“Tokyo (東京, Tōkyō) is Japan’s capital and the world’s most populous metropolis.” Japan-guide.com
Nothing can quite prepare you for Tokyo. It doesn’t matter what you’ve read or what photos you’ve seen, the sheer scale of Japan’s capital city is overwhelming. The bustling, neon-lit metropolis is teeming with people day and night. The city has twenty-three wards made up of several districts that offer visitors limitless shopping, dining, entertainment and sightseeing opportunities.
Tokyo is the most populated city in the world so everywhere is always busy. Japanese people are considerate and courteous, the city is spotlessly clean and everything runs like clockwork even the trains which have the most efficient schedule in the world. Popular districts include the historic area of Asakusa, Harajuku for its pop culture and boutiques together with Roppongi and Shibuya for their vibrant nightlife.
We stayed in Akasaka, a fashionable district with lots of good coffee shops, restaurants and bars that was a good base to explore the city. Roppongi has plenty of dining and nightlife options where every variety of traditional and international cuisine is available.
Harajuku is a cool spot, great for people watching and home to Tokyo’s vintage and consignment shops. There’s lots of kawaii (cute) culture here too, it’s not unusual to see girls fully dressed as characters like Hello Kitty. Omotesando shopping street, also referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees, is also located in this area offering more Western shops. Sneakerheads will love all the specialist shops around this area, definitely bring an empty suitcase and your credit card. Japanese fashionistas certainly treat retail outings as a fashion show with outlandish outfits the norm.
Takeshita Street is where you will find rainbow hue offerings such as candyfloss bigger than your head and niche animal shaped ice creams. Another popular pastime is visiting cat cafes where you can grab an overpriced drink while mixing with feline friends, it’s ridiculously clean and well organised as you come to expect in Japan. We also visited the Monster Cafe but it was very twee and the food was underwhelming, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have small children with you.
Take a walk to Shibuya Crossing (aka Shibuya Scramble Crossing) which is allegedly the world’s busiest intersection and pedestrian crossing. Take your chances crossing the road while trying to capture the moment alongside hundreds of commuters and social media users (we may or may not have crossed many times to grab the right photo). The famous crossing is located in front of Shibuya Station (Hachikõ exit) where you can also see one of Japan’s unofficial landmarks, the statue of Hachikõ, the loyal Akita dog who waited at the station every day for his master even after he had died.
Shinjuku is the large entertainment, shopping and business district located around the world’s busiest railway station servicing millions of commuters everyday. Wander down Omoide Yokocho (aka as Memory Lane or the less attractive Piss Alley), a network of narrow alleys with small-scale eateries, some with only one table. These restaurants offer traditional ramen, soba, yakitori and sushi. Tokyo’s well-known red light district, Kabukicho, is also located in Shinjuku.
Culture seekers should visit Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon Temple) located in Asakusa. Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddist temple and one of the city’s most popular and colourful religious buildings. Nakamise, a long shopping street, is situated between the temple’s outer and second gates. It’s the place to buy authentic Japanese souvenirs such as kimonos (yukata) or a folding fan and sample traditional local snacks. Asakusa captures elements of old Tokyo and you can take a guided rickshaw tour of the area or hop on the Tokyo Water Bus for a cruise along the Sumida River.
We took the train to Palette Town in Odaiba to visit teamLab Borderless, the digital art museum. The large space showcases interactive artworks that are in constant motion not pre-recorded or on a loop. One of the exhibits, a digital forest, had flowers that bloomed and butterflies that fluttered and appeared to land on you as you walked past. Other notable pieces included a digital waterfall, a crystalline maze and the Forest of Resonating Lamps, a mirrored room filled with hanging lamps that changed colour to reflect seasons and charged the space with colourful reflections.
We lost a day at the end of the trip due to the torrential rains and havoc caused by Typhoon Hagibis but the plan had been to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market and its popular sushi restaurants. Another thing on my list was the real-life Mario Kart experience where go-karters dress up as characters and drive around the Tokyo streets. A unique but dangerous activity but we didn’t have the required international driving licenses, if you want to book this activity my advice would be to check what the requirements are before you travel. Other interesting sights to see include the Meiji Shinto Shrine, the Imperial Palace and Shibuya Sky, the observation deck offering 360-degree views of the city and even Mount Fuji on a clear day.
Tokyo is an animated city that leaves a lasting impression. It has to be seen to be believed. Architecturally it’s a juxtaposition of historical temples sitting alongside tall, modern skyscrapers.
Top Tips for visiting Japan
- Purchase a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) for use on the trains available in 7, 14 and 21 day denominations. Purchase online before your trip and pick up upon presentation of your passport at the airport when you arrive. We bought the Green pass (first class) where you can reserve seats in spacious carriages for easy and comfortable travel. Using the JR pass is easy, just show your pass to the guard at entry and exit points rather than using your green tickets in the machine. Be aware that trains are ALWAYS on time.
- Purchase a data-only sim on arrival at the airport for unlimited data during your trip (kiosk opposite the JR desk at Nagoya airport).
- Buy a PASMO travel card for use on the Tokyo Metro (like the Oyster card in the UK) and buses. Cards can be purchased at station ticket machines and credit must be loaded in cash. English and International instructions available so it’s pretty straightforward.
- Cash is king although most places do accept credit cards.
- Consider using a luggage service (wish we had on parts of the trip). Luggage is collected and sent to your next destination so you can travel lighter on the trains.
- Carry your passport with you to avail of tax free shopping for purchases over ¥5000. Receipts are stuck in your passport and removed by custom officers at immigration on departure.
- Convenience stores, such as 7/11 and Family Mart, are on every street and sell everything from hot and cold takeaway food, fresh fruit, baked goods and alcohol to medical supplies and toiletries. Be mindful that while it’s not illegal to eat and drink in the streets it is frowned upon. Bins are few and far between so keep your bags for rubbish.
- Some hotels offer complimentary HANDY smartphones in your room that you can use for FREE throughout your stay. It offers unlimited 4G internet access, local calls and a guide to the city you are staying in. Use it for google maps and restaurant recommendations etc.
We travelled to Japan with Etihad Airways
Read more about Japan in previous post In Pictures | A Postcard From Japan, Discover Japan | Nagoya, Discover Japan | Kyoto, Discover Japan | Osaka, Discover Japan | Hiroshima, Discover Japan | Kawaguchiko and Discover Japan | Hakone
The views in this post are all my own based on my experience. Unless otherwise stated all photos © Jo Brett 2019. All rights reserved.