Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ****
Tokyo is one of those cities that has intrigued me for as long as I can remember. Growing up on films that showed Tokyo as this futuristic city embedded within me a desire to one day visit. I can clearly remember one Simpsons episode where the whole thing was about how advanced and efficient Japan is and I can still remember the impact it had on me.
Add to this my love for Japanese art forms like manga (particularly Dragon Ball Z), my first love of Power Rangers, and my obsession with the Street Fighter series, and for me, this was one big gap on my travels and something I have been looking forward to for a long time.
Japan is a strange country. After being devastated during the Second World War it grew rapidly for the next half century, becoming the world's second largest economy and certainly technologically the most advanced from a commercial perspective. But then it stopped and for the next two decades the country barely grew.
You can see that reflected in Tokyo. It's a modern capital, being designated as a capital in the mid-19th century. It was already one of the largest cities in Asia and, other than a large earthquake in the early 20th century, grew rapidly until the war that bought devastation and near total ruin. It grew quickly again, and by the 1990s was the largest metropolis in the world (it still is). But much of the city still has a feel of the 1990s and you can tell the growth and development hasn't been so rapid and all-encompassing since.
That being said, it remains one of the world's most important cities, one of the three global economic cities (alongside London and New York) and its cultural footprint reaches far and wide. For me, it's a city that I was looking to dive headfirst into, and I did just that, walking an average of 15 miles each of the 10 days I was around.
Tokyo is subdivided into several wards, so this article will cover the different wards that I visited across the city.
Koto - home to one of the best cultural exhibits in the world
I started my time in Tokyo exploring the man-made island in Tokyo Bay, in particular two areas - Toyosu and Odaiba - that are part of the Koto ward.
Odaiba is a strange place, and it feels like how someone might have imagined the future in the 1980s. Odaiba's architecture is mostly in line with that imagined futuristic design, with buildings like the Fuji Television Building and the Dentsu Building. The former really stands out as this crazy monolith made up of harsh corners and strange shapes, with a large sphere in the middle. It feels like the setting of an alien city from Star Trek.
The area also has several landmarks, such as the Rainbow Bridge, which provides a stunning view of the bay, and a replica of the Statue of Liberty, which is pretty cool but also adds to the strange feeling about the place. And it only gets stranger with the nearby beach which has views across the city, again, feeling slightly disjointed and otherworldly.
Toyosu is a few stops up the U line and home to a nice river walk. The U line is an autonomous light railway similar to the London DLR, it's great to ride if you sit up front. Toyosu's wide boulevards and sparsely populated streets are also home to two key tourist attractions, Toyosu Fish Market and teamLAB planet. I'd arrived at the fish market during the Emperor's Birthday, so it was closed, but even then, I've heard it is only worth visiting during the early morning fish auction (5:30am) when you can watch the proceedings from an observation window.
teamLab Planet is absolutely worth visiting. It's comfortably one of the best museums or cultural spaces that I've ever visited. It's a digital art museum that offers visitors an immersive, interactive experience that merges art, technology, and science. You can find it in different cities around the world, but the Tokyo space is perfect!
The museum is divided into several themed rooms, each featuring different interactive installations that utilize cutting-edge technology to create a unique, multisensory experience. You are pretty much thrown in at the deep end when one of the first rooms is a giant soft playground, and not long after that you're asked to roll up your trousers as you head into knee high water.
My favourite room was probably the Crystal Universe, which features thousands of LED lights that create a mesmerising, interactive display that reacts to the movements of visitors. Another popular exhibit is the Forest of Resonating Lamps, which features hanging lamps that glow in various colours and create a dreamlike atmosphere. The lamps react to the presence of visitors, creating a unique and ever-changing experience. Then there is the Floating Flower Garden, which uses sensors to detect the presence of visitors and create a blooming flower effect.
It isn't cheap, and you have to book in advance, but it is seriously one of the best exhibits I have ever seen.
Shibuya - home to the world's busiest pedestrian crossing
Shibuya is diverse given its size, but the area around Shibuya station on which the ward is centered is one of the liveliest areas of the city. It's home to the Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.
I'd read about it before visiting, but I was still surprised by just how insane the crossing is. I did a crossing on a weeknight evening and as soon as the lights turn green, a mass of humanity crosses at the same time from what feels like every single direction. Opposite the crossing is a Starbucks, and on the second floor is a glass window that overlooks the crossing perfectly, creating a great vantage point to see this incredible crowd moving with such efficiency (and you don't have to buy a drink either).
