Tokyo is made up of thousands of layers. There’s so much to unravel and absorb. If you’re looking for recommendations for things to do, you may feel overwhelmed by ‘top ten’ lists and articles that presume to know what’s “best”. Take them with a pinch of salt. They’re subjective after all – and many are written by people who’ve never even set foot in the country. Instead, ask someone who’s spent some time in this mammoth of a city to share their favourite spots and activities, and speak with locals once you’re there.
I’ve compiled a succinct list of activities that I personally recommend, having lived there for several months. It’s not comprehensive but it answers the question that I’m frequently asked: What should I do in Tokyo?
Drop by Yoyogi Park on a Sunday
Yoyogi Park in Harajuku is one of Tokyo’s biggest parks. It has some serious character, especially on a Sunday. You’re bound to witness all sorts of shenanigans. Dancers and actors rehearsing, people in peculiar costumes, impromptu fashion events, random musical performances, bizarre magic shows, or leather-clad members of the Tokyo Rockabilly Club dancing to 1950s hits.
Have a picnic at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Shinjuku Gyoen was one of my favourite parks in Tokyo, for its zen gardens, beautiful plant life, Japanese tea house, and the sheer diversity as you make your way from one end to the other. It’s ban on loud music makes it a peaceful place to picnic it up, with views of Tokyo’s skyscrapers and Mount Fuji poking out in the distance (on a good day). There’s a small admission fee (¥200; children ¥50) and the park closes around 4.30pm.
Walk across the scramble crossing in Shinjuku
Yes, it’s just a crossing… but it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Situated in front of the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station, it’s bizarrely well-functioning and orderly despite being one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world. You may remember Scarlet Johansson walking across it in Lost in Translation. Surrounded by video screens and skyscrapers, it has a real Bladerunner vibe to it.
Admire Tokyo from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tocho) for FREE
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (known as ‘Tocho’ in Japanese) serves delicious, panoramic views of Tokyo from its observatories on the 45th floor. When the weather is good, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance. A short walk from Shinjuku Station’s west gate, the building is home to the centre of government for the 23 wards of Tokyo. Unlike other popular viewpoints – such as Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower – it is completely free to enter. The North Observatory closes at 11pm and is a great place to admire Tokyo’s impressive nightscape.
Go to a themed bar
Tokyo is the motherland of offbeat establishments, a unique feature being its themed bars: some surreal, some spooky, and some downright strange. You’ll find a gothic themed vampire bar in Ginza; a zombie style bar in Roppongi; a medical themed restaurant in Shibuya; several Alice in Wonderland cafes, and an extensive array of maid cafes. My favourite is The Lockup in Shinjuku, which has a prison-inspired setting. You and your friends are locked in your own jail cell, and cocktails are served in test tubes and beakers with eyeballs and syringes poking out. While the idea of a themed bar didn’t instantly pique my interest, accepting an invitation to The Lockup turned out to be a pretty entertaining night out.
Visit the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku
I have a pretty short attention span when it comes to traipsing around crowded tourist spots. They can sometimes feel more mandatory than fun, but every now and then a tourist attraction blows me away. I recommend the Meiji Shrine for its abundant beauty, history and photo opportunities. Surrounded by lavish forest, this historical Shinto shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. The emperor helped modernise Japan by opening it up to the outside world after a period of isolation. There are so many intriguing things to see in the vicinity for free, including the picturesque sake barrels permanently displayed outside, offered each year to the enshrined deities.
Attend a drinks buffet at Park Hyatt
If you’re going to follow the adage “when in Rome”, chances are you’ll be getting pretty tipsy in Tokyo. While I’m not usually one for all-you-can-drink, I decided to do it in style last year and celebrate my birthday at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, the same hotel where Lost in Translation was filmed. On the 41st floor, you’ll find The Peak Bar, where you can indulge in Tokyo’s otherworldly skyline and a free-flowing selection of amazing drinks (prosecco, cocktails, wine, etc) and canapes between 5 and 8pm (all for a reasonable price tag).
Take a stroll around the “hidden” Golden Gai
Despite blossoming into a tourist attraction, Golden Gai feels somewhat off-the-beaten-path. Narrow streets are lined with hundreds of tiny, neon-lit watering holes and eateries, each one with its own quirks and twists. Situated in a hard-to-find part of Shinjuku, it is often alluded to as Tokyo’s “secret” drinking quarter. The clientele is a mix of locals and tourists. The alleyways are like something out of a Japanese horror film, architecturally reminiscent of early 20th century Tokyo. If you don’t care to enter the bars – many of which charge an entrance fee (starting at ¥500 per person) – then at least drop by for a wander.
Explore Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and suburbs
Explore one of Tokyo’s lesser-known neighbourhoods to catch a glimpse of its authentic culture and diversity. Tokyo is a huge metropolis comprised of small neighbourhoods, a number of which form a ward or ‘ku’. You will find 23 wards in total. I lived in Kami-itabashi, located in the Itabashi ward in the north. Here, you can walk down traditional Japanese-style streets, meet friendly locals who can’t speak a word of English, drink sake in kooky watering holes and dine in affordable eateries where picking a dish feels like a dining version of Russian Roulette (not recommended for vegans or fussy eaters).
Another under-the-radar neighbourhood that I love is Yanaka, a short walk from Ueno. It’s one of Tokyo’s most traditional wards, a small part of the city that wasn’t bombed during WWII. Its quaint, winding streets are filled with local artisans, food kiosks, and family restaurants, making it a great place to wander and soak in the views.
Do some research on Tokyo’s various districts. There are entire neighbourhoods dedicated to different needs and interests: recycled books, electronic gadgets, anime and manga, crazy fashion, and plenty more. Whatever your obsession, Tokyo probably caters to it.