Tokyo is the worlds most populated metropolis and is home to 38 million people so it’s pretty overwhelming trying to plan a trip there to see the best sights. Most people visit Tokyo in spring to see the cherry blossom trees at their best. However, in a city so big, there is always something to see and do in Tokyo (and Japan) any time of the year. I went in winter on my way to Niseko to snowboard some of the worlds best powder.
Usual things to do in Tokyo
- Grab dinner and a sake at Shibuya Yokocho, my favourite place to eat in Tokyo
- Joins the crowds walking around Sensoji shrine and Kaminaran Gate
- Squeeze into one of the tiny bars in Golden Gai
- Check out the anime, magna and cosplay outfits at Harajuku
- Enjoy a local beer with a view at Asahi Headquarters and brewery
Unusual Things to do in Tokyo
- Enjoy the show…or make your friend the show at the Muscle Girls Bar
- Stay in a themed, hotel, love hotel or capsule
- Eat and drink at one of many themed restaurants and cafes
- Try your luck and try to figure out what’s going on in a Pachinko hall
- Although it’s currently closed, the Robot Restaurant is likely to open in late 2023
Tokyo is largely as you would expect it to be; a neon-lit city that never seems to end. Shrines, parks and mini cities make up the huge Tokyo metropolis and you can find a crazy mix of fashion, restaurants, bars and activities to keep you busy for weeks.
However, some things weren’t as I expected for example:
1) There’s so many restaurants and bars, I even asked my friend from Tokyo if anybody cooks because it seems like there are so many restaurants that people must eat out all the time.
2) I expected Japan to be a very efficient where robots, apps and vending machines allow you to do almost anything you want. While there’s plenty around there are still some seemingly inefficient things you’ll come across while travelling. This didn’t have a negative impact on my trip but I just expected things to be generally easier. for example when i went to the teamLabs exhibition i almost left without seeing the second part of it because it was so chaotic and not clear there were two sections.
3) Visa and Mastercard aren’t excepted everywhere and there’s a lot of business that are cash only. For example, I couldn’t use my debit or credit Visa or Mastercard to buy a train ticket at the machine or ticket counter (you can at some stations but not all). Before going to Japan, I spent two weeks in Sweden where I didn’t even see any cash, I expected something similar in Japan.
4) Some ATM’s wont accept your foreign card. I tried to get cash out of an ATM but after 3 different cards at two different ATM’s I gave up. I was finally able to withdrawal some cash from ATM’s but not all.
5) Panchiko parlours are all over the place and they’re almost always multi-story and have people in the all around the clock. I thought Aussies love the pokies but the Japanese will give them a run.
When choosing an area to stay in Tokyo I recommend Shinjuku. There are plenty of things to see in Shinjuku and it’s a major train hub meaning you can get to other areas of the city fairly easily, including both airports.
Themed cafes – Maid hotel, dog cafe, owl cafe etc.
There are a few themed cafes and restaurants around Tokyo. Some have animals, others anime and others have maids. I passed a maid cafe in Akiba and the dog cafe in Harajuku…but they’re not really my thing. I visited a dog cafe in Seoul, South Korea but it was a little depressing as the dogs didn’t seem well looked after.
Muscle Girls Bar
This unique bar was opened by Eri Muscle, a young fitness enthusiast, in 2020. Originally beginning as an all-women’s gym, Eri has since expanded and now runs the unique bar that quickly gained attention due to its muscular female staff. At Muscle Girls, you’ll get a unique interactive experience and can even buy services like getting slapped by one of the buff girls. A great gift for your mate.
Themed hotels are scattered all across Tokyo. Love Hotels are also scattered across Tokyo. But, you can also fined themed loved hotels where you can pay by the hour and if you’ve got spare time you can also admire the intricate design of the hotel. As I was travelling with mates we weren´t too keen to stay at a love hotel but I’ll likely be checking into one when I’m back in Japan with my partner. When I think of themed Japanese love hotels the Ruby Sweets Hotel comes to mind and you can read about David McElhinney’s night there in his article he wrote for Insider, you can find the link in the resources section below.
The first capsule Hotel in the world opened in Osaka, Japan. Since then many have opened across the world as people look for the privacy of their own ‘room’ but want to keep their accommodation costs low. The tiny spaces usually offer just enough space to sleep and provide guests with lockers and shared amenities like kitchens and bathrooms.
