Things to Do in Tokyo

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Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is an expensive place to visit, even more so to live there, but there are affordable things to see and do there, most notably in public spaces and national parks (there are four within Tokyo Metropolis). Just walking around parts of the city is a free, awe-inspiring thing to do in the world’s most populous city (about 13.9 million people).

From modest roots as a tiny fishing village named Edo, and after devastation by a 1923 earthquake that killed 140,000, plus WWII firebombing that destroyed half of the city (the main reason why its architecture is largely modern), Tokyo has emerged as the world’s busiest city. The Michelin Guides give it the most stars of any city on earth.

What to do in Tokyo? It’s impossible to choose, so be sure to take more than a few days (even a few weeks will not enable you to see everything!). Anyone who has ever visited Tokyo understands that with massive population density, there are people everywhere all the time, and it can be overwhelming.

Tokyo is all things and offers all things. It is a cultural mecca, a global business centre, a historic entity. Home to the Japanese government and the Emperor of Japan, there are plenty of grand buildings, but few of those are residences; most people live in tiny flats. Its humid subtropical climate (heading up local mountains presents another climate entirely), presents hot summers and mild winters.

Food is a big draw for visitors to Tokyo, as it is famous for its sushi, ramen and soba noodles, tempura and all types of seafood (it is on the island of Honshu and surrounded by ocean). Food, however, tends to be expensive; a great deal of it is imported. If you want an affordable meal, stick with fast food restaurants. A fine dinner can cost a substantial number of yen.

Plan ahead when going to Tokyo. There is so much to see and do that you will need to prioritize. Temples, museums and culture? Or shopping (the range is huge, from cheap clothing to the most high-end designer wear). Sporting events? Tokyo, Japan, hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics. Whatever your preference, you’ll need to narrow it down, or spend a year visiting modern, remarkable Tokyo.

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Things to Do in Tokyo

Meiji Shrine

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Holy shrines litter Japan and the rest of The Orient, and many of them are ostentatious, even garish; not so the elegant, serene Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Situated in 81 hectares (200 acres) of parkland and forests, the Meiji Shrine is free to visit, and open daily from dawn to dusk. Despite there being no official entry fee, most visitors donate a few yen to the offering box.

Also known as the Meiji Jingu Shrine, this building with its 12-metre-high (40 feet) gates is dedicated to the Emperor and Empress Meiji; he was the late 19th-century emperor who opened Japan to the West and ensured the future exponential growth of Tokyo.

This attraction is easy to access as it is located in central Tokyo. If you visit on Sundays, you might just bear witness to a Shinto wedding. Add your message and prayers to the collection of small notes stuck to the walls. Your dreams may come true. Don’t miss seeing the fabulous perennial Iris Garden on the grounds in the spring.

Senso Ji

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Rich with an blend of history, devotion and legend, the original Senso-ji ancient Buddhist temple in the Asakusa area of Tokyo was opened for worship in 645 AD, making it the oldest temple in Tokyo, and certainly one of its most important. Sadly, during the firebombing raids carried out on Tokyo during World War II, much of the temple was destroyed, but it was rebuilt in the same vernacular thereafter.

To say Senso-ji is colourful is an understatement. By day its red/orange and gold walls, contrasted with white trim, reflect the sun; by night it is artificially lit and oozes the dominant red. As such, it is one of Tokyo’s most-photographed attractions. Its ancient Buddhist roots waft through tourists’ nostrils with the continually burning incense; it’s a trip to the distant past in the current moment.

Senso-ji is complemented by a five-storey pagoda building, adding height to the solid, albeit decorative, main temple. And the street that leads toward the front doors of Senso-ji is lined with small shops selling tasty treats, souvenirs and Japanese crafts. Many visitors opt to enjoy a cup of green tea and a rice biscuit before they tour the temple and gaze at the Buddha and Chinese lions statuary. Senso-ji is the postcard-picture you’ll want to take home from your trip to Tokyo, Japan.

Odaiba

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Locally known as simply “Daiba”, this is an artificial island situated in Tokyo Bay and dedicated to ultramodern design and upscale leisure activities. A sort of exhibition park on steroids! It boasts classic accoutrements like a ferris wheel and a beach at Seaside Park, but otherwise, this high-end technological entertainment centre is full-blast contemporary.

Neither is it inexpensive! It’s easy to access via the Rainbow Bridge (not the same one, obviously, that westerners say their pets have crossed when they pass on) or the futuristic public transit train. The view of Mount Fuji is fabulous from here!

Daiba has all the usual amusement park attractions, as well as unique shopping and a litany of the coolest sushi bars. Video games, cosplay, high-tech everything right at your fingertips. It makes for a super-fun day near the water, and you can even have a chat with a robot; just don’t challenge him/her/it to a game of chess!

Tsukiji Fish Market

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You know what it’s like when your favourite store, the one you walk or maybe ride your bike to, uproots and moves to a bigger, shinier premises. Farther away. Darn it. The Tsukiji Fish Market, widely known as the best fish market in the world (ask any chef!) officially opened in its old location in 1935, but some form of fish market had been there since the 1600s. And it has moved. As of October 2018, it’s changed locations.

The excuse? The old buildings that housed the inner and outer markets (inner was wholesale, outer for the general public) were no longer structurally sound. Still, it’s a piece of history and the neighbours all felt it should be restored, not relocated. The controversy continues. And part of that is because many locals believe the move had nothing to do with old buildings, but being an ideal site for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

Old site, new site, at least it’s open for business and situated appropriately on a wharf in eastern Tokyo. The Tsukiji Fish Market is known for its amazing variety of fresh fish and seafood, as well as great prices. But if you visit, take a tip from the chefs: get there early!

Shinjuku Gyoen

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Gyoen means “imperial garden” in English, and this one certainly is regal in its beauty and size; it is one of the most vast and popular parks in Tokyo, a favourite of locals, and a respite from the crazy bustle of the city around it. It’s a short walk from the Shinjuko subway station, and a world away.

The Shinjuko Gyoen is a national garden, open all seasons and blessed with a different form of beauty in each; it’s an ideal place to wander among cherry blossoms in the spring. Here you will find a plethora of flowers, trees and shrubs, waterways and ponds, bridges, paths and sprawling lawns, ideal for a blanket and picnic basket.

This was originally the residence of the Naito family in the Edo period before the city became Tokyo. It is still part of royal property, managed by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan. There is an admission charge, but it is very modest, so enjoy the vibrancy of Tokyo and its calmer, gentler side, too, at Shinjuko Gyoen.

Tokyo Skytree

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Eclipsing other tall, free-standing structures in other parts of the world, like the Middle East and Toronto, the Tokyo Skytree is the tallest of them all. Standing at 634 metres (2080 feet) it is a combined television and radio tower, and tourist attraction. It is located at the Skytree train station.

From the observation decks at 350 metres (1150 feet) and higher up at 450 metres (1480 feet), visitors marvel at the view, a panoramic snapshot of Tokyo, and Mount Fuji beyond. Taking nearly four years to build, the tower opened in 2012 and has hosted well over 35 million visitors.

One of its most fascinating features is a section of glass floor through which visitors can look down the facade of the tower. That might make you dizzy! From the outside, it looks like a lofty pagoda, and it lights up in multiple colours at night. Even though Tokyo suffers occasional earthquakes, mostly tiny ones, the Tokyo Skytree was designed and built using seismic proofing to absorb such motion, and is a safe place to visit.

Tokyo Imperial Palace

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A land of tradition, Japan has long been ruled by emperors, although now it is a constitutional monarchy, much like the United Kingdom, with a royal figurehead and an elected government. Tokyo’s Imperial Palace remains the residence of the Japanese royal family, but much of it is open to the public, including the main palace, the archives and the museum.

Situated in a lovely 81-hectare (200 acres), park-like setting, the Imperial Palace offers free tours, but visitors must register in advance (some places are available on a day-of basis). A maximum of 500 people are permitted through the buildings each day.

The grounds are divided into several different styles of gardens. At the east gardens, visitors wonder at the ruins of the inner sanctum of the ancient Edo Castle (there is even a moat!). The Koyo Garden is a public park located at the inner palace’s entrance. History and bucolic beauty in one location.

Tokyo Disneyland

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What can still be said about Disneylands the world over? They are ubiquitous, popular, and spectacular fun for kids, and even their parents, too. Tokyo Disneyland is a classic Disneyland, set on 47 hectares (115 acres) with a grand castle at the entrance and a plethora of Disney characters that wander about and say hello.

A combined theme park and resort (families can stay on the site in a variety of themed accommodations). Tokyo Disneyland is busier than your average Disneyland. Its local popularity for a family day trip or weekend is huge. Despite being a rather costly outing, it is patronized heavily.

Enjoy the shows, rides, games and litany of varied restaurants. You can easily get there; the main gate is at the Maihama Station. Tokyo Disneyland is an established resort park; it was the first Disneyland to be built outside of the United Sates when it opened in 1983.

Tokyo National Museum

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There are more museums in Tokyo than you can shake a soba noodle at, but if you want just one, arguably the best of them all, pay a visit to the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park (you might want to stop by the Ueno Zoo while you’re in the neighbourhood).

Uneo Park itself is a pretty, tranquil spot; admission to it and the classical Japanese architecture museum is free, so it’s an excellent way to see Tokyo affordably.

This is the oldest national museum in all of Japan, housing some 110,000 items from masks to weaponry, costumes to statuary, hundreds of which are designated national treasures. At any given time four or five thousand items are on display in the permanent collections, with more added as touring exhibitions make a stop. Here you will experience the art and artefacts of historic Japan, a perfect introduction to the modern country you are visiting. It brings Japan into perspective. One of the largest museums in the world, the Tokyo National Museum is spread over six buildings; it opened in 1983 and has received many millions of visitors.

Tokyo Dome

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Japan is mad about baseball! And the Tokyo Dome, also known as the “big egg”, is home to their “Giants” baseball team. Located in the Bunkyo district, the 55,000-seat sports venue also hosts concerts, monster truck rallies and races, martial arts competitions and demonstrations, American football matches, basketball games and numerous other forms of sports and entertainment.

The Tokyo Dome sports (pun intended!) an air-supported roof, so weather is not a factor. It was built in 1988 on the location of the former stadium, but bigger and better. The facility is home to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

The immediate area is known as Tokyo Dome City, and boasts a wide variety of restaurants, hotels and shopping. Hotels are booked to capacity on game nights, so make your reservations early and go cheer for the “other” Giants, not those large fellows from New York!.

Harajuku

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What can be said about Harajuku? Most westerners will never have heard the name, but when we tell you (or try to) what it’s all about, you’ll nod your head and wonder if it’s a neighbourhood you should visit when you go to Tokyo, Japan. In many ways it embodies modern young Japanese culture, while simultaneously clinging to its past.

Harajuku has its own subway station, and is easily accessed by locals and tourists alike. Here you will find unique vintage clothing shops, cosplay shops (yes, there is such a thing!), small funky bars, street art and fashions for the young; turn a corner from Takeshita Street on to Omotesando Avenue, and you’re immersed in high fashion boutiques, trendy bars and well-heeled Japanese shoppers.

What you will notice is that there is no wall between the two, and that shoppers and visitors blend seamlessly from one street to the next. Check out the dessert shops, and don’t miss the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art.

It’s a colourful locale. We can pretty much guarantee you’ll see Japanese girls dressed like Sailor Moon or in Hello Kitty! dresses, bags, shoes, jewellery... You get the picture. Take your camera!

Tokyo DisneySea

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This is not your average Disneyland! Infused with an oceanic theme, this resort and park banks on the nature of Japan being an island and embraces a distinctly maritime sensibility. And it’s not Disneyland under water, as we first suspected, nor is it an aquarium. Yes, it is on the Tokyo Disneyland site on 71 hectares (174 acres) of its own.

Suggested by legendary sea tales, Tokyo DisneySea offers seven themed “ports of call” each with a unique character (and characters). It maintains the Disney-ness of rides, attractions, shows, and the like, plus restaurants and accommodations, but entirely in a seascape vernacular. Har-har!

