Hardly any traveller leaves Tokyo unimpressed. The simple reason? Tokyo is electric, and few world cities immediately grasp your attention the way Tokyo can. But with its mammoth size comes the great dilemma: How do you pinpoint what to do in Tokyo?
This guide will help tackle that all-important question. Here, you’ll find quick outline of the 18 best things to do in Tokyo, Japan.
I’ve included practical information wherever possible to help you navigate this exciting city without much fuss, putting all the best Tokyo attractions at your fingertips. Let’s explore Tokyo!
Table of Contents
- Want to start exploring? Here are the top 10 best things to do in Tokyo, Japan…
- Other Tokyo attractions & places to visit in Tokyo
- Done with these Tokyo points of interest? Here’s where to go next…
- What to do in Tokyo, Japan: A summary
Want to start exploring? Here are the top 10 best things to do in Tokyo, Japan…
Picking out the top 10 things to do in Tokyo is never an easy task. With the size of Tokyo alone, you could almost spend your entire trip to Japan in the city without seeing the same street twice. Add in all the awesome day trips from Tokyo, and it’s obvious why Tokyo’s the perfect introduction to Japan!
Fortunately, public transportation in Tokyo is top-notch. Getting around the city is an absolute breeze (as long as you avoid rush hour); most of the best Tokyo attractions are just a quick train ride away! Even if you’ve only got one day in Tokyo, you can bite off a good chunk of these top 10 things to do in Tokyo.
Tsukiji Fish Market
So, visiting a fish market probably isn’t on top of your bucket list. The smells are off-putting, the whole scene a little grotesque at times. But there’s no doubt that an early morning jaunt to the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market should be high on your “what to do in Tokyo” list.
Get a one-up on the sun, launching your trip to Tsukiji Fish Market in the pre-dawn hours. Only 120 visitors are permitted into the tuna auction per day with no advance reservations possible. Registrations start at 5am, but to claim your spot among the hordes of tourists, you’ll need to snag your spot in line earlier. Sometimes much, much earlier!
Two groups of 60 visitors launch into the tuna auction at 5:25am and 5:50am. Watch the fascinating scene unfold as human-sized tuna are inspected and sold off the high bidders. Flash photography isn’t allowed, nor is getting in the way of the vendors. Remember this is a real place of business, not a tourist attraction!
If you lack the willpower to leave your cloud-like mattress at such an early hour, you could always skip the tuna auction and visit Tsukiji Fish Market later in the morning. The market stalls and food vendors along the Tsukiji Outer Market are fascinating and warrant a visit on their own! Grab your spot at one of the food stalls for a yummy sushi breakfast that will forever destroy your ability to enjoy sushi anywhere else.
The folkloric tales of Japan match up to the ancient streets of Asakusa, Tokyo’s most traditional central district. In a city whose fame emanates from its never-ending, glass-filled skyline and, at times, futuristic glow, Asakusa is a breath of fresh air.
The approach into Asakusa begins at the grand Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate). Over a millennium of history pre-dates the gate, although the current incarnation is a modern-era reconstruction. The gate opens up to Nakamise-dori, a traditional shopping street where you can fill your bags with trinkets and various souvenirs for the folks back home.
At the heart of Asakusa rests Sensoji Temple. The history of this Buddhist temple, the most famous in Tokyo, digs back to the 7th century. Even though today’s rebirth is a post-war construction, the grandeur of Sensoji Temple hasn’t been lost. Admission to the temple and its beautiful grounds is free.
Plenty of traditional Japanese wooden houses, restaurants and shops dot the streets spoking from Asakusa’s centre. Slip into the alleyways and saunter the surrounding blocks to see what you’ll find!
To watch Tokyo slow down (a rarity, I know), find your inner peace at Meiji Shrine near Shibuya’s gutsy Harajuku neighbourhood. Unlike some of Tokyo’s other attractions, Meiji Shrine doesn’t have a history reaching back to long bygone centuries.
The shrine was originally completed in 1920 in dedication of Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoke. Fast forward just twenty-some years, World War II handed Meiji Shrine a massive strike. The current Meiji Shrine is, like so many attractions in Tokyo, a post-war reconstruction holding true to the original.
Meiji Shrine shares greenspace with Yoyogi Park, one of the other best things to do in Tokyo. The main complex of the shrine sits in equal distance to both the southern and northern entrances. A large torii (gate) marks the main entrance near Harajuku Station as you escape the bustle of Shibuya for the tranquil wilderness of Meiji Shrine.
