"It was still early in the evening when we emerged onto a street in Tsukiji, near the fish market. From the top of the pedestrian overpass we caught a glimpse of Hongan-ji Temple … The road leading to Kachidoki Bridge was wide but dimly lit, with few shops or restaurants and only the occasional passing car. I'd never been here before. This was a very different Tokyo from places like Shibuya or Shinjuku. Wooden bait-and-tackle shops with disintegrating roofs and broken signs stood next to shiny new convenience stores, and futuristic highrise apartment complexes rose skyward on either side of narrow, retro streets lined with wholesalers of dried fish" (Ryu Murakami, In the miso soup).
This gives you and idea of why I consider Tokyo one of the most interesting and surprising cities in the world. There are so many faces, layers, ages, lights, and shades that you would definitely miss if you came here only on a short two-day trip . But if you take the time to visit at least three or four different areas, you will immediately fall in love with the hundreds of souls this city has, through the multiple and diverse experiences that you will do: from taking a ride on the busiest subway in the world and then remerging into streets filled with thousands of modern lights, to finding your way through the "vintage" alleys of Omoide Yokochō, or being astounded by the beauty of a temple immersed in a zen garden in-between skyscrapers and elegantly tree-lined streets that combine both west and east, modern and old, spiritual and absolutely mundane.
In the following section I describe the areas of the city of Tokyo (although itis actually comprised of many cities/prefectures) that we visited – though it's not nearly an exhaustive guide – while I have the places we went to outside the city on the weekends in another section.
These are the areas we visited (some, more than once) during three weeks we spent in Tokyo in the summer of 2019. I grouped together the neighborhoods that are close to each other, similar in attractions or style, or that you can visit on the same day.
There is a very high chance that you will swing by these two neighborhoods many times during your visit of Tokyo, as they have two of the biggest metro stations, with connections for over a dozen train and subway lines (the most popular one is the JR Yamanote line) and the thousands of people that pass through them every day. For this reason walking outside Shibuya station, on the famous Shibuya crossing (that you can see for free from the windows of the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building or paying $20 from the top of the new Shibuya Sky), is an experience you cannot miss --together with a photo by the famous Hachikō statue. The area around it is very touristy (many department stores are here. We liked LOFT a lot, which has seven floors of truly Japanese household & stationary items!) and not particularly attractive, but it gives you a good sense of the rushing life of Tokyo with also a good variety of chain stores and quick food restaurants that can be reassuring if you feel a little bit lost. We ate at this gyoza place that was quite good on the second floor of a building facing the crowded Shibuya-Center-Gai street and we also had some good ramen here. From the Shibuya Crossing you can walk East to the much more interesting Aoyama and Omotesando districts, or head west to the more residential and quaint part of the area.
As for Shinjuku, there are people who love this area, but I have to say I found the flashing lights and homogeneity of the buildings quite boring, especially on the largest street named Yasukumi-dori, where most of the skyscrapers are, and the probability of bumping into a tourist trap here is really high. But there are a few interesting things to do in Shinjuku, one being to stroll around the smaller streets around Omoide Yokocho and the Golden Gai (the famous food alleys featuring a selection of counter-serve stalls for simple fare and alcoholic drinks), and also to visit the pretty Hanazono-jinja shrine nearby. We went to a cat cafè which was fun but a little stinky and had a nice afternoon snack at the pretty Muji Café. Shinjuku also hosts the very beautiful Gyoen National Garden, that we didn't get to see because it was always closed when we were around it.
Shinjuku also hosts the most famous gay district of the city, Ni-chōme, in a country that only recently has started to accept openly LGBTQ communities.
You should start your tour of these three beautiful areas (probably our favorite ones in Tokyo) from the very famous and beautiful Meji-Jingu Park (one of the few attractions you really cannot miss in the city), which you can easily enter from the exit of Harajuku station on the Yamanote line. We walked to see the giant shrine, the temple, and its amazing gardens (it's big, so it takes at least one hour to see everything). After leaving the park, we walked down to Takeshita street, a popular pedestrian street featuring mostly touristy and chain shops (most of them very tacky) while heading to the much prettier side of Harajuku, which is one of the trendiest consignment/thrift shop areas of Tokyo, with lots of art galleries (go see Design Festa Gallery, where there are always small artists exihbiting their art work) and pretty cafes. If you cross Omotesando-dori towards Shibuya, you should find Cat Street, a quiet backstreet with limited car traffic, lined with funky & upmarket fashion boutiques & cafes in small and cute buildings.
This area becomes fancier and fancier the closer you get to the corner with Aoyama-dori, which is considered the center of the very posh and beautiful Omotesando (and also the location of the metro station). There are many boutiques here and they're all super expensive, making look this area more like Paris than an Asian capital! If you keep walking down on the Omotesando-dori, you will enter Aoyama, an even more sophisticated part of the city, that is also famous for art galleries and designer stores. There we visited the famous Nezu Museum, a very cool building designed by Kengo Kuma, which hosts a small but interesting collection of Japanese and Asian art, a pretty cafè and a beautiful garden (we ended up there on a rainy day but it was perfect).
The popular neighborhood of Roppongi is few steps away: you have to walk up the hill towards the modern Roppongi Hills center. It is famous for the Mori Art Museum (from the top of which is said to have the best view of Tokyo). Nearby you can have dinner in the restaurant where they filmed Kill Bill (reservations highly recommended) or take the metro in the deepest subway station of Tokyo. Another very fancy mall that was recently opened in this area is Tokyo Midtown.
We did all of these areas in two days, but they are part of the same side of the city so they can be considered similar. If you start from Otemachi metro station (which is a big one, being very close to all the government buildings) you can visit the Higashi Gyoen Garden before having a glimpse of the Imperial Palace. If you don't have a lot of time in Tokyo, I would skip this, because there's no much that you can visit of the palace, besides the gardens and the huge moats.
From there you can walk through the working districts of Otemachi and Kanda (you basically follow the train tracks where the Yamanote Line also passes) and you will reach Akihabara pretty quickly. This neighborhood is a buzzing shopping hub famed for its electronics retailers, ranging from tiny stalls to vast department stores like Yodobashi Multimedia Akiba. Venues are specialized in manga, anime, and video games so enter in one of them to experience the crazy world of Japanese pop-culture and video games! What we were happy to discover nearby, was the peaceful Kanda Shrine, which has also a cute little museum attached.
Walking to Asakusa could be a bit of a stretch, but by metro it is only a couple of stops away. This is where the number one attraction in Tokyo is, the famous Sensoji Temple, so you shouldn't be surprised by the floods of tourists that pass through this area, especially on the souvenirs-stalled street that connect the temple to the Kaminarimon Gate. But around the area there are many old traditional shops and also a number of good restaurants, including the one where our friend Tamako and her brother took us to taste the delicious Sukyaki (or Japanese Hotpot), on the covered Asakusa Shin-Nakamise street.
One thing that I did with Luigi in 1999 and wanted to do again with the girls in 2019, was to take the ferry boat from Asakusa along the Sumida River, which I would also highly recommend! You start from the Tokyo Cruise Station, overlooking the famous Asahi Flame building and you enjoy a lovely boat ride (we took the old boat) down to the wonderful Hamarikyu Gardens, right after passing the old Fish Market of Tsukuji (now only partially open to the public). We loved this beautiful paradise in the middle of Tokyo, where you can also taste a delicious tea with treats in the famous Tea House. The gardens are near two other very elegant parts of the city, Shimbashi (where many luxurious hotels are) and right next to it, Ginza. This is a popular upscale shopping area of Tokyo, with numerous internationally renowned department stores and boutiques (like the beautiful Hermès building overlooking the Sony Park square, or the eleven-floor flagship store of Uniqlo) and restaurants. It is considered to be one of the most expensive, elegant, and luxurious streets in the world. If you keep walking up North you will end up in another very busy area around Tokyo Station, where also one of the biggest underground malls, Yaesu, is. The northern façade (from the Marunouchi side) of the train station, as big as it can be in a city like Tokyo, has been recently renovated, exposing the original old red brick colonial building - and the whole square in front of it is pretty neat. From here you are exactly back at the Imperial Palace where we started!