This is cited by many tourists as being favoured over the regular type of Disneyland; it is indeed something different, and fun! We suggest you take the time to visit both, especially if you have children with you. Unlike traditional Disneyland, DisneySea encourages visitors to bring picnics and enjoy the beautiful grounds.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

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Reaching back to the origins of Tokyo during its early Edo period, before it became the Tokyo we know of today, the Edo-Tokyo Museum provides the continuous link between past and present. This is a museum that celebrates the history of place and people. Its mission is to “preserve Edo’s cultural heritage”, and it does this effectively and in contrast within the walls of a highly modern architectural structure.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum offers visitors its regular, permanent collections, together with visiting exhibitions to keep things fresh and fascinating. Stretching over several floors, the museum ameliorates its visitor experience with seminars, presentations and the ability to watch traditional craftsmen reviving skills from the distant past.

Among the most interest features are the scale models of Edo and Tokyo, from the periods 1590 to 1964. Transition and history in miniature. Tours are available in several languages, including English, so the experience will be complete and completely understood by those with English skills and non-Japanese speakers. We think it’s a must-see and gives sense to how Tokyo became Tokyo from Edo.

Yoyogi Park

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When we think of other countries, stereotypes sometimes pervade. Maybe that’s judgmental park, a green oasis in a great big city in Japan. Whether its tradition or something entirely modern, it’s hard to know, but there is a propensity for young Japanese adults to dress up, to role-play, and there seems to be no greater public space than Yoyogi Park for them to engage in this fun on Sundays.

The park is adjacent to the Harajuku subway station and that might be part of it; the Harajuku neighbourhood is rich with eclectic characters, many of them costumed. Visit Yoyogi Park and check out the rock-n-rollers, from funk and hip-hop dancers to rockabilly boys in their glittering jackets and loafers, with slicked-back hair. Cosplayers abound, mingling with jugglers, comedians and tourists. It’s a busking riot!

The park is free to visit, but, like many places in Tokyo, perennially busy. A former Olympic venue, this area was turned into a public park to be enjoyed by everyone. It has its own shrine, the Hachimangu Shrine, and is the location of a national stadium. Enjoy the green lawns, bucolic ponds and peaceful forests of Yoyogi Park (not named after Yogi Bear, sorry!), and try to visit when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Tokyo Tower

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Many neophyte visitors to Tokyo wrongly assume the Tokyo Tower and Skytree are the same things. In fact, they are not only different in terms of basic towers (Skytree is a needle with a pagoda-like top, the tallest building on earth, and the Tokyo Tower is a replica of the Eiffel Tower), they afford different visitor experiences. Both sport antennae that broadcast radio and television signals, and both have observation platforms, but the similarities end there.

Tokyo Tower, the original of the two, and the second tallest structure in Japan (after, of course, Skytree) has a unique look with its Eiffel Tower metalwork, painted white and orange to comply with international air safety regulations. Underneath it is a four-storey building that houses restaurants, shops, a museum and other public facilities.

Also known as the Japan Radio Tower, the structure boasts two observation decks, one at the 150-metre (490 feet) level and one higher up at 250 metres (819 feet). Both afford spectacular views of the city. The Tokyo Tower is open late, so make your ascent at night amid the colourful lights that adorn it!

National Museum of Nature and Science

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As its name suggests the National Museum of Nature and Science, a venerable institution in Tokyo since 1871, offers a wide variety of natural history exhibits; these are divided between two main galleries, namely the Japan Gallery and the Global Gallery.

Visitors are charmed by the polished and perfectly maintained old steam locomotive at the front entrance. Inside, more thrill of discovery abounds with a triceratops fossil, giant pandas, a papier-mâché globe of the earth fashioned by hand in 1695, and a Troughton & Simms telescope from the 1800s. There is virtually no end of fascinating things to see and learn about.

Situated in the northeast corner of Ueno Park, the National Museum of Nature and Science entertains and educates through its array of exhibits and interactive science displays. It’s a perfect point of interest to explore on a rainy day or if you have children with you on your visit to Tokyo, Japan.

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