11 Best Things to Do in Tokyo for First Timers

Senso-ji Temple, one of the best things to do in Tokyo for first timers
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As the world’s most populous city and metropolitan area, Tokyo is absolutely massive. A trip up Tokyo SkyTree can confirm this.

Being so huge, there are really endless things to do in Tokyo. So how do you choose what to do on your first trip to Tokyo?

This is your guide to the best things to do in Tokyo for first timers, giving you a taste of what Tokyo and Japan are known for.

I experienced most of these attractions on my own first trip to Tokyo, but I enjoyed them all so much I went and did most of them again when visiting Japan with another person on their first trip to Tokyo.

1. Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower is perhaps the most famous landmark in Tokyo. It’s a communications tower that also has two observation decks.

The main observation deck of Tokyo Tower is 492 feet/150 meters tall, while the top deck is 820 feet/250 meters tall.

You can see Tokyo Tower from many points in the city, but I’d definitely recommend getting up close to it. The tower makes for great photos, especially at night when it’s lit up.

Tokyo Tower at night

Tokyo Tower from below

Sometimes, the outdoors stairs up to the first deck are open to walk up (about 600 steps to go the 150 meters), what they call their open-air outdoor stairs walk. This part is usually open on weekends and holidays, but make sure to double check it’s open when you plan to go.

The outdoor stairs walk could be a fun way to experience Tokyo Tower, but doesn’t look like it would be so nice for those afraid of heights.

Tokyo Tower also has a cafe on the main observation deck.

I actually haven’t been up Tokyo Tower yet, as I’ve gone up Tokyo SkyTree instead on both of my trips to Tokyo. I’d recommend that you choose one of the two to pay for, unless you want to/have extra time and money.

Tokyo Tower
Location: 4 Chome-2-8 Shibakoen, Minato City, Tokyo 105-0011, Japan
Admission: 1200 yen (main deck), 2800 yen (main deck + top deck; online)
Hours: 9:00AM -11:00PM (main deck), 9:00AM -10:45PM (top deck)

2. Harajuku

You’ve almost certainly heard of Harajuku. This Shibuya neighborhood is a hub for fashion and youth culture. So Harajuku is a great place for shopping and catching the latest in youth trends for fashion, entertainment, and more.

Specifically, Harajuku is a destination for lolita fashion (e.g. cutesy doll-like dresses with frills, bows, lace galore; though there are many subgenres of lolita fashion). So you can find lots of cute/“kawaii” stuff for purchase in Harajuku.

Some fashion stores around Takeshita Dori

There are also many restaurants and street food vendors in Harajuku. When I have been to Tokyo, crepes piled high with fillings were very popular. But there is probably something else popular there now.

You can get really elaborate with your crepe fillings in Harajuku

One of the main areas to walk around Harajuku is Takeshita Street (or Takeshita Dori), a pedestrian street bordered with all manner of shops, restaurants, cafes, and more. You can easily reach Takeshita Dori from Harajuku Station (JR East).

Takeshita Dori by day and night

Takeshita Street sign

If the perpetually-busy Takeshita Street is tiring you out, head to Cat Street, a nearby street that’s also focused on alternative youth fashion. Cat Street is more chill, but still has plenty of shops and eateries for you to peruse.

If you’d like to stop by some famous stores, check out Omotesando Avenue and visit Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku (with its famous mirrored entrance) and Laforet Harajuku. Both department stores are home to cutting-edge Tokyo fashion from brands big and small.

Tokyu Plaza (left), Laforet (right)

Another great thing about the shopping streets of Harajuku is their close proximity to other awesome things to do in Tokyo for first timers, like the next two attractions.

Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku
Location: 4 Chome-30-3 Jingumae, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan
Hours: 11:00AM – 9:00PM

Laforet Harajuku
Location: 1 Chome-11-6 Jingumae, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan
Hours: 11:00AM – 8:00PM

3. Meiji Jingu Shrine

Meiji Jingu (or Meiji Shrine) is a Shinto shrine that was built to honor Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. And it’s one of my favorite places in Tokyo.

Even though Meiji Shrine is located in bustling Shibuya, the grounds of the shrine are so large that soon after you pass through the huge torii gate and enter the forested paths, you wouldn’t even know you’re in a metropolis constantly humming with activity.

A torii gate and paths leading to Meiji Shrine

Everything becomes quieter. It’s just you, a sea of trees, and the paths snaking the grounds. (Plus the other people there, obviously.)

If you make your way to Meiji Shrine from Harajuku, you will come across a bunch of cool-looking sake barrels. Such sake barrels are donated to shrines by sake brewers, and the sake is drunk on special occasions. Then the empty barrels are displayed.

