Is there anything we’ve missed off our list? Let us know your favourite things to see and do in Tokyo in the comments at the bottom.
1. Tokyo Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is the official residence of the Emperor of Japan and the former location of Edo Castle. In 1867, the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end, and with it the period in which Japan was ruled by feuding warlords. Power transferred to the Emperor, who moved from Kyoto to the city that was then known as Edo, but which was subsequently renamed Tokyo, meaning ‘Eastern Capital’ – and Tokyo has remained the capital of Japan ever since. Damaged during the Second World War, little remains of the original Edo Castle, but one of the palace’s most picturesque spots gives a fine view of an original seventeenth century watchtower: by the dual bridges of Nijūbashi, the tiered towers of Fujimi-yagura hang serenely above the water. Much of the palace is closed to the public, although the area around Fujimi-yagura – known as Higashi Gyoen (East Garden) – is a public park that’s free to wander. But if you want a peak behind the palace’s impressive granite walls, you’ll need to book onto an official tour at least a month in advance (tours are in Japanese but English audio guides are available free of charge). If you’re a fan of ancient seats of power, take a look at our guide to the UK’s best castles.
Opening times: (East Gardens) (Mar to Oct) Daily except Mon & Fri, 9am – 4.30pm. (Nov to Feb) 9am – 4pm.
Location: Chiyoda. The palace complex has five gates; the easiest to enter is Otemachi gate, close to Otemachi subway station.
2. Check out the cosplayers on Jingu-bashi Bridge
Jingu-bashi bridge, just in front of Yoyogi Park in Harajuku, is the place to go to see kids in ‘cosplay’ in which people dress up as their favourite characters and one of the quintessential Tokyo sights. They tend to be there on a Sunday and they’ll happily pose for a photo – but do ask first as it’s generally considered rude to take a photo without asking. If you head into the park itself, you can often see groups of rockabilly dancers, complete with leather jackets and 1950s quiffs, along with various teenagers parading the latest Harajuku fashions. The scene has died down a little bit in recent years but don’t worry if you can’t find any fashionable young things to photograph – the park itself is well worth the trip alone, providing a welcome splash of green in an ocean of steel.
3. Tokyo Skytree
Getting up high is one of the best things to do in Tokyo if you want to truly appreciate the vastness of the city – as well as gain some respite from the crowds. The Tokyo Tower, a 333 metre tall communications tower, used to be the highest structure in Japan, but in 2011 it was surpassed by the Tokyo Skytree, which at a whopping 634 metres is the second tallest structure in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The Skytree has a café at 350 metres, which is ideal if you want a tea or coffee BUT REALLY HIGH UP, and it also boasts a frankly terrifying glass floor in one section. The downside is that the Skytree is quite far from the centre of town, and there’s a charge to climb it; the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, on the other hand, is right in the centre of town and its observation decks are free, even if they’re ‘only’ a paltry 202 metres high.
Opening times: Daily, 8am – 9pm.
Location: 1 Chome-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida.
Price: (Tembo Deck, 350m) Adults ¥2060, Children 12 – 17yrs ¥1540, 6 – 11 ¥930. Extra for the Tembo Galleria (450m).
4. Hit the sky bars
If you’d rather keep things classy, head to the Sky Bar on the 45th floor of the five-star Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku and order one of their amazing cocktails. Or even better, follow in the footsteps of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson by dining at the New York Bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel, as featured in the film Lost in Translation. Neither option comes cheap, but who can put a price on style? Fans of dining at height should take a look at this list of the best skyscraper restaurants in London.
5. Eat sushi delivered by a robot train
You’re no doubt familiar with the concept of kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi), which has existed in Japan for decades – since 1958 in fact. But now the Japanese have taken it to the next level. The latest generation of kaiten-zushi restaurants – a prime example of which is Genki Sushi in Shibuya – now let you order your food from a touch screen. Then, just a few minutes later, your order shoots out from the kitchen on a tiny robot train that parks directly in front of you with a cheery beep. Amazing. And what’s more, it’s remarkably cheap!
6. Get up early for Tsukuji fish market
If you’ve seen the fascinating documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi you’ll already be familiar with the famous Tsukiji fish market. The tuna auction is one of the most spectacular if unusual Tokyo attractions and the market has an air of organised chaos, as people scamper to and fro with bundles of unfamiliar sea creatures, while others use band saws to slice up enormous frozen fish. You’ll need an early start to catch the action though – registration for the auctions takes place at 5am, and it’s pretty much over by nine.
Akihabara is the place to be for crazy electronics shops, arcades and toy shops. You could easily spend a whole afternoon or more wandering around them and you’ll be amazed at how many bizarre figurines you can buy. Most arcades and shops tend to be about five or six floors high, each level a warren of games, toys and weird stuff. And while you’re there, try eating at Mos Burger, the Japanese answer to McDonalds, which offers burger buns made of rice.
There are hundreds of temples and shrines in and around Tokyo, but the most striking is probably the bright red Senso-ji in Asakusa, which dates from 645 (although it has been rebuilt several times). The picturesque ‘Thunder Gate’ (Kaminarimon) at the entrance, with its huge paper lantern, is one of the most famous images of Tokyo.
Opening times: Daily, 6am – 5pm (opens at 6.30am Oct to March).
Location: Asakusa (Asakusa Station is 5 minutes away on foot).
