Shibuya Crossing: At times Tokyo will loom over you, a dense wall of concrete and neon that rises far into the sky. If you're on your own and exploring, it's inevitable that you will get a little lost. It's best to accept and embrace this rather than fight against it. There is no better way to introduce yourself to Tokyo than by exiting the Hachiko gate of Shibuya station in west Tokyo and just letting yourself swim through the sea of people all making their way through the famous scramble crossing. Go at night when the air is electric, people are dressed to impress and the mad dance is at its finest.
Harajuku and Meiji-jingu: A very doable afternoon excursion is to meander the streets of Harajuku and wind up at the Meiji-jingu, a great shrine in the heart of Tokyo. Harajuku is the anchor of trendy urban fashion and outrageous costume play -- a great place to gawk. The ultra-dense Takeashita Road is a prime example of Tokyo-style urban crush and commerce. Just across the street, the Meiji shrine offers a contrast to the wild commerce at its doorstep. Its dusty gravel boulevard is lined by an evergreen forest of 120,000 ancient trees donated from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established in 1920. An enormous torii gate leads the way into the shrine itself. The shrine honors Emperor Meiji, who reopened the country to foreign relations and laid the foundations for Japan as it is today.
Ginza: Glossy Ginza is the place to pick up a Rolex or dine in luxury. Built by men seeking power and fortune and then consummately taken over by their wives, Ginza is home to pricey cafes filled with women dressed as if they're made of money. For the casual passerby, it might be fun to see all the high-end fashion, but if you're not planning to add a Chanel handbag to your wardrobe, don't plan on spending too much time here. Two fun and free spots to visit in Ginza are the Sony Showroom and the Apple Store, both of which rise high into the neon sky and offer lots of hands-on gadgetry to tinker with. You can catch an affordable kabuki performance at the newly reconstructed Ginza Kabuki-za theater.
Odaiba: A visit to Odaiba will bring to life all of your ultra-high-tech visions of modern Tokyo. The most practical way to get to the manmade island floating in Tokyo Bay is to ride the automated Yurikamome monorail (great views!). The futuristic centerpiece of the island is the Fuji Television Building, a piece of architecture so distinct that all others will pale in comparison. Be sure to visit the observation deck. Attractions in Odaiba's Palette Town district include one of the world's largest Ferris wheels, an enormous Toyota showroom called MegaWeb, Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and a Venice-themed shopping mall.
City Parks: If you judge a city by the quality of its parks, then Tokyo will rank at the top of the class. For a place filled with so much concrete and neon, there is a remarkable amount of green space in the city. Tokyoites flock to the city's parks, as they're a great respite to the crammed railways and close-quartered living space that residents must contend with daily.
Any day is a fine one to visit Yoyogi Park, but it's is at its best on Sundays, when it's filled with clubs and groups of people practicing just about every skill imaginable -- including sword fighting, extreme bartending and break dancing. Also on Sundays the park's resident rockabilly gang, clad in leather and rocking ostentatious coiffures, congregates at the east entrance and jams out to 50's American pop.
It's worth the entrance fee for a chance to stroll through the immaculately maintained gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen, arguably the most beautiful park in Tokyo. The garden area of the park offers visitors three distinct garden styles: Japanese traditional, French formal and English landscape.
One of the most desirable areas to live in Tokyo is called Kichijoji, and its proximity to the great Inokashira Park undoubtedly adds to that reputation. The park is built around a large lake surrounded by extensive walking paths. All fashions of street performer entertain passersby. Inokashira Park is a great place to take in the beautiful colors of autumn and the famed cherry blossoms in the springtime. Also of note in the park is the Ghibli Museum, which features artwork from the famed animation house Studio Ghibli. Fans of the films "Spirited Away," "Ponyo," "Princess Mononoke" or any of the other Ghibli works will enjoy a stroll through the museum, even though all the signs are in Japanese.
Ueno itself is rather mundane neighborhood in east Tokyo and most people come through only as a point of transit. But do know that just outside Ueno station there is a huge park featuring a zoo, several important museums and vast cherry tree-lined boulevards. So if you're passing through the station, consider exiting to give Ueno Park a wander.
Tsukiji: Larger than 43 football fields and processing or handling an astonishing one of every five fish caught on the planet, Tsukiji Market rightfully holds its place as the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. While it is arguably the most famous tourist destination in Tokyo, do ensure that you are in a proper state of mind before going. Foreign tourists have given themselves a bad reputation at Tsukiji. (Imagine a drunk British man licking the head of a tuna on auction and you'll be on the right track.) Don't forget that Tsukiji is a workplace, not an attraction built for tourists, and visitors are no longer allowed in the auction area. If you do decide to visit, plan on making a very early start to your day. Tsukiji is busiest between 5 and 8 a.m.
