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Cultural Foodies’ Guide to Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo; the very name conjures up images of neon flashing lights, humans crunched in crowded subways, cute schoolgirls with pigtails and plaid skirts holding hands, skipping with purple-colored cotton candy in hand, and drunken businessmen trying to catch the last train home. Stereotypes or reality? 100% reality.

Tokyo is the Capital of Japan, and the world’s most populous metropolis with 38 million people residing in it. Did you know that Tokyo is not actually a city? It’s a prefecture, which is more like a state which contains cities within it. To (pronounced “toe”) = East. Kyo = capital. Tokyo = the Eastern Capital of Japan. Nearly one-third of Japan lives in the greater Tokyo area, which is what gives this metropolis such an exciting and pulsating vibe.

Sasha and I visited Japan for two weeks, spending half the time in Kyoto and half in Tokyo during sakura (cherry blossom) season in early April. It’s amazing how much we learned during our trip, especially about rules in Japan. If you are planning a trip to Japan, make sure you check out a few of my other blog posts so that you’re well-prepared for your trip!

61 Things to Know Before Traveling to Japan

Cultural Foodies’ Guide to Visiting Kyoto

35 Must-Try Foods in Japan

How Much Does it Cost to Travel to Japan?

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cultural foodies' guide to tokyo, japan

Transportation in Tokyo

There are two different options for subway cards in Tokyo: PASMO and SUICA, both of which are refillable and require a deposit, which you will be refunded along with whatever amount remaining on the card that you don’t use by the end of your trip. Both are contactless smart cards that you can also use to pay for food at certain establishments. We purchased the PASMO card and didn’t see any major benefits of using one over the other, so it doesn’t seem to matter which you select. If you’ve purchased the JR (Japan Rail) pass from your home country, you can also use this for several routes within Tokyo depending on where you’re going.

We were pleased to find that Googlemaps was easy to use; it told you exactly which subway line to take and even which platform to wait on. Everything was labeled in English, and with the exception of getting a bit turned around in terms of trying to figure out whether to exit East or West in larger stations, we got around just fine.

Accommodation: Where To Stay in Tokyo?

I recommend staying near the Yamanote Line, which is the circular route that goes around Tokyo proper. We stayed at APA Hotel, just two stops away from Shinjuku Station.

Currency in Japan

Japan’s currency is Yen, ()If you’re traveling with American currency, an easy conversion trick is to drop two zeroes to find out the U.S. equivalent. For example, ¥3,200  is around $32 USD.

Weather in Tokyo During Spring

Spring weather varied from the low 40’s in the morning and evening to the high 60’s during daytime. We had a range of rainy, wet overcast days as well as some dry, sunny days. Pack an umbrella, rain jacket, beanie, scarf, gloves and warm puffy coat as well as layers and very comfortable walking shoes. We averaged around 5 – 10 miles per day and walked on average, 12 hours per day.

Things to Do in Tokyo

Now that you’re set with the basics, here are 15 awesome things not to miss during your time in Tokyo. I’ll dive into more detail below.

  1. Shibuya Crossing (AKA “Scramble Crossing”)
  2. TeamLab Borderless
  3. Tokyo National Museum
  4. Ameyoko Street
  5. Tsukiji Market
  6. Nakamise Street Market (Asakusa)
  7. Senso-ji Temple (Asakusa)
  8. Shinjuku Free Walking Tour
  9. Akihabara Free Walking Tour
  10. Nakameguro
  11. Harajuku
  12. Tokyo Dome City – Thunder Dolphin roller coaster
  13. Shinjuku Goyen Park
  14. Yoyogi Park
  15. Chidorigafuchi Park

Shibuya Crossing (AKA “Scramble Crossing”)

Around 5,000 people cross this busiest intersection in the world at any one point in time. Cross time is less than one minute, and the light turns red for cars around every three minutes. The most fun place to watch this human scramble is from the second floor of Starbucks to get a bird’s eye view. You must pay for a beverage in order to go up to the second floor, and they will have a team of cute Japanese girls who will stop you if you try to get past them. (Don’t try that.)

TeamLab Borderless

Admission: ¥3,200 per person (approximately $31 USD)

This interactive digital art exhibition is located in Koto City (about one hour from Shinjuku on the subway – you’ll get off at Tokyo Teleport Station). I highly recommend purchasing your tickets online in advance from their website: https://borderless.teamlab.art/

We turned up without a ticket and queued for one hour, but it moved quickly. Once inside, there were several more queues to get into the other light displays. The queue for the pink lanterns (video above) was one hour, and the birds nest hammock room was over an hour, so we gave that a miss.

There are no directions or map once you enter, so it can be disorienting since it’s pitch black with moving light displays all around you. This is done on purpose so that you are a part of the display and get lost to discover things on your own. Many people leave bummed that they missed some of the rooms, so be sure to take a look at the website to map out which rooms you want to visit first.

Tokyo National Museum

Admission: ¥1,100 per person + ¥500 for audio guide (optional)

This museum is a great introduction to Japanese art, culture and history. There are five separate buildings within this museum.

Ameyoko

Akihabara1

Located in the Ueno district, this is the only market where you can bargain, and it sells everything from Turkish food to Thai food to fresh fish to shoes and handbags. This was the original “black market” in Tokyo. However, usually in places where you can bargain, it means that the quality is cheap and not made locally. That’s not the case with this market; the guide during our free walking tour informed us that there are only a few shops that sell fakes, and there is a giant sign at the front of the store saying so. (Gotta love the honesty in Japan.) 🙂

For 300 years (during the 17th – 19th century) Japan was in complete isolation; not even local people could travel outside the country. One of the biggest political problems that Japan is facing at the moment is population decline. The government just enacted a law to allow immigrants to live in the country, so you’ll notice that many workers are from China, Southeast Asia, or other neighboring countries. This is a big deal, as Japan has always been one of the purest cultures in the world with over 98% of the population being Japanese. I am curious to see how this ethnic immersion will affect their culture. I just hope it doesn’t dilute the politeness of Japanese people, because we could all benefit around the world with more polite people.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Note: The wholesale market (also known as “inner market”) closed down in 2018 and moved to a new location in Toyosu; this is where restaurants and retailers purchase fish in large quantities. However, the “outer market” of Tsukiji with its shops and restaurants still exists and is open to the public.

Nakamise Street Market (Asakusa)

TIP: go early because many street food stalls sell out by 12:30 PM and will close.
MUST TRY: Tempura-fried pastries with various fillings such as sakura, black sesame, or red adzuki bean.

Senso-Ji Temple

We took a free walking tour of Asakusa, which was actually free because our guide was an older retired Japanese gentleman who volunteers his time because he loves showing around his city to foreigners. As soon as he was finished with the tour, he thanked us, bowed and went on his way, not allowing tips, as tipping is not part of Japanese culture.

By the way, you’ll see the words Shrine and Temple used somewhat interchangeably throughout Japan. A shrine is for the Shinto religion, and temple is for Buddhism religion, and Torii gates are only found in shrines.

Shinjuku Free Walking Tour

Shinjuku City Night Lights - Tokyo, Japan

The free walking tour of the Red Light District is a really interesting piece of Japan culture, and you’ll be especially lucky if you get Hiroshi as your guide! There are 5 different types of sexual services, and this area is protected by the Japanese Mafia, but officially prostitution is illegal.

FUN FACT: Shinjuku Station is the busiest subway station in all of Tokyo, all of Japan, and in the entire world (3.5 million people use the station daily.) Shinjuku is where you go to see and be seen, especially at night when the city comes alive!

Akihabara Free Walking Tour

Akihabara seems to be the center of Tokyo in fashion, technology and progressive thinking. We took a three-hour free walking tour of this area and learned a great deal of information about Japan’s history and culture.

FUN FACT: Japan’s Christmas tradition is to eat KFC. In fact, many local Japanese children grow up thinking that Colonel Sanders is Santa Claus. Japanese people are not religious, they’re more spiritual, but they love to take on traditions that they like from each religion and culture. I.E. presents on Christmas, dressing up on Halloween, roses on Valentine’s Day, etc. Our guide joked that if we come back in a few years, they’ll probably be celebrating Easter, too.

Nakameguro District

Nakameguro Cherry Blossoms - Tokyo, Japan

Nakameguro is a hip, sophisticated district with bookstores, bars and a cherry blossom-lined river with pink lanterns during sakura season, where “sakura tears” (pink pedals from the flower) fall into the river, creating a pink hue on the water. It’s not a terribly exciting town, but it’s a nice reprieve from the craziness of Tokyo proper if you just want to get away from the crowds for a few hours.

FUN FACT: Cherry blossoms do not produce the cherry fruit. In fact, it has nothing to do with a cherry; that’s just the name of the flower.

Harajuku

Harajuku - Tokyo, Japan

Home of kawaii culture, teenage fashion, cosplay and Maid Cafes, Harajuku is usually synonymous with school girl uniforms, pink everything, and the latest trendy fashions. Takeshita Dori is one of the most narrow and crowded streets in Tokyo. Avoid visiting over the weekend because you’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder and barely moving.

Tokyo Dome City

Thunder Dolphin Roller Coaster, Tokyo

Have you ever had the desire to go on a crazy roller coaster in the middle of a big city?…yeah, me neither, but my husband is an adrenaline junkie, and found the Thunder Dolphin Roller Coaster on Google and just had to do it. For just under $10 USD you can take one ride (purchase a stand alone ticket at a kiosk) for the coaster. We went on a Thursday and the wait was under five minutes.

Shinjuku Goyen Park

Shinjuku Goyen Park - Tokyo, Japan

If you’re going to choose one park in Tokyo to see Fall colors or cherry blossoms in Spring, let this be it. For a nominal admission fee (¥500 per person), this massive park is serene and offers grassy spots for a nice rest or nap in the sun (no food or beverage allowed in the park except for water.)

Yoyogi Park is another nice park, and free of admission.

Chidorigafuchi Park

Honestly, it’s difficult to find an ugly park in Japan, especially during cherry blossom season. Free of entry, this park is lined with cherry blossoms along a walking path that goes along the river and leads to the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

Where to Eat in Tokyo

You may notice that my Japan blogs are a bit different than my normal blog posts in that I don’t include many restaurant names. This is because it is so easy to find outstanding food all over Japan, and many restaurants don’t have an English name, or I wouldn’t even be able to locate it on a map because it was down some random side alley. However, I will include five places below that were really noteworthy for their uniqueness!

  • Milk Cafe (Shibuya)

This is a specialty fresh cream specialty milk shop, that serves everything from royal milk tea to milk coffee to milk desserts, and everything is decorated with a cow theme. The royal milk tea was the best we’ve ever had.

  • Pablo Mini

There are several locations for this mini cheese tart dessert shop.

Pablo Mini Matcha Cheese Tart

  • Katsukura Tonkatsu (Shinjuku)

Katsukura Tonkatsu

The queue was long, but went quickly (about 25 minutes); located in Restaurant Park up several stories of escalators in the same building as Uniqlo. Great tonkatsu.

  • Heavenly Pancake (Shinjuku)

Heavenly Pancake, Japan

Not that I was searching for vegan restaurants while we were in Japan, but this was the only vegetarian & vegan restaurant we came across during our two-week trip. This place served everything from fluffy pancakes to salads…SALADS in Japan!! (by the way, you MUST order the fluffy pancakes – the photo above does not do it justice; they were so light, airy and delicious, but do note that it takes 15 minutes to make, so don’t order them if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.)

  • Himawari Zushi Shintoshin (Shinjuku)

This conveyor belt sushi seemed to always have a queue of foreigners, probably because it’s near the main section of Shinjuku close to the station, but we went here twice and it was so tasty and fresh!

I hope this gives you some ideas of fun things to do in Tokyo!

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