I lived Tokyo on three separate occasions. Two of those times, Madeline lived with me. We both love Tokyo and greater Japan. But Tokyo is a special place for both of us since we’ve spent so much time living and taking in all the city has to offer. All our children visited us for at least a week and we were their tour guides.
There’s so much to see and do that I’m writing multiple posts. Even with drastic cutting of many attractions, and I still had a 10,000-word post! I feel it’s better to give you multiple posts so you can hear about all the attractions we’ve enjoyed.
Let us know if you are enjoying these posts. Madeline and I encourage you to travel to Japan. Maybe go there for the 2020 Summer Olympics?
We recommend sakura (cherry blossom) season or winter. Or any time, really. The time is now to visit Tokyo!
The main attraction for most visitors in Asakusa is Sensoji Temple. A popular Buddhist temple, it was built in the seventh century. You can’t miss it as you enter from the street. You’ll see many offers for a rickshaw tour of the area surrounding the temple.
We went on a walking tour of the Sensoji Temple grounds, which leads through to Nakamise, a shopping street with plenty of souvenir shops. You’ll find many souvenirs here. Or you can take a “right” and head toward Taito, another section of walking street, stores and restaurants. Centuries ago, Asakusa used to be Tokyo’s leading entertainment district. During the Edo Period when Asakusa was still located outside the city limits, this was the site of kabuki theaters and a red-light district. There are still active kabuki theaters in the area.
Sensoji Temple is a very popular tourist destination. But it’s still a solemn temple for local Buddhists. You can experience both when you visit. Legend says that in 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the nearby Sumida River. Later, they put the statue back into the river. But it always returned to them. Sensoji was built for the goddess of Kannon and was completed in 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple. The statue has stayed in one place ever since.
Tourists can reach Asakusa on many rail and subway lines. The main entrance draws you in with a large torii. Rickshaws for tourists are seen everywhere, and the drivers eagerly take you around the temple. They’ll even take you back to your subway or rail station for a price.
The Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), is the outer gate of the Sensoji Temple and the symbol of Asakusa. As you enter you walk under a huge lantern.
You proceed along Nakamise, filled with goods for locals and tourists. The street is more than 700 feet long and offers gifts and snacks. This street has been operating for centuries. You’ll see many people dressed in kimonos. Some of these are tourists dressed for the occasion.
The eateries offer traditional dishes, including noodles, sushi and tempura. Nearby are small shops selling souvenirs like kimonos, fans, woodblock prints, toys, T-shirts and mobile phone straps.
Within the temple itself, and at many places along the way, are fortune stalls. For a suggested donation of 100 yen (about $1 US), you can consult the oracle and receive answers to your questions. We met someone who spoke enough English to get us through the experience. You then shake a stick from a metal container and read the corresponding answer, which you find in one of 100 drawers.
The temple is not far from Kappabashi (Kitchen Town), another entertaining spot for tourists.
Shibuya Crossing connects the Metro and JR stations with the shopping and nightlife areas of Shibuya. It’s known as a scramble crossing, where people cross either directly or diagonally from where they are to where they want to go.
It’s very organized and terrific for people watching. You can get a bird’s eye view of the crossing from Starbucks or one of the department stores.
There are multiple gigantic television screens mounted on the buildings that face Shibuya Crossing. They flash night and day. It’s fascinating to watch. They make appearances in the movies Lost in Translation and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
There’s plenty to do at Shibuya Crossing. Shops and restaurants abound. It’s popular for nightlife, too. Nearby Shibuya Station is a large hub for Tokyo trains and subways.
Close to the JR station, and a good photo opportunity, is Hachiko. People told me he was a famous dog, known for his incredible loyalty to his master, Professor Ueno Hidesaburo. The story goes the dog would wait for his master every day at the station after work. In 1925, Professor Ueno died. When he did not return to the station, Hachiko still waited for him daily for the next nine years, appearing exactly when the train was due.
At some point people started feeling sorry for the dog and the legend began. Hachiko’s story and renowned loyalty gained attention. The dog died of cancer and a filarial infection the year after his statue was unveiled. But his story continues. Two and a half million people pass by the bronze dog each day. It’s a great landmark and an even better story.
Meiji Jingu was built in 1920 and is dedicated to Emperor Meiji who ruled from 1852 to 1912. During this period, Japan became a modern state. Meiji Jingu is in Yoyogi Park, partially constructed for the 1964 Olympics. The shrine follows the Shinto religion and there is a long and winding gravel road that you walk on until you see the torii gate.
Shinto shrines are everywhere in Japan, but only a handful are called Jingu. This suffix shows that they enshrine a past emperor and share a significant connection to the imperial family. This is a very popular place to see and you will not be alone.
The gates of Meiji Jingu are a short walk from the Harajuku Station. The two torii gates at the entrance to the shrine tower at 40 feet. These wood torii are considered the world’s largest. As you pass through the gates, you enter a sacred place, although you might see weddings or other celebrations. When you get to the shrine, it is important to respect the Shinto religion. You could do this by bowing at the entrance torii gate each time you enter and leave. You could also simply stop and lower your gaze. It is simply a sign of respect.
The inner garden has over 150 species of irises. There is an admission fee to the garden but in the summer, it is magnificent. There is also the Treasure House which also requires a small fee. Here you can see the royal couple’s clothes and personal items.
Many events take place at Meiji Shrine throughout the year. During the first week of January, there’s a ceremony dedicated to sumo wrestling. You’ll see sumo wrestlers receiving purification. You can probably see it on TV but if you are there at the time, you can see the grand champions (yokozuna) up close.
We’ve seen weddings at the shrine. We’ve also seen visits by ambassadors from foreign countries. US presidents and foreign dignitaries all come to Meiji Jingu.
Yep, that’s Madeline and I in front of the beautiful Tokyo Tower. Our son, Jason, who toils behind the scenes on this blog, took the photo. I’ve heard plenty of tourists explain that Tokyo Tower looks surprisingly similar to the Eiffel Tower.
Madeline took this photo in November, with fall in full swing. Every time we walked near Tokyo Tower, Madeline took another photo. Neither of us tire of looking at it. We lived very close to the Tokyo Tower and frequently took guests to the observation decks (one is at 492 feet high the other is at 820). We love seeing the tower lit up at night. It was sort of a guidepost for home.
On Christmas Eve, 1958, thousands of people came to see the opening of the Tokyo Tower. When the 295-foot antenna was installed, the tower stood 1093 feet high making it the world’s tallest freestanding structure—overtaking the Eiffel Tower in Paris by 43 feet.
Tokyo Tower is painted a combination of orange and white but looks red at nighttime. It’s an iconic symbol of Tokyo. When it was constructed, the primary function of the tower was to serve as a TV and radio tower. It was the tallest building and the signals reached everywhere. The tower’s height was determined by the distance the TV stations needed to transmit throughout the Kanto region, a distance of about 90 miles.
I still think it’s a beautiful landmark. They light it every evening, and for the holidays it’s even more festive. Now the city has the Tokyo Skytree, which is the new tallest building. The Skytree is impressive, but we look for the Tokyo Tower every time we visit. There is something magical about it.
The Tokyo Skytree is much taller than Tokyo Tower. As of 2018, it’s the tallest tower in the world. At 2080 feet tall, this tower is easily visible in Tokyo’s skyline and has become a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. Madeline took the picture of me trying to take a picture of the Tokyo Skytree.
The windows of the observation decks are huge and offer panoramic vistas all the way to Mt. Fuji on a clear day. The views are spectacular all day long, but you can also watch the sun set and the evening city lights come to life below. Many couples consider this a date night location.
This is a broadcast tower that also has two separate observation decks, each with a different fee. It’s a true 360-degree view of Tokyo. There is a separate line for foreign travelers if the place is very crowded. It allows you to bypass the big lines but it’s slightly more expensive. We expected to go in this line, but a nice person said that the volume was low, and we should just stand in the regular line since the wait was less than 15 seconds.
The tower was built in 2010 and it rivals other observation towers like the Mori Tower and the Tokyo Tower.
When you are on the observation deck, you’ll see these helpful signs telling you what direction you are facing and what you might be seeing.
The Skytree has two observation levels, one at 1,150 feet and the other a bit higher at 1,480 feet. The higher is an additional cost but there are less people. There are plenty of photo opportunities and there are many displays to help you locate landmarks as you circle around.
Tokyo Skytree is not just a tower, but also includes a shopping, dining and entertainment complex called Tokyo Skytree Town. Most of the complex is taken up by Tokyo Solamachi, a shopping and dining mall. It also includes museums, an aquarium and souvenir shops. We went during the day, but you can also go at night when the tower itself lights up and you can see the landmarks and lights of the city.
You wouldn’t expect an area like Kagurazaka in Tokyo. It’s a great walking street with emphasis on French eateries.
And yep, there are a few temples and shrines in the area.
Kagurazaka is a bit difficult to find, but most guidebooks tell you the subway stop (Iidabashi Station) and the appropriate exit for where you want to go. On certain days and times, the street is closed to car traffic making walking more relaxed.
When you go, particularly on the weekend, you’ll see people strolling the street and looking around. Kagurazaka offers plenty of quick-eat or sit-down places. There’s an emphasis is on French cuisine, presumably because the location is close to French schools. We heard accordion music piped through speakers on streetlight poles, making us think we were in France. We liked the casual walking and saw plenty of people out for a stroll.
Shinjuku Chuo Park
Madeline took the picture above from our hotel room at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo. Shinjuku Chuo Park is a beautiful park in the busy financial district of Shinjuku. The park is beautiful to walk, particularly if you just came from the bustling Shinjuku station with its thousands of travelers.
Shinjuku Chuo Park has a little waterfall called Shinjuku Niagara Falls. It’s not a replica of the real Niagara Falls in size or shape. Someone in marketing must have come up with the comparison to the massive water fall between the United States and Canada.
I think you can make out which picture is the real Niagara Falls and Shinjuku Niagara Falls. The Shinjuku Niagara Falls are multi-tiered, about 20 feet high and 20 feet wide. It’s easy to spot when it’s in operation. There is plenty of seating, so sit, relax and listen the waterfall. If you stay at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo, ask for a garden view and you might see the falls from your room.
Mori Art Museum
To get to the Mori Art Museum, first find Mori Tower. It’s hard to miss.
When I lived in Tokyo the first time, the fashionable Roppongi Hills area didn’t exist. An entire neighborhood was razed to reinvent the area.
Mori Tower has a large movie complex and tons of restaurants and shops. It’s adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, which we heartily recommend.
As for the Mori Art Museum, it’s amazing. We didn’t expect world-class exhibits in this area. But the Mori is known for bringing in world-class art collections on their way around the world. We’ve visited it several times. One of our favorite exhibits was Universe and Art, which fused Japanese artifacts with items from Da Vinci and Galileo.
Akihabara, or Electric Town, is the electronics city of Tokyo. It caters to many different crowds, but high tech is the main draw. As an IT guy, I loved coming here to see what new stuff was available. For a Westerner you know that so many electronics come from Japan, so it’s fun to see what new models are available before they hit the Western markets.
Foreigners can get tax-free goods with a passport. All the latest gadgets are available here. There are many big stores with multiple outlets. And then there are the small ones. We stopped in a small side street to get an international adapter (500 yen) at Tokyo Radio Department Store. It’s really nothing more than a small niche in the area but everyone is friendly.
To get there, you can take the JR or Metro. The JR is a bit closer to the main action.
There are plenty of interesting places to explore. You might see women dressed as maids roaming the streets. They may be heading to work or advertising their maid café. These cafes are themed restaurants where waitresses dress as maids and address their customers as master or mistress.
Don’t worry, it’s just role playing; there’s nothing sexual about it. These cafes originated in Akihabara and cater to otaku, which are the equivalent of Western geeks. You can go to a maid café and just have a snack or drink and engage in a small conversation with the maid.
I spent many months in Takadanobaba at the Rihga Royal Hotel Tokyo. The hotel was terrific, and I enjoyed staying there. I ventured out around the hotel since the area is close to Waseda University. There were always plenty of students roaming around and they’d congregate around the Takadanobaba area.
Big Box Takadanobaba is the landmark around this area. It’s very close to the Takadanobaba station, which has both Metro and JR entrances so it’s convenient to get to from many areas. Big Box is probably the largest area to meet. It’s a multipurpose store with bowling, swimming and shopping. There are many places to eat and shop. We liked walking over to Waseda, where things are a bit slower and the tree-lined streets were calmer.
An easy way to get to Takadanobaba is on the Yamanote Line, which is a popular circular route. I would get to work by taking the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku Station, the largest train station in the world. That was a world-class wakeup call to huddle with what appeared to be all of Tokyo’s citizens going to the same place.
I figured out how to get from my train station to the Metro I needed to get to my workplace. Commuting for me was about 40 minutes, which was nothing compared to the 90- to 120-minute commute for most everyone else.
As a tourist, I went to Takadanobaba to experience a bit of what college life is for the Japanese and to appreciate the culture and beauty of the area. There are plenty of restaurants and shops. When I first worked there, I just found restaurants that had an English server or an English menu. Nowadays, you won’t have any trouble getting a meal in the area.
One day while Madeline and I were living in Azabujuban, we were walking up the street toward Roppongi. We saw all these people on a Saturday afternoon with children in tow. We weren’t sure why so many people were crowded around a museum on a Saturday afternoon.
The pictures tell the story. People were lined up at Snoopy Museum Tokyo just to take pictures of the outside of the museum. And the children couldn’t wait to get in. If you are a Snoopy lover, this official satellite of the Charles M. Schulz Museum is a refuge in the middle of the Roppongi area on a relatively quiet walking street. You can get there from Azabujuban by walking up the street or walking down the street from Roppongi.
We frequently went to Roppongi to go to Don Q. The locals tend to pronounce it donkey, and the tourists call it Don Quixote or Don Q. It’s a department store that has something for everyone. You’ll find housewares, CDs, costumes, T-shirts, electronics, fans, electrical plugs and anything else you can think of. Japan still has stores that specialize in specific things. If you ask where to buy an electric plug, you will be directed to an electrics store or a vendor that has fans and plugs. If you want a CD, that’d be another store. Don Q is one stop shop. They even have a small grocery store.
If you are going to Roppongi as a tourist, maybe you don’t need Don Q. Maybe you’re looking for nightlife.
If you’re meeting someone in Roppongi, Almond is a popular spot. It’s a few steps away from the Metro entrance and at the beginning of the long avenue where much of Roppongi nightlife happens. Roppongi is easily the most popular location for expats looking for something to do afterhours.
If you are a little more adventuresome, you try Ginza and Shibuya back streets (not the main shopping streets). There are plenty of bars and nightlife all over Tokyo, but they don’t always cater to Westerners. In Roppongi, English is spoken just about everywhere.
Roppongi is more famous for attracting expats because there are so many English-speaking places. The Hard Rock Café is here, along with TGI Fridays and more than 100 different nightclubs that stay open into the wee hours or the morning. You’ll notice when the subways close for the night because people are stuck there—they either must pay for a cab or keep drinking until 5 AM, when the subway reopens.
We’ve enjoyed a few bars in Roppongi, including Mistral Bleu (Train Bar), Hobgoblin and Legend. These are all reviewed in our restaurant posts. And we’ve eaten at TGI Fridays and Outback Steak House.
During our last visit in 2019, we noticed quite a few Turkish-style vendors opening for street food. They were very friendly and offered a small taste to lure you in.
Many places do not even open until the evening, so plan your schedule carefully.
Note: Roppongi is different than Roppongi Hills, which is a large shopping and dining area next to the Mori Tower.
When I first worked in Tokyo, Midtown didn’t exist. Like Roppongi Hills, many buildings were razed, and the area was repurposed for shopping, dining, the Ritz Carlton hotel and a beautiful park. I don’t think anybody can repurpose land better than the Japanese. They have a long-term vision, and it’s never just space reused with lots of concrete. The Japanese always think about greenspace, too. As a result you’ll notice a garden or park smack dab in the middle of important shops and buildings.
We went to Midtown for lunch on a weekend and were amazed at how much was there. Much of it is underground in the Japanese tradition of using space efficiently. There was a grocery store, bookstores, major shopping and beautiful artwork and sculpture everywhere. There even was outdoor restaurant seating across from Hinokicho Park.
The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo is nearby, so if you want to claim Roppongi or Midtown as your destination, you are walking distance from quite a lot.
We lived in Azabujuban, which was either a walk or a short Metro ride to this area of town. Since I worked long term in Tokyo, I didn’t want to live in a hotel again, so I chose a managed apartment in Azabujuban called the Oakwood Residence.
We also stayed at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo in Roppongi Hills, which is a short walk away from midtown.
Midtown is a high-end development, similar to Mori Tower and Roppongi Hills. Aesthetics played a key role in designing Midtown, with water and flowering plants offering a refuge from the busy Tokyo daily grind. It’s conveniently located near Roppongi, which is across the street. Of course, the very high-end stores in Midtown, but you can also hit a 7-11 or a grocery store.
Happo-en Garden is a hidden wonder. Many tourists would not even know it exists. The phrase, Happo-en, means garden of eight views and describes the beauty to be enjoyed from all angles. Happo-en preserves the beauty of Japan through the centuries and maintains its historical buildings. All the buildings and nature intertwine and create a perfect balance of old and new.
Madeline found this garden on her own when we lived in Minato-ku. She found it was a destination for many Tokyo couples who want to get married. The traditional houses and romantic pond and colorful trees and shrubs make it an ideal place for a wedding ceremony.
The garden of eight views is beautiful from any angle. It also has beauty in every season because of the careful attention of the gardeners. You can see sakura in spring or the vibrant colors of the maples in fall. The garden never loses its charm. It’s a delight for the senses.
Happo-en has its own tea house, Muan, which offers two types of tea ceremony experiences: tencha and otemae. With tencha, you are served green tea with wagashi or Japanese sweet. For otemae, you learn how to prepare, serve or enjoy tea. At Muan, traditional Japanese matcha (high-quality green tea) is served.
The garden attracts more visitors during hanami, or sakura viewing. During the spring months, cherry blossoms fill the Happo-en and it’s stunning. The summer brings life to other colorful flowers. In the winter, when snow fills the park, it’s a completely different beauty to behold.
I recommend you try to go during the week when it is less crowded. On the weekends, you’re likely to see a wedding ceremony. Just be respectful of the couple and family while you take in the serenity of the garden.
A lovely restaurant, Enjyu Shizenkan, overlooks the garden. We’ve eaten here and it’s a nice way to enjoy a meal and gaze into the garden.