Insider’s Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Experience the Vibrancy of Shibuya
Shibuya is the beating heart of Tokyo. This energetic district exemplifies the city's youth culture and vibrancy unlike anywhere else. As soon as you emerge from the train station, you'll be greeted by the iconic Shibuya Crossing. When the traffic lights turn red, crowds of pedestrians surge into the intersection from all directions in a choreographed dance. It's mesmerizing to watch the continuous flow of people crisscrossing what's often cited as the busiest intersection in the world.
Beyond the famous crossing, Shibuya offers countless places to experience the area's infectious energy. Start your exploration on Center Gai, the neighborhood's central pedestrian street. Here you'll find fashionable boutiques, trendy restaurants, and popular purikura photo booths where teens pose up a storm. For people watching, grab a coffee at a streetside cafe and take in the unique Harajuku-inspired style on display. Shibuya is a hub for youth culture and home to many alternative fashion trends.
When night falls, make your way to Spain Slope, a small side street glowing with neon signs that comes alive after dark. Join locals who flock here for late night karaoke sessions, cozy izakaya dining, and drinks at hole-in-the-wall bars. End your night dancing the hours away at Woomb, a legendary basement club and longstanding icon of Shibuya's nightlife scene. Other destinations to experience Shibuya after dark include loft bars with panoramic city views and Nonbei Yokocho, an atmospheric alley filled with tiny bars reminiscent of a Tokyo Golden Gai in miniature.
No trip to Shibuya is complete without snapping photos in front of the retro Shibuya 109 building. This trendsetting department store has been the birthplace of many influential Japanese fashion styles. Inside you'll find boutiques showcasing the latest styles in youth fashion and accessories. Other popular shopping destinations include Tower Records, the iconic music megastore, and the food floors of Shibuya Marui for Japanese sweets.
When you need a moment of calm, head to Inokashira Park located on the edge of Shibuya. Strolling along the lake and beneath the cherry blossom trees offers a peaceful respite from the neighborhood's energy.
What else is in this post?
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Experience the Vibrancy of Shibuya
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Discover Historic and Cultural Asakusa
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Explore the Futuristic Odaiba District
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Shop Till You Drop in Ginza
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Relax in Peaceful Ueno Park
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Indulge in Tokyo's Foodie Scene
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Visit the Imperial Palace and Gardens
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Take in the City Views from Tokyo Tower
- Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Don't Miss the Anime Culture in Akihabara
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Discover Historic and Cultural Asakusa
Immerse yourself in the enduring traditions of old Tokyo with a visit to Asakusa, home to the city’s oldest temple. Asakusa offers a window into Tokyo’s history and heritage, giving you a fascinating glimpse into life during the Edo Period when Asakusa thrived as an important entertainment district.
Begin your experience at the iconic Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest and most significant Buddhist temple. Founded in 645 AD, this historic complex draws crowds who pass through the massive Kaminarimon Gate emblazoned with a giant red lantern. Beyond this gateway lies a mesmerizing shopping street known as Nakamise. Lining the approach to the temple, you’ll find rows of small stalls selling traditional snacks and souvenirs from chopstick rests to folding fans. It’s eye candy overload trying to take it all in.
At the end of Nakamise emerges the majestic Sensoji Temple itself. Witness rituals like incense burning and sutra chanting as locals give offerings and prayers at the temple. The smoke rising past hand-painted eaves seems to carry the intensity of centuries of worshippers’ devotion. Don't miss visiting the temple at night when the complex is dramatically illuminated by lanterns.
After exploring Sensoji Temple, wander the labyrinth of small streets fanning out from its grounds. Here you’ll find restored wooden buildings housing traditional shops specializing in Japanese wares from washi paper to swords. There are also historic bathhouses called sentos that let you soak up old Tokyo.
For a taste of bygone entertainment, walk down Hoppy Street lined with rustic establishments serving hoppy, a traditional non-alcoholic beverage. You’ll feel like you've stepped back in time at these Edo-style drinking houses filled with neighborhood chatter. Going at dusk lets you experience flickering lanterns illuminating the street.
Art, history, and nature combine at Sumida Hokusai Museum dedicated to the ukiyo-e woodblock printer, Katsushika Hokusai. Best known for The Great Wave, this small museum displays a rotating selection of the prolific artist’s works. The Japanese garden surrounding the museum explodes in vibrant colors come spring during the cherry blossom season.
No visit to Asakusa is complete without sampling the local specialty, hopped fried noodles known as tsukemen. At Masutani, a 70-year old shop frequented by locals, dive into their hearty bowls topped with freshly sliced fish cakes, shrimp, and pork. Watching the cooks create batches of handmade noodles in the open kitchen adds to the experience.