9. Yasukuni Shrine
If you’re looking for controversy, there’s always the Yasukuni Shrine. The building is a huge source of tension with China because it honours Japanese war dead, including war criminals. The museum next door is even more contentious, featuring a revisionist history of the Second World War that paints the USA as the aggressor. It certainly makes for a memorable visit.
Opening times: (Shrine) Daily, 6am – 6pm (closes at 5pm Nov to Feb). (Yushukan Museum) 9am – 4.30pm.
Location: 3 Chome-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda.
Price: (Shrine) Free. (Yushukan Museum) ¥800.
10. Tackle the Shibuya street crossing
This famous pedestrian crossing in Shibuya – the busiest in the world – gives you an idea of just how many people live in Tokyo. At peak times, 2,500 people an hour cross the road here in five different directions making for fascinating, if disorientating, viewing. There’s a well-placed Starbucks on the corner with an upper floor that provides a great view of the spectacle – if you can grab a seat, that is. Look out for the statue of a dog called Hachiko on the opposite corner: this faithful dog greeted his owner at Shibuya station every day as the man returned from work and, even after his owner died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1925, Hachiko continued to come to the station every day for the next nine years hoping to see his master return.
11. Eat okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is Japan’s greatest culinary secret. Whereas sushi, teriyaki and various other Japanese dishes have become commonplace across the world, few people know about okonomiyaki outside Japan. It’s sort of an omelette with cabbage in combination with various different ingredients of your choosing, such as pork or prawns. The mix is brought to your table raw before the waiter cooks it in front of you on a grill built into the table. Once cooked, it’s topped with Japanese mayonnaise, special okonomiyaki sauce, seaweed sprinkles and katsuobushi, which are wafer-thin fish flakes that ‘dance’ in the heat of the food. There are loads of great okonomiyaki restaurants in Tokyo, but Sometaro in Asakusa is very traditional and one of the best.
12. Confront a giant robot on Odaiba Island
OK, so technically it’s not a robot. This 1:1 scale reconstruction is of one of the ‘mobile suits’ from the Gundam franchise – fans gets annoyed if you call them robots. But whatever it’s called, it looks damn impressive – and it moves and lights up, too. The 18 metre tall mobile suit stands outside Gundam Front Tokyo, a huge exhibition dedicated to all things Gundam. The franchise kicked off with an anime in 1979 and is often referred to as Japan’s Star Wars, such is its enduring popularity. The exhibition here might leave Western visitors puzzled, but it’s worth paying a visit to Odaiba Island just to see the ‘robot’ do its thing (see show times here). If you’re not into tech, there’s always shopping – Odaiba is home to several enormous shopping malls, including Aqua City, DiverCity and Venus Fort, which is designed to look like a medieval European village.
13. Roppongi Hills
Another of Tokyo’s sky-high attractions, this multi-tower complex actually combines enough sights and things to do to keep you going for a full day. There’s the Mori Museum and Art Gallery, showcasing temporary loans from important European collections, as well as the best in Japanese design, architecture, photography, video and fashion. Many floors above, take a look at the observatory and skydeck, from where you can see all the classic Tokyo landmarks, including Tokyo Tower and as far as Mount Fuji. In addition, the building hosts a hotel, cinema, shops and restaurants, aiming to be the ‘cultural heart’ of the city. A lucky few even live here, at the Hollywood-esque Roppongi Hills Residences.
Opening times and prices Vary according to attraction. See the website for details.
Location: 6 Chome-11-1 Roppongi.
14. Rainbow Bridge
This arching suspension bridge is so-named for its shape, although the changing night-time illuminations are definitely worthy of a rainbow. The bridge is a part of daily life to the thousands of Tokyo commuters who cross it every day, but it’s a sight worth seeing for visitors, especially as you can walk across at sunset (or sunrise, if you’re up to it!) and admire a full panorama across the shimmering skyline and city harbour. There’s also a Starbucks at Aqua City Mall on Odaiba Island from where you can admire the view and get the bridge into your holiday snaps, as well.
15. Fuji Five Lakes
You don’t have to be an avid climber to enjoy one of the world’s most famous peaks: there are plenty of opportunities to see Mount Fuji within a couple hours of Tokyo. Fuji Five Lakes is the name of the area at the mountain’s base, home to resorts and theme parks, as well as the most popular starting point for hikers tackling the mountain. It’s also a great place to sit back and admire the mist-laden backdrop from the comfort of an outdoor hot spring at Lake Kawaguchiko. The lake is particularly photogenic in autumn and spring, when clouds of cherry blossoms line the shores. Buses go to Kawaguchiko Station from Tokyo and at just under two hours journey time, works out quicker and more direct than the trains. Want more outdoor action and stunning views? Take a look at our top hiking trails in Japan.
How to get to Tokyo
Non-stop flights to Tokyo leave from London Heathrow daily, with British Airways and Japan Airlines. You might be able to find cheaper deals with Vietnam Airlines, making a stop in Hanoi, or Phillipine Airlines, stopping in Manilla.
Tokyo has two major international airports, Haneda and Narita, and airlines flying from the UK use both. Haneda Airport is much more convenient for Tokyo, however, as it’s only 15km from the city centre, whereas Narita Airport is 65km from Tokyo with the journey usually taking 40 minutes to an hour.
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