The ultimate guide to Tōkyō

Japan holds a special place in my heart, which it has had ever since I visited the country for the first time and fell completely in love with the Japanese capital Tōkyō (pronounced with two long o's). "Tōkyō" actually means eastern capital because the city hasn't always been the capital of Japan. In 1868, Tōkyō took away the title from the imperial city Kyōto and has since then been the capital of Japan.

There's so many things to see in the world's most populated city with its 38 mio. people including the suburbs. The area is the size of the Danish island Sjælland. You can walk around between the different areas in Tōkyō, but if you want to see several areas on one day I'd recommend the bus, train or subway. You can read more about the practicalities when traveling around Japan in our blog post here. But let's move on and head off to Tōkyō!

Top 3 areas in Tōkyō

As I said, there is plenty to see here, and in this post I will try to come up with three areas that belong in the ultimate guide to Tōkyō. At the end of this post I've included a few areas that didn't make it to the top but are worth a visit, if you have more time here. Enjoy!


1. Shinjuku

We start out in an area full of skyscrapers and luxurious hotels, Shinjuku, which is a spot in Tōkyō offering entertainment, transportation options and shopping. And funnily enough, Tōkyō Station with its underground paths it not as hectic as this one. Start your tour of Shinjuku at the eastern exit of Shinjuku Station, where you might get a glimpse of Godzilla by Toho Cinema. In the tall Don Quijote close by, you can purchase souvenirs with the big monster.

In the same area you'll find karaoke bars and regular bars by the red light district Kabukichō, which makes a good photo spot by daylight. You will definitely be able to find a few "love hotels" with interesting themes, where couples meet to be together. These hotels stand out from normal hotels with its weird names and often creative and flamboyant decorations on the outside. Walk through Omoide Yokocho's narrow, smoke filled streets, where you'll find small yakitori restaurants, that might at first seem dodgy. But don't be fooled, because it is here you'll find smashingly good, authentic Japanese food. If you're in for a unique food experience, book at seat for the show and food at the Robot Restaurant. The price of a meal and show here is around 8,000¥ (around 74 USD). If you want to know what you're in for and learn more about the place, there's plenty of YouTube videos to watch.

In Shinjuku, there's also a chance to see Tōkyō from above - completely free of charge! In the western part of the city, you'll find the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government Building Observatory. Take the elevator in the northern or southern tower to the 46th floor in 55 seconds. It tickles on the way up, but the view is just stunning! One of the towers will be open for entrance every day between 9:30 and 23:00 so here's a chance to see the sunset, the beautiful lights over Tōkyō or the red landmark Tōkyō Tower. On days where the sky is clear you might even be able to see all the way to Mt. Fuji. And if you look closely you might find the luxury hotel from the movie Lost in Translation. When you've taken lots of pictures here, you can enjoy some jazzy tunes and French cuisine in the restaurant or purchase a postcard in the small souvenir shop. 

Don't miss Korea town, Shin-Okubo, if you're a fan of K-pop. In Shinjuku it's also worth visiting Shinjuku Gyōen park - especially during spring, where the cherry trees bloom. Host your own hanami under the pink sakura trees while enjoying a konbini (convenience store) snacks and a Strong Zero. You can read more about our favourite convenience store snacks here

shinjuku, japan, tokyo

restaurant, japan, tokyo, shinjuku

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2. Shibuya and Harajuku

There is also a chance to see the beautiful sakura blossoms near Shibuya by the river Nakameguro. Shibuya is known for being one of the most popular and trendy areas of Tōkyō. It hosts one of the world's busiest train stations, and besides being a crowded area it is also the home of the famous Shibuya Crossing known from films and series such as Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Visit the dog statue portraying the faithful dog Hachiko. Take a look at the Cat Street area or the mall Shibuya 109, where you might hear the shop assistants shouting about sale or saying the classic "irasshaimasee" as a welcome. Perhaps you'd rather drive through Shibuya in Mario Cart cars dressed up as Princess Peach? See it all from about inside the popular Starbucks in the crossing. 

If you want to experience what the nightlife of Tōkyō is like (and Kabukichō is not your thing), try Shibuya's bars and clubs instead. Perhaps you'll find an izakaya bar and a few hours of nomihōdai (drink all you can) or rent a room to go karaoke at Karaoke Kan. A little tip from me - if you go karaoke during the day, the room is often much cheaper than during night time. Also, if you're into gourmet food, there's a couple hundred Michelin restaurants in the area too.

Looking for something less expensive to eat, try one of the many theme cafés here. Most of them are time limited cafés, but try to google your way to the best one. You'll find a list of the current theme cafés of 2021 right here. If you head west from Shibuya you'll discover the boheme-like district Shimokitazawa, where you'll find second hand gems, cosy book shops, and great coffee.

Close to Shibuya lies the fashion district Harajuku. Many tourists come here to walk through the famous street Takeshita, which is always full of tourists and young Japanese looking for new items to shop. For decades Harajuku has been a meeting point for fashion experimenting young Japanese, who supposedly still meet on Sundays to walk through the street. Try a tasty crepe with strawberries in one of the stalls such as SWEET BOX or visit the big 100 yen store Daiso.

The alley in Omotedandō close to Takshita is the home of some good second hand shops and expensive brand stores like in Ginza. But you'll also find the perhaps prettiest Starbucks in the whole world on top of Tokyu Plaza Building and the beautiful mirror entrance. Walking back towards Harajuku Station you'll have to stop by the beautiful Yoyogi Park as well as the gorgeous Shintō shrine Meiji Jingu. Maybe you're luckily enough to watch as a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony is held.

harajuku, takeshita street, tokyo, japan

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3. Ueno, Asakusa and Akihabara

Another central station is Ueno. Here you can pass time with many activities such as walk through Ueno Park, where you'll find Ueno Zoo and Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Walk through the long, cosy street Ameyoko, where you can try some streetfood and buy different items. Don't miss going for a drink and snacks at the izakaya bar The Lockup, which exists in a few areas of Tōkyō. While you're dining in your cell and enjoying your drink with edible eyes, someone scary might stop by... It's an experience which is not for the fainthearted. 

Walking east from Ueno Station (it's possible to walk this one), you'll arrive at the Asakusa area. The main attraction here is the great temple and tourist magnet Sensōji with the Nakamise shopping street on the way to the temple after the kaminarimon gate. Take a look at the goods in the stalls full of souvenirs and Japanese treats on your way to the temple. Perhaps you'll be able to find some traditional Japanese ukiyoe prints, yukata (thin kimono), and local specialties. Sometimes you might even see a real geisha or a tourist who's dressed up. Many female tourists take advantage of the beautiful surroundings in order to take pictures in their rented yukata with their hair and makeup done.

Get a view of the stunning area inside the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, where you get go up a few floors completely free of charge and get a good view of the area. If you want to go higher, you can see Tōkyō from above in the big Skytree. Here, the prices depend on the type of ticket up to 3,400¥ (around 31 USD). See if you can spot the beer company Asashi's office building and the golden flame, which looks like... well, something else (insert poop emoji here).

Close to Sensōji you can go through the old theatre streets, that are still festive to look at. Go to the street Kapabashi, where you can buy your own ceramics, pans, and cooking gear in the cosy stall-like shops. There's a few shops selling plastic and wax food for displaying in shop windows, which you'll definitely see in many places, while you're in Japan.

Going south from Ueno Station instead, you'll arrive in the electric town, the district Akihabara. Here you'll we overwhelmed by the electric stores, gadgets for everything and anything, gacha machines, video games, and anime/manga stores. If you're looking for retro games for old gaming consoles, you ought to take a look in Super Potato, where there's also a small retro arcade section on the top floor. There is something for every otaku (geeky soul) here. For a unique experience, visit a maid café where Japanese women dressed as French maids serve food and drinks. Yup, this is just one of many unique experiences in Tōkyō.

tokyo, japan, sensoji, asakusa

akihabara, tokyo, japan, electric city

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Other areas of Tōkyō (if you have more time)

If you're only planning on staying in Tōkyō for a short period of time, I'd recommend the above areas around Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ueno. All of these can be found on the central, green Yamanote train line owned by Japan Rail. In the following I'll mention a few other places worth visiting, if you're in the Japanese capital for longer and want to explore areas outside of the green train line.