If you want a view from slightly higher, then there is the Shibuya Observatory - a space in a nearby office building that has an observatory deck on a floor that is home to a few cafes and restaurants.
But you can go higher still, and here you have Shibuya Sky. Those who have read my blog over the years know I love seeing cities from up high, particularly from observatory decks. The 229 metre tall Shibuya Sky tower has hands down one of the best observatory decks I've ever seen. Before visiting Tokyo, I was keen to see the view from the Tokyo Skytree, the second tallest structure in the world, but the view from Shibuya Sky was so good I decided to give the Skytree a miss.
It costs [x] to get a ticket to the top of the tower, and yes, you have to book in advance, but usually 24 hours seems to be enough. I had a little bit of trouble at the top of the tower when security told me I couldn't enter the observatory because of my dastaar. They told me to take off my dastaar if I wanted to enter and when I refused, I was taken to a counter where I spoke with an assistant using a language translating app. He mentioned it was because he was worried it would come off.
I explained that my dastaar is my religion and I would rather return downstairs than remove my dastaar. After having a look he offered me a small clip that clipped my dastaar to my t-shirt. It felt a little silly, but when I went outside and saw the observatory deck is completely outdoors I understood his (misguided) concerns.
Honestly, the small clip was absolutely worth the 360 views from the top. Often, observatory decks are at, or near, the top and can be a mix between indoors and out. This observatory deck was right at the very top and completely outside - you can even stand on a helipad, which was a great experience. It's a great place to really contextualize the scale of the world's largest metropolis. You can see all the famous landmarks, the skytree, the Tokyo Tower, the Shibuya Crossing underneath the tower, the National Stadium, and all the different neighbourhoods of the city - you can even see the impressive Mount Fuji looming over the city in the background.
Shibuya is also home to the Harajuku neighbourhood, famous for its youth culture and fashion. High-end stores sit alongside more local vendors, with crowded buildings overlooking narrow streets, and nowhere is this more obvious than Takeshita Street, A small, crowded street, the place is packed with youngsters, and it feels like a smaller, more cramped, and younger version of Carnaby Street in London.
A short walk from there is Yoyogi Park, its central location giving this park a feel equivalent to Hyde Park in London (you can read about the Royal Parks of London here). At 134 acres, its a decent size, slightly smaller than Greenwich Park and about half the size of Kensington Gardens. It is famous for its springtime cherry blossoms, but its dense tree coverage provides an eerie darkness all year around.
Within the grounds of the park is the Meiji Shrine, a 100-year-old Shinto shrine. It was built in 1920 to honour the Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, who were instrumental in modernizing Japan and bringing it into the modern era. The shrine is set in a beautiful forested area, with over 100,000 trees donated from all over Japan and around the world.
To reach the shrine, visitors pass through the impressive Torii gate, which stands 12 meters tall and is made of cypress wood. The path to the shrine is lined with large stone lanterns and smaller wooden lanterns, creating a serene and peaceful atmosphere. The main shrine building is a large, imposing structure made of cypress wood and copper, and it's surrounded by smaller buildings and garden areas. I really enjoyed the visiting the shrine and taking a little break from the busy city.
Chuo - home to bright neon lights and the Tokyo you imagined
I spent much of my time in the Chuo ward, in particular the Ginza area where my hotel was located. It's an absolutely insane area, and I later learned, one of the most upscale neighbourhoods in Tokyo.
The place is covered in high-end shopped, French inspired cafes, and large flagship electronic stores. Rooftop bars and restaurants are plentiful and the views from some of them are incredible, I visited one during the evening that overlooked not only the local neighbourhood, but you could also see across the city.
While the place is lively during the day with workers coming in from the suburbs, at night it is in a league of its own. Bright neon lights cover each street, and every square centimetre of space is utilised. In fact, one of my favourite locations is a railway bridge under which there are rows and rows of restaurants, all brightly lit during the evening.
If you like an area that is full-on, high energy, and feels like the Tokyo you might have seen in the films, this is absolutely the place to check out.
Chiyoda - home of anime, gaming, and the Emperor
The ward of Chiyoda is the historic core of Tokyo, serving as the political and economic hub of Japan. It's also one of my favourite wards of Tokyo given the diversity of its neighbourhooods.
The obvious place to start is the Imperial Palace, the residence of the Emperor of Japan. Once considered the most valuable piece of property in the world, most of the Imperial Palace is off-limits to tourists, with the areas surrounding the gates to the inner palace being the place where people can wander around.
The palace itself isn't particularly old, being constructed on the site of the older Edo Castle in the mid-19th century. While there isn't too much to see, the two landmarks that stood out to me were the beautiful Seimon Ishibashi bridge, and the East Gardens. The latter forms a nice walk through some landscaped gardens that have cherry blossom trees, small lakes and bridges, and even imperial fish!
Nearby are the twin areas of Yurakucho and Marunouchi - the big economic centres of the ward, and home to Japan's largest banks and industrial powerhouses like Toyota and Mitsubishi. These areas felt more functional than anything else, and I often found myself walking through the streets of these neighbourhoods because most train journeys would either start or end there.
To the north is the Kanda area, which is home to Akihabara, the area I was most excited to visit. I grew up on Dragon Ball Z and Street Fighter, and Akihabara - also known as electric town - is home to Tokyo's Otaku culture, which focuses on manga and anime.
The place is wild!
The architecture here is insane, the rectangular buildings are covered in posters and art, giving them an opaque feel. Narrow streets within each block are separated by larger roads, some of which become pedestrianised each Sunday afternoon. The area is home of some world famous comic book and anime themed stores like Super Potato (which I loved), Animate, and Mandarake.
They have a mix of everything, from old consoles to rare comic books, to more questionable material which sometimes borders on the weird, and other times crosses headfirst into uncomfortable territory. Then there are the Otaku girls who advertise entry into one of the areas many maid cafes - word of warning - don't go into those tourist traps.
During the day, Akihabara is abuzz with people darting between the different stores looking for comic books or experiencing the vibe of the area. At night, it's time for the gamers, with each floor of each store covered with people, while the buildings provide a neon glow and electric vibe.
I'll be honest, from that perspective I was slightly disappointed. Most of the stores here have floors and floors of those annoying claw machines, with only a couple of floors near the top dedicated to arcades and gaming. That being said, those floors were pretty special, and I spent more than a few Yen playing Street Fighter, Mario, and old racing games. Basically, everything I couldn't afford to do when I was younger.
Shinjuku - home of entertainment in Tokyo
Recently, another ward has grown to become almost as economically important as Chiyoda, and that is Shinjuku.
Shinjuku is a vibe for real. Compared to the upmarket Chuo, the (relatively) conservative Chiyoda, Shinjuku is like Tokyo letting its hair down. Shinjuku train station is one of the busiest in the world, and the area around it is full of tall skyscrapers crammed full of shops and amusements.
Closeby is Omoide Yokocho, a complete contrast to modern Shinjuku. It's a small, extremely narrow lane that hosts some restaurants and bars on either side. The food is cooked on open spits, so the smoke wafts through the air. Each establishment can maybe sit a handful of people, and it feels extremely old school - which isn't a surprise, because, although the area around has changed tremendously, Omoide Yokocho remains faithful to its founding pre-Second World War.
A short walk from there is Kabukicho, and it's....an experience. It's basically the red-light and entertainment district, known for bright lights, shady establishments, and a big Yakuza presence (the Japanese mafia). The bright lights are enticing, and it's a sensory overload, with a giant Godzilla model leaning over one of the buildings, but the whole place feels seedy, very different from other parts of Tokyo. That being said, there are some positives.
Golden Gai is a small area with a post-war run down feel that is located behind the main streets of Kabukicho. The three of four streets that make up Golden Gai are understated, with shabby looking buildings that are lit up in the evening after 8pm. Each building is home to a very small restaurant or bar, much like Omoide Yokocho, you can only fit a handful of people in most of the bars and restaurants here. Some are here just for the locals and they make that clear, either with signs, or by imposing a cover charge on foreigners, while others are more welcoming. I spent an evening across a couple of locations and had a great time. I really enjoyed this part of Shinjuku, but you have to walk through some pretty questionable places to get here.
Shinjuku is also home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, a near 250 metre tall building that houses an impressive observation deck. Most importantly, it is free to visitors! Seriously, while I think Shibuya Sky has the best views from its open top rooftop, it costs money, so if you're travelling on a budget the government building does an excellent job. You can get a real feel for the scale of the city from the observation deck, seeing all the famous landmarks, and of course, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance.
Bunkyo - home of Tokyo's Gurdwara
North-west of Shinjuku is the district of Bunkyo. Bunkyo is home to many prestigious universities, including the University of Tokyo and Waseda University. The ward is also home to several parks and gardens, including the Koishikawa Botanical Garden and Rikugien Garden. Bunkyo is also known for its traditional neighborhoods, such as Yanaka and Nezu, which feature preserved historical architecture and traditional shops. It also hosts the Tokyo Dome, which is broadly the equivalent of the o2 Arena or Madison Square Garden, and an arena I'm familiar with through professional wrestling.
For me, the most important part of Bunkyo is Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar - Tokyo's only Gurdwara. The Sikh community in Tokyo is tiny - whereas in cities like London and New York the majority of the population is foreign born, Japan remains staunchly anti-immigration, and even in Tokyo the total foreign-born population is less than 5%, mostly Chinese and Korean, with a smaller number of Vietnamese and Nepalese. All of this made it even more insane that a Gurdwara exists at all.
Given the small size of the community, there aren't enough people to do seva 7 days a week, and so the Gurdwara only opens on a Sunday. This means there is no Akhand Paath and so Sukhmani Sahib is done instead.
There isn't any Sikh architecture or an external Nishaan Sahib, so it can a little tricky to locate. The Gurdwara is located on the basement floor of a pretty low-key building but as soon as you walk in you can hear the Gurbani and smell the langar and it's easy to follow the sounds and smell to the right location.
Inside, the small darbaar hall was about half full, with just as many Japanese nationals as Panjabis. The paath was being recited beautifully by two aunties who spoke with a passion and clarity that reflected the beauty of the Gurbani. The sangat was friendly and talkative and we had a nice exchange. While I was leaving a saw several other families coming in, and so it seems the Gurdwara is quite busy, which is always nice to see.
Toshima - home of Pokemon and ramen
Neighbouring Bunkyo is the ward of Toshima. If Bunkyo is laid back, residential and traditional, Toshima is the opposite - a bustling ward that is home to Ikebukuro, the other centre of Otaku culture (alongside Akihabara).
Ikebukuro is a pretty large neighbourhood, with large general stores for electronics that are a block wide, and the size of a skyscraper in height. If you want to buy goods tax free, bring your passport because this is the place to do it. It's a transportation hub connecting Tokyo with other areas of Japan, and so the area around the train station is particularly busy.
The other has a lot of students, and ramen, being a relatively cheap staple, is very popular in the local area, so if you like good ramen, this is the place to come. I love ramen, and although some of the restaurants can be tricky to navigate (especially without English menus), they're a great experience. I particularly enjoyed the many "pod" like restaurants where people tend to eat solo, with dividers between each patron.
Much like Akihabara, one of the best attractions of Ikebukuro is its vibrant anime and manga culture. The neighborhood is home to several anime and manga shops, as well as themed cafes and restaurants. The Animate store in Ikebukuro is one of the largest anime and manga retailers in Japan and although the shops are more spread out than Akihabara, it's a good place for casual gaming and anime culture.
It's also home to Sunshine City a large commercial complex that features a variety of shops, restaurants, and entertainment facilities, including an aquarium, planetarium, and observation deck.
One of the main attractions within Sunshine City is the Pokemon Centre, a popular destination for fans of the Pokemon franchise. The Pokemon Centre is a specialty store that offers a wide variety of merchandise related to the Pokemon franchise, including toys, games, clothing, and accessories. The store is designed to resemble a Pokemon gym, with a large open space and displays featuring various Pokemon characters. There are also interactive features, such as photo spots and video displays, that allow visitors to immerse themselves in the world of Pokemon.
It's a huge complex, but felt quite similar to a normal shopping centre you'd find anywhere else. My favourite Tokyo shopping experience was Don Quijote, a chain of discount stores across the city that tend to be open 24/7 and seem to sell absolutely everything!
Taito - home of Tokyo's oldest temple
Another northern ward that I visited was Taito, where I spent time in the Asakusa area. Asakusa is a historic district located in Tokyo, Japan, known for its traditional atmosphere, street food, and numerous cultural attractions. One of the most famous and visited attractions in Asakusa is Senso-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple that dates back to the 7th century.
Senso-ji Temple is located in the heart of Asakusa and is easily accessible by train or subway. Visitors entering through the Kaminarimon Gate are greeted by a large lantern and a street filled with vendors selling traditional snacks and souvenirs. The street is beautifully decorated and felt very different. As you make your way through the bustling street, you'll reach the temple's main hall, which is surrounded by beautiful gardens and smaller shrines.
The main hall of Senso-ji Temple is an impressive structure that has been rebuilt multiple times over the centuries due to fires and bombings. Inside, visitors can offer prayers and make offerings to the Buddhist deities. The temple also houses a museum that displays various cultural artifacts and provides insight into the history and traditions of the temple and Asakusa district.
A popular attraction at Senso-ji Temple is the incense burner. Visitors can purchase a bundle of incense sticks and light them at the burner to purify themselves before entering the temple. The smoke from the incense is said to have healing properties and a calming effect on the mind and body.
The area around the temple is great, made up of narrow roads that host really good quality cafes and restaurants and so it's a great place to spend a day just relaxing.
Minato - home to tradition and modernity
On the other side, Minato is a southern ward of Tokyo. Coming out from the train station at [x] the area felt completely different to the others I had visited, much quieter and it felt more residential. After getting my bearings, I headed toward Zojo-ji. a Buddhist temple that dates back to the 14th century.
Zojo-ji is located just a short walk from Tokyo Tower and is known for its beautiful gardens and serene atmosphere. The temple grounds are home to several impressive structures, including the main hall, a five-story pagoda, and a large cemetery where many famous figures from Japanese history are buried. What makes it even more impressive is the dichotomy of the old temple in the foreground, with the relative modern design of the large Tokyo Tower in the background.
Neaby is Atago Jinja, a near 500-year-old Shinto shrine. The temple is smaller than many of the others in the city, but seemed to be popular with locals who were praying when I visited. It's not easy to get to the shrine, because directly in front of it is the "Stairway to Success" and incredibly steep 86 steps with an inclination of 40 degrees. Perhaps it was a many days of averaging 15 miles of walking a day, but I was absolutely shattered on the way back down.
Another popular destination in Minato City is Roppongi, a neighborhood known for its vibrant nightlife and high-end shopping. The area is home to several luxury brand stores and shopping malls, as well as numerous restaurants and bars. I thought the area felt pretty laidback and chill compared to some of the other neighbourhoods I'd visited.
Getting around Tokyo
It's pretty easy to get around Tokyo thanks to an efficient subway system which is both efficient and decently priced.
The Tokyo subway system is operated by two companies, Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway, which jointly manage the network. Tokyo Metro operates nine lines, while Toei Subway operates four lines, with some overlap between the two networks.
You can pay for tickets either through Apple Pay / Google Pay, through purchasing one trip tickets, or using local electronic payments firms like Suica and Pasmo. which is what I went for. The cards are convenient because you can also use your balance to pay for products are certain shops around the city too.
The only issue is that topping them up can be a pain because at most ticket machines you need notes and coins. It was a bit of a surprise because you think of Japan as quite a digital country, but it remains cash heavy. There were quite a few instances in different establishments where I was caught out because it was cash only. Compared to the UK, it seemed a couple of steps behind, roughly similar to my experiences in the US.
The subway trains are frequent and punctual, with rush hour services operating every few minutes. The trains are also clean and comfortable, with air conditioning and plenty of seating. The stations aren't quite as charismatic as those in the UK, but are all well signposted, and seem to be a city underneath a city. Seriously, some of these stations have up to 50 exits meaning you can get off a station and end up several blocks away before you go back above ground.
Would I recommend visiting Tokyo?
Absolutely 100%. It's one of those cities that really lived up to expectations. People are generally very polite to tourists, but I know it is probably not a place I could live given the strong preferential treatment for locals and distrust of foreigners. And I know this is true, because I've had several friends have the same experiences, and even people I have worked with from Tokyo admit the same.
That being said, I was there as a tourist, and I had a great time, with no specific issues as a Sikh other than at the top of Shibuya Sky. The landmarks are real landmarks, the food is excellent (although slightly tough if you are a vegetarian). It is expensive, but not anymore than its peers in Europe or North America. The energy is incredible, particularly in areas like Akihabara and Ikebukuro. Each neighbourhood seems to have its own unique vibe, which means the city doesn't really get repetitive.
That being said, be prepared to use language translating apps, or a lot of pointing at things, English isn't ubiquitous here. Sometimes, you might need to be slightly adventurous with your food. Bring some cash, because digital payments haven't quite taken off as they have in other parts of the world. There is also a strange aversion to bins - honestly, I couldn't find any in most wards.
But, it's all worth it in order to visit one of the best cities in the world!
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.