This is definitely the area of Tokyo that I liked the most both times I was there, although very different from what you expect from Japan's bursting capital -but charming nonetheless. We were there three times last summer, but the best tour was given to us by our Ueno-raised friend Tamako. What a privilege!
Ueno station is another big, important train connection hub and is considered the "other center of Tokyo", since its homonymous park is there, with some of the city's most important museums. Ueno also marks the border with one of Tokyo's oldest areas, Nippori and Yanaka. Before walking heading there, you can stop at the famous Ameyokochō, a bustling market just south of the station that became a popular illegal trade spot after WWII during rationing and it's now a very touristy neighborhood where you can buy cheap souvenirs or food. But the biggest attraction in the area is definitely the wonderful Ueno Kōen, Tokyo's biggest and most famous park, and I really recommend a walk through it, as there are always festivals or opportunities for people watching (this is where most locals tend to go, especially during the weekends). Walk around the Shinobazu Pond, in the south corner, to see the beautiful lotus beds and the little temple of Benten-dō. Next to it there is also the Shitamachi Museum which reconstructs the old proletarian houses that used to be in this area and describes their daily life. Unfortunately only Luigi visited (and loved) the impressive Tokyo National Museum, on the north side of the park, which hosts the world's largest collection of Japanese Art, but also Asian art and many other exhibits. In the park there are other museums as well, like the National Museum of Science and Nature, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the National Museum of Western Art, and also the Ueno Zoo.
If you keep walking north, you will pass by Tokyo's University of the Arts, the city's most famous art institution, and enter the area of Yanaka (bigger Nippori), which has so many things to see! Start from the temples of Kanei-ji and walk west through the little streets, which have some of the city's oldest shops (for example we went with Tamako to an old Amezaiku "the art of crafting candy" store and it was amazing) and many small, pretty temples like Jomyoin and Chounji. But the main interest of this area is the beautiful and famous Nezu Shrine, which is probably my favorite shrine in Tokyo. Because it's the oldest, it's surrounded by a beautiful park with many red toriis like Kyoto's Fushimi Inari (without the crowds) and it's a very tranquil spot in the middle of the city. Being also next to the city's art institutions and the prestigious Tokyo University, the whole area is also home to many art galleries and artists' studios. We couldn't visit the famous SCAI Bath House reconverted into a Contemporary Art museum, but I heard it's amazing. In 1999 we visited the beautiful Asakura Museum of Sculpture which is hosted inside the artist's house. Yanaka Old Cemetery is also another must-see in this neighborhood, together with many other small shrines, and I loved strolling there one Sunday afternoon and bumping into the beautiful Tennō-ji Temple. From the cemetery you can take some steps down and get to Yanaka Ginza, the commercial part of the neighborhood, which is very pleasant and has many traditional shops and food stalls. From there you can take the Yamanote line at the convenient Nippori station nearby.
In this section I describe all the very pretty neighborhoods that we visited in the Western part of Tokyo, basically to the left of the Meguro river and the Yamanote line circle.
Starting from just south of Shibuya, you have two pretty and popular areas that are Daikan-yama and Naka-Meguro. Daikan-yama (just one stop down on the Tokyu-Toyoko line) is one of Tokyo's classiest districts, and we really liked the European-style shops and cafes there. Right next to it, on the other side of the Meguro river, is Naka-Meguro, a very trendy and lively area, filled with little restaurants and famous for the lovely strolls you can take along the river (Meguro-kawa), especially during cherry blossom. If you keep walking south you will meet Meguro and the larger Ebisu areas, which are less charming than the other two districts but host some interesting museums, like Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, that we visited, and Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, in the beautiful Art deco former residence of Prince Asaka.
