The Best Things to Do in Tokyo

Tokyo has a dizzying number of things to do. Don’t think of that as a problem. Look at a visit to Tokyo—whether your first or your fifth—as an opportunity to go a bit deeper, to peel off layers, to write a list of things you need to visit on your next trip. Ponder that list while at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, where you can take in views of Tokyo from the 54th floor observation decks. Make sure it includes visits to Toyosu Market (formerly part of the Tsukiji fish market) for the tuna auctions, the Ghibli Museum (animation fan or not), and Shibuya Crossing. In season, take in the scent of cherry blossoms before heading to a cat cafe for a cup of tea and a cat cuddle. Or just go do all of those things now and create your own deep cuts list for your next visit.

Highlights
1-1 Yoyogikamizonochō, Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 151-8557, Japan
The serenity of the Meiji Jingu Shrine is a notable contrast to the crowds of Harajuku hipsters just beyond the giant torii gates. The Shinto shrine complex, which was dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken in 1920, is inside a forest that shuts out the noise and energy of the city. This temple is a popular site for celebratory events such as weddings and children’s festivals, so chances are good that visitors will happen upon families dressed up in traditional kimonos.
The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a gorgeous park that’s just a short walk from Shinjuku Station. There are several gardens within the space, including a formal French one, an English landscape garden, and a traditional Japanese design. While the admission fee is nominal (about $2), it helps assure that it is surprisingly quiet, with fewer visitors than parks open to the public for free. If the weather is good, consider picking up a bento from nearby Takashimaya’s depachika. Convenience stores sell plastic “blue sheets” for impromptu picnics. The only downside to this park is that it is alcohol-free; if you want to drink sake at your picnic, head down the road to Yoyogi Park.
6-chōme-5-1 Minamiaoyama, Minato City, Tōkyō-to 107-0062, Japan
Just down the street from fashionable Omotesando is the Nezu Museum, with an exquisite Japanese garden. Architect Kengo Kuma’s touches include a warm welcome with a bamboo wall at the entrance and rooms with picturesque views of the garden. The museum’s renowned permanent collection comprises a vast selection of Japanese and Asian pieces, including lacquerware, calligraphy, sculptures, and paintings. The Nezu Café has three walls of windows to enjoy the garden over a light meal, coffee and cake, or matcha and traditional wagashi sweets.
Far above the city streets on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the Roppongi Hills building, the Mori Art Museum houses contemporary works by primarily Japanese and East Asian artists in a range of mediums, including photography, design, fashion, architecture, and video installations. There’s also an observation deck on the 52nd floor with an open-air Sky Deck, a lounge, a café, and a restaurant with outstanding views of the city. Keep in mind, though, that there are a myriad other dining options as well on the lower floors of the Roppongi Hills building, one of the tallest in the city.
13-9 Uenokōen, Taitō-ku, Tōkyō-to 110-8712, Japan
Located in Ueno Park, the Tokyo National Museum is Japan‘s oldest museum, featuring an impressive collection of national treasures and important cultural properties. Aside from the permanent collection, there are special exhibitions with themes such as the tea ceremony, Japanese swords, and overseas treasures. Allow time to enjoy the expansive park, which blossoms in the spring and has gorgeous fall colors.
A visit to Japan would not be complete without a soak in an onsen hot spring. A fun choice in Tokyo is the Oedo Monogatari Onsen on Odaiba island in Tokyo Bay. This is not a small, traditional onsen but a “super onsen,” with a variety of tubs for soaking, both indoors and out. Plan on spending at least half a day here. Rent a colorful cotton yukata and, between soaks in the hot water, peruse the food stalls offering yakitori, sushi, ramen, and udon. Massages, reflexology, and spa treatments are available. Or join the locals who nestle into a lounge chair for a post-soak nap.
2-1-1, 2丁目-1 日本橋室町 中央区 東京都 103-8328, Japan
The views from the 37th-floor private spa suites at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihonbashi are unrivaled when it comes to a city spa. The menu is extensive, offering a wide range of treatments, including Japanese shiatsu, Thai massage, and Ayurveda. The facilities include an onsen-like infinity tub that overlooks the city for even more relaxation before or after your treatment, so be sure to add extra time to your schedule when booking an appointment.
Japan, 〒107-6290 Tōkyō-to, Minato-ku, Akasaka, 9丁目7−6 東京ミッドタウン・ガーデン内
21_21 Design Sight is a museum designed by one of Japan‘s most famous contemporary architects, Tadao Ando. The naturally lit space, of which some 80 percent is underground, is home to Japan’s first design museum. The simple lines of the building’s steel-and-concrete roof are typically Japanese in their emphasis on modesty. The museum is nestled in a green park, which softens the sharp exterior. Temporary exhibitions typically focus on the role design plays in daily life and how we interact with it. The museum is near the Tokyo Midtown complex in Roppongi, a short walk from Nogizaka Station.
7 Chome-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tōkyō-to 106-8558, Japan
For some travelers, what comes to mind first when they think of Japan is tales of samurai and shoguns, centuries-old temples, and the tea ceremony and kabuki. For others, however, what makes the country most exciting is its contemporary art, fashion, and architecture. The National Art Center should be at the top of the list for anyone with an affinity for the latter. Designed by one of Japan‘s most interesting contemporary architects, Kisho Kurokawa, it is among the country’s largest exhibition spaces. There’s no permanent collection, but temporary exhibitions cover a variety of mediums and topics—photography, manga and anime, architecture, and fashion, among others. The exhibitions aren’t always limited to works by Japanese creators, with international museums lending pieces as well. If you are looking for gifts to take back home, the Souvenir from Tokyo shop in the basement has a delightful selection of Japanese products, both whimsical and elegant.
2-chōme-8-1 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku City, Tōkyō-to 163-8001, Japan
View of Tokyo at dusk as seen from the 54th floor observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Nishi-shinjuku. Admission to the observatory is free and well worth it for a fantastic, sweeping view of the Tokyo skyline.
1-chōme-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, Tōkyō-to 181-0013, Japan
Since its founding in 1985, Studio Ghibli has become one of the world’s preeminent masters of film animation. The Ghibli Museum, opened in 2001, is nested within one of Tokyo’s most beloved parks, Inokashira Park—just 20 minutes by train from Shinjuku to either Mitaka or Kichijōji. Take time before or after your museum visit to stroll through the park or to rent a paddle boat. Included with the price of admission is one viewing in the Saturn Theater, where Ghibli’s short films—made exclusively for the museum—are screened. The tickets themselves are precious as well—each one is made of original 35mm film print. On the second floor, the permanent exhibits are set up as an animator’s workshop and display the many steps of the animation process. Tubes of paint, pencils, and figurines sit scattered across a desk alongside paint palettes and works in progress. A stack of books about World War II aircraft sits in the corner, while model airplanes dangle from the rafters. Visitors can see original concept sketches, storyboards, background matte paintings, and animation cels—a rare treat for fans. Other exhibits demonstrate the science of animation, including the “Bouncing Totoro” zoetrope. When illuminated by strobe lights, the figurines on the turntables spring to life. Admission is by advance purchase only. While it is possible to buy tickets in Japan at most Lawson locations, visitors outside Japan can buy tickets through an authorized travel agency. Photo: Grace Lingad
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