Tokyo is basically on everyone’s bucket list when it comes to global destinations. Whether you were lucky enough to snag tickets for the 2020 Summer Olympics or you’re just starting to research locations for a possible trip, finding the best places to go, restaurants to visit, and sites to see is going to be a high priority when visiting the capital of Japan.
With so many things to see you have to craft your itinerary carefully. Robot restaurant? Shopping in Harajuku? Cat cafes? These are the tourist traps you need to see and the ones you don’t when planning your first trip to Tokyo.
Skip It: Robot Restaurant —
Unless you need it for the ‘gram or you just love insanely wacky shows and terrible food then it’s best to stay away from this overpriced tourist trap. People go mostly just to say they’ve gone, but there are plenty of other places in Tokyo where you could go to see actual robots (not people in suits) and have great food without having to live through this tacky, 90-minute show.
Skip It: Tokyo Tower —
At night, when the cityscape is lit up with the glittering lights from this major metropolis, Tokyo Tower is a beacon in the dark, an iconic symbol of its beautiful city. However, it’s much better appreciated as a part of the scenery than via the observation deck. Granted it is a lovely view, but there’s not much to do once you’re actually there. You would be better served heading over to Tokyo Skytree (which is taller, newer, and has far more to see and do).
Skip It: Cat Cafes —
Unless you aren’t allowed to have cats in your own place back home and are just dying for some snuggles, then skip these entirely. Along with cat cafes, there’s also owl, bunny, dog, hedgehog, and lizard cafes — they’re a dime a dozen here, but there are many ongoing discussions over the regulations and care given to these animals. There have been allegations of sedation, lack of veterinary care, poor living conditions and the like. Yes, there are absolutely wonderful and humane cafes in the city, but unless you do your research, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
Hit It: Golden Gai —
You’ve likely heard that this place is the go-to for beer connoisseurs and cocktail lovers — and it absolutely is. Yes, it’s in Kabukicho, the red-light district, but if you can make your way though the throngs of handsome (but pushy) hosts and bar barkers trying to bring you back to their clubs, then it’s worth it. Keep in mind not all the bars here have English menus and some will outright refuse foreign customers, but if you can find the right place you’re in for a night of great drinks, good conversation, and an insider’s look at a different side of Japan. If you’re not that into alcohol, steer clear as drinking — not dining — takes the focus here.
Hit It: Tsukiji —
This is a must visit on almost everyone’s itinerary when they visit Tokyo, and for good reason — some of the best and freshest fish to be had in Japan is found here. Keep in mind that the fish market has recently been split into two different sections, Tsukiji and Toyosu, with the famous tuna auction now being held at the latter. Toyosu is shiny and new, built specifically for visitors with restaurants and shops full of kitchen goods, but for some of the gritty charm of the original market, visit Tsukiji Outer Market.
Hit It: Harajuku-Takeshita Dori —
Adding a teen shopping district to your itinerary might sound like an easy skip, but do not miss Harajuku. Wander down Takeshita Dori and you’ll run into teenagers dressed in every manner of clothing, from sweet lolitas emulating Victorian dolls to visual kei fans that look like they just walked out of a goth club. This is also where you’ll find some of the best dessert in Japan — crepes, cotton candy, pancakes — so come hungry and have your camera ready. Even if you don’t see yourself rocking a neon petticoat or teddy bear face mask, check out some of the secondhand stores that are found on this street and the alleys just off it. You just might score a vintage Vivienne Westwood bag or Junya Watanabe shoes.
Hit It: Meiji Shrine —
After visiting Harajuku, wander over to Jingu Bashi (also known as Harajuku Cosplay Bridge due to all the cosplayers who gather there on weekends) and visit Meiji Shrine. It’s one of the most popular shrines in Tokyo, and although there are many more beautiful (and less crowded) shrines in Japan to visit, this one is still a must see. Due to its popularity with not only tourists but locals, you’ll often see high school students praying for luck on their exams, kids on field trips, and, if you’re lucky, a wedding ceremony.
Hit It: Shibuya Crossing —
There’s probably nothing more iconic in Tokyo than the Shibuya Crossing. With the Shibuya station serving over 2.5 million people a day and up to 2,500 crossing this scramble at a time, it’s one of the most congested and popular spots in Tokyo. That being said, you likely won’t have to go out of your way to see Shibuya crossing, you’ll probably need to cross at some point in your travels just to get from point A to point B. For the best photo points try the Starbucks in Tsutaya or the indoor walkway in Shibuya station between the Yamanote and Keio Inokashira lines.
Hit It: Sensoji —
You’ve already seen one temple, so do you really need to see another? Absolutely, yes! Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple (built in 628!) and is still one of the most popular — and colorful — temples in Japan. Entering through the Kaminarimon, you’ll have to wander though Nakamise shopping street before you enter the temple grounds. Here you can pick up all your Tokyo souvenirs to bring back to everyone back home. Because believe us, you’re going to want to remember this trip.
Marissa Stempien is a freelance editor and writer that previously lived in Japan and visits yearly just to replenish her beauty supply. With a degree in English Literature and a minor in Asian Studies, she has written on travel, fashion, beauty, technology, culture, and food, and enjoys writing short stories in her spare time. Find her on social media at @paperandlights.