Tokyo, Japan: the name alone invokes visions of bright neon lights, packed trains and a fast-paced organized culture. Tokyo is home to more than 13 million people who have created an unexpected mix of both ancient and modern traditions which coexist side by side. I'm not going to sugarcoat it; Tokyo is a massive city. Having to maneuver your way through a labyrinth of trains, subway stations and hurried businessmen can be very overwhelming. On top of that, you'll have to adapt to a world dependent on a completely different writing system and language. Despite this, Tokyo is by far one of my favorite places in the world.
In September of 2016 I did the impossible. I convinced my husband to hop on a plane and travel 6,000 miles away from our home in Chicago to Tokyo, Japan. I’m no stranger to Tokyo. With 2 prior trips under my belt I felt like I was the perfect tour guide. But I knew this trip would be completely different. With this being my husbands first time to Asia and the fact I created so much hype about this city, I knew I had a huge task ahead of me. Before we even left, I made sure to create a list of what I thought were quintessential when visiting this city. As I was cleaning out my email and deleting old folders a couple days ago, I found my Japan folder. In that folder was the list I created before we left for Tokyo. I thought I would share with you my top 12 things for first timers to see and do in Tokyo.
1. Meiji Shrine
Surrounded by a forest directly across from the bustling streets of Harajuku sits the Meiji Shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Following the tree-lined path through the forest away from modern society makes you feel like you’re being transported back in time. This is one of the most popular Shinto shrines in Tokyo and it attracts tourists from all over the world. The traditional Japanese architecture is absolutely stunning and the forest around it makes for a beautiful backdrop.
2. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
One of Tokyo’s largest national parks, the Shinjuku Gyoen Park is a sprawling expanse containing several themed gardens, a greenhouse, an art gallery, restaurants and several tea houses. The park is divided into 3 separate gardens: traditional Japanese, English landscape and French formal. There is no shortage of vast open spaces, ponds with koi fish and colorful flowers. It’s easy to spend a couple hours here strolling through the many gardens they have to offer. Pack a lunch and head to the park to enjoy while also taking in the beautiful surroundings.
3. Ueno Park
There is no other park in Tokyo that has as many attractions as the Ueno Park. This large park is a favorite destination for Tokyo residents, and is home to many of the city's main attractions including the Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Zoo and the National Museum of Western Art. Make sure to see the Kaneiji temple and try and catch a a boat ride on the Shinobazu Pond.
4. Tsukiji Fish Market
This is the worlds largest and busiest fish market. With endless rows of hardworking fishermen slicing and dicing all different types of fish, it is easy to see why this is a favorite destination for tourists. Although the market itself is huge with plenty of room to roam, the internal environment is fast-paced. Take all the time you want, but be aware of your surroundings - this is a place of business and many workers don't enjoy maneuvering around stunned tourists. For those of you who are sushi fans, grab a sushi breakfast before heading into the market itself. If you're an early bird, be sure to get up early and check out the tuna auction at 5:00 AM.
5. Tokyo Imperial Palace and Gardens
The Imperial Palace is where the Emperor and Empress reside and is situated in the center of Tokyo. It is a short 10 minute walk from Tokyo station. The palace is surrounded by a water-filled moat and tree-covered grounds and is accompanied by the beautiful Imperial garden. Walk through a magnificent park set in the center of the city and get a taste of nature within the bustling metropolitan city. The Empress of Japan is personally involved with the garden itself - but more specifically the silk worms. The Park and Gardens are all open to the public free of charge. If you wish to visit the palace itself, you need to make reservations in advance through the Japanese Government website. Reservations may be made over the Internet and can take several weeks to receive approval.
6. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
This building allows for the public to enjoy a 360 degree panoramic view of Tokyo from an observation deck. Along with free views of the city, there are also souvenir shops and a resturant.
7. Tokyo Skytree
Completed in 2012, the Tokyo Sky Tree Is a broadcasting and observation tower. It also contains restaurants and a 300 store mall. Heading up to the observation deck isn't necessary (it can be a little pricey) but it is a very cool to look at especially at night. The Tokyo Skytree is quickly becoming the new symbol of Tokyo, transforming the skyline signifcantly.
8. Tokyo Tower
Similar to the Skytree, the Tokyo Tower is an observation tower providing 360 degree views of the city. This tower has been an icon for the city since it opened in 1957. The design is based off the Eiffel Tower in Paris and stands 9 meters tall than its french counterpart. Visiting the observation deck isn't neccessary, but it's a beautiful sight to see lit up at night.
9. Takeshita Street
This is where Harajuku culture was born. Located across from the Harajuka JR Line, this famous street offers shops containing the latest Japanese fashion trends - most of which are unique and very well priced. There are also 1 yen stores here (similar to dollar stores), which make for a great place to pick up inexpensive souvenirs for friends and family members. This street can get very busy so visiting during the morning or avoiding weekends would be ideal. Make sure to pickup a delicious crepe or try out the Purikura (Japanese photo booths). For those of you searching for a little adventure, head over to the Kawaii Monster Cafe. You are served artwork-like food by girls dressed in Harajuku fashion. It is a little touristy and not on the cheap side, but it's a small price to pay for an interesting experience.
10. Senso-ji Temple
Located in Asakusa, this Buddhist temple is Tokyo's oldest and most visited. The gate (Kaminarimon ) and the large red lantern are the first things you'll see when leaving the Asakusa subway station. Walking past the gate you'll be led into Nakamise street, where there are tons of shops and food stands. Making your way past the shops you'll be greeted by another gate (Hozomon) and beyond that, the main hall sits. This is a beautiful temple and you can easily spend half a day here wandering around the large grounds and gardens.
Also known as "Electric Town," this town is home to shops selling the latest technology, video games and Anime related items. The streets are lined with colorful billboards containing promotional sales and advertising Anime shows or characters. There are plenty of gaming arcades and shops to check out. This is also where maid cafes are located as well as the Gundam restaurant. Stroll through the thinly lined streets and take in the quirkiness of this town.
12. Golden Gai
Connected by several narrow alleyways and hidden among the dense high rises and buildings in Shinjuku, you'll find what the locals call the "Golden Gai." In this area you'll discover more than 300 bars and restaurants - most of which are only large enough to hold 4-5 customers. This area seems almost secretive and makes you feel like you've found a hidden gem. Each bar or restaurant has a unique theme, which you'll quickly notice by the interior decoration. Take the time to stroll around and possibly stop into one or more of these rare bars.