Skytree/ Tokyo Tower. Harajuku girls. Conveyor belt sushi. Sumo. Robot restaurant. Have I summed up your Tokyo bucket list? Maybe it’s time to step out of the box and put down that Lonely Planet for a slightly more unique Tokyo activity guide.
Writing for Tokyo’s Metropolis magazine as a Tokyo resident, I was constantly in need of “fresh” material. Yes, we’ve all been to Tsukiji Market and Piss Alley and to gawk at that tall ass Gundam statue in Odaiba. But to the expatriates here for years, what else is there? Below is a list of just 20 of my favorite things to do in Tokyo, divided into themed categories, scouted throughout the years and often tested over and over again. Add some of my Tokyo activity guide to your itinerary for some unexpected fun, a kick in the pants, or something to ponder in confusion post trip:
*Places like the Robot Restaurant and Kawaii Monster Cafe are okay but they are not included in my Tokyo activity guide because they are super gimmicky and play up on the “weird Japan” concept to the extreme. Japan is weird but so is everywhere else in some respect.
Tokyo activity guide: athletic endeavors
1). Rollerskate like it’s 1988
Maybe it’s been about 20 years since you’ve donned a pair of skates and sailed around a rink until your feet hurt from all the turning. But that’s okay. You can still channel that inner speed demon (or awkward preteen) at Tokyo Dome in Suidobashi. For a slightly escalated fee (hey, it’s a novelty in Japan), join a skating session on the florescent-lit rink, pumping with an often misplaced soundtrack. If you’re lucky, they’ll turn off the lights for that super retro feel. I realize that skating in Tokyo is not exactly a “Japanese” experience, but you’d be surprised how even the most familiar of endeavors seems a little unique here.
2). Pretend you’re on a Japanese game show at an obstacle course
Nothing beats a mildly dangerous water obstacle course, ala Most Extreme Elimination Challenge style. Shimizu Koen hosts it, along with two other courses, and a total of 100 individual challenges. The clientele tends to be younger, yes, but I’ve been there three times as an adult. Plus, every adult I have dragged with me has agreed it’s the most fun they’ve had acting like kids. Test your strength, balance, and overall agility trying not to fall into the water (you’ll want to, especially if it’s summertime). I assure you, this shit ain’t as easy as you think.
3). “Risk” your visa by discovering haikyo
I developed my love for haikyo in Japan, the (often) illegal urban exploration of abandoned places. Here, there’s an abundance of abandoned buildings, theme parks, and the like thanks to the economic bubble bursting some decades ago. My first haikyo foray was Nara’s abandoned theme park, in which I wandered around the apocalyptic-esque park in awe. Since that first rush, I was hooked, if only for glimpse into the beautiful control that nature employs. In Tokyo, there’s abandoned love hotels and even a mental institution. And though I can’t give the exact location for lesser-know places (it’s against haikyo code), I can say the latter is near G-Cans (see below). Just make sure to bring a torch and wear proper footwear and pants. It’s under athletic endeavors for a reason. You may have to run…
4). Play soccer inside of a bubble
It’s as ridiculously awesome as you can surmise: a game of soccer carried out by players encased in protective plastic bubbles. And you don’t have to be that schooled in soccer to have a good time. Run full speed at people. Collide with them. Bounce off them. Take out your anger, full throttle. It’s sublime. The worldwide sensation has taken Japan by storm, especially now that there more safety measures than when it started in Norway in 2011. The reservation website is in Japanese and the games sporadic so make sure to check ahead of time. All you do is pay online per individual and show up for an organized schedule which includes pre-game exercises and several matches.
5). Flyboard like Aqua Man
You’ll have to travel out to Chiba for this one, all of one hour. There, with a lovely view of Chiba Port Tower in some not so lovely water, you can experience flyboarding. Essentially, you are strapped into boots that shoot water out from the bottom powered by the boat nearby. You use your balance and levitate on this produced stream of water, propelled upwards like the superhero you are. When you get really good, you can even do spins like a deranged out-of-water dolphin. I never got that far but did manage to freak out a few times and hit the water pretty hard. Worth it. I’ve seen flyboarding advertised in other places I’ve traveled since but was shocked at the expensive price as compared to in Japan (about ¥5500). This website helps foreigners make reservations.
Tokyo activity guide: culinary endeavors
6). Try adorable mini sushi
Alright, this one only halfway goes against the point of this blog. Sushi will obviously play a major role on your Tokyo bucket list. Duh. But why join the hordes of tourists chowing down at 4 a.m. at the indefinitely-relocated Tsukiji market, or the others clamoring for a seat at one of the Michelin-starred establishments? Instead, head to Sushiya no Hachi in Asakusa for the miniature version. Ordering a set of normal person sushi from this hole-in-the-wall will entitle you the itty bitty version: one-grain creations that will make your inner kawaii squeal with delight. When I visited shortly after they gained media attention, a news crew showed up and taped my reaction (naturally, when I was on an OkCupid date that didn’t work out).
7). Chose your spice level at Kikanbou ramen
It is well known that most Japanese food lacks in the spice department. So prepare to be bitch slapped with the good stuff at Kikanbou, a ramen restaurant specializing in some powerful noodles. Their concoctions consist of two spices: a regular house spice and sanshou, a Chinese numbing spice. Pick your spice level for both from the scale posted on the wall and brace for impact. On my last day in Japan as a resident, I bravely took on the highest level “oni” to which I was presented with the coveted black bowl. The other patrons eyed me with suspicion. I only managed half of the bowl (it’s hefty) but my mouth danced and even the water tasted spicy. If you prefer your ramen without a side of death, check out the trusted blog Ramen Adventures about ramen in the city.
8). Eat Totoro
Everyone loves Totoro, the adorable creature from the Ghibli movie. So what could be better than biting his head off? Do so at Shirohige’s Cream Puff Factory in Shimo-kitazawa where they serve delectable cream puffs in the shape of Totoro. Flavors vary by month but expect some good ones like strawberry and matcha. Check out a full spectrum of pictures and details at The Travel Pockets.
9). Drink a movie-themed cocktail
There’s enough izakaya and brew pubs in the city to satisfy thirsty travelers. That’s for sure. But for something a bit classier, head to Whales of August in Shibuya. This basement bar is super sexy in its interior, with slick, uniformed waiters catering to your every whim. But the bar’s best feature is its cocktails— each named after a Hollywood movie and themed in style after said movie.
10). Eat a Japanese staple, à la mode
Japanese people love their greenish “melon” pan. Go into any conbini and expect its appearance amongst the other individually-wrapped bread. Though it ain’t actually made with melon (shock, gasp), the sugary taste combined with the crunchiness of its outside make for an addicting treat. A little shop in Shibuya, lovingly called Sekai de Nibanme ni Oishii Melon Pan Aisu (meaning the second most delicious ice cream melon bread in the world), serves up… well, what they purport. The beloved melon pan, hot out of the oven, with friggin’ ice cream shoved inside it like a sandwich. It’s divine.
For more culinary adventures, check out my Google Map guide.
Tokyo activity guide: "only in Japan" endeavors
11). Become a character in real live Mario Kart
It made the news for copyright infringement but who the hell cares. Nothing became of it so feel free to dress up like Mario, strap yourself in a race car, and take to the streets video game style. When I went before the company really took off, safety standards weren’t quite up to par and we definitely went faster than we were supposed to. I also didn’t technically have my International driver’s license in hand (still in the mail) but that didn’t stop me. Racing through Shibuya crossing to the shock and awe of thousands of Japanese spectators is something that I will never forget.
12). Punch some blocks at the Nintendo maid cafe
More Nintendo! Many people don’t necessarily agree with the whole “maid cafe” idea. Cute Japanese women in frilly outfits catering to (usually) older salarymen with certain fetishes. I’ve had students who have worked as maids and assure you, it’s not all that bad. But as a foreigner, you can avoid being labeled as one of those guys. My favorite maid cafe is Maid Dreamin in Shibuya. It’s one of the several Maid Dreamin branches but this one is Nintendo themed. Ok, it’s not legally Nintendo themed but you can tell that’s what they were going for. If you come at a good time, expect song and dance, props, and maybe even a trampoline.
13). Dress up at purikura
You’re bound to run across these booths or have a local drag you into one of them. Purikura are essentially photo booths on steroids, popular with high school girls. And gross couples. And giggly tourists. The picture taking is all well and good but the fun comes post session. Decorate your photos with stickers and phrases on the booth’s digital makeover system. Hell, change your eye color (notice how you eyes have also become anime like?) My favorite purikura center was right outside the southeast exit of Shinjuku station, located inside Taito game center. It’s here that you can rent a costume— often holiday appropriate— to wear inside the booths. This article gives a pretty thorough explanation on how to purikura like a pro.
