Let me get this out of the way: I simply love Shinjuku. Even if it weren’t merely a district in Tokyo, one of my favourite cities in the world, it’d crack my top ten list for favourite cities in Asia.
In many ways, this densely populated area is like Tokyo in microcosm. All of the dynamism, supreme weirdness, and even—it feels weird to say it—serenity, of the capital of Japan is captured here. And in spades.
Many of the best things to do in Shinjuku aren’t just cool for the district; they’re some of the coolest places to visit in Tokyo. From wandering through Tokyo’s fleeting past to experiencing some of the finest food and nightlife in the city, there’s no end to what you’ll find while gallivanting through Tokyo’s most electric area.
Let’s see what Shinjuku’s got in store!
Table of Contents
- What to do in Shinjuku: Top attractions & best places to visit
- Step back into the Tokyo of the fifties in Golden Gai
- Visit Shinjuku Pit Inn for the love of jazz
- Take a walk through Kabukicho (Yes, it’s the red-light district, but it’s fun.)
- Visit Taisoji Temple, a small Buddhist temple full of little surprises
- Pound back all the sake you can drink at the Kurand Sake Market
- Take a walk down memory lane at Omoide Yokocho
- See warrior history on show at the Samurai Museum
- Watch a cabaret show in lights at Robot Restaurant
- Take a break from the crowded streets at Shinjuku Gyoen
- Find a corner of tranquillity in the Shinto Hanazono Jinja
- Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a 360º view of Tokyo
- Find three floors of international and Japanese restaurants at Takashimaya Times Square
- Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Shinjuku
- Where to go in Shinjuku: A summary of the top points of interest
- Beyond Shinjuku: Other places to go in Tokyo
What to do in Shinjuku: Top attractions & best places to visit
Step back into the Tokyo of the fifties in Golden Gai
Following the Second World War most of Tokyo was levelled in the name of development and only a very small section has survived. Golden Gai, a collection of narrow alleys contains around two hundred pubs preserved from the sixties era. In it, you’ll find hole-in-the-wall bars & restaurants that seat between five and thirty patrons. Especially if it’s your first time in Tokyo, visiting Golden Gai is an absolute must!
Each bar has its own defined —and often quirky—style & culture that can include karaoke, specialty drinks, and extraordinary decor. Most bars charge seating costs and some will only host Japanese customers. English price lists and menus on the walls outside the bars should give you a clue as to whether you’ll be welcomed or not.
Visit Shinjuku Pit Inn for the love of jazz
If you’re a lover of jazz Shinjuku Pit Inn is a must. Japan has a vibrant jazz music scene and the Pit Inn is one of the best places in Tokyo to see accomplished jazz musicians strut their stuff.
The bar is more than fifty years old and carries an old Jazz club ambience accentuated by posters and dimmed lights. Most visitors are serious jazz fans so the show won’t be interrupted by idle chit-chat.
There’s a show every night at eight and the musicians will entertain you until about ten thirty. You’ll pay an entrance fee of three thousand yen but that includes your first drink.
Check the website (in English) to see who’s playing.
Take a walk through Kabukicho (Yes, it’s the red-light district, but it’s fun.)
Kabukicho, also known as the “Sleepless Town,” is the largest red-light district in Japan. Walled by neon sign that reach into the night skies, this pedestrian area teems with people.
Overlooked by a giant Godzilla head, Kabukicho is, like the monster itself, noisy and edgy; it’s filled with cinemas, shops and restaurants, and, of course, slightly less-than-family-friendly massage parlours, nightclubs and love hotels.
Host and hostess clubs often charge a fee for the table; be prepared to spend before you’ve even had a drink or a bite to eat!
Both men and women risk being propositioned in this area. Take a friend if you can. Also take precautions while in the area as some dodgy types are all-too ready to quickly relieve you of your money.
Unfortunately, most places in Kabukicho don’t accept credit cards; carry cash as needed.
Visit Taisoji Temple, a small Buddhist temple full of little surprises
Built in 1596, the Buddhist Taisoji Temple is close to Shinjuku Station. This serene little temple is well worth a visit. The temple overlooks a large copper statue of Jizo Monk Shogen. This tranquil seated statue is frequently mistaken as an image of Buddha.
Inside the temple are statues of Emma, the head of hell. He has large pincers for removing the tongues of liars. Alongside him stands the statue of a woman who removes the clothes of those passing over the river to hell. It’s said that your clothes carry the weight of your sin.
Wander round the grounds you’ll find that they are full of little marvels including small shrines where people make wishes and offerings of thanks.
Pound back all the sake you can drink at the Kurand Sake Market
With more than one hundred sakes available, Kurand Sake Market offers a self-pour service where you can try as many different types of sake as you like. Become familiar with the many tastes and fragrances available.
You’ll pay around three thousand yen for the night and you can bring your own food. It has a great atmosphere, with the guests milling around and getting to know one another. You’re bound to leave with at least one new friend by the end of the night.
Take a walk down memory lane at Omoide Yokocho
Once occupied by street vendors and black-market traders, Omoide Yokocho, also known as “Piss Alley” or “Memory Lane,” is now home to dozens of micro restaurants seating just five to ten diners and serving delicious street food.
Some of the restaurants allow smoking, some charge a cover charge and some don’t like foreigners; walk around and decide where to eat before you sit down.