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Explore the Futuristic Odaiba District
Escape the hustle of central Tokyo and journey to the man-made island of Odaiba for a glimpse into the city's futuristic side. Connected to the mainland by the shining Rainbow Bridge, Odaiba seems like a world away. Here sleek buildings, sci-fi attractions, and cutting-edge technology give Odaiba its reputation as Tokyo's most futuristic neighborhood.
A highlight of exploring Odaiba is visiting the fascinating museums showcasing Japanese innovation. At the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, also known as Miraikan, immerse yourself in thought-provoking exhibits on robotics, space exploration, and more. See the humanoid robot ASIMO in action as it walks, dances, and interacts with people. For hands-on fun, participate in simulations of airplanes and electric bikes to understand the science behind how things work.
Continue your futuristic explorations at the cool Toyota Mega Web, an impressive interactive showcase of Toyota's latest concept and production vehicles. Test drive a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle on their track and play Gran Turismo simulator games in race cars that seem straight out of a sci-fi film. Between the hybrid test drives and vintage car displays, you’ll gain insight into Toyota’s vision for the future of transportation.
Beyond the technology museums, simply strolling Odaiba's architecturally striking waterfront provides eye candy galore. Gaze up at cutting-edge buildings like Fuji TV headquarters with its distinctive spherical observation deck protruding over the bay. For more great architecture, check out the sleek mall complexes of VenusFort and Decks Tokyo Beach with their imaginative designs.
As night falls, Odaiba reveals an energetic side filled with rainbow-colored lights and bubbling energy. Walk along the bay and watch as the Rainbow Bridge puts on a dazzling light show from sundown onward. On weekends, join locals who flock to the beaches along Odaiba Seaside Park for barbecues and fireworks displays over the water. Or head to the man-made beach of Odaiba Marine Park to see the Rainbow Bridge dramatically illuminated against the night sky.
No trip to futuristic Odaiba is complete without riding the driverless Yurikamome train line, an elevated railway delivering sweeping views of Tokyo Bay as you zip over the water. For anime fans, ride the special Hatsune Miku train covered in images of the turquoise-haired virtual idol. Step inside the fantastical world of Japanese pop culture.
When hunger strikes, satiate it with a meal at one of Odaiba's fabulous food theme parks. At VenusFort, dine on Italian classics in an eerily realistic replica of a medieval Tuscan town. Or visit Ramen Stadium to taste nine of Japan's best ramen joints all under one roof. You won't find anything like it.
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Shop Till You Drop in Ginza
For an upscale shopping experience like no other, head to Ginza, Tokyo’s most exclusive shopping neighborhood. With its ritzy department stores, glitzy boutiques, and immaculate tree-lined boulevards, Ginza exudes sophistication. This chic district speaks to old world luxury with a modern twist.
At the heart of Ginza lies Chuo-dori, a smart boulevard where tuxedo-clad doormen welcome you into ornate emporiums. Like enticing jeweled boxes, the department stores sparkling in the afternoon sun beckon shoppers inside. Enter venerable Mitsukoshi and soaring Hakuhinkan to uncover a treasure trove of designer brands alongside local specialty goods.
Beyond the sprawling department stores, hidden side streets reveal a mix of global luxury boutiques and hand-made Japanese finds. Stumble upon tiny workshops where artisans practice their craft like intricate gold leaf application. Watching them work their magic makes for an only-in-Tokyo experience.
For top international designer labels, Ginza’s mix of legendary flagship stores and chic boutiques hits the sweet spot between classic and cutting edge. Brands like Chanel, Dior and Prada rub shoulders with newer heavy hitters like Tod’s and Brunello Cucinelli.
Don’t leave without experiencing the personalized, gracious service that makes shopping in Ginza extraordinary. At luxury retailer Paul Smith, staff offer refreshments while expertly curating items based on your tastes. Receive the VIP treatment as personal shoppers coddle customers with tailored recommendations.
Beyond global brands, Ginza shines with high-end Japanese merchandise that shows off outstanding local craftsmanship. Find unique gifts at Takumi showcasing crafts from all over Japan like intricate Edo Kimekomi dolls to Urushi lacquerware. Treat yourself to made-to-order shoes at a master cobbler or writing implements engraved on the spot.
Ginza is also known for its dazzling jewelry stores clustered on Chuo-dori. Harmony of precious metals and stones abound at Mikimoto, the birthplace of the cultured pearl, and high-end Takahiko. Watching craftsmen polish gems and shape settings makes for mesmerizing window shopping.
