Tokyo; a city regarded by any as one of the greatest cities in the world. A city which comes with such a worldwide reputation must have a plethora of attractions scattered amongst its enormous expanses. Tokyo is filled from one end to the other with some monumental treats. From unique entertainments, immense history, limitless green spaces and cultural centres, Tokyo has something for every traveller. Here are some of the very best the Tokyo highlights.
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1. Shibuya Crossing
Probably the most iconic image when it comes to Tokyo, the Shibuya Crossing is the epitome of the city’s perfect harmony of fastidious organisation and total fucking chaos. The 4-way intersection is at the centre of one of Tokyo’s busiest and most hectic shopping districts of Shibuya. The district is home to the largest congregation of attractive flashing advertisements and choruses of indistinguishable noises. The crossroad is where hordes of people wait patiently for the lights to turn green before unleashing hell as the swarm of bodies mobs the entire intersection.
Though being amongst the horde is part of the experience, nothing beats observing the madness from a distance, specifically from above. Luckily in an area surrounded by high-rise buildings, there are a few options available, both paid and free. Truly at the top of any Tokyo highlights list.
2. Tiny Bar Alleyways
Although not specifically unique to Tokyo, this is certainly the best opportunity to experience the culture. Tokyo and Japan in general have a tendency of making the most of the very little space available. No greater example of this efficiency is on display than in the Yokocho alleyways slotted between the streets of the most lively districts. These include the likes of the Golden Gai of Shinjuku and the Nonbei Yokocho of Shibuya.
Originally functioning as brothels for the over-worked Japanese businessman, these days the narrow streets hold a collection of miniature sized bars, izakayas and restaurants that number in the hundreds. Izakayas specifically offer a selection of small appetisers to complement your beverages, rather than a big elaborate meal. Some establishments will include a cover charge can range anywhere between 500 to 1000 yen. These aren’t for the claustrophobic amongst you, as they are incredibly compact. Most places might fit 10 at a time, and often as little as 4-5!
Some are identifiable by red or white lanterns or elaborate neon signs, where others simply have a cloth draped over the entrance and very little to no advertisement. These places are mostly members only establishments. In areas that have become rife with tourist attention, these places remain as a safe refuge for locals that want to avoid the tourist horde and keep a sense of authenticity.
Also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, Senso-ji is at the heart of the Asakusa district. The oldest temple in all of Tokyo attracts the greatest number of visitors with its colourful and vibrant surroundings. Approaching the temple you are met with the beaming crimson structures that surround the courtyard and clouds of incense smoke that rise from a central cauldron before the main hall.
The temple holds a golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist god of mercy), which is hidden away from public gazes. Legend tells of its discovery in the nearby Sumida-gawa river by two fishermen, to whom the adjacent Asakusa-jinja shrine was built in their honour. Along with a beautifully adorned five-story pagoda, the temple has a collection of some of the most photogenic structures the city has to offer, and thus one of the pinnacle Tokyo highlights.
4. Nakamise Market
Found directly adjacent to Senso-ji, the market forms a channel of chaotic hustle and bustle heading towards the peaceful serenity of the temple. A series of consecutive market stalls decorated with red banners stocked with all the tourist trinkets you’d expect to find. Collections of hachimaki (the typical Japanese headbands), mock samurai swords, kimonos and all the usual tourist bait.
At the beginning of the market stands a large red gate known as Kaminari-mon, commonly referred to as the Thunder Gate. It’s namesake comes from the statues of Fūjin (the god of wind) and Raijin (the god of thunder) that stand guard on either side. An enormous red lantern hangs from the centre, which marks the beginning of the pilgrimage towards the temple.
5. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Every megalithic city needs the perfect viewpoint to observe its expanses, usually coming with extortionate prices for the privilege. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the solution to this problem, providing that experience for absolutely free!
It’s a 243-meter-tall building housing two observation decks providing a spectacular 360-degree panoramic view of the city. They open early in the morning with the northern deck remaining open until night. This allows you to enjoy both the wide-cast views of the metropolis and the distant Mount Fuji during the day before watching the sun set over the city and the illuminations begin; the time when Tokyo truly comes into its own.
