Toyko is the megacity that other world capitals admire. Nowhere else has the same mix of timeless history and space-age technology, strict tradition and trendy fashions, mind-boggling crowds and moments of total serenity. This is the past and the future combined into one exciting whole – and naturally, this is one of the main tourist destinations on the planet.
Deciding what to do in a city as large and complex as Tokyo can take some time. You can spend your days shopping for electronics of the next century in futuristic shopping malls or finding inner peace in timeless temples and serene Zen gardens, and your evenings sipping sake in bars or nightclubs with the cosplay set disguised as a manga superhero.
It all depends on how much time you have and how comfortable you are to immerse yourself in Tokyo’s complex but efficient public transport system. But if you want to maximize the experience on your first trip to Tokyo, here are 14 of our favorite things to do.
Discover a traditional Japanese art form
One of the most iconic megacities in Asia, Tokyo became the capital of Japan only in 1868, when the country’s leaders decided to leave centuries of conservative tradition and embrace the outside world. Since then, Tokyo has resolutely turned to the future, but the city still has a deeply traditional heart, best known through traditional arts and art forms.
For a taste of traditional Tokyo, watch kabuki (theatrical dance) at the Kabuki-za Theater in Ginza, eat a traditional multi-course kaiseki meal with a geisha background in Asakusa, or admire one of the more than 7,000 Japanese treasures on display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Whichever way you adopt them, the traditional arts are a great introduction to what Tokyo was like before the city fell in love with all things modern.
Immerse yourself in the pop culture of Akihabara
The Akihabara district is almost a pilgrimage destination for the otaku (hardcore fans of pop culture) of the city, who define their lives through themes of geek nostalgia and artistic eccentricity. Next to Akihabara’s main avenue, Chuo Dori, there are shops filled with used video game consoles, huge game arcades and manga stores, as well as shops with anime flagships.
If you are looking for old-fashioned video game treasures, browse the many shelves of Retro Game Camp and Super Potato Retro-kan. However, you don’t have to like manga or anime to enjoy this quirky neighborhood. With its neon-lit electronics stores, retro arcades, cosplay cafes – and now the possibility of driving pedal go-karts on the streets – it’s equal parts sensory overload, cultural immersion and simply fun.
Taste the Pacific at Tokyo’s fish markets
Endowed with the honorary title of “Cuisine of Japan”, Tsukiji was once home to the city’s most famous fish market, but most of the wholesale fish sales moved to Toyosu Market on Tokyo Bay in 2018. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of action in Tsukiji, where the area of the outdoor market remains the same as at the beginning of the Showa period, when the market was founded.
The narrow alleys are permeated with the salty smells of the Pacific. A rainbow menagerie of sea creatures decorates the stalls from top to bottom every day, and octogenarian fishmongers greet passers-by with promises of culinary delights. Fist-sized seared scallops, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette) and uni (sea urchin) sushi from Tsukiji are must-haves.
In Toyosu, the world’s largest seafood market operates in huge ventilated sheds in the Koto district. Built as a state-of-the-art upgrade of Tsukiji, it lacks the rustic charm of its predecessor, functioning more as an efficient seafood trading floor that keeps Tokyo’s restaurants in business. However, it is now home to Tokyo’s legendary morning tuna auctions – a great addition to any early bird itinerary.
Discover cutting-edge digital art at the Borderless TeamLab
The modern art collective, TeamLab, has made Tokyo the focal point of its ultra-technological experiments in modern art and media. The best place to engage in their digital creativity is the group’s Borderless exhibition in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, a procession of warehouse-sized artworks and dynamic light projections connected by tunnels in a 10,000-square-meter (107,639-square-foot) event space.
Weaving together several fantastic worlds, this futuristic art experience is surprisingly delicious and gives great photos. Digital art is trending all over Tokyo, and you’ll see it integrated with many of the city’s other attractions. Borderless is popular, so book your tickets in advance.
Join the legions of shopping in Harajuku
The tree-lined avenue of Omote-sandō is famous for mixing modern Japanese aesthetic preferences with Western hipster trends. This lively street, lined with Zelkova trees, is dominated by high-end boutiques ranging from Emporio Armani to Gucci, sheltered behind strikingly creative architectural facades. The Tokyu Plaza, with its mirrored fractal entrance, is particularly impressive.
The backstreets of Harajuku are Tokyo’s street fashion laboratory; it’s where you’ll find the trendsetters, peacocks and style photographers who tell it all – and the vintage clothing stores staffed by resident bohemians who make everything move. True to the hipster theme, see you on June 2nd for lunch, a large outdoor awning surrounded by food trucks serving favorite Japanese street bites like karaage (battered chicken thighs) and tebasaki (fried wings), alongside vegan cuisine and craft beer stands.
Enjoy the great thrill of live sumo
Sumo, one of the most enduring elements of Japanese spiritual culture, originated in the early Nara period (710-794 CE), when action between wrestlers were conceptualized as a way to entertain the Shinto gods. Although sumo is undeniably a sport in the modern era, much of the religious pageantry endures: the salting of the pre-action ring, the almost ascetic dedication of the wrestlers and the reverential respect in which the yokozuna (great champions) stand.
Sumo has six annual live events, three of which take place at Tokyo’s Ryōgoku Kokugikan in January, May and September. Tickets often sell out well in advance, so be sure to keep an eye on the official website for ticket release dates. If you are lucky enough to take one, mentally prepare yourself for a liquid lunch of rice plonk, passionate support from the crowd and very audible slaps from belly to belly.
Eat Michelin-starred Japanese cuisine
Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) was designated an intangible element of cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2013, and Tokyo is the standard bearer. More than 200 Michelin stars have been awarded to restaurants in the capital, ranging from simple ramen shops where a bowl of soup costs less than an hourly wage, to 11-course haute cuisine menus that will burn a rather large hole in your retirement fund.
For raw fish, ask your hotel concierge for a spot at the elegantly simplistic Saito Sushi (but don’t be surprised if you pass yourself off as a local VIP). Ramen lovers should sip stone-crushed noodles topped with truffle oil at Tsuta in Sugamo, while modern gastronomy is characterized by Florilège, a French-Japanese fusion with two Michelin stars where tasting menus are prepared in the culinary theater of an open kitchen.
Drink deep into Tokyo’s nightlife
Yokocho (alleys) are as much a part of Tokyo’s culture as its urban design. Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is the most popular yokocho area, with more than 250 run-down pubs crammed into an area the size of a football field (including a vibrant collection of LGBTQIA+ dance bars). Nomiya Yokocho is a less touristy option in Kita-Senju, with a new wave of foreign restaurants joining the charming and claustrophobic chaos of its traditional bars.
You can also go to Kichijoji’s Harmonica Alley, a network of corridors filled with the crackling of meat skewers dripping on open grills, inexpensive standing bars like chips pouring glasses of asahi and snack joints drilled into the wall. Expect to find a karaoke lounge or two nearby where you can end the evening at full volume.