Tokyo is a really special city and it is widely considered one of the top tourist destinations in the world. What really makes Tokyo one of our favorite places to visit is its unique culture and super friendly people. Japan as a whole is one of the most welcoming countries to visit and is a must-visit for anyone looking to experience great food, a vast and complex history, and friendly and welcoming people. Tokyo is a really unique place that has the traditional elements of Japanese culture and history mixed in with the modern-day metropolis that is Tokyo.
1. Eat some of the freshest Sushi around at the Tsukiji Fish Market
Previously the world’s largest fish market. The indoor fish market part has relocated to another part of the city. But the other element of the fish market that contains all of the stalls and restaurants that are selling some of the freshest fish around is still there.
The market can get super busy, so if possible try and go on a weekday and early. Most places open around 5 am and close at 2 pm, so this is definitely a morning experience. We suggest having a light dinner the night before as it’s advised to visit the market early to beat the crowds. In general markets in Japan are the one place where it’s acceptable to eat while walking.
The market serves literally every type of seafood that you can imagine. Some of the most notable dishes that are served in the market are basically any type of tuna (seared and raw especially), fresh oysters, fish cakes, and generally anything fishy in the market.
For nonfish lovers, there are loads of offerings such as the Tamagoyaki which is effectively an omelet with a little sweetness. Costing around 100 yen it’s a very cheap and delicious snack to start your day. There are also a number of stalls that offer fresh mochi. The mochi is typically filled with a fruit-based filling as well as fruit on top. We highly recommend it.
And if you ever fancy an early morning tipple you can treat yourself to a hot sake at one of the standing bars that are dotted around the market.
2. Take a Cycle around the city
Tokyo and Japan in general is a very bike-friendly city. Unlike cities in North America and Europe, cyclists are actually treated with respect so it’s a very cyclable place. Although cycle lanes are overall common in Tokyo, drivers are typically quite respectful when it comes to cyclists. It’s also acceptable to cycle on the sidewalk in Japan, so if you’re uncomfortable cycling on a busy road that does have a cycle lane just go on the sidewalk.
Another reason why Tokyo is a great city to cycle around is that it’s a mostly flat city which makes the journey a lot more enjoyable as there are minimal hills to encounter.
In preparation for 2020 now 2021 Tokyo Olympics the city began building out a bike-sharing network. Like the Barclay bikes in New York and the Boris bikes in London. The Docomo cycle bikes are located throughout the city and there are 780 ports in total, so you’ll never be too far away from a port. You can purchase daily passes as well as monthly passes. You can register online here or alternatively your IC (Suica, Passmo) transportation card to rent bikes. The IC card is mainly used to take public transport but if you link your IC card to your Docomo Sharecycle account, you can use that to rent bikes. Check out this article on Coto academy which details the whole process.
3. Grab some food at a Convenience Store
7Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart are the three main convenience stores in Tokyo and they offer a wide selection of good quality food. It’s the perfect place to grab a quick meal or a snack on the go and most locations have seating both inside and outside of the store to eat your food.
As eating and walking in Japan is considered a cultural faux paux it’s worth sitting down to enjoy your food. The majority of convenience stores have sitting available as well as facilities such as microwaves and hot water to heat up your food. The other thing to take note of is that Japan in general doesn’t have a huge amount of trash cans around the city. If people have rubbish, they typically bring it home with them or dispose of it once they pass a trash can. In convenience stores there will always be a trash can, so don’t forget to use it once you’ve finished eating. For more things not to do in Japan, check out our article on it.
Some of the most popular food items on offer are Onigiri. It’s similar to Sushi in the way that it’s rice and a savory filling that’s wrapped in seaweed (Nori). It comes in a triangle shape, a perfect snack or light lunch. Tuna mayo is our top recommendation of filling, but some of the other notable flavors are grilled salmon, spicy pollack roe, and even pickled plum.
Bento boxes are also a favorite meal choice. They are efficiently small lunch boxes full of food. There’s a wide selection of offerings to choose from, from Sushi to Spaghetti even picking eaters will find something to suit their needs. Anything with Karaage is my suggestion.
4. Wander around the city with a drink in hand
Although it’s impolite to eat or smoke in public places it is acceptable to drink alcohol in public and on the go. Alcohol, in general, is pretty reasonably priced compared to some European and US cities both in Convenience stores and in restaurants. If you just fancy going for a wander and bringing drinking an ice-cold beer along the way then it’s perfectly acceptable to do so.
