Location: Tokyo, Japan
For the first time traveller to Japan, Tokyo will be at the top of your list and rightly so because you’ll struggle to fit in all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes into a few days. There is so much to this mega city that you could easily spend a year here and still have more to see and do than you ever thought possible! And with so much on offer it can become overwhelming and downright confusing, due to the myriad of choices to suit any type of traveller and any budget; but never fear because I’ve waded through the offerings to made it easier for you to plan! This simple guide is by no means an exhaustive guide or a top ten list of things to do here, because seriously, there is too much to do in Tokyo and a top ten list is kind of a big task (more like top 50) so this article should be used as a bare minimum guide for someone who is very short on time and would like a few choices on what to see and do, where to stay and how to get around this huge city.
Where to stay
Choosing where to base yourself will be the hardest part about your trip to Tokyo; however, since the city is so big it doesn’t really matter where you stay as there really is no ‘real’ centre to Tokyo. All of Tokyo’s sights are spread out across the city, and their trains and subway system is quick and always on time to get you where ever you want to go, which makes it easier to choose an area to stay. My biggest piece of advice is to stay in a neighborhood or district that’s near the things that you want to see and do the most, and then choose your accommodation as close to a major subway line as you can. As long as you are close to a subway station, you’ll be able to get around the city easily.
During my time in Tokyo I choose to stay in Asakusa, the spiritual and traditional area of Tokyo, as I wanted to be away from the busy flashing lights of Shibuya, or the exclusive and expensive area of Omotesando, and knew I’d want to be taking night photographs of the temples. I also found that accommodation prices around Asakusa were slightly lower than other areas of Tokyo and they could accommodate me during the busy summer holiday season. This is also something to consider as some areas are more expensive than others, and also may fill up during different parts of the year. Hostels in Tokyo are incredibly tiny and in a lot of instances, the cheaper you go, the smaller the room.
Japan is definitley blessed with some incredible natural beauty, and in Tokyo you’ll see a more manmade version of that with the numerous parks that have been meticulously manicured within an inch of its life to fit with the ‘perfect’ looking Japanese aesthetic. Despite this, I do love a zen Japanese garden and the best ones in the Tokyo area are all free to enter and while away the time.
The two main parks in Tokyo that shouldn’t be missed are Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park; both are free to enter and are also fringed by museums, galleries, temples and more. Ueno Park is the best place in Tokyo to view the sakura (cherry) blossoms in the spring time, with the annual Hanami drawing huge crowds to picnic under their blooms. Whilst Tokyo’s largest park, Yoyogi Park, is more well known for it’s eclectic mix of visitors including musicians, cosplayers and runners all converging on the green space as a way to play, dress and exercise without limits or sideways glances; and if you’re lucky, with the odd festive gathering for anyone who wishes to join in some fun.
For those looking for something a little more adventurous, then only a one hour trip out to Mount Takao can offer some excellent city hiking and views over Tokyo; but if you’re feeling a little lazy there is a cable car that makes the ascent and descent if you prefer!
Museums and Galleries
I’m a total museum and gallery freak, and I could spend days in a single museum shuffling at a snails pace, reading all the plaques and generally annoying the security guards with my gawking and Tokyo is great for that sort of thing because their museums and galleries tend to be on the smaller side than some of the larger international ones (e.g. France’s Louve or Russia’s Hermitage). However, all do charge an admission of some sort, ranging from the exorbitantly priced to the absolute steal, so pick a few unless you have the time and money to fill your time.
As you’ll no doubt end up wandering through Ueno Park, whilst you’re there a stop in at the Tokyo National Museum is a must. Not only will you get a great overview on the city’s history, but also an insight into Japan’s long and illustrious history in all it’s glory (620 Yen for permanent exhibitions, check the site for prices of special exhibitions). Displays are also sign posted in english and you can get an english audio guide (additional cost) to help your tour through the exhibits. Alternatively, for lovers of Japanese animation and art, then a highlight will be the Ghibli Musuem. Miyazaki Hayao’s Studio Ghibli has produced some internationally acclaimed animation full features including ‘Spirited Away’. It’s located just on the outskirts of Tokyo and entry is 100 Yen for adults.
Tokyo is full of contemporary art galleries for some reason, I think it’s to do with Tokyo’s obsession with the future and being on the brink of what’s modern and new; and although I’m not a big fan of many contemporary art movements, I did enjoy the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo for it’s variety (check for admission prices) and because it was literally a stones throw away from the Tokyo National Museum.
Believe me when I tell you that you are going to se a lot of temples and shrines in Tokyo! And if you’re short on time I’d recommend limiting it to the Meiji Shrine and Sensoji Temple as both are easy to access using the subway system, and are also free to enter and wander at your leisure.
The Meiji Shrine is found in Shibuya’s beautiful Yoyogi Park, and is marked by a large torii gate that leads you to a large geometric temple complex; and if you’re lucky you may even see a traditional Shinto wedding taking place! Meanwhile, on the other side of Tokyo, you’ll find the buddhist Sensoji Temple which is located in Asakusa. This old part of Tokyo contains some of the best preserved and most visited temples in Tokyo, with the tall red pagoda meaning you can’t really miss it. Sensoji Temple also has a market and lively entertaining area directly outside its walls and you can easily lose half a day in the area exploring the temple complex and surrounding area.
One of the best things about Tokyo is that the different areas all cater to different things and even if you’re not here to shop, still makes for great people watching. Here’s a brief run down of the major areas and what they offer:
- Shinjuku: This area has more of a mix of department stores, high street fashion and luxury labels and is probably the busiest shopping area in Tokyo due to it’s proximity to the big and busy Shinjuku station.
- Harajuku: The epicenter of crazy and kooky Japanese fashion, this is where Tokyo’s youth come to see and been seen in the most elaborate and over the top getups this side of Asia. The shopping in the area also caters to this demographic with many stores selling particular clothing and accessories for the many fashion cultures and subcultures that frequent the area.
- Ginza: If you’re after anything electronic then you’ll want to head to Ginza. I bought a lot of camera gear from a large electronics department stores here and managed to claim the tax back on the spot too.
- Omotesando: This is the ‘Beverly Hills Boulevard’ of Tokyo with a concentration of upscale and luxury shopping brands and labels, as well as fancy department stores, that cater to the elite fashion forward Tokyo-ite.
- Shimokitazawa: Follow the wafting of patchouli as you make the trek out to one of Tokyo’s hippest suburbs, Shimokitazawa. Here you’ll find more tie dyed, recycled and hemp clothing and accessories than you though imaginable in futuristic and cosplay obsessed Japan.
If you’re staying in Tokyo for only a short time I would advise to just stay in the city, and forgo the day trips out to Niko or Kamakura, as you’ll see a lot of temples and shrines within Tokyo itself. The subway is the main mode of transport that you’ll most likely use and if you’re only in Tokyo for a few days, then forgo the Suica or Pasmo travel cards and get a one or two day travel pass which you can buy from any station. If you will be in Tokyo or some of the major cities you can invest in a Suica or Pasmo and top it up as you go along. And if you’re wondering ‘which card should I get’, then have a read of this extremely helpful article that explains the difference better than I can myself.
The subways are clean, orderly, easy to get around and most handy of all, has many signs in english to help visitors navigate the system. Japanese people are also very quite and polite, so keep your noise to a minimum and line up in the designated areas when boarding and alighting the subways (if in doubt, just copy what everyone else is doing). Personally, I avoided the subway during peak times and either left earlier or before the morning and evening rush; however, if you really want to see how hectic Japanese public transportation can get, just hang around Shinjuku station for a few hours and you’ll get a good taste of it.
Other Awesome Tokyo sights
For a free uninterrupted view of the city skyline you can’t go past the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building’s observation deck and on a clear day you can see the perfect conical dome of Mount Fuji rising in the distance. There is also watching the crazy and infamous Shibuya Crossing from the comfort of the Starbucks cafe directly overhead (and you can get away with not buying anything here).
All photography by Jelena Stipanicev.