You’ll find very little mentioned about this unassuming little temple hidden away down a quiet residential street. Surprising considering it comes with one of the most intriguing and significant histories of any temple in the city, and the whole country. A list of Tokyo highlights would be incomplete without it. For starters, its thought to be the birthplace of Sōtō Buddhism; the main form of religion practised in Japan even to this day.
The most intriguing story however is in the graveyard alongside the temple. This is the final resting place of the 47 Ronin, one of Japan’s greatest legends. In short, the master of the group of warriors that were put to rest here attacked an official for insulting the way of the samurai. As punishment he was commanded to commit seppuku; the Japanese form of ritual suicide. His 47-faithful samurai (now known as Ronin as they were without a master) vowed revenge. They raided the officials home, cut off his head, and brought it back to this very graveyard to lay on their master’s grave. The 47 Ronin themselves were sentenced to commit seppuku which they all gladly accepted. They were then laid here to rest next to their master.
You just knew Tokyo highlights would include a shopping experience! None are much better than those found in the manic district of Akihabara located in central Tokyo. It’s an area famous for its extensive electronic and department stores. The most famous of which is a 7-storied monster that contains practically anything and everything you could ever imagine. Everything from furniture, electronics and sports equipment. However the best of all is the extensive collection of toys and similar childish amusements that fill an entire level. Akihabara is the centre of Japan’s otaku culture; for the most die-hard fans of different entertainment industries. These include some of Japan’s biggest industries of anime and manga.
8. Meiji Jingu
The city’s most adorned Shintō shrine found in the cultural centre of Harajuku is a dedication to modern Japan’s first emperor; Emperor Meiji. His ascension to the throne marked the end of Japan’s feudal era and restored power to the emperor. He was the man who began the nations assimilation to the rest of the world by bringing the country into much needed modernisation.
The shrine is located at the centre of a dense forest, away from the mayhem of the surrounding streets. At the beginning of the pilgrimage is an enormous wooden torii gate, marking the entrance down through the groves along a gravel walkway towards the main courtyard. The forests consists of over 100,000 trees collected from across the country. At the outskirts of the courtyard, visitors will find a temizuya; a feature found in every Shintō shrine throughout the country. This is where visitors must purify themselves by pouring the water on their hands before entering the shrine.
9. Yoyogi Park
In the main square of Yoyogi park is where you’ll find a circular herd of onlookers watching a truly unique spectacle. Sunday is the day when dedicated rock-a-billy dancers gather in their cliques geared up in personalised jackets and their finest denim jeans to dance to their hearts content to some classic 50s rock. If this isn’t considered for Tokyo highlights then I don’t know what is!
Each group has their own time in the centre of the ring of onlookers, rocking some extraordinarily elaborate dance moves. Exaggerated air guitars, jumping splits and moves Presley himself would have been proud of. Even more fascinating when considering most of the dancers must be in their 50s. However, this doesn’t stop them from dancing on the verge of a heart-attack from the early morning until the sun sets. Though it’s not as if its a show for tourists, they simply dance for themselves as if nobody were watching.
The head temple of Jodo Buddhism for the Kanto Region stands beneath the shadows of Tokyo Tower, another Tokyo highlight. The temple is home to the mausoleum of the Tokugawa shoguns, the same family that moved the temple to its current location. Sadly only the main gates of the temple has avoided reconstruction needed after countless fires, wars and earthquakes. Within its halls is a museum dedicated to the original structures that ones stood here and their significance. For movie buffs amongst you, this is where they shot a scene in The Wolverine.
The Imperial Palace stands on the former site of city’s Edo Period castle, representing the remnants of Japan’s Imperial history. Since 1868 it has stood as the official residence of Japan’s Imperial Family, back when the nation’s capital was officially moved from Kyoto. Visitors can view the palace’s outer moat and the bridges that lead into the inner grounds, known collectively as Nijubashi. Unfortunately though, the inner grounds aren’t open to the public other than through a guided tour. Even then you’d be unable to enter any of the buildings. However, you are able to wander through the Imperial Palace East Garden freely throughout the year.