14). Rent a dog
I am a cat person by nature but I couldn’t resist the idea of stretching out my dog legs. Thankfully, you can do this in Tokyo by renting a dog. Most Japanese apartments don’t have space for pets, thus the industry. One of the best places to pick a pup is at Dog Heart near Yoyogi Park. You won’t always get your first choice (the golden retriever is quite popular) but you’ll learn to love whatever little monster you pick. It costs about ¥4,000 and you have to abide by some rules, but we enjoyed our stroll around Yoyogi Park even if it involved picking up poop as a consolation prize. Savvy Tokyo has the details here.
Tokyo activity guide: cultural endeavors
15). Surround yourself with cats at Gotokuji temple
There’s like 15,000 million temples and shrines scattered around Japan, Tokyo included. And while each one of them is indeed a special snowflake, they all sort of look alike after awhile. This includes Gotokuji, a run-of-the-mill temple close to Setagaya. It’s only when you explore the temple grounds that you run across the maneki neko shrine. Maneki neko are those ubiquitous cat statues with one beckoning paw. At Gotokuji, there’s hundreds of these critters in various sizes. It’s free and makes for a quick stop in between visits to other parts of the area. Explore a bit of the history here.
16). Watch a sumo practice, rather than a tournament
Unless you are a sumo otaku (nerd), there is nothing enjoyable about watching sumo matches except for the booze. And the occasion 10 seconds of blubbery action. Plus, to really see the action up close you have to shell out some cash. There’s a better way, my friends. Go to a sumo stable, called a beya, and watch one of their morning training sessions. For free. It takes some investigation and a little Japanese assistance, but entirely possible for foreigners. When I went, we had to abide by some cultural rules so we felt a little sheepish at first. But it was a special experience, like being undercover. Lots of sweat to smell. Hell, I even glimpsed a crack. Of a smile. Teehee. Gaijinpot has a good article on how to pull this all off.
17). Plunge into darkness at Tamagawa Daishi temple
Yup, another temple. But this one involves a 100-meter underground pitch-black tunnel. Tamagawa Daishi was built in 1925 and beneath its floor lies the tunnel, meant to symbolize the intestines of Dainichi Nyorai, the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Intestines. Thankfully, it’s a bit more sanitary than what it sounds like. After stumbling through the darkness, you are awarded with candlelit chambers full of statues. It’s terrifyingly beautiful but a lot more fun than I’ve ever had in a temple. No pictures are allowed and you have to wear a rented pair of Crocs. Here’s one blogger’s account.
18). Engage in waterfall training
Yes. It’s almost what you imagine. Stand underneath a waterfall— a very, very cold waterfall— and partake in a Shinto purification ritual called takigyo. The ritual takes place on nearby Mt. Mitake and prior reservations at the associated guesthouse are required. You will also need to abide by the many rules associated with the ritual. I won’t give too much away but it was both incredibly shocking to the system and incredibly invigorating at 6 a.m. I was also the only woman at my ritual, making me feel pretty badass for withstanding such a “manly” rite of passage. Random Wire has a great picture log of the ritual (though note that you’re not allowed to take pictures during the main attraction).
Tokyo activity guide: a few random endeavors
19). Gawk at the engineering feat that is G-Cans
Even if you have little interest in drainage systems (snooze, right?) you will be amazed at the immense power of G-Cans. Located a little ways from Tokyo proper, visitors are able to descend underground into the world’s largest underground flood diversion facility (assuming there wasn’t heavy rainfall recently). There, stare up at the 59 18-meter high towers that are doing some impressive work not only holding the damn thing up but being part of a system which saves lives from flood damage. The tour is short and in Japanese— an English booklet is provided— but there’s enough time to take some epic cosplay shots if you come prepared. Atlas Obscura picked a good one for their site.
20). Take a tour of Japan Airlines hangar
Again, I could care less about airplanes. In fact, I consider them flying death machines. But I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed strolling around a working hangar with my airplane-obsessed boyfriend. The JAL Factory Tour Sky Museum is geared toward a younger crowd but just like the obstacle course, appeals to us kids at heart. Especially when you get to play dress up and pretend you’re a flight attendant… teeheehee! My favorite part was watching airplanes take off from within the hangar. For some weird reason, it’s pretty popular so make sure to book well ahead of time.
Need a few more ideas? Here’s 15 more including diving with sharks and eating strawberry curry.