I was incredibly lucky to visit Japan last November with my wonderful friend Livie. Japan is a magical (and pretty stress-free) place to visit and I definitely recommend that you pop it on your travel list (especially as flights are getting cheaper and cheaper from little old New Zealand). Trains run on time, everyone says please and thank you, the pop culture merchandise is second to none, the snacks are new and exciting, there are robot toilets, sunblock is insanely cheap (if you are pale like me this is exciting news) and you can play with cute hedgehogs. What more do you need out of a travel destination?
If you are thinking about visiting Japan (and you should be) here is my mini guide to some not to be missed spots in Tokyo (along with some #hottips on how to make your time in Japan even more awesome).
Harajuku is a magical land of cute toys, crepes, strange cafes, amazing shopping and some really incredible doughnuts!
Our airbnb was centrally located in Shinjuku and it was an easy 30 minute walk from there to Harajuku. While it’s incredibly easy to use the metro to get around, Tokyo is also a very walkable city. Walking from Shinjuku gave us a better sense of our bearings in a new city and let us explore some of Harajuku’s beautiful back streets which contain some really wonderful small shops.
Down one of these back streets you will find Good Town Doughnuts. If you love doughnuts, you need to make a visit to Good Town. The decor is really great (wonderful bathrooms too!) and they had the most delicious doughnuts we ate all trip. I really recommend the maple bacon, it’s incredible! They also sell some really cute doughnut themed merchandise that is worth checking out. The same people also run the burger place next door, The Great Burger – also excellent (we ate there twice!)
No trip to Harajuku is complete without a stroll down Takeshita Dori. It’s amazing place to people watch and catch some of that outlandish Harajuku fashion you’ve heard all about. It can be a bit of a sensory overload of cuteness and it also feels pretty touristy but its still well worth the visit. Not far from Takeshita Dori I managed to pick up two new pairs of prescription glasses from Zoff, one of which I am wearing below. If anyone wants a guide on how to buy glasses in Japan let me know (it’s a straightforward process which sees you rocking new glasses in half an hour of picking them out, all for a super reasonable price).
Kiddy Land is a multi-story, toy wonderland in the heart of Harajuku. We spotted merchandise for Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, Disney, Star Wars, Studio Ghibli, Marvel and Snoopy (there was actually a whole Snoopy floor for some reason). It’s a great place to pick up some souvenirs for family and friends. I ended up buying lots of cute pencils, stickers, note pads and novelty hello kitty face masks, so my wallet took quite a hit here.
You will also find some great stores in Harajuku jam packed with kawaii clothing and accessories, along with the usual suspects like Forever 21.
Ichiran Harajuku was our first foray into ramen and I think it was the best we had the whole trip (and we ate a lot). There is always a bit of a line outside, but it moves fast so don’t let that put you off. Just ordering your ramen is an experience in and of itself. You use a machine to make and pay for your order, and then you are ushered into a small waiting room where you can watch a map of the restaurant lit up with red and green lights showing what spaces are available. You are then taken to an available seat with a wooden barrier between you and the next person (don’t worry you can fold it down so you can chat to your travel buddies/partner etc). There is a screen also in front of you so you can’t see the kitchen. Not long after sitting down the screen with roll up and your ramen will be pushed through by some mysterious hands. This isolated dining experience is so you can really focus on the meal in front of you and focus you will because its delicious.
Like I said our airbnb was in a really great location in Shinjuku, which is a pretty diverse neighborhood (its motto seems to be business by day, party by night). We were close to what felt like thousands of restaurants and bars, the busy Shinjuku station, as well as huge department stores and designer and high street shops. I would really recommend it as a great place to base yourself, but Shinjuku is also a great neighborhood to explore.
The Robot Restaurant is pretty expensive at about $100nzd (and that’s without dinner which didn’t seem that nice), but Livie and I both agreed it was totally worth it. It was just insane and we both had a great time. The show mainly consists of some really strange and colourful battle between robots and elaborately dressed people. Words don’t do it justice, so just check out the photos below. Be sure to book your tickets in advance as it can sell out.
It’s also probably good to point out that the Robot Restaurant is located in a kind of sketchy area of Shinjuku and it was a bit disorientating coming out after the show. We came out a different door than we had when we went in and got a bit confused and had to wander around what was clearly a red light district for a while before we reappeared out on the main street.
If you are looking for some great Tokyo views for free you can’t go past the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. There can be a bit of a line to head up to the observation decks (there is one in each tower) so we only did one and it was still amazing. The views were incredible and we could even see Mount Fuji. I would definitely recommend going at sunset like we did. There is also a cafe and shop up on the observation deck but neither looked very appealing.
We were also lucky enough to be in Tokyo for Culture Day which saw gigs spring up all over the show in Shinjuku. The one below was just outside Shinjuku Station and the band were really great! You will probably pass through Shinjuku station at one point or another while you are in Tokyo, but it’s definitely worth exploring the department stores and insane food court attached to it. We even managed to find a Blue Star Doughnuts store in there to Livie’s absolute delight! (#Hottip most department stores in Japan have a bottom floor devoted entirely to food.)
In Shinjuku you can also find a really big Don Quijote store. It is worth visiting at least one Don Quijote while you are in Tokyo because they are insane. Think of them as being like a k-mart meets supermarket, but much messier. They sell cosmetics, food, electronics, clothing, shoes, toys – basically everything. However, don’t lose your minds like we did and grab everything you lay your eyes on, because you will end up leaving with $60nzd worth of strangely flavored kit-kats, dazed and confused about what just happened.
Shibuya is of course home to the famous Shibuya crossing and a very easy metro ride from Shinjuku. We visited Shibuya a day before Halloween and it was even more busy than I could have imagined. If you take the Metro to Shibuya you should pop out right at the crossing and from a department store attached to the station you can get a great view of all the action.
We spent basically a whole day in the Muji Shibuya flagship store (located about a 10 minute walk from the crossing) – we even ate lunch in there. Muji is incredible. They stock beautiful and simple furniture, homewares, skincare, stationary and clothing. And while there are a few Muji’s in Tokyo this is the one you want to visit. Attached to the giant Muji store is a giant Loft store which is also amazing. Its not as minimalist as Muji and stocks a huge array of homewares, stationary, make up and skincare. I picked up even more novelty face masks here (even managed to find some Dragon Ball Z ones). It also has a MoMA design store inside. If you don’t mind your wallet taking a hit then you should definitely hit up Muji and Loft. But do prepare to be sad that Muji do not ship their furniture to NZ.
Shibuya is also great for record shopping! And I think I worked out that most records were a wee bit cheaper than at home. I picked up three records at a really great store called Hi-Fi. I was really pleased to find the Brian Jonestown Massacre album you can see below. Time Out have a great list of all the record stores you can find in Shibuya which you can check out overe here.
Like Harajuku there is a lot of people watching to be done in Shibuya. And as it was Halloween when we visited there were hoards of teenagers dressed up really elaborate costumes which made the people watching even better.
We skipped Tokyo Disneyland for DisneySea which is aimed at an older audience (you can buy beer) and is set around an erupting volcano rather than the traditonal Disney Castle. You can purchase tickets at the park itself or at the big Disney store in Shibuya (which is what we did). It was an easy bus ride out to DisneySea from Shinjuku Station which has a lovely new bus terminal. We purchased the bus tickets from the station the morning of our trip with no trouble and there is an information desk with English speakers if you have any questions. (If you are catching the bus back to Tokyo you just pay as you get on the bus at the park so don’t panic if you don’t have a return ticket). You can also catch a train out if you like and all the details are on Disney’s website.
Like any Disney park DisneySea was very busy and so be prepared for lines and try to make the most of Disney’s fast pass system. We manged to knock off four rides on our visit which seemed like a good effort given the crowds and two hour wait times. The Tower of Terror was particularly awesome and a thousands time more scary when you can’t understand the safety instructions because they’re in Japanese. While I’m still not a huge fan of Disney theme parks, I enjoyed DisneySea a lot more than DisneyWorld for sure and its worth going just to see other visitors elaborate costumes. Though I would definitely recommend arriving at the park as early as possible and going on a week day to try avoid the crowds and lines.
I really recommend giving yourself a day to explore Ueno Park and all the museums and galleries around it.
Uneo park is in the heