I love Tokyo. Its unique paradoxical character which I have yet to experience anywhere else is a big reason for why it’s my favourite city in the world.
In one breath, Tokyo is a modern, futuristic city where millions of people work (hard) and play (harder). From glistening glass and steel structures scraping the skyline, to a transportation system which is eerily efficient, to a digital culture which has nearly universal acceptance and literacy by old and young – Tokyo is the most evolved of any 21st-century city.
Yet, in the same breath, Tokyo is a place where formal, button-down, traditional culture permeates everyday life. There are unspoken rules about how to do the most basic of tasks, a groupthink on what’s acceptable and unacceptable in public, and constant (and still functioning) elements of Japan’s history dotting the landscape. Tokyo may be contemporary, but it remembers where it came from.
While there is a multitude of reasons to embrace it, I have chosen 26 for this post (A to Z) on why I love Tokyo.
A – Art
Those who embrace the urban culture of Tokyo appreciate the finer things in life. Jazz, classical music, good wine, and art attract a much larger audience than in North America. If your interests align any of these categories, you’re in luck. In particular, I find Tokyo to be a place where art thrives.
It’s not uncommon to see someone sitting in a park with a sketchpad in hand, painstakingly recreating the scene in front of them. Public artwork is plentiful through the city and evokes great pride from those who are local to that neighbourhood. Ask around, and you’ll likely get pointed to something pretty amazing.
Art exhibitions are also a big deal in Japan, with long lineups and heavy crowd volumes when special installations are on display. One fantastic place to check out is the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. It always has a diverse range of exhibits open, and will leave you inspired.
B – Take a Bath
In Japan, taking a baths is not an exercise in cleanliness, but rather experiencing an environment for relaxation. Onsen and sento culture have been around for hundreds of years, and today’s modern public baths are a fantastic way to unwind.
In many neighbourhoods, you will find smaller-sized sento (bathhouses) which feature an array of tubs where you can soak and relax. Larger onsen and super-sento take on a spa-like setting, with saunas, relaxation halls, masseuses, and other added amenities.
Regardless of where you choose to soak, you won’t be disappointed.
One word of caution, however. If you have tattoos or body art of any kind, you will need to contact the onsen or sento in advance to see if you will be permitted to enter. Ink isn’t as widely accepted in Japan as it is in the rest of the world as it’s often associated with a criminal element. This can unnerve older patrons of some facilities. Asking in advance if your body art will be a problem can help you avoid the decidedly unrelaxing (and embarrassing) problem of being turned away.
C – City Views
There are so many places to get a great view of Tokyo, but for me there are four which top the list.
The cheapest option is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Towers in Shinjuku. Entry is free, and on a clear day you might just be able to see Mt. Fuji.
The next cheapest option is the observatory at Fuji Television in Odaiba. This observation deck is located inside the large sphere which contains the studios for the TV station’s morning news and entertainment show. You can get some great views of Tokyo Bay, Tokyo Skytree, and the Rainbow Bridge from this location.
Tokyo Tower was – for the longest time – the top-end option to see Tokyo from up in the air. The Eiffel Tower-like structure has an observatory which is reminicent of other major metropolitan towers like the Space Needle in Seattle or the CN Tower in Toronto. It is a little pricy, and can get crowded.
The most expensive ticket in town to get up in the clouds is the relatively new Tokyo Skytree facility. It was opened to the public in 2013 and has taken on the role as the primary antenna tower for most of Tokyo’s radio and TV broadcasters. Like other such transmitting towers, it too has an observatory which is rather stunning (and provides a brilliant night view of the city’s skyline).
Regardless of where you go, you will get a great experience – and a jaw-dropping image of just how big Tokyo really is.
D – Tokyo Disneyland (and Tokyo DisneySea!)
I am a Disney park fan, and so this list wouldn’t be complete with talking about the two theme parks which make up Tokyo Disney Resort.
Tokyo Disneyland is the original park which opened in 1983. If you’ve visited Disneyland in California or the Magic Kingdom in Florida, you’ll be well-oriented on what to expect. However, the park has many unique Japanese touches which make it worth visiting.
Tokyo DisneySea is a Japanese original with no other sister park like it in the rest of the Disney family. Many Disney fans I’ve talked to say it is by far the best Disney theme park experience in the world – and I agree. No expense is spared on the design and details of the DisneySea. It is also a great park for grown-ups with fantastic dining options, tasty cocktails, and a more mature feel.
For more on Tokyo Disney Resort, visit TDRExplorer.com.
E – Yebisu in Ebisu
Yebisu is one of the big national beers in Japan, and it has its corporate headquarters in the Ebisu neighbourhood of Tokyo.
Be sure to check out the Ebisu Beer Museum tour, and at the end enjoy some tasty samples of the product. Outside the museum, a number of restaurants and pubs serve Yebisu product along with some great food.
Also, if you visit Tokyo in September, be sure to check out the Yebisu Beer Festival. The public spaces around the corporate offices are turned in to a German-inspired biergarten with great music, good food, and lots of fun.
F – Look to the Future
Some of the world’s brightest minds are working on tomorrow’s technologies in Japan. Companies take pride in their product development, and aren’t shy to show things off in specially constructed showrooms.
Sony and Panasonic both have massive showroom facilities where you can play with the latest consumer electronics – and even buy some of the newest goods to take home.
Toyota and Honda both have fantastic showrooms at their corporate offices which let you check out some of their latest vehicles (along with some classics).
Possibly the most unique showroom you can check out while in Japan is in Shinjuku where the Toto company – makers of high end Japanese super toilets! – lets you peruse a series of installations of their newest toilets (and other home technologies). It’s peculiar, but worth checking out.
G – Ghibli Museum
Hayao Miyazaki’s animated tales are as iconic to the Japanese as Walt Disney’s cartoons are to Americans.
Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli has produced 20 full-length features since 1986 including My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away. While Miyazaki’s work may have had the same cultural weight as Disney’s in America (and – funny enough – the Walt Disney Company distributes Ghibli films in Canada and the US), the parallels end there. Ghibli films feature complex characters, challenging life questions, and don’t end with a Randy Newman song.
It’s the honesty and raw emotion of Miyazaki’s work which I think has garnered him fans around the world — and that’s why the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is such a huge draw for Japanese and foreign visitors alike. Tickets are not easy to get for this unique and quirky experience, but are well worth the effort.
H – Hipsters in Shimokitazawa
If North America’s hipster enclaves in Brooklyn, Portland, and Austinn were to have a Japanese soulmate, Shimokitazawa would definitely be in the running.
Shimokita (as it’s also referred to) is home to small fashion shops, trendy bars and cafes, and live music. It’s generally more rough around the edges than the rest of Tokyo and has its finger on the pulse of youth culture.
I love visiting Shimokita to check out the cafes and to stroll through the stores. If you grow tired of the carbon-copy retail scene throughout Tokyo, a visit here will shake things up for you.
I – Visit an Izakaya
Japan’s version of the neighbourhood pub. Izakayas are where you’ll find cheap eats, cheap drinks, and a lively atmosphere.
They’re easy to spot while walking down the street thanks to large orange lanterns hanging around the doorway.
Some chain Izakayas like Kirin City and Niiju Mayru offer more westernized food selections, while the locals-focused ones will have some interesting grub. No matter where you go, you’ll be able to unwind with friends and enjoy a fun, intimate night out.
J – JR Railway Museum
Japan has a proud history of commuter rail travel, and The Railway Museum (owned and operated by JR Rail – the country’s largest network of train services) is a phenomenal shrine dedicated to everything related to trains and train culture. (Yes, there is a train culture in Japan.)
Explore classic train cars (including one of the first Shinkansen bullet trains), try your hand at running a train simulator, and enjoy a boxed lunch just like you would on a long distance train journey.
For train aficinados (or “otaku” as they’re called in Japan), the museum offers an incredible chance to dive deep in to their passion. For the everyone else, it’s a fascinating experience worthy of a full day to explore.
K – Konbini
Convenience stores in North America have a bit of a stigma attached to them. They’re generally untidy, overpriced, and are the domain of teenagers who are have no place better to be.
In Japan, convenience stores – or “konbini” – are at the heart of a neighbourhood. They’re where you go to pay bills, send or receive packages, buy tickets to concerts, and to get a fresh and healthy lunch. And, unlike their North American counterparts, they’re not much more expensive to shop at compared to supermarkets and grocery stores.
Among the things to visit a konbini for are onigiri (a delicious rice ball snack), sweet breads, and a wide array of sodas you won’t find in vending machines.
L – Get a Locker
If you look closely, you’ll notice something about people in Tokyo. For the most part, they all carry a bag of some sort. This is partially due to the fact that once you leave your home for the day, you’re not likely returning until much later on. So, this means you’ll want a backpack with some of the necessities of daily life – phone chargers, books, journals/diaries, maybe a laptop or iPad, the list goes on and on.
On weekends, when people spend considerable amounts of time away from home, it’s not uncommon to see locals bring small roller suitcases with them for a venture from their neighbourhood to major city centres like Shinjuku, Shibuya or Harajuku.
Whether you’re carrying a backpack or suitcase – at some point you don’t want to carry all that stuff around, and especially if you plan on going to a nice restaurant, a play, a concert or a movie. This is where public lockers play a big role in Japanese life.
Easily found and purchased at train stations, lockers come in a number of shapes and sizes to store anything from a small backpack to a large roller suitcase (and everything in between). If you arrive in Tokyo on an early flight – or are departing late – it’s easy to stash your luggage in one of these for a very nominal fee so you can go exploring without needing to haul your bags around.
M – Music
Japan’s passion for a variety of music is rather fascinating as an outsider.
As I mentioned before, jazz and classical music are appreciated in Japan in ways which could only be dreamed of in North America. Musicians in these genres are treated like rock stars.
Homegrown pop and rock is also massively popular, with strong album sales and sold-out concerts.
Speaking of albums, purchasing physical music is still a thing in Japan. Tower Records – long since a footnote in North American music retailing history – is still growing strong, and its flagship store in Shibuya is something to behold.
Smaller, independent live music venues are plentiful around Tokyo, and street musicians can be found in many major areas of the city. Stop to enjoy the sounds.
N – Ninja Akasaka
While the idea might sound a little gimmicky, the premise of the Ninja Akasaka restaurant is rather fun : dine in a ninja-training-ground-themed environment, with ninja-themed food and ninja-garbed servers bringing your meal and drinks to the table.
The themed dining experience is not cheap, but it is a fun night out and was one of the highlights of my most recent visit to Tokyo.
O – Owl Cafe
Japan has a well-known history of “neko cafes” (cat cafes) where you can enjoy the company of a fuzzy feline while sipping a latte and eating a slice of cake. The success of that idea has spurred other cafe genres throughout cities like Tokyo, including the “owl cafes.”
Owl cafes work on the same premise as cat cafes. You go in, order a drink and a bite to eat, and then you order an owl to come to your table and keep you company (and pose for pictures, naturally).
It sounds bizarre, but it really is quite a lot of fun.
P – Pancakes, anyone?
In North America, we tend to think of pancakes as a breakfast food – the domain of brunch. Japan has transformed the lowly flapjack in a phenomenal way.
Set in delightful and whimsical cafes, going for pancakes has a similar vibe as attending afternoon tea. Rich sauces, scrumptious toppings and elaborate fillings make the Japanese pancake experience something special, beautiful, and expensive (but worth every penny).
Q – QB House
If you’re not a long hair or manbun aficionado and are backpacking the world, finding a place to get your haircut is a necessity while travelling but can be a bit of a challenge.
In Japan, hair stylists are expensive to visit – with some charging up to ¥10,000 (C$100) for a haircut. But one chain has decided to specialize in cheap haircuts… and the results are really good.
A haircut at QB House costs just ¥1000 (C$10), and the chain promises to have you in and out of the chair in 10 minutes. There are locations at nearly every major train station, and I was impressed with the cuts I received while staying in Tokyo.
R – Ramen
You might have survived through college or university on a diet of dehydrated noodles and salty flavour packets – and you might have sworn after getting your degree you’d never eat a bowl of ramen again in your life. But real Japanese ramen is something which cannot be missed.
Delicious, flavourful broth soak fresh noodles, a mound of vegetables, sliced pork, and of course a boiled egg to top everything off. Once you have a spoonful, you’ll never be able to stop salivating at the mere thought of proper Japanese ramen. Luckily, there are dozens of ramen shops in every neighbourhood to satisfy your craving.
And, in Shin-Yokohama, be sure to visit the Ramen Museum for a chance to sample a variety of styles of the soup.
S – SUICA and PASMO
A critical part of the puzzle to keeping Japan moving smoothly every day is the contactless payment card which people use to enter and exit train stations. It’s known by a variety of different names depending on the company issuing it. In the Tokyo area, SUICA (issued by JR Rail) and PASMO (issued by Tokyo Metro) are the two brands of contactless payment cards which are available.
Beyond paying for your train fare, SUICA and PASMO also represent a form of digital currency which is widely accepted throughout the city. You can use your card to pay for purchases at vending machines, at convenience stores, and even major department stores. Often, locals will load up thousands of yen on to the card at a time and use it as a primary payment system since it is very quick and easy to use.
T – Takao
If you don’t have time on your visit to Japan to leave the confines of the metropolitan Tokyo area, one place I highly recommend checking out is Takao. It is the closest you can get to a countryside experience without leaving the city.
Takao sits in the shadow of its namesake – Mount Takao. The mountain is an easy climb, accessible by a variety of pathways (some simple enough for elderly people to walk up). It offers amazing views of the metropolis below.
At the base of the mountain, small shops sell a variety of foods and gifts, and a fantastic new onsen will let you soak your cares away.
U – Unlimited Travel with Tokunai Pass
One way to save money on transit while visiting Tokyo is by purchasing a daily Tokunai rail pass.
Available at train stations inside Tokyo’s 23 special wards, the Tokunai pass is a steal of a deal for zipping around Tokyo at only ¥750. It can be used on any JR-operated train line inside the core metropolitan area, including key neighbourhoods like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Tokyo, Ikebukuro, Ueno, and Akihabara.
V – Vending Machines
In a culture where efficiency and convenience are lauded, it makes sense that the Japanese have a love affair with vending machines. They can be placed practically anywhere to provide people with easy access to drinks, food, cigarettes, and… well… pretty much anything.
Unlike North American vending machines which tend to charge exorbitant amounts for sodas and other beverages, Japanese vending machines offer products for sale at prices which are very much in line with what you’d spend at a convenience store or even a supermarket.
W – Whisky
Japan has a very different relationship with alcohol than we have in North America. While we still live with rather puritanical laws, the Japanese are a much more sociable bunch. Beer, wine and spirits can be found at pretty much any cafe, konbini, store or restaurant. You can even walk the streets with a can of beer in hand.
I think the “appreciation of finer things” attitude I talked about earlier is part of the reason why you tend to find hard liquor – and particularly whisky – to be a very common drink in Japan.
While alcohol is genderless, it’s fair to say that whisky is marketed toward a predominantly male audience in North America. That isn’t the case in Japan – and in fact, there’s a fascinating story of how a Scottish woman is at the heart of the spirit’s adoption in the country.
I’ve never been a big drinker. I enjoy a nice glass of wine with dinner and a cold beer on a hot summer day, but that’s about it. But when in Japan, I do find myself enjoying and sampling the variety of local spirits – including fantastic Suntory Whisky which I highly encourage anyone to try regardless of their palate.
X – Xylitol
While Xylitol chewing gum hails from Finland, its impossible to walk through a konbini or supermarket without seeing it on the shelves. In 2015, Lotte – the Japanese distributor – dominated the chewing gum landscape with 55% share of the market. And for good reason – it is a great way to cover up the smell of coffee, fish, or anything else that all your eating and drinking in Japan might have done to your breath!
Y – Yanaka
If there was ever a criticism of Tokyo, it’s that many of the major neighbourhoods across the city have become somewhat homogenous. If it’s flanked by a JR Rail-owned train station, you can expect a high-rise shopping mall attached to the transportation hub featuring an array of clothing and gift stores which seem to be the same no matter where you go. You’ll see the same chains, the same electronic stores, the same restaurants.
One neighbourhood which eschews this homogeny is Yanaka – located just steps away from JR’s Nippori Station along the Yamanote Line. Yanaka is a throwback to the way Tokyo used to look, in the 1950s and 1960s. Low-rise, independently-owned shops sell fashions, food and gifts. Those wanting to take a break can grab an ice cream cone or a cup of draft beer for very little money and sit on makeshift benches to watch people pass by.
Yanaka is also home to one of Tokyo’s largest cemeteries. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re curious about Japanese culture and tradition.
Z – Zero
A few “zero” things come to mind when talking about Tokyo.
If you like diet soft drinks, you won’t find them labelled as “diet” in Japan. Rather, look for the term “zero” on the label.
While I talked about whisky earlier, it’s important to note that Japan has zero-tolerance on drinking and driving. Not one drop of liquor.
There is zero tipping in Japan when you dine at a restaurant or go for drinks at a bar.
Finally, “zero” is the price you’ll pay for a number of things in Japan including some museums (the ADMT Advertising Museum is one of the best free exhibits in the city), and entry to many (but not all) public parks.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed my look at Tokyo A to Z. If you want to learn more about Tokyo and Japan, be sure to check out some of my other posts about my time there – and visit my YouTube channel for many more videos.