I recently shared a list of recommendations with a student who will be studying abroad in Tokyo this coming school year, and I thought I’d share it here as well!
Tokyo Trend Ranking
This is a free magazine that you can find in most stations of the Tokyo Metro. It comes out once a month and is filled with photographs and information about unique and popular restaurants and pubs and cafés, as well as seasonal special events throughout the city. Because it’s meant to promote usage of the Metro, it always contains illustrated walking tours focused on one or two specific stations. If you want to explore the off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods of Tokyo, this is a great resource!
This is a refillable prepaid train fare card, and it’s the first thing you want to get when you arrive in Japan. You should probably go ahead and get one in the airport as soon as you get off the plane. You can get one at the automatic vending machines next to train stations, and the process is super easy. Your Suica card will work just about everywhere in Japan, and you can use it in all sorts of places, from convenience stores to movie theaters. If you’re feeling hardcore, you can link it to your smartphone and your bank account.
Seventeen Places to Visit
Tokyo National Museum
This is the big museum of Japanese art and culture that you definitely want to see. It’s in Ueno Park in northeast Tokyo, not too far away from the zoo.
This is also in Ueno Park. It’s a small museum, just the inside of an old house, but you can walk through it and see how people lived during the first half of the twentieth century.
This indoor museum is probably the best place to go if you want to learn more about the history of the city of Tokyo. The architecture is really cool, and it’s a neat space to walk around. It’s also not too far away from Akihabara.
Fish and art and over-the-top spectacle. It’s really close to Tokyo Station, whose interconnected underground shopping streets are another blitz of sensory overload.
Maruzen Nipponbashi Branch
In my opinion, this is the best place to go in Tokyo for English-language books. Most of the English books they stock come from the UK, and they tend to be of higher quality than American publications of the same titles. These imports are expensive, though!
The main shrine buildings are well worth visiting, especially because someone always seems to be getting married there. More than the shrine itself, however, the huge forested park is a great place to take a long walk while surrounded by nature. All of this is free, but I highly recommend paying the 500 yen entrance fee for the Inner Garden, which is especially lovely. Meiji Shrine is a major tourist destination, though, so you want to go early in the morning (probably as soon as they open the grounds) in order to avoid the crowds.
If you start at Meiji Shrine and walk along the Aoyama-dori boulevard through Harajuku, you’ll eventually get to the Nezu Museum, which houses a private collection of Asian art. Even if you don’t care anything about sculpture and ceramics, the estate garden is gorgeous, and teahouse café at the entrance to the garden is a beautiful place to drink tea and eat cake and feel super fancy.
Aoyama Flower Market Tea House
This café is in the neighborhood of the Nezu Museum, and it’s one of the most beautiful interior spaces I’ve ever seen in my life. You definitely want to get there when they open, because they get busy! They have tasty salads, heavenly parfaits, and delicious teas. If you can’t get a seat here, the entire neighborhood of Aoyama is full of trendy little organic restaurants filled with beautiful young people. Even going into one of the Starbucks in this neighborhood will make you feel like a rockstar.
This large rooftop aquarium has no redeeming cultural value, but it’s a cool place to spend an afternoon. If you watch a lot of anime set in contemporary Japan, you’re sure to recognize the setting! The caretaker talks showcasing the animals are a lot of fun to watch; and, since they’re geared toward children, they’re also relatively easy to understand. The Sunshine City shopping complex contains a Pokémon Center, a Studio Ghibli store, a Shonen Jump store, and other pop culture outlets. It also contains a Tokyu Hands, which is a great place to buy just about everything. The Tokyu Hands fronts the main outdoor shopping arcade, and they host small indie craft fairs at the entrance on the weekends.
Cat Café Nekorobi
This is right behind the Tokyu Hands, and it’s a warm space filled with softness and light. In my experience, it generally isn’t that crowded; and, although the cats are standoffish (but what can you expect, they’re cats), the staff and the other patrons are very friendly. What you really want to take your time with is the guestbook, which is an ongoing work of art. Also, this is the starting point of Otome Road, which is where you go if you’re looking for pop culture goods targeted at a female audience.
Shoto Museum of Art
This is a neat little art museum in Shibuya with some really cool gallery spaces. They exhibit a lot of early modern (Edo period) and modern (Meiji and Taishō period) art alongside contemporary work, and the architecture of the building is quite interesting as well.
Shibuya Botanical Center
This is a warm and happy healing space full of greenery. The entire building is suffused with humidity, and there’s free tea on the top floor. This is a great place to learn the Japanese names of flowers and plants, and it’s also a wonderful place to take selfies or pictures with your friends in soft diffuse light. For some reason it’s never crowded, but I’m not complaining.
Mori Art Museum
This museum has some really cool exhibitions, which feature everything from avant-garde architectural photography to the work of popular manga artists. The gallery spaces are located at the top of a huge skyscraper, so the views of Tokyo from the windows are incredible. It’s located in the Roppongi Hills shopping complex, which is super trendy and also home to a large movie theater that shows a lot of American movies with subtitles. TV Asahi also has a presence in the area, so you can sometimes randomly encounter live performances of various Power Rangers and Doremon characters if you go during the afternoon.
Oedo Onsen Monogatari
This place is ridiculous. It’s an onsen theme park where you can go in and take all sorts of baths and eat all sorts of snacks and drink all sorts of beverages. A lot of people visit with their families, so it’s a good place to chill out in a yukata and watch people walk by. It’s in Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, so it’s kind of a pain in the ass to get to, but there’s a huge mall called VenusFort nearby that has an Italian-themed interior. The mall is an experience in and of itself, and you can often see brand-new idol groups performing there on pop-up stages.
110% worth the hype. When you first enter, you’re allowed to watch a screening of an original short film, and your “ticket” is a tiny animation cell. You’d think that this place exists solely to sell you merchandise, but commercialism isn’t really the focus, thankfully. Still, you probably want to get a ticket for early in the morning before the crowds gather. You can only reserve a ticket in advance (usually at least a week in advance) from one of the digital vending machines in Lawson convenience stores, but the process isn’t really that difficult. Because of the scarcity of tickets, this is something you can only do if you’re in Japan for an extended period of time, so you should jump on the opportunity if you’re interested!
Yokohama Museum of Art
The building is awesome, and the exhibitions are always fantastic. The reason you’d want to make a special trip out to Yokohama, however, is because the museum is part of the Minato Mirai waterfront area, which is a huge upscale shopping complex and gourmet paradise. You can find the same sort of pop culture specialty chain stores (like the Pokémon Center) that are in Sunshine City in Ikebukuro, but Minato Mirai is way more classy and far less crowded over the weekend. Also, there are a lot of restaurants in the Yokohama Chinatown that have branches in Minato Mirai, and it’s usually much easier to get a table here than it is in the main branches.
Meigetsuin Temple in Kamakura
Why go all the way to Kyoto when you can go to Kamakura? You’ll probably have to go through Yokohama to get here, but it’s really not that far away from Tokyo, and the train ride is lovely. I recommend getting off the train at Kita-Kamakura Station and then walking to Kamakura proper along the main road while visiting a few temples along the way. Engakuji and Kenchōji are the two most popular sites, but my favorite is Meigetsuin, which is known as “the hydrangea temple” because of its stunning mountainside walking garden. Due to the natural beauty of the area and relatively low rent, a lot of artists live in Kamakura, and there are all sorts of small galleries and lovely cafés in and around the city. Once the weather gets warm, you’ll notice that the lifestyle magazines in convenience stores start featuring Kamakura locations on their covers, and it’s well worth consulting one for recommendations!