What are the best things to do in Tokyo?
It used to be common to advise travelers heading to Japan to give Tokyo a miss. Go to Kyoto, went the usual refrain. That’s where the real Japan is. Tokyo is too big, too crowded, too modern, too complicated. And it is true that the sheer scale and size of Japan’s capital city can be overwhelming for newcomers. Successive disasters and periods of frenzied rebuilding have also left Tokyo with fewer examples of historical architecture than its cultured counterpart in Kansai. But these days it cannot be denied that Tokyo is Japan. Nowhere in this country is there more to do – more to experience – than in this grand city of cities. What is there to do in Tokyo? Everything. More than can be written in a million webpages. All I can do here is point you in the right direction and let you go discover Tokyo for yourself.
What is there to do in Tokyo?
The English writer Samuel Johnson (he who created the first serviceable English dictionary) once claimed “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Now, one could easily replace London with any of the world’s grand metropolises (Paris, New York, Berlin…). But for me, Tokyo, where I have lived since 2008 and which long-time resident and renowned translator Edward Seidensticker once described as “the world’s most consistently interesting city," is the one that hits the mark.
And yet Tokyo does not yield up its charms as readily as does a London or a New York or a Paris. Since its beginnings as Tokugawa Ieyasu’s feudal samurai capital Edo in the early 17th century, it has been a place of constant reinvention, rebuilding, and reconstruction. This is a city, after all, that was torched by the Great Meireki Fire of 1667, rocked by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and bombed flat by the B-52s of 1945 (not to mention the depredations of a certain large scaly lizard…), and yet still rose from the ashes time and time again into the largest urban conurbation that the world has ever known.
From below, much of Tokyo tends to resemble a sort of concrete rainforest, where buildings jostle against one another, stretching upwards in search of light and space at the expense of their neighbors. Even for long-term residents, it can be hard to get any sense of perspective on the scale or shape of the city, which is why I recommend a trip to the top of the Skytree to any first-time visitor (on a clear sunny day). Aside from the sheer splendor of the view, it is really the only place (aside from an airplane) where one can really see “all of Tokyo.” Even the shape of long-vanished Edo is still visible: the western hills of Tokyo, the Yamanote, once home to samurai homes and estates, rise high with towering skyscrapers, while the Shitamachi (Lower City) of the east around the Sumidagawa River, once home to the lower classes, is flat and mainly populated by low-rise buildings. And criss-crossing all of this, like some vast children’s playmat, are the zig-zags of train tracks and expressways that keep this city moving day and night.
Once back at street level, however, you’ll find that Tokyo is not really a city to be admired from a distance. It’s a city to live in, a city to be experienced, a city you need to jump into with two feet.
What is there to do in Tokyo? What isn’t there to do? From the raucous fun of its baseball parks and wild nights in Shibuya or Shinjuku to the serenity of its riverside walks and laidback parks and gardens, Tokyo is both the perfect spot to really let your hair down or just kick back and relax.
While most online articles on things to do in Tokyo seem to cover mostly sightseeing attractions, I've tried here to focus more on activities and entertainment (things to do) instead. If you are interested in activities and entertainment in the rest of Japan (outside Tokyo), head over to our article What are the best things to do in Japan? for plenty of suggestions.
Tokyo’s Parks and Gardens
Throughout much of the year, apart from hot humid summers and the rainy season (梅雨, tsuyu) of June, Tokyo is blessed with excellent weather.
With the vast majority of residents living in small houses or apartments (generally without yards or gardens) and generally only relatives or very close friends visiting one another’s homes, the parks and gardens of Tokyo provide some of the city’s most relaxed, open, and sociable spaces.
Tokyo’s parks run the gamut in terms of size and grandeur, from tiny local playgrounds with a single slide or swing to the expansive grounds of Kasai Rinkai Koen, Shinjuku Gyoen, and Yoyogi Koen. Many people also head to the rivers of Tokyo (Tamagawa, Arakawa, Sumidagawa) for relaxation and recreation as well as newly-developed parklands along Tokyo Bay in Toyosu, Odaiba, Oi, and Jonanjima.
Keep an eye out as well for some of Tokyo’s rather quirky playgrounds, some of which have adopted truly terrifying concrete creatures as their centerpieces!
Kasaki Rinkai Koen
Personally, I know Kasai Rinkai Koen (葛西臨海公園) as “that lovely park by the sea where I go fishing after I drop my family off at Disneyland.” Judging by all the solitary men with fishing rods on the pier, I’m not the only one with this idea.
Located on the far side of the Arakawa River from the rest of Tokyo (right next door to Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea), Kasai Rinkai Koen is the largest park in central Tokyo. It includes a superb aquarium (tuna and sharks galore), an observation building, and a Ferris Wheel that was once the largest of its kind in the world (still Japan’s second largest).
Beyond these more ostentatious attractions, however, Kasai Rinkaki Koen is just a wonderful place to go for a stroll or sit down on the grass and relax. You can gaze out over Tokyo Bay, search for feathered friends in the park’s seabird sanctuary, spread a picnic sheet on one of the big lawns, or wander out onto the breakwater for an unforgettable view of Tokyo across the water.
The park is also home to the Canoe Slalom Center, which hosted the whitewater kayak and canoe events of the Tokyo Olympics, and now offers kayaking and canoeing lessons for beginners.
A couple of years ago, I walked down to my local Tokyo tackle shop to buy my young son his first fishing rod. I then inquired about how and where to purchase a fishing license. I was met with blank stares of confusion.
For the vast majority of locations in Japan (apart from certain lakes that do have restrictions), fishing licenses are not necessary, so if you’d like, feel free to grab a rod and try your luck! Fishing is only allowed in certain locations though, so be sure to check for No Fishing signs before you cast your line.
Kasai Rinkai Koen’s long breakwater is a favorite spot among Tokyo anglers, but there are many other little fishing spots along the bay (in Tokyo as well as nearby Yokohama and Chiba).
If you would like to actually get out on the water to improve your chances, companies such as Kamiya and Esamasa Tsuribune-Ten (both right next to Haneda Airport) offer reasonably-priced half- or full-day Tokyo Bay fishing tours.