For a breath of fresh air between shopping sprees, relax in tranquil Hibiya Park dotted with sculptures. Gaze up at the soaring 52-foot Nippon Ginko Bank headquarters clock tower overlooking the park.
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Relax in Peaceful Ueno Park
Tucked away in the northeast corner of central Tokyo, Ueno Park offers a serene escape from the city's relentless energy. Spread across nearly 500 acres, this sprawling green space provides a much-needed respite for recharging your mind and body.
Among locals, Ueno Park is cherished as a peaceful sanctuary amid the urban jungle. On weekends, you'll find residents flocking here to savor leisurely strolls beneath the canopy of trees. Pack a bento box lunch and relax on the grass while watching paddle boats meander across shimmering Shinobazu Pond. As the sun dips lower in the sky, join the crowds gathering to admire the fiery colors of sunset.
Of course, Ueno Park has plenty to keep you occupied beyond simply kicking back. At its heart lies Ueno Zoo, Japan's oldest zoo dating back to 1882. Here you can observe exotic wildlife like giant pandas, snow monkeys bathing in onsen hot springs, and toucans with cartoonish oversized beaks. Don't miss visiting the zoo's century-old Western-style main gate designed with intricate brick and ironwork.
For a dose of culture, explore the park's concentration of museums and centuries-old temples. Stand before towering Buddhist statues at centuries-old Kan'eiji Temple whose sprawling grounds still contain remnants of an old cemetery. Marvel at traditional swords and samurai gear at the National Museum of Japanese History. And uncover the origins of manga at the National Museum of Western Art's special exhibit tracing today's anime roots back through early political cartoons and satirical drawings.
When hunger calls, grab takeout kaarage fried chicken and cold beer at casual Gojuro. Soak up the chilled-out vibe at this beer garden nestled within the park. Or head to historic Innsyoutei, an elegant restaurant originally built as an aristocrat's holiday villa during Japan's Meiji era. Dine on multi-course seasonal kaiseki cuisine in the traditional wooden building overlooking serene gardens.
No visit to Ueno Park is complete without viewing its spectacular cherry blossom display each spring. Over 1,000 soaring cherry trees explode in fluffy pink and white blooms, creating what's considered one of Tokyo's top three hanami cherry blossom spots. Locals flock here, day and night, to picnic beneath the blossom-covered boughs. Cue up your own hanami party by grabbing food from nearby shops and claiming a prime sakura viewing spot within the park's rows of trees.
Beyond cherry blossom season, Ueno Park's leafy walkways simply invite leisurely strolling whatever the time of year. Follow winding paths past water lilies floating on Shinobazu Pond and stone lanterns flanking temples. Pause to watch athletes practicing pitches at the park's baseball fields. And don't miss Ueno Park's small shrine tucked off the beaten path which contains a sacred tree sprouting dozens of shimenawa rope garlands left as blessings.
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Indulge in Tokyo's Foodie Scene
Tokyo is a food-lover's paradise, bursting with Michelin-starred restaurants, colorful street food, and hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Indulging in the sheer variety of Tokyo’s foodie scene is a highlight for many travelers. This buzzing culinary playground whisks your tastebuds on a wild adventure across Japan and the globe.
“From sushi temples to cozy ramen joints, Tokyo spoiled my appetite for any other city’s food,” effuses Amy, a self-proclaimed foodie from New York. She suggests new arrivals dive right into Tokyo’s vibrant street food culture for tasty, bargain bites from yakitori chicken skewers to fried potato croquettes. Follow your nose through lanes like Omoide Yokocho’s sticky alleyways where smokehouse aromas draw you into tiny yakitori stalls.
Another must-try is Tokyo’s ubiquitous ramen noodles. Murky tonkotsu broth with tender pork belly or zesty miso with curly noodles – options are endless. “I slurped my way through Tokyo sampling every ramen variety at places from nameless holes-in-the-wall to Michelin-starred joints,” says James, a repeat visitor from London. He recommends checking Google Maps for top-rated ramen-yas then scopes out the lineup when you arrive. “If locals are happily waiting, you know it's worth it.”
Sushi addicts can rejoice with Tokyo's staggering selection. Choose from casual conveyer belt chains like Genki Sushi or pristine 10-seat sushi temples tucked away on upper floors of nondescript buildings. “Watching the itamae sushi chef work magic was easily worth the price tag,” says Cindy, a self-professed sushi fanatic visiting from Hong Kong. She suggests Ginza's Sukiyabashi Jiro, legendary for perfecting edomae-style sushi. Just don't forget reservations are mandatory at such hotspots.
