Tokyo. The city that never sleeps, home to the busiest intersection in the world and possibly one of the quirkiest metropolises you’ll ever visit.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time in Japan and collectively a number of weeks in Tokyo. Never a regular traveller and far from a common tourist, I’ve always done things my own way with little input from guide books like Lonely Planet. I don’t believe in hitting all the tourist hot spots (though, of course, some of them can’t be helped and are total ‘must see’ destinations) and I like to take things at my own pace. I think it is important to try and see the flip side of every place that you travel too; if you have endless days of famous landmarks lined up, then find a day to go off the beaten path and see something different.
It was with that in mind that I made this list.
See Tokyo from Above.
Few things can beat an overhead view of a city at night. Tokyo Sky Tree is just the place to get that need out of your system. So while it is a common thing on the top of a lot of travel guides, I really couldn’t look past this experience.
Built to replace Tokyo Tower, the Sky Tree is the tallest building in Japan and from its observation decks you can see out to where the horizon kisses blurred neon lights.
The decks are filled with souvenir shops, cafes and bars, and even small museums, so there is so much more to do that just look longingly into the distance.
For those really adventurous, jump on some of the guided viewpoints, pick a landmark, and then make it your mission to find that point before leaving Tokyo.
Have your pants scared off at a Haunted House.
Who doesn’t like being terrified? Well, my best friend, for one, but that generally means that I get more entertainment for my dollar.
Japan has a crazy obsession with carnival style haunted houses. They’re everywhere, and not just on Halloween. It is a perfect recipe really; a scary experience, a first date, a guy who’ll hopefully scream less than the girl, and cafes and ice-cream parlours on every corner once stepping out of the terrifying realm.
First date or not, these places are a lot of fun. I’ve noticed that the rules are a little lax in most – or maybe they just enjoy terrifying foreign girls – and they are nothing like we have here in Australia. Our haunted houses involve being in a moving cart, of sorts, and being driven through a number of jump scares where lights flash and there may be one or two people in a costume who are not, under any circumstances, allowed to touch you.
In Japan you walk through these places at your own speed and every room has people dressed up. There are also trap doors and passageways where said costumed nightmares can follow you, chase you, and appear back in front of you. And they will chase you. They make you run screaming, they grab at your ankles and trail fake nails over the back of your neck after sneaking out of a coffin. I’ve had one employee chase my friend and I through the whole house; I swear he saw us and called ‘dibs’ in the back corridors.
While it’s not always good for the heart, it’s an interesting way to get some cardio into your holiday routine.
Visit Yoyogi Park.
This is a must for a lazy, nature filled afternoon. It’s also great for hungover mornings when light can be tolerated but general movement and the hustle, bustle and noise of the super city can’t be.
Grab a coffee (or a can of Strong Zero for a hair of the dog) and hit this free park for some time in the sun. Watch people far more energetic than you go jogging past, or listen to the magical sounds of an orchestra practicing among the trees.
[For more information on this amazing hidden gem, check out my post: Why you simply must spend an afternoon in Yoyogi Park.]
Ah yes. Every list about Japan generally mentions these whacky places and I was trying to avoid adding them for that reason alone. However, the craziness of the concept is just too good not to include.
Japan is huge on dressing up, horror houses and just all things a little off centre, and their restaurants aren’t any different. While there are millions of normal, run of the mill dining establishments out there, there are a whole bunch of strangely themed places where diners can go not only for good food and drinks, but also to get some theatrics and kicks. The good news is that with the rise of bloggers and foodies, most of these places are now set up to easily accommodate to foreigners with English menus and English speaking waiters.
With themes ranging from medical prisons to monster lockups to space age insanities, there is something for everyone and while the price tag can be a little higher than a general izakaya, the memories are completely worth it.
I will no doubt write more about some of the whacky places I’ve been, and the weird things we’ve had to do (seriously, my friend once ordered a cocktail she had to make herself, then mix with a vibrator)
Party Hard in Kabuki-cho.
“Ohhh, the Red Light District,” people say. “It’s soooo dangerous,” says others.
“Pish posh,” I say, and I say that with all the dedicated grace of a foreigner who knows their way around that part of town like the back of her own hand. Some of the best bars can be found in that area. Foreigner friendly holes-in-the-wall with rock music blaring and graffiti on the toilet walls, they are a treat unto themselves and stand far apart from the watering holes you’ll find in a Lonely Planet guide.
While walking around theses streets and heading into a random bar may be a little too far out of some peoples comfort zones, I still think that an evening/night-time trip to Kabuki-cho is a must for all. Even if it is just to compare Japan’s idea of a ‘gang controlled red light district’ to the areas you know back home.
[Of course, like all places at night, exercise caution and keep an eye on your possessions. Japan is not known for pickpockets or muggings, but it is known for street hawkers. Be confident and firm in yourself, especially if approached by people looking to take you to their bars. Know that they will try and trick you with a handshake, or follow you for a few meters and be ready for it. While most of them are honestly lovely and will take you to great bars, it is always best to find places on your own.]
