This post is by Chris Peterson, one of our contributors.
Tokyo is the largest city in the world and a place where you could easily spend a week or more exploring all that it has to offer. However, vacation days and financial issues sometimes limit our abilities to spend as much time as a city deserves and I found myself in this position earlier this year. I had an opportunity to visit Tokyo, but to make this happen with work and my bank account, I ended up flying a total of 30 hours round trip only to spend about 72 hours on the ground. Insane? Probably so. Worth it? Absolutely.
Here are some places that you may (or may not) want to visit:
This is a great place to head on your first night in Tokyo as it is the busiest area in the city and you’ll be thrown right into the culture and get an idea of what Tokyo is all about. The lights, crowd and noise may be a bit overwhelming, but you’ll quickly adjust to all of it and be ready to take it all in. Start at the Center Gai, one of the busiest streets in the area and a nightlife center of the city.
On almost any neighboring street, there are numerous places to grab a drink or some of the best food you’ll ever have. Everything from sushi to ramen can be found here. I’d highly suggest looking for any place with a line, as the Japanese know which places are the best and they don’t mind waiting. I ended up with some great Yakitori and sake on my first night and to this day, it is still one of the better meals I’ve ever had. Shibuya is also home to the World’s busiest intersection crossing, so make sure to walk through it a few times and participate in the “Shibuya Shuffle”.
The next day I went down into the subways of Tokyo and just let myself get lost. After about a 30 minute subway ride on the Ginza line, I ended up in Asakusa, which was the major entertainment hub of Tokyo during the 12th Century. Asakusa is home to numerous Temples, most notably Sensō-ji, the main attraction to the area for pilgrims and tourists alike. Here, it’s easy to transport into a zen like state and escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
This is also probably the closest you can get to actually leaving Tokyo if you’re on a time crunch, so treat Asakusa like it is a day trip. There are many gardens and areas to meditate, pray or just take it all in, so feel free to respectfully take some time out and take a breather to enjoy your surroundings. There are also hundreds of shops on the streets leading up to the Temples where you can get anything from traditional Japanese gifts to Godzilla toys (I recommend picking up a “Lucky Kitty” here).
Tsukiji Fish Market
The biggest fish market in the World, home to the famous Tuna auctions and where a large percentage of the World’s sushi passes through. In all honesty, there are only two reasons to really go out of your way to visit the Fish Market: If you can actually get yourself up early enough to experience the Tuna auctions, usually held around 5:00 am, or if you want to try some of the freshest and best sushi available in the restaurants located in the Fish Market, which is popular for breakfast and early lunch. If you’re not able to get here before 11:00am, it’s probably best to just skip this all together, as most of the action will already be done and you’ll be left with nothing more than empty boxes and the smell of fish.
Shinjuku Golden Gai
If there is one place that I must insist you go, it is to the Golden Gai in Shinjuku. This area is famous for being home to over 200 bars in the most narrow alleys you’ve ever seen, with each bar having it’s own theme and only able to hold 6-10 people. When I visited here, I didn’t see any other tourists, so it is definitely a local hang out. Since these bars are popular among locals, do not take offense if you are unable to get into some of the bars due to them being over-crowded. I visited numerous bars and each was very welcoming and went out of their way to make you feel welcome, with many of them even cooking small platyes for us to enjoy while drinking.
My absolute favorite bar was Hair of the Dogs, a small punk rock bar that is easily found by looking for the Sex Pistols and Ramones signs outside. The owner, Jumbo Max, was so friendly, going out of his way to make a couple of Americans feel like locals by playing all of our favorite music and talking about Punk Rock. In all of my travels, I’ve never stumbled upon any area quite as unique as this, so if you ever find yourself in Tokyo, you cannot leave without spending a night out here and indulging in a few drinks.
Roppongi is probably one of the most popular spots for nightlife in Tokyo among tourists – which may or may not excite you. It is highly regarded as the place that foreign men go to meet local girls, and I was amazed by how true this rumor was. I know that some guys are probably reading this and wanting to book their trip to Tokyo right now and spend their time in this paradise where local girls worship foreign guys, but be warned, this “paradise” comes with some consequences and numerous tourists have been drugged and robbed after taking drinks from girls, so it’s not quite as glorious as some make it out to be.
If you’re careful, you can have a great time here, but just be aware of your surroundings. Besides the regular bar scene with lots of tourists, there are also some great spots for karaoke, which you absolutely must do while in town. All in all, if you’re looking for a place where English is absolutely spoken and you can converse with locals, this can be a great spot to go as many locals can be a little shy to speak English in other parts of town. However, if you are someone who doesn’t want to see other tourists at all on a trip, avoid Roppongi like the plague.
Many people that I have talked to have avoided Tokyo because of the size of the city and dense population – which I get. However, I can tell you that getting around Tokyo is so efficient that crowds are never really a problem and you won’t find any spots even nearly as hellish as Times Square. All in all, Tokyo is an absolutely amazing city and if you ever have a chance to visit, no matter how short or long of a trip, you must go. The people, food and culture are second to none and this really is one of my favorite cities in the world.