41 things to do in Tokyo

Imperial Garden in Tokyo, Japan

For many, Tokyo is the ultimate psychedelic, frantic, colorful pop experience, so travelers actively explore the giant metropolis in search of that pearl which contains the very essence of the city.

A number of movies and other media are at fault for hinting that there are indeed a bunch of magic elements spread throughout the place, and so there is an everpresent hunt going on; outsiders hunting Tokyo’s day and night, gamelike, for that which defines the most strident side of the quintessential Japanese life.

Here’s a list I curated a while back for a friend who was visiting the city, which I hope will at least get you started on your own hunt. Of course, there are countless other places and activities, holes-in-the-wall waiting to be discovered, and so the best approach is to just walk every suspicious street out there.

    1. Shibuya crossing: This is where the journey could start. Cross it as many times as you wish (you won’t be the only one doing that) until you feel ready to move on, or even grab a seat with views over the crossing in any nearby coffee shop. There is always something happening at the crossing: a couple having their first kiss, high schoolers finishing their sodas while searching for the meaning of life, skateboarders filming tricks, tourists being tourists, random cosplayers, and a lot of people running late.
    2. Takeshita street in Harajuku: Probably in your list already, but hey, it is a place where anything can happen. If you walk by and see nothing weird, just come back another time. It really is near many other attractions and metro stations, so it is always a good idea to check it out on your way to or from somewhere else. Expect a massive amount of tourists (probably the densest in Japan), but also all sorts of extreme cosplaying, as well as pop, cosplay and anime merchandising shops.
    3. Try sushi in Tsukiji market. With this, we’ve covered the “big 3” things to do in Tokyo. Typically regarded as the best in the world, the sushi and sashimi offered in the little restaurants in Tsukiji are otherworldly.
    4. Before we delve into specific things, let’s get this one out: ride the metro at rush hour. Ride the subway in the morning when everyone’s commuting to work to see the machinery of this country. Some trains might be so crowded you won’t be able to get on unless you push. The backward process takes place in the afternoon, albeit the hordes of workers going back home are then spread over several hours of the timetable.
    5. Karaoke, where the quintessential Japanese spends hundreds of hours and thousands of yens. Get to know the dos and don’ts of a karaoke if you wonder how to enjoy it fully!
    6. Chill around Yoyogi Park in the morning, in the afternoon, at night; on the weekend and on any weekday. Take a walk around the park and observe the rest of the people. A bit of a display of the average Japanese as much as the extremes of the spectrum, Yoyogi park is the place where all sorts of social groups and urban tribes gather: salarymen getting drunk on a blanket, juggalos getting naked by the trees, pets walked inside prams, Elvis Presley lookalikes dancing in a circle by the southern entrance, fanclubs of pop idols having playback tournaments, and the list goes on. It is well located near several stations, so it’s always a good option to fill the time between other activities you might have during the day. It is the most popular spot in the city for viewing the sakura blossoms.
    7. Walk to the Meiji Shrine near Meiji-Jingumae station, next to Yoyogi Park. Its location next to Harajuku reflects once again the combination of old and new, tradition and futurism that is Japan.
    8. Visit a maid cafe: Found all over the Akihabara district. A must experience. Waitresses dressed as high school girls will treat you like the rich son of the president, and help you indulge in a feast of cute smiles, sexy low voices and the casual erotics found in that. The “cafe” is just an excuse, and the food is usually below average. Even if you despise this kind of businesses because of the shameless sexism that keeps them alive, it is something worth checking out, if only once and to have a fully knowledgeable idea of what’s really going on in there.
    9. Try baseball. Baseball is big in Japan (and South Korea), and many inexpensive batting centers can be found around busy areas or near shopping malls.
    10. …or watch a baseball gameBaseball teams in Japan compete at all levels from primary school to the pro leagues. I personally think pro, high school and elementary matches are very different experiences; have your choice. School matches take place over the weekend. One can stumble upon school-level baseball matches walking around any Tokyo neighborhood away from the center. It’s not just about the game, but rather about the people cheering, players and friends and families of players having a great time together.

