Tokyo, like any great city, is a place of contrasts: ancient temples coexist with towering skyscrapers, and tightly buttoned suits share the streets with the most whimsical of fashions. First-time visitors are sure to find the chaotic neon and futuristic architecture popularized by the media, but also a remarkably polite people and efficient infrastructure that make zipping from one district to the next a breeze.
A city as vast and variegated as Tokyo would take months to explore fully, but we’ve pared it down to the essentials—the top places to see, eat, and explore—so that you leave equipped with a good primer of the city and can come back knowing exactly where to explore next.
Tokyo's Must-See Sights
Kyoto may be the city to visit if you’re keen on experiencing the venerated traditions of Japan, but if you’re hoping for a glimpse of them in the country’s capital, look no further than Meiji Shrine. The century-old shrine sits in Yoyogi Park, just west of Harajuku Station, and regularly hosts Shinto weddings throughout the week. Join the crowds that gather to watch the kimono-clad bride and groom, shaded by a bright-red parasol, process through the grounds of the shrine.
You won’t be able to evade the tourists entirely, but we suggest visiting close to dusk, when night shrouds the surrounding trees with an otherworldly aura.
In contrast to Meiji Shrine, Senso-ji is more vibrant and colorful and the attendant crowds more boisterous. As the oldest temple in Tokyo, Senso-ji attracts throngs of visitors both local and foreign, so expect to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists if you visit during peak hours. The walk up to the temple is lined with dozens of booths selling souvenirs to take home, as well as confections and street food ideal for a quick snack.
Views at night, when the temple is illuminated and the crowds have largely dispersed, are strikingly different from those during the day. If you’d like to see both, while away the afternoon walking around the traditional streets and smaller temples of Asakusa before coming back after dusk.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The rows and rows of gleaming fish at the world’s busiest seafood market have long been a tourist destination. Eating a sushi meal for breakfast, when the catch is freshest, is a must. The two most famous sushi restaurants, Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai, regularly have hours-long queues that snake out the door, but save yourself the effort by going to one of the various other joints nearby: at Sushi Zanmai the quality is just as good, but you’ll hardly have to wait to be seated.
There’s a live fish auction that begins releasing tickets for public viewing at 4:30 a.m. on certain days, but save for the most die-hard of foodies, visiting the market mid-morning is more than enough to get a feel for the space. Ginza, one of Tokyo’s premier neighborhoods, is a short walk away.
A vast complex consisting of an Edo-era castle and three large surrounding gardens, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is the home of the Japanese imperial family. Glistening moats and stone walls make for one of the city’s most photogenic spots. Guided tours of the inner grounds can be reserved, but you can also stroll through the East Gardens, our favorite, at your own leisure.
Do make note of the palace’s closing hours, which change according to the season.
Japan’s busiest diagonal crossing epitomizes Tokyo at its hectic best: hundreds of pedestrians shuffling from one side of the street to the other at the turn of the spotlight. Just steps away is a statue dedicated to Hachiko, an Akita famous throughout Japan as a symbol of loyalty: for nine years, Hachiko arrived at Shibuya Station every day to await his owner, who had died from a stroke while at work.
You’ll almost certainly want a picture of the scene from above. The corner Starbucks is the most well-known viewing spot, but due to the numbers vying for a spot by the window, you’re likely better off elsewhere. Try Gusto, a chain restaurant that sits on the seventh floor, or Mark City, a department store, instead.
Tokyo's Must-Eat Food And Drink
You can’t leave Tokyo without having a bowl of ramen, and Rokurinsha ranks among the best. Its specialty is tsukemen: cooked noodles are served cold and plain, and diners dip them in a bowl of hot, intensely flavored broth as they eat. There’s usually a line out the door at lunchtime, so avoid peak hours if you can.
Kikanbo, which translates to “demon’s metal club,” serves a unique twist on a classic: “devil’s ramen” that combines spiciness with the numbing sensation of Szechuan peppercorns. An unctuous chunk of pork belly is served in the miso-based broth, which is adjusted to accommodate your preferred level of tongue-burning and tongue-tingling.
Tonkatsu, or breaded pork cutlet, is a popular comfort food in Japan, but few places do it as well as Butagumi. The sixty-year-old restaurant, easily recognized by its crescent-moon window, uses premium breeds for its pork; diners select from a couple dozen varieties. A curry option is available, but opt for the traditional tonkatsu sauce, a riff on Worcestershire sauce, to enjoy your cutlet at its best.
Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai
Humble tofu takes center stage at this kaiseki-style restaurant, which elevates the bean curd to fine-dining status. Two styles of tofu are featured in the set menus: tosui-tofu, in which the tofu is prepared with dashi broth, and age-dengaku, in which the tofu is fried and cooked with charcoal. The restaurant, nestled among pine trees and beside a koi pond, is an architectural treat to boot.
It’s not just restaurants that feature sophisticated tasting menus. Master mixologist Gen Yamamoto’s bar, an intimate eight-seater, serves only two options: a four-course or six-course flight that uses the best ingredients of the season. Like many high-end Japanese bars, the decor is minimalist and the presentation of drinks pristine. Reservations are essential.
Tokyo's Must-Visit Neighborhoods
A hyper-dense district that combines towering business centers and entertainment complexes with Tokyo’s red-light and gay neighborhoods, Shinjuku is a microcosm of the city. Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis, so if you’re short on time and want to see as many facets of the city as possible, visit this area first.
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating out, but one institution that’s become as legendary as Shinjuku itself is the Robot Restaurant: flashing lights, scantily-dressed girls, and the eponymous giant robots coalesce in a space that’s more cabaret than restaurant. If you prefer your meals to be more traditional, a hidden gem favored by the Journy team is Robata-Shou, an izakaya that grills up the freshest fish of the season.
Come night, meander through the narrow alleys of Golden Gai, a dense collection of bars northeast of Shinjuku Station. Alternatively, fans of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation will recognize the bar at the Park Hyatt, which offers spectacular views of the city.
Harajuku has captured the imagination of pop icons from Gwen Stefani to Nicki Minaj for its flamboyant fashion and youth culture. If you’re looking for similar inspiration, make a beeline for Takeshita Street, which on weekends sees local high schoolers come out in hordes. The mega-department store Laforet is the go-to destination for Lolita apparel.
Harajuku is far more than kooky looks, though. To the south is Omotesando, home to luxury brand flagships designed by some of the leading architects, including the Prada store by Herzog and de Meuron and the Dior store by home-grown superstar SANAA. You should also check out the hip boutiques of Cat Street, a pedestrian-only walkway that, despite its name, is devoid of cats.
Window-browsing, if not all-out shopping, is practically a given in Harajuku, so refuel at the Michelin-starred soba restaurant Tamawarai. Lines of up to two hours queue up for the homemade buckwheat noodles, so arrive early.
The luxury department stores that line the main thoroughfare of Ginza lend the neighborhood its reputation for classic glamor. Its proximity to Tokyo Station, the Imperial Palace, and Tsukiji Market makes it an ideal area to amble around between sights. The Wako department store, outfitted with an art deco clock in homage to the clock tower that once stood on the site, has become a defining visual marker of the area.
On weekends, the wide central boulevard becomes a pedestrian-only walkway, well-suited to the families that come out in droves.
Between shopping, be sure to check out Cafe de l’Ambre, an old-school cafe that’s been serving pour-over coffee since 1948, and Kuri, a sake bar serving flights of four to five sakes that rotate each week. For a treat, indulge in sushi omakase at Ichiyanagi, one of the leading sushi restaurants in the city.
Internationally-minded Roppongi has historically been associated with nightlife, and in particular bars and clubs that cater to expats. With ambitious commercial developments in recent years, however, its image has evolved to be more local-friendly.
Roppongi is home to three museums that set the standard for Tokyo’s art scene: the National Art Center; 21_21 Design Sight; and Journy’s favorite, the Mori Art Museum. The Mori Art Museum is situated on the fifty-second floor of the Roppongi Hills complex; just above are the Tokyo City View observation deck and open-air Rooftop Sky Deck, which provides an unparalleled view of Tokyo.
After your art binge, dig into a bowl of smoky kogashi (“burned”) ramen at Gogyo, which differs from most ramen joints in its spacious interior and relaxed service. If you’re in the mood to treat yourself, opt instead for omakase at Sushi Miyazono, a favorite among the city’s chefs.
Analogies have been drawn between Daikanyama and Brooklyn, and it’s not difficult to see the similarities: like the more laid-back, bohemian sister to Manhattan, this neighborhood offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s more frenetic business districts.
The must-visit in this leafy enclave is Daikanyama T-Site, a sprawling bookstore spread across three buildings. In addition to a tremendous collection of books, music, and DVDs, it houses the swanky cafe Anjin, a favorite destination for afternoon tea and business meetings alike. In true hipster style, you should also drop by Bonjour Records, which sells a well-curated collection of vinyls alongside smart threads from the likes of Maison Kitsuné and Mr. Gentleman, and Journey, a clothing boutique in a converted twentieth-century home.