Japan, Tokyo

Tokyo Top 10

If you find yourself in Tokyo for the first time and feel overwhelmed by the mega metropolis it is, let the list below serve as a good starting point for what to see and do to ensure you have an authentic Japanese experience.

1. Shibuya Crossing – Visiting a crosswalk may seem like a silly idea. Who wants to watch traffic and people on their trip to Tokyo? But visiting Shibuya, the largest pedestrian crossing in the world, and viewing it from above gives you a sense of just how big the city is and how many people live here. It’s also a perfect example of just how orderly Japan is. Head to the Starbucks on the second floor of the Tsutaya building and wait patiently for a window seat, and then you can literally watch the world go by. See Shibuya Crossing’s craziness here.

Breakfast at the Tsukiji FIsh Market

Breakfast at the Tsukiji FIsh Market

2. Tsukiji Fish Market – Head to Tsukiji for an EARLY morning tuna auction (excellent info on attending the auction is here). If a 3am wake-up call doesn’t appeal, wait until after 9am when you can still walk through the facilities after the tuna auction and fish deliveries are finished.

If you find yourself here between the end of the auction and 9am, watch as fishmongers wiz around on forklifts, picking up fresh fish and carting it to delivery trucks. Then head to the stalls surrounding the market for a breakfast of fresh fish and Sapporo. If you’re lucky enough, you might be finishing breakfast when tuna deliveries are being made to the restaurant.

Looking up at Roppongi Tower.

3. Roppongi Hills – The Rodeo Drive of Tokyo, Roppongi Hills is filled with shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels. Head to Roppongi Tower on a clear day and take a gamble as to whether Mount Fuji will be visible. If not, you will still be impressed by Tokyo’s sprawl. For $16, you will get the lay of the land, as well as exceptional views of Tokyo Tower.

For an additional fee of $5, you can take the elevator up to the open air sky deck. At the base of Roppongi Tower is Roku Roku Plaza, where the famous spider statue, created by Louise Bourgeois, lives.

The largest wooden torii in Japan.

4. Meiji Shrine and Senso-ji – These two top visited sights in Tokyo will help you begin to understand Shintoism and Buddhism and the importance and influence of each in Japan. Meiji Shrine, located near Shibuya, is a Shinto shrine, dedicated to the kami, or divine spirits, of Emperor Shinto and his wife, Empress Shoken. The shrine sits on 170 acres of forest, created by the people of Japan who wanted to commemorate Meiji, the 122nd emperor of Japan.

Be sure to see the Otorii, or Grand Shrine Gate, which is the largest wooden tori in Japan, as well as the barrels of sake, donated by the sake brewing association as a sign of respect to Meiji and Shoken’s kami. If you’re fortunate to be visiting Meiji Shrine on a weekend, chances are high that you’ll get to witness a traditional wedding procession too.

The entrance to Senso-ji, in Asakusa.

Senso-ji, located in the northeast neighborhood of Asakusa, is a Buddhist temple, surrounded by a number of shrines and smaller temples. The main structure, constructed in 645, is Tokyo’s oldest temple, which was built to honor the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. Legend says that two fisherman found a statue of Kannon in a river, and despite efforts to return the statue to the river, it always came back to them. Unlike Meiji Shrine, which sits in a forest, Senso-ji is smack dab in the center of all the action and is surrounded by a number of narrow streets, filled with souvenir shops and food stalls.

5. Sumo Tournament – Sumo, Japan’s National sport, is an art, sport and ceremony all rolled into one. Check the calendar and see if one of the three National Tournaments will be taking place while you are visiting Tokyo. Tournaments are held at Ryogoku

Sumo wrestlers prepare for a fight during a national tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan arena.

Sumo wrestlers prepare for a fight during a national tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan arena.

Kokugikan arena, next to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The day starts around 8:30am, but be there much earlier to buy tickets day of. The fights get more competitive as the day goes on, and the crowd more rambunctious. The actual fight is short, twenty seconds if you’re lucky, while more time is spent stretching, stomping and salt tossing.

