The swirl of kaleidoscopic neon flashing lights competes with the colourful spectacle of floor-to-ceiling advertisements.
The fleeting conversations from the swell of passing strangers merges with the incessant hum of ubiquitous pachinko parlours, and music buses pump out infectious J-pop soundtracks from their speakers. Welcome to downtown Tokyo — a metropolis truly designed to stimulate the senses.
It’s a city that doesn’t come with an off button. Yet, in true Japanese style, there is an organised and harmonious social etiquette that underscores the feverish chaos. Although some things may inevitably get lost in translation, the capital will soon have you wholly infatuated and perhaps even belting out a spot of karaoke.
Enjoy this Tokyo travel guide.
Cultural things to do in Tokyo
The sheer size of this city cannot be overstated and one of the most interesting cultural things to see and do in Tokyo is to explore its unique neighbourhoods.
The vast, sprawling metropolis is made up of twenty-three administrative wards that are further divided into smaller neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods are connected by an extensive and efficient railway network, but each has its own defining characteristics and counterculture.
In western Tokyo, you’ll find the famous Shibuya and Shinjuku neighbourhoods, notorious for their frenetic pace, neon lights, giant screens, and constant buzz. Dodge other pedestrians while crossing the Shibuya Crossing (rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world) and explore Shinjuku’s red-light district dotted with more-cheesy-than-sleazy love hotels.
Don’t miss the Golden Gai area — a series of narrow laneways crammed with tiny bars and packed with salarymen. Just make sure you choose a foreigner-friendly bar (signage in English is usually a good sign!).
Also pay a visit to the lively area of Harajuku (try not to gawk at the crazy fashion) and check out the entertaining rockabilly dancers at Yoyogi Park.
In central Tokyo head to self-confessed ‘nerd town’ Akihabara to observe the prevalent anime and manga culture — and don’t bat an eyelid as you watch the ‘maids’ walk on by.
To the north Ikebukuro is another cosplay centre that is also known for its butler cafes.
Take some time to meander through the charming neighbourhood of Nakameguro and follow the tree-lined canals of the Meguro River, an especially impressive sight during hanami (cherry blossom viewing).
Great places to eat in Tokyo
Tokyo is a Michelin-star mecca.
The city is home to the most three-starred restaurants in the world — beating other culinary hubs, Paris and New York — as well as having the most starred restaurants overall. But you won’t need to shell out the big bucks for quality food — even the bao in the 7-Elevens are mouth-wateringly delicious.
Line up for tsukemen (ramen noodles dipped into hot thick broth) at Rokurinsha on Tokyo Ramen Street under Tokyo Station.
Head to the famous Tsukiji Market for the freshest sushi and sashimi and try your luck at getting into popular Sushi Dai to watch the skillful sushi chefs in action.
Find a cosy izakaya in the labyrinth of Omoide Yokocho — also known colloquially as Piss Alley (it’s best not to wonder why) — and wash down the succulent grilled yakitori skewers with a side of saké. As you enter an izakaya you’ll hear echoes of ‘Irasshaimase’ called out by the chefs, essentially welcoming you in. You’ll instantly feel at home.
Where to shop in Tokyo
Shopping isn’t necessarily cheap in Tokyo, but you’ll be sure to find some unique purchases in this retail paradise.
Head to Center Gai in Shibuya to scan the latest youth trends and follow the hordes of dolled-up teens to the iconic Shibuya 109 for a swift lesson in girly youth culture.
Wander down the perpetually busy Takeshita Dori in Harajuku for some eclectic fashion designs. However, if it proves too outlandish for you, then walk over to nearby Cat Street — a cute pedestrian strip lined with trendy boutiques.
Scour the laneways of quirky Shimokitazawa for vintage finds, and stock up on the latest in electronic goods in Akihabara.
Indulge in some high-end shopping in upmarket and glossy Ginza, or head to the sophisticated avenue Omotesandō, Tokyo’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysées.
Top ways to relax in Tokyo
Believe it or not, pockets of tranquility do exist in Tokyo.
Head to the Shinto Meiji Shrine, a forested haven tucked away from the masses. Also visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace, the current residence of Japan’s Imperial Family, located on the same site as Edo Castle.
Afterwards, pamper yourself at Ooedo Onsen Monotgatari, an onsen (hot-spring bath) that has been designed in a classic Edo era style. Just make sure you acquaint yourself with all of the Japanese bathing customs before heading in, to avoid any embarrassment!
Tokyo for history lovers
This may come as a surprise but Tokyo’s history is relatively short compared to other world capitals.
Originally a small village called Edo, the Tokugawa shogunate established itself here in 1603, which served as the impetus for economic and population growth and the rapid expansion of the city. The shogunate ruled for more than 250 years before it was overthrown by Emperor Meiji, who restored imperial rule in 1868. Subsequently, the capital was moved from Kyoto to the newly named city of Tokyo — meaning ‘Eastern Capital’.
Visit the extensive Tokyo National Museum for an all-round history round-up.
Five Tokyo tours we love
Do you only have a limited amount of time to get to know Tokyo? See the best of the city on this 3.5-hour morning sightseeing tour of the city’s cultural highlights. Your guide will provide full commentary throughout the tour. Visit attractions like Tokyo Tower and Sensō-ji temple, and stop for a photo outside the Imperial Palace. Your attraction entrance fees are included.
This is a unique opportunity to learn about Japanese traditional sumo wrestling. You’ll visit a kokugikan(sumo amphitheatre) in Tokyo with fellow sumo fans and watch several matches during the afternoon. You’ll also have the chance to visit the fascinating Sumo Museum. Upgrade your experience to include dinner.
Sample the delicious delights of Shibuya on this 3-hour guided food walking tour. You’ll visit five different eateries frequented by locals and sample delicacies such as Kobe beef skewers, Osaka-style takoyaki (battered octopus), and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (a tasty savory pancake).
See some of Japan’s most famous natural landmarks on this popular full-day guided tour from Tokyo. Travel to Mount Fuji’s 5th Station for the amazing views, then continue on to nearby Lake Ashi for a short boat cruise. You’ll also ride the scenic Mount Komagatake Ropeway (cableway) and climb by aerial tram to the top of Mount Komagatake for more incredible views. Return to Tokyo by bullet train in the evening.
Visit fabulous Universal Studios Japan in Osaka on an overnight trip from the Japanese capital. This package includes a round-trip bullet train ticket, hotel accommodation and a theme park pass. See The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Jurassic Park zone, and much more.
Do you have any tips to add to our Tokyo travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock/Photodune
About the writer
Camha Pham is a freelance writer and editor who has recently swapped the cosmopolitan laneways of Melbourne for the sunny beaches of Perth. Struck with the wanderlust bug from an early age, she has travelled extensively through Asia, Europe and parts of North America. When she isn’t travelling, Camha is planning her next adventure and loves nothing more than the thrill of exploring new destinations and learning about other cultures. Travel highlights to date include chasing waterfalls in enchanting Iceland, hot-air ballooning over the lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia and accepting a surprise marriage proposal from her now fiancé at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto!