When you have a sprawling city bursting with people and whirling with bright new trends, there’s always some fresh experience waiting around the corner. This is certainly one of the most intriguing elements of Tokyo; given the city’s incredibly storied past combined with its visionary bent, the cultural surprises are unique and insightful. It’s simply impossible to be bored here.
Tradition runs deep in Tokyo, but there’s a lot of reinvention beneath the cherry blossoms and around the kabuki stage. From streets painted with Manga and flickering with lantern-lit stands to sleek shopping districts and cutting-edge restaurants, everything you could ask for is right here. These spots will serve as an excellent introduction.
1. Shibuya Crossing
It’s practically a rite of passage for any shopper worth their salt on the streets of Tokyo: a bewildering sea of people, coming from all angles, spilling into the streets, and somehow not trampling each other as they cross the intersection at Shibuya Station. There can be over a thousand people shuffling across at every light change, which sounds a bit overwhelming – and it is. Luckily, there are plenty of stores where you can pop in to get out of the crowd (and a really cool view of the spectacle), but even if you find yourself in the thick of it, the experience is surprisingly orderly.
Kabuki theatre is an important part of Japanese culture, and if you have a chance to see a performance, don’t pass it up. Kabuki-za is one of the best spots to catch a show, but it can be tricky to do so on the fly; look ahead to which shows are playing, how long each performance is (some are up to four hours), and whether tickets are available. However, simply gazing up at the extravagant façade of Kabuki-za will give you a taste of the careful attention to detail and the complexities within this theatrical tradition.
3. Tsukiji Market
The jewel of Tokyo’s harbor – perhaps of the city itself – is the immense indoor/outdoor fish market that celebrates Japan’s love and respect for seafood. If you’re lucky enough to have a kitchen at your disposal (a special luxury in tightly-packed apartments of Tokyo), you can show up at sunrise to pick up a choice piece of fish along with the chefs, shop owners, and smaller market vendors. However, eating at the site is not only possible, it’s practically inevitable: wooden stands set up along all the narrow alleys to sell everything from sushi to oysters to fried seafood delicacies. Stop into one of the famed sushi restaurants at lunchtime, and it’s very possible you’ll be treated to the freshest, tastiest, most memorable sushi feast of your life.
4. Tokyo Hands
You think you know department stores? You haven’t met Tokyo Hands. This is a monstrous, towering, kaleidoscopic feat of consumerism, a multitude of floors divided into distinct (and distinctly Japanese) departments. There is an entire department dedicated to party supplies, and another filled only with model building and other tiny crafting supplies. Whether you’re in the market for handmade luggage, delicate Japanese stationary, bewildering knick-knacks, or any other home or personal item, you will likely find it if you take some time to navigate the maze of rooms. It’s worth a visit, even if you’re not looking to shop.
5. 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan
Venture between the parking lots and under the JR train tracks at the boundary of Electric Town, and you’ll run into a gaggle of artisans crafting and selling their wares in a little arrangement of workshops. It’s the last place you would think to look for traditional leather and paper masterpieces, but you’ll find them here, next to jewelry shops, pottery stores, and a couple of cafes that are as quirky as their location. If you’re after an authentic souvenir, this is most certainly a better choice than any given shopping mall.
6. Tokyo National Museum
This monumental gallery holds the world’s largest collection of Japanese art, from ancient samurai swords to the finest silk cloth and everything in between. Need more reason to visit? The Archeological Gallery holds a huge array of precious treasures from Japan’s prehistoric periods, and if you time your visit right, you’ll be treated to tea in the beautifully manicured garden. The building is large, and the amount of extraordinary pieces is dizzying, but you can always limit your visit to the impressive Honkan (main gallery) if you’re short on time.
7. Hama-rikyū Onshi-teien
In a city bursting at the seams with skyscrapers, shopping malls, and people, it’s hard to imagine that there would be any room for sprawling green spaces. This is one of the rare spots within the concrete jungle that you can see hundred-year-old trees stretching across idyllic green lawn and a peaceful duck pond to round out the scene. The traditional tea room on the island in the pond is a charming fixture in this urban garden, and the best part is, you’re only a stone’s throw from all the amenities of the city center.
Tokyo is not only a very populated city, it’s also geographically huge, so don’t expect to walk to every corner during your visit. You’ll be pleased to find that each neighbourhood has its very own character, and it’s worth taking the train to explore a selection of communities (some are louder and flashier than others!) English is not widely spoken, but the people are sweet and generous, making this a big city culture-shock a lot easier to handle.