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Top 10 Things To Do in Tokyo

by James O'Keeffe April 11, 2020

Top 10 Things To Do in Tokyo

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Tokyo earlier this year, and now have the exceedingly difficult task of selecting the ten 'best' things to see and do in the world famous city. As anyone who has been there for any length of time will know, such a list can never do justice to the inexhaustibly fun, frenetic and multifaceted Japanese capital. Keeping that in mind, here at ten things (in no particular order) worth checking out next time you're there.


1. Shinjuku Golden Gai

Beneath the vast silhouettes of skyscrapers, nested in the relentlessly modern, neon-inscribed heart of Shinjuku, the aesthetic of Golden Gai is something of a paradox. A lingering memory of an older Tokyo—one of the few places to have withstood the great earthquake, wartime bombings, and the compelling forces of Japan's rapid modernisation. Golden Gai is a network of seven interconnected alleyways, packed with more than 270 places to eat and drink. I came upon this place entirely by accident, but returned loyally on several occasions thereafter. Here you will find tiny bars, most fitting fewer than ten patrons at a time.

Note: Golden Gai has become increasingly popular amongst tourists in recent years, and as such, some bars have cover charges (~700-1000 Yen), while others serve only regulars (with new patrons requiring an introduction). Don't let this give you the impression of exclusivity though—for the most part, Golden Gai is as welcoming a place as any in Tokyo. Even if you do opt for somewhere with a cover charge, chances are the price will be negligible for the quality of the experience.

Address: 1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-Ku
(Golden Gai is only a brief walk from the eastern exit of Shinjuku Station)

2. Cat Café Monta

A bizarre and charming phenomenon, cat cafés are precisely what their name suggests—cafés in which cats roam freely, joining you for your visit. Tokyo is home to a great number of these establishments, as well as their more exotic variants: from owls to snakes.

My personal favourite amongst the feline venues is Monta. Situated several storeys above the Taito neighbourhood, Monta is home to nine of the cutest breeds, ranging from Russian Blue, Munchkin, and Bengal, all the way to Norwegian Forest Cat. The space itself provides a warm and comfortable atmosphere in which to enjoy the (very good) coffee, and of course the furry companions.

Address: 1-2-5 Hanagawa Tokyo 111-0033 Satellite Fuji Bldg 8F
(Monta is less than a 5 minute walk from Asakusa Station)


3. Shimokitazawa

Since the arrival of the hippy youth in the 1970s, Shimokitazawa has become the nexus of bohemian culture in Tokyo. Littered with trendy cafés, hole-in-the-wall dining options, record stores, live music venues, and some of the finest thrift and vintage shops you're likely to find anywhere, Shimokitazawa is a place best experienced by simply getting lost.

Be sure to make allowances for an extremely laidback atmosphere though, as most of the cafés and shops don't open their doors till 11:00 a.m., with many being closed entirely on Tuesdays. With its relentlessly hip atmosphere, Shimokitazawa will undoubtedly grace many Top 10 lists in years to come.


4. Shinjuku-Gyoen

Despite the sprawling urban labyrinth that characterises much of Tokyo, the city is also home to some of the most beautiful green spaces of any city the world over—owing, in large part, to a profoundly enduring horticultural tradition. The finest among these spaces is the Shinjuku-Gyoen national garden. This was my personal highlight of Tokyo, and indeed all my travels in Japan. I was fortunate enough to be there for Cherry Blossom season – that fleeting week or so (in late March or early April, depending on the weather) in which the Sakura come into full bloom.

At this time of year, the gardens are filled with thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of spectators to the bloom. Families and friends sit upon the expansive main lawns, with the immense Sakura spreading their branches overhead, skyscrapers faded blue in the distance beyond. Even outside of Cherry Blossom season, however, the gardens are a spectacle at any time of year—the lush greens of Spring, the flaming hues of Autumn, and the austere beauty of Winter. Shinjuku-Gyoen encompasses a range of gardens that exemplify the brilliance of all seasons, be it French Formal, Japanese Traditional, or English Landscape.

(Shinjuku-Gyoen is only a five minute walk from Shinjuku-Gyoemmae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line. The price of entry is a mere 200 yen)

5. Tsuta Ramen

Tokyo is (among many other things) a culinary destination, with world-class dining options available at all price points. If I had to opt for just one place though, which offers the finest quality Japanese cuisine at a price impossible elsewhere in the world, it would be Tsuta Ramen.

Tsuta made international headlines in 2015, when it became the first ramen restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star. This makes it among the cheapest Michelin starred meals anywhere in the world, with a bowl costing only about 1100 Yen ($13AUD). Because of this, obviously, securing a spot at the tiny venue is competitive. Moreover, they serve only seventy bowls per day. To guarantee myself a spot for dinner, for example, I had to drop by at around midday and collect a ticket from a man outside the restaurant (they were already booked out for lunch, and politely turning away prospective diners). I was then able to return later that evening for my 7pm slot, standing in line with other lucky recipients, all of us anxiously clutching our proverbial golden tickets. It is not a long wait, as turnover is swift. This variety of dining is—in true Japanese style—designed to focus customers on their food, as opposed to their fellow diners. There is hardly a word spoken as you sit at a counter overlooking the kitchen, watching the chefs go about their tasks with the kind of crystalline focus typically reserved for game-deciding free throws and match-point serves. The ramen is, as you would expect, sublime.


Address: 1 Chome-14-1 Sugamo, Toshima, Tokyo 170-0002
               (Tsuta Ramen is only a brief walk from Sugamo Station)

Hours: 11am-6pm Daily (Closed Wednesday)

Phone: +81 3-3943-1007


6. Shibuya Crossing

The intersection just outside of Shibuya Station was made famous by films such as Lost in Translation. When the pedestrian lights go green, a mass exodus occurs from all sides; commuters flooding the intersection, creating an awe-inspiring sight with clockwork regularity.

As soon as it happens though, it is gone—the streets that only a moment ago were being traversed by converging tributaries of pedestrians are clear once more, and the traffic moves in to fill the void. This crossing is an essential part of anyone's trip to Tokyo, distilling in a single scene the symphonic movement, complexity, and spectacle of the city.

(The crossing is accessible via the Hachiko exit at Shibuya Station.)


7. Transport System

The Japanese rail and subway system is iconic the world over, and with good reason. While in Tokyo, the trains will likely be your sole means of getting around, and will allow you to do so with incredible efficiency. Traversing Tokyo was, in itself, one of my favourite experiences of the trip. From the moment I got through immigration and boarded the monorail, I was hooked. It is something like being a single blood cell navigating an immense body. You move in unison with streams of other commuters, not so much walking as being carried along by a larger network of interwoven currents.

I was initially daunted back home, when contemplating how I was going to fare with the apparent complexities of the Tokyo transport system, but as soon as I was there, my doubts were laid to rest. English signage is provided at every turn, lines are colour coded, and not once did I get lost. Even in the midst of the notorious rush hour, in which people were quite literally being packed into carriages, the experience was always fun. Of all the cities I have visited, Tokyo is perhaps the easiest to get around, and more than that, the only one where I have so greatly enjoyed the experience of doing so.


8. Meiji Shrine

While nearby Kyoto remains the destination of choice when it comes to temples and shrines—the former capital embodying Japan's past to a greater extent—Tokyo is not to be ignored in this department. Near the top of many lists would be Senso-Ji, the colossal Buddhist temple in Asakusa. While this is certainly worth visiting, my personal recommendation would be Meiji shrine.

It is Tokyo's most well-known Shinto shrine, and its appeal lies in a quiet, conservative beauty, as opposed to the comparative grandeur of Senso-Ji.

(Meiji Shrine is immediately accessible outside of Harajuku Station. The cost of admission is 500 Yen)


9. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

For views over Tokyo, one most likely thinks of Tokyo Tower, or the more recent addition to the city's skyline: the Skytree. While both provide spectacular views, they both come with the complication of often very lengthy queue times (particularly the Skytree), and rather hefty admission costs. For this reason, my recommendation would be the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.

The twin-towered, 243 meter tall building is home to two observation decks (both at an elevation of 202 meters). While not as high as the more widely-known vantage points (the Sky tree's upper deck rising 450 meters, for example), this option is free of charge, and is not barred by such prolonged queue times. In the right weather conditions, the observation decks provide stunning views of the Tokyo metropolis, as well as Mount Fuji beyond.

(Tocho-mae Station, on the Oedo Subway Line, is located in the building's basement.)

10. Akihabara

Perhaps the most quintessential feature of Japan is the co-existence of the traditional and the hyper-modern. Tokyo embodies this duality more vividly than any other city. While it is home to the aforementioned gardens, shrines, and time-locked alleyways, it is also home to an equally rich and fascinating present.

One of the best glimpses to be had of this

is in the Akihabara district. Home to a plethora of electronic shops, as well as vast repositories of Otaku (anime and manga) culture, Akihabara is the neon-lit embodiment of modern Japan.


Wrapping Up

I hope you have enjoyed my run down of my favourite places to visit in Tokyo and that they inspire you to go exploring the next time that you are there. I would highly recommend that you take a map with you for getting around as it helped me enormously in getting my bearings, working out how long it would take to get places and in determining where things were relative to others. There are two maps that I brought with me; they were the Tokyo ITMB Map & the Japan ITMB Map. I particularly liked these maps since they have been printed on plastic rather than paper, meaning they were durable enough to last the trip without a single tear or a rip.


If you have any questions about the places I have highlighted or if you feel that I have missed off any glaringly obvious top spots to visit (which I undoubtedly have) I would love to hear from you in the comments section below. 

James O'Keeffe
James O'Keeffe


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