Just a short walk from the crowds and neon lights of the busiest train station in the world waits the spacious tranquility and timeless beauty of Shinjuku Gyoen. Part-park, part-garden, this green oasis in the midst of Tokyo was once the private preserve of Japan’s Imperial Family. These days, it can be enjoyed by anyone willing to pay a small entry fee.
For those with an interest in formal gardens, Shinjuku Gyoen contains Japanese, French, and English variations, as well as a pristine greenhouse bursting with tropical and semi-tropical plants. It is also a favorite spot for viewing spring cherry blossoms and autumn leaves, though (unlike its more lively neighbor Yoyogi) alcohol is not permitted (food and non-alcoholic beverages are fine).
The expansive lawns in the center of the park are perfect places to stretch out on a warm day for a sleep or a chat (or let the little ones run around and burn off some energy). There is even a soft grassy slope that tempts many children (and some adults) to attempt to guru-guru (roll) down.
Jogging is permitted only on a designated track throughout the park (and groups of 10 or more are not allowed) and ball sports are discouraged (for younger children, there seems to be some leeway though).
Yoyogi Koen is the louder, brasher, more eccentric younger brother of the grand old austere Meiji Shrine. The two unlikely siblings occupy a vast swathe of green space just steps away from the buzzing youth hotspots of Harajuku and Shibuya.
Visit Yoyogi Koen on a weekend and you may see a group of individuals in front of the main entrance who look like they have stumbled off the set of the movie Grease. There is more than a bit of gray in their greased-back Elvis hairdos these days, but these rockabillies still play their music and strut their stuff as they have for many, many years.
Continuing into Yoyogi Koen (free), you might notice a few differences from most other parks in the capital. One, there are a lot of foreigners here. Particularly when the weather is nice, Yoyogi Koen has one of the most mixed Japanese and international crowds that you will find anywhere in Tokyo. Two, there are a lot of young people here. Yoyogi draws in a diverse crowd of all ages, but it is particularly popular with big groups of students from high schools and universities. Three, people here are on the move: tossing baseballs and frisbees, playing strange capture-the-flag-style team games, performing weird dances to upload later, cycling, jogging, and just messing around.
The park is home to more than a few oddities too: strangely-dressed individuals, odd pets, musicians, street performers, and other unusual types. It’s all a bit surprising in a city, and country, where drawing attention to oneself is not usually high on the list of most people’s priorities. It’s also the park to party in when the weather is good, particularly during cherry-blossom season when the sakura trees burst into bloom and large groups of friends gather together on big plastic sheets under the trees, drinking and laughing and sharing snacks.
Yoyogi is big enough, however, that you can find quieter spots too, particularly if you walk north in the direction of Shinjuku. And if you’ve got youngsters, have I got a tip for you. At the very northern tip of the park you will find a small paddock (known as “Pony Koen”) that offers free pony rides. Yep, you read that right. Free pony rides.
Ueno Koen has a little bit of something for everyone, home as it is to many of Tokyo’s finest museums and art galleries as well as the Ueno Zoological Gardens (a zoo that contains pandas and other wondrous creatures). While it doesn't have the wide open green spaces of Kasai, Yoyogi, or Shinjuku Gyoen, there are some lovely spots under the trees where you can sit and relax. A large plaza with a long fountain runs through the heart of the park and frequently plays host to outdoor festivals and events (along with one of the nicest Starbucks in the world, just perfect for a coffee outside on a warm day).
No visit to Ueno Koen is complete without a stroll through the Toshogu Shrine, where three Tokugawa shoguns (including Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate) are enshrined. The shrine buildings are some of the finest surviving examples of Edo-period architecture that you will find in Tokyo. From the shrine, continue on down the hill to view the spectacular lotuses of Shinobazu Pond. Believe it or not, there was once a horse-racing track around this pond back in the Meiji period!
For those with children, the Science Museum has some cool dinosaur skeletons and hands-on exhibitions. I’d also recommend a visit to the International Library of Children's Literature at the park’s western edge, a historic building that is part-museum, part-historical monument (it was once the Imperial Library, built in 1906), and part-functioning children’s library! The library even hosts a daily Story Hour (except on Saturdays).
For true history buffs, I recommend a walk through the atmospheric (and beautiful) Yanaka Cemetery to a little temple called Kyo-oji (経王寺). Its gate and door still contain sizable bullet holes from the 1868 Battle of Ueno when ex-shogunate troops were besieged here by the new Meiji Imperial Army.
Hama Rikkyu Teien
Hama Rikkyu Teien (浜離宮恩賜庭園) was once the grounds of one of the large waterfront estates built by the Tokugawa family on reclaimed land at the edge of Tokyo Bay. Many Tokugawa shoguns and their extended families spent time here throughout the Edo period, taking in spectacular views of Mount Fuji (no longer visible due to the skyscrapers of Shimbashi) from the security of this lovely manicured walled garden, along with occasional periods of blasting away at migratory ducks. Should you wish to pay your respects, a small mound and monument dedicated to the memory of these proud waterfowl still exists on the grounds.
There is not a whole lot to do at Hama Rikkyu, to be honest, other than just relax, stroll around, take pictures, enjoy the dramatic surroundings, and try to picture Tokyo in those long-lost days of Edo. The park is also equipped with a dock where boats proceed to Odaiba or back up the Sumidagawa river to Asakusa, a fairly pleasant journey.
For great views of Tokyo, you either need to get out into the Bay a bit (Jonanjima, Kasai Rinkai Koen, Odaiba) or get up high (Tokyo Tower, Shibuya Ce La Vi, Mori Tower, and of course…Skytree). The Rainbow Bridge and Gate Bridge also both offer expansive waterfront vistas. For a true panorama, you could make the short trip outside city limits to hike up Mount Takao for expansive views of Mount Fuji on one side and the entire Kanto region on the other. For the best night views in Tokyo, check out our article What are the best ways to enjoy Tokyo at night?
Exercising in Tokyo
Joining a gym likely won’t be at the top of your list of things-to-do in Tokyo, but there are nonetheless more enjoyable ways to keep fit while enjoying some of the city’s best spots.
Jogging and cycling can be frustrating for newcomers to Tokyo, with interruptions from the city’s many (longgg) red lights and confusing street patterns turning your excursion into more of an exercise in navigation than fun. And so it can be a good idea to spend a little time planning your route before you lace up your running shoes or slip on your bike shorts.
Luckily, there are many great spots in Tokyo for a cycle, jog, or brisk walk.
To get you started, here are a few of the best!
Jogging the Imperial Palace moat
The expansive grounds of the Imperial Palace were once home to Edo Castle, constructed and modified by the Tokugawa shoguns in the 17th and 18th centuries and utilizing both natural and manmade watercourses to form a network of formidable defenses. Most of the outer moats were later filled in, existing now solely in street names such as Sotobori-dori (外堀通り, “Outer Moat Road”).
The main moat still exists though, towering walls reflected on its surface as it encircles the home of the Emperor and his family. The sidewalks around the moat are wide, flat and smooth, making this a popular spot among runners and walkers, everyone from kids to grandparents to athletes from semi-professional running clubs.
One complete circuit is a rather pleasing 5 km (almost to the meter!). There are also many nice cafes in the area for a coffee or juice after your exertions.
Jogging the Tamagawa River
The Tamagawa River forms the western boundary of Tokyo, separating it from the neighboring prefecture of Kanagawa. While once extremely polluted, efforts to clean the waterway have had a considerable environmental impact, with thriving communities of birds and many other creatures (even the native ayu fish, which some said would never return) returned to the river and its banks.
The river is flanked on both sides by many miles of baseball fields, soccer pitches, and golf courses, as well as pathways (some paved, some not). These are very popular with walkers, cyclists and runners eager to avoid the usual hindrances of stop-lights and traffic.
While one could choose pretty much anywhere on either side of the Tamagawa for a nice run, I’m quite partial to the stretch between Tamagawa Station and Futako-Tamagawa. The trail is hard-packed dirt (less impact on the joints) and rounds a bend in the river soon after you start where Mount Fuji rises up across the river (on clear days). This run is (like the Imperial Palace run) almost exactly 5 km and Futako-Tamagawa is a nice spot for a post-run lunch or coffee. To get there, take the train to Tamagawa Station, walk towards the big blue bridge, take the path to the right of the bridge down to the riverside path, turn right, and start running. You’ll pass under an expressway bridge, then see a group of tall buildings next to a second bridge. Those buildings are Futako-Tamagawa.
Cycling the Tamagawa River
From its mouth next to Haneda Airport where it empties into Tokyo Bay, the Tamagawa River extends all the way along the western edge of the city of Tokyo into the hills and mountains of the north.
Good-quality paved bicycle trails run the length of the river, though it is occasionally necessary to cross from one side of the river to the other if one wishes to ride long distances. The trails are relatively flat and fast (a wind at your back will have you flying, but a headwind will make you feel like you’re riding a stationary bike) and are well-signposted (in km from the river mouth). All manner of cyclists use the paths, from grannies with their shopping to teams of young baseball players behind their coaches (like little goslings following a goose) to serious lycra-clad cyclists on flashy road bikes.
The only real question is how far you want to go. The Tamagawa is just as great a spot for a leisurely pedal and secluded little picnic as it is for pushing your limits on a hard 60 or 80 km ride. You can even use the river to cycle clear out of Tokyo if you wish, all the way to Lake Okutama, the main reservoir that feeds the river.
Be careful when cycling sections close to major population areas, especially on weekends or holidays when there is a fair amount of bicycle traffic. Bicycle safety is somewhat lacking at times in Japan and people do not always pay attention to what is in front or behind them (and will sometimes swerve into a path without checking). Be very careful of pedestrians as well, as cyclists are generally considered at fault in the event of a collision.
Cycling the Arakawa River
The broad Arakawa River runs through the opposite eastern side of Tokyo, emptying out into the bay alongside Kasai Rinkai Koen and Disneyland. Its upper reaches bend to the west, forming a boundary between Tokyo and Saitama prefecture, before climbing off up into the hills and mountains beyond.
The river possesses a truly fantastic bicycle path, wide and well-paved, running for over 80 km from rivermouth to the far reaches of Saitama. You can start anywhere along the river, of course, but one thing to be aware of if you want to start at the rivermouth is that you need to begin on the east side of the river, then cross to the west at the next bridge (don’t worry, you can stay on that side for a long way before you need to cross again).
The Arakawa is home to beautiful green spaces along its banks as well as spectacular views of the Tokyo Skytree (which is helpful in navigation as well).
Bicycle rentals are easy enough to find in Tokyo but be aware that the quality (and size) of bicycles can vary. You can also make use of the red e-bike stations where you can pick up a bike and drop it off at another station. These are not the best for long distance rides, however, and obviously don't provide an ideal workout either!
Walking across the Rainbow Bridge
Those more in the mood for exercise at a stroll might enjoy a walk across the Rainbow Bridge between downtown Tokyo (near Tamachi Station) and the man-made island of Odaiba.
The entrance to the bridge for pedestrians is a little bit out of the way, via a building attached to the bridge from underneath. An elevator (free) takes you up to the bridge itself, where you can then walk the approximately 2 km distance to the other side. The views from the Rainbow Bridge are spectacular, both on the way there (the west side of the bridge), looking towards Haneda Airport, but even more so on the way back (along the east side of the bridge), looking over to the Port of Tokyo, Toyosu, Tokyo Tower, and the Skytree.
The only downside is that while the pedestrian walkway is separated from vehicular (and train!) traffic by a big fence, walking alongside a stream of trucks and trains can make it too loud at times for a conversation. Maybe pop in some earbuds and enjoy some tunes or an audiobook instead.
While Tokyo itself has its fair share of beautiful spots and places to get some exercise outdoors, getting out of the city and into more natural surroundings isn’t as hard as you might think. Mount Takao is a (very) popular destination and a (very) easy hike with an onsen right there in the train station awaiting your return. Mount Mitake is another accessible spot with great views. The area around Lake Okutama is also very beautiful, though it might be easier to drive than to go there by train.
If you do have a valid driver’s license and feel confident enough behind the wheel, I would also recommend a drive across the Aqua Line from Kawasaki to Chiba, stopping in the middle at the Umihotaru rest stop to enjoy the view (and a snack if you’d like). The Aqua Line is an incredible 23.7-km combined bridge/tunnel that runs smack across Tokyo Bay that will leave you shaking your head at how anyone ever could have built such a thing.
Experiencing Japanese Culture (Hands On!) in Tokyo
If you’re the kind of person who likes to visit a country with more than just your eyes and ears, it can be worthwhile seeking out hands-on experiences that can deepen your understanding of Japanese art, culture, history, and daily life. Tokyo is one of the best places to seek out these opportunities due to the variety of options available and the (relatively) high number of people able to converse in English.
The best approach is to consider either things you are already into or things you have always wanted to try. For example, if you already love cooking, a class in preparing home-cooked Japanese meals might be interesting (and useful). On the other hand, if you’ve always been intrigued by the thud of a taiko drum or the mystique of the tea ceremony, a lesson in either of these quintessential Japanese traditions could add something truly memorable to your trip.
Anyway, it helps to have some idea of what’s out there, so here are just a few suggestions for ways to experience Japanese culture (hands on!) in Tokyo.
Interest in Japanese home cooking (both ingredients and preparation methods) has boomed in recent years due to increased awareness worldwide of its health benefits and mild comforting flavors. Cooking classes, ranging from simple one-hour lessons to full multi-week or multi-month courses for aspiring cooks or chefs, are beginning to cater to foreign visitors and residents as well as locals looking to add to their culinary repertoires.
Because people from all over Japan tend to move to Tokyo, the capital is a good place to enroll in a cooking class. High marks for style and efficiency go to Cooking Studio Oishii no Tsukurikata in Asakusa (Tokyo), which has lovely pristine facilities and focuses on beautiful presentation of food as well as aroma and flavor.
For a more personal experience, try Mayuko’s Little Kitchen, where the host invites you right into her home kitchen to learn how to make common tasty home-cooked Japanese meals (classes are in English and last 3 hours).
There are more touristy offerings on offer as well, more focused on fun than practical utility. The former fish market Tsukiji offers a Sushi Making Experience & Tsukiji Fish Market Explore Tour where a sushi chef will show you the ropes of his profession and give you a tour of historic Tsukiji.
For single people lookin’ for love, various venues in Tokyo also hosts rather unique ryōri-gōkon (料理合コン), which are essentially matchmaking/singles events in the clever guise of cooking classes. You really will learn to cook (often an exotic non-Japanese dish), however, so at least you’ll leave with a new skill if not the man or woman of your dreams. Some level of Japanese is generally required for sign-up and participation.
The development of the Japanese tea ceremony (茶道, sadō, “the way of tea”) stretches back more than 1000 years when tea itself was first introduced to Japan from China. So enamored of tea and its ceremonies was the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi that he had a portable golden tea room constructed so that it could be carried wherever he went (even the battlefield).
To experience a truly traditional tea ceremony these days in Tokyo, one option is to head to one of the city’s traditional teahouses, such as Happo-en, Asakusa Jidai-ya, Shizu-kokoro (Asakusa), or Meguro Gajoen. Most venues also provide explanations of the tea ceremony (in English) as well as the opportunity to dress up in kimono for the ceremony. Some also offer the opportunity to learn the basics of conducting the ceremony yourself. For a more casual (and cheaper) experience, you can visit the teahouses in Tokyo’s larger parks (Shinjuku Gyoen, Rikugien Garden, Hama Rikkyu Teien) and enjoy a simple cup of matcha.
The tea ceremony itself varies from place to place (and is too detailed to explain here). Your tea will generally be served by a hostess in full kimono. Be prepared for a lot of bowing, a lot of sitting, and a lot of waiting. And, of course, a spot of (green) tea.
Japanese Taiko Drumming
Of all traditional Japanese musical instruments, taiko drums are probably the most approachable for beginners. The iconic, beautifully constructed taiko ranges from small personal instruments up to truly massive drums used in performances, temples, or matsuri festivals.
Tokyo is home to a variety of schools and groups offering opportunities to bang big drums. In fact, almost every neighborhood contains a taiko group where you can learn, though these tend to charge a monthly fee and require some level of Japanese.
Better options for foreign travelers are the 1-2 hour classes offered in various temples or schools in Tokyo, such as Jindaiji Temple near Shinjuku or the Wakon Wadaiko School near Ryogoku.
TAIKO-LAB, which has several locations around Tokyo (and Japan), markets itself as a fun combination of musical education and physical exercise. Most facilities offer visitors the chance to wear traditional performers’ clothing during lessons.
Some companies marketing cultural activities to foreign tourists in Japan are actually run and/or staffed by foreign residents. The main reason for this is the need for fluent English speakers, particularly for those activities (or tours) requiring lengthy or complex explanations, though cultural preferences also play a part (as anyone who has taken a long Japanese bus tour can attest!).
That said, pushing past the language barrier can make for memorable connections and valuable experiences, so even if an activity is only available in Japanese, don’t be afraid to try! After all, many hands-on activities, by their nature, allow you to learn by observation and imitation.
Conversely, it should also be noted that long-term foreign residents can be some of the most passionate practitioners of certain traditional Japanese arts. Many have lived and studied in Japan for decades and thus have extensive knowledge and interesting perspectives about the country.
Japanese Knives (and Swords!)
When Tokyo was Edo, only the privileged few, the samurai, were allowed to walk the streets carrying blades. In fact, they carried two, though since the Edo period was a protracted time of peace, these weapons were more a marker of their social status than of any practical martial utility. Stories abound of samurai selling the blades of their swords to pay off debts, retaining only the hilts and scabbards to keep up appearances.
These days, getting your hands on an actual sword is difficult in Japan due to even stricter laws and regulations than in the days of the Edo samurai. The most popular Japanese blades these days are the country’s renowned kitchen knives (庖丁, hōchō), which are prized for their durability, reliability, and beauty. Those interested in shopping for a Japanese kitchen knife can visit Kappabashi, Tokyo’s traditional neighborhood for sales of knives and other kitchen supplies.