In general, there is actually quite a large drinking culture in Japan. Beer and Sake are definitely the most popular drinks. In a lot of Izakayas, they offer all you can eat and all you can drink offerings. These all you can drink offers typically are for a two-hour time slot and cost between $12- $18 USD depending on the Izakaya.
5. Head to a local Izakaya
An Izakaya is a unique experience. Translated Izakaya means “Alcohol Room/Shop” and that’s pretty much a spot-on description for what an Izakaya actually is. It’s effectively an informal Japanese bar that serves a variety of small dishes, beer, and highballs. Dotted all through Japanese cities, they are typically located in small spaces with a handful of seats. They are truly a Japanese experience and must be experienced.
The food served in Izakayas is typically very reasonably priced and super tasty. Yakitori is one of the main types of dishes that are served. This is a skewered chicken that is typically grilled right in front of you on a charcoal fire. Like a lot of restaurants in Tokyo and Japan, the preparation experience is part of the experience as your food is cooked right in front of you. Also typically served are dishes like Kara-age which are small pieces of fried chicken, Edamame, and Sashimi.
In all restaurants in Tokyo once you are seated you will be given an oshibori, which is a small wet towel. This towel is to be used to clean your hands before you eat. It’s a nice tradition and something that is very refreshing if you visit Tokyo in the humid Summer. It is important to note not to use the wet towel on your face or neck. These towels are meant to cleanse your hands before you eat and it’s considered impolite to use anywhere else. So, no matter how humid it uses we suggest refraining from doing so.
As tipping is not accepted in Tokyo, there is typically a small seating charge or otōshidai. An otōshi is also typically served to you on arrival. This a small dish that is normally served to you if you order an alcoholic drink.
6. Experience the Neon Lights of Shinjuku
Shinjuku is definitely the nightlife district of Tokyo and also the red light district. Shinjuku also offers a great shopping experience with a range of designers and western brands. As well as a wide range of dinner and bar options. It’s a great place to wander around in the evening and is definitely a place to visit in your first few days in Tokyo.
The neon lights of Shinjuku are definitely iconic and when you picture Tokyo and the bright lights of the city you are probably picturing Shinjuku. The train station in Shinjuku is the biggest in the world from a traffic perspective. On average 2 million people per day pass through this station.
Tokyo is a haven for arcades and they are prevalent around the city. On a lot of occasions, these arcades span across multiple floors and have different types of games on each for. For example, the first floor could specialize in prize games, the second floor could be music games and the third floor could be dedicated to virtual reality games.
While we are on the topic of arcades and arcades and gaming we cannot include a mention for Pachinko. This loud and flashy looking arcade game is a national obsession.
If you want to get in a great view of the Tokyo skyline and don’t fancy paying for it then visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku. This government building offers panoramic views of the Tokyo skyline from its 45th-floor observation deck and best of all it’s free.
7. Grab a drink in Piss Alley
If you’ve ever seen the famous photos of the narrow streets in Tokyo with a line of tightly packed bars and restaurants it’s most likely that the photo was of Piss Alley. Although the name isn’t extremely appealing. Piss Alley is worth a visit. Aptly named from the clientele
Piss Alley is officially known as Omoide Yokochou is located in the district of Shinjuku, The area was given its nickname of Piss Alley due to the activities of its questionable clientele in the areas an early day. As the area developed and more and more Yakitoris started to open, the bathroom facilities didn’t get developed in the suit. So, some of the clientele resorted to relieving themselves in the street and the local train tracks. No need to worry about that anymore as the frequency of toilets has caught up to the frequency of bars.
Dining and drinking out in Tokyo and Japan, in general, can be quite intimidating for first-time visitors, but we highly recommend that you note down a few phrases that can help you in the ordering process for places that don’t have an English menu or pictures on the menu. When ordering food we recommend that you say “Osusume” which means recommendations. So, if you’re willing to sample the chef’s finest, learn this phrase.
8. Take in a Sumo Wrestling Tournament
Throughout the year the official sumo tournament is held on six occasions. On three of those occasions, the tournament is held at the Ryoguku Kokugikan Stadium which is located in the Yokoami neighborhood of Tokyo. Sumo matches are a spectacle like no other and when you hear the force of two 300 or so pound men running into each other it’s something to be heard.
If you don’t happen to be in Tokyo during the Tournament months then you can still take in a practice session which is still a good experience and runs year-round. Tickets for the practice sessions are available at Govoyagin. Tickets can be purchased online and depending on the stage of the tournament you may be able to buy tickets at the stadium on the day. For more information on tickets and how to purchase please see the information here. Attending practice is not a cheap experience with the prices for attending a 2-hour practice coming in around $85 USD. Tickets for the Sumo Tournament are available on Sumo.pia and typically go on sale a month before the tournaments start.
9. Be mesmerized at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum
This is probably one of the most magical places you can visit in Tokyo, forget Disneyland. This place is truly remarkable. It’s the perfect place to get some Insta snaps that look like they’ve been generated inside a special effects program. Voted by Time magazine as one of the world’s greatest places in 2019, this is a really special experience.
It’s one of the world’s first museums that focuses solely on digital arts and uses an amalgamation of physical objects and projections to create bespoke pieces of digital art. You’ve definitely seen some of the installations scrolling through your Instagram feed in the last year or so.
Probably the most iconic installation is the “Forest of Resonating Lamps” where the use of lamps, Murano glass, LED’s and mirrors illuminate your surroundings in a really unique way. When a person stands near a lamp it will shine and the initial lamp shines it will trigger two lamps near it to shine, thus creating a wall of light as it progresses on. This is really something that words cannot describe. It must be seen to be believed.
10. Visit Tokyo’s most famous Shrines and Temples
A visit to Tokyo is not complete without embracing some of the most historical buildings the city has to offer. Shrines and temples are dotted throughout the city, so no matter where you’re staying there will most likely be one worth visit within walking distance of your accommodation.
One of the most notable temples is the Zojoji Buddhist temple which is located in Shiba Park right next to the Tokyo Tower. One of the most commented aspects of this shrine is the tranquility of the shrine. Considering its location right in the center of the city it’s a truly unique experience with the backdrop of Tokyo Tower. The Zojoji is not only a beautiful sight, but it’s packed full of history and learning opportunities. Buried in the tombs of the temple are 6 of the members of the Tokugawa shoguns. This group defined the modern history of Japan by centralizing the nation’s government and uniting the people of Japan.
Another impressive temple is the Tennoji Temple. Located in Yanaka, Taitō, the temple was erected in 1274. It’s literally oozing with history and is well worth a visit. It’s the oldest Buddhist temple in all of Japan. Its large cemetery is lined with Cherry Blossom trees so early April is definitely the best time to visit this temple. Some honorable mentions of places to visit are the Asakusa-jinja Shrine and the Meiji-Jingu Shrine in Harajuku.
11. Visit an Onsen
Onsen is Japanese for Hot spring and refers to the bathing facilities that people that are traditionally located around hot springs. Similar to the baths and waters that you would associate with Spas in North America and Europe, an Onsen is a place where people go to relax and cleanse their bodies.
Like all elements of any culture, there is an etiquette that should be adhered to when attending an Onsen. In a lot of Onsens, all clothing must be removed before entering the bathing areas. This may seem odd to some tourists, but heck embrace the freedom, you’ll most likely see anybody else at the Onsen ever again in your life.
It’s also important that you cleanse yourself before entering the baths. In most Onsens, you also are provided with or be able to rent towels. You will need both a small and large towel. The large towel is to be left in the changing room for showering after the bathing and the small towel is to be brought with you as you bathe.
An important thing to know about Onsens is that if you have visible tattoos you will not be able to enter an Onsen. In Japanese culture, the tattoo is associated with organized crime. If you have a small tattoo you can cover it with a plaster, but any large Tattoos that can’t be covered won’t be accepted.
12. Go to the Edo-Tokyo Museum
Located in the Ryogoku area of Tokyo. The Edo-Tokyo Museum was built to preserve the Edo culture of years gone by. The museum is housed in a really unique building that almost looks like it’s on stilts.
Edo was the name of the historic city where Tokyo is now located. It’s really in essence a museum dedicated to the history of Edo/Tokyo. It’s a great educational day out and gives visitors an immersive look into the life of yesteryear. A lot of the exhibits are interactive which makes this
There are a number of impressive scale models of Edo and Tokyo through the ages. As well as a number of life-sized replicas of buildings from the time period. The museum is split into two distinct periods, the Edo period and the Meiji period. Throughout these periods the museum delves into the societal aspects, architecture, economic matters, and way of life of the time periods. As the Edo period was one of the forming