Ever been to Tokyo? Whether Tokyo is on your travel bucket list or you’ve never even thought of heading to the Japanese capital for a city break, check out some of the best reasons to visit Tokyo now and we’re sure you’ll be convinced in no time, just don’t blame us if you book a flight!
Some of the best food you’ll ever eat
We’ll start with the important stuff. Which is food, obviously. Tokyo is bursting with culinary talent, there’s restaurants around every corner and tucked away in every alley and we promise you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy the best of the Tokyo foodie scene. Admittedly, this is the city with the most three Michelin starred restaurants in the world (show offs), but you can eat your way around Tokyo on a shoestring too if you’re adventurous enough! Just choose an eatery that’s packed out with locals, throw caution to the wind and order what they’re having, even if you’re not entirely sure what it is. You probably won’t need us to tell you that a trip to Tokyo is pretty much a pilgrimage to food heaven, but just in case you need any extra encouragement, we’ll throw in that the city is home to the biggest fish market in the world so some of our favourite spots for the freshest sushi are in the area around the Tsukiji fish market. You could dedicate a lifetime to the search for the perfect bowl of ramen, to finding your favourite hawker selling traditional street food like yakitori or to the quest for the best local yakiniku spot - and what could be better than eating your way around a new city?
It’s not as expensive as you think
We hear all the time, ‘oh, I’d love to visit Tokyo but it’s so expensive!’ Wrong.There are plenty of deals to be had on flights, incredible cheap eats to enjoy while you’re there - you don't have to blow your budget on expensive sushi for it to be the best you’ve ever had - and getting a place on airbnb can be much cheaper than a hotel. If you can find a bargain flight (which admittedly means looking outside of peak sakura season in the spring), a trip to Tokyo will can cost around the same as a city break to New York or London. So why not try somewhere new this year?
And now for something completely different...
If you’re used to city breaks at home, in Europe or the US but have always fancied a trip to an Asian city, we reckon Tokyo is the perfect place to start! It may be a little further afield than other destinations on your bucket list, but that’s all part of the experience. Tokyo is a great choice if you want to discover a totally new culture in a different style of city, and if you’re a Westerner it’s pretty much the closest you’ll get to experiencing another planet! There’s nothing quite like not being able to read the street names or knowing exactly what you’ve ordered for lunch, right? And there’s so much to love about Tokyo that may surprise you for such a huge metropolis - like despite the fact that it’s the biggest city in the world, it’s also one of the safest. Don’t be surprised to see people leave their mobile phones and laptops on the table when they go to the bathroom. The city also has the most efficient public transport system in the world - seeing the bullet trains will make you feel like you’ve stepped into the future.
From the smallest, 10 seater bars run by someone’s grandma to big, exclusive ones, izakaya are ubiquitous in Japan and at the heart of Tokyo’s social scene. We’re sure you’ve done a tonne of research on this... but just on the off chance you don’t know, izakayas are drinking houses which offer a menu of small, delicious dishes to share while drinking; think of them as the Japanese version of a tapas bar. Izakaya literally means “stay-in sake shop” so traditionally this was a place where you could sit and drink on the premises. In today’s izakayas the locals order food and drink and hang out with friends and colleagues for an evening.
We recommend that you arrive hungry and spend at least a couple of hours seeing the locals socialize. A lot of the izakaya have their own speciality dishes and if you see the locals eating something you fancy don’t be afraid to ask the server. But otherwise there are the usual staples and we suggest you try yakitori, gyoza, ikayaki, korokke, yakisoba, karaage, tebasaki and if you’re lucky to be in one of the few that serve delicious chicken wings stuffed with gyoza (tebasaki-gyoza) then get some!
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Sakura in spring
We could write poetry dedicated to the beauty of the cherry blossoms, or sakura, in Tokyo which bloom every spring. Okay fine, maybe not poetry. Unfortunately we’re not quite as talented as Matsuo Bashō (who as you will all know is one of Japan’s most celebrated poets and a master of haiku), but you get the idea; timing your trip to Tokyo to coincide with hanami season is reason enough to visit. Hanami literally means flower viewing, and it’s without a doubt one of the most magical Japanese traditions. Locals head to breathtaking hanami spots like Ueno Park, Chidorigafuchi or the Meguro River to enjoy a picnic under the blossoms, stroll along pathways draped in 800 cherry trees or even row a boat around the Edo-era moat at Chidorigafuchi to see these ethereal explosions of pastel pink. And enjoying the sakura isn’t just for during the day! Viewing the cherry blossoms at night is known as yozakura, and it might just be even more impressive! Depending on where you choose to go, the trees could be lit by simple, traditional lanterns or by colourful light displays, and you’ll also find street food stalls at some, which creates a festival-like atmosphere! The weeping cherry trees at Rikugien are a must see at night, when the petals are illuminated and the trees look as though they’re floating! This year, the blossoms are estimated to open on the 24th March, with the best times to view them at their very best between the 31st March and the 8th April.
