There’s an abundance of things to do in Tokyo, Japan. Especially since more than 13 million people (10% of the Japanese population) squeeze into the 26 cities, 5 towns and 8 villages that make up the teeming, neon-lit metropolis.
It’s one of many unique places in Japan that you could spend weeks exploring. So, if you don’t have much time and you’re on a budget, here are the top ten things to do in Tokyo:
1. Stay in authentic Japanese accommodation
There are many types of accommodation in Tokyo that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
If you want a peek into how Japanese people live and sleep, you should book a typical “Japanese-style room” in a hotel (or ryokan). They generally feature shoji screens (rice paper stretched across a light wooden frame) as window coverings and room dividers, tatami mats of straw covering the floors, a zataku (low table) and cushions for people to sit on around it, an oshiire (wardrobe) to store the “do-it-yourself” bedding and a Japanese futon to sleep on.
(We had a Japanese-style room at Shin Okubo Sekitei, Shinjuku-Ku Hyakunin-Cho 2-15-10, Tokyo, Japan. It cost approximately￥14,075 per night.)
Love hotels are small rooms rented for shorter periods of time (1 hour – 1 day) and are generally used by clientele who might be there for a good time, not a long time, and also couples who live in a small apartments with many family members and just need some time to themselves.
Capsule hotels are almost like private dormitory beds and are perfect for solo travellers. Picture a capsule large enough for one person, a shelf to put some of your important belongings, and sometimes a TV. Larger luggage is generally stored in lockers, and bathrooms are shared.
2. Have a drink and a meal in an izakaya
Izakaya is a Japanese version of a pub and can be found in and around busy train stations and entertainment districts. They are relaxed, small and usually full of locals on their way home from work or enjoying an authentic quick meal. Many izakaya will charge you a small fee to sit down, but it almost always includes a small appetizer. Part of the experience is trying to guess what it is!
Checking out a variety of izakaya was one of my favourite things to do in Tokyo.
3. Dress up in a kimono to experience a traditional tea ceremony
Not everyone is a fan of bitter green tea, but dressing up in a traditional kimono to experience a traditional tea ceremony in Japan is an experience you will never forget. During the elaborate ceremony, the tea is prepared, whisked and served in a precise and meaningful way by a Tea Master. We learned that the Tea Masters studies these techniques for many years to learn the traditional art. In turn, the guests drink and slurp from the bowl in a specific way as participants. “Nerikiri” sweets complement the bitter taste of the green tea and are eaten from a piece of paper and with a stick.
Read more about our tea ceremony experience in Tokyo. This is another of my favourite things to do in Tokyo!
4. Cross the hectic Shibuya intersection and enjoy some authentic market food
Shibuya Station intersection is famous simply for the sheer volumes of foot traffic it experiences every time the traffic lights turn red and the pedestrians are allowed to cross at the same time in every direction. In somewhat organised chaos, the bustling crowds of shoppers, students, tourists and commuters spill onto the intersection the second they can, like a balloon full of water bursting under pressure. It was beautiful to watch but an absolute shambles to be a part of!
While you’re there, stop off for some lunch or a snack the Tokyu Food Show below Shibuya Station.
(To get to Shibuya Station intersection, take the JR Yamanote line to Shibuya station and exit via the Hachiko exit.)
5. Explore the best sites of Tokyo on a Tokyo Bike Tour
The Tokyo Bike Tour starts near Shinjuku Station at 9am and runs for approximately six hours. The knowledgeable guide leads the group (very safely) on bikes from metropolitan Shinjuku to the Meiji-jingu shrine, Meiji Jingu Gaien park, Aoyama Cemetery, touristy Roppongi Hills, Zojyo-ji Temple, Sangedatsu Gate, for panoramic views from Shiodome SIO-SITE, and the Imperial Palace. It’s a 34km ride, but is certainly the best way to see the best parts of Tokyo in one day, and work off all of the food you’ll consume during your trip.
(The Tokyo Bike Tour runs everyday from 9am – 3pm, depending on weather, and you will need to book in advance. It costs ¥9,000.)
6. Taste the freshest sushi in the world at the Tsukiji Market (Tokyo fish market)
The Tsukiji Market (築地市場, Tsukiji Shijō) is a truly unique experience and one of the most spoken about things to do in Tokyo. Everyday sellers, buyers, vehicles and tourists cram into the busy 50+ ha market amongst over 2,000 tonnes of fresh fish and seafood.
If you are there to register in person, you can be one of 120 people to attend the tuna auctions at 5.30 am. We found out the hard way that registrations can fill up at 3 am!
From 9am – 11am, you can enter the busy wholesale market and wander between the market stalls, vehicles and people. Throughout the morning hundreds of tourists line up for hours at the sushi restaurants located inside the market space. It’s the freshest sushi you will ever eat, but it’s also some of the most expensive in the city.
(Entry to the Tsukiji Market is free for tourists, but you have to register between 3am – 4am on the day at the Fish Information Centre to attend the tuna auctions at 5.25am and 5.50am. Note, the auctions and markets are not open every day. Check the website for more details and a map.)
7. Enjoy panoramic views from the Tokyo Skytree
The Tokyo Skytree is a 634m tall television broadcasting tower and landmark of Tokyo a short distance from from Asakusa.
There are two observation decks which provide a platform for some fantastic panoramic views over the Tokyo skyline. You have to purchase tickets to the Lower Observation Deck to ride up there to purchase an additional ticket for the upper deck.
(Tokyo Skytree Lower Observation Deck admission ¥2,060 / £11.)
8. Check out a unique exhibition at the Edo Tokyo Museum
The Edo Tokyo Museum‘s permanent exhibition vividly illustrates Tokyo’s history from the Edo period (until 1869) through to recent decades with many great photo opportunities. English speaking guides are usually available from 10 am – 3 pm. Throughout the year you can visit to see special exhibitions on Tokyo related themes.
(The Edo Tokyo Museum is located just five minutes walk from Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu Line. It’s open from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm Tuesday – Sunday. Admission: ¥600 per adult)
9. Experience Meiji Jingu Shrine and Yoyogi Park
Meiji Jingu shrine is a beautiful Shinto shrine dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken (their tombs are in Kyoto). When visiting the shrine, always preserve the dignity of the space and respect the rules of etiquette. Some rules include bowing as you enter and exit under the Torri Gate and washing your hands in the proper way.
(Meiji Jingu shrine is located just beside the JR Yamanote Line’s busy Harajuku Station.)
10. Stock up on electrical items at Akihabara (Tokyo’s Electric Town)
Akihabara, aka electric town, is full of multi-story electrical shops and animation-themed stores. So, walking through the bright and flashing high-rise buildings can be a pretty fun and hectic experience. The loud city noise vibrates from the tall, advertisement-clad buildings. Which is a stark contrast to the rushing but relatively silent crowds. If you do your research before you go, you might be able to pick up some decent electrical goods (phones, cameras, and computer accessories) cheaper than you would at home.
Read more recommendations and tips from our Journey through Japan
In March 2016, we went on an epic journey through Japan with thirteen of our friends. We experienced the amazing culture, ate some of the most incredible food and truly experience the best Japan has to offer. Here are all of my helpful tips to help you plan the perfect holiday in Japan:
Looking for more travel inspiration or destination guides?
Check out my recommendations on what to do in: Amsterdam, Bali, Berlin, Brisbane, Bristol, Budapest, Cambridge, Canberra, Cappadocia, Chamonix, Copenhagen, Dubrovnik, Istanbul, Kotor, Kyoto, London, Madrid, New York City, Paris, Riga, Scotland, Tokyo, and Washington D.C.