Capsules come in all shapes and sizes from bunk beds to multiple-level units. The most basic of capsule hotel rooms will have a bed…and nothing else. Most will include a TV, power points and a few shelves.
Panchiko is a poker/slot machines that avoids the gambling prohibition by allowing players to purchase balls that are used to play. You can then win of lose balls and then trade them back for money. It’s the epitome of Japan turning a blind eye to one of it’s laws.
Aussies love poker machines and are the biggest gamblers per capita in the world…but gambling is illegal in Japan so nobody knows exactly how much is ‘gambled’ through the Pachinko Parlours. However, after entering a few, it’s clear there is a lot of money going through these machines. Furthermore, there are Panchiko Parlours scattered all across Tokyo and most of the ones I saw were huge.
Some Parlours are 5 levels tall crammed with Pachinko machines and often pretty full depending on the time of day. Usually each floor represents a minimum bet, for example the 1st floor is 1 ball = 1 Yen whereas on level 5, 1 ball is 5 Yen.
Akihabara a.k.a. Akiba
There’s plenty of shrines to go see in Tokyo but Nezu would have to be one of the most scenic. It was built by the 6th Shogun of Japan Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in 1705 and is often used by the locals for hosting weddings and other special events.
Street Go-Karting (MariCar until Nintendo Sued them)
There’s a few companies offering go-karting around Tokyo. The idea was started by MariCar but they were sued by Nintendo a few years ago. Since then the company has changed it’s name and removed the Mario Kart costumes. You can still drive around the streets of Tokyo in a go-kart but with Pikachu or costumes other than Nintendo.
I recommend doing the karting at night so you can enjoy the lights. One company starts in Akihabara and another in Shinjuku. The Shinjuku company is much more expensive but they go on a better route and offer a night drive. The cheaper option is still good and their karts are fine.
Kaminarimon Gate is the impressive entrance to Senso-ji Temple, also known as ‘Thunder Gate’. The nickname comes from a combination ‘Fūraijinmon’ (the gate’s official name) and ‘kaminari’ which means thunder in Japanese. It is surrounded by a huge red lantern 4 meters tall and 3.3-meters wide which is symbolic for welcoming visitors entering into sacred grounds.
Sensoji is located at one end of Nakamise Street by Kaminarimon Gate. Entrance is free and the gardens are always open. After entering through the Kaminarimon Gate there’s a complex of four halls and a five story pagoda in amongst two more gates and gardens.
Nakimase Street was the busiest place I went on my recent trip to Tokyo. Up until that point I was surprised that Tokyo wasn’t as busy as I had imagined. The street runs between Asakusa train station and the Kaminaron Gate so crowds of people use the street to see the shops but also go from the station to the temple. The street is one of the oldest shopping streets in Tokyo and a symbol of Asakusa. It’s lined with small shops selling traditional Japanese items, souvenirs, local snacks, kimonos, folding fans etc.
Head up to Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo’s tallest building, where you’ll get panoramic views over the impressive skyline. An entrance ticket will get you to Tembo Deck at 350 metres with a transparent walkway. You can also head up to Sorakara Point which is the highest viewing area at 450 metres. For more information about ticket prices and viewing decks see the Resources section below.
Asahi Headquarters & Brewery
The old executive offices at the top of the Asahi Headquarters were transformed into a bar where you can try a few types of Asahi’s beers. While a bit dated the bar provides great views over Tokyo and the prices are reasonable. We went in the afternoon and had to wait 30 minutes for a table to be available.
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s most vibrant and bustling districts featuring many nightlife options. The district is well-known for the Kabukicho neighborhood, an entertainment area that’s filled with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, host clubs, panchiko parlours, breweries, arcades and more. Host Clubs are predominantly for middle aged women who want to talk to young males. We tried to see what they’re like but weren’t allowed. If you’re after any red light information, see the Nigerians roaming around the area.
You might have seen Robot Restaurant mentioned in other reviews of things to do in Tokyo but the restaurant closed due to Covid and hasn’t reopened. It’s likely that the restaurant will reopen once there are enough tourists visiting, my guess is 2023 but check their website (in the travel resources section below) before you go.
Museum of Beer and the Samurai museum are another two sights that closed due to Covid.
Memory Lane a.k.a Piss Alley a.k.a. Omoide Yokocho a.k.a Izakaya Alley
Famous amongst backpackers this is one of the liveliest nightlife areas in Tokyo. Although small there are lots of small restaurants (Izakaya) crammed in together making it a great night out wandering into one and onto the next.
Another area of narrow alleys crammed with bars and restaurants similar to Memory Lane (but better in my opinion). It is slightly more upscale than Memory Lane so you can expect to pay a bit more for drinks and most places have a cover charge. Many of the buildings in Golden Gai are old wooden structures that you can’t really tell what they’re like until you’re inside. There are many hidden bars, some that require membership or even a secret passwords to enter.
If you’re looking to kick on after Golden Gai or one of the other drinking spots then head to Wave nightclub. The club is open every night and has a small cover charge. The music was great the night I went and there was a mix of people which made the place feel welcoming and not pretentious at all.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
On the western side of the railway you can find the Metropolitan Government Building which has a free observation deck. There is a north and south observatory both with great views over Tokyo.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Shinjuku is a peacefully picturesque park, especially when surrounded by the cherry blossoms in bloom. Entrance costs 500Y (cash only) and its open from 9am to 530pm every day except Monday.
Meiji Jingu is an important Shinto shrine located south of Shinjuku’s main nightlife area. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shōken. The grounds of Meiji Jingu also have a forest with over 300,000 trees gathered from all across Japan. We were there for Japans National Day and saw the preparations for the activities. Unfortunately most of what happens is closed to the public and you wont be able to see much.
Harajuku is a lively area of youth culture, chaos and what some might consider weird. Takeshita Street at its centre is full of cosplayers winding their way in and out of unique fashion stores. Here you’ll find a dog cafe, anime arcades, weird outfits and strangely popular strawberry shops.
The famously busy crossing which comes alive when the lights switch red for cars and green for pedestrians. Once you’ve crossed the road a few times head up to Starbucks of the Hikari building to get a view over the crossing.
My favourite eating spot in Tokyo is Shibuya Yokocho is has an extremely traditional feel to it and is exactly what you expect when visiting an old food court in Japan. There are dozens of small bars and restaurants but the area is not overcrowded with tourists like Golden Gai or seedy establishments like you’ll find in Kabukicho.
Hie Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in the heart of Tokyo, dedicated to the goddess Taira no Masakado. The shrine has been revered since ancient times and today it’s an important landmark for Japanese people. People visit Hie Shrine to pray for success in business and the wellbeing of families. The shrine grounds include a tree-lined path leading up to the main hall and many small shrines dedicated to other deities from Japanese mythology.
The Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is home of the current Emperor and Empress of Japan and is open to the public for certain days throughout the year. Other than when it’s open to the public the palace is guarded and you wont see much from outside the gates. There is a moat, shrines, gardens and Edo-era stone walls surrounding the palace which you can see while walking around the outskirts.
The Tokyo Tower was built in 1958 and is 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower (which it resembles). There are two observation decks, the Main Deck at 150 meters and the Top Deck at 250 meters, where you can get 360-degree views of the city. On the main deck, there’s a wax museum, an aquarium and several restaurants.
Gotokuji Temple is most known for its many Maneki-neko (the beckoning cat), which are believed to bring good luck and fortune. Its also widely beleived that the Maneki-neko originated in China but this is not true. Unlike many other temples in Tokyo, the Gotokuji Temple survived the bombings during WW2 so didn’t need to be restored.
Tsukiji Seafood Market
The Tsukiji seafood market is a huge wholesale fish and seafood market. Many restaurants and small eateries are scattered around the market, so you can try freshly caught sushi or sashimi. The market is open from 5am to around 1pm. Outside of the main hall there are lots of other smaller shops selling seafood, produce and souvenirs.
The area around Ueno Park has markets and plenty of places to eat and drink. Ameyoko street is one of the main streets in the area where we ate a couple of times and its one of my favourite areas in Tokyo. Ueno Park is one of the largest parks in Tokyo and within it you’ll find the Tokyo National Museum, several temples and shrines. It’s also a popular spot to view cherry blossoms in spring (although I saw one flowering in February).