If you would like to get a peek at great blades that once belonged to warriors of old, you can head to either the National Museum in Ueno or the Japanese Sword Museum (now in a new location near Ryogoku and the Tokyo Skytree). The quality of Japanese metallurgy and blacksmithing through the ages means that even quite old swords tend to remain stunningly sharp, smooth and shiny.
Japanese law requires a permit for any blade over 15 cm, but there is a loophole for tourists where they will carefully wrap and seal your new knife in a box and bag. DO NOT open this seal until you are back in your own country or you could be in violation of Japanese law. Obviously you should also check the laws in your country before purchasing anything with a pointy end in Japan.
Japanese Language Classes
Written in a blend of three alphabets (kanji, katakana, hiragana) including thousands of kanji characters (many of which can be pronounced multiple ways), Japanese can sometimes seem like the Mount Everest of languages.
But hey, mountains are there to be summited! The first few steps are relatively painless, as basic Japanese pronunciation is not too difficult and the considerable number of English loan words provide a (rather misleading) bridge into speaking the language.
The slope then gets much steeper, fast. Luckily, these days there are more Japanese language schools than ever, especially in Tokyo, which cater to all levels and purposes, from fun beginner lessons to fully immersive university or business courses.
Those with more of a passing interest (or little time) might be interested in a short lesson on Japanese calligraphy (書道, shodō). Some of these are rather over-priced, but one quite reasonable option is the Tokyo Calligraphy Class run by shodō master Kaneko Youshun near Asakusa.
Retired Harvard professor and acclaimed translator Jay Rubin, the man responsible for bringing many of Haruki Murakami's novels to the English-speaking world, penned a fascinating little book in 1992 that was originally entitled Gone Fishin': New Angles on Perennial Problems (later re-released under the title Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You).
The original title stemmed from the Japanese phrase Honjitsu wa yasumasete itadakimasu from a sign on a shop. Rubin explains: [a] completely naturalized translation for the sign might simply be "Closed,'" though that way we lose the interesting cultural difference. Perhaps "We thank you for allowing us to have the day off'" or "We appreciate your permitting us to have the day off'" would begin to convey some sense of the respectful tone of the Japanese in natural sounding English. But make no mistake about it: the owner has gone fishin'.
The book is a witty, accessible, loving tribute to some of the most dastardly challenges that Japanese poses to speakers of other languages. No knowledge of Japanese is required to understand and enjoy it.
Live Sports and Entertainment
Aside from the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, screeching out karaoke songs, and strolling around town, those in search of live entertainment will find that Tokyo is home to many professional sports teams and frequently hosts international sporting events.
If you arrive in Tokyo at the right time of year, you might be able to catch a baseball game or soccer match where you can join in on all the singing, drumming, and fun (and beer drinking). Tokyo also hosts three of the five annual professional sumo tournaments, unique cultural sporting experiences for any first-time spectator.
The city also hosts many concerts featuring Japanese or foreign musicians along with live theater, both modern and traditional. Younger visitors might catch a thrill or two in Tokyo’s colorful game centers or at the ultimate draw for youngsters (and many oldsters), Tokyo Disneyland.
And if you happen to arrive at the right time of year to experience Tokyo’s fireworks or matsuri festivals, be sure to go check them out!
In Japan, sumo (相撲) is more than just an athletic pursuit. It is part sport, part national symbol, part religious ceremony. Attending one of the five annual tournaments offers a fascinating glimpse into an endeavor with one foot in the world of Edo and one foot in the modern world of TV broadcasts and fast food sponsorships.
Make no mistake about it though, these big dudes are athletes! Clad in nothing but their colored fundoshi, sumo rikishi smash together like stripped-down football linebackers until one lies in the dirt (or the lap of some poor old person in the first row!). Everyone is after the exalted rank of yokozuna, but once attained, it is forever a precarious perch.
Three of Japan’s five annual sumo tournaments are held at the Kokugikan in Tokyo. In the Ryogoku neighborhood around the Kokugikan, it is also possible to visit a sumobeya (“sumo stable”) or sample delicious chanko-nabe, a delicious hotpot favored by the wrestlers (don’t worry about calories, it's actually fairly lean!).
Baseball and Soccer
The biggest spectator sports in Japan are baseball and soccer. Both sports are typically enjoyed by vibrant chanting crowds powered by plenty of snacks and beer.
Tokyo is home to two professional baseball teams in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league, the Yakult Swallows (who play in Meiji Jingu) and the Yomiuri Giants (who play in the Tokyo Dome). For American baseball fans, the Giants are sort of like the Yankees of Japanese baseball while the Swallows are sort of like the Mets (though the Swallows won it all in 2021). Some games are held during the day, others (especially in summer) at night under the floodlights).
As for the world’s favorite game, the J-League is one of international soccer’s best kept secrets. Despite the league only turning fully professional in the 1990s, Japanese players now feature in some of the world’s best teams and the national team has become a constant presence at the World Cup. FC Tokyo is currently the capital’s lone representative in the top tier, playing in the large Ajinomoto Stadium way out in Chofu at the northwestern edge of the city.
A closer (and through my extremely biased eyes, better!) alternative is Kawasaki Frontale, who play just across the river from Tokyo at Todoroki Stadium. I guess you could also head out to the Nissan Stadium (venue for the 2002 World Cup final) to watch the Yokohama F Marinos (but if you do, we aren’t going to be friends…).
Got tickets? Tickets to soccer matches and baseball games can be purchased online or at convenience stores. Some Japanese may be required, so you might need to ask for assistance. Big games often sell out, but smaller teams might have tickets available on site.
Sumo tournaments take place five times a year, with three at the Kokugikan in Tokyo. Tickets can be purchased online (in English) from Oosumo a few weeks before the tournament starts.
Other professional sports (such as basketball or rugby) can also be found in Japan, but will probably be only of interest to truly die-hard fans, as the level is nowhere near that of soccer or baseball (or sumo).
Live Theater and Movie Theaters (Cinemas)
For those interested in traditional forms of Japanese theater, the National Noh Theater in Sendagaya and the refurbished Kabuki-za of Ginza are Tokyo’s premier venues. Noh (能) is an extremely old slow and stylized form of theater that is all but incomprehensible to modern Japanese audiences. Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a livelier and more narrative dramatic form that rose to prominence during the Edo samurai period.
Check before you go whether headsets that provide English commentary are available. Trust me, no matter how good you think your Japanese is, it’s not this good (imagine going to a classical opera thinking that your classroom knowledge of Italian will suffice, then multiply this feeling of inadequacy by a thousand). Even Japanese kabuki-goers tend to use headsets explaining the plays in modern Japanese.
There is also a decent contemporary theater scene in Tokyo, though keep in mind that even foreign plays and musicals (such as the wildly popular Lion King and Aladdin musicals last year) will usually be performed only in Japanese.
Movie theaters/cinemas are plentiful in Tokyo and many show films from overseas. Just check first that you are seeing the subtitled version (字幕), not the one dubbed into Japanese (吹替). Unfortunately, it will be quite difficult to enjoy any Japanese films while in Japan, though some movie theaters (Roppongi/Shibuya) do occasionally show Japanese films with English subtitles.
In the land that gave the world SONY, SEGA, and Nintendo (I can’t believe I never realized until my 30s that the world’s most famous Italian plumber was born in Japan!), game centers (ゲームセンタ) have not yet quite been squeezed out of existence by home gaming.
To call a Japanese game center an “arcade” is kind of like calling a slice of Kobe beef a hamburger. The larger ones are stocked with an astonishing array of games, many requiring quite a bit of physical exercise such as the taiko drums and the one where you dance around like a fool, trying to step on colored lights. I’ve even seen a full Yamanote line driver’s cabin where you pilot the train between actual stops in Tokyo. Game centers are also often attached to bowling alleys, batting cages, futsal courts, pool or ping-pong tables, and other attractions.
Game centers can generally be found in shopping centers, though there are some large standalone ones as well. ROUND1 is a nationwide chain that has particularly impressive facilities.
Please don’t invite me if you’re going, but Tokyo Disneyland is without a doubt one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Located just across the Edogawa River from Tokyo in Chiba prefecture (I guess “Chiba Disneyland” wasn’t catchy enough…), it is actually composed of the two separate but parallel worlds of Disneyland and Disney Sea (I call Disney Sea “the one that has beer” but this may have since changed).
Visitors to the Magic Kingdom can opt for various passes. These include two evening passes: the Early Evening Passport (weekends and holidays, 3 pm onwards) and the Weeknight Passport (5 pm onwards). Both parks usually close at 9 pm. Facilities for families with small children are excellent, though the size of the parks requires quite a bit of walking around, so be sure to bring a stroller (pushchair). Evenings at Disney are popular with couples on dates as well as large groups of giggling teenage girls.
If you are traveling with children and need something to do on a rainy day in Tokyo, Odaiba has a small Legoland that is engaging enough for a few hours. A better option is Kidzania in Toyosu, where the kids work “real jobs” to make “real money.” The companies on offer are real Japanese outfits such as Mitsubishi and Mos Burger (my kid made me a serviceable teriyaki burger) and English-speaking staff are available and eager to help. You can opt for a morning, evening, or full-day ticket.
These are all extremely popular attractions so be sure to reserve tickets in advance.
Festivals (Matsuri) and Fireworks
Tokyo hosts an astonishing number of local matsuri in its innumerable little communities and neighborhoods, as well as larger events in more well-known areas. Each matsuri tends to be unique to its area, but many involve a portable shrine (mikoshi) being carried through the streets on the shoulders of revelers dressed in traditional matsuri clothing. A range of street food and games in temporary yatai stalls is a regular fixture of even the smallest matsuri.
Some of Tokyo’s most famous festivals are the Kanda Matsuri (May), the Sanno Matsuri (June), and the Fukugawa Hachiman Matsuri (August), where mikoshi bearers are splashed with water en route.
Tokyo’s fireworks displays date all the way back to the Edo period. Many people wear traditional summer yukata or jinbei, gathering on hilltops or riversides (or taking a boat out onto the river) to gaze up at explosions of color in the night sky. Fireworks displays take place in late July and August, generally over the rivers of Tokyo, with the Edogawa, Tamagawa, and (especially) Sumidagawa Fireworks as the city’s most spectacular offerings of bang and flash.
Eating (and Drinking) in Tokyo
“I love Tokyo,” Anthony Bourdain once said. “If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it.”
In a country where food is a national obsession, it is perhaps no surprise that eating is the first thing most Japanese people associate with a night out. The phrase “Nan-i shiyou?” which could be literally translated as “What should we do?” is often used as shorthand for “What should we eat?”
The options are endless. Those in search of a typical Japanese dining experience should head for an izakaya where you can fill your table with a variety of delicious dishes to share with your friends. Cheap izakaya can be found around virtually all train stations of any size in Tokyo, while trendier (and spendier) versions can be found in more upscale neighborhoods. Themed izakaya (Ninja Shinjuku, Ginza Vampire Cafe, others) target mostly a clientele of foreign tourists (or curious Japanese locals) looking to experience “weird Japan” but their food is not always worth their high prices. Many such establishments seem to be closing down these days (such as the infamous “Lock Up” prison restaurant chain, which mercifully now appears to be finally shuttered). Up to you, but I’d advise steering clear.
A heavy night out drinking ends for many Japanese with a quick visit to a ramen restaurant before stumbling off to catch the last train (if you come from the UK, ramen is sort of the “post-drinking kebab” of Japan). This is not recommended if you are currently training for the Olympics.
Izakaya come in many different forms, from the cheap and more raucous (try Shibuya, Shinjuku, or Ikebukuro) to the pricier and more refined (try Ebisu, Shimo-Kitazawa or Jiyugaoka). At the latter, you will generally be provided with a button with which to call your server; at the former, simply bellow Sumimasen! and someone will come take your order.
Many izakaya offer nomi-houdai (飲み放題) plans which allow you to drink as much as you want (or can…) within a set period of time (normally two hours). Sometimes these plans only include certain drinks, or require that you pay a seating charge or order a certain amount of food, so be sure to check the details before you dive in!
Those in search of fine dining will also find many, many attractive prospects. Tokyo is famously home to more Michelin-starred restaurants (not all “Japanese food”...many focus on cuisine from France, China, etc.) than any other city in the world, but one does not need to splash out quite that much cash to feel fancy. Ebisu and Daikanyama are filled with classy modern spots just perfect for a date, while Asakusa is known for providing a more traditional Japanese dining experience. Ginza is blessed with a pretty good mixture of both.
These days, Tokyo also contains many restaurants serving foreign (non-Japanese) food. However, keep in mind that as in most countries, foreign cuisine is generally adapted to suit local preferences in terms of flavor, spiciness, and volume. Chinese and Korean are both very popular and can be found everywhere, as can Italian and Indian (Indian food in Tokyo is generally not great though…).
With its high number of foreign residents, Roppongi caters more to an international crowd, but its restaurants therefore tend to be somewhat overpriced. You can visit Tokyo’s Koreatown, Shin-Okubo, to sample authentic Korean BBQ or bibimbap, or take a stroll down Italia-dori (near Shiodome) in search of pasta or pizza. Japan is even home to some surprises, with excellent Jamaican, Turkish and Israeli food all available if you know where to look!
To vegetarians, vegans, and those with other dietary restrictions…good luck. Check online. Try to learn a few Japanese phrases explaining your restrictions. Things are a bit easier these days, with more information available on the Internet and more Japanese people aware of vegetarianism and other diets, but if you are super strict, it can be somewhat tricky.
Below are a few suggestions of just a few less obvious “in-the-know” neighborhoods around Tokyo where you can find great food (and a tasty beverage or two too). For nightlife, see the section below on Shopping and Nightlife in Tokyo.
Toyosu or Tsukiji
Tsukiji Fish Market was once the largest wholesale fish market on Earth, supplying the plates of the world’s largest city (and hungriest city, when it comes to seafood) with an astonishing volume and variety of fish and other delicious sea creatures.
The main market at Tsukiji was closed in 2018 and relocated to modern state-of-the-art facilities on the nearby island of Toyosu. However, the Tsukiji Outer Market remains, serving up platters of history to both locals and tourists alike, along with plenty of incredible sushi, sashimi and grilled fish (primarily supplied by Toyosu). You can also purchase raw fish or shellfish at stores here if you have cooking facilities at your accommodation.
For those who have long dreamed of viewing Tsukiji’s famed wholesale tuna auctions, you’ll need to head over to Toyosu these days. The experience is somewhat diminished in comparison to the hectic Tsukiji days, as tourists are no longer allowed on the floor of the working market. Instead, the auctions can be viewed from a purpose-built observation deck accessed by an external elevator. For a closer experience where you can actually hear the auction going on, book a spot in the viewing gallery (in advance). Tuna auctions take place daily between 5:30-6:30 in the morning.
For fascinating insight into the history, economy, subcultures, and layout of the original Tsukiji Market, I would highly recommend reading Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore Bestor.
Ebisu is the coolest place in Tokyo to eat, to drink, to shop, and to be seen. People all over Japan know Ebisu by name and many visitors from other parts of the country make a stop here when sightseeing or relaxing in the capital.
Though it is a fairly small place, Ebisu contains an astonishing variety of Japanese and international restaurants, and it is hard to find anywhere where the food is not absolutely divine. Prices aren’t generally too bad either, mostly somewhat cheaper than in Roppongi, Ginza or Shinjuku.
Oddly enough, Ebisu actually owes its existence (and name) to its humble beginnings as the home of one of Japan’s first beer breweries. You can pretend to care about the history of this brewery at the attractive Museum of Yebisu Beer in Garden Place, which whisks visitors past a (very) brief set of photographs and displays before wisely plunking them down at the tasting table. The museum is free but the beer, sadly, is not (though it is very reasonably priced).
Once home to a black market after the war, the area under the train tracks near Yurakucho station is now a cluster of eateries, bars, and other less salubrious establishments, many of them delightfully down-at-heel (remarkable given how close this all is to the glitzy lights of Ginza!).
If old-school dive bars, cheap drinks, and basic but tasty food are your thing, Yurakucho is the spot for you. Recent development has led to a wider range of businesses opening under the tracks, meaning that little hole-in-the-wall bars and yakitori spots sit side by side with chic French bistros, gourmet burger joints, and teppanyaki restaurants.
Telling someone that you are heading to Shimo-Kitazawa for food and some drinks is a great way to impress the trendy people of Tokyo, whether Japanese and international residents. This up-and-coming neighborhood in Setagaya-ku (a short train ride from Shibuya) is home to an astonishing array of achingly cool cafes, bars and restaurants. Prices are still fairly reasonable, though, and the lack of high-rise buildings means that “Shimo-Kita” has a lively but laid-back feel to it.
Check out Tokyo’s Koreatown, Shin-Okubo (新大久保), to sample authentic Korean BBQ or bibimbap. Most restaurants offer all-you-can-drink nomi-houdai (飲み放題) plans and supply you with scissors (?!) to trim your meat before you grill it yourself right there at your table.
Shin-Okubo is also home to all manner of shops hawking all things Korean, from barrels of kimchi to Korean cosmetics to posters of your favorite BTS dudes (I don't know any of their names, sorry).
Shin-Okubo can be found just two stops away from Shinjuku on the JR Yamanote line, though you can actually walk the distance in about 15 minutes.
No tips! Tipping on top of your restaurant bill is not done in Japan and will usually be met with confusion verging on panic. It is not unknown for a foreign tourist to leave a few coins on a bar as a tip and be chased out into the street by a concerned server because it is assumed they have forgotten their change! The same goes for taxis, haircuts, and pretty much everywhere else. No tips!
Shopping and Nightlife
Right, this might be a short section. Shopping for me has always been a practical activity. Get in, get out, get home. Nevertheless, wandering the shops is a popular recreational activity for many Japanese, particularly (but not exclusively) women.
Fashionistas will love the swanky department stores of Shinjuku, Marunouchi, and Ginza, while those searching for bargains can head to old school shotengai (shopping streets) such as pleasantly chaotic Ame-yoko near Ueno. Younger shoppers tend to head to Shibuya or Harajuku.
As for painting the town red, the good news for you party animals: Tokyo has plenty happening when it comes to nightlife. The bad news: some of it might not be quite what you’re into. Bars are plentiful but often somewhat small and pricey, while clubs are generally only frequented by the young (and wild and free) or certain devoted subcultures. But if you know where to look, you can still have plenty of fun with a night on the town.
Shopping - Department Stores
For glamorous shopping in Tokyo, head for famous department stores such as Mitsukoshi in Ginza or Isetan in Shinjuku. I’m still not sure if anyone actually buys anything at these stores or whether they are just set up so that people can come to marvel at their elaborate displays!
Along with fancy clothing, jewelry, and other such luxury items, high-end department stores are popular places for purchasing elaborately-packed gifts (especially sweets and cakes). Obviously, if you are looking for a more practical place to buy things, there are hundreds of ordinary (i.e. cheaper) department stores scattered across the city, usually near major train stations.
Shopping - Ame-yoko
Those in search of an earthier (i.e. cheaper) experience might try Ame-yoko between Ueno and Okachimachi. Its humble street stalls began life as a black market under the train tracks following World War II, making it a (moderately) interesting place even to shopping “unenthusiasts” like me.
You will find a wide range of different (sometimes eye-wateringly, er...different) goods on sale around Ame-yoko, but the main focus is on cheap clothing, much of it of dubious origin and quality. There are also plenty of unassuming spots where you can grab a quick beer and a bite, whether you fancy yakitori or crepes or a Turkish kebab.
Shopping - Shibuya, Omote-sando, Harajuku
The young (and the young at heart) flock to Shibuya and Harajuku, where youth-oriented fashion stores like Shibuya 109 have been setting new trends for years.
The busy "scramble crossing" in front of Shibuya Station is one of the most photographed locations on earth (including by many people who stop to take photographs mid-crossing...). If you have ever watched a documentary about overpopulation, the environment, or the future of mankind, you have probably seen an overhead shot of the Shibuya scramble crossing.
Harajuku, once world famous for its outlandish teen fashions, is just one stop north on the JR Yamanote line from Shibuya or it is a pleasant 15-20 minute stroll. If the crowds of Takeshita-dori street get to you (takes about 2 minutes for me), you can make a quick escape to Yoyogi Koen or the Meiji Shrine, both of which are located immediately behind Harajuku Station.
Nearby is much classier Omote-sando, a broad leafy avenue lined with luxury stores and chic cafes that is the perfect locale for some extended window shopping.
Nightlife - Bars (and Karaoke)
While Tokyo contains plenty of Western-style bars these days, these are not the norm for most Japanese people. They might head to a sports bar now and then to watch a game or split an oversized burger with friends at an America-themed restaurant, but for most it’s a novelty rather than a regular experience. The reverse is true for many long-term expats, many of whom tend to congregate in such places for a bit of a taste of home. The Footnik pub (Ebisu or Osaki) is one of the better of these spots, great for watching Japanese, English or European soccer, and the Taproom (Nakameguro or Harajuku) is at the top of the heap when it comes to craft beer. Numerous Irish- and American-themed bars can also be found around Tokyo, along with the ubiquitous HUB chain of English pubs, which are not particularly English.
Japanese bars tend to be on the small side, often including just a few seats (often occupied by the same people every weekend) and frequently sporting strange English names. These are fun places for a quiet drink or a chat with the regulars, who are often (not always!) happy to have someone new to talk to! I first learned Japanese in one such bar (possibly the reason why I tend to speak with a slight slur…). For the tightest cluster of tiny Japanese bars in Tokyo, you could head to Shinjuku’s well-known Golden Gai (many tourists, but fun) or pretty much anywhere else in a back alley near a train station for a more authentic experience. Don’t forget to look up or down, as many bars in Tokyo are located on upper floors or down at basement level.
One of Japan’s best-known gifts (?) to the world, karaoke (pronounced ka-ra-okay, not kerry-oki) is very popular in Japan, with numerous karaoke establishments (often huge chains) to be found around most major train stations.
To those of you horrified by the idea of dusting off your singing pipes in front of a whole bar of strangers, this is (thankfully) not how karaoke works in Japan. Instead, you and your group friends can rent out one of many small karaoke rooms equipped with microphones, a TV display, adequate soundproofing, and sometimes even tambourines and other instruments. You can select your preferred songs from an iPad-looking thing (ask an employee if you need help switching it to English) and order drinks via a small phone near the door.
Karaoke is generally quite inexpensive and you can extend your time if you want to keep on singing. Many places are open late and offer nomi-houdai (飲み放題) so you can drink all you want while you belt out the hits (booze makes everyone better at karaoke).
Nightlife - Clubbing
Clubbing is not really a mainstream activity in Japan. Shibuya is probably the most popular place for young people to dance the night away, with clubs scattered in amongst love hotels on the slopes of Dogenzaka.
Many from the international (English-speaking) crowd head to Roppongi, a mixture of the classy and seedy that is often regarded as “dangerous” by many Japanese. It’s definitely not a place to let your guard down completely, but those from overseas may find themselves slightly bemused after such stern warnings.
Every Tokyoite knows their last train home, but this never seems to alleviate the mad panic that ensues as people pay their bill, rush to the station, and jam themselves into packed traincars.
Last trains in Tokyo generally depart around midnight or shortly after. If you miss your last train, you will be waiting a while, as services generally start up again around five o’clock in the morning (so you might as well just go make a night of it!). Keep in mind that this is a big city and taxi rides over longer distances can be quite expensive.
Various websites (Hyperdia, for example) and apps offer detailed Japanese train and bus information in English, though to be honest these days it's pretty hard to beat Google Maps for accuracy and convenience.
Also be sure not to fall asleep on the train! A friend of mine once orbited Tokyo on the Yamanote Line (the “circle line” around central Tokyo) for untold hours until he finally woke up.
Conclusion: What are the best things to do in Tokyo?
As you can see, there is not only a lot to see in Tokyo but so (so!) much to do!
Planning a few activities in advance can add a lot to your trip, but leave yourself open to opportunities for adventure and discovery as well. Finding something new is all part of the fun of visiting this big busy wonderful city!