Eclectic and electric, Tokyo is all things to all people. Whether you want to scratch beneath the glitzy surface to locate Tokyo’s strong sense of tradition, graze your way through the city’s excellent sushi or shop (electronics and designer brands top the bill), this Japanese city will not disappoint. Of course, you may well be high (or low) on jet-lag when you arrive – I was in a daze for days. So, in this guide I’ll share the the top sights in Tokyo. But I’ll also include the most eye-opening cultural surprises about this fantastic but ever so weird and wonderful Japanese city.
1. Visit Tsukiji Fish Market
To give it its full name, the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market is the largest fish and seafood market in the world making it not only a great place for procuring fish, but also a significant tourist attraction. Watch man size tuna sliced by industrial saws, get caught up in the excitement of the auction or have your sushi fill at one of the market’s super fresh restaurants. Over 400 types of seafood are offered for sale at the market, but get there early to catch the action – the market opens at 3am, when the catch is brought in from around the globe and the auctions start after 5am. If you are jet-lagged, you might want to work with your old time zone to get up (or stay up) to see Tsukiji. Saunter there later and you’ll just see empty crates.
2. Sleep in a capsule bed
We decided to engage in the interesting concept of capsule or cabin bed sleeping while in Tokyo – a small space with a door that closes to form your own capsule sized bedroom. Complete with a light, a shelf and wi-fi connection (of course), it was a snug yet fun experience. Top tip: with an absence of natural light, it is impossible to know whether it is day or night when you’re inside. If you don’t want to sleep away the day, set your alarm.
3. Explore the Observation Deck at Tokyo City View
Head to Roppongi Hills to get the best views across Tokyo. As well as shopping, a cinema, restaurants and cafes, Tokyo City View is located in the area offering an observation deck 52 floors up. Found at the top of the Mori Tower, enjoy the stunning panoramas from the deck before taking the extra two flights to the Sky Deck on level 54 which skirts the perimeter of the Heliport.
4. Order cocktails at the Lost in Translation Bar
To see the sun go down and the city lights spring into life, complete your visit to Tokyo City View with a trip to the nearby Park Hyatt for a post sight-seeing drink. The bar to visit is the New York Grill & Bar located on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel (what is it with 52nd floor viewing spots in Tokyo?). The backdrop from the bar became famous when it featured heavily in the cult classic movie, Lost in Translation. I have to say, I really struggled to find this bar (let’s blame the jet-lag, eh). But when I did, I really struggled to leave. Cocktails – divine.
5. See the cherry blossom in Uneo Park
If you are lucky enough to coincide your trip with the internationally renowned cherry blossom season in Japan, Ueno Park is the place you will want to visit to see it in all its pretty pink glory. However, even if you don’t managed to arrive in spring, Ueno is a popular stop attracting millions of visitors each year. The public space dates back to 1873 and offers a whole day of potential entertainment. From wandering amongst the cherry trees, seeing lotus ponds, pagodas and over 8,000 trees to visiting one of the many museums including the Tokyo Modern Art Museum, there is plenty to do in Ueno.
6. Plan your cherry blossom dates accurately
Even after the main spring season in England (which has still yet to arrive, incidentally), the blossom lingers for a short while. Not in Japan. Optimistically heading to Ueno park in the hope of getting a parting glimpse of the blooms that make Japan so famous, I was disappointed to find that almost all evidence of the famous cherry blossom season has gone. Apart from two trees (and I’m convinced they are genetically modified to blossom for longer), there was very little of the pink stuff left to see. Upshot – when the blossom is gone, it’s gone. If you are visiting Tokyo and Japan for the season, do your research and visit during those exact dates. (They change each year). Or be disappointed.
7. Follow the rules – there are many
From specific numbered sections to stand in for boarding the train to segregated outdoor smoking areas, Japan seems to be a nation full of rules. According to one hotel I looked at, breakfast is 7-8, sightseeing from 11-3, bathing 4-5, dinner 7-8, lights out by 10. It tend to be a ‘make it up as I go along’ kind of traveller but quickly came to realise it was easier to simply go with the cultural flow in Japan. No point rocking up at 5pm for an early dinner if I’m supposed to be bathing.
8. Buy new electronics in Akihabara District
Regardless of your technical capabilities you are likely to want to take a trip out to the Akhiabara district of Tokyo. Electronics, computers, anime and video games are traded whether old or new and the streets bustle with deals being done while the world’s forefront of technology is showcased. From robotics to micro-everything, if the idea has been conceived, it is probably available for sale in the shops and streets of Akihabara. If you want to be dazzled in the shimmering of LED ever blinking lights, be sure to stop by the area at night. Don’t think your phone is up to the job of capturing the vision of cutting edge technology in action? This is the perfect place to pick up one that will.
9. Relax in Higashi-gyōen (Imperial Palace East Gardens)
Although the Imperial Palace is not open to the public the East Gardens allows a close up peak at the exterior of this impressive building. The gardens include the former grounds of Edo Castle and moats, bridges and imposing stone walls add to the drama. Take a soothing stroll in the contrasting serenity of the gardens filled with bamboo, wisteria trees to escape from the bustle of the city for a calming experience in an otherwise frenetic city.
10. Linger in the toilets
You are not going to see this recommendation anywhere else on this blog, but the bathroom experience in Japan is something else. And, I promise you, worth a lingering visit. Japanese toilets come complete with a remote control that offers options that range from heating the seat (nice) to squirting water at your posterior (not for me), but most fascinating, the option to play music or flushing sounds (presumably to detract from other noises that might be going on, but surely doing more to attract attention), and, the option to spray deodorant. Really, Japanese toilets should be the gold standard around the world and you’ll come to miss them when you leave.