Once you reach the main complex, there’s a number of interesting buildings to check out. Besides the main shrine, keep your eyes open for the Meiji Jingu Treasure House. The treasure house holds a number of important artifacts from the Emperor and Empress. The Inner Garden of Meiji Shrine is also impressive, although you’ll have to shell out a few yen for the pleasure of visiting.
Tokyo Imperial Palace
While it certainly won’t compete with what you’ll find in Kyoto, Tokyo Imperial Palace unfolds a classic scene that no Tokyo itinerary should skip. Realistically, there isn’t much for visitors to do at Tokyo Imperial Palace without a little pre-planning.
The palace is the current residence of the Emperor and Empress; needless to say, you can’t simply show up at Tokyo Imperial Palace and expect to walk around unfettered. Tours are available, however, with advanced registration. Book your free 1.25-hour tour on the Imperial Household Agency website or by showing up 30 minutes prior to the tour time—usually 10:00am and 1:30pm (outside summer only), Tuesday to Saturday—at the Kikyo-mon Gate.
Even if you missed snagging your spot on a tour, the Imperial Palace Outer Garden (Kokyo Gaien), Imperial Palace East Garden (Kokyo Higashi Gyoen) and Kita-no-maru-koen Park are open to the public. The best view of the whole lot though is in front of Nijubashi, Tokyo’s most famous bridge. Elbow your way through the permanent crowd of amateur photographers to grab your shot of the stone bridge backdropped by the classically Japanese guard tower in the the inner grounds.
Hanging out beside Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park (Yoyogi Kōen) in Shibuya’s Harajuku neighbourhood is one of the best places to visit in Tokyo to catch a breather. Although not as tranquil as the forests around Meiji Shrine, there’s a buzz in the air in Yoyogi Park that will capture your attention as you ditch the busy streets for greener alternatives.
Yoyogi Park’s a massively popular hangout in Tokyo. While you won’t find quite the same level of weirdness here as at one of the infamous Sunday gatherings on nearby Harajuku Bridge, don’t be surprised when you encounter odd characters and entertainers who unwind and practice their skills in Yoyogi Park. Move to the northern and western fringes of the park for a little more solitude.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Unlike the more energetic Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku Goyen National Garden rebalances the chi as Tokyo’s best nature unfolds before your eyes. Strolling through the pathways among the ponds and greenery in this 58-hectare park is the perfect escape from the ever-electric Shinjuku district.
Three main gardens—Japanese, French, and English—frame the Shinjuku Goyen National Garden. All are impressive, but the Japanese Garden—featuring paths that meander over bridges and around ponds and pavilions—has a truly distinctive Asian feel that captures the imagination.
If you’re visiting Tokyo in late March and April, be sure to scope out the cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Goyen National Garden, one of the best locations in Tokyo for hanami. Autumn is also a great time to dwell in the park when the leaves take on new hues for a colourful scene.
Shinjuku Goyen National Garden is open 9am to 4pm every day except Mondays (and Tuesdays after a national holiday that falls on a Monday). The entrance fee is ¥200.
In all my travels, I’ve yet to encounter another place quite like Shibuya. When I dreamt of the streets of Tokyo, flooded with neon and a never-ending stream of passer-bys, Shibuya’s where I first found it.
Although it’s is a huge district, Shibuya usually alludes to the shopping and entertainment district centered around Shibuya station. Much of Tokyo’s edgy fashion sense emanates from the department stores and boutiques around Shibuya.
Besides soaking in the epically mammoth city atmosphere, prepare to unload some yen shopping in the boutiques along Center Gai or in Shibuya 109. The restaurant selection in Shibuya is equally spectacular. Cheaper eateries rub elbows with more upscale restaurants and izakaya, leaving plenty of delicious choices for all budgets for checking off all the must-try Japanese foods.
If your dream vacation involves big, sweaty men grappling in skimpy aprons, you’ve come to the right place. Even if not, you’ll still get a kick out of visiting Ryōgoku Kokugikan (Ryougoku Sumo Hall) for a taste of Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling.
During national tournaments (January, May and September) over 10,000 spectators pile into Ryōgoku Kokugikan to cheer on their favourite wrestlers. Whether you’re in town to attend the tournament or not, there’s a Sumo Museum in the complex to help you get a better handle on the sport.
Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley)
Somehow the true English translation of Omoide Yokocho wasn’t cutting it. For reasons we’d best not bring up, the nostalgically named Memory Alley shaved off its family-friendly handle for the more brash—and, admittedly, more memorable—Piss Alley.
No, Omoide Yokocho isn’t deplorable as its nickname would suggest. Actually, exploring it heartily is one of the best things to do in Shinjuku!
Dozens of small bars and eateries line this narrow alleyway near Shinjuku Station. A rich history, full of fires and public urination, pre-dates present-day Omoide Yokocho. Things are calmer here now, yet it still maintains that authentic atmosphere that bolstered its popularity. The pleasures here are simple: eat, drink… and enjoy!
On the other side of town from the chaos of Shinjuku and Shibuya, Yurakucho is another shopping and entertainment district that’s worth digging into while visiting Tokyo. The main stretch of restaurants, clinging below the JR Yamanote Line, are a perpetual favourite among hard-working Tokyoites.
Yurakucho is most famous for its izakaya (Japanese pubs) and yakitori joints that hide along the train tracks. Pick one and pop in for a snack and cold beer for an authentic Tokyo experience!
Other Tokyo attractions & places to visit in Tokyo
Need more ideas on what to do in Tokyo? Here are a few more Tokyo attractions and things to do in Tokyo to slide into your itinerary.
Shin-Okubo Korean Town
If you can’t slip Seoul into your East Asia travel plans, Shin-Okubo Korean Town in Tokyo might be the next best thing. A good chunk of the the 80 thousand or so Koreans in Tokyo call this eclectic neighbourhood, to the north of Kabuchiko in Shinjuku, home.
Although Korean restaurants are popping up all over the capital, Shin-Okubo offers some of the best Korean food in the city. Follow your nose to one of the delicious Korean barbecue joints along Okubo-dori, the main drag in Shin-Okubo, to tackle your appetite. Keep your ears perked up for the sounds of K-Pop inviting you into one of the many Korean shops in Shin-Okubo for a cultural experience that can only be described as odd.
Paris has the Eiffel Tower; Tokyo has Tokyo Tower. The similarity between two of the most famous landmark towers in the world isn’t accidental. Like so many towers around the world, the architects of Tokyo Tower used the City of Lights’ star as its inspiration—and then surpassed it by stretching 13 metres higher!
While no longer the tallest structure in Japan (it’s the Tokyo Sky Tree now), Tokyo Tower offers some of the best vistas of Tokyo—even with its distinctive red girders missing from view. The main observatory, soaring in at a height of 150-metres, costs 900¥. There’s also an even higher special observatory, enhancing your views with an extra 100 metres in height. Unfortunately, it’s currently undergoing renovations and won’t reopen until summer 2017.
Is there any better place to spend an evening in Tokyo than Odaiba? Perhaps not. This impeccably developed waterfront district, situated on a man-made island, is Tokyo’s premier sunset-watching destination and a great place to chow down or fill your shopping bags.
The evening and nighttime views from Odaiba over the Tokyo horizon are simply magnificent. Framed by Tokyo’s famous Rainbow Bridge, the vistas you’ll soak in while trotting along the waterfront sit among the most classic captures of Tokyo’s skyline.
Even during the day, there’s a ton of things to do in Odaiba. The area is a full-fledged shopping and dining district with options to suit every taste.
Relieve your wallet of some yen at Aquacity Odaiba or Decks Tokyo Beach, two of the areas best shopping malls. Kids (and adults!) will love the enormous Transformer-like Gundam statue in front of DiverCity Tokyo Plaza. The statue’s existence, unfortunately, is currently in flux. The new Gundam statue should be ready to put a smile on your face again by autumn 2017.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
If you don’t want to shell out hard-earned yen for sweeping views of the city, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the best alternative. The free twin observation decks, peering out at Tokyo from 202 metres, are the most budget-friendly option for massive vistas of the entire city.
On clear days, you can expect to see as far as Mount Fuji with all of Tokyo’s most famous landmarks—Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Meiji Shrine, and Shinjuku Goyen—emerging in the view.
Both observatories are open year round (except from December 29th to January 3rd) from 9:30 to 23:00 (North Observatory) and 9:30 to 17:30 (South Observatory). The North Observatory closes the 2nd and 4th Monday of the month while the the South Observatory is closed the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of every month.
