I love walking through neighborhoods in big cities. There is something magical about setting off with no plans other than wandering through the streets and getting lost. Although I planned my time in Kyoto somewhat neurotically, I didn’t make any real plans for the two days I spent in Tokyo. Each day, I bought a train ticket to a new neighborhood and went where the day took me. This meant that I saw parts of Tokyo ranging from a veritable forest in the middle of the city to a Pokemon store selling stuffed Charizards and Pokemon socks. I was fascinated by how the neighborhoods transitioned so quickly that by walking 20 minutes, I could be in a totally different part of the city.
The JR Yamanote line, one of the many subway lines in Tokyo, runs in a loop through many of the most popular neighborhoods in central Tokyo. I used this train to get to most of the places I went to in Tokyo. For ease of navigation, the neighborhoods described in this post are in approximate order along the JR Yamanote Line, starting from Tokyo Station and going counterclockwise.
The neighborhood around Tokyo Station was one of my favorites. The station itself is rather attractive, but the neighborhood is also home to the Imperial Palace, with amazing gardens, and the Tokyo International Forum, which is an incredible display of futuristic architecture.
Maranouchi is the primary financial district of Tokyo, but on a Saturday, it felt very peaceful and laid-back despite the skyscrapers everywhere. There were people running along the moat of the Imperial Palace, and it was blissfully free of the craziness of other parts of the city. On a weekday, I’m sure it would be a different story.
The Imperial Palace East Garden was one of my favorite parts of Tokyo, and I highly recommend Maranouchi as a place to get a good flavor of Tokyo if you have a limited time in the city. It is accessible from the Tokyo Station stop on the JR Yamanote line.
Known for its anime and manga stores, Akihabara is a compulsory stop for nerds of all descriptions (myself included). My primary motivation for going to this neighborhood was to visit Yodobashi Camera Store for vegan ramen and gyoza at Chabuton. Once my hunger had been satiated, it was dark, so my exploration of the neighborhood was limited.
Known in the mid-1900s as a hub for stores selling electronic goods, Akihabara is still home to many such establishments such as Yodobashi Camera and a large complex of stores known as Electric City. However, Akihabara is now known predominantly for its stores dedicated to anime, manga, and video games. After dark, many of these stores were closed, and the ones that were open seemed more like porn shops than nerd culture.
Akihabara is also home to the theater of the Japanese idol girl group AKB48. The group originally began with 48 members, but now has over 140 girls, mostly teenagers. They perform daily at the theater, and the concept is that fans can always go see them live.
Although I was tempted, I didn’t end up actually going to see them perform, but they are extremely popular in Japan.
Ueno was the last neighborhood I visited before heading to the airport, so I didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, but it is a great introduction to Tokyo. It is easily accessible by the Ueno stop on the JR Yamanote line.
Ueno Park is a very popular destination for Tokyoites on Sundays. There were many families strolling around the park with children.
The park is quite large and in addition to having green spaces and ponds, it is also home to a number of museums, including the Tokyo National Museum. This museum is sometimes referred to as the Louvre of Tokyo, which I cannot speak to, having never been to the Louvre. However, I can say that the museum is worth a visit for an introduction to Japanese history. The museum is quite extensive, and I only made to one wing, which contained many Buddhist artifacts and collections of samurai weapons. The museum is well worth the 600 yen entrance fee, and there is also a student discount!
Slightly south of Ueno Station is Ameyoko, an enormous street market, where vendors sell everything from shoes to green tea to giant octopi.
Ameyoko bears more resemblance to the markets of southern Asia than anywhere else I saw in Japan, and it is a fun experience to walk through and look at the merchandise. This is also a good place to get Japanese sweets or green tea.
Ikebukuro is where I stayed while I was in Tokyo, and while it was a nice enough neighborhood, there isn’t much to see, and unless you are interested in girl geek culture, it is probably not worth a visit.
If you do find yourself there, however, there is a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jiyugakuen Myonichikan, and Sunshine City, a cultural complex similar to the Shiodome and Roppongi Hills described below. There are also food theme parks in Namjatown, which sounded amazing in theory, but are probably less than ideal for vegetarians.
Shinjuku was a neighborhood that felt very business-like. There are lots of skyscrapers and government offices, and because Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world, there are always people hurrying around. However, there are still plenty of green spaces interspersed with the buildings.
Since Shinjuku has many tall buildings, it is an excellent place to see Tokyo from above. In particular, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices have two observation decks that are free for visitors, with views in every direction.
I knew that Tokyo was an enormous city, but I still wasn’t expecting it to be so expansive. In every direction, it looked like the city never ends. A city of 30 million is no joke, I suppose.
What struck me most about the city is the vast areas of green I could see from above. Despite being a large and densely packed city, it is still possible to wander into one of Tokyo’s many parks and feel like you are in a forest.
The lobby of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is also a good place to pick up a copy of the Official Tokyo Tourism Guide, a free guide to Tokyo that has excellent maps of each neighborhood and an overview of the highlights for sightseeing.
Harajuku is a posh area, known for its high-end shopping and resembling a fashionable European neighborhood. One of the main thoroughfares, Omote-sando dori, which is lined with tall, leafy trees, is referred to as the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo.
Along this street, there is a McDonalds, which has second floor seating that has a good view of the street and is interesting for people watching. It is also the fanciest McDonalds I’ve ever seen. I don’t regularly frequent McDonalds, but this one had spaces for people to study and work, something I’m fairly sure doesn’t exist at any American McDonalds.
Shopping is the primary reason to visit Cat Street, which resembles a pedestrians-only outdoor mall. There, you’ll find outposts for many American and European brands as well as smaller boutiques. It makes for a nice walk on the way from Harajuku to Shibuya.
A star attraction in the Harajuku neighborhood is the Meiji-jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It is not uncommon for Shinto shrines to be dedicated to people who are though to have possessed Kami, divine spirit. For this shrine, more than 100,000 trees were donated by people all around Japan and from abroad to create the forest in which the shrine is located.
In addition to the shrine, there is an inner garden, Meiji-jingu gyoen, with an entrance fee, which in my opinion, is well worth it. The garden is expansive and serene, and the Japanese mountain azaleas in the azalea garden are stunning.
Even though it was raining during my visit, I still enjoyed wandering around. The trees are tall enough that no buildings are visible, and there is no noise from the city outside, making it a wonderful break from the madness of Tokyo.
Shibuya was an overwhelming neighborhood to be in. It contains the famous Shibuya Crossing, which is the busiest street crossing in the world, with over 100,000 people passing through every hour. It’s amazing to see the crowd of people building up on the sidewalks as they wait to cross. Although people can cross the street every minute or so, there always seems to be a waiting crowd. There is a Starbucks on the second floor of the bookstore on one corner of the crossing, where people sit at the windows and can watch the street crossing from above.
Near Shibuya Crossing is Shibuya 109, a place that I can only describe as Forever 21 multiplied by 1000. It is a mall of sorts, filled with stores selling clothes and accessories to the teenage and twenty-something fashionistas of Tokyo. The inside was overwhelming, and I was frankly uncomfortable after seeing how high a premium Tokyo women place on looks.
Shibuya is certainly one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Tokyo, both for the excellent people-watching and for the mix of restaurants, bars, and shops waiting to be explored. If I’d had another day in Tokyo, I would have spent it in Shibuya.
Walking through Roppongi at night, it is easy to see that this is the heart of Tokyo nightlife. It is also a favorite for foreigners and expats to go out. Whereas other neighborhoods in Tokyo were quiet and relatively deserted at 10 PM, Roppongi was bustling. There are numerous bars and clubs to choose from and large crowds on the street, enjoying the selection.
One of the famous landmarks in Roppongi is Roppongi Hills, an enormous cultural complex of shops, restaurants, an art museum, a movie theater, and many other things. The observatory on the top floor and the rooftop deck boast nice views of the city, but the entrance fee to the observatory is steep at 1500 yen.
I only walked through the outskirts of Ginza, but it is the center of fashion and shopping in Tokyo. There are lots of upscale department stores here, and it is a popular spot for the ladies who lunch.
It is also home (along with the Shiodome neighborhood) to Hama-rikyu teien, the gardens that belonged to the Tokugawa Shogun family in the Edo era of Japan. The garden is popular with visitors to Tokyo, and the teahouse in the center is a good place to sample matcha and traditional sweets. I enjoyed a cup of matcha here before exploring the garden, but the teahouse was crowded, and I preferred the serenity of the teahouse I visited in Isui-en.
The garden is very well integrated with the surrounding landscape though and the ponds change with the tide. There is also a 300-year old pine tree with branches so heavy that they need to be propped up.
In addition to the Hama-rikyu gardens, Shiodome is home to the most interesting mix of old and new. The Tokyo Tower and the Zojoji temple are a good example. The Tokyo Tower is an orange and white Eiffel Tower lookalike. In a sea of modern skyscrapers and old temples and gardens, it looks massively out of place, but lit up at night, it is quite pretty. The Zojoji temple is a traditional brown and white wooden building from the 17th century that served as the family temple of the Tokugawa shogunate, and it is a stark contrast against the glaring orange of the Tokyo Tower.
The Shiodome itself is a collection of skyscrapers containing businesses, hotels, and restaurants. It is near Shimbashi Station on the JR Yamanote line and very close to Hama-rikyu teien. Standing next to the Shiodome skyscrapers and looking up, it seems as if the buildings continue upward forever.
Another highlight of this neighborhood is the World Trade Center Observatory, which boasts a great nighttime view of Tokyo. It is cheaper than many of the other observatories in the city at 620 yen, and it affords a close-up look at the Tokyo Tower and the colorful buildings of Odaiba.
The ambience inside the observatory is great; the lights are dimmed and there are tables and chairs placed around the four sides of the observatory so you can sit and contemplate the extensive city for as long as you like. When I went on a Saturday evening, it was not particularly crowded either.
There are, of course, many neighborhoods that I did not make it to in Tokyo, but I still felt like I got a great introduction to the city, and if I ever find myself there again, I still have a lot of exploring left!