The whole time we were in Tokyo last summer we rented a beautiful house in the Komazawa-Daigaku area, which we ended up knowing quite well. It's very convenient to all major attractions, as it lays on the Daen-toshi line, 6 minutes away from Shibuya. It's a very residential area, with mostly two-story houses (except near the metro line and the main Tamagawa-Dory avenue) and it's famous in Tokyo for the nice Komazawa Olympic Park. Next to this area is also Sakura-Shimmachi, which is a lovely and almost village-like neighborhood that we visited the first time we were in Tokyo. North of Komazawa instead, is the very bohemian and young Shimo-Kitazawa, also known as "Shimokita", that is well known, besides for being the place where the famous author Banana Yoshimoto lives, but for the density of consignment stores, cafes, theaters, bars and live music venues and that we visited with our friend Dominic who used to teach English there. Check out this guide before heading there! Not far from this area is the amazing Ghibli Museum, that you can visit only if you have booked your tickets well in advance! We missed that piece of information and we sadly couldn't go this time.
We went less to the Eastern part of Tokyo, but we visited a few interesting places, like the popular and crowded Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo's main commercial/corporate hubs (where we visited Juyū gakuen Myōnichikan, a school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the less-known Shin-Ōkubo, the K-Pop and J-Pop mecca, full of merchandise stores and especially Korean beauty shops. It's a fun street and from there you can easily walk to Shinjuku.
Another interesting neighborhood I wanted to see was Kagurazaka, an area east of Shinjuku and north of the Imperial Palace, that being near many international schools and especially the Institute français du Japon (upper-class Japanese are obsessed with France) is very elegant. The uphill street of Kagurazaka-dori has some interesting stores and not surprisingly a very good French bakery. There we also visited the pretty Akagi shrine, that is surrounded by some cute streets. From there, we walked to the Tokyo Dome where we wanted to visit the famous Koshikhawa Koakuen Gardens (that were closed) but we ended up enjoying the atmosphere around the famous Tokyo Dome City amusement park.
Luigi and the girls went to Tokyo's SkyTree while I was in Yanaka one day and they loved looking at Tokyo from the 634 meter tower (the tallest tower in the world, and second tallest structure after the Burj Khalifa!). I would have been terrified! They say it's usually packed with people waiting in line, but they didn't have to wait much.
One Sunday we agreed, after some convincing, to take the girls to Tokyo DisneySea, one of the two Disney parks in Japan, which is apparently very unique because it's the only one in the world and has all coastal/water themed attractions. The attention to detail and theming unlike any other Disney park and is very impressive, it could only be a product of Japanese dedication and work ethic. I am not a fan of amusement parks but I enjoyed the experience of going on the rides with tons of Japanese teenagers/students and families. To get there you need to take three different trains -- it's in the direction of Narita airport, by the harbor.
We didn't have time to visit the island of Odaiba this time, which is also famous for the big hot spring resosrts of Ōedo Onsen Monogatari and despite being an old settlement, it has become pretty popular in the last few years because of the modern development that includes the giant statue of Gundam and the TeamLab Borderless exhibition.
The day trip to Nikko from Tokyo is almost a must while you are in Japan. We went there both times we were in Japan (one by train and one by car, it took an hour and a half both times) and we don't regret it. Even though some say that it's not equally as beautiful as Kyoto and the other most traditional cities in Japan, Nikko is listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco and has so many temples and shrines scattered around the foresty hill (part of Nikko's National Park). that you will need at least a full day to see it all.
Starting from Shink-kyō, the famous red bridge over the Daiya-gawa, and head up towards Rinnō-ji temple first (which we had to skip this time) and the more famous Tōshō-gū temple, passing under the giant stone torii. The opulent 17th-century shrine complex honors the first shogun and features amazingly (and surprisingly, given the famous traditional sobriety of Japanese art) colorful buildings & art. You can walk across the many monuments through pathways and also step inside the woods. It would be magical, if it weren't for the crowds that usually flood this place. There are other temples you can visit around the main one, like Futarasan Jinja, that you can see right before returning back to the town, passing through a quaint area along the river where there are several small restaurants. From Nikko we went also to visit the very nice Kegon Falls by the lake and the the small Ryuzu falls.
