My favourite city in Japan, if not the world. While the metropolis home to 13 million has something for everyone, it’s best for bright lights and everything quirky cool.
There’s something of Times Square to the strobe-lit dazzling billboards – if Times Square were also adorned with Japanese symbols, Manga and Hello Kitty that is. However long you stare and however many photos you capture, there’s always more to see in stylish Tokyo.
I’ll break down the top areas as the sheer number of spots to check out can be overwhelming.
Home to the famous Shibuya Crossing where approximately 4 million people cross every day. When we headed to check it out, a sea of people were making the pilgrimage towards home, work or retail therapy. With various exits to take, and without knowing where we were going, we got lost in the swarm. But at least the bright lights of the numerous billboards led our way!
Shibuya is also a hotspot for quirky bars, restaurants and nightlife. It was in Shibuya that we first discovered okonomiyaki – the art of cooking your own dinner by way of a hot plate on your table.
I feel the novelty might wear off over time (surely you go out to eat to not cook your own meal?) but with just two weeks in Japan, we had no time to get bored. We loved following the recipes provided, stirring together meat, egg, veg and what looked like Rice Krispies and cooking the mixture into perfectly-rounded patties.
Shinjuku might just be my overall favourite Tokyo district. Home to bright lights and quirkiness galore, there are a million and one cool venues lurking down alleyways (in a non-threatening way).
Heading home one evening after having called it a night, out jumped Ren Bar from a backstreet. A cabaret bar adorned in everything and anything sparkly and overzealous, the foyer was home to momentous chandeliers and lifesize horses made of crystal. Inside, it was in no way dulled down: every surface and corner glittered, even the bar was bejewelled, and the cabaret singer who crooned from the corner was in no way the focus of the room.
Forget the concrete jungle: Shinjuku is a neon wonderland to explore. You’ll even find giant, artificial gorillas swinging from the rooftops.
Make sure you seek out the Golden Gai, an area comprising six narrow alleyways, each giving way to even narrower streets that can only accommodate one guest at a time. Over 200 tiny bars dole out beers and sake to just a handful of customers.
Located in Shibuya, Harajuku is wonderfully weird. From vintage shops to teen fashion outlets and neon tutus, the district needs no help securing the crown of fashion capital. Girls in the latest couture clothing work the streets like a runway, making Harajuku truly a sight to see.
The busy shopping streets boom dance music and serve sweet treats: ice cream-laden waffles, strawberry flavour Kit Kats and mochi (colourful rice balls with a red bean filling. Beware they look nicer than they taste).
We squeezed a cat cafe into our Harajuku visit (neither of my friends are cat people so I don’t know how I swung that one). Balls of fluff lazed around an open room and you paid per 15-minute slot for your time with the fluffy felines and helped yourself to unlimited drinks: matcha green tea lattes for me.
Asakusa is everything Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya aren’t: relaxed, peaceful and quaint. Elegant, patterned flags flutter in the light breeze along the shopping streets and there’s a sense of the traditional. The Sensō-ji Shrine in this district is Tokyo’s oldest temple and more than worth a visit. In brown, ornate wood, it’s typical of Japanese style with a decorative shrine and place of worship inside.
Around the Asakusa district, we stumbled on our first conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Grab whatever you fancy and pay as your plates stack up. California rolls weren’t present but tasty octopus, cuttlefish, salmon, tuna and whitebait morsels were on the table (belt, rather) for us to sample.
Gadget district. If it’s weird, quirky, available from a vending machine or dressed as a French maid, you’ll find it in Akihabara. This district is home to computer geeks galore who queue up for the arcades and probably emerge hours later with square eyes.
It’s also the area to visit for French maid cafes. We peeked into one where girls dressed and made up like dolls served tea and cake. A harmless, if slightly strange, pastime.
Other things to do
Even outside of these vibrant districts there are plenty of other things to do.
This is is the best way to capture a bird’s eye view of the capital, and from no less than 2,080 ft. I always knew Tokyo was huge but seeing it stretch out for miles really brought home the sheer size of the city.
The world’s largest fish market. We arrived at a more civilised hour to see what was on sale, but people queue up from 2am for the famous tuna auction. The first catches of the season sell for up to $2 million. Yes, really! That tuna had better be delicious…
Home to horn players and hip-hop dancers, there’s always a party going on in Yoyogi Park. An excellent place to chill out and soak up the greenery after a busy morning of sightseeing!
Despite having enough to keep you entertained whatever the length of your stay, Tokyo offers some excellent day trip to the surrounding areas.
Kamakura and Enoshima Island
Kamakura is most famous for the Giant Buddha statue which stands at 43 ft. Pay a couple of pennies and you can even go inside and admire his steel structure from within.
Kamakura also has temples galore to offer. I liked the Hasheda Temple, home to an army of tiny stone soldiers and spectacular views over the coast.
Close to Kamakura is Enoshima Island. Cross the footbridge connecting it to the mainland and it’s a pretty spot to for typical orange arches, charming temples and – following a climb to the top of the hill – some spectacular views of the coastline.
Get the Enoshima Kamakura Free Pass for the day (travel to Kamakura from Tokyo and buy it on arrival) and you’ll have unlimited use of trains within the area.
A visit is also possible from Tokyo though it’s definitely weather dependent. We took a trip to Hakone where the famous viewing points are based but were unlucky enough to find Fuji mainly eclipsed by cloud. It lifted for a couple of minutes so catching a brief glimpse of the mountain we’d travelled to see made our trip feel at least somewhat worthwhile.
We had five days in Tokyo and spent three sightseeing and two on day trips. I think this was a good ratio, though seeing Tokyo in three days required some early starts, long days and sore feet. I reckon a better amount of time to spend in Tokyo would be anywhere up to the rest of my life! Time to get planning my return…