Experience Toyosu Fish Market

Do you want to experience one of the world's largest fish markets in action? That you can do at the fish market in Toyosu. In 2018, the huge inner fish market at Tsukiji moved to new buildings in Toyosu. Here, tourists have the chance to observe the negotiations and eat freshly caught fish in one of the restaurants. It's free to participate but you sort of "pay" with your beauty sleep - you have to get up early to get to the market around 5:30. Some go out to party the night before and pull an all-nighter the night before, so that they are able to get to Shijōmae Station and the market super early in the morning.

In the new buildings of Fish Wholesale Market Building, observation windows are installed for people to see how the fast auctions for huge tuna and other types of fish go. Afterwards, you can buy fish and veggies in another building close to the auction.

tsukiji, fish market, japan, tokyo


 The modern harbour area Odaiba

By the modern port area Odaiba, which is an artificial island, there are places to be discovered too. I recommend going to the island with the monorail from for example Asakusa Station. Here, you can see the gigant robot Gundam (which was in recent years exchanged with a new unicorn Gundam statue) close to the at night colourful Rainbow Bridge. This is also the home of Tōkyō's very own statue of liberty. Don't miss teamLAB Borderless Tokyo, a popular and enchanting museum - it's on my bucket list for next time. There are several other museums, a ferris wheel, and hot springs here as well.

gundam statue, tokyo, japan, odaiba


The Disney parks

Not far away in another port area, Urayasu, you'll find the Disney parks Disneyland and Disney Sea at Maihama Station. These parks have a slight difference to them in their focus, and Disneyland is the oldest and most traditional of the two. It's more focus on families with children here, whereas Disney Sea is focuses on adults and couples. In the Disney Sea park, they sell alcohol and the rides are a bit wilder too, in my opinion. If you've only got one day, I recommend Disney Sea for sure. The fun water theme makes the park different from any other Disney park, and you can go "under the sea", visit the port of Agrabah, or check in at the Tower of Terro. Also, it's not unusual to see Japanese girls dressed up in matching outfits in these parks. It's a thing here.

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Need to let your inner geek out?

Ikebukuro is another commercial area of Tōkyō with a super busy train station on the central JR Yamanote Line (the same as previously mentioned). Underneath Ikebukuro there's a shopping area with everything from food to books (it's quite normal for the big stations). Just like Akihabara, Ikebukuro is a central spot for otaku culture, and there's a Pokémon Center inside the mall Sunshine City. Where it's very busy and full of tourists, you should expect waiting in line to enter the shop.

If you've already explored Akihabra and Ikebukuro, you'll find a similar otaku area in Nagano Broadway with plenty of second hand shops. And it's not very busy here, outside of central Tōkyō. If you're a fan of Studio Ghibli and characters like Totoro, I recommend a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Kichijōji, which supposedly is known for being a district everyone wants to live in.

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Museums of art and history

Finally, if you're into arts, culture, and history you'll love Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills full of modern art exhibitions. Do you want to learn more about Tōkyō's history, I recommend the lively museum Fukagawa-Edo Museum. A very cool museum! Similarly, at the Tokyo-Edo Museum you can see ancient artefacts from before the birth of Christ all the way up to the Japanese modernisation around WW2. There's also a samurai museum, which I haven't yet visited. 

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Well, that was my guide around Tōkyō. Did I miss any important sightseeing spots around the city? Leave a comment below and let me know. If you want tips for day trips outside of Tōkyō, I've written a post about that as well. See you, or as they say in Japan - mata nee!

Related: 5 cities to visit in Japan.

Merete Vangsgaard

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