Nothing quite prepares you for Tokyo. Not for the neon lights or the back-alleys buzzing with Yakitori grills, not for the city-sized fish markets or the ancient temples, the anime crazes or the constant smell of sushi. You can compare it to other cities, yet none are really quite like it. Tokyo is one of a kind, a blizzard of sights, smells and sounds. A theme park for the senses, and one it would take a lifetime to fully explore and understand.
But in the week I spent in the city, I tried my best to get my head around it all, somehow mastering the very user-friendly subway system in only a few days, yet continuously left confused on how to navigate around the streets. There was one moment when I exited Shinjuku station, one of the busiest in the city with approximately 100 exits. I stood as a solo blonde girl in a sea of Japanese commuters who swarmed like salmon in black and white suits towards their destinations. Eventually I found my exit, but Tokyo continued to feel like this – you never quite lose that sense of being tremendously lost in translation. Yet somehow, it’s almost impossible not to love this city, and not to feel caught in the grip of its unique magnetic energy.
I would tell anyone visiting Tokyo that the best thing to do is simply find a district and walk around. Both by day and by night, the city buzzes with life. What makes Tokyo truly special is the contrast and colliding of old and new. Find your self under skyscrapers and neon light, and then turn the corner to find narrow alleyways littered with tiny bars, restaurants and markets. This is a city which should be on everybody’s list, and if you do make it, here’s some advice for what to do see, and areas well worth exploring.
What to Do & See
Tsjuki Fish Market
Founded in the Edo period, the Tsjuki Fish Market is a micro-city in itself. The outer market is full of some of Tokyo’s top sushi restaurants, market stalls and souvenir stands. But it’s the inner market which is where you will catch a very unique representation of the behind-the-scenes workings of Tokyo. This is a wholesale market where the city’s fish is bought and sold, and although visitors are allowed (after 10am only), it’s definitely not a tourist attraction – this is a working market.
If you do come, it’s important to be respectful and not to interfere with the nuts-and-bolts of the market. However, it’s an incredible sight to see, and a really unique Tokyo experience. Afterwards, take a stroll around the outer market where you’ll find incredible food and some very reasonably priced shopping.
How to get there: The market is 5 minutes walk from Tsjuki subway station.
Shinjuku at night
Shinjuku is the Tokyo you’ve always dreamed about- the neon streets, robot restaurants and nightly madness. At first, I found this area overwhelming and crowded, but it’s the hidden back streets which really make it an amazing place to spend your evenings.
Seek out Golden Gai, a collection of narrow alleyways lined with bars – each seating around 5 people. Nearby (although equally as difficult to find) is Memory Lane (also known as Piss Alley, or Yakitori Street), a collection of streets filled with Yakitori grills.
How to get there: Take the subway to Shinjuku and then it’s best to Google Map it to Memory Lane or Golden Gai as both are pretty tricky to find and not signposted at all.
Near to the youth hub of Harajuku, walking into Meiji Temple feels like you’ve long left Tokyo and have entered into rural Japan. Deep in a thick forest, the temple is minimal in appearance but rich in atmosphere. Walk through the silent forest paths and you’ll find water features, temple buildings and a huge wall of sake bottles. Visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds and feel the silence.
How to get there: Take the subway to Harajuku and follow the signs uphill to the temple.
The other of Tokyo’s most famous temples is Senso-ji, located in the Asakusa area. With quite a different atmosphere to Meiji, this is one of Tokyo’s most touristed spots; the streets around the temple are filled with tourist tat and restaurants come with menus in English, Chinese and Korean. The temple itself is very impressive – a giant red structure with surrounding gardens and smaller buildings. It’s incredibly beautiful all lit up late at night when most of the crowds have dissipated.
How to get there: Take the subway to Asakusa and follow the signs to Senso-ji Temple.
Yet another famous vision of Tokyo, the Shibuya crossing is rumoured to be the world’s busiest – and it’s a chaotic sight. Capturing the best view of the crossing is somewhat difficult, as many of the taller skyscrapers don’t allow tourists up anymore, but Starbucks has a reasonable view from the second floor of one of the surrounding buildings (although you’ll have to wait a while to get a seat!) The area is one of Tokyo’s best shopping and eating districts, and like Shinjuku, it’s the backstreets which are the real highlight around here.
How to get there: Take the subway to Shibuya station.
Roppongi Hills Sky Deck
If you’re looking for that classically beautiful view of Tokyo, then look no further than the Roppongi Hills Sky Deck. It might not be as well known as the Tokyo Tower or the Sky Tree, but the view is the best around, and there’s something very special about standing on a helicopter pad at the top of a skyscraper watching the city turn its lights on. Access costs 2,300 yen for adults and you can see opening hours here.
