The Tokyo Guide
Like any world-class international epicenter of culture, urbanity, and modernity, you can never complete Tokyo. It’s too much—38 million people swarming in and out of a city that lives both in the past and the future at the same time is no place for limits. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, however, it’s that everything you do and see in Tokyo will be extremely Tokyo—a set of experiences distinct from almost any other place in the world. So relax a bit; take off on a walk without really knowing where you’re going. If you follow the suggestions mentioned below, you can’t go wrong. And if you get lost, well, lucky you.
PSA: Tokyo’s public transport is incredible, but for those on foot, it’s worth noting many of the streets don’t have names. To navigate the city, a map (rest assured, Japanese maps are extremely detailed) or making sure your phone is hooked up with Wi-Fi is essential.
Yayoi Kusama Museum107 Bentencho, Shinjuku | 81.3.5273.1778
This new museum—it opened in the fall of 2017—is dedicated to works of Yayoi Kusama, perhaps the most famous living artist in Japan. Kusama is known for her “infinity rooms,” which play with space and perspective in ways that are both delightful and disorienting. Some of those are on display in this new five-story building in Shinjuku, as are many of Kusama’s polka-dotted paintings, which come from a history of hallucinations Kusama says she has experienced since she was ten years old. You must buy tickets online in advance, and only fifty people are allowed in the museum for a ninety-minute session, so plan accordingly. To be frank, few museums in Tokyo are worth the trip, but this one most certainly is.
Yoyogi Koen2-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya | 81.3.3469.6081
Yoyogi is Tokyo’s Central Park. Go here on a sunny Sunday and you will see the city on full display: musicians, actors, dancers, parties, weddings, etc. In the spring, the park explodes with cherry blossoms; in fall, it radiates the warm yellow glow of its gingko trees. Ethnic festivals run throughout the year, and a flea market is held in the summer. The park is adjacent to Meiji Shrine, itself a grand public space that contains a forest in the middle of the city and a shrine to Emperor Meiji, the great-grandfather of the country’s current emperor.Images courtesy of tokyo-park.or.jp.
Senso-ji TempleAsakusa | +81.3.3842.0181
This Buddhist temple is the oldest in Tokyo and is dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of Mercy. Situated near the Sumida River, the temple is one of Tokyo’s most popular sites. Enter through the Thunder Gate and you’ll encounter a street of vendors selling souvenirs like yukatas, fans, and local snacks. That path will lead you to the inner gate, Hozomon Gate. Past that is the temple itself. Be sure to go inside and look up—some of the most impressive artwork is on the ceiling.
Shibuya Crossing150-8010, Shibuya
You’ve seen this. It’s that crazy four-way intersection that people all cross at one time. Shibuya is a little like Times Square—not a place to spend a ton of time in, but everyone should see it at least once. Said to be the busiest intersection in the world, as many as 1,000 people will cross at the same time. For an aerial view, go to the second floor of the Shibuya train station, find the Myth of Tomorrow mural, and look out at the intersection from there. Best time to go: evening, when Shibuya’s neon is at full blast.
21_21 Design SightAkasaka | +81.3.3475.2121
A collaboration between two titans of Japanese design, architect Tadao Ando and designer Issey Miyake, 21_21 Design Sight is a museum focused on the design of the everyday. Exhibits include an examination of the work of city photographer William Klein, the history of writing implements, and the use of handmade khadi fabric in India. The building itself is also a masterpiece of design, with a sloping roof that reflects both Ando’s and Miyake’s work in architecture and fashion.
Kyu Asakura House29-20 Sarugakucho, Shibuya | 81.3.3476.1021
Nearly one hundred years old, the Asakura house is like a time machine in the otherwise modern and luxurious Daikanyama neighborhood where it resides. Built for a local politician, the home survived earthquakes and Allied bombing to remain a singular example of Taisho-era architecture. Equal to the eleven rooms spread out over two floors are the gardens behind the residence, with stone paths, bonsai trees, and the best of Japanese garden design.