Beyond Japanese fare, Tokyo excels with a dizzying array of global cuisines. Foodies should make a beeline to Nakameguro’s tree-lined canal for some of the city’s best gourmet dining and people watching. “Strolling along the canal from French patisseries to Michelin- starred Italian – this is foodie central!” effuses Paula, an expat living in Tokyo.
To taste Japan’s high-level interpretation of European cuisine, Paula recommends Chef Yamawaki's cozy eponymous restaurant. “With only eight counter seats, I got to watch Yamawaki-san compose edible masterpieces from seasonal ingredients.” After her meal of foraged mushrooms and just-caught fish, Paula knew she’d found her special occasion splurge spot.
No indulgence of Tokyo’s food scene is complete without experiencing a Japanese kaiseki meal. At Hidemi Sugino’s 10-seat restaurant, diners are mesmerized watching the chef transform seafood, mountain vegetables and seasonal ingredients into edible art over multiple delicate courses. “From the hand-carved maple chopsticks to the chef personally explaining each dish, it embodied Japanese omotenashi hospitality,” recalls Matt, a self-professed kaiseki convert visiting from Australia.
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Visit the Imperial Palace and Gardens
No trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the Imperial Palace, residence of Japan’s emperor and a sprawling site interwoven with history. Though much of the palace itself is closed to the public, its tranquil gardens and remnants of the Edo Castle invite exploration into Japan’s imperial past.
The current Imperial Palace stands on the former site of Edo Castle, the headquarters of Tokugawa shoguns who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. Though the castle itself was largely destroyed during World War II, visiting Nijubashi Bridge offers a glimpse into the ancient citadel. This elegant double arched bridge reflected in the palace moat makes for Tokyo’s most photographed vista. Passing through stone gateways into meticulously raked courtyards beyond brings you deeper into the palace grounds.
Venture across the palace plaza to enter the serene East Garden, open to the public without reservation. Here you can freely roam paths winding past trees over 400 years old, moss-covered bridges, and foundations of old Edo castle fortifications. Don’t miss the cornerstone dated 1590, all that remains of the original innermost castle tower. The stillness surrounding ancient relics like moon-viewing pavilions and stone walls transports you centuries back in time.
Beyond the history, the East Garden appeals as an oasis of tranquility in bustling Tokyo. Locals seek respite here from urban clamor, strolling beneath cherry trees or having a picnic on the lawn. The garden’s superb cherry blossom display, including weeping and double-petaled varieties, makes it a top hanami cherry blossom destination. From late March through April, extended evening hours accommodate nighttime hanami parties celebrating the fleeting blooms.
On Saturdays, join free guided tours of the East Garden offered in Japanese and English. Volunteers impart insightful details on the garden's history, seasonal flowers, and carefully constructed scenery. Their passion adds a enriching human element to comprehending the site's legacy. Alternatively, rent audio guides available in various languages to tour at your own pace.
To immerse yourself in cultural performances, time your visit for the Imperial Palace East Garden's special events. On Japanese Emperor's Day in late December, experience court music and dance dating back over 1,000 years. In spring, attend the centuries-old warrior skills and equestrian demonstration honoring samurai tradition.
Beyond the East Garden lies the Imperial Palace itself, only accessible through guided tours booked well in advance. Visitors are shown selected areas including the sumptuous state rooms where Japan's emperor greets dignitaries on formal occasions. Though the palace tour offers fascinating insights, the East Garden’s unspoiled landscapes provide the most magical experience.
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Take in the City Views from Tokyo Tower
No first-time visit to Tokyo is complete without heading up to the iconic Tokyo Tower for its jaw-dropping panoramic views. At 333 meters high, this landmark skyscraper offers unmatched vistas spanning the vast metropolis in all directions. Gazing out from the observation decks, the sheer scale of the nonstop urban sprawl almost overwhelms the senses. It’s only here that you can fully comprehend just how massive this city really is.
“I’ve visited observation decks around the world, but Tokyo Tower gave me the most intense ‘wow’ moment from its 360-degree views,” effuses Amy, a seasoned traveler visiting from Sydney. Like many, she highlights the head-swiveling sensation of seeing skyscrapers stretch endlessly to the horizon in every direction. “No matter how many photos you’ve seen, it doesn't prepare you for that first glimpse in person,” she says.
While some may dismiss visiting towers as overly touristy, Tokyo Tower shouldn’t be missed. This iconic 1958 structure has witnessed incredible change as the city reinvented itself over and over. Gazing out from the special floor devoted to historic photos lets you vividly envision Tokyo’s mind-blowing transformation through the decades.
