Making a list of the best things to do in Tokyo and narrowing that down to 10 items is a fool’s errand. From museums to theme parks to the bizarre yet awesome, Japan’s capital city has no shortage of excellent things to do. Nevertheless, we are going to narrow this list down, as it’s likely you have limited time in Tokyo and need to know what points of interest and attractions are most worth your time.
In response to our Top 10 Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan, a few readers commented that the list was way too heavy on temples and shrines. Well, this list has exactly zero temples or shrines. While you’ll see Meiji Jingu Shrine and Senso-ji Temple on some best of Tokyo lists, we’d encourage most of you to skip those if you’re continuing on to Kyoto–and every foreign visitor to Japan should visit Kyoto, too.
That’s because Tokyo and Kyoto are very different beasts, and very much complementary to one another. While there’s no doubt cultural and even substantive overlap, these are dramatically different experiences. The most apt comparison in the United States I can think of is Hawaii and Alaska, and obviously that’s a highly imperfect comparison, but the idea behind it stands.
Unlike our Best Things to Do in Los Angeles list, in which we obsessively focused only on options within the city limits, we’re playing a bit looser with Tokyo. This is mainly because excellent and efficient public transit blurs the line in Tokyo, making many places outside the city’s boundaries easily accessible.
It’s also because ‘best of’ lists for Los Angeles are often populated almost exclusively with things outside the city, whereas Tokyo lists often lack these items. Variety being the spice of life, our goal is to bring you resources that present different options than you’ll read elsewhere, not just more of the same. With that said, let’s dig into our list of the best things to do in Tokyo, Japan…
10. Niche Corporate Museums
This might read like a cop out, but I think it’s truly one of the best suggestions you probably haven’t read anywhere else. I’m listing it last not because it’s the 10th best thing to do, but because it informs the rest of this list and the itinerary you build. Whatever your interest, do a Google search for that plus “Tokyo Museum.”
Tokyo is home to countless museums, most of which are niche topics or corporate museums. The idea of a corporate museum might sound propaganda-ish, but it’s mostly not. Japanese corporations take pride in their legacies, and many pay tribute to their industries with low-cost or free museums. These range in topics, and cover pretty much anything you can imagine: coffee, paper, beer, firefighting, swords, cameras, and so on. We’ve visited several museums like this, and have almost always had a great time and learned more than we ever knew we wanted to know about the topic.
Two of my favorites, both of which are slightly outside Tokyo or else they’d make this list as stand-alone entries, are the Railway Museum and the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. As far as museums within Tokyo, we absolutely loved the Firefighting Museum, which offered fascinating history of the city (and also provided insight into why so many things have burned down and been rebuilt numerous times.) While we’ve just scratched the surface of these corporate/niche museums, there are at least a half-dozen we’ve enjoyed more than #8 and #9 on this list.
Odaiba is pretty much a placeholder on this list, waiting to be replaced by some hidden gem we’ve yet to discover. It’s a fun area with futuristic architecture, a beautiful view of Tokyo’s skyline plus the Rainbow Bridge, a variety of approachable shopping, dining, and entertainment…but it’s not a place we’d go out of our way to visit. Compared to the niche museums above, other points of interest, and wandering around the various neighborhoods, Odaiba is fairly low-priority.
With that said, Odaiba is neat, and worth your time if you’re already near Tokyo Bay (and you should be to visit #1). We think the view is the highlight, but Odaiba Illumination YAKEI (a year-round illumination) is also neat to see. Then there are Odaiba’s popular spots such as Legoland Discovery Center, Aquacity, Odaiba Seaside Park, Fuji TV Building, National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and DiverCity Tokyo Plaza. Cumulatively, this gives Odaiba a “something for everyone” vibe, and a place worth spending an evening.
8. Tokyo SkyTree
The Skytree is the tallest building in Tokyo (cue Pitbull), with an observatory and restaurant at its higher levels overlooking downtown Tokyo, and a large shopping structure at lower levels. It opened less than a decade ago its modern, neo-futuristic design has been drawing large crowds since.
While we spent an evening at the Skytree complex and enjoyed ourselves, I’m actually a bit reluctant to include it. Personally, I’d rather visit spend a night exploring Shibuya and Shinjuku, and then make a quick stop at the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building’s observation deck. Nonetheless, as a standalone attraction, Tokyo Skytree is pretty cool, and definitely something to consider during a longer trip, particularly if you’ll already be in the area and are a sucker for a great view.
7. Sanrio Puroland
This is Japan’s Hello Kitty theme park. Okay, for those of you still with us, Sanrio Puroland shocked us with its charm and delightful attractions and displays. Prior to visiting, we didn’t know the first thing about Hello Kitty and company, other than the fact that they existed and are super popular in Japan.
Setting aside our preconceptions and reservations that this would be a “kiddie” experience that we’d find dull as adults without children, we decided to give it a chance. Sanrio Puroland quickly won us over, and we ended up spending an entire day there (and are eager to return!). The production value of the shows is exceptional, there are some clever walk-throughs, and a lot of bizarre entertainment. Sanrio Puroland is a great way to experience a slice of Japan’s kawaii culture firsthand, and a surprising amount of fun.
6. Tokyo National Museum
Japan’s flagship art and archeological museum houses over 100,000 rotating items, with roughly 4,000 on display including around 100 National Treasures of Japan. The highlights include samurai swords and armor (we learned more about samurai culture than we did from the more fun and light-hearted Samurai Museum in Shinjuku), the lavish kimono art, and beautiful fusuma paintings.
The presentation of Tokyo National Museum is excellent, and its layout makes it approachable and not too overwhelming. No, it’s not a museum you could get lost inside or spend the entire day but it does provide cultural context for your adventures that will follow in Japan. This is further enhanced by excellent English audio guides.
For this reason, we would recommend visiting Tokyo National Museum early during your trip to Japan. Ueno Park is also a fabulous area with great street food, a lovely promenade, and variety of other museums that might catch your interest. Tokyo National Museum is definitely the reason to visit Ueno Park, but you should budget at least an hour for the park itself.
5. Tsukiji Market
The first time I went to Tsukiji Market, I was bracing myself for a super touristy experience that would be underwhelming despite its inclusion in several books I had consulted in planning. A few minutes into my visit, I was almost hit by a forklift, which both terrified me and gave me a great respect for Tsukiji’s authenticity. It also caused me to be more cognizant of my surroundings, and less of an oblivious tourist.
What you’re most likely to hear about Tsukiji is the record-setting tuna auctions that take place each morning at 5 a.m., or the rows of exceptional sushi restaurants (some of them open 24 hours per day!), but I think the real highlight is the raw authenticity of the place. The wholesale fruit, vegetable, and (especially) seafood markets are really cool, and don’t feel the least bit touristy despite being overrun with tourists at some points.
Doing a fresh sushi breakfast followed by perusing those markets is one of the cooler experiences you can have in Tokyo. (Note: In October 2018, Tsukiji Fish Market will “move,” and reopen as the Toyosu Fish Market. It’s unclear whether the live tuna auction and ability to explore the active work area unimpeded will be retained with the new incarnation of Tokyo’s famous fish market.)
4. Ghibli Museum
You don’t need to have ever seen a Studio Ghibli film to appreciate this museum, although you’ll definitely get more out of it if you have. (We’d highly recommend watching at least My Neighbor Totoro before you visit Japan for the first time.) This is as much an interactive love letter to the animation process and its history as it is a tribute to Studio Ghibli films.
Obviously, the Ghibli Museum also does highlight those films, which themselves are uniquely Japanese. The style of the museum is reminiscent of a Ghibli film: at once whimsical and methodical, with a sense of childlike wonder to it. The organic design of the building and its campus further reflects Ghibli motifs, and makes it a joy to simply wander around after you’re done touring the inside. The Ghibli Museum is an absolute gem, and something we’d highly recommend to any visitor to Tokyo–even those who have never seen a single Miyazaki film.
3. Shinjuku & Shibuya
As with any city, wandering and getting a feel for the place is an important element of the experience for us. Tokyo has no shortage of great places for an interesting and entertaining walk. Truly, no matter where you are, you’re going to see interesting and quirky things.
Five years ago, Harajuku would’ve topped this list. It has transformed dramatically of late, with the expressive, counterculture creativity dying. Many shops have closed, and the area’s organic style has been replaced mostly be commercialized imitations of the same. It’s less about eccentricity and fun style, and more about Instagram “models” and YouTube “celebrities” wanting to emulate the style. Harajuku is by no means bad, but it’s no longer a must visit area–a victim of its own fame.
Narrowing this list down of areas we do recommend, Akihabara ranks highly, but its vibrance and focus on otaku culture makes it really similar to other entries on this list. Ginza is also lovely, and features a laundry-list of designer boutiques, fine dining restaurants, and the most expensive coffee on earth. It’s modern architecture is interesting, but it’s feels a bit lacking in character (and substantive things to do if you’re not a high-roller). Nonetheless, if you have the time, you should explore both of those wards, too.
For this list, though, we’ll go with the adjacent city wards of Shinjuku and Shibuya. The latter is famous for its massive intersection that is purportedly the busiest in the world (it truly is bananas, and as boring as an intersection might sound, it’s absolutely worth seeing Shibuya Crossing), but also features a lot of trendy shops and has more character than Ginza.
Shinjuku, on the other hand, is a tale of two city wards. During the day, it’s mostly business. A pretty place with some nice things to see (make sure to stop at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden–it almost made this list on its own), good dining options, and a bit of bizarreness. At night, that bizarreness takes center stage, with a bit of seediness thrown in for good measure. You’ll see what we mean when you return in the evening to experience entry #2 on this list.
2. Robot Restaurant
It’s true. All of it.
Whatever you’ve heard about the Robot Restaurant, no matter how absurd, off-the-wall, or utterly preposterous, it’s more likely than not true. We’ve done Robot Restaurant every year since it opened, and we never get sick of this ever-evolving robot-stylized dance show and monster mash. (That description doesn’t encapsulate what this show is, but then again, nothing does.)
In some ways, Robot Restaurant has become a victim of its own popularity. Thanks to a barrage of TripAdvisor commercials featuring it and appearances on pretty much every travel special about Tokyo in the last few years, many showings of Robot Restaurant now have audiences that are predominantly Westerners. In itself, this isn’t a bad thing. However, Robot Restaurant has changed in that time, shifting from something authentic and pure to what its operators think foreign visitors expect. This means more Japanese stereotypes, and a bigger-budget production.
The good news is that the whole affair is utterly ridiculous, nonsensical, and still is tons of fun. It doesn’t have quite as much character and rough-around-the-edges charm as it did 4 years ago, but the upside is that it has more crazy “robot” antics, and a grander scale. A night at Robot Restaurant promises more laughs and “what the hell?!” reactions than you’ll have anywhere else in your life.
1. Tokyo Disney Resort
Most of you might write this off as obvious bias from two big-time Disney geeks, but hear me out. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea are not just amazing theme parks, but two of the most culturally-authentic experiences you can have in Tokyo.
Japan has had an obsession with Americana and pop culture for decades, which explains why Tokyo Disneyland has been such a huge hit since opening in 1983. Over the years, Japan hasn’t just embraced Mickey Mouse and all things Disney, but refined the experiences, and coopted them as their own. In a way, they’ve Japanified Disney. This is evident in the way guests dress, snack foods, and–most notably–via Duffy the Bear and his motley crew of kawaii animal friends.
The park demographics also reinforce this notion of an authentic cultural experience. Likely due to preconceptions, you will see far fewer international tourists in these parks than you would at a popular temple or shrine. This may come as a surprise given Disney’s reputation among some Americans as being a “tourist trap,” but it’s most certainly the case. Instead, the predominant demographic is young locals who are passionate about Disney, friendly & outgoing, and have turned these parks into something of a Harajuku without the ostentatiousness.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Tokyo DisneySea is the most incredible and lavish theme park in the world, a place that’s distinctly “Disney” without beating you over the head with that fact.
That’s it for our list…so far. While we’ve spent a ton of time in Tokyo and seen all of its “major” points of interest, we still haven’t done it all. Not even close. Given how some points of interest and experiences have been surprise hits for us (like Sanrio Puroland), I’m not prepared to call this a definitive list of the best things to do in Tokyo, Japan. It’s a good start, and we’ll likely add to it over time when we stumble onto new gems that justify bumping Odaiba and the Tokyo SkyTree.
Have you visited Tokyo? What experiences, attractions, or neighborhoods did you enjoy most in the city? Any additional tips or thoughts from your visit to add? If you haven’t been to Japan, does Tokyo look like an appealing city to you? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!