With a population of over 13 million people, it’s easy to get lost in the overwhelming bustle of Tokyo. Exploring the city leads to a profound discovery of history and culture seamlessly fused with modern design and technology. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a guide to help you make the most of your visit to one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Getting to the Tsukiji Market is easy, as it lies in central Tokyo and is only a five minute walk from the Tsukiji Subway Station. Inside the market, you’ll find sushi restaurants, grocers, and retail shops, showcasing some of the freshest fish in the city. A rule of thumb is to get there early to ensure what you’re looking for will still be available. Arriving at the crack of dawn will also allow you to watch the thrilling wholesale auctions that take place each morning.
If you can imagine an intersection busier than Times Square, Shibuya Crossing would be it. Located directly next to Shibuya Station, the crossing sees thousands of people pour into the intersection from all directions at peak times, creating one massive, pulsing crowd. To watch the foot-traffic from above, try to grab a seat at the Starbucks on the 2nd floor of the Q-front building. Then, to see a contrasting, empty view of the crossing, come back late at night after the last trains have stopped running.
Undeniably one of the most attractive parks in the city, Ueno Park is packed full of charm and cherry trees. There are street vendors, a handful of museums (Tokyo National Museum and Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, to name a few), a number of temples (such as Kan’eiji Temple and Jōmyōji Temple), the International Library of Children’s Literature, and even a zoo. Choosing between the myriad options may be the worst aspect of the park, but at least getting there is pretty simple, as the bullet train stops across the street at Ueno Station.
When in Japan, check out Ryōgoku Kokugikan, a stadium dedicated to showcasing the sport of sumo wrestling. Japan is currently the only country in the world where the sport is practiced professionally, and the 11,000-seat facility is sure to put on a good show. Located in the Yokoami neighborhood, the stadium consistently fills with fans who take in the historic type of duel that dates back to old Shinto rituals.
Dating back to the 17th century, the dance-drama theatrics of Kabuki are a long-standing staple of Japanese culture. Today, Tokyo’s premiere location for productions is the Kabuki-za Theatre, which seats roughy 2,000 people and sells tickets for entire plays, as well as individual acts. Those wanting to dive deeper into the history of Japanese culture should place the pre-Edo-style theatre high on their itinerary.
Those looking for an authentic Japanese experience need to visit the neighborhood of Fukagawa where, five times a day, the Goma fire purification ritual takes place. Sticks of cedar are lit to symbolize human desire wilting to the wisdom of Buddha, while participants’ clothing is moved through the smoke. Traditional drums are beat continually throughout the ritual, adding to the enchantment of the ceremony.
The Fukagawa neighborhood is also home to the Kiyosumi Garden, a tranquil spot where visitors can stroll through one of the many green spaces that punctuate Tokyo’s busiest pockets. Since 1885, the garden has offered residents and visitors a place of refuge, most notably during the destructive earthquake of 1923. Today, the garden is filled with quiet walkways, thousands of trees, and a fish-filled pond that takes up much of the garden.
Against the hulking city skyline is a highlight of the shining metropolis: the Rainbow Bridge, a mile-long suspension bridge flanked by pedestrian walkways. Visit the bridge after sundown, when the lights that line the structure turn on and flicker off of the Tokyo Bay below. Note that the bridge’s pedestrian walkways are closed every third Monday, so plan accordingly.
Another culturally enriching experience awaits you at HiSUi Tokyo. To immerse yourself even further, slip into some traditional garb, grab a samurai sword, and see if you have any moves! Once you’ve worked up a sweat, relax by sipping your way through a traditional tea ceremony and finish by trying your hand at Japanese calligraphy.
Sumida Park isn’t the biggest or busiest park in Tokyo, but its location — perfectly situated on both sides of the Sumida River — makes it a favorite among travelers. The area is known for its relaxing atmosphere and great views of the Tokyo Skytree. Best of all: the park’s sprawling grounds are home to over 600 cherry trees, making it a natural host for the annual Bokutei Cherry Blossom Festival.
Imperial Palace Grounds
Along with the East Garden and Kokyo Gaien National Park, the Imperial Palace helps form one of the largest green spaces in the city. The area is littered with monuments and historical landmarks for visitors to explore. Some of the highlights (the complete list is extremely long) include the Imperial Palace itself (where the emperor of Japan lives), the Seimon Ironbridge, the Edo Castle Ruins, and the National Museum of Modern Art, although if you’re trying to decide where to go, it might be easier to just close your eyes and point to a spot on the map.
Photo by Tor Arne Hotvedt