Tokyo is almost dizzyingly packed with things to see, do, eat, and experience. Temples, museums, shops, restaurants, and art galleries are on every inch of every street for miles and miles and miles. So what is totally worth doing and maybe not worth your precious time in Tokyo?
In large part, you should structure your trip based on your interests and itinerary throughout the rest of your time in Japan, apart from Tokyo (no duh). While I very much appreciated seeing and experiencing temples, I knew we were going to some beautiful ones in Kyoto and so, chose to skip the ones in Tokyo (and to be honest, the four or so temples we saw certainly met my temple quota for the year). I had planned to go hiking around the mountains of Hakone and Kyoto, so while I’m definitely an outdoorsy kinda lady, we stuck to a more urban itinerary while we were in Tokyo.
Since there really is so much to see and experience, narrow down your must-see activities to one or two a day. I had planned on doing so, so, SO much more while we were in Tokyo, but oftentimes, completely lost track of time exploring different neighborhoods so that we probably didn’t get to half of the stuff I had planned. And that’s okay! Even though one of my favorite parts about traveling is researching all the sights and carefully planning out a jam-packed itinerary, I’m constantly learning that allowing yourself some flexibility and spontaneity is 100% necessary to really get the most of your time in foreign place.
With that being said, here are my recommendations of...
THINGS TO DO IN TOKYO:
Be the Ultimate Tourist, Make Incredibly Dangerous Decisions, and Dress Like your Favorite Mario Character with MariCar
(Akihabara; 4-12-9 Sotokanda Chiyoda, Tokyo; 10 am-22 pm every day).
If you are completely looking to be immersed in totally authentic Japanese culture, this activity may not be for you. If you a reasonable person that does not want to drive around in go-kart, without a helmet, without a seatbelt, without an airbag in the busy streets of Tokyo, this activity may not be for you. If you have a resounding sense of self-respect, this activity might not be for you. However, if you are willing to be a complete goofster and be subjected to all the aforementioned risks, this activity might just be perfect!
The last night of our honeymoon, Justin and I did a 3 hour tour with MariCar around Ginza, Akihabara, and Tokyo Tower. It’s expensive (and uh, dangerous) so we were pretty on the fence about whether or not to do it. Since we had gotten our international driver’s permit back home for the express purpose of taking a tour (a requirement of going on a MariCar tour), we decided to give it a try. And I’m so glad we did!
We arrived in the tour office where you pick your poison (i.e. your costume of choice for the night, ranging from Winnie the Pooh to Princess Peach to a minion). After we suited up, we were led outside and given a (pretty shockingly short) safety demonstration and then, we headed off in our go-karts around the streets of Tokyo. We had originally planned on going during the day, but then decided to try it at night to see Akihabara and Ginza lit up at night. Best. Decision. Ever. Once you get past the whole “wow, this is incredibly dangerous and stupid” mindset, it was probably one of the most fun couple hours of my life, feeling the wind rush through my hair, and letting the vibrant lights of Tokyo wash over me. Being in a go-kart gives you a really unique perspective of Tokyo’s towering buildings and there’s no better way to feel completely integrated into the landscape than weaving in and out of Tokyo’s traffic (while dressed up like Wario, of course).
Avoid being a (total) drunkard at Drunkard’s Alley
(Shibuya; 1-25-10のんべい横町, Shibuya, Tokyo; 20 pm-3 am every day)
While pretty much anyone planning a trip to Tokyo has heard of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai (a three block area packed with over four hundred teeny tiny themed bars), I found the smaller Shibuya equivalent, Drunkard’s Alley, much less touristy and more manageable to explore. Full of salarymen (Japanese white-collar workers who can spend over 80 hours a week at work) blowing off steam, Justin and I couldn’t pick which packed four-seater bar to try and eventually settled on the place with the most elaborately decorated door.
This led us to Bar Piano, a bar so teeny the bartender serves his concoctions from behind a literal player piano. We were guided up a set of the steepest stairs imaginable and arrived in a small room that may only be described as the inside of a burlesque-drag queen genie’s bottle. Crystal chandeliers drip from the red velvet ceiling and Victorian paintings climb dizzyingly up the walls. The cocktails we had were largely forgettable, but the atmosphere and the conversation we had with some Tokyo locals were anything but. If you’re only going to have time to try Golden Gai, the stalwart Albatross has a similar vibe (try to snag a seat on the third floor and purvey your wacky kingdom).(Shinjuku; 1-2-11 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo; 17 pm- 2 am every day). Note that almost all of the bars in Drunkard’s Alley and Golden Gai charge (at their discretion) a ¥500-700 cover; to me, the nominal fee was worth such an old world Japanese feel, but if you’re an ultra-budget traveler, you may want to be selective about which bars to pick.