A shrine within the Japanese Garden at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

6. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden- Big city leaving you needing some green space? Have no fear. Tokyo has plenty of places to relax, unwind and breathe in nature within its city limits. The best place to do all three is at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

Pick up a map at the visitor’s center and pay your 20 Yen entry fee, and then amble the paths which lead you to Sycamore Lane, parallel gravel walking paths lined with Sycamores; the Japanese Garden & Tea House, where you can stop for green tea and a snack; and the Greenhouse, which is home to 2700 plant species from all over the world. The garden sits on 58 acres and will leave you feeling revitalized for an afternoon of city sightseeing.

7. Conveyor Belt Sushi – Japan’s cuisine is considered by most world renowned chefs to be the best and their own personal favorite. Sushi seems to be most commonly associated with Japan, and hence Tokyo does have the world’s largest fish market, you can be rest assured that you are getting the world’s BEST sushi. And, what better and more

Sushi circles a conveyor belt at Tokoy's Pintokona restaurant in Roppongi Hills.

Sushi circles a conveyor belt at Tokyo’s Pintokona restaurant in Roppongi Hills.

novel way to enjoy it than at a conveyor belt restaurant? Belly up to the belt for front row action – chefs preparing all types of sushi rolls and sashimi, some for the conveyor belt and some to fulfill diner’s requests. Take your pick of what is rolling around, being sure to note the color of the plate, as that is how you know how much the specific item will cost. Plates, once cleared of food, are stacked to one side, and then tallied up at the end of the meal to calculate your bill. Yet another efficient Japanese system! See sushi circle here.


8. The Shinkansen – A trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a ride on the Shinkansen, the iconic bullet train. Trains reach up to speeds of 200 mph and can have you clear across the country in a matter of hours. High speed trains not your thing? Don’t worry, the Shinkansen has a clean track record (pun intended).

Colorful Shinkansen, Japan's bullet train, parked at Tokyo Station.

Colorful Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, parked at Tokyo Station.

Snacks and beverages are served during your journey and hostesses and conductors bow as they enter and exit each train compartment. By far, the best way to see more of Japan than just Tokyo is by train. Check out my blog post on the Japan Rail Pass, and learn why you need it and what it entitles you to within Japan. Click here for a view from inside the Shinkansen.

9. Capsule Hotel – Whether on a budget or not, the capsule hotel experience is worth it for at least for one night, (as long as you’re not plagued by claustrophobia). These hotels offer very basic accommodation- literally a bed, a towel and slippers- at a rate much cheaper than that of Tokyo hotels.

Inside my capsule at Oak Hostel Cabin.

Inside my capsule at Oak Hostel Cabin.

Originally created for Japanese businessmen who might have overindulged on Sapporo and can’t make it home, these capsule hotels are now becoming popular with budget travelers as well as Japanese who find themselves unable to afford climbing city rents. Capsules can be booked for about $25 a night. While most capsule hotels only used to be available to men, most now offer separate men and women’s wings.

Inside an izakaya in Tokyo’s Kayabacho neighborhood.

10. Izakaya- Originally set up to serve businessmen their sake, izakayas have grown to offer much more, including beer, cocktails and an array of Japanese food items. In some izakayas, you can literally sample all types of Japanese cuisine, from sushi to sashimi, yakitori to okonomiyaki, so definitely don’t leave Tokyo without a visit to one.

Some izakayas are small, standing room only spaces, others offer tatami mat style seating, and some have rooms separated by partitions so groups can sit together in private. If you’re in the latter, when you enter, you will remove and lock up your shoes and be led to a room. Items are ordered at your leisure and groups usually share everything – tapas style.

Be sure to try the okonomiyaki – a traditional Japanese savory pancake usually served with scallions and an aioli-like condiment- and the yakitori – a plate of grilled chicken parts, including wings, liver and hearts.

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