Tokyo is a city where the hyper-new sits comfortably alongside the incredibly ancient, seemingly without conflict. Even the 19-metre-tall robot on Odaiba Island originally comes from a 1979 animation.
It’s a city where you can see the second tallest structure in the world on the same day as visiting a 1,400 year-old temple. Or eat sushi delivered by robot train for lunch and chow down in a traditional wood-framed okonomiyaki restaurant for dinner. But the biggest problem is probably choosing what to see and do in this seemingly endless urban sprawl.
Well, it’s a good thing we’re here with this article then, isn’t it?
Top 9 things to do in Tokyo, Japan in 2020
1. Eat sushi delivered by a robot train
Thanks to the UK restaurant chain YO! Sushi, you’re no doubt familiar with the concept of kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) which has existed in Japan for decades. Since 1958 in fact. But now the Japanese have taken it to the next level. The latest generation of kaiten-zushi restaurants – a prime example of which is Genki Sushi in Shibuya in Tokyo – now let you order your food from a touch screen. Then, just a few minutes later, your order shoots out from the kitchen on a tiny robot train that parks directly in front of you with a cheery beep. Amazing. And what’s more, it’s remarkably cheap.
2. Check out the cosplayers in Harajuku station
Harajuku Station is the place to go to see kids in cosplay (a portmanteau of ‘costume play’) in which people dress up as their favourite characters. They tend to be there on a Sunday and they’ll happily pose for a photo – but do ask first as it’s generally considered rude to take a photo without asking.
The once-famous scene in Jingu-bashi bridge and the nearby Yoyogi Park has died down a little bit in recent years, but don’t worry if you can’t find any fashionable young things to photograph. The park itself is well worth the trip alone, providing an oasis of green in an ocean of steel. And, of course, some of Tokyo’s most colourful, trendsetting boutiques line the ever-exciting Takeshita Street, directly opposite the station.
3. Get a bird’s eye view of the city
If you want to truly appreciate the vastness of Tokyo – as well as gain some respite from the crowds – you need to get up high. The Tokyo Tower, a 333-metre tall communications tower, used to be the highest structure in Japan. But in 2011 it was surpassed by the Tokyo Skytree, one of the city’s most popular attractions. At a whopping 634 metres is the second tallest structure in the world after Dubai‘s Burj Khalifa.
The Skytree has a café at 350 metres, which is ideal if you want a tea or coffee BUT REALLY HIGH UP. It also boasts a frankly terrifying glass floor in one section. The downside is that the Skytree is quite far from the centre of town, and there’s a charge to climb it.
If you’d rather keep things classy, head to the Sky Bar on the 45th floor of the five-star Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku and order one of their amazing cocktails. Or even better, follow in the footsteps of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson by dining at the New York Bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel, as featured in the film Lost in Translation. Neither option comes cheap, but who can put a price on style?
4. Get up early for Toyosu Fish Market
The old Tsukiji fish market, once one of Tokyo’s most visited attractions, has now been replaced by the modern, sprawling Toyosu Fish Market on the artificial island of Toyosu. The tuna auctions here are still a spectacle to behold, although now you can only watch the action from the observation deck of the Fish Wholesale Market Building. The auctions are open to the public between 5:45am and 6:15am, so prepare yourself an early start. And don’t forget to submit your application a month ahead of your visit!
The busy streets around Tsukiji Outer Market, close to the site of the old Tsukiji (or Inner) fish market, are lined with dozens of aromatic shops and stalls, and are also worth a visit. Fresh sushi for breakfast, or lunch is served in the nearby restaurants until early afternoon.
5. Enter geek heaven: Akihabara
Akihabara is the place to be for crazy electronics shops, arcades and toy shops. You could easily spend a whole afternoon or more wandering around them and you’ll be amazed at how many bizarre figurines you can buy. Most arcades and shops tend to be about 5 or 6 floors high, each level a warren of games, toys and weird stuff. And while you’re there, try eating at Mos Burger, the Japanese answer to McDonalds, which offers burger buns made of rice.
Read more: When is the best time to visit Japan in 2020
6. Go temple crazy
There are hundreds of temples and shrines in and around Tokyo. But the most striking is probably the bright red Senso-ji in Asakusa, which dates from 645 (although it has been rebuilt several times). The picturesque ‘Thunder Gate’ (Kaminarimon) at the entrance, with its huge paper lantern, is one of the most famous images of Tokyo.
But if you’re looking for controversy, there’s always the Yasukuni Shrine. The building is a huge source of tension with China because it honours Japanese war dead, including war criminals. The museum next door is even more contentious, featuring a revisionist history of the Second World War that paints the USA as the aggressor. It certainly makes for a memorable visit.
7. Tackle the busiest street crossing in the world
The famous pedestrian crossing in Shibuya gives you an idea of just how many people live in Tokyo. At peak times, 2,500 people an hour cross the road here in five different directions making for fascinating – if disorientating – viewing. There’s a well-placed Starbucks on the corner with an upper floor that provides a great view of the spectacle – if you can grab a seat, that is.
Look out for the statue of a dog called Hachiko on the opposite corner. This faithful dog greeted his owner at Shibuya station every day as the man returned from work and, even after his owner died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1925, Hachiko continued to come to the station every day for the next nine years hoping to see his master return.
Read more: How to sleep well on long flights
8. Eat okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is Japan’s greatest culinary secret. Whereas sushi, teriyaki and various other Japanese dishes have become commonplace across the world, few people know about okonomiyaki outside Japan. It’s sort of an omelette with cabbage in combination with various different ingredients of your choosing, such as pork or prawns.
The mix is brought to your table raw before the waiter cooks it in front of you on a grill built into the table. Once cooked, it’s topped with Japanese mayonnaise, special okonomiyaki sauce, seaweed sprinkles and katsuobushi, which are wafer-thin fish flakes that ‘dance’ in the heat of the food. There are loads of great okonomiyaki restaurants in Tokyo, but Sometaro in Asakusa is very traditional and one of the best.
Read more: Foods to avoid on your next flight
9. Confront a giant robot
OK, so technically it’s not a robot. This 1:1 scale reconstruction is of one of the ‘mobile suits’ from the Gundam franchise – fans gets annoyed if you call them robots. But whatever it’s called, it looks damn impressive. And it moves and lights up too.
The 19-metre tall robo… sorry, mobile suit stands outside the Gundam Base Tokyo, a huge exhibition dedicated to all things Gundam. The franchise kicked off with an anime in 1979 and is often referred to as Japan’s Star Wars, such is its enduring popularity. The exhibition here might leave Western visitors puzzled, but it’s worth paying a visit to Odaiba Island just to see the robot do its thing.
Travel inspiration: You find a trip to Tokyo a bit pricey? We’ve put together a list of 10 heavenly cheap holiday destinations around the world.
Top 9 things to do in Tokyo in 2020 – at a glance
|1. Eat sushi delivered by a robot train|
|2. Check out the cosplayers in Harajuku station|
|3. Get a bird’s eye view of the city|
|4. Get up early for Toyosu Fish Market|
|5. Enter geek heaven: Akihabara|
|6. Go temple crazy|
|8. Eat okonomiyaki|
|9. Confront a giant robot|