Tokyo Musts: 9 Things You Have To Do When Visiting Japan's Capital
Tokyo is so much more than a tour of the Imperial Palace and a selfie at the Shibuya Crossing. It’s a kaleidoscopic mix of logic, beauty and peculiarity – what other place could be known for both perfectly punctual trains and body-pillow girlfriends?
We’ve put together a list of the best things to do in Tokyo so that when you come to the capital, you won’t miss a bit of its wonderful weirdness.
1. Prettify yourself in a Japanese photo booth.
These sugary-pink boxes provide a truly Japanese souvenir. You’ll take photos, just like you would in any other photo booth, but after your six shots you scoot into an adjacent booth for extreme editing. We suggest Bambi-fying your eyes, but you can also draw hearts on your photographed cheek or add in sassy stickers. The results are perfect for Instagram or the photo album; we guarantee you won’t be able to look at them later without cracking up.
2. Order ramen from a vending machine.
Splurging on high-end eateries makes sense in Tokyo, which has the most Michelin stars of any city in the world. But the beauty of Japan is that even the smallest hole-in-the-wall is going to serve story-worthy food. These are often two-person operations; one cook and one kitchen assistant. Because there’s no one to take your order, you “order” from a vending machine that’s typically right outside the front door. A bowl of ramen will run you about 700-1000 yen ($9-$12), and you can tack on extra eggs or pork as desired. The machine will spit out a token for each item, which you then hand to the assistant so the chef knows what to whip up next.
3. Leaf through washi (handcrafted paper) at Tokyo Kyukyodo
This 350-year-old stationery institution is a paper lover’s playground. Origami-ready squares fan across walls, washi of every colour line the shelves and hand-printed postcards make art out of Tokyo’s cherry blossoms and Buddhist temples. Go up to the second floor for calligraphy brushes and scrolls of parchment; the main floor is your best bet for gifts and souvenirs. Getting there: It’s on the southwest side of the Ginza subway station.
4. Find a tuna head bigger than your own.
The best chefs in the city flock to Tsukiji Fish Market before dawn to barter for the freshest toro and unagi, but after 9 a.m. the sprawling bazaar – which moves $17.7 million worth of seafood a day – opens up to tourists. Take in the crisp ocean scent surrounding the shrimp and saltwater eel that were swimming just a few hours prior. And see if you can sniff out the gigantic slabs of tuna resting on wooden planks, awaiting their plated fate. Getting there: It’s a five-minute walk southwest from the Tsukiji subway station. A greeter will welcome you with a free map of Tsukiji just outside the market.
5. Climb to the highest floor of a Tokyu Hands
These department stores are so massive that customers use maps to navigate through them. While there are 18 in Tokyo, we love the Shibuya branch, one of the city’s largest. This seven-story behemoth brims over with quirky gifts (think pose-able skeleton figurines and sandwich presses that imprint “Yummy” into your grilled cheese) as well as practical items like multilevel lunch boxes and space-age bottles that will keep your coffee piping hot. You won’t even mind the stairs at Tokyu Hands – they’re marked with the number of calories you’re burning by climbing them. Bring your passport; foreigners get a discount card good for 5% off all purchases. Getting there: It’s a seven-minute walk northwest of the Hachiko exit of the Shibuya subway station.
6. Observe the lifelike dolls in Akihabara
This toontown is where Tokyo office workers shed their grays and blacks and burst into Technicolour. It’s chock-full of gadgets, electronics and wacky gems like Super Mario figurines inexplicably dressed in frog costumes. We recommend spending a few hours just in Akihabara Radio Kaikan, the multistory haven for hobbyists. You’ll uncover mini replicas of Tokyo subway stations, “Frozen” figurines and Magic: The Gathering cards worth more than an iPod Touch. One shop even sells lifelike doll body parts so enthusiasts can build their own dolls, dress them in various outfits, pose them on purpose-built sets in the store and take keepsake photos of their finished products. Getting there: Akihabara surrounds the Akihabara Station. Radio Kaikan sits at the station’s southwest corner.
7. Buy a ceramic sake set on Kappabashi Dougu Street
This stretch of shoulder-to-shoulder kitchenware stores overflows with Japanese lacquerware, restaurant-quality saucepans and unconventional coffeemakers like moka pots and vacuum brewers. Our favourite finds are the hand-painted ceramic bowls and tea sets. On Kappabashi, you can snag gorgeous dishes you’d guess were $50 for a tenth of that price. Go on a weekday before 5 p.m. if you can; some of the stores close up on the weekends. Getting there: The area is a six-minute walk west from the Asakusa railway station.
8. Hold your breath through a pachinko parlour
These smoke-filled dens are a cultural experience in themselves. Take a stroll through to watch concentrating grandmothers grow their mound of silver balls in this addictive version of pinball. It’s an open secret that pachinko is the roundabout way the Japanese circumvent the country’s gambling ban; players can redeem their winnings for “prizes” within the parlour – often home goods like shampoo or Pocky sticks – then sneak off to an off-site booth to exchange those prizes for cash. If you try your luck and end up with a pile of your own, follow a fellow player to discover the booth’s covert location.
9. Grab each course of a four-course meal from a different vendor in the Isetan food court
Japanese “food courts” put the term to shame. Our favourite is the one at the bottom of Isetan, a Shinjuku mall. Each stand offers bento boxes arranged like works of art, freshly rolled sushi or breaded katsu. For dessert, don’t miss out on the expertly baked French pastries. The Japanese are Francophiles and perfectionists; their macaroons and chocolate-topped eclairs are flawless. Take your haul back to the hotel, though – this food hall doesn’t have places to sit. Getting there: Isetan is just northwest of the Shinjuku-sanchome station.