Visit Disneyland or Disney Sea (or both!)
Nothing says ‘vacation’ like stepping out of reality completely and finding yourself in the magical world of Disney bought to life. Disneyland in Japan is everything that it should be, while Disney Sea has the advantage of being both magical and having a licensed bar!
Make sure you dedicate a full day to either of the parks and just let your inner child run wild.
A trip to Disneyland can be very expensive so make sure to budget ahead. Also, make sure you have a thorough understanding of how to get there. While the trains are all very easy and covered by the Japan Rail Pass, the process can be a little misleading. Most guide books will tell you to travel from your closest station to Tokyo station, then catch the Keiyo line to Maihama Station. What they don’t tell you is that it’s a good ten minute underground walk from the main part of Tokyo station to the Disney line platforms.
Get some culture at Meiji Jingu.
Right in the heart of Western Tokyo and next to the ever fashionable Harajuku, is Meiji Shrine (Jingu). Dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, it is a glorious look into the traditional world of Japanese religion and culture.
While the shrine you will see today is not the original (it was destroyed during WWII), it was rebuilt as an exact replica and has been treasured ever since. Personally, one of the most incredible things about this place is the fact that you know you’re still in the heart of the city and yet the sounds and memories of overcrowded trains fade away within minutes spent in the lush woods.
It’s a great place to see traditionally clad men and women as well as to shop for charms to ward against sickness and to help with safe travel.
Clubbing in Roppongi.
Roppongi and its surrounds are known for two things: having a high concentration of expats as well as being the centre of foreigner friendly nightlife. A shopping district by day and a party district at night, it is seen as wild and crazy. I, myself, see it far more dangerous than areas like Kabuki-cho simply for the high number of foreign influences in the area. It is a hive of party drugs and drunken violence; or at least as much of a hive as Japan’s strict laws allow.
Of course it is still possible to go and pull an all-nighter while dancing and drinking the night away without seeing the darker underbelly of the area and remaining perfectly safe.
A few years ago Roppongi and neighbouring Nishiazabu also used to be the stomping ground for a group of renegade pretty-boy idols trying to escape their totalitarian record company. What was already a district known for its nightlife shot into the limelight as thousands of fangirls flocked to an area they’d generally avoid, all in hopes of meeting one of the famous ‘Akanishi Troop’. I haven’t been back in a few years, but internet rumours suggest that these idols (some now ex-idols) still meet up in the area which will no doubt mean that a lot of the party goers will be doll-eyed gyaru girls.
Either way, the blend between Japanese and Western club culture ranks high on the list of things to experience.
Try Japanese Crepes.
A few years before going to Japan, I watched a J-dorama where the characters ate these amazing crepes that looked like ice-cream cones with cake in them. So when I was walking down Takeshita Dori for the first time, it is understandable that I went a little crazy over not only seeing a stall selling those crepes, but also seeing THE STORE that was featured in the filming.
What followed was a love affair with Japanese Crepes that has lasted for the better part of six years.
Soft, fluffy crepes are rolled into a cone shape (much the same as they do in France) and filled with insanely delicious treats. These shops roll out new menus for each season and feature specials for holidays. To do this day my favourite will forever be a spiced pumpkin cheesecake crepe with cream, ice-cream, strawberries and chocolate topping. For those without a sweet tooth, most shops also do savoury crepes.
They’re a delightful, though expensive, way to clog the arteries and pack on the holiday pounds, but they are seriously worth every bite.
[Must try: Angel Heart Crepes, Takeshita Dori, Harujuku. They are said to be the first crepe shop, though Marion Crepes (literally across the road) like to argue that.]
Go to a Karaoke Bar.
Karaoke. Other than sushi, Karaoke is the Japanese trend that has transcended language barriers and culture difficulties and wormed its way into the lives of millions of people around the world. The idea of getting drunk while singing at the top of your lungs to a room full of your (hopefully) just as drunk friends has a certain charm. The sort that goes hand in hand with having a heartattack in a haunted house.
Still, it is somewhat of an institution and something that everyone should do at least once in Japan. After all, nothing says you’re having a great time like people taking glasses away from you so you don’t smash them after every ‘stop’ during your tone-deaf rendition of KAT-TUN’s Don’t U Ever Stop.
If you don’t read Japanese then it is always better to have someone with you who does. If not, make sure that you go to one of the many, many bars that cater to foreigners with full English song menus.
Clearly Tokyo is an amazing city with so much to offer. It’s impossible to do it in a day or two, or even a week, or even a few months. I’ve been back five times and I’m lucky enough to have some close local friends, but there is still so much that I want to see and do.
So take the above points as a guideline, but remember to make your own trip. And, more importantly, never stop exploring!
For the budget conscious, hang tight as I have a guide to the best free things to experience coming soon.
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