How to get there: Take the subway to Roppongi Station and take exit 1C.
Districts to Explore, Shop and Eat
One of the most famous areas of Tokyo, Harajuku is known for its ‘Harajuku girls’, who dress up in unusual clothing in a variety of different styles. The area is full of youth culture, with the main street housing many clothing, food and bric-and-brac stores. It’s incredibly busy and crowded, but leave the main street and you’ll find the real treasures of Harajuku. Second-hand clothing is massive in this area, as are unique designers and independent cafes. Chicago Vintage is one of the area’s best, as well as Flamingo Vintage. Check out the lovely Beams Records and stop for lunch at Re:nature, a vegetarian cafe with daily set menus.
One of my favourite areas of Tokyo to explore was the backstreets of Shimo Kitazawa. This is Tokyo’s version of London’s Brick Lane, or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, yet with a far more undiscovered atmosphere. The vintage shopping here is insane – I’d even say better than in London. You’ll find tons of huge shops selling very high quality vintage clothing at reasonable prices. Some of my favourites include the following; Little Trip to Heaven, a shop specialising in women’s vintage and unique designers; the huge New York Joe Exchange with a lot of weird and wonderful bargains; and Rainbow Vintage, worth a look for its selection of vintage kimonos. Otonomad Record Shop is one of the prettiest record stores I have ever seen, and it includes a great selection of records from both Japanese and international artists.
Shimo Kitazawa is also a good place to eat, particularly if you are vegan or vegetarian. Drop by Deli & Bakery Co. where they do a Vegan Deli Plate for 1,150 yen. They also serve cakes and Sunday brunch. Pancake House is worth a stop-by for its delicious pancake pies.
This is the area of Tokyo with the highest number of hotels and restaurants aimed at foreigners, so chances are you’ll find yourself here at some point. Asakusa is essentially a collection of small backstreets centred around the Senso-ji Temple. It’s a lovely area – once you get past the tourist tat! You’ll find an abundance of restaurants here with English-friendly menus, and it’s much easier to eat vegetarian here than elsewhere in Tokyo. As well as exploring the Senso-ji Temple, shopping is the main activity, and you’ll find lots of souvenir shops around as well as traditional Japanese crafts.
The leafy area around Ueno feels like you’ve entered small town Tokyo. Ueno Park is one of Tokyo’s largest green areas- full of boating lakes, temples, walkways, a couple of museums and the occasional weekend festival. It’s got a great atmosphere – particularly on a sunny weekend when Tokyo’s residents come out to picnic and walk their dogs.
Nearby the Yanaka area has true old town ambience and lots of street food options and boutique shopping. The Ueno Sakuragi Atari is a small collection of spaces featuring the Kayaba Bakery, Oshi Olive cafe and the charming Yanaka Beer Hall. Each is housed in old Japanese wooden buildings and surrounded by greenery. If you’re in the area, it’s a beautiful space to have lunch or spend a few hours sipping Yanaka beers.
Tips and Tricks
The Tokyo metro system is huge but very user-friendly. When you first look at a map, you’ll probably be somewhat freaked out, but don’t worry, you’ll figure it out. To make it easy, buy a Pasmo or Sucia card when you arrive at the airport. These are essentially the same thing but with different names. They cost 500 yen and you top them up with money and tap in and out before and after each journey (think Oyster card). It will save you lots of time and money and make using the subway much smoother.
Japan has a reputation of being very expensive so it was a happy surprise to find that a lot of things are fairly reasonably priced. Sure, this isn’t Thailand or India, but it’s also not London or New York. While you’ll pay a lot for accommodation (I paid around $30 a night for my hostel), and food can be expensive (particularly if you eat out at nice restaurants) there are many ways to make the whole experience much cheaper. Eat street food or at canteen-style restaurants. Convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart are also great for a quick lunch or breakfast.
The metro is very reasonable and buying things like clothes and souvenirs is much cheaper than at home. Many attractions are free and although those you pay for are pricey, limit yourself to a few of these and the general experience won’t break the bank!
Where to Stay
I stayed at Wise Owl Hostel near to the Tsjuki Fish Market and Ginza. The location was great for getting around and into the city, although there weren’t many tourist-friendly restaurants around (and it’s not a great area to be a vegetarian in!) but I’d recommend it for the clean dorms, great common area and nice bathrooms. It’s a hostel which feels much more like a hotel.
Most tourists stay in the Asakusa district in North East Tokyo. It’s full of tourist-friendly restaurants, bars and shops – although it’s definitely not the ‘local Tokyo’ you’ll find elsewhere.