I have a feeling that by the end of 2020 Tokyo is going to be the “it” city to visit in the world. Why is that? Well, if you haven’t heard, the summer Olympics are coming to Tokyo. And after people see the sights and neon lights of Tokyo on their TV sets or their computer or phone screens, they’re going to want to visit. So, you better beat everyone else to the hottest city of 2020 and book your ticket NOW!
Tokyo is a great place to explore the two sides to Japanese culture: the traditional side of temples and history and the modern side of manga and robots. Here are my top 20 places to visit where can experience both sides of Tokyo in 2020:
Where to see the best traditional Culture of Tokyo:
1. Senso-ji Temple
The oldest and one of the most important Buddhist temples in Tokyo is Senso-ji.
Originally built in 645, Sensoji is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a.k.a. Guanyin in Chinese culture). Senso-ji was destroyed during World War II, so the current one that you’re seeing was built in the twentieth century.
Pro Tip: Make sure to get a omikuji, a paper fortune. Just follow the instructions (written in English). Don’t worry, if you get a bad fortune, just tie the paper around a nearby rack to stop the bad luck from happening.
2. Meiji Shrine
Meiji Shrine is one of Japan’s most popular shrines. This shrine is the one Tokyoites visit at the beginning of every year in order to pray for good fortune.
Built in 1920, the shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of the Meiji Emperor and his wife, the Empress Shokun.
What to do at Meiji Shrine: Write your wish on an ema, a votive tablet, and place it under the big camphor tree to the right of the main hall.
3. Tokyo National Museum
This museum is the best place to visit in Tokyo to get a sense of the overall history of Japanese art.
The Tokyo National Museum is made up of 5 buildings. It would take you a few days to visit all of them. However, you don’t need to do that. Just head to the one in the center, the Honkan Gallery. Here you’ll see an overview of Japanese art from the Jomon to the Edo periods.
Pro Tip: I love the paintings by Hakusai. His most famous one, “Great Wave of Kanagawa,” was located on the first floor when I visited.
4. Edo Tokyo Museum
This spectacular museum in Sumida covers the fascinating history of Tokyo.
The Edo Tokyo Museum takes you through the history of Tokyo when it was called Edo to the present day. It’s filled with reproductions such as the Nihon Bashi Bridge (considered the center of Edo), a Kabuki Theater, and a Japanese apartment from the 1960s.
Pro Tip: The Edo Tokyo Museum is huge! To see it all, you’ll want to schedule three or four hours. Be sure to arrive early because most museums in Japan close at 5:00 pm. Also, make sure you have enough time for the post World War II section of the museum.
5. Ukiyo-e Ota Museum of Art
If you’re looking for a break from the teeny boppers crowds of Harajuku, head to this small, gem of a museum, the Ukiyo-e Museum of Art.
This museum focuses on Japanese woodblock prints of the Floating World in the Edo and Meiji periods. The Floating World was the term used to describe the pleasure world where Japanese went to watch kabuki, drink, gamble, and visit geishas and prostitutes.
Pro Tip: It’s small, so you need just an hour to visit. You could go back to this museum every month as the prints change monthly.
6. Kabuki-za Theater
Watching a kabuki performance at Tokyo’s Kabuki-za Theater is a must for anyone wanting to explore Japanese traditional culture more deeply.
Kabuki is traditional Japanese drama. The stories usually feature tales of romance and heroism. It was traditionally performed by all female casts, but the Japanese people felt this was too risqué, so female actors were banned and replaced by an all-male cast.
Pro Tip: The Kabuki-za theater has four to five performances every day from morning to evening. You can buy single act tickets on the day of the performance from 600 yen to 1,500 yen. I highly recommend renting an electronic translator at the theater to get a translation of the play.
7. Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium
Seeing a sumo match is not just for the sports enthusiast, but also for those wanting to experience one aspect of Japan’s unique culture. You can do that at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium in Samida.
Official Sumo tournaments only take place in January, March, May, July, September, and November. If you’re not in Tokyo in those months, you can also watch a morning practice session.
Pro Tip: You can buy tickets on Voyagin or Viator websites. You can also buy cheap same day tickets at 8:00 am. However, they sell out very quickly, so get in line really early in the morning.
8. Oedo Onsen Monogatari
Another cultural experience you must try before leaving Japan is a visit to a hot springs (called onsen in Japanese). An easy way to visit one in Tokyo is at a hot spring entertainment park called Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba.
At Monogatari, you’ll find an outdoor foot bathing area, a food court, and a gender-separated bathing area with several different kinds of baths. The other unique aspect about this experience is that you’ll wander around the park in a traditional Japanese robe called a yukata.
Pro Tip: Japanese hot springs can be an intimidating experience for the first-timer. Before your visit, watch some videos to learn how to tie a yukata and read up on Japanese bathing etiquette.
9. Tsukiji Outer Market
You can’t leave Japan without experiencing its world-famous food. One of the most fun ways to do it is to visit Tsukiji Outer Market. Here you’ll get to sample Japanese street food like tamagoyaki, sea urchin, and oysters. There are also lots of delicious restaurants for a sit-down meal of sashimi or seafood rice bowls.
Tsukiji Market used to be divided into 2 parts: the outer market for tourists and the inner wholesale market. The wholesale market moved in 2018 to modern facilities in Toyosu. You can also visit, but it’s far away and it lacks the character that Tsukiji has.
Pro Tip: Shops are open from 9:00 to 14:00. All are closed on Sundays and some are closed on Wednesdays.
10. Staying in a Ryokan
You should at least experience staying in a traditional Japanese inn, called a ryokan, at least once during your trip to Japan. Tokyo is a great place to experience this only-in-Japan style of accommodations.
