We absolutely loved Tokyo. Before visiting, we had an image in our minds of an overwhelming, crowded, high-tech metropolis. And while Tokyo can be all of those things, we were pleasantly surprised to find many other sides to the city. We loved the peace and quiet of the residential areas that feel worlds away from the chaos of Shibuya and Shinjuku despite being just around the corner. We loved the clean streets, the number of cyclists, the efficient public transportation, and the beautiful public parks. We loved that every local main street has a ramen shop and an Iyazaka (Japanese Pub) of course, but also a French bakery. We love that even though we were in Tokyo for a month, exploring a new area every day, we still feel like we didn't make a dent and that there is so much more to see. It was tough to narrow down all of our favorite experiences from the month and there is a lot of great stuff that didn't make the list, but here are 10 activities that we would highly recommend for any traveler in Tokyo.
1. Browse the magazine selection at Daikanyama T-Site
We are obsessed with this huge bookstore in the trendy Daikanyama neighborhood. It is a design-focused bookstore with a large selection of art, architecture, interior design, and travel books, not to mention a stationary section, CD/DVD section, small grocery store, bar, and Starbucks. All of it is housed in 3 beautifully designed, interconnected buildings with large floor to ceiling windows and ample seating for those looking to stay a while. Although most of the books are in Japanese, the English magazine selection is better than I have seen in most U.S bookstores, and they even stock a lot of hard-to-find indie magazines. Check out our guide to Daikanyama for more cool spots in the neighborhood.
2. Stroll the Nakameguro Canal
Nakameguro, one of Tokyo’s trendier neighborhoods, has a beautiful canal that runs through it lined with cute cafes and shops. Our apartment was close by so we would often find ourselves starting or ending the day there. It’s a perfect place to grab a coffee and take an afternoon stroll. Some of our favorite spots include Sidwalk Stand for coffee, Cow Books, Vendor for menswear, and Roots To Branches for women's clothing and interior design.
3. Iyazaka hop in Piss Alley
One of Tokyo’s more famous old-school dining/drinking alleys, this little street is jam-packed with 5-10 seat yakitori restaurants. Almost all of the restaurants are counter-seating only and you pack in like sardines to watch the chef grill up meat skewers just a few feet away. This spot gets pretty crowded at peak times, but with so many little restaurants to choose from you should be able to find a seat somewhere. Be warned that many of the restaurants charge a small seating charge per person (usually around $3).
4. Shop in Harajuku
The streets of Harajuku are a confusing, crowded maze of hip boutiques, vintage stores, and cafes. Go here for a glimpse of the latest crazy Japanese fashion trends. Most people will stick to Takeshita Street, but don’t miss the chance to explore all the surrounding side streets as well. There are some great places hidden away down quiet alleyways. For some of our favorites check out our guide to Harajuku.
5. Take a bath at Saya-No-Yudokoro Onsen
Visiting an onsen is one of our favorite things to do on a rainy day, and Saya-No-Yudokoro is one of the best in Tokyo. For those unfamiliar, onsens are large public bath houses with different bathing areas for men and women. Each bathing area usually has multiple large bath options with different temperatures, different kinds of water etc. Bathing suits are not permitted in the bath area so everyone is naked, which seems strange to many Americans at first but you get over it quickly. Saya-No-Yudokoro has both indoor and outdoor tubs, large saunas and steam rooms, a relaxation room, and a tasty restaurant overlooking a beautiful Japanese garden. All of this for only $8 per person!
6. Hunt for bargains in Shimokitazawa
With countless second-hand stores on every street, hip Shimokitazawa is one of the best places to go in Tokyo for vintage shopping. Different stores cater to different styles and it’s easy to find something for everyone. Along with the shopping, Shimokita also has great coffee, food, and bars worth checking out. See our full guide for our recommendations.
7. Two Step at Little Texas
It may not be a very Japanese experience, but how could we pass up a true Texas honky tonk in Tokyo! Located in a basement in a quiet residential area, this Texas themed bar filled with neon signs and Texas paraphernalia is as authentic as it gets. Even the walls are built out of wood from an abandoned barn in Denton, TX that the owner had shipped over. There is live country music a few nights a week, a small dance floor for two-stepping, cold beer, and chicken fried steak in the shape of Texas. What else could we ask for?
8. Take in the view at Tokyo City View Skydeck
Being the frugal travelers that we are, we didn’t want to pay 1800 yen each just for a nice view. So at first we opted to visit the free viewing platform at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building instead, which was nice but not spectacular. Then we saw that Tokyo City View was having a half off deal for Halloween and we decided to give it a shot. Man, are we glad we did. There is an indoor viewing floor with floor to ceiling windows and, for an additional 500 yen, an outdoor rooftop platform. The view of the city is incredible, and unlike the Empire State Building or other similar viewing platforms we have visited, there are no fences obstructing the view. We went at sunset and stayed up there for an hour watching the sky change colors and the lights of the city turn on. Tip: Admission to the Mori Art Museum (#9) is included with your City View ticket
9. See the latest in Japanese art at the Mori Art Museum
This contemporary art museum, located in the Roppongi Hills tower, is probably our favorite museum in Tokyo. They hold exhibitions in a variety of genres including art, fashion, architecture, and design, with a focus on East Asian artists. We were able to see some really interesting pieces during our visit and the lineup of future exhibitions looked awesome. Tip: Admission to Tokyo City View (#8) is included with your Mori Art Museum ticket.
10. Get Weird at The Robot Restaurant
Yes, it’s an expensive tourist trap, but it is just too strange to pass up. Everything from the gaudy waiting room bar to the performances to the poorly translated dialogue adds to the surreal and trippy experience. Despite the name, there aren’t actually robots involved in the show. Instead, it’s a combination of lights, lasers, pyrotechnics, dancers in crazy neon costumes, and large, elaborate, remote-controlled floats. You can buy reasonably priced drinks before and during the show, but we recommend coming to the restaurant a little tipsy already to really enhance your experience.