12. Toyosu Fish Market
Japan is undoubtedly a nation of fish-lovers, and purchasing the right catch is a must. In Tokyo, there’s only one logical place to go, the first stop for the freshest of sea-life; Toyosu Fish Market, one of the pinnacle Tokyo highlights. The newly built market on the man-made island of Toyosu in Tokyo Bay is a replacement for the former city icon that was Tsukiji Market.
Though an enormous variety of fresh produce is sold at the market, its mostly centred around the extraordinary amounts of seafood that arrives daily. One particular species gathers much more attention than the rest; tuna. Here you’re able to witness typical Tokyo-esque mayhem as freshly caught tuna is auctioned off to the highest bidders. The carnage can be seen from specially built observation decks, thought its a particularly exclusive experience. Not only do you need a reservation, but also have to be chosen from a lottery, so no guarantees. Even then you’re only able to observe for 10 minutes at a time. Alternatively, visitors can view from the sound-proofed Observation Windows, no reservation needed. Just be sure to be there between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning.
13. Tsukiji Outer Market
Though visitors to the Toyosu Fish Market can sample some of the produce within its walls, another worthy visit is Tsukiji Outer Market. It consists of a row of alleyways located beside where the centrepiece Tsukiji Wholesale Market market once stood. Once a mighty inclusion on any Tokyo highlights list, these days its lost its once pulsating energy since the relocation of the market. That being said it’s still a worthy inclusion. As soon as the markets start to open, a collection of fish wholesalers and restaurants both big and small begin selling and preparing some of the freshest produce on offer throughout the country.
Every Sunday, the entire region of Harajuku bursts into life. An example of this is seen with the rockerbilly dancers of Yoyogi Park. However, the rest of the region becomes just as active, becoming the prime venue for Tokyo’s most eccentric and alternative crowds. Along the bridge between Harajuku station and the entrance to Meiji Jingu you’ll find a collection of various oddities that gather here to meet and display their personalities and values in mass. Groups of gothic teens dressed in their finest gear, activists with banners and petitions, aspiring musical artists and a myriad of sub-cultures enjoy their once a week opportunity to express themselves.
15. Pachinko Halls
Though gambling halls aren’t specific to Japan, the sensory overload of the pachinko halls is certainly worth a place of a Tokyo highlights list. Walking from a relatively respectable quiet street, you enter into a total fucking madness of flashing neon lights and deafening choruses of beeps and dropping metal balls. These halls are stacked with coin operated gambling machines, most of which are for a game called Pachinko. These games are the answer to the countries stringent gambling laws. It is indeed illegal to gamble, except for small amounts i.e. coin operated machines. Players win tokens which they can then convert into cash off the premises, a clever loophole. It’s a fascinating opportunity to gaze at people from all walks of life which patronise the halls.
Though the Japanese religiously follow rules, in these establishments it doesn’t seem to be the case. Such as patrons smoking away next to their machines, a big no no even outside on the streets of Tokyo. How is this allowed? Well, who unofficially owns these gambling halls? People understand that one group of individuals have control of the entertainment industry in this part of the world; the Yakuza.
18. Animal Cafes
Not specifically Tokyo highlights here, but its a trend which began right here in Japan. Starting with the introduction of the revolutionary cat cafes, the concept has spread worldwide and extended to all kind of animals. From your more ordinary cats and dogs, the species range to the more exotic owls and mini-pigs to the truly unique of hedgehogs and capybaras. In these establishments you pay a cover charge, or buy a priced-up drink in liue of it. After payment you’re free to observe and interact with the wildlife that usually roams the area freely.
19. Takeshita Street
A list of Tokyo highlights must include a shopping street or two. One of the best streets to choose from has to be Takeshita Street. Located in the teenage culture rich district of Harajuku, the side street is stacked from one end to the other with mostly independent fashion stores and boutiques, snack stalls, animal cafes and everything in-between. The street is also home to “antenna shops”, which stores will use to test prototype products.
20. Ameya Yokocho Market
Another street worth visiting would be those of Ameya Yokocho Market. The name is translated as candy store alley as its what was once exclusively sold here. During a closer period in history Ame was considered a short-hand for America, as this used to be the home of the black market following the Second World War. These days it functions as a run-of-the-mill market flogging fashion, food and even a litany of Pachinko and gaming halls.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.