11. Eat sushi
Fresh and at its absolutely best in Tokyo, even if the idea of raw fish isn’t your thing, you really should try sushi at least once in the city. Personally, I could eat it three times a day, but my dad wasn’t so keen. And that was good, because I got to learn about so many other traditional Japanese foods I might not have otherwise eaten.
12. Try the other Japanese foods
From okonomitaki to Kobe beef to katsu, there are so many alternative non-fish options in Japan and Tokyo, you don’t need to be terrified if you don’t like sushi. In fact, BBQ meat is a specialty (served on a stick!). Not sure what to order? Check out my guide: 20 Best Japanese Dishes To Try (Besides Sushi). Noodles should absolutely be on your list. And speaking of noodles…
13. Learn to slurp your noodles
From tea to noodle juice to soup, the Japanese are a country of slurpers and if that bothers you, I’m afraid you will quickly need to get over it (or pack some earplugs). I fell into the irritated category at first. For some reason my ears are tuned into even the slightest eating noise and it sets my shoulders to tense. The problem was, it’s not the occasional slurper and noisy eater in Tokyo, it is pretty much everyone. It’s a cultural norm here. So, with a deep breath, I decided to try the noisy noodle eating method on the theory that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. It was kind of fun and messy but it’s a trait I’ll leave in Japan.
14. Try to speak a little Japanese
One thing that surprised me about Tokyo, capital of Japan, is that you can’t always assume you’ll find an English speaker. And therefore, you can’t assume that you’ll always be able to communicate. From shop staff to information desks, English speaking locals aren’t so common. The up side is the opportunity to practice non-verbal communication with gestures, pointing and comical miming. Alternative solution: try to learn a little Japanese. I get it, that sounds daunting – I’m not a natural language learner either – but it will be so worth the effort. Duolingo is a Godsend.
15. Make some Japanese friends
While I might expect or at least hope that people who work in restaurants, tourist information or similar places will be both friendly and helpful, I found that the people on the street of Tokyo were more than happy to take a few minutes to help out if you’re stuck (which happened a lot when we arrived and battled through nearly 30 hours without sleep to try and beat the jet lag). In return, we were more than happy to be accosted by two giggling school girls and help them complete there ‘speak to a foreigner’ homework when they rushed up to us outside a train station. I don’t know where the photos will be used, but chatting with them was a highlight of the day.
16. Use the many vending machines
From the usual soft drinks machines to ordering in restaurants to random street corners, Tokyo is a city flooded with vending machines, and I like it. You’re never far away from a drink or something to eat and the process fits nicely with the country’s ordered and efficient way of life. I think we should all vend more. And if you’re going to do it anywhere, do it in Tokyo. Bonus: it avoids the communication problem. Look at picture. Pay. Press button. Get food that looks broadly similar to picture. By the way, the food is served inside. Not from a vending dispatch tray.
Tips for visiting Tokyo
How expensive is Tokyo?
I was worried that Japan was going to blow my travel budget out of the water, much the same as three months in Hawaii left my bank manager wondering what kind of lavish lifestyle I’d been living. The good news for budget travellers is that Japan can be done on the cheap. Ok, accommodation comes out at the high-end – over $20 a night, but if you’re prepared to eat noodles and drink the local beer, you can spend less than $10 on an evening meal. Even if you do eat out, you can find a good noodle bar (for want of a better word) offering quick eat and go noddles or rice bowls for under 500 Yen, about $5. Be prepared to order by pictures or plastic replicas of what’s on offer.
Do you need to book ahead?
If I ever book in advance, it is usually the day before or the day I’m due to turn up, but because my dad was travelling with me for the first two weeks of my stay, I thought I’d be the diligent daughter and book our visit in advance. (I also have a lot to make up for since our visit to Cuba when I failed to book the bus in advance and we ended up in a 1950s car that was barely road worthy). As I researched price, location and reviews of accommodation in Japan, I was shocked to see that places can literally disappear and become unavailable as you’re looking at them and good accommodation is booked out weeks if not months in advance. Being there during Golden Week (huge holiday in Japan) with no plans or bookings was a bad idea.
The train system is complicated
It’s worth giving the train system some thought before coming to Japan. With a metro and several other train systems (bullet train, overground JR lines and privately run systems), it pays to know what to use, when and which of these are included in your JR Pass ticket (if you get one) or can be used with your Suica Card. After two days of travelling, I realised my app didn’t include the entire network. Sigh.
How much culture shock to expect?
Tokyo wasn’t as culturally shocking as I expected. In fact, it’s not really crazy at all. Popular media portrayal would have us believe that Japan (and Tokyo in particular) is a place where the teen generation lives in manga comics, eccentricity prevails and there is always the possibility that the lady serving you green tea is in fact a robot. After a day of walking the streets (a lot – we got lost for hours) I didn’t see anything more curious than I might in any other capital city.
Be aware – 3pm check in means 3pm
In many places around the world, if you get to a hostel or hotel early, the people who work there will at least try to get you a bed sooner if they can. Not in Japan (or at least not where we’re staying). After an 11 hr flight overnight, I had to beg to use the shower facilities when we arrived and there was zero chance of checking in early, which made for a very long day (a nap at 3pm would have been fatal to combating jet lag). I guess rules are rules in Japan.
So, that’s my guide to the top attractions and cultural experiences in Tokyo. Got any questions? Leave a comment below.