 

Elementary school baseball game in Meguro, Tokyo
Elementary school baseball game in Meguro
  1. Find and enjoy a live show in Muryoku Muzenji. A very unique concert house in Koenji, west of Shinjuku.
  2. Go shopping in Akihabara! Shops tend to be tiny, multi-story, with narrow aisles that take you on a journey to anything and everything videogame, anime, electronics, pop, hentai and other forms of porn. The Mecca of anime and videogame fans all over the world. Porn and all sorts of traditional and wtf-ish sex toys are available on the upper floors of the shops.
  3. Join a sports event through a meet-up. There are many meet-up groups that do activities daily, and many of them meet up to practice sports. If you have some free hours, I believe having a game with a group of locals is probably great fun. People usually go for dinner (read: izakaya) or just drinks after games; perfect to make some new friendships to learn a lot from. I got the feeling that young Japanese are typically rather active sports players.
  4. Sleep in a capsule hotel. There is a wide array of options for this, and all will provide you with a not-so-tiny capsule room for you to spend the night. The capsules come with a curtain (not an hermetic door), and the place -typically multi-story hotels- also include shared hot tubs for you to relax before bedtime.
  5. Read manga for free in a Book-Off store. These second-hand manga stores are everywhere, and have long opening hours, with Japanese of all ages (mostly men) spending hours inside, reading mangas for free. It is not allowed to do so, but they do it anyway. A second-hand manga in Japanese costs 108 yen and makes for a great gift.
  6. Try Samurai Surfer Beer. You know it is probably a terrible beer, but a beer name can’t get any cooler than that.
  7. Try Sapporo. A proper beer, and the finest commercial beer of Japan, from Hokkaido.
  8. Visit the Asakusa Shrine and the street of shops leading the way to it. Come here to buy last-minute souvenirs if you may. It is a great area to chill around at night and have a drink by the park that surrounds the temple. It is a beautiful temple to visit, specially if you have not visited any yet in other cities of Japan.
  9. Push all the buttons of a Japanese toilet. Train stations, coffee shops, izakayas, hotels… get a glimpse of what the future will be like.
  10. Walk into every dodgy little street out there. There are countless holes-in-the-wall out there, waiting to be discovered, and the best approach is to walk every little street out there that seems like it could be hiding a secret.
  11. Try a free full-body massage machine at a Big Camera shop. You have to play the “dumb tourist” card here, and ignore the staff passing many times to see if you are still using the machine for free. You are supposed to sit in it and try it for a bit, but my experience says that 15 minute long programs will definitely not get you kicked out of the shop. The full-body machines are really high tech. So, every time you see a Bic Camera Shop (they’re everywhere), think about spending some 10 minutes on a free massage!
  12. …or get an actual massage in a massage parlor. Check online prices for 3,000 yen deals. My go-to website for that is Hot Pepper. Be careful about what you choose, you don’t want to end up getting 60 minutes of (apparently good-for-your-body) torture. It’s nice to have all your bones in place, but it’s also good to just get a simple massage where you get to feel good for a bit 🙂
  13. Go to a love hotel. Ever present around the main nightlife districts, love hotel rooms come in all sorts of themes, colors and shapes. You pay per hour. Quite handy if your partner lives far away from you, and you wouldn’t have enough time to catch the last train home otherwise.
  14. Visit a cat cafe. A cat cafe is a cafe with cats. Many include a collection of comicbooks and novels to chill to.
  15. (Free) live music in Koenji. The area around Koenji is filled with live houses: from live venues to very small, hole-in-the-wall live music bars. Be sure to check Tokyo Gig Guide, but make room in your schedule to get lost around the place and come across every hidden concert out there. Most active music scenes in the city also include Shibuya and Shimokitazawa.
  16. Robot restaurant. A restaurant with big robots and flashy shows moving around the room. If you are willing to pay (a lot) to go, make sure not to YouTube any videos of it and spoil the experience!
  17. Attend a sumo match, or at least a training session. There’s an entire section dedicated to it at Japan-Guide.com, so I’ll just leave the link here.
  18. Survive pachinko slots. Pachinkos, karaokes, 100-yen shops and love hotels might make up for half of the country’s buildings. Pachinkos are also everywhere. Whenever someone goes in and out, the sliding doors of the parlor let out a shrilling noise that perforates the earts of any passerby, like a thousand high-pitched grandmas yelling “come in and give me your money!”. Try to go in, sit, and play a round. If hell exists, it probably sounds like a pachinko parlor. It is a seirous addiction for many an old Japanese, so I’ll take no responsibility for recommending this activity in case pachinkos are not included in your travel insurance.
