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Despite living in Los Angeles, I’m usually not one for large cities when I travel. I much rather be surrounded by waterfalls than skyscrapers. Tokyo really surprised me, though. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it and found myself wishing I had more time there. Tokyo is one of Japan’s coolest cities. It has beautiful parks and ancient temples mixed among super-modern buildings and quirky cafes. It has a variety of peculiar entertainment options and has some of the best food in the world. It truly has something for everyone. With so much to do, it can be difficult deciding how to spend your time there. These are my suggestions for the top ten things to do in Tokyo, Japan:
1. Explore Senso-ji Temple
Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest and most popular temple. At first glance, it may appear to be somewhat of a tourist trap, but it’s actually rich in history. The temple was originally completed in 645 and built for Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It was built in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, which at the time, was a small and relatively unknown town. Few people lived there prior to the temple, but upon its completion, Asakusa started to become the lively center that it is today. The temple was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt soon after, hence its more modern appearance. Today, the temple sees millions of visitors and holds events and festivals throughout the year.
The grounds consist of the main hall, a five-storied pagoda, a few smaller halls, a garden, and two main gates. Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, is the outer gate at the main entrance. It marks the beginning of Nakamise-dori, one of Tokyo’s favorite shopping streets. The street which is just 250 meters (820 ft.) long is packed with over ninety small shops and leads up to Hozomon, the temple’s inner gate. The shopping street dates back several centuries and has just about everything, including traditional Japanese crafts, typical souvenirs, and street food. The street food alone is worth a visit and is a must-try food experience in Tokyo. The almost-always busy temple is free to visit and is open 24/7. However, the main hall adheres to visiting hours that change with the season, so make sure you plan accordingly. Early morning or evening seems to be the best time to visit if you wish to avoid the large tour groups. Senso-ji is fairly easy to reach and is just fifteen minutes from Tokyo Station and a five-minute walk once you reach Asakusa Station.
2. Visit Tokyo City View and Sky Deck
Tokyo City View and Sky Deck are located in the Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo. They can be found high up in the Mori Tower, Tokyo’s 6th tallest building. The building stands at 238 meters (780 ft) and has 54 floors. The mixed-use building offers amazing panoramic views of the city skyline and has one of the best views of the Tokyo Tower, Japan’s famous Eiffel Tower look-a-like. It is separated into two viewing areas. City View is the indoor viewing area on the 52nd floor and Sky Deck is the unused helipad on the roof or 54th floor. The entire roof area is open-air and has completely uninstructed views.
The ticket to enter City View is 1800 JPY and includes admission to the Mori Art Museum. To save a little, you can purchase in advance here for 1500 JPY. Admission to Sky Deck is an additional 500 JPY and is cash only. The view is incredible and is absolutely worth the extra yen. The rooftop can be windy and loose belongings are not allowed to be brought up, so plan on bringing as little as possible or make use of the available lockers for an additional fee.
3. Eat at Tokyu Food Show
Tokyo Food Show is a large gourmet-style food court located in the basement level of the now-defunct Tokyu Toyoko Department Store. It’s conveniently located in the Shibuya area and is adjacent to the Shibuya Station. Just outside, you can find the famous dog statue, Hachiko. Food Show houses food stalls with cuisines from all over the world and is a great place to go if you are in search of a quick bite or are looking to sample a variety of foods. It is definitely not your average food court. It has over 85 vendors, making it one of the largest food halls in Tokyo.
There are French pastry shops, Indian curries, Chinese Dumplings, and many other imported items. The local food is what you want though. Many of the stalls are associated with well-known restaurants in the area. Expect to find all kinds of Japanese dishes. There’s incredibly fresh sushi, crispy tempura, yakitori, and even a Japanese chocolatier. There is a liquor department that has a wide range of wine and sakes and a high-end supermarket section with fish and local delicacies. Everything found at Tokyu Food Show is of high quality and delicious. It’s primarily intended for takeout, but there are a handful of counters available if you don’t mind standing.
4. Observe Shibuya Crossing From Mag’s Park
Shibuya Crossing is known for being the busiest intersection in the world. The lively crosswalk is surrounded by tall buildings, neon signage, and huge screens. Chances are you have seen a photo of it at some point. The crossing is what is called a “scramble crossing”, where traffic is stopped in all directions and pedestrians are free to cross the street in any direction. Huge crowds build-up while waiting for the light to change and then everyone meets in the chaotic-looking middle on their way to the other side. Mag’s Park is an uncovered space that is enclosed by glass and is the perfect spot to photograph the crossing. It’s located high up in Magnet by Shibuya 109, a large department-type store located next to the crossing. Its observation deck, or Crossing View, has an incredible birds-eye view of the streets below.
To reach the observation deck, you will enter the Magnet building from the main street and take the elevator to the seventh floor. From there, you’ll walk through the restaurant and out the double doors. The best time to visit is dusk. The deck opens at 11 am, but the midday sun can make it difficult to get a decent photo. The tall buildings create shadows over the crosswalk and it’s almost impossible to avoid reflections in the glass. Dusk is a great time to visit because it’s still light enough to clearly see the crosswalk and the neon is turned on. The entrance fee to Crossing View is 300 JPY and a ticket can be purchased here in advance or from a vending machine at the deck entrance.
5. Have a Drink at Nonbei Yokocho
Nonbei Yokocho or “Drunkard’s Alley” is an area consisting of two parallel alleyways. The alleyways are packed with about forty miniature bars. The bars are seemingly stacked upon one another and most have only enough space for the bartender and a handful of barstools. Many have small attic spaces with a few additional seats as well. Nonbei Yokocho is located in Shibuya and is about a ten-minute walk from the Shibuya Station. The area is tucked away from the city hustle and bustle and is quiet during the day. Most of the bars open early in the evening (some are closed Sundays) and the streets are transformed with lanterns after dark. Nonbei Yokocho is a great place to meet people if you are traveling solo. The small spaces make it impossible to feel alone and the closeness of bar-goers almost guarantees conversation.
If you enjoy Nonbei Yokocho, I recommend visiting Golden Gai as well. Golden Gai is located near the red-light district in Shinjuku and is similar in concept but on a larger scale. It is made up of about six tiny alleys and is packed with bars, clubs, and places to eat. It is definitely very touristic but is still a fun night out.
6. Picnic at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is one of Tokyo’s largest and most beautiful parks. The park originated during the Edo period (1603-1867) and is rich in history. It was first constructed on the grounds of a private mansion belonging to Lord Naito, a federal lord, in 1772. It later became a botanical garden and was eventually transferred to the Imperial Family. The garden was completed as an Imperial garden in 1903 and used by the family for recreation and as a place to entertain their guests. The garden was almost completely destroyed by air raids during WWII and had to be rebuilt after the war. In 1949, the garden finally became open to the public and was designated a national park. Today, Shinjuku Gyoen is Tokyo’s equivalent to NYC’s Central Park. Its spacious lawns and winding pathways give the public a place to relax, exercise, and enjoy.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is 58 hectares (144 acres) and is made up of three types of gardens. It has traditional Japanese gardens, as well as French and English gardens. The Japanese gardens are the oldest and have structured shrubbery, ponds, and beautiful pavilions. Shinjuku Gyoen is also the perfect place for cherry blossoms viewing during the month of April. The park has roughly 1,000 cherry trees, including 65 different species. The park is a great place to es