Welp, here I am saying sayonara to Tokyo once more. It’s been a fabulously busy month with a group of high schoolers I led here on a study abroad program. We visited a bunch of my old digs and even discovered a few new ones. I always love sharing my personal favorite spots, activities, and food locales with other people who visit Tokyo— thus, my first Local’s Activity Guide to Tokyo. But, with that in mind, I thought it was time for round two in terms of activity guide. Here are 15 more things to do in Tokyo, all off the gaijin trail for the most part.
Things to do in Tokyo: Culture
1. Sip tea at Rikugien Garden in Kamagoe
I wouldn’t consider Tokyo a chill place, especially after a morning commute pushed up against sweaty salarymen. So I was pleasantly surprised by the blissful tranquility that exists in Tokyo’s heart, just a stone’s throw from Kamagoe station. Rikugien Garden was built around 1700 and is considered Tokyo’s most beautiful landscape garden. Scenes from famous poems, places, and incidents are represented by 88 miniature gardens. Besides just strolling along the hushed paths, it’s worth taking a break at Fukiage Chaya tea house. Here, you can sip on traditional macha and Japanese sweets, all while gazing out toward the lake. Autumn is actually the best time to visit Rikugien, for the extraordinary burst of fall colors. However, even in the dead heat of summer, the whole experience was one of my students’ highlights. If only for the temporary break from Tokyo’s hustle and bustle.
2. Step back in time at Odaiba’s old-timey arcade
The man-made island of Odaiba is generally known for its ridiculous number of shopping malls. That and conferences, summer festivals, and a couple museums. But few people happen upon Daiba 1-chome Shotengai, a shopping arcade located on the second floor of Decks (one of said malls). This street pays homage to Japan’s Showa era (1926-1989) with its kitsch vintage shops, analog arcade games, and attraction replicas. There’s even penny candy. Though the Showa era spans several decades, the street seems frozen in the 1950s and 60s— a nostalgic time for Japanese residents and retro collectors alike. Even if you’re not in the market for memorabilia from the past, the stores also carry a surprising array of Japanese-themed souvenirs. Appetite for Japan has some fantastic photos of the whole arcade to get a better sense of the atmosphere.
3. Stare dumbfounded at Nakagin Capsule Tower near Tsukiji
Many visitors to Japan make it a point to sleep in a capsule at some point during their stay. It’s definitely an experience in itself— if only for a quick dose of claustrophobia— but the motherload of all capsules exists near Tsukiji. In terms of things to do in Tokyo, staring at a building is an odd one. Nakagin Capsule Tower was built in the early 1970s back when Metabolist architecture had its hey day. This movement was emblematic of Japan’s postwar cultural resurgence, and was originally meant for too-busy-to-go-home salarymen. Each capsule is self-contained and able to be moved. At its peak, the capsules were all occupied… now, not so much. The building is falling into decay in spite of its visual appeal and an ugly net protects it. Sadly, you cannot enter the building unless you are a resident, nor rent a room on AirBnB. But you can climb up the adjacent building and take some shots from up high. Maybe don’t attempt the jump over.
4. Practice your skills at the Suginami Animation Museum
Anime and manga isn’t in my repertoire, despite having lived in the land of the rising sun. That being said, I became rather acquainted with both concepts during this summer (my program was for students studying such). We made the pilgrimage west out to Suginami, home of the tiny Suginami Anime Museum and a mascot that is both adorable and equally disturbing (worm?). The museum is located on two floors, it’s not crazy huge or impressive but it certainly appeals to fans of the genres. It also makes a great alternative if you can’t get tickets to the Ghibli museum. The museum is free and explains the art behind the art in English. Short anime films are played throughout the day and museum-goers can try their hand at using light boxes and dubbing. Check out Fast Japan’s list of anime/manga museums in Japan if the one in Suginami isn’t enough.
