Traveling to Asia, start in Tokyo!
Traveling to Asia the first time can be a daunting prospect for many people, because we know that the Asian cultures are so much different than ours. In my opinion, Tokyo is a great place to start exploring Asia. It’s clean, many people speak English, it’s organized, and just easy.
And there is plenty to do in Tokyo. It is a fascinating city with plenty of sights, culture, and great food! Here are my top 6 things to do in Tokyo, either as a start to seeing Japan as a whole, or just for a few day stopover.
#1 Meiji Jingu Shrine – One of the most iconic and must-see spots to kick off a tour of Tokyo is the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Located in a large forested park, the shrine sits back and serenely puts you in the frame of mind of relaxing and relieving your stresses. Many people come to the shrine to write wishes on strips of white paper or to clang the bell and pray to the Gods. Many people just come to wander through the park and see who is there. On Sundays, you will often see brides and grooms at the shrine to look for blessings as well. The brides are often in elaborate dresses and their hair is piled on top of their heads in a more traditional style.
#2 Sensoji Temple – As quiet and peaceful as the Meiji Shrine is, the Sensoji Temple and the Asakusa area around it is just the opposite. People flock here on any day of the week, but the weekends are frenetic. From the shopping street, Nakamise, all the way to the temple people are shopping and eating. You can buy all kinds of souvenirs from inexpensive to very high quality traditional items, like yukatas, fans, stamps, chopsticks, whatever you have in mind. Food stalls offer street food, candy vendors are making candy right there, and the traditional restaurants offer the best tempura in the city. When you reach the temple, you will see crowds of pilgrims and tourists streaming through the red arches. You will have to pass by the urn smoking away with people’s prayers and wishes. The statue, pictured above, sits over the cleansing station, and the main entrance to the temple is just beyond. You can easily entertain yourself for hours in the Askakusa district.
#3 Roppongi Hills – For a great dinner, night out at the movie, a chance to see some great art, or a fantastic view of the city, go to Roppongi Hills. A shopping center located in the center of the Roppongi district, this mall has it all. It’s easy to spend some time here. Go in the afternoon and take in the latest exhibit at the Mori Art Museum, then have a drink and wander around the deck for the best viewing, Tokyo City View. Afterwards, pick from one of the many restaurants like the sushi restaurant that I like to go to. All this with a little shopping therapy and all is right with the world.
#4 Kappabashi – One of the most interesting areas in Tokyo, especially if you are a foodie, is Kappabashi. Go there to find all kinds of crockery, pots, pans, dishes, knives, wooden bowls, chopsticks, aprons, everything for your kitchen or restaurant, including that uniquely Japanese plastic food that helps you choose your dinner each night. Basically a street lined with shops on both sides, with a few off-shoots down the side roads, you can shop, shop, shop. The mascot of the district looks like a turtle and is called the Kappa or River child. Look for them all over the district!
Additional Reading: Where to Stay in Tokyo for Tourists and First Time Visitors
#5 Tokyo Sky Tree – One of the newest additions to the Tokyo skyline is the Tokyo Sky Tree. It hasn’t completely taken over the role of the Tokyo Tower, but it’s trying! The Sky tree starts on the fifth level of a shopping mall. There are escalators and stairs, or you can take an elevator, if you can get in. Sky Tree is so new, it’s still extremely popular and the ticket lines are crazy long. Even if you have the foresight to order your tickets and go somewhere for the day and come back, you will still be waiting in lines. The most popular time to visit is, of course, at sunset, but really anytime you will find crowds of people. Just in case you were wondering, one sign at the bottom said to leave all pets behind unless they are caged. So yes, you can take your hamster!
#6 Tsukiji Fish Market – For a great look into the Japanese fishing industry, and especially selling fish wholesale off the boat and into the hands of middlemen, the Tsukiji Fish Market is the place to go. The entire process seems somewhat mysterious as businessmen first inspect and then bid on their favorite tuna.
There is plenty more to do in Tokyo such as going to a cat cafe, eating lots of street food, looking for geishas, going to a Sumo tournament, or taking a day trip to Nikko. If you have more time in Tokyo, say 3 days, check out this great itinerary.