Sumo: If you are in Tokyo during one of the three grand tournaments -- held in January, May and September -- definitely allow time in your itinerary for some sumo. The 15-day tournaments are all-day affairs but tend to be most exciting in the evenings when the champions have their bouts. Securing tickets for general admission to the Ryogoku Kokugikan (where the Tokyo bouts are held) is easy and affordable. For better seats, plan your schedule well in advance, as ring-side and box seating sell out quickly. Also in the area of the Ryogoku are numerous chanko-nabe restaurants operated by retired sumo stars. Chanko-nabe is a protein-rich stew eaten by sumo wrestlers to help them pack on the pounds. Even if you're in Tokyo when no matches are scheduled, your chances of rubbing elbows with sumo types are high if you eat at one of these restaurants.
Tokyo Sky Tree/Tokyo Tower: Though it only opened to the public in May 2012, Tokyo Sky Tree has been a prominent sight in Tokyo for the past many years. Topping out at 2,080 feet, it is currently the tallest building in Japan and the tallest tower in the world. Next door you'll find Skytree Town with numerous shops, restaurants, an aquarium and a planetarium. While Tokyo Sky Tree also houses an observation deck and restaurant, the Sky Tree's main function is broadcasting. The same is true for the Tree's now over-shadowed older brother, the Tokyo Tower. While only half as tall, Tokyo Tower will also gladly welcome you into its upper strata. Go at night, when you can watch the city glow from above.
Yokohama: There is no iconic photograph of the Tokyo skyline, for the entire city is a vast sea of skyscrapers. If you're looking for that picture-perfect image, then head to Yokohama, an easy 30-minute train ride from central Tokyo. Yokohama's harborside development, Minato Mirai 21, will provide photobugs with plenty of great shots featuring the Landmark Tower, the sail-shaped Intercontinental Grand Hotel and the Cosmo Clock 21. Many folks go to Yokohama for the views, and plenty of bars and restaurants are perfectly situated to provide patrons with a picturesque evening. Other draws include a rather famous Chinatown, plenty of brand-name shopping and a quaint amusement park.
Kamakura: Kamakura has a rich and complex political history that has filled volumes of scholarly text, but its main draw today is its many temples and shrines of great significance, all of which are located relatively close together. Only about an hour's train ride from central Tokyo, Kamakura is an easy day trip from the city. Highlights include several important Zen temples and Shinto shrines, a gigantic sitting Buddha, and a lovely (if crowd-prone) beach.
Nikko: Perhaps the most popular day trip from Tokyo is a visit to the small city of Nikko, which lies at the foot of Nikko National Park in Tochigi Prefecture. Tokugawa Ieyasu, arguably the most important ruler in Japanese history, is entombed within the Toshogu shrine. Originally just a simple mausoleum, the Toshogu was enlarged to the lavishly decorated shrine complex with more than a dozen Shinto and Buddhist structures. Some may find Toshogu to be gaudy and overcrowded. Fear not; a trip to the Nikko National Park just up the hill will reward you with spectacular views of waterfalls, idyllic marshlands, hiking trails and a hot spring resort.
Tokyo DisneySea: Plenty of countries can offer DisneyLand, but only Japan can offer DisneySea. The nautical-themed Disney resort is the most expensive theme park ever built, with an astonishing price tag of more than $4 billion. You can see where all that money went, down to the most minute detail; everything inside DisneySea is beautifully crafted and immaculately maintained. DisneySea and Disneyland can both be found at the Tokyo Disney resort in Chiba, less than an hour's train ride from central Tokyo.
- Sleep Like a Buddha on Mt. Koya
- Learn Cultural Traditions in Kyoto
- Live Longer with Okinawa's Cuisine
- See Where Sumo Wrestlers Train
- Bike from Hiroshima to Shikoku
- Visit Off-the-Beaten-Path Matsue
- Watch a Parade of Costumes
- Hike the Nakasendo Highway
- Feast on a Kaiseki Meal
- See Cutting-Edge Art on Naoshima
- Soak in a Hot Spring Bath
- Hang Out in Wacky Akihabara
Japan Lodging: Where to Stay in Japan
Getting Around Japan
Tokyo City Guide
Living Like a Local in Tokyo