5. Find an inappropriate keychain in Akihabara
In looking for authentic Japanese souvenirs of the absurd— and often obscene— nature, gachapon never cease to disappoint. Gachapon are the generic name for Japanese toy capsule machines, seemingly another branch of the rampant vending machine culture that rules this country. Inside each machine’s see-through display lies brightly colored plastic balls, encasing a variety of toys, set to a theme. And although most machines are released as a complete set of this theme— shown on the front— you receive your toy at random. And although the objects inside are referred to as toys, gachapon are most popular with adults due to their— more than often—mature themes. It’s unsurprising to stumble across gachapon that feature rather endowed female characters, themes involving poop, or overt stereotypes. Perhaps gachapon mecca can be found at Akihabara’s Gachapon Kaikan. Here, you are chose from over 430 machines, with 50 new “titles” available each month.
Things to do in Tokyo: Food
6. Try Japanese curry layered with strawberries near SkyTree
The foodie scene in Tokyo is superfluous, with pop-ups and foreign implants dashing in and out of the city quicker than a Shinkansen (click here for a Local’s Restaurant Guide). For something quite quirky— albeit tasty— try curry laden with a whole lot of ichigo. Cafe Latino (called that for its occasional Latin music lessons/ events) serves up tart strawberry curry. The strawberry not only surrounds the curry but is mixed in. To literally top it off, you can plop a scoop of vanilla ice cream on your rice. You know, just for kicks. And to add to the weird. I can attest that the concoction somehow works. Sweet and savory do, more often than not. As the website states, the curry is only available from November to May and you must order it ahead of time.
7. Drink alfresco in Nakameguro
Whether or not its cherry blossom season, the Meguro River canal that runs through Nakameguro makes for a scenic weekend preamble. It once was a wasteland full of industrial waste but is now lined with chic cafes and boutiques guaranteed to appease any hipster. I like to eat somewhere on the main street (maybe some Ethiopian?) before heading to the canal for an after dinner cocktail. A few restaurants offer outdoor seating— more so during peak sakura— that allows for both optimal people watching as well as quiet meditation of sorts.
8. Watch a centenarian roast your coffee beans in Ginza
It’s well known that one of my favorite things to do in Tokyo is drink copious amounts of coffee. While I do not have a favorite (see this list of my top 10), Cafe de l’ambre is up there. For style. For sexiness. And for the the most badass centenarian the coffee scene could recruit. Though it has made a few blog lists, the backstreet haven of l’ambre continues to fly under the radar. And I have absolutely no idea why. It is here— under the supervision and roasting skill of over 100 year-old Sekiguchi Ichiro and his lovely family— that magical concoctions are dreamt. The shop looks like something out of the 50s (it opened in 1948) and touts a menu solely consisting of coffee. Some served in fancy cocktail glasses. Others in shots so strong it’ll make you reconsider your life choice. Most of which are pre-aged before roasting, all 30-some single origin varieties listed by year for you to chose. But whatever your selection, it will be prepared with love at the counter in plan sight. Using old-fashioned techniques.
9. Get drunk on shaved ice in Roppongi
Though summertime is the optimal season to pig out on kakigori (Japanese style shaved ice), no time is a wrong time for a sugar rush. And booze? At Roppongi’s tiny Café and Bar Yelo, try out their utterly delicious gourmet kakigori. Each magical creation can be topped with add-ons like granola or Oreo cookies, plus extra sauce. My personal favorite is tiramisu. In the evening, the cafe bar breaks out night kakigori— spike your order with booze like Kalua. You’d have to eat a lot of fluffy ice to feel the effects but I suppose it makes for a good pre-game before hitting Roppongi’s shady ass clubs.
10. Make friends with salarymen in Ebisu
It’s a known fact that people— especially self-purported “shy” Japanese people— become less so whilst intoxicated. And while this doesn’t always lead to a positive outcome (flashback to me dragging a helplessly drunk man off a train), many times there exists potential. Potential for conversation. New friends. Free round of beer. If this sounds alluring, head to Ebisu Yokocho. This covered alleyway— once a shopping arcade— consists of 20 different restaurants and bars. Let’s just say out of all the things to do in Tokyo, this one consists of a very atmospheric dive into Japanese drinking culture. It’s usually crowded, loud, and most of the seats and stools. The shops are open from 5 p.m. on and are usually open rather late.
Things to do in Tokyo: Adrenaline
11. Cycle around Lake Tama
For active individuals looking for things to do in Tokyo, there are few uninterrupted stretches of pavement on which to get a solid workout without the worry of traffic lights, crosswalks, or crowds of cell phone-wielding tourists. The Tamako Jitensha-do (Lake Tama bike street) in nearby Saitama, is your solution, offering 22 kilometers of wooded, serene bliss, sans city distractions. Circling the beautiful Lake Tama, visitors can casually stroll by parks, hidden shrines (find the dragon stairs!), and shaded pockets of refuge, or zip along the path by bike. Pedestrians can also have the chance to see a slice of kitschy Japanese history— flanking the sides of the trail, are a myriad of love hotels, some buzzing with business and others standing creepily abandoned. Given the far proximity from train stations, the abandoned ones went bankrupt and were left to rot, though curious visitors into haikyo (urban exploration) have delighted in personal investigations. Tokyo Fox has some great photos of their bike ride around Tama.
12. Ride a rollercoaster above a busy mall in Suidobashi
I am a roller coaster junkie. Japan has some great ones, mostly at Fuji-Q Highland— an amusement park requiring a day trip from Tokyo. But for a quick taste of adventure, head to Suidobashi’s Tokyo Dome City. There lies Thunder Dolphin. Dumb name and it doesn’t look like much: a rollercoaster above Tokyo Dome that punches through a hole in the surrounding mall. For 1,030 yen, it’s definitely a one-done deal but trust me… you will be pleasantly surprised. The best thing about this rollercoaster, besides the thrilling sensation of squeezing through a hole (haha), is that you can ride it at night. With the lights and screams of people below, the dark adds to the experience. To that, uh, squeezing through a hole experience. Check out The Wacky Duo’s blog on other attractions in Tokyo Dome City.
13. Surround yourself with sharks in Tateyama
Located just a few hours from downtown Tokyo lies Tateyama— a rather sleepy fishing town located on the southern tip of Chiba. It is here that divers, and international photographers alike, have discovered the joys of the “Shark Scramble.” Revel in the chance— more like a guarantee— of swimming in shark-infested waters, i.e. being surrounded by dozens of banded houndsharks and their red stingray friends. Fear not, though. The sharks are docile, barely two meters long, and swim amongst the divers like cats circling their owners during feeding time. Diving with these lovely creatures not only promotes healthy shark tourism, but helps remove the stigma against sharks which ultimately contributes to their deaths worldwide (and in Japan). The experience is brought to your by diving company Bommie and their English-speaking dive master.
14. Helicopter over Tokyo at night
Yup, it’s pricey. It’s posh. But goddamn, is it worth it. Not being a fan of any flying mechanism in which I am a likely victim, I was apprehensive about soaring over Tokyo in a helicopter. Thankfully, only the takeoff was shaky. We took off just after sunset from the helipad near Tokyo Disney. For 30 minutes, the skyline was spectacular— a bird’s eye view of Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, and Shinjuku. It was both magical and humbling, and certainly puts the big city into perspective. While you’re out there, stop by Disney’s Ikspirari for a bite to eat or a large Cuban cigar.
15. Hike up saw-toothed mountain in Chiba
Yup, I realize this requires another venture out of the city. I am sort of biased, but also see the potential in traveling south when you’re out of things to do in Tokyo. Nokogiriyama is Chiba’s gem in terms of hiking. It’s only about 330 meters high but is butt up against the sea, providing amazing scenic views from the summit. Jigoku Nozoki (Hell Lookout) gives you the best photo opt: a rock that juts out over a cliff. However, the real reason people make the trek out here is to see the mountain’s temples and rakan. The latter comprise of Nihonji Temple and a Soto Zen Buddhist temple, which contain a 31 meter tall Daibutsu (Big Buddha) carved here in the late 1700s. From the temples, the pass up the mountain winds aside 1500 rakan (small statues representing Buddha disciples). They are tucked into every nook and cranny and it’s a pleasure to stumble upon one that looks depressed or ornery or even perverted. Comprehensive information on the hike can be found on Tokyo Cheapo.
There’s a shit ton of things to do in Tokyo and in Japan, for that matter. For an activity guide for Japan as a whole, check out this post for ideas. If you happen to be visiting the amazingly gorgeous island of Hokkaido, you may want to read up here.
Some content from this list of things to do in Tokyo was originally first published on Metropolis Japan.