Unmissable city activities, from the best sights and shopping spots to geeky and artsy fun.
From unique attractions and world-famous sights to hotspots in odd spots, by day and by night, from high art to wildlife, there are so many things to do in Tokyo. This list of 10 essential things to do is a good place to start.
Down a drink with the locals: Yokocho
Hidden in between and behind shiny high-rises, massive station complexes and other architectural monsters, Tokyo’s old-school alleyways are treasure troves for anyone looking to experience the city’s less sterile side. Found all over town, they host thousands of tiny eateries, pubs and shops, some of them dating way back to the early postwar years, and provide opportunities for slipping back in time to the smoky, change-filled decades of the Showa era.
Study the history of coffee: Kissaten
Boasting roots that go back at least a century, Tokyo’s café culture is a fascinating mix of the old and the new. Centred especially on traditional student neighbourhoods, old-school kissaten (coffee shops) are where to explore the roots of the capital’s coffee scene. In business for decades, many of these classics have tenaciously kept the flag flying for quality brews in Tokyo long before.
Scale the iconic mast: Tokyo Tower
The resemblance to the Eiffel Tower is deliberate, as is the superior height – it is 13m taller than its Parisian counterpart. Tokyo Tower remains the city’s most recognisable structure and, its most striking attraction when viewed at night from any of the other observation decks across the city. The tower’s main observatory is 150m above ground.
Trying to cross Shibuya Crossing
It ranks among the busiest pedestrian crossings on Earth – yet you may feel a strange sense of solitude descend as you make your way through the crowds. Ability to make it across without bumping into anyone is the sign of a true local.
Have fun in the heart of Tokyo: Tokyo Station
December 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of Tokyo Station whose red-brick facade is a prominent reminder of Japan’s rush to modernisation in the early 20th century – and it’s looking even better after its six-year restoration. Rich in shopping opportunities and with the Imperial Palace close by, the surrounds provide entertainment for days.
Live it up like a royal: Akasaka Geihinkan
Also known as Akasaka Palace, this neo-Baroque beauty dates back to 1909 and is where the Japanese government receives foreign dignitaries. It’s recently been opened to the public on a limited basis: the Front Garden can be entered for free on official opening days, while an entrance fee are required for the Main Building and Garden. You’ll need to apply at least a month in advance, so plan ahead – and see the full details on the official website.
Play real-life Mario Kart
Dress up like Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach or any other character from Nintendo’s classics, hop in a go-kart and ride around Tokyo. This will make you feel just like in a video game. Numerous companies offering Mario Kart experiences and get ready for a wild ride.
Learn the art of sipping: Tea ceremony
Now considered an essential part of traditional Japanese culture, the ‘way of tea’ has been incrementally refined for well over a thousand years. First-timers will do well to start their journey into the joys of the green drink with a classic – a cup of delicious matcha tea and some wagashi sweets. Watching a free ceremony at a Japanese garden is another great option.
Watch traditional theatre out in the open: Takigi-Noh
With its origins going back to the 14th century, Noh is considered one of the world’s oldest forms of theatre. Although first-timers probably won’t get much out of an ordinary performance, these open-air shows – usually held after dark – made for a spectacular introduction to the classical art.
Take in the bright neon lights: Shinjuku and Golden Gai
Strolling the neon-bathed streets of Shinjuku at night is absolutely an essential Tokyo experience – and one that’s best finished off with a visit to Golden Gai, where more than 270 tiny drinking dens are crammed into seven ramshackle streets. Each place has a unique vibe – ranging from high-end cocktails to hard rock – and the atmosphere can be anywhere from friendly to downright hostile.