We decided to visit Hakone because it's one of the best spot to admire Mount Fuji (along with Arakuruyama Sengen Park) but the day we went it was rainy and also as foggy as it could be! So unfortunately we missed the incredible view of the famous volcano. But the day trip to this very popular onsen area was enjoyable nevertheless, especially because then we had more time to spend in the wonderful hot springs of Yuryo, which was one of the highlights of our whole trip! As I said on the main page, I really recommend finding the time to do this experience! This particular onsen had also a lovely restaurant where we had lunch and after which I then also had a massage... after all the walking.
The area of Hakone has actually two different centers, the lower village by the train station and the upper village by the lake, where you have the best and most picturesque view of Mount Fuji. There are some nice souvenir shops and the Hakone shrine that you can visit and, if the weather is nice, you can even take a ropeway up to the top of the Komagatake vulcano, which is supposed to have an incredible view of the lakes-area (and of course of Mount Fuji).
Yokohama is Japan's second most populous city but it's hard to separate it from Tokyo, as the two cities merge into one another almost seamlessly. It takes less than an hour to reach its business downtown where the main train station is, and another ten minutes of subway to Chinatown, which is probably the city's greatest draw, since it's the biggest one in the world outside China. We headed there first and it was nice to walk through its vibrant alleys and colorful gates and temples looking for the perfect dim-sum restaurant. There are so many and it's so touristy that it's impossible to find an authentic one, unless you read something before hand.
After that, we went to visit the very pretty Motemachi neighborhood, which is right next to it, with nice narrow, pedestrian streets and chic shops. We then walked to Yamashita-koen, a beautiful park by the sea and from there walked up through a nice promenade to Shinko island, where many new attractions are like the newly renovated red brick warehouses of Akarenga (two shopping malls and cafes/restaurants) and the famous Cup Noodle Museum, that we happily visited, my girls being two big fan of cup noodles. I thought it would be tacky but it actually wasn't, and we had quite a fun time learning about the history of this iconic product. There is another famous ramen museum in the upper part of Yokohama, which is supposed to be a more authentic experience.
Tokyo's metro system is probably the best in the world, and riding the subway there is almost worth the whole trip to Japan, because of its efficiency, cleanliness, extensive network, and especially the masses that swarm underground everyday after work, that will leave you almost speechless.
Here you can find two extensive guides (this one and this one). I only add that once you know where you're staying in Tokyo and near which stations, you will easily find your way around. As for tickets, I recommend you to buy either the SUICA card, or the PASMO card that you can use on all lines (JR and private ones) and then recharge depending on how much you use them. Each station has a map with the price you need to pay depending on where you're heading so it's easy to figure out how much you need on the card. If you need discounted fares for the kids for example, make sure you buy them separately to save some money. Note also that your JR pass is still valid on the Yamanote Line, which is a very convenient train that runs in circle all around Tokyo, and that stops near all the major attractions.
The same system for trains and subways can be applied to buses, which are abundant and also very easy to ride (you can use the same cards to pay). Tokyo being so incredibly huge makes the bus rides much longer, but if you have time I really recommend taking them as you can see --as always, in any town around the world-- so much more about the urban layout and the transitions of neighborhoods rather than just passing underground!
We rented a car once in Tokyo for a weekend and we were surprised to see how easy it was, and despite the fact that Tokyo is so huge, it is not that complicated to drive around because the signs are almost all in English too (unless you accidentally take the famous Yamate tunnel, the longest and deepest city tunnel in the world, which I dreaded). We used this car rental in Komazawa, who then accepted our International driver's license and the cost wasn't too crazy.
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