Missing High Street shopping? Let Tokyo’s Ginza fill the void! Ginza is Tokyo’s upscale shopping district where prestigious Japanese stores like Wako and Mitsukoshi vie along with many of the world’s most recognized international fashion brands—from Armani and Burberry to Chanel and Dior—to drain the wallets of Tokyo’s well-to-do.
While shopping is among the top things to do in Ginza, budget-conscious travellers will still find joy. Like Shinjuku or Shibuya, walking around the streets of Ginza, ducking into side streets to uncover hidden restaurants and shops, is the quintessential modern Japanese urban experience.
In fact, Ginza is one of the best neighbourhoods to stay in Tokyo, offering a safe and central location to launch your Tokyo adventures.
Find your way to Ginza on the weekends when Chuo-dori closes off to traffic for even more excitement. The so-called Pedestrians’ Paradise lures street performers and miscellaneous hawkers to create an enticing scene full of energy.
If you haven’t quite had your fill of Tokyo from above, set aside time to visit Tokyo Skytree in Sumida. This massive 634-metre tower holds title as the tallest structure in Japan—even taking second spot worldwide!
The two observation decks hover at a whopping height of 350 and 450 metres. As you’d imagine, the 360-degree panorama of Tokyo from each is spectacular.
Buy your tickets for the first observation deck on the 4th-floor (regular: ¥2,060; Fast Skytree: ¥3000). From the first observation deck, you can continue up to the second platform for an extra ¥1,030. Alternatively, purchase a Fast Skytree combo ticket for ¥4000 that gives express access for both.
Seeking out the latest gadgets in Tokyo always starts with a stop in Akihabara. Tokyo’s famous electronics shopping district is the perfect place to browse through mobile phones, computers or cameras. Even if you don’t need the latest Nikon DSLR or iPhone, the main drag of Akihabara, Chuo-dori, is a colourful place to while away you day.
As of late, the face of Akihabara has been changing, garnering fame for its grand expression of otaku culture. Specializing in all things Japanese pop culture—from anima and manga to video games and collectible goods—otaku shops have sprung up among the electronics vendors.
Perhaps the weirdest development of the bunch for non-Japanese is the explosion of maid cafés in Akihabara. If you’ve ever fancied yourself a propertied well-to-do, grab a coffee or tea at a maid café to get pampered by waitresses dressed as French maids.
Tokyo National Museum
Lovers of fine arts can’t afford to give Tokyo National Museum a miss. The oldest national museum in Japan, Tokyo National Museum is home to the biggest collection of Japanese art and antiquities in the world.
Exploring the museum to its fullest takes the better part of a day. Highlights of the Tokyo National Museum include the Honkan (Japanese Gallery), a collection of Japanese art spread over 24 exhibitions; Tōyōkan (Asian Gallery), showcasing art from elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East; and Hōryū-ji Hōmotsukan (The Gallery of Hōryū-ji Treasures), containing treasures dating as far back as the 7th century.
Entrance to the Tokyo National Museum is ¥600 for adults and free for children and seniors. The museum is open from 9:30am to 5:00pm every day except Mondays (with extended hours on weekends during high seasons).
Done with these Tokyo points of interest? Here’s where to go next…
- Kyoto: Japan’s beautiful imperial capital is just a quick bullet train ride away. Get started planning your trip with this one day in Kyoto itinerary and guide of the best things to do in Kyoto.
- Osaka: If the Japanese urban experience revs your engine, you’ll just love the chaos and big city vibes of Japan’s second biggest metropolis. Dig into the best of the city with this guide of what to do in Osaka.
What to do in Tokyo, Japan: A summary
Still can’t decide what to do in Tokyo? Here’s a quick summary of the best things to do in Tokyo to help you out further:
- Want to gawk at Tokyo from above? Zip up to the free observation decks at the Tokyo Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku or up the superlatively vertiginous, but more expensive, Tokyo Skytree.
- Seeking an authentic Japanese food and drinking experience? Eat and drink among locals in atmospheric Omoide Yokocho or Yurakucho.
- Need to fill your closet with the latest fashions? Peruse the boutiques of Ginza or add some edge with the youthful styles of Shibuya.
- Craving relaxation? Put your feet up among the cherry blossoms and gardens of Shinjuku Goyen National Garden.
- Art lover? Don’t skip out on the Tokyo National Museum, the largest collection of Japanese art in the world.