Yoking past and future, Tokyo dazzles with its traditional culture and passion for everything new.
More than any one sight, it's the city itself that enchants visitors. It's a sprawling, organic thing, stretching as far as the eye can see. Always changing, and with a diverse collection of neighborhoods, no two experiences of the city are ever the same. Some neighborhoods feel like a vision from the future, with ever taller, sleeker structures popping up each year; others evoke the past with low-slung wooden buildings and glowing lanterns radiating surprising warmth; elsewhere, drab concrete blocks hide art galleries and cocktail bars and every lane hints at possible discoveries.
Art & Culture
In Tokyo you can experience the whole breadth of Japanese arts and culture. Centuries-old forms of performing arts still play on stages and sumo tournaments draw crowds; every spring, Tokyoites head outside to appreciate the cherry blossoms – a tradition older than the city itself. There are museums covering every era of Japanese art history and also ones that focus on the contemporary – challenging the old distinctions between art with a capital A, pop culture and technology. But there's a playful side to all of this, too: Tokyo is, after all, a city whose public artworks include a scale model of an anime robot.
Tokyo's Food Scene
When it comes to Tokyo superlatives, the city's food scene tops the list. But we're not just talking about the famous restaurants and the celebrity chefs: what Tokyo excels at is consistency across the board. Wherever you are, you're far from a good, if not great, restaurant. It's a scene that careens nonchalantly between the highs and lows: it's not unusual for a top-class sushi restaurant to share the same block as an oil-spattered noodle joint, and for both to be equally adored. Tokyoites love dining out; join them, and delight in the sheer variety of tastes and experiences the city has to offer.
Tokyo can seem daunting at first: the subway map – a tangle of intersecting lines – is often compared to a bowl of noodles. But once you get out there, you'll be surprised how easy it is to navigate. That subway can take you everywhere you want to go; trains are frequent (though sometimes uncomfortably crowded) and almost always on time, and stations are well-signposted in English. That's not to say you won't occasionally find yourself frustratingly disorientated, but locals are generally eager to help you get back on track.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tokyo.
If you visit only one museum in Tokyo, make it the Tokyo National Museum. Here you'll find the world's largest collection of Japanese art, including ancient pottery, Buddhist sculptures, samurai swords, colourful ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), gorgeous kimonos and much, much more. Touring the museum Visitors with only a couple of hours to spare should focus on the Honkan (Japanese Gallery), which has a specially curated selection of artistic highlights on the 2nd floor. With more time, you can explore the enchanting Gallery of Hōryū-ji Treasures, which displays masks, scrolls and gilt Buddhas from Hōryū-ji (in Nara Prefecture, dating from 607); the Tōyōkan with its collection of Asian art, including delicate Chinese ceramics; and the Heiseikan, which houses the Japanese Archaeological Gallery, full of pottery, talismans and articles of daily life from Japan's prehistoric periods. It's also worth checking whether it's possible to access the usually off-limits garden during your visit, which includes several vintage teahouses; it opens to the public from mid-March to mid-April and from late October to early December. The museum also houses a restaurant, cafe and coffee shop, as well as a souvenir shop in the main building. History The museum held its first exhibition in 1872, making it the oldest museum in Japan. It moved to its current location in Ueno Park in 1882. Today it is one of the four museums, alongside Kyoto National Museum, Nara National Museum and Kyushu National Museum, operated by the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, and is considered one of the largest art museums in the world. Tickets and other practicalities The admission fee for adults is ¥1000, while entry is free for under 18s and over 70s. The museum regularly hosts temporary exhibitions (which cost extra); these can be fantastic, but sometimes lack the English signage found throughout the rest of the museum.