From top left: climbing up the super steep stairs (... ladder) to Bar Piano; new local friends; sexy drag queen genie bottle vibes of Bar Piano. Moving on over to Golden Gai- how do they fit 400 bars in here?; at Bar Plastique (in Golden Gai), you can request that the bartender put on a '60s Japanese pop record; my sheer excitement for being at a bar dedicated to plastic figurines; inside Albatross; a bar so tiny, the bartender stands on a stepstool behind the bar to serve the patrons on the third floor.
People watch in Harajuku
(Shibuya; most shops do not open until around 10-11 am and typically close around 20:00 pm; varies by location)
Can one go to Tokyo without hitting up Harajuku? While there were certainly less girls running around in kawaii (the over-the-top girly cuteness) fashions than I expected, everyone and everything is so fashionable and well-designed here, from the torso-sized cotton candy to the stairwells, . Grab a cup of coffee and wander around aimlessly for hours; it’s hard to go wrong with any of the stores, but some stand-outs for “only in Japan” kind of styles are 6% DokiDoki, Faline, Bubbles, and Laforet. If you are committed to seeing the stereotypical Harajuku fashions, aim to visit on a Sunday afternoon, when Japanese teenagers take over the district and use the opportunity to show off their latest and greatest threads (Shibuya).
Embrace female sexuality… and a cocktail
(Shibuya, Shimizu Bldg 3F, 2-7-4 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku Tokyo; open 17:00-24:00 daily (allegedly… see below)
Japanese culture is often known for its, ahem, quirky take on sexuality. Many aspects of the pop culture perception of Japanese sexuality, from maid cafes to tentacle porn to dirty underwear vending machines, isn’t necessarily the most respectful and uplifting of women or their enjoyment of the sexual experience. Vibe Bar Wild One turns those ideals on its head (no pun intended), essentially making a glorified shrine to all things vibrator-related. You enter the bar through a vagina-shaped doorway (and plop down on genitalia-shaped chairs) and are instantly surrounded by a seemingly infinite display of rainbow vibrators (on the bar, on the walls, etc.). Order yourself a drink and give one the toys a test run (on your sanitized and gloved hand, of course; toys are not allowed to be “thoroughly” tested), which are all available for purchase. Only women and couples are allowed in to make the space feel safe and comfortable (I can’t even imagine how weird it would be otherwise), and although small, the dark, cozy bar is sectioned off in such a way that makes the experience feel really intimate.
Some downsides- the bar seemed to have kind of weird hours (while the website indicates they are open until 24:00, they closed at 22:00, both on an occasion when we showed up at 22:30 and when we successfully got there); there is a ¥2000 cover charge for 60 minutes, which includes one drink; and the bartenders, at least when we went, weren’t exactly the friendliest. All in all though, given all the hostess clubs we passed, I give the feminist vibes of Vibe Bar two enthusiastically-gloved thumbs up.
Get high in Tokyo
(Shinjuku, 3-7-1-2 Nishishinjuku, Park Hyatt Tokyo 52F, Shinjuku; Sunday- Wednesday; 17:00- 24:00 pm; Thursday- Saturday; 17:00- 1:00 pm)
Okay, okay, so it’s not exactly original to tell you to go to New York Bar, the bar made famous by Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation”, where the characters of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson meet and kick off an unlikely friendship. BUT there really is no better way to grasp the enormity of Tokyo other than on the 52nd floor of the swanky Park Hyatt hotel. The modern, yet moody interior definitely gives off “lonely traveler” vibes, which you can really embrace after ordering a Suntory whiskey (or really, any of the dozens of whiskeys and other libations offered on the menu). I have never been to a bar with more jaw-dropping views, and I’m not sure I ever will.
