A few weeks ago a former classmate reached out with a question: I’m bringing my son to Tokyo for a visit. Any tips? My brain immediately starting buzzing with ideas, and here is what I have come up with so far.
But first, the disclaimers:
- I don’t live in Tokyo itself, but in Yokohama–about 45 minutes away by train.
- I have only lived here six months, and I’m still getting out and about myself. Some of these places I have visited myself, and some I have heard about from others. If I haven’t visited myself then I have said so below.
- This list is not definitive or ranked in any particular order, and I expect to update it regularly. So for you Japan-based readers out there, please drop me a note if there’s something huge that I’m missing.
- Some links below point to websites in Japanese. If you open the links in Google Chrome then Chrome will ask if you’d like to translate the page to English.
OK, here we go!
Ride a Train and Wander the Station
I can’t imagine visiting Tokyo and avoiding trains. It’s by far the fastest way to get around and an awesome people watching opportunity. Bonus points for riding during rush hour or on a shinkansen bullet train! The two busiest stations in the world are right in Tokyo: Shinjuku (1.26 Billion with a B! passengers per year), followed by Shibuya (1.09 billion passengers per year).
After you get off the train, wander around the station itself. Larger stations like Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Yokohama house hundreds of shops and restaurants that are fun to browse.
Check out Shibuya Crossing
If there’s one street corner in the world that sums up a country, it’s Shibuya Crossing. The mass of people, the neon, the order among the chaos–that’s Japan, right there. Forget Times Squares in New York, which is tacky, populated with sketchy costume-clad hucksters badgering you to pose for photos, and avoided by actual New Yorkers. Shibuya Crossing has its tourists, but real people use it as well to, you know, cross the street. The best views are from slightly above. The Starbucks on the corner is a popular spot, but it’s so well known that you have to fight for a spot at the window. Instead go to the skywalk ramp inside the station itself, which you can see center-left in this live cam.
Visit Akihabara Electric Town
Akihabara Electric Town used to be lined with nothing but shops carrying random light bulbs, switches, cables and other electronics–basically a giant Radio Shack district. Some of those shops are still around, but Akihabara has since morphed into the center of manga and anime culture. Even if you’re not into either scene it’s fun to browse. Akihabara is also where you’ll find many maid cafes which you can avoid/seek out as appropriate.
Check out Harajuku, Street Fashion Capital
I wrote a little about Harajuku in an earlier post. Unless your boy child is really into Japanese street fashion, this would likely interest the gals a bit more. Takeshita Dori is the main street and a good spot for an hour or two of window shopping. You’ll mainly see other tourists like yourself, but some cool kids in their Harajuku-iest finery will also roam about.
Visit a Shinto Shrine or Buddhist Temple
One of the most famous shrines in Tokyo is Meiji Shrine, conveniently located in Shibuya near Harajuku. That said there are plenty of shrines and temples scattered about, so you should have no trouble fitting in a visit around other site seeing stops. At the shrine or temple’s entrance you’ll see Japanese visitors rinsing their hands and mouths with a ladle; any guide book will give you a description of the procedure so you can show your respects as well.
Get Food at a Department Store
Large department stores often include a food court of casual restaurants, typically located on the top floor. Here you’ll find an assortment of tempura, ramen, sushi, and other restaurants. If you’re not sure of what you’re in mood for then the restaurant windows’ large displays of plastic food models offer plenty of inspiration.
In addition to the food courts on high floors, most large department stores have a huge area of food stalls called a depachika, usually located in the basement. There you will find dozens of stalls selling beautfully packaged bento, sweets, teas, and other treats. In Yokohama we have Sogo at Yokohama Station; you can find out more about Tokyo depachika options here. One thing depachikas lack is a seating area; there’s nowhere to eat your purchase on-site, and there aren’t many parks or spots to eat your lunch outside. So “let’s pick up lunch at a depachika” sounds like a great idea, but there’s nowhere around to eat it. Instead eat lunch at a restaurant or cafe and pick up depachika food on your way back to your hotel.
Order Ramen from a Restaurant with a Ticket Machine
Most people think of sushi as the go-to Japanese cuisine, but ramen definitely wins when it comes to ubiquity. If there are ten restaurants on any street, then eleven of them are ramen shops. The ticket machine works pretty much like any vending machine: insert your money, push the button of your selected dish, and get a ticket. Hand that ticket to the waiter/cook and get your food. Most machines in touristy areas include labels in English.