Probably the best things about travelling is the people you meet and the friends you make. Four years before travelling to Japan I went to the Solomon Islands and Couchsurfed with Sho, from Tokyo.
Sho was working as a drone pilot teaching the Solomon Islands government how to use drones in response to natural disasters. He’s been living in Ethiopia for the last 3 years and will head to Turkey soon to help them rebuild after the earthquake,.
TeamLabs Tokyo Planets
I waited for an hour in the rain to get into the teamLabs. It was packed when I was there and I actually got the last ticket to the 3pm session. Once inside it seemed much more disorganised that I’d expect in Japan. There are 8 exhibitions in total but it’s not clear (at least when its full of people going in different directions) when you’ve been to the two areas.
Most of the exhibitions are great but some seem basic, overall its worth the money and wait but I would recommend avoiding busy periods so you can enjoy the rooms without the crowds.
Watch Sumo Wrestling
Sumo tournaments are usually held three times a year in January, May and September, but there are smaller tournaments throughout the year as well. The grandest tournament of all is the New Year Basho which takes place at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium in Tokyo. If tournaments aren’t on while you’re there, you can visit sumo stables to observe morning practices or watch sumo wrestlers training at sumo dohyo (sumo rings).
Disneyland / Disney Sea / Yomiuriland / Legoland
Tokyo has some of the best amusement parks in the world. Tokyo Disneyland, located on the outskirts of Tokyo, is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions. It opened in 1983 and features seven themed areas such as Adventureland, Tomorrowland and Fantasyland.
Tokyo DisneySea, which opened in 2001, is a nautical-themed amusement park with seven distinct areas based on myths and legends from the world’s oceans. It also includes rides like Toy Story Mania and Indiana Jones Adventure.
Yomiuriland is another popular theme park with rollercoasters, water rides and a range of other attractions. It even has its own on-site hotel. Legoland Japan offers brick building fun for all ages and is filled with LEGO themed rides, games and shows.
See a Baseball Game
Baseball is a popular sport in Japan and Tokyo has several teams that compete in the Central League and Pacific League. The most popular team in Tokyo is the Yomiuri Giants, who play at Meiji Jingu Stadium. Unfortunately there wasn’t a game on while we were there so we’ll have to check out a game next time. You can find game dates and buy tickets from the link in the Resources section.
Day Trips From Tokyo
Mount Fuji is located just two hours from Tokyo. The mountain, which stands at 3776 meters, has been a sacred place of worship since ancient times and it’s the highest mountain in Japan. Mount Fuji is an iconic symbol of Japan and it’s especially beautiful during the spring and autumn when the snow is still on the summit.
The easiest way to visit Mt Fuji from Tokyo is by taking a day trip tour which includes round-trip transportation, an English-speaking guide and lunch. The tour usually leaves in the morning and visits places like Lake Ashi in Hakone for some stunning views of Mt Fuji, the Oshino Hakkai spring-fed ponds and the 5th station of Mt Fuji. After lunch, you have time to explore the mountain and take plenty of photos before heading back to Tokyo in the evening.
Kawagoe is a day trip destination from Tokyo that offers a glimpse into old Japan. Located in Saitama Prefecture, the city is known for its traditional atmosphere with Edo-era buildings, temples and shrines. Kawagoe’s main attraction is the historic Kawagoe Castle which was built in the 17th century. The castle is surrounded by a park and several temples including Kitain Temple, famous for its wooden carvings of dragons and phoenixes. Kawagoe is also a popular spot for cherry blossom viewing in the springtime, with several parks and gardens that are lit up at night. Day trips to Kawagoe from Tokyo usually include round-trip transportation, an English speaking guide and lunch at a local restaurant.
Other things to do and see in Tokyo which I haven’t done are check out a spa, go to an onsen, see a show at the Kabuki-za Theatre or visit the Yayoi Kusama Museum or Small Worlds. Tea Ceremony, Geisha Experience.
Travel Resources for Visiting Tokyo
Tokyo Cheapo – Great resource for everything Tokyo
Giants Baseball – Find games and buy tickets to see Tokyo’s biggest baseball team.
Robot Restaurant – Check here to see if the restaurant has reopened before you visit Tokyo.
Love Hotel – Great article by David McElhinney about staying in a Love Hotel.
Tokyo SkyTree – Details about the tower and observation deck.
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.