This museum is the heart of the Studio Ghibli world, a beloved (even 'adored') film studio responsible for classic, critically-acclaimed animated titles like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo and Princess Mononoke, among countless others. Unlike Disney World, this is a museum, not a theme park, but the levels of fandom on show are likely to be just as intense. Master animator Miyazaki Hayao, who co-found Studio Ghibli and directed some of its best-known works, designed the museum, and kids will become immediately captivated by the fairy-tale atmosphere, from the spiral staircases seemingly leading to dead ends to the replica of the giant cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro. Fans will enjoy the original sketches on display, as well as the host of original short films playing at the small on-site Saturn Theater. The museum also houses exhibitions relating to the history of animation, plus a popular gift shop, a good-quality restaurant and a reading room. How to get tickets for the Ghibli Museum Tickets can be purchased up to four months in advance from overseas travel agents or up to one month in advance through the convenience store Lawson's online ticket portal. Both options are explained in detail on the official Ghibli Museum website. For July and August visits especially, we recommend buying tickets as soon as you can from an agent as they will definitely sell out early. Tickets are non-transferable; you may be asked to show an ID. The ticket price is ¥1000 for adults (19+), ¥700 for 13-18 year olds, ¥400 for 7-12 year olds, ¥100 for 4-6 year olds, and free for ages 3 and under. How to get to the Ghibli Museum The Ghibli Museum (which is pronounced ‘jiburi’ – its full name is 'Ghibli Museum, Mitaka') is on the western edge of Inokashira-kōen in West Tokyo, and you can walk there through the park from nearby Kichijōji Station in about 30 minutes. A minibus (round trip/one way ¥320/210) leaves for the museum every 20 minutes from Mitaka Station (bus stop 9).
Golden Gai – a Shinjuku institution for over half a century – is a collection of tiny bars, often literally no bigger than a closet and seating maybe a dozen. Each is as unique and eccentric as the ‘master’ or ‘mama’ who runs it. In a sense, Golden Gai, which has a strong visual appeal, with its low-slung wooden buildings, is their work of art. It's more than just a place to drink. The district has long been a gathering spot for artists, writers and musicians. Originally many bars here functioned more like clubhouses for various creative industries. Some bars prefer to keep their doors closed to customers who aren't regulars (foreign tourists included) to preserve that old atmosphere; others will welcome you (if there is space, of course). Recently there's been a changing of the guard, as new, younger owners take over, and the exclusive atmosphere of old is giving way to a lively scene of international bar hoppers, instinctively drawn to Golden Gai's free spirit. The best way to experience Golden Gai is to stroll the lanes and pick a place that suits your mood. Bars that expressly welcome tourists have English signs posted on their doors. Many bars have a cover charge (usually ¥500 to ¥1500), which is often posted on the door. Note that while Golden Gai is highly photogenic, it is also private property; do not take photos unless you have explicit permission. Hotels near Golden Gai Shinjuku, the ward of Tokyo in which Golden Gai is located, is a convenient and popular base for visiting the city, with hotel options at all price levels. It's worth noting, however, that many budget hotels are in the red-light district, Kabukichō; while not dangerous exactly, the district does have seedy pockets and solo female travellers in particular might feel uncomfortable. Hotel options within walking distance of Golden Gai include Hotel Gracery Shinjuku (7-minute walk), Imano (7-minute walk) and Shinjuku Granbell Hotel (5-minute walk).
Digital-art collective teamLab has created 60 artworks for this museum, open in 2018, that tests the border between art and the viewer: many are interactive. Not sure how? That's the point – go up to the artworks, move and touch them (or just stand still) and see how they react. Making your way from room to room feels like entering a sequence of discrete worlds – a bit like being in a fantasy role-playing game. Don't miss the maze-like Crystal World, where strands of shimmering light extend from floor to ceiling like disco stalagmites, and the Forest of Lamps, where Venetian glass lamps bloom into as you approach. The latter you'll likely have to queue for. On the 2nd floor, the Athletics Forest is a collection of installations designed with kids in mind (but grown-ups can join in, too). Jump up and down on a bouncy plain and see your energy transformed into expanding stars. Add colour to a drawing of an animal or insect and watch as it is born into an animated creature – then follow it on its course along the crags and divots of this playful indoor landscape. Worn out? Take a break at the on-site En Tea House, where you can see digital flowers bloom inside your cup of tea (¥500). Tickets and other practicalities Tickets cost ￥3200 for adults and ￥1000 for children aged 4-14. Children aged 3 or under enter free. One adult can accompany up to three children, and there is no time limit in the museum after entry. There are no minimum age or height requirements to enter teamLab Borderless; however, keep in mind the museum is dark and often crowded. Prams must be parked at the entrance. Artworks on display at the museum vary by season.
Rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing is like a giant beating heart, sending people in all directions with every pulsing light change. Nowhere else says ‘Welcome to Tokyo’ better than this. Hundreds of people – and at peak times upwards of 3000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions at once, yet still to dodging each other with a practised, nonchalant agility. Mag's Park, the rooftop of the Shibuya 109-2 department store, has the best views over the neighbourhood's famous scramble crossing. It's screened with plexiglass, so you can still get good photos, without having to worry about losing anything over the edge). The intersection is most impressive after dark on a Friday or Saturday night, when the crowds pouring out of the station are at their thickest and neon-lit by the signs above. The rhythms here are, however, tied to the train station and after the last train pulls out for the night, the intersection becomes eerily quiet. Hotels near Shibuya Crossing Shibuya has several new accommodations, among them boutique hotels, flash-packer hostels and 'cabin style' capsule hotels (roomier than the average capsule hotel) – suddenly, there's a lot to choose from here. If you're keen to immerse yourself in urban Tokyo and its nightlife, Shibuya makes for a great base; it's got great transit links, too. Options within walking distance of the crossing include Mustard Hotel (15-minute walk), Millennials (six-minute walk) and Hotel Mets Shibuya (12-minute walk).
The Imperial Palace occupies the site of the original Edo-jō, the Tokugawa shogunate's castle. In its heyday this was the largest fortress in the world, though little remains today apart from the moat and stone walls. Most of the 3.4-sq-km complex is off limits, as this is the emperor's home, but join one of the free tours organised by the Imperial Household Agency to see a small part of the inner compound. Surrounding the palace is Kōkyo-gaien, a 115-hectare national garden, which includes public green spaces, moats and museums. The pretty East Gardens are open to the public all year round, and can be entered without a guide. History In its heyday, Edo-jō was the largest fortress in the world. When the shogunate fell and the emperor moved to Tokyo, the castle became the imperial residence – Kōkyo. Much of it was destroyed by fires in 1873 and construction on a new palace was finished in 1888. WWII air raids levelled most of the palace and the current ferro-concrete buildings, done in Japanese modernist style, were completed in the 1960s. The central building, which contains the throne room, Matsu-no-Ma (Pine Chamber), is called the Kyūden. The low-slung structure is surprisingly modest – at least from what can be seen on public tours. The moats and imposing stone walls visible around the perimeter of the palace grounds belonged to the original castle. Touring the palace Tours (lasting around 1¼ hours) run at 10am and 1.30pm usually on Tuesday to Saturday, but not on public holidays or mornings from late July through to the end of August. They're also not held at all from 28 December to 4 January or when Imperial Court functions are scheduled. Arrive no later than 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time at Kikyō-mon, the starting and ending point. Reservations are taken – via the website, phone or by post – up to a month in advance (and no later than four days in advance via the website). Alternatively, go to the office at Kikyō-mon (open 8.45am until noon and 1pm to 5pm) where you can book for a tour up to seven days in advance; if there is space available on that day's tours, you'll be able to register. Bring photo ID. The tour will take you past the present palace (Kyūden), a modest low-rise building completed in 1968 that replaced the one built in 1888, which was largely destroyed during WWII. Explanations are given only in Japanese; download the free app (www.kunaicho.go.jp/e-event/app.html) for explanations in English, Chinese, Korean, French or Spanish. If you're not on the tour, head to the southwest corner of Kōkyo-gaien Plaza to view two bridges – the iron Nijū-bashi and the stone Megane-bashi. Behind the bridges rises the Edo-era Fushimi-yagura watchtower. The main park of the verdant palace grounds is the Imperial Palace East Garden, which is open to the public for free without reservations, though entry numbers are limited. You must take a token upon arrival and return it at the end of your visit.
Tokyo’s most visited temple enshrines a golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), which, according to legend, was miraculously pulled out of the nearby Sumida-gawa by two fishermen in AD 628. The image has remained on the spot ever since but is never on public display. The present structure dates from 1958. Sensō-ji is always busy, particularly on weekends; consider visiting in the evening to see it with fewer people and the buildings beautifully illuminated.
Tokyo’s grandest Shintō shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken, whose reign (1868–1912) coincided with Japan's transformation from isolationist, feudal state to modern nation. Constructed in 1920, the shrine was destroyed in WWII air raids and rebuilt in 1958; however, unlike so many of Japan’s postwar reconstructions, Meiji-jingū has atmosphere in spades. Note that the shrine is currently undergoing renovations bit by bit in preparation for its 100th anniversary, but will remain open.
Tokyo's history museum documents the city's transformation from tidal flatlands to feudal capital to modern metropolis via detailed scale re-creations of townscapes, villas and tenement homes, plus artefacts such as ukiyo-e and old maps. Reopened in March 2018 after a renovation, the museum also has interactive displays, multilingual touch-screen panels and audio guides.
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