Sake barrels at Meiji Shrine

Sake barrels that were donated to Meiji Shrine

The buildings around Meiji Shrine are also beautiful and peaceful. Just take a look:

Various sights around Meiji Shrine

If you’d like to learn more about Shintoism, Meiji Shrine has a primer on Shinto practices and traditions. If you come at the right time, you might be able to see the procession for a Shinto wedding, complete with elaborate kimonos for the bride and groom.

Shinto wedding procession at Meiji Shrine

If you like the forested Meiji Shrine, make sure you visit Nara Park in Nara (near Osaka) to see the famous deer and temples sometime.

Meiji Jingu
Location: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya City, Tokyo 151-8557, Japan
Admission: Free
Hours: Sunrise to sunset (specific times here)

4. Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park (also Yoyogi Koen) is a park in Shibuya, very close to Meiji Shrine. Yoyogi Park is quite large and offers visitors wide open spaces to sit/rest/play, plenty of trees, ponds, and more.

What makes Yoyogi Park stand out from other parks in Tokyo are the visitors. On Sundays, Yoyogi Park plays host to a variety of Japanese group meetups, like martial arts groups and cosplayers.

But the coolest group to gather might be the rockabilly dancers. These music fans go all out – they dress in leather and/or denim, do their hair up, and go to Yoyogi Park to dance to their favorite music. Even in the middle of summer!

They were dressed like this in the heat of July!

Yoyogi Park is a popular place to visit in the fall, thanks to its golden ginkgo trees. It’s also a popular spot for seeing the cherry blossoms because of its spaciousness.

Yoyogi Park
Location: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya City, Tokyo 151-8557, Japan
Admission: Free
Hours: Always open (Facility opening hours vary)

5. Golden Gai, Kabukicho, and Omoide Yokocho (Shinjuku)

Golden Gai is another one of my favorite places in Tokyo.

It’s a small area of Shinjuku filled with tiny, rickety bars that can only seat a few people in any given establishment. Even if you don’t drink, it’s still a cool place to walk through.

Around Golden Gai

A word of warning: not all bars will be open to tourists and/or people who don’t speak Japanese coming in. Some of the bars only accept their regular customers. Some might only accept customers that speak Japanese well.

An easy way to tell if a bar welcomes tourists is the presence of English on their signs/menus outside. Or just look up reviews for bars that other tourists have been to.

Additionally, some bars have cover charges, so you’ll have to pay to get in. But others don’t; you can see in the photos some signs that say “no cover.”

Narrow stairs up to a second-floor bar; menu at a bar

Golden Gai is actually part of the Kabukicho neighborhood. This area of Shinjuku is a famous nightlife destination, with tons of nightclubs, bars, and restaurants.

Kabukicho is also Tokyo’s red light district, offering many love hotels, massage parlors, and host and hostess clubs.

With all its bright signs and lights, Kabukicho is interesting to stroll through, especially at night. I don’t think Kabukicho is super duper unsafe to walk through, especially compared to other countries.

But if you visit at night, take normal safety precautions. And avoid/ignore the people trying to sell you stuff and get you to come inside various establishments. You can also go during the day instead if you’d prefer.

Buildings and their signs around Kabukicho, Tokyo

Kabukicho

Around Kabukicho; host clubs ads on the right

Kabukicho is also the location of the famous Robot Restaurant, which offers a very loud and colorful show filled with robots, performers, lights, music, and more.

However, the Robot Restaurant has been closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has not released any open date as of mid-October 2022.

Sign for the famous Robot Restaurant in Tokyo

Sign for the Robot Restaurant

Around Shinjuku is also Omoide Yokocho (which approximately means “Memory Lane”), a narrow alleyway just outside of Shinjuku Station lined with tiny restaurants and bars.

The buildings of the alley were restored to how they would have looked in the Showa era after a fire in the 1990s. These historical appearances with the bright lights at night is peak Tokyo.

Along Omoide Yokocho at night

Skewers and alcohol at a restaurant in Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo

Food and alcohol in restaurant along Omoide Yokocho

Sign for Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo

Sign for Omoide Yokocho

Honestly, if you had to choose visit one of these three areas, definitely go with Omoide Yokocho. It’s just so cool looking.

Golden Gai
Location: 1 Chome-1-6 Kabukicho, Shinjuku City, Tokyo 160-0021, Japan

Robot Restaurant
Location: 1 Chome-7-7 Kabukicho, Shinjuku City, Tokyo 160-0021, Japan

Omoide Yokocho
Location: 1 Chome-2 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku City, Tokyo 160-0023, Japan

6. Shibuya Scramble Crossing

The Shibuya Scramble Crossing (or just Shibuya Crossing) is another iconic Tokyo landmark. It’s probably the most famous road crossing outside of Abbey Road.

When the stoplights turn red and traffic stops, pedestrians are allowed to cross the road from every which way. It’s a fantastic place to people watch.

Shibuya Scramble Crossing full of people
Shibuya Scramble Crossing with no people

Shibuya Crossing with a red light and a green light

The Shibuya Crossing is located right by another Shibuya classic: the Hachiko statue. Hachiko was a dog who would meet his owner at Shibuya Station every day after work, and continued to go to Shibuya Station every day after his owner’s passing for nine years.

Hachiko Memorial Statue

Hachiko Memorial Statue
Location: 2 Chome-1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0043, Japan

7. Tokyo SkyTree

Much like Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting and observation tower. It’s also the third-tallest structure in the world and the tallest structure in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree has two observation decks, the Tembo Deck at 1,148 feet/350 meters tall and the Tembo Galleria at 1476 feet/450 meters tall.

Tokyo Skytree is so tall that on particularly clear days, you can see Mount Fuji. But even on less clear days, Skytree boasts amazing views and a sense of how large Tokyo really is. Literally, the city expands beyond the horizon.

According to Skytree, the Tembo Deck lets you see up to 44 miles/70 kilometers away.

Tokyo Skytree at different times

Skytree also has cafes on floors 340 and 350, as well as a restaurant on floor 345.

To get the most out of your Tokyo Skytree visit, I’d recommend going a good bit before sunset and then staying until after the sun sets to see Tokyo lit up at night. That way, you can get photos during the day, at dusk, and at night. Like these:

View of Tokyo during the day from Tokyo Skytree

During the day

At sunset

At night

So while Tokyo Tower is cheaper to visit, Tokyo Skytree is much taller, offering better views. You can also say you’ve been to one of the world’s tallest structures. That’s why I’d recommend Skytree over Tokyo Tower, though they’re both nice.

Alternatively, if you don’t have the budget for Tokyo Skytree or Tokyo Tower, you can visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which has two free observatories. These are 663 feet/202 meters tall.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and views from one of its observatories

Tokyo Skytree
Location: 1 Chome-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida City, Tokyo 131-0045, Japan
Admission: 1800 yen advance weekday (Tembo Deck); 2700 yen advance weekday (Tembo Deck + Tembo Galleria)
Hours: 10 AM to 9 PM (last admission at 8 PM)

8. Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple is a Buddhist Temple in Asakusa. It’s Tokyo’s oldest temple (built in 645), and supposedly the world’s most-visited religious site. According to the temple, they have 30 million visitors a year!

Also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, Senso-ji is dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion.

The temple grounds start with the impressive Kaminari-mon (“Kaminari Gate”), an enormous gate with an equally-enormous lantern (pictured in the featured photo at the top). The massive lantern weight about 1500 pounds/700 kilograms, and is about 12.7 feet/3.9 meters tall and 10.8 feet/3.3 meters wide.

The huge lantern of Kaminari-mon Gate of Senso-ji Temple

Kaminari-mon and its huge lantern

Between Kaminari-mon and the temple buildings is Nakamise Street (or Nakamise Dori). This street is filled with many small stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs and Japanese goods.

Nakamise Dori leading to Senso-ji Temple

Lots of shops along Nakamise Street

The buildings of Senso-ji themselves are gorgeous, including the main hall and five-story pagoda. You can also see Tokyo Skytree from many points around the temple.

Sights around Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple
Location: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan
Admission: Free
Hours: 6 AM to 5 PM (April to September); 6:30 AM to 5 PM (October to March)

9. Akihabara and Ikekuburo

Akihabara is an area of central Tokyo that became famous for its electronics shops after World War II. You can still buy electronic goods there, but Akihabara is also a major center for fans of anime, manga, and video games.

There are many shops selling these kinds of media, as well as all kinds of merchandise featuring characters from them. You can also buy doujinishi, fan-made manga featuring such characters.

Buildings and advertisements around Akihabara, Tokyo

Around Akihabara

One of the most famous stores is Mandarake, an eight-story building selling secondhand manga, DVDs, CDs, collectibles, doujinishi, and more. Also worth a visit is Super Potato, a video game store chain that is notable for its retro video games.

Inside and outside Super Potato

You can also find maid cafes in this area, like the well-known At-Home Cafe. You can get cute-themed drinks and food at At-Home Cafe. You can also get a photo with some of the maids or play a game with them for an extra fee.

Note that you have to pay an admission fee/cover charge and also buy something off the menu (like a drink) to get into At-Home Cafe. I’d imagine many other maid cafes have a similar system.

A drink and food from At-Home Cafe

Ikebukuro is another popular area for fans of video games, anime, and manga, but it’s supposed to be more focused on a female audience. So there are shops focused on these forms of media, but also attractions like butler cafes.

Many of these shops are concentrated around Otome Road (“Maiden Road”). Ikebukuro is also a well-known center for cosplay, with cosplay shops and cosplayers a plenty.

A street around Ikebukuro, Tokyo

A street around Ikebukuro

Purikura (photo booth) machines and area to get ready for photos in an arcade in Ikebukuro

Also located in Ikebukuro is a must-visit for any Pokemon fans: the Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo in the Sunshine City shopping complex. This Pokemon Store is particularly huge, so it has a great selection of Pokemon products.

Also in Sunshine City is the Pikachu Sweets cafe, selling all types of Pokemon-themed treats.

Pokemon Center displays

Mandarake CoCoo
Location: 3 Chome-11-12 Sotokanda, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 101-0021, Japan
Hours: 12 PM to 8 PM

Super Potato
Location: 1 Chome-11-2 Sotokanda, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 101-0021, Japan
Hours: 11 AM to 8 PM

At-Home Main Cafe
Location: 1 Chome-11-4 Sotokanda, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 101-0021, Japan
Hours: 11 AM to 11 PM

Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo
Location: Sunshine City alpa 2F, 3 Chome-1-2 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 170-6002, Japan
Hours: 10 AM to 8 PM

10. Toyosu Market and Tsukiji Market

Japanese cuisine is world-famous for its seafood fare, especially sushi. You can get absolutely fresh seafood at Toyosu Market.

Toyosu Market is the world’s biggest wholesale fish market. It replaced the inner, wholesale portion of Tsukiji Market, Tokyo’s former fish market, in 2018.

Toyosu Market has a building for wholesale purchases, one for auctions, and one for fruits and vegetables. The auction building offers observation windows where visitors can watch the proceedings early in the morning, from around 5:30 AM to 6:30 AM.

To watch the auction from the special observation deck, advanced reservations are required. You can apply for a reservation the month before.

The wholesale market sells seafood to licensed buyers, so visitors can’t just walk up and purchase seafood. But this building does have restaurants that you can eat at.

If you’d like to purchase some seafood, head to Tsukiji Market. Even though the wholesale market is no longer located at Tsukiji, the outer market is still there.

People walking through the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Tsukiji Market

The outer market is a cluster of shops and restaurants that opened nearby the old inner market of Tsukiji.

While I haven’t visited Toyosu Market, I have visited some portion of Tsukiji Market. An idea of what the outer market looked like in 2017:

Seafood being sold around Tsukiji Market

Stalls would display the heads or bones of the fish to indicate that their fish was cut up that day. This is to show how fresh it is.

Food around Tsukiji Market

Toyosu Market
Location: 6 Chome-6-1 Toyosu, Koto City, Tokyo 135-0061, Japan
Admission: Free
Hours: 5 AM to 3 PM (closed Sundays, national holidays, and many Wednesdays)

Tsukiji Market
Location: 4 Chome-16-2 Tsukiji, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan
Admission: Free
Hours: Shops have varying hours; Information center is open 8 AM to 2 PM (Mon-Sat), 10 AM to 2 PM(Sun, national holidays, some Wed)

11. Imperial Palace

So Japan has a royal family, with the current Emperor being Naruhito. Built on the former site of Edo Castle, the Imperial Palace is a large complex where the royal family lives and ceremonies and other events occur.

You can’t actually visit most of the Imperial Palace complex, except on special occasions. However, you can visit some of the inner palace grounds on a guided tour. These tours are free, but you must register for them in advance online or in-person on the day of.

Conversely, the East Gardens are open to the public most days except Mondays, Fridays, and some special occasions.

Around the East Gardens, you can see some remnants of the old Edo Castle, like walls and gates. The East Gardens also has plenty of open space for relaxing, as well as gardens to stroll around.

Old palace wall and the East Gardens

Sights around the Imperial Palace grounds

Imperial Palace East Gardens
Location: 1-1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 100-8111, Japan
Admission: Free
Hours: 9 AM to various times between 4 PM and 6 PM (Seasonal; schedule here)

Honorable Mentions

If you have some extra time to fill in Tokyo, I’d highly recommend a day trip to Mount Fuji via the Fuji Five Lake area.

Or you have kids/love Disney, spend a day or two at Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea (a nautical-themed Disney).

This guide is by no means an exhaustive list of all the cool activities in Tokyo, but I hope it gives you a good idea of the best things to do in Tokyo for first timers.

Already been to Tokyo and want to visit another vibrant Asian city? Here are some reasons why you should visit Seoul.

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