Top 5 Things to do in Tokyo
I’m fairly overwhelmed at what to include in my blog post about Tokyo and because we jammed so much into our short 3-day trip, I think it best to highlight our top 5 sights. I must disclose that we are not big on ‘shopping’ while travelling so I haven’t included the amazing Ginza district in this post, nor have I discussed food, because let’s face it, Japanese food deserves a post of its very own!
Read about our Food Tour in Shibuya here: Eating our way through Shibuya
Our Top 5 Things to See & Do in Tokyo
We landed in Tokyo around 8am, an 13-hour flight from London Heathrow. Working out how to take the train to Shibuya was very easy and the airport staff were very quick to offer help buying the tickets and telling us which train to take. In fact, we realised after just a few hours in Tokyo how easy it is to get around the city – and even if you do get lost, Japanese people are the most kind, helpful, generous and amazing individuals I have ever come across in all my years of traveling.
We dropped our bags off at our hotel (too early to check in) and picked up our pocket wifi (pre-ordered online) and headed straight out to explore.
1 – Meiji Shrine
We woke up so early that we thought we might as well make use of the day and visit the Meiji Shine for sunrise. It was only 1 stop on the train from Shibuya. We arrived about 4.30am, the sun was rising and it was a tranquil walk through a huge inner-city park (more like a forest) to the shrine.
The main complex of shrine buildings is located a ten-minute walk from both the southern entrance near Harajuku Station and the northern entrance near Yoyogi Station. Entry into the shrine grounds is marked by a massive torii gate, after which the sights and sounds of the busy city are replaced by a tranquil forest. The approximately 100,000 trees that make up Meiji Jingu’s forest were planted during the shrine’s construction and were donated from regions across the entire country.
At the middle of the forest, Meiji Jingu’s buildings also have an air of tranquillity distinct from the surrounding city. There were no other tourists at the shrine while we visited so it was quite beautiful to watch the local’s coming in and out for their morning prayers in such a peaceful, tranquil place. Visitors to the shrine can take part in typical Shinto activities, such as making offerings at the main hall, buying charms and amulets or writing out one’s wish on an ema.
2 – Asakusa (Sensoji Shrine & Tokyo Skytree)
Ok, so I’m cheating a little bit here as I’m including Sensoji & the Tokyo Skytree as one highlight but as both are in ‘Asakusa’ I think I can overlook that. Asakusa’s main attraction is Sensoji, a very popular Buddhist temple, built in the 7th century. The temple is approached via the Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs for centuries.
The entrance to the shrine is marked with a traditional stone torii, or entrance gate. It was about 8.45am by the time we arrived here so it wasn’t too busy and many of the street vendors had not opened yet. There are a few primary schools outside the temple and it was so cute to see all the young Japanese kids waving through the gates as we approached Sensoji.
The legend says that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Sensoji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple.
After exploring the temple we stopped for mid-morning snack of Meron-pan, a traditional sweet bread, very famous in Japan which was absolutely delicious. We walked past the shops on Nakamise which were all beginning to open and decided to head towards the Skytree – it was really starting to heat up (almost 32degrees by 10am)
About a 40min walk from Sensoji temple, over the river and past the Asahi brewery, we found The Tokyo Skytree. A television broadcasting tower and landmark of Tokyo. With a height of 634 meters (634 can be read as “Musashi”, a historic name of the Tokyo Region), it is the tallest structure in Japan and the second tallest in the world at the time of its completion. The weather was perfect, bright blue skies, no cloud so we were fortunate enough to get panoramic views of Tokyo and could even see Mt Fuji on the horizon. Incredibly high, the city high-rises look tiny from the top so well worth the visit.
3 – Samurai Museum – http://www.samuraimuseum.jp/en/
This may seem like an odd attraction to include as a ‘top sight’ in Tokyo as its a tiny museum. But I didn’t see it advertised anywhere in Tokyo and our hotel concierge didn’t seem to know about it so I thought it would be a nice addition. Located in the vibrant Shinjuku (3 stops away from our hotel in Shibuya), the Samurai Museum was very good. A really interesting, fun and informative place to visit. There are amazing pieces of armor, weapons, and other artifacts with great stories to go with them. Some of them are allowed to be handled by the visitors and even worn. The staff speak English and walked us around the museum. It’s fairly small, took no more than an hour to look around but I’m really pleased we visited if not for anything else but the opportunity to dress in traditional samurai attire for a cool photo op. We actually missed the samurai demonstration but were told we could return any other day free of charge to watch the show.
It was only a 5min walk from Shinjuku station, which is an area not to be missed – it’s everything you want Tokyo to be! Full of bright lights, skyscrapers, loud electronics & cheesy souvenirs.
4- Tsukiji Fish Market
Fish is big business in Japan, and the Tsukiji Fish Market on Tokyo’s lower east side is where it all happens. Everyone from chefs of 5-star sushi restaurants to homemakers visit this market daily to find the freshest fish around.
You definitely want to visit the market early in the day if you hope to get a glimpse of the action at Japan’s most famous fish market. We arrived just past noon and most of the inner market was already closed, however, the outer market was still in full swing and offered plenty of food options. We took advantage of the cheap small samples and tried a variety of seafood – delicious!
If I return to Tokyo, I think I would make the effort to attend the famous 3am Tuna Auction at Tsukiji as the reviews are fantastic. I think it would be a true Japanese experience.
Shibuya is the district with everything. Cutting-edge fashion boutiques, world-class nightclubs, unbeatable record shops, hip bars, dining options ranging from fancy washoku eateries to dirt-cheap diners – this was in part why we decided to base ourselves out of this suberb. It hosts the famous Shibuya Crossing -rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan). Perhaps nowhere else says ‘Welcome to Tokyo’ better than this. Hundreds of people – and at peak times said to be over 1000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions at once yet still managing to dodge each other with a practiced, nonchalant agility. We were told about a hypnotic view over the crossing from the Starbucks on the 2nd floor of the Q-front building but we were glad to see that we actually had a perfect view from our hotel’s glass lift
A cool spot in Shibuya which seemed ‘off-the-beaten-track’ to us was the ramshackle street of Nonbei Yokocho (‘Drunkard’s Alley’) where there are rows of tiny bars – some so small that they only fit four or five people at a time. We wandered down here at the very end of our Shibuya Food Tour. The street once hosted the Tokyu railway corporation’s head office, but things here changed drastically in the early postwar years. Dating back to the early 1950s, popular yakitori shops and similar eateries rule the alley. One of the most popular is Okasan (‘mother’), a bare-bones joint that’s been serving hungry patrons for three generations.