You may or may not have heard of the phrase “Cool Japan”… well now you have! ‘Cool Japan’ refers to the super awesome things that Japanese culture is known for – anime, crazy game shows, kawaii monsters, restaurants that come to life… When I recently spent two weeks in Japan, I tried to do lots of these cool things that are so unique to the country. I mean, why not? No matter what your interests are, there is something here that is meant for you. So I’ve put together this list of unique things to do in Tokyo to give you a glimpse inside Japanese culture.
Tokyo is currently home to the tallest tower in the world. No, not the tallest building, the Burj Khalifa still has that title (and yes, I’ve been there too!). One of the most common questions I’ve heard about Tokyo is whether to visit Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree. Well, Tokyo Tower is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, only smaller and reddish orange. It was very cool to see while driving around the city. Tokyo Skytree, on the other hand, is very new and VERY tall. You can get the best views of Tokyo from here – on a good day, that includes a view of Mount Fuji!
Price: ¥ 900 for main deck (150m) ¥ 2,800 for top deck (250m)
Hours: 9:00 – 23:00
Height: 333 meters; you can go up to 250.
Highlight: Tokyo Tower is lit differently depending on the night, with the most notable lighting being the “Diamond Veil” that only happens on Saturdays from 20:00 – 22:00.
Price: ¥ 2,060 for Tembo Deck (350m) ¥ 3,090 for Tembo Galleria (450m)
Hours: 8:00 – 22:00
Height: 634 meters; you can go up to 450.
Highlight: The Tembo Galleria offers special exhibits that change throughout the year. When we visited, it was an exhibit on the history of Where’s Wally! The elevators are also beautiful – 4 different ones for 4 seasons.
Both towers also have post boxes – shaped like the towers! – on the top deck, so you can send postcards from “the top of the world”! Either tower is definitely worth visiting, but my preference was Skytree – it is the tallest in the world, after all! Make sure that you buy your tickets as soon as possible to avoid any crowds and give yourself enough time to enjoy the views before they close!
Eat at a Themed Restaurant
Japan is full of eccentricly themed restaurants – robot, Alice in Wonderland, Kawaii, vampire, ninja, and even one that simulates a prison cell! One night one of my Japanese friends made reservations for us to have dinner at Ninja Akasaka. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had for dinner!
What do you mean it’s a ninja restaurant?
I mean it’s a NINJA RESTAURANT! Yes, it is as awesome as it sounds. To be honest I had a little bit of trouble finding it (nicely played, ninjas…), but then realized it’s just a black door along a black wall.When you get inside, your ninja guide will lead you through some passageways and warn you of the ‘dangers’ around. Each table is in its own private room (one of my favorite Japanese traditions!) with a number. Make sure you remember what room you’re in so you don’t get lost on your way back from the bathroom!
Our waitress, also dressed as a ninja, brought us each course of exquisitely prepared food. My friend had ordered us a ‘set’ dinner ahead of time, so we did not need to order and wait at the restaurant. Every course our waitress brought was another surprise to me! And they just kept coming! We got to a point where we kept thinking that the next dish would be the last… that happened about 5 times. I’ve rarely eaten so much in one sitting! But everything was so darn delicious!
So much food
Several of the courses were ninja-themed or had some ‘ninja magic’ as our waitress proclaimed. Dinner started with black ninja star crackers served with paté. There was also shellfish served on a bed of hot rocks with fire! My favorite dish was the stone-boiled soup. Our waitress brought out a tray of ingredients with a large wooden bowl and an extremely hot stone. She put the greens and spices into the broth bowl, and then put in the stone. At that point the soup sizzled and she added the bacon to cook right on the stone. After just a few minutes, the soup was ready. AND SO DELICIOUS!
Near the end of our endless courses (it was at least double digits), the ‘master ninja’ came to our table to do some ‘ninja magic’. I still can’t figure out one of the tricks he did… All in all, I absolutely loved the experience. While a bit pricier than my normal choices, the experience was worth it. Usually places that focus on the experience have sub-par food, but that wasn’t the case here. The food was gourmet and tasted amazing. If I’m ever back in Tokyo, I’m going again!
Wondering what food to try? My travel guide has a list of some must-try Japanese food!
Visit the Shrines and Temples
Okay, this one isn’t super unique, but it’s a definite must-do for visiting Japan. There are shrines everywhere. Scattered throughout the cities you’ll find modern shrines mixed with ancient temples. And it’s wonderful. My favorite was definitely the Tochoji Temple in Fukuoka where you’ll find the largest wooden Buddha in Japan. Sadly, no photos are allowed. But I highly recommend that you visit it if you have the chance. It’s truly breathtaking.
All over Tokyo you’ll see shrines and temples mixed in. And each shrine has its own Zen god that it honors; another thing I find fascinating. At each place of worship, you’ll find a fountain of running water with long wooden ladles. This is to clean your hands – spill water over your left hand, then your right, then take a sip of the water from your palm. When you are done, lift the end of the ladle up and away from you so the water pours down the handle to cleanse it. (Also, please make sure you are dumping water over the rocks below the fountain – not the fountain itself!)
The most famous temple in Tokyo is Asakusa. It is a HUGE tourist destination, with a long street of shops leading up to the temple itself. Expect it to be very crowded. Once you pass under the gate to the temple (and bow), you can wash your hands, light incense, and pay for a fortune. I recommend you do it all to get the full experience! Also, be respectful inside the temple – no photos are allowed. It is a place of worship and it needs to be treated dutifully. Don’t be afraid to drop some coins in the large wooden box and ring the gong!
