Japan’s capital is a mega-fast, mega-fun megalopolis. Here’s how to pack the best of its bright-lights, big-city vibe into one mega-full day.
Yes, really. Only 120 visitors are allowed in to watch the truly remarkable spectacle of the day’s gigantic tuna being auctioned off each morning in dramatic fashion at world-famous Tsukiji fish markets. The auction itself takes place around 5am, but you need to register early (then you can have a snooze in the waiting room).
Time to explore the world’s most prolific seafood markets properly. The inner market is all business, but as long as you make a purchase (and respect the fast-paced workers), you can access it. Then the more relaxed outer market awaits, with the freshest sushi and sashimi you’ll ever eat on offer at plenty of eateries, open from 5am.
There is so much happening in Tokyo in the early hours, but an exciting morning awaits in the Ryogoku area, where dozens of sumo wrestling stables are already starting their daily training. You do need to call ahead of time, at least the day before, to lock in a coveted spot at no charge, to watch the fighters go through their impressive paces, and be prepared to sit quietly for a couple of hours so they can focus. It’s entirely worth it. This is an honour you won’t soon forget.
Let’s take it up a level… or quite a few, actually. The Tokyo Skytree is the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, and the 360-degree observation deck will give you an idea of the true scale of Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see right across the massive Kanto Plain, but many visitors come to see an amazing scene that’s much more close up. The rather heroic window cleaners who keep the view unencumbered by dirt and dust, dangling hundreds of metres above the ground in their technologically advanced gondola, are such a popular sight that the process even has a name: “cleaning the blue sky”, since they really do look like they’re scrubbing the sky itself.
Possibly Tokyo’s favourite park, nearby Ueno Park offers a lot more than just pretty views. Certainly, it’s a massively popular gathering place to enjoy spring’s cherry blossoms and autumn’s vibrant hues, but it also contains some of the city’s major museums. Must-visits include the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Museum of Nature and Science. There is a handful of graceful temples, too, especially the octagonal Bentendo pagoda sitting out on an island on the lake, and the Ueno Zoo has been delighting Tokyo residents since 1882. Don’t miss the giant pandas!
Hey, slow down! It’s lunch time and since Tokyo enjoys the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any city on Earth, it seems fitting to try one. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune though; controversial newcomer Nakiryu seems to be just a ramen shop, serving $10 bowls of soup, but of course this isn’t “just” ramen. The shio stock is lovingly made with dried scallops, top-quality fish and only the best kelp, while their signature dish, tantan noodle soup, is exquisite. Coming a little later might help your cause in getting a table; otherwise, there is one more Michelin-starred ramen joint in town, Tsuta, which is very close by.
You can’t spend a day in Tokyo without a little retail therapy, so hop on the train and reposition yourself in Shibuya. The reputed busiest intersection in the world, Shibuya Crossing is an unusual and wonderful sight. Where else but Tokyo could so many people walk in so many different directions, all in total harmony? Shop for cool fashion in 10-storey Shibuya 109, chic homewares in the shiny new Shibuya Hikarie and quirky fun in the Shibuya Pop Culture Market in Shibuya Parco, or pick up some J-pop at the gigantic Tower Records.
Stroll north and you’ll notice the fashions getting edgier, cuter or just entirely off the planet. You’ve found Harajuku, the left-of-centre, very hip neighbourhood where dress-ups are just a way of life. The living dolls, punk rockers and cosplayers provide endless opportunities for photography (ask politely, please!) then prepare for a complete change of pace as you enter the sheer beauty of Yoyogi Park and the magnificent Meiji Shrine. If you’re lucky, you might see couples in traditional wedding dress, either tying the knot or posing for their wedding photos.
Kampai! Enter the neon canyons of Shinjuku and you’ll be entirely overstimulated, overwhelmed and over the moon about the endless choices for bars, restaurants and entertainment. Take some time to really explore the nooks and crannies, and you’ll find drinking holes offering only five or six seats, dedicated restaurants offering just one specialty dish, next to massive karaoke complexes and mega-eateries. The narrow, atmospheric alleyways of Golden Gai inspired the futuristic film Blade Runner, and is an ideal place for an after-dinner drink or two.
You’re still standing? We love your energy and you’re in for a special treat: the unbelievable onsen (hot bath) theme park at Oedo-Onsen Monogatari is open all through the night. The big open-air bath, the nano-bubbled “bath of silk” and the smooth-pebbled foot bath are just the beginning, with a lantern-lit Edo era-themed “town” and festive area ready to entertain you with traditional candies and carnival games… you can even throw a Ninja star. Do as the locals do and stroll the festivities in a traditional, colourful yukata robe.
The onsen theme park does have reclining chairs to take a nap, but if you’re ready to flop, it’s time to head to a hotel. If you stay in the centre of downtown at the Tokyo Marriott Hotel, you’re right next to Shinagawa Station so you can jump on a bullet train tomorrow to anywhere you like, or spend another day in Tokyo… shopping elegant Ginza, exploring the temples and castles, picking up some technology in Akihabara. Tomorrow is another day.