badly damaged and in dire need of repair. Up until 2012, the city has invested in major renovation. Today, the station is most famous for the bullet train lines that pass through. In addition, the city is preparing the station for further renovations to prepare it for the 2020 Olympic Games.
#10 Kawaii Monster Cafe
Looking for that quirky Japanese touch and the perfect way to unwind as a family? Check out the Kawaii Monster Cafe. Located just next to Laforet Harajuku, this cafe is a fantasy land of colorful pasta-like ice cream, fruit-shaped cakes, and rainbow-colored slushies with rainbow sprinkles along the rim. It’s alike Charlie’s real-life chocolate factory, with the decor to match. Everything is rainbow, sparkling, and larger than life. It’s sure to have the kids talking for weeks on end.
The cafe is open every day from 11.30 a.m.-10.30 p.m. It’s located at the Meiji-Jingumae Station via Chiyoda and Fukutoshin lines.
Tokyo Extras: Tokyo Metro
Whether you’ve ridden metros all over the world, or have never stepped foot on one, Tokyo’s metro is truly a unique experience. So resist the temptation to take taxis alone (fares in the city can be quite expensive) and instead give a ride on the metro a shot.
During my trip to Tokyo, I was to meet up with my friend at her apartment, which meant navigating Tokyo’s city subway from the center, to one of the outer extremities, including 2 or 3 line changes. It was nothing like the two-line subway system I had grown accustomed to in my small city in Korea.
Some double and triple checking of Tokyo’s subway map were to be expected, but the subway assistants below ground could not have been more helpful. Give yourself a little extra time to explore (get lost!), and you’ll be happy you did.
Tokyo Extras: Day Trip to Hakone
As time allows, just beyond downtown Tokyo are dozens of amazing day trip opportunities. While I was in Tokyo, I took a day to explore the town of Hakone, an artist residency village full of tradition and lots to see. Visitors can take trolley cars, cable cars, and boats to take in the natural landscape from all angles. The heavily wooded area also includes a large lagoon, and well as restaurants, cafes, artists galleries, and spas. I went on a whim and was so happy I did. A trip to the spa even included a dip in mocha and green tea infused water. Tokyo is certainly a place you fall in love with and I plan to go back soon!