Ryokans have several features that are uniquely Japanese. They’ll have their own hot spring bath for their guests. Some of them will also serve a multi-course breakfast and/or dinner consisting of seasonal dishes.
Pro Tip: Asakusa and Yanasen areas have some affordable ryokans for around (and sometimes under) US$100 a night.
11. Visiting traditional pre-war neighborhoods
If you want to see what Tokyo was like before World War II, the neon lights and shiny skyscrapers, then wander through the streets of Yanasen.
Yanasen consists of three areas: Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi. Here you’ll find pre-war wooden buildings, lots of old temples and cemeteries, and shops selling traditional sweets and home goods.
Pro Tip: Try to have lunch or dinner at Hantei or Kamachiku.
Modern Japanese Culture
12. Visiting Shinjuku
If you have time for only one place to visit in Tokyo, make it the district of Shinjuku. Here is where you’ll see the Tokyo from the movies: the neon lights, unique bars, the crazy pachinko parlors, modern skyscrapers, and crowds of hip Tokyoites.
When visiting Shinjuku, there are three modern places to visit: Kabukicho, Omoido Yokocho (a narrow alley filled with tiny bars and yakitori restaurants), and Golden Gai (a series of small lanes filled with more tiny bars).
Pro Tip: Join a food tour of Shinjuku to get the inside scoop on where to go. You can sign up with tours through Get Your Guide.
13. Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya Crossing is THE famous crosswalk where you see a mess of people coming from all directions at one time to cross one intersection. To add to the experience, you’re surrounded by bright neon lights, huge television screens, and slick skyscrapers.
Don’t feel embarrassed if you do the crosswalk numerous times. I think all tourists do it! After doing Shibuya Crossing, check out the surrounding neighborhood. I found it to be a great place for street photography.
Pro Tip: Find a place from above to watch the crossing. An easy place to watch is from Starbucks. Sometimes it’s hard to find the exit from the station for Shibuya Crossing. Be patient. Look for the Hachiko Exit. This also leads to the statue of the famous dog called Hachiko.
14. Takeshita Dori Street
Takeshita Dori is a fun street to visit in Harajuku. It’s where Japanese teens go to shop, to eat, and to strut their stuff in the latest fashions.
Takeshita Dori is the perfect place to do both your people watching and shopping. You’ll see Japanese teens showing off their latest hairstyles and clothes. There are lots of trendy boutiques, inexpensive shops selling things you really don’t need, cat cafes, hedgehog cafes, and cafes serving crepes, cotton candy, and whatever the latest snack fad is.
Pro Tip: Stand at the beginning of the street to take a photo of the sea of people bobbing their heads as they parade down the street.
15. Fluffy Pancakes
The Japanese like to take foreign dishes and put their own spin on them. One dish that the Japanese have made their own version of is the pancake called the fluffy pancake. You can find restaurants all over Harajuku selling this delicious it.
You can find fluffy pancake restaurants in Harajuku. Here are some popular ones: A Happy Pancake, Burn Side Street Cafe, Flippers and Rainbow Pancake.
Pro Tip: Expect to wait in line to get in. I arrived at A Happy Pancake before it opened at 9:00 am, put my name on a list, and went off to wander the streets of Harajuku.
Another teen hangout that epitomizes modern Japanese culture is Akihabara.
You’ll find lots of stores for electronics, manga, anime, and video games. Looking for a Maid Cafe? Look no further than Akihabara.
Akihabara is named after Akiba, a local shrine. On Sundays, the main street, Chuo Dori, becomes a pedestrian only zone from 1:00 to 6:00 pm.
Pro Tip: You’ll see “maids” standing outside maid cafes getting customers to come inside. Please ask first before taking photos of them. They hate it when you snap one without asking.
17. Robot Restaurant
Some may say that the Robo Restaurant is a tourist trap, but it’s a fun and only-in-Japan tourist trap that keeps people coming.
The Robot Restaurant isn’t a restaurant per se. You can order food, but you don’t have to and you probably don’t want to since the food isn’t all that good. The main focus of the “restaurant” is the robot show.
Pro Tip: Buy tickets for the show through Klook to get a discount.
18. teamLab Borderless
MORI Building Digital Art Museum: teamlab Borderless is the newest tourist sensation in Tokyo. It’s a museum devoted to interactive digital art. The digital art is projected onto the walls, floors, and ceilings. It’s constantly changing so that you can enter a room twice and experience different works of art.
There are actually two of these museums in Tokyo: teamLab Borderless and teamlab Planets. The teamLab Borderless in Odaiba is a permanent museum, while another one is temporary.
Pro Tip: Buy your tickets ahead of time because they sometimes sell out AND arrive before the museum opens to be the first ones in the museum. You’ll avoid crazy long lines.
19. Tokyo Sky Tree
The Tokyo Sky Tree is the best place to see 360 degree panoramic views of Tokyo. It towers over the city at 634 meters.
Tokyo Sky Tree was finished in 2011 in Sumida district of Tokyo. It has one of those glass floors that you can walk on and see the world below you.
Pro Tip: Some people suggest skipping the tree and going to the Tokyo Government Building in Shinjuku. It’s free, while Tokyo Sky Tree isn’t. I felt the views were better from the Sky Tree, and you can actually take photos without the glass causing a glare on your camera.
20. Studio Ghibli Museum
The Ghibli Museum is the animation museum of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. The studio made many famous Japanese anime movies such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke.
You’ll find exhibits on the process of making an animation movie and an opportunity to watch a movie that can only be seen at the museum.
Pro Tip: You need to buy the tickets online and in advance. You can’t buy tickets at the museum. Online tickets go on sale 3 months before the date of the visit. They sell out quickly, so as soon as your ticket date is being sold, buy it. Don’t even wait a day.
To read more about what to see and do in Tokyo click here!