Unique bar culture
Bar culture as we known it in the West doesn’t really exist in Japan, but there are still areas of the city that are packed with completely unique and sometimes pretty off the wall spots! Every city has it’s own way of doing things when it comes to bar culture, but Tokyo has to be one of the quirkiest, meaning it’s instantly one of our favourites! From neighbourhood, hole in the wall tachinomiya (standing bars serving izakaya style food) to eccentrically themed cocktails bars to Golden Gai, home of some of the tiniest bars in the city. Tokyo’s drinking dens are certainly unlike anything you’ll have experienced before!
For a truly unique experience, head to Golden Gai, an area which has claimed the title of most bars per square metre (quite an achievement, we think you’ll agree); there’s more than 200 ramshackle local bars squeezed into this tiny area! Each one is totally unique, so an evening here will be one of the most distinctive bar crawls you’ve ever had (and the crawling part only requires one or two steps to get from bar to bar)! A couple of our favourites here are Brian Bar and Red Bar, where you’ll certainly have to squeeze in - climb upstairs where there is enough space for just a two seater sofa, but if you’re looking towards it and walk backwards you might just fall through the huge hole in the floor, so we recommend not getting too drunk!
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Tokyo is a fashion mecca for anyone interested in original, avant-garde or quirky fashion, but it can certainly be hard to keep up with the impossibly fast paced changes in trends! From classic Japanese chic to futuristic outfits that look like the wearer has stepped straight out of the screen of an anime film, there are more fashion styles, cultures and subcultures here than you could ever have thought possible. You’ll witness Tokyo’s incredible, weird and wonderful street style anywhere in the city, but see the latest trends, head to Harajuku or Shibuya, which have become catwalks for the locals to show off exactly what’s in vogue - but believe us when we say it changes every week! Whether you want to shop Tokyo’s street style for yourself (the best shopping is in Shibuya), or marvel at what the locals are wearing, fashion in Tokyo will not disappoint!
City of contrasts
Where else could you find ultra-modern, high rise shopping complexes a stone’s throw from ancient temples? The city is dotted with exquisitely designed temples and shrines nestled amongst some of the most cutting edge architecture on the planet, of tiny local eateries that look like they’ve been open forever nearby upmarket contemporary Michelin starred restaurants. We love the contrast between old traditions and the new Tokyo! You can spend a morning shopping in some of the most innovative gadget stores in the world, selling products you never even knew were missing from your life until you saw them, followed by an afternoon of reflection in beautifully landscaped gardens or soaking up the history at some of Tokyo’s most iconic shrines. Whether you’re looking for the most up to date, cutting edge electronics, or to experience the serenity of a traditional tea ceremony, Tokyo has got you covered.
Even if you’re not into video games, Tokyo’s gaming culture is fascinating and its game arcades are so huge, you’re likely to find at least one that you’ll enjoy having a go at. As the birthplace of PlayStation and the spiritual home of classic characters like Mario, it’s no surprise that Tokyo is a nirvana for any gaming fanatic, and that’s before you even start exploring its gaming subcultures like otaku! Not sure what we mean? You can check out our beginner’s guide to otaku, but in loose terms, otaku describes someone who is a fan of art and gaming subcultures, like anime and manga. Head to Akihabara or Nakano Broadway for a serious culture shock and a glimpse into this weird and wonderful world! The former is probably Tokyo’s most famous otaku district, and as well as massive arcades where you could spend a whole day (if you’re that way inclined!), there’s stores selling second hand games that you probably remember from your childhood, while the latter is a shopping complex where you’ll find absolutely anything you could possibly imagine relating to anime, manga, cosplay and Japanese pop culture. Another uniquely Japanese subculture you shouldn’t miss out on experiencing is purikura, which are essentially photo booths where you can add filters and frames - they’re any teenage girl’s dream, but make great memories of your trip regardless of age or gender, and the crazier the filter the better!
Japan is renowned the world over for being ahead of the game when it comes to technology, and visiting one of the hundreds of electronics shops will show you just how far ahead they are! The Akihabara district, which is the heart of Tokyo’s tech scene feels like stepping into a sci-fi film thanks to it’s futuristic architecture and neon lit arcades, and it’s no surprise that the area is also known as Akihabara Denki Gai, literally meaning Akihabara Electric Town. Head to Yodabashi Camera for some unbelievable bargains or simply to get lost amongst all the gadgets! The fourth floor is a dreamland for any photography aficionados - completely dedicated to cameras and camera equipment, they have every latest camera, tripod and lens on display. You could spend hours in this store and probably still not see everything! Just don't forget your passport as you can shop tax free if you have it with you.
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