Some tips- 1. The bar was a bit of an ordeal to find. It’s located in the Hyatt, which occupies the top 14 floors of the Shinjuku Park Tower. Assuming you take the ten-minute walk from Shinjuku station, you arrive in the Park Tower’s lobby, which essentially looks like a shopping mall or convention center (and definitely not an upscale hotel). When we arrived, the cavernous space seemed to be completely empty, with no one to ask for directions or help, so we wound up wandering around for an embarrassingly long time, taking various escalators up and down, and generally just being lost. However, eventually, we found, in the back left corner of the building, three dimly-lit sets of stairs. Go up these stairs (you should pass a delicatessen) and you will eventually make your way to the first landing of the Hyatt. There you will take a first elevator up to the Hyatt’s lobby. You have to keep walking past the lobby area into a hallway lined with rows and rows of bookcases, where eventually you will find a second elevator that takes you to the 52nd floor. Once the elevator doors open and you get a peek of the floor-to-ceiling windows of one of the world’s biggest cities, you will know you are in the right place.
2. Once you finally navigate your way to the bar, there is a ¥2000 (or $20) cover charge for the nightly jazz band, if you arrive OR stay at the bar after 20:00 pm. Drinks and food here are already expensive (our drinks were around ¥2000 a piece and I think the very cheapest thing on the menu was ¥1500), so I’d definitely head up here early if you’re on a tight budget.
3. To be honest, I was not blown away by either of our cocktails- Justin’s cocktail, some sort of martini, was delivered in a fishbowl-size wine glass (weird glassware choice, bruh) with a HUUUUGE cube of ice jutting out of the watery cocktail below. Weirder yet, the drink included muddled cucumber, with seeds and pulp floating about in such a way that just made the cocktail look dirty (where’s a good mixology strainer when you need one). Trust me when I say that I have drank (and enjoyed) many, many, MANY hipster nonsense $12 muddled beetroot with smoked paprika cocktails, but there was just something very off-putting about his drink’s appearance. As the view alone is worth the money, however, I happily paid and sipped at my ¥2000 cocktail. Next time, though, I would’ve pulled a Bill Murray and ordered a Suntory whiskey.
4. Justin and I made our way here on our first day in Japan, after waking up around 4 am from jetlag and wandering around the streets for ten-plus hours. I was wearing a miniskirt with Chuck Taylors and Justin was wearing shorts; needless to say, we both looked pretty ROUGH. I typically don’t care too much if I’m dressed more casually than other patrons of a restaurant, but most of the other diners (who appeared exclusively to be wealthy tourists) all looked pretty together, well-dressed, and you know, clean. While the hostess and server were both attentive and kind to us, I definitely wished I had looked a little less schlubby on our visit; I hardly took any pictures here because I was so incredibly embarrassed and did not want to draw any extra attention to myself. Most people in Japan, but especially Tokyo, dress more mindfully than most Americans (a.k.a. yoga pants are not universally treated as socially acceptable bottoms), so I might recommend adding some nicer clothes to your Japan packing list.
Things we wanted to try but didn’t get around to:
Paddle around in swan boats in Ueno Park (Uenokoen, Taito 110-0007)
Dancing at Arty Farty, one of Tokyo’s longest running gay bars that is known for its hopping dance floor and welcoming-to-all atmosphere (2 Chome-11-7 Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0022)
Drinking a “brain” alcoholic slushie out of a mannequin’s head at the prison-hospital themed ER Alcatraz (2-13-5 Dogenzaka, Harvest Bldg 2F, Shibuya 150-0043)- though, per TripAdvisor reviews, it appears we didn’t miss much
Get cultured at Mori Art Museum (6-10-1 Roppongi, 53f, Minato 106-6150) and see whether its 52nd floor observation deck rivals New York Bar
Try Japanese street food and wash it down with a cold beer at Piss Alley (1 Chome-2-8 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku), an unfortunately- named block dating back to the late 1940s when drinking was outlawed in Japan (and thus, no bathrooms were installed, hence the name). This area quickly became crammed with three-seater bars, food stalls, and yakitoris (a food vendor usually selling grilled skewered meat and other foods) and has largely remained unchanged, retaining its Old World charm and allegedly still a local hospot
Embrace my inner seventh grade boy at the Samurai Museum (2-25-6 Kabukicho | Eiwa Dairoku Bldg 1F, Shinjuku), where you can learn about the history of samurai culture and yes, even don your own samurai armor
WHAT NOT TO DO IN TOKYO:
(Shinjuku, 1-7-1 Kabukicho , Shinjuku 160-0021, Tokyo)
I was wavering between pushing this in the “To Do” category, but ultimately, it’s a fairly pricey (we got discounted tickets for around ¥6500 or $65; full price tickets can cost up to ¥10000), over-the-top commercial tourist trap (albeit a unique, kinda sorta enjoyable one). Our second to last night in Tokyo, Justin and I went to this ridiculously chaotic, highly produced cabaret show, where dancers, robots, and lasers whiz spastically mere inches past your face for about an hour and a half. While it is a fun, completely surreal, “only in Tokyo” kind of experience, it exclusively caters to tourists, right down to the robots ending the show with a rousing version of the YMCA. While MariCar also targets tourists, one sends you flying around the rainbow streets of Tokyo, while the other has you sitting in a basement, waiting patiently every 15 minutes when the show stops so you can be peddled vodka shots out of neon test tubes. If you have an extra $65 lying around and are going to be in Tokyo for a while, then go for the mere spectacle of it all; it admittedly was pretty fun and, were it not for the constant “intermissions” and almost offensive level of pushy consumerism, this likely would have wound up in the “do” column. Given our experience, however, I kind of wish that Justin and I had checked out a karaoke bar or Daikaiju Salon, a monster-toy themed bar, instead.
An alternative to going to the show is checking out American Bar & Cafe Ren (1-7-1 Kabukicho | Shinjuku Robot Bldg. 3F, Shinjuku), the Robot Restaurant’s sister bar. Serving largely as the show’s after-party space, you can get the similar frenetic, dizzying vibe (one TripAdvisor reviewer calls it “Liberace meets the Robot Restaurant”) with a couple of cocktails, instead of the time and expense of the whole show. Since we had our fill of robots during the show, Justin and I opted to check out Golden Gai instead, but I understand that American Bar is pretty similar to the Robot Restaurant’s glittery and spectacular pre-show space. If it’s anything like that, where I saw men in silver spacesuits strumming soulfully on guitars (when I say spectacular, I truly mean it was a SPECTACLE), it’s definitely at least worth popping in for a drink.
(1-6-4 Azabujuban | Anniversary Building 1F, Minato 106-0045)
Okay, I truthfully feel a little bit bad about putting this experience in the “don’t” column. This bar is on SO many “best of” lists and seems to generally be one of those hip “insider places”, relatively untouched by the masses.
Here’s the deal: you arrive in a bar, tucked in a dark alleyway in the glittery nightlife district of Roppongi. You are greeted by Yamamoto, the owner/your quiet barkeep for the evening, who is clad in crisp white chef's jacket that looks so impossibly clean, it is more appropriately suited for a surgery suite. The bar itself is bare and bordering on sterile, were it not for the impressive live-edge wooden bar occupying most of the single room.
Once the rest of the patrons for that seating arrive (the bar only holds 8 people, with reserved time slots every 90 minutes), you then can choose between four or six-course tasting menu. After taking your selection and double checking any dietary restrictions or allergies, Yamomoto proceeds to create several micro-cocktails for you, artfully slicing up hunks of ice. hand-squeezing seasonal fruits, and thoughtfully mixing their juices with artisanal, locally crafted spirits, all the while explaining the cocktails’s construction and concept of the drink you are about to imbibe. The libations themselves are delicious and complex in their symplicity, and the presentation is undoubtedly the best we had in all Japan. If I had a word to describe the entire experience, it would be “refined”.
So why is this on my “don’t” list?
The pricetag. When I say these are micro-cocktails, I’m not joking- you get approximately three ounces per drink. While a small portion is fine and allows you to reasonably drink all of the cocktails (especially if you opt for the six-course menu), the cost, about ¥6000 per person for the four course menu, is just unfathomable. That’s right- I, Jessica, a relative cheapskate and frugal Sally, spent the equivalent of $60 on 12 ounces of fluid, because a very clean, elegant, bald gentleman juiced some fruits in front of me and told me some nice things about the liquor he was mixing with it.
I imagine this might be a fabulous first date spot for an impossibly wealthy restaurateur and I think a lot of really huge food/cocktail nerds may not blink at the price (in fact, one of the guys that did the tasting course with us was a chef talent scout, which I didn’t even know was a possible career choice, who seemed to LOVE the experience). While I am certainly a food and cocktail enthusiast, I am first and foremost (generally) financially responsible, and I honestly felt like the experience did not match up with the price point.
I originally had thought the idea of these sounded fun and included a visit to one of them on our honeymoon registry (THINK OF THE ADORABLE SELFIES), without considering in depth of what was involved with them. After researching them, though, I read story after story of birds being chained to perches in dark, crowded rooms, being starved so they’ll take treats from the tourists, which immediately made me lose all interest in them whatsoever. An animal who lives out its life in chains as a prop for your social media posts is not living a good life. Since you’re in Japan, one of the most stunningly gorgeous natural settings, go enjoy wildlife in nature and/or grab a coffee from one of the vending machines that are literally on every corner (careful- the hot coffee metal canisters are not kidding around and are very, very hot. Drink and be caffeinated with caution.)
Booking sumo wrestling tickets… in the wrong city
Sumo wrestling tournaments only happen six times a year (in January, March, May, July, September, and November; get the schedule here), so I was beyond thrilled to discover there was a sumo tournament happening while we were going to be on our honeymoon. I was so thrilled, in fact, that I went right ahead and booked two ¥5000 non-refundable tickets! A month or so later, I started to plan what we were going to do around the sumo arena before the tournament, until I realized our tickets WERE ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF JAPAN. It turns out every other sumo tournament takes place in Tokyo, while the alternating ones occur in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka- and November’s happened to occur in Fukuoka. Good-bye forever, ¥10000 and fair sumo wrestling gents.
Buying a Japan Rail Pass if You're Only Staying in Tokyo
Getting around Tokyo is really easy, as public transit is readily accessible, user friendly, and inexpensive. However, there are SO many rail companies that buying a typical pass for only one company (usually with Japan Railways Group) doesn’t make any sense if you're only staying in Tokyo throughout your trip (however, if you're going to be traveling outside of Tokyo via rail, it may be worth the investment- check out my thoughts about it in this post). It’s arguably feasible you may save a couple of bucks with buying one, but, at times, you’re going to have to walk further to different subway stations, wait longer for specific trains, and take longer routes to make the pass useful. Ain’t nobody got time for that in Tokyo.
WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO:
I am and always will be a proponent of Air BnB. How else can you find accommodations with your own washer, dryer, and kitchen in one of the world’s purportedly most expensive cities for $55 a night? I’ve never stayed at an Air BnB that didn’t have my bare minimum essentials, and if you need more than that whilst traveling, you’re doing it wrong.
As to where in Tokyo you should try to find an Air BnB, we stayed half the time in Shinjuku and the other half in Shibuya, both recognized as Tokyo’s entertainment and nightlife districts. Staying in these areas was almost like a sensory overload (SO MANY LIGHTS! SO MANY SMELLS! JAPANESE POP TUNES BLARING EVERYWHERE YOU GO!), regardless of the time of day, but I’m so happy we stayed there. Every building was stacked seven, ten, twenty stories high with different shops, bars, and restaurants to explore, the people watching was killer, and we were never more than a ten minute walk from the subway. I’d recommend trying to find a place a couple blocks from the main action (our Shibuya Air BnB was a couple blocks from Shibuya Crossing and we never had an issue with noise), but otherwise, soak in all the colors, lights, and questionable smells. If you’re planning on leaving Tokyo to explore the rest of Japan by rail, these areas have the benefit of being close to Shinjuku station, one of the hubs of the Shinkansen (bullet train). Shibuya definitely had a higher number of tourists than Shinjuku, if you care about that kind of thing. Two other central locations to consider if you’re planning on staying the entire time in Tokyo: Akihabara, the haven for all things anime or Ginza, Tokyo’s glitzy, upscale neighborhood. If you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten path, Shimokitazawa, a residential area with a decided hipster vibe, has a ton of interesting shopping and nightlife activities.
Regardless of which hood you decide to call home, I would prioritize being close to a subway station- ride sharing is essentially nonexistent in Tokyo and unless you plan on shelling out some major cash to take taxis everywhere, plan on getting well-acquainted with the inside of a subway car.
What's your favorite spot in Tokyo? Tell me about it in the comments below!