Nezu Museum107-0062, Minami-Aoyama | +81.3.3400.2536
Omotesando is a popular and upscale shopping district, but it’s also home to one of the great collections of Asian antiquities in Japan. The Nezu Museum was designed by Kengu Kuma, who is currently building Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium for the 2020 Summer Games. The collection of art and artifacts from the past 2000 years is unparalleled in Asia and is matched by the serenity of Kuma’s architecture. Both inside and out, the traditions and aesthetics of a Japanese tea service abound, pulling you out of the modern shopping-centric vibes of Omotesdando and delivering you to an elevated, more peaceful plane.
Inokashira Onshi ParkMusashino | +81.422.47.6900
Here you can paddle swan boats around the lake, as well as visit the Inokashira Park Zoo. But perhaps the highlight of this suburban oasis is the Ghibli Museum, a repository of images and ideas from Hiyao Miyazaki, Ghibli’s founder and the creator of such animated masterpieces as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro.
MariCar1-23-15, Shinagawa | +81.80.8899.8899
Ever just wish you were Mario, Yoshi, or Princess Peach, racing around Tokyo in your own, real-life Mario Kart? Tokyo will provide. Or, rather, MariCar will, with costumes from the famous Nintendo game as well as a random assortment of other identities. (Batman, anyone?) So long as you have an International Driving Permit, you can take the wheel of one of the company’s gas-powered go-karts and attack the streets of Tokyo. There may be nothing more exhilarating than sitting inches above the ground as you race through Shibuya and Akihabara while wearing the costume of a mustachioed Italian plumber.
Meiji Shrine1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya | +81.3.3379.5511
A quick cab ride brings you to the top of the winding avenue leading up to the Meiji Shrine gate, or torii (passing through the gate marks the transition from the ordinary to the sacred). Dedicated to the spirit of the first emperor of modern Japan, Meiji, and his empress consort, Shoken, the shrine is set in a forest of 10,000 evergreens. Take part in the Shinto ritual of writing your wishes and prayers on one of the ema plaques hanging on the walls, where it is believed the gods of the shrine will receive them. (Though we can’t promise that they’ll listen.)
Imperial Palace1-1, Chiyoda | +81.3.3213.1111
The Imperial Palace is set on the site of the old Edo castle (the Edo government ruled Japan for 300 years), and the current emperor and his family actually live here, so you can’t physically enter the structure. You can, however, take tours around the lush gardens, moats, and bridges that surround it. The original palace, built in 1888, was obliterated during WWII, but it’s been rebuilt as an almost exact replica of what stood before. Tours are in both Japanese and English, and if you happen to be in town on December 23 or January 2, book in fast—those are the only two days of the year visitors are permitted to enter the inner palace grounds.
Tsukiji Fish Market5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chūō | +81.3.3542.1111
Arrive around 5 a.m. if you want to watch all the haggling between buyers and sellers, the chefs scoping out the best catch, and the auctions in which a bluefin tuna may go for thousands of dollars. (The sheer volume of fish here will leave you wondering how any are left in the ocean—best to avoid if you get queasy.) The seafood is unlike anything you’ve seen before: buckets of prehistoric-looking sea snails alongside tanks of crab and lobsters the size of well-fed house cats. Indulge in multiple sushi breakfasts at the bars nestled within the market (Sushi Dai is the best).
Tokyo by Night Train
Take a nighttime train ride on the Yurikamome line, from Shimbashi Station toward Toyosu. The trains are remote-controlled, so you can stand right at the front and get a perfect view of Tokyo’s “city of the future” vibe as it crosses Rainbow Bridge and continues on to young-people funplex Odaiba Island. Get on the right side of the train and look for the Odaiba Statue of Liberty, a replica of the one that stands in New York Harbor.
Kabukicho is the red-light district of Tokyo. It’s best to just stumble around here and head to the bottom of the hill. Ignore the sidewalk barkers and bring a lot of cash (prices have a way of expanding). You needn’t engage in anything objectionable: You can cruise pachinko parlors, see robot dance shows, visit the Samurai Museum, and see the Hanazono Shinto Shrine. If you get hungry, there are snacks galore on Omoide Yokocho, or “Piss Alley.” You’d be well-advised to drink beer throughout this entire visit.