The Snoopy Museum
Yes, there is a Snoopy Museum. Yes, I went. Who doesn’t love Peanuts? But, I have to be fair – I visited the museum when it was in the Roppongi district in Tokyo. The museum has since closed, but will be back! The museum is scheduled to reopen in Machida in fall of this year. In the meantime there will be traveling exhibitions in Osaka in April and Nagoya in June. Just another reminder to take advantage of temporary exhibits when they are around!
When you purchase entry to the museum, you’ll get a comic strip as your ticket! Perfect souvenir and so nostalgic. The museum leads you through different rooms focusing on the various characters from Peanuts and the history of the comic strip. The have quotes and artwork on the walls with original comic strips framed and scattered throughout.
There are lots of fun spots for photo opps – including a painting on the ground of the Peanuts on Abbey Road! As you make your way through the colorful exhibits, you’ll end in a room with a short film about Snoopy and his history surrounded by artifacts from over several decades. At the end? One of the best gift shops ever! So many Snoopy gifts to buy! I had to control myself… There is also a themed café if you’re hungry!
Visit a Pokémon Center
For the inner nerd in all of us, be sure to check out a Pokémon center. The easiest one to find is located in the shopping center next to Tokyo Skytree. Inside you’ll find lots and lots and lots of Pokémon things to buy! Anything you could imagine. If you play Pokémon Go (…like I might…), you’ll find that the center is a gym and there are often battles and raids going on. I’ve heard from friends that there is an even bigger and better Pokémon center in Yokohama if you venture outside the city! While not surprising, this is still one of the most unique things to do in Tokyo.
Play the Claw Game & Capsule Machines
The neighborhood of Akihabara is known for its devotion to games, comics, and anime. There are shops upon shops upon shops of collectors anime items. I’m not kidding. Some of the shops may look small, but they have 8 to 10 floors! In between the shops were arcades of all sorts – but mostly filled with claw machines. I get it, we have claw machines too. But they really have claw machines. Like floors filled with only claw machines and nothing else. Want to check out upstairs? More claw machines. SO MANY. My husband played a few, but never got anything. But it was fun to watch some of the locals who come in with duffel bags and sit and play endlessly. I can only imagine that they are then selling the items on Ebay, but, alas.
EVERYWHERE you go you’ll see capsule machines. What are capsule machines, you ask? Well we have them too – you put a quarter or two inside and you get some candy or a sticker. But Tokyo has them everywhere and for everything. Remember when I said they love eveyrthing cute? One of the things I found interesting is that they collect food miniatures – little replicas of dishes made out of plastic. They were in lots of capsule machines. You could also find lots of anime toys, Pokémon toys, souvenirs, and even… hats for cats. Yes. You could put some yen into a machine and get a capsule containing a hat. For your cat. Tempting… but no, haha.
Eat at Gonpachi
Almost everyone I talked to recommended having dinner at Gonpachi. If I hadn’t said I’d already been on my first night in Tokyo, I’m sure I would have gone at least two more times. Why is Gonpachi so famous? It’s the setting for some scenes filmed in Kill Bill. No, I still haven’t seen Kill Bill (I’m not a fan of Quentin Tarantino, sorry!). But people rave about this place and it’s one of the ‘tourist things to do’. is it cliché? Not at all. The atmosphere is actually really cool and the food (while slightly more than I’d typically pay), is DELICIOUS. Check it out for yourself – just be sure to make reservations! I recommend the bacon-wrapped asparagus skewers.
Enjoy Japanese Craft Beer
Yes, we’ve all heard about Kirin and Asahi, but there are breweries in Japan that make good craft beers as well! Hitachino Nest is a cute little brewery located on a pier near the train station in Akihabara. It was the perfect stop after spending some time at the cat café! The White Ale (a witbier) is my favorite, and the view of the city next to the water was exactly what I love. If you’re lucky, you can find Hitachino at good craft beer stores in the states. Try it!
Also – let’s go back to Asahi for a moment. The Asahi headquarters in Tokyo is housed in a building that is shaped like a giant mug of beer. Seriously. People either love it or they hate it (and refer to it as the ‘golden turd’). I thought it was clever. Either way, it’s worth a visit to the Sky Room on the top floor to get a great nighttime view of Tokyo. Please note that they do make you purchase a beverage (you can’t just visit to look out the window), but it’s worth it!
Bar-Hop in Golden Gai
Speaking of beer, there is a notorious area in the Shinjuku neighborhood known as Golden Gai. Why? Because its this teeny tiny neighborhood with so many bars smushed together and stacked on top of each other. It’s a little intense for an outsider. On other travel blogs I’ve read that it’s either ‘the place to go’ or to ‘stay away’. The choice is yours. One night I left my agenda up to one of my Japanese friends, so to Golden Gai we went.
While I’m glad to have had the experience, I can tell you that Golden Gai just wasn’t my thing. I’m not much of a person who goes out just to go out anyway, and that’s what Golden Gai is good for. When I say these bars a tiny, I mean it. The first one we went to was up two flights of narrow stairs. When we got inside, it felt like I was in someone’s over-sized closet. I actually had to squeeze between some men at the bar and the wall behind them to get to the open seats in the corner. The whole place fit maybe ten people… maybe. They also smoked inside and there was no ventilation. Ugh.
The second bar was better, more space and cleaner air. And…. we were the only ones there. It’s such an interesting little culture in Golden Gai. Every bar has its own charm and most of them are hidden behind doors you wouldn’t expect. If you’re into going out and checking out new bars, head to Golden Gai. When my husband got to town, I didn’t go back. I also think he would have been too tall for some of the places!
Go-kart through Tokyo
One of the very best things I have EVER done was to go go-karting through the streets of Tokyo. It’s like real-life Mario Kart (without the banana peels) and it’s INCREDIBLE! Stay tuned to read all about my experience in an upcoming post!
Have you been to Tokyo? What unique things did you do? Tell me all about it in the comments!