The area is authentic old Tokyo and the narrow alleys are always teeming with people. Here you will delight in great food, sake, and ice-cold beers. Following the delicious smells should lead you to the tastiest grill.
Visit Omoide Yokocho at night to make the most of the atmosphere.
See warrior history on show at the Samurai Museum
See an exciting exhibition of armour and weapons at the Samurai Museum. Entrance costs 1800 yen and if you time your visit carefully you can watch the Samurai show as well.
The tour through the museum is led by a knowledgeable English-speaking guide, who will lead you through the history of the Samurai warriors up until the death of the last one. After your tour you’ll be given the chance to dress up in period clothing and try out replicas of the weapons.
Watch a cabaret show in lights at Robot Restaurant
Robot Restaurant features a cabaret show of flashing lights and colourfully dressed dancers joined on stage by dinosaurs, pandas, and, of course, enormous robots. This loud and colourful show is expensive, but it’s also good fun.
There are afternoon shows where children are welcome, but bear in mind the restaurant’s location: It’s situated in the red-district of Kabukicho.
Plan to arrive early as there’s a restaurant and refreshment area where you can fill up before the show. Your first drink is included in the cover charge.
Take a break from the crowded streets at Shinjuku Gyoen
The Japanese love their gardens and the country is full of beautifully manicured and wild & free gardens. Crowded Shinjuku is no exception. And for just two-hundred-yen visitors and civilians can enjoy the serenity of Shinjuku Gyoen, one of the largest parks in Tokyo.
Follow rambling paths that wander through expansive lawns and orchards of cherry trees. At Shinjuku Gyoen you’ll find a Japanese landscape garden with ponds, bridges and islands surrounded by pavilions and cropped shrubs and trees. There’s also an English landscape garden, a formal French garden, a greenhouse, an art gallery, and restaurants.
Find a corner of tranquillity in the Shinto Hanazono Jinja
If you look carefully you can find a little Shinto shrine Hanazono Jinja, in a corner of Shinjuku Central Park. It’s an island of tranquillity in the midst of the Tokyo crowds. Set amongst the tall buildings of the inner city, Hanazono Jinja’s easy to miss in the hustle and bustle.
Hanazono means flower garden and the shrine formed part of the Imperial Gardens when it was built in the 17th century. These days local businessmen pray to the deity for financial success.
On Sunday, weather permitting, you can shop at the very traditional flea market held in its grounds. If you time your visit carefully, you may attend one of the many colourful festivals celebrated here.
Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a 360º view of Tokyo
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is frequently visited by tourists who use the opportunity to gaze over the city centre from the free observation decks. From this vantage point you get 360-degree views of Tokyo. On a good day you can see Mount Fuji.
The observation decks at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building are open until eleven at night.
Find three floors of international and Japanese restaurants at Takashimaya Times Square
If you’re looking for great cuisine you’ll be spoiled for choice in the Takashimaya Times Square complex which has three floors dedicated to a huge array of restaurants, both international and Japanese.
Whatever your preference in Asian & Japanese cuisine, you’ll find it here. From dim sum on the 12th floor to sukiyaki on the fourteenth, your tastebuds will thank you for letting them explore here.
When you’re done with the food, head elsewhere in Takashimaya Times Square to wander through the shops and browse the world’s top fashion brands.
Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Shinjuku
If you’ve got the yen for it, Shinjuku’s one of the coolest areas to stay in Tokyo. You’ll find that hotels in Shinjuku run a little more expensive than in other districts like Minato or Taito. For many travellers, it’s worth every penny to spend your nights here embracing Tokyo’s wilder side. Here are a few suggestions on where to stay in Shinjuku:
- Super Hotel Shinjuku Kabukicho: A central yet surprisingly budget-friendly hotel located in the lively entertainment district of Kabukicho.
- Hotel Gracery Shinjuku: A delightful 4-star hotel that offers great value rooms in the heart of Shinjuku. JR Shinjuku Station is just 5 minutes away by foot.
- Park Hyatt Tokyo: Hands down one of the best luxury hotels in Tokyo. Views from the rooms, all above the 42nd floor, are simply swoon-worthy.
Where to go in Shinjuku: A summary of the top points of interest
Still debating how to fill up your days in Shinjuku? Here are a few last-minute suggestions:
- Love seeing Tokyo from above? Get in line to see one of the city’s best panoramas from the free observation decks at the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. Head there on a clear day to spot Mount Fuji in the distance.
- Interested in the Tokyo of the past? The traditional alleyways of Golden Gai and the scrappy Omoide Yokocho peek back to the Tokyo of yesteryear. Plop yourself down at one of the street-side restaurants to enjoy a little biiru and yakitori among an air of old Tokyo.
- Need to escape the buzz of Tokyo? Shinjuku Gyoen is one of the city’s best spots for clearing your head. Walk among beautiful gardens and pavilions to get some respite from the ever-present chaos of Shinjuku.
Beyond Shinjuku: Other places to go in Tokyo
- Asakusa: Tokyo’s most traditional neighbourhood seems completely at odds with the insanity that is Shinjuku. Get started exploring with our guide to the best things to do in Asakusa.
- Ginza: Head to the fashion boutiques or eat your way through Tokyo’s most upscale shopping district. Plan it all out with this guide of what to do in Ginza!
- Shibuya: Shinjuku’s slightly-less-crazy brother, just a couple stations away, is still a massive rush to the head. Explore to its fullest with this guide to the best things to do in Shibuya.