Eat at a Conveyor Sushi Restaurant
Kaiten sushi restaurants include a conveyor that parades tempting dishes past your table. Help yourself and stack your plates, which will add up to your final bill; prices are typically 100 yen per plate. There’s usually a screen at each table for special orders; look for the magic English button to translate the screen, and make sure that you don’t steal someone else’s special order! I have found kaiten sushi places less ubiquitous than I expected–certainly not like ramen shops–so before you set out for the day scout out a few locations relative to your itinerary.
Visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum
If you only visit one museum, make it the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Head straight to the permanent exhibit for an excellent overview of Tokyo’s history. Visit this early in your stay so you can appreciate just how much the city has changed, and how quickly. I found the maps showing the steady march of land reclamation particularly fascinating, and I quickly learned how to spot reclaimed land and new development from speeding trains.
Shop in a Lifestyle Store
Tokyu Hands sells home items, craft supplies, housewares, stationery, luggage…just go. It’s awesome. Yodobashi Camera sells cameras and electronics but also watches, housewares, camping gear, sporting goods, toys, and so much more. Also iPhone owners will never see so many choices for phone cases in one place ever again. Seriously, Just Go!
Shop in a 100 Yen Store
Before you shop for souvenirs anywhere else, go to a 100 yen store. Daiso is a popular chain but others are around as well. You’ll find plenty of options for gag gifts like disposable underwear, adhesive ear cleaning sticks, and double eyelid tape. You’ll also see helpful items including all manners of travel goods like sacks and luggage tags, plus small kitchen items that pack easily and make great gifts.
Visit Kappabashi Street
Kappabashi Street sells everything a restaurant owner needs to set up shop except for food itself. It’s popularly known as the plastic sushi district, and you will see several shops selling the plastic food models featured in many restaurant windows; once you see the price of a single bowl of plastic ramen you’ll never look at a restaurant window without quickly calculating how many thousands of dollars that display cost to set up! You’ll also find knives, dishes, red lanterns, and plenty of other items. Personally I think a knife makes a great souvenir; it’s easy to pack, useful, and a great reminder of your trip every time you use it. I still have and use the paring knife that I picked up during my 2010 visit.
Eat at a Theme Restaurant
I wrote earlier about my visit with Tessa to the Kawaii Monster Cafe. Other popular choices include the Ninja Restaurant, the Robot Restaurant (caution: not kid friendly), The Lockup (play prisoner while you eat!), and the earlier-mentioned maid cafes. I haven’t visited any of these others.
Visit Tsukiji Fish Market
This is a no-kidding, working fish market. It’s also a huge tourist draw, much to the market operators’ dismay. So go, but stay out of the working people’s way. The tuna auction is the main event and runs from 5 to 6AM, but you have to arrive around 3AM to get a spot. Note that trains in Tokyo do not run 24 hours, so you’ll have to get creative on how to get there. Also check the auction calendar to ensure that an auction will take place on the day that you intend to visit. There’s still plenty to see later in the morning, but don’t arrive too late; make it your first stop of the day and enjoy a sushi breakfast after! Click here for details on how to do right without being a nuisance. The market is slated to move to a new location within Tokyo in November 2016.
Go to a Sumo Tournament
Sumo tournaments run at different times throughout the year, and if you’re lucky your stay may coincide with the matches in Tokyo. Check the calendar carefully, especially the venue. All of the tournaments for the year are listed together on this page, and not all of the venues are in Tokyo.
Get Out of Tokyo
If your stay is long enough then consider a day trip or overnight visit out of town. Kamakura is a great choice. About 60 km south and an hour by train from Tokyo Station, Kamakura is home to the famous Daibatsu Giant Buddha as well as dozens of other shrines and temples (Warning: Giant Buddha is undergoing restoration until March 10, 2016. Don’t go now unless you want to stare at a giant sheet of plastic!). Many guide books list walking routes between popular sites. These pleasant walks also take you through several quiet neighborhoods and allow you to pretend-shop for real estate. If we decided to live close to Yokosuka we would have chosen Kamakura for sure.
Another nice option is Hakone, a town further south from Kamakura. Even though Hakone lies 100 km from Tokyo, it still takes only an hour by train from Tokyo Station–because you get to take the shinkansen bullet train. Super DUPER bonus points!! I haven’t visited Hakone yet myself but plan to soon, and I’ve heard great reports from friends who have gone there. Popular itineraries include a pirate cruise on the lake with a view of Mt. Fuji, a visit to an onsen hot spring, and a stop at a lovely outdoor art museum. This website describes some package deals. Again, haven’t been yet–but plan to soon!