For the best views, Alex, a night photography enthusiast visiting from London, suggests heading up right before sundown. “Watching the sunset set the city ablaze in gold before it flickered into a sparkling sea of lights was next level,” he raves. Night visits also reveal Tokyo Tower itself lit up like a soaring beacon above the city.
On clear days, Fuji-san enthusiasts will thrill to glimpses of majestic Mt. Fuji hovering on the horizon beyond the urban jungle. Or spy airplanes gliding by at seeming eye-level as they head towards Haneda Airport’s runways in the distance. It’s amazing what unique views unfold.
While some may wonder whether Tokyo Skytree has replaced Tokyo Tower, Amy argues they offer quite different experiences. At nearly twice the height, Skytree provides more distant panoramic vistas. “Tokyo Tower’s views feel more intimate since you’re closer to the city and can pick out details easily,” she notes.
Tokyo first-timers seeking to get oriented should definitely visit during daylight hours. The tower’s central Shiba Park location beside Tokyo Bay provides a unique vantage point to identify the Imperial Palace compounds, skyscraper clusters like Shinjuku, and natural landmarks including Mt. Fuji or Tokyo Bay's inlet.
For the full experience, Alex suggests heading up to both the main and top observation decks. “I kept thinking, it can’t get better than this,” he laughs. “But moving between the two decks provides remarkably different perspectives.” Don't just stick to the windows either. Walking the perimeter lets you take in how the view shifts around all four sides.
Beyond the observation decks, Tokyo Tower offers a mind-bending VR roller coaster ride through virtual Tokyo. There are also exhibitions like a history gallery with nostalgic photos. Or enjoy snapping cute pictures by the massive piles of gifts at the Tokyo Tower Wishing Tree, a new holiday tradition where couples leave padlocks symbolizing their eternal love.
Insider's Tokyo: A Local Shares the Best of the City - Don't Miss the Anime Culture in Akihabara
No immersion into Tokyo’s pop culture is complete without a visit to Akihabara, the buzzing heart of the anime and manga universe. This neighborhood overflowing with maid cafes, manga megastores, and geek culture draws otaku (anime superfans) from across Japan and the globe. Beyond dazzling shopping sprees, exploring Akihabara’s anime obsessed subcultures offers visitors unforgettable insight into what makes this district unlike anywhere else.
“I got my ultimate anime fan fix in Akihabara,” exclaims Ben, self-professed anime addict from San Francisco. Like many visitors, he highlights the area’s sensory overload of larger-than-life anime figures, cosplayers posing for photos, and storefronts plastered with anime characters. “It was like stepping into an anime world come to life,” he says.
Akihabara appeals especially to pop culture pilgrims seeking rare manga, vintage anime collectibles, or collaborative cafés filled with limited merchandise. “I found rare Dragonball Z animation cels that sent my heart racing as a collector,” says Ben. Specialty retailers like Mandarake excel at unearthing one-of-a-kind treasures to satisfy hardcore anime fans.
Beyond rare goods, Akihabara throbs with an eccentric ambiance unmatched anywhere else. Maid cafes feature waitresses in frilly French maid outfits engaging customers with sing-alongs, games, and coquettish banter. Don't miss maid stage shows, like mesmerizing Miku dances or martial arts battles with villain characters. At manga kissaten (manga cafes), smokers chill out reading comics or playing retro video games in a haze of smoke. It's a bizarre juxtaposition against Akihabara's glossy commercial veneer.
Anime fans should allot time to explore massive complexes like Radio Kaikan or Akihabara UDX showcasing entire floors of electronics, manga, toys, costume accessories, and limited goods. There's also underground Miku markets focused just on the turquoise-haired virtual idol. Shopaholics are spoiled for choice.
Gaming addicts can get their fix at retro arcades like Hey with vintage cabinets or massive Sega amusement palaces blaring electronic music. Try UFO catchers, crane games where grabbing prizes like anime figures tests your skill. Winning a rare character figure still sealed in plastic brings squeals of delight.
While Akihabara neonscapes bombard visitors 24/7, Yukari, a cosplay enthusiast from Kyoto suggests going on Sundays when the neighborhood's otherworldly vibe escalates further. "Amateur cosplayers and anime characters flock to Akihabara on Sundays," she explains. Watching Harley Quinn, Pikachu, and Sailor Moon pose along sidewalks provides endless people watching and selfie ops.
Staying until evening lets visitors experience Akihabara’s electric nightscape powered by rainbow-hued signage flickering to life once the sun sets. "That's when the place transforms into a futuristic city with pulsing neon and infinite lights," describes Yukari. There's always another surreal sight awaiting around the next corner.