  19. Take a stroll around Tokyo University campus. Get a map at the entrance security guard office if you may. Tokyo Universityproudly stands as the best university in all Asia, sometimes sneaking into the world’s top 10 or 20 universities. The Oxford-ish architecture of the main campus -the one in Hongo- makes for a cool visit around the place. Getting into Tokyo University, or Toudai as they shorten it, is considered to be really tough (at least for their bachelor degrees), and the clocktower of the campus has become a symbol of such achievement.
  20. Enjoy an afternoon at a public bath. You don’t need to leave the big city and make for the countryside hot springs to enjoy a warm bath. You just need to check out the ofuros (or just furos) around the place. Ofuros are hot spring pools, but with ordinary hot tap water baths and all sorts of bath salts or colourants. It is a window into the everyday lives of many Japanese, young and old, and a wonderful experience despite the tens of eyes you might have on you if you look like a foreigner.
  21. Stroll along the beautiful Meguro River in the afternoon. It gets extremely lively and crowded during blossoming season.
  22. Get an all-you-can-drink deal in Roppongi. Roppongi is teeming with pubs and clubs of all sorts. You’ll be approached by many employees offering you drinking deals, and you can easily get all-you-can-drink deals as cheap as 1,000 yen for 5 hours of unlimited drinking in some clubs.
  23. Free parties! Check them out at websites like TokyoParty.org and Gaitomo International. Typically, many Japanese attend these parties to get a chance to make friends with English-speaking people (usually to practice English), and many foreigners attend these parties because it’s a way to befriend locals (and also because they are usually free).
  24. Party in Shibuya. Shibuya nightlife has everything you need for a great night: cheap, mid-budget and splurge clubs, people drinking everywhere, fast-food restaurants, 100-yen shops, karaokes, love hotels, arcades… you can only get to experience the most psychedelic of the city through the locals, so go out there and make friends in the frantic nightlife of Shibuya.
  25. Check out Tokyo’s guitar street. There is a musical instrument street in Ochanomizu, by the train station. Cool area to stroll around come noon.
  26. Visit Tokyo’s sewage system. Tokyo has a massive underground storm drain palace which would be a perfect setting for any sci-fi movie. A quick Google search will provide you with the details to arrange a tour, though they are rather limited. If you can’t manage to get into one, you might want to check out the “Museum of the Sewage System” in Odaiba.
  27. Experience an (weak) earthquake. Japan is a land of earthquakes, and many take place every day; just like everywhere else in the world… but a bit stronger, and sometimes, unfortunately, too close to the Earth surface and therefore strong enough to cause natural disasters. However, if you happen to be in Japan when a harmless yet noticeable earthquake takes place, you will definitely experience something unique. The ground moves, kind of like an inflatable castle, and the walls might make noises, yet everyone is absolutely calm around you (they have probably checked on their phones and confirmed it’s a weak and/or deep earthquake and therefore there’s nothing to worry about). Nobody likes to joke about earthquakes, and they should be taken seriously if the alarms go off. They are such an outworldly experience (yet very earthly, I guess), that I’ll never forget the sensation.
  28. Observe the giant metropolis from above. Go up the Tokyo City Hall skyscraper, or the SkyTree or the Tokyo Tower. My favorite spot is the Mori Art Museum on the 53rd floor of Roppongi Hills. If you want a drink with your views, and you’re ready to spend some bucks, try one of the many “sky bars” of the city.
  29. Go urban exploring on Tokyo architecture tours. Go-Tokyo cured some lists with suggested routes around several districts of the city. Indulge yourself with first-class, crazy pieces of architecture; a mixture of impossibly futuristic and old-meets-new urban art.
  30. Museums, museums, museums. For a city that’s at the vanguard of so many ever-evolving artistic movements, art museums are certainly a feast for your eyes. I loved losing myself in the National Art Center, which offers free entrance to some of his galleries (specific exhibitions have admission fee). Other museums that might blow your mind include the Miraikan (literally “future building”) science museum in Odaiba, the National Museum of Modern Art and the Mori Art Museum (the one with great views!). If you’re into a specific theme (baseball, animation, WWII warfare, ukiyo-e…), chances are there’s a museum for you too.
  31. Fly to Okinawa. Sorry for cheating, but really, a roundtrip to the paradisiacal Okinawa islands from Tokyo’s Narita airport can be bought for around 100€ or less on a normal week; JetStar is the low-cost airline you need to look for.
View of Tokyo from the Mori Art Museum
View of Tokyo from the Mori Art Museum (Credit: Japan-Talk)

Do you have any other suggestions? Share them on the comments section below!

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