Sometimes chaotic and loud, other times calm and relaxed, Japan's capital, Tokyo, fascinates with numerous contrasts. Here, one highlight follows the next, adding up surprise after surprise. Japan's capital is a dazzling metropolis with millions of people, offering something for every taste, from millennia-old history to ultra-modern culture.
Tokyo is located on the Japanese island of Honshū and is a huge metropolis with 9.5 million inhabitants occupying 622 square kilometers. In comparison, Dallas is around 993 square kilometers, but only 1.2 million inhabitants. Despite the size and population density, Tokyo is referred to as “the most peaceful metropolis in the world” because drivers tend to use the highways outside of the city. You will likely see more cyclists or hybrid cars in Tokyo, so loud engine noises are hardly a problem here. You will rarely find large crowds in Tokyo either. Instead, the city is famous for order and cleanliness, making a city trip through the metropolis a stress-free pleasure. And yet, you immerse yourself in an urban jungle consisting of huge skyscrapers, a sea of lights, and gigantic shopping malls. While Tokyo shows all the signs of a modern megacity, you should also be able to immerse yourself in historical Japan – Buddhist temples, imperial palaces, or Japanese gardens exude a contrasting charm that brings you closer to the traditional side of Tokyo.
Whether shopping, art, nature, or nightlife – Tokyo has a very personal adventure for every taste in one of the largest cities in the world. Tokyo is different, and yet the expected culture shock often fails to materialize. The best thing to do is to convince yourself of this.
Many sights and excursion destinations await in Tokyo, which is why you should definitely spend a little more time when sightseeing, to get to know as much as you can from all the facets of the city. There’s no place for hectic here.
The Shibuya district is arguably the most colorful, flashy, and hip of the city’s 23 districts. It is mainly young Japanese who pass the time in coffee shops, second-hand shops, or clubs. However, the Shibuya district is best known for one of the world’s most famous intersections: the Shibuya intersection. If the traffic light turns green here, thousands of people move from one side of the street to the other. Surrounded by colorful billboards and huge skyscrapers, you will definitely get a taste of the big city as you cross the Shibuya intersection. If the hustle and bustle at the intersection are too wild for you, you should visit the nearby department store with Starbucks. From the first floor, you have a great view of the impressive intersection – especially in the evening when the district turns into a colorful sea of lights.
Then stroll a little through the Shibuya district, filled with extravagant stores and people. Discover the memorial of Hachiko, the dog who waited for his master at Shibuya Station until his death and whose touching story you may know from the blockbuster film. In the evening, the district really comes to life and invites you to turn night into day – whether drinks in a bar, dancing in the club, or exploring the red light district is up to you.
If you want to check the traditional Tokyo, you should visit one of the city’s many temples. The best known is probably the Sensō-Ji Temple, located in the oldest quarter of the city, the Asakusa district. It makes a real contrast to the Shibuya district, and if you stroll through the narrow lantern-lit alleys, you will feel like you are in another world.
As the oldest Buddhist temple, the Sensō-Ji Temple has been an oasis of calm since the year 628, with the idyllic temple complexes full of shrines, archways, and statues. Make your way along imposing archways, looking at traditional pagodas, to discover the numerous Buddhist relics. In the temple’s Hondo main hall, you can find the Asakusa-jinja shrine, which has an enormous significance for the Japanese Buddhist belief and was erected to honor temple-builders. Then the traditional shopping street Nakamise-Dori attracts small souvenir shops where you can buy traditional handicrafts.
Tsukiji fish market
Tsukiji is the largest fish market globally, and even if you are not a fish lover, you should not miss the hustle and bustle. Whether oysters, mussels, or shrimp – there is everything your culinary heart desires. In addition to the 2,000 tons of freshly caught fish products sold here every day, there are also exotic fruits and regional vegetables. You can enjoy Asian specialties in numerous restaurants hidden under the roofs of the market hall.
Tokyo Skytree is the city’s television tower and stands out from a height of 634 meters. This makes it one of the tallest buildings in the world. Two viewing platforms are available, one at the height of 350 meters and a second at 450 meters. From up here, you have a fabulous view over Tokyo and, in a day with good visibility, you can even see Mount Fuji. Some exciting leisure activities await you at the foot of the tower.
Bear in mind: a trip to the top of the Tokyo Skytree is quite expensive. If you want to enjoy equally fascinating panoramas over Tokyo, easier on your holiday budget, these are the alternatives:
- Roppongi Hills Mori Tower
- Tokyo City View Observation Deck
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
- Tokyo Tower
Electric Town Akihabara
You probably wonder why a cluster of electronics shops should be a landmark in Tokyo, but you will understand once you get there. This area is all about electronics, technology, and video games. In fact, there is even a Japanese subculture that specializes in electronic gadgets, the otakus. If you are into the latest technologies or old retro consoles, you are spot-on in the Electric Town Akihabara. Mangas and animes are quickly finding their way into the colorful district as well.
Once you’ve got hold of your new acquisition, you can visit one of the numerous cafés – not only for the coffee and cake but also with unusual details. Notice the cute tigers in the cat café and the maid-style waitresses serving you in the Maid Café, a cosplay restaurant.
Whether shopping or sightseeing – both make your feet tired after a while, so a visit to the park is a welcome change during your Tokyo trip. Some places, like the picturesque Ueno Park, invite you to take a relaxing break. In addition to the beautiful sights, like the exotic plant species, an idyllic lake, and small temples, you can also learn more about the Japanese culture. Amidst the green area are the Tokyo National Museum, the Ueno Royal Museum, and the National Museum of Nature and Science.
The oldest zoo in Japan, the Ueno Zoo, is also located in the gigantic park and invites you for exciting animal observations paired with cozy walks. However, Ueno Park is not the only green area of the metropolis. Here are some alternatives:
- Shibarikyu Park
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
- Sumida Park
- Hamarikyu Park
- Eastern Gardens of the Imperial Palace
- Digital Art Museum
One of the most modern museums is the Digital Art Museum, which skillfully manages to bring technology and art into harmony. On an area of 10,000 square meters, you will be able to witness numerous art animations. Even your own works of art can become part of the exhibition and enchant other visitors as scanned animations. At the end of an interesting museum visit, offer yourself a treat in the tea house, and let yourself be surprised.
Do you fancy a big city adventure in one of the most diverse metropolises in the world? Then you should definitely take a vacation in Tokyo. But bear in mind that a long-haul trip requires sufficient planning. For this reason, we would like to provide you with some helpful travel tips in advance.
Ideal travel time
Tokyo awaits you with scorching and humid summers, which is why a sightseeing tour in the summer months can be very exhausting. Therefore you should try going during the spring, not only for the mild average temperatures of around 20 degrees but also because there’s close to no rain. At the end of January, the city gradually wraps itself in soft pink, and in the middle of the travel month of March, cherry-trees are in full bloom. During the cherry blossom season, Tokyo displays the most beautiful splendor – long walks through the city’s parks will be unforgettable experiences.
Tokyo has two airports: Haneda and Narita, which are served from the USA and other major cities worldwide. If you book a direct flight from the US, you can reach the Japanese capital within 11-13 hours of a long haul, depending on your departure location – West or East coast, faster from Los Angeles, for example. If you are not in a hurry, you should look for a suitable one-stop flight because it may be cheaper than direct flights.
Haneda Airport is a little closer to the city center, but of course, you can easily get to the city from either airport using the express train or the airport bus. While you need about 40 minutes from Haneda, the distance between Narita and downtown Tokyo will keep you on the road for about one hour. For Americans, if your journey does not last longer than 90 days, you should not worry about a visa.
Out and about in Tokyo
If you want to get around Tokyo, all you need to do is familiarize yourself with the subway network. However, there are two different metro providers in Tokyo: the urban Toei Subway and the private Tokyo Metro. It is best to find out about ticket prices and stations at an information desk because you cannot always find the stops’ English names on the subway’s maps. Once you have bought the right ticket, all you have to do is push it through the counter at the control gate and pull it out on the other side after you have gone through it.
When using the subway, you should orient yourself using the lines’ colors, memorize the terminal number. Look at the digital display until you have reached your station. If all of this doesn’t work from the first day, you shouldn’t despair – it is a normal part of your Tokyo adventure.
Japanese food is full of surprises, so keep an open mind when choosing the typical local culinary delights. Of course, the menu should include sushi at least once. It is the “best sushi in the world.” However, there is more to Japan’s fine dining than raw fish. Kobe beef, fresh seafood, and freshly caught lobster may also end up on your plate here.
The numerous street food stalls pamper you with ramen noodle soup, Tonkatsu schnitzel, rice, or noodles. Sake, the Japanese national drink made of rice, will help you toast for an unforgettable city trip.
Hotels & accommodations
Tokyo is an expensive place, but hotels cover all price ranges, offering numerous alternatives, some easier on your holiday budget. If an inexpensive capsule hotel is too tight for you, you should look out for a minshuku. The family-run guesthouses are comparable to our Bed and Breakfast and are cheaper. The clear benefits of staying in a minshuku are the insider tips from the operators.
When booking, make sure you have a subway station nearby and get a non-smoking room. If you are in for space, you should also check the room size – most of the rooms in Tokyo are tiny. Digging a bit deeper in your pockets, you can try luxurious hotels with spas and rooftop bars.
- Shibuya: S. - Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic
- Sensō-ji, Tokyo: so005 - Pixabay
- Skytree: Kakidai - Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
- Festival in Ueno Park: Guilhem Vellut - Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic
- Flower bloom in Tokyo: Yoshikazu TAKADA - Wikimedia | CC BY 2.0 Generic
- Japanese Kobe beef: City Foodsters | CC BY 2.0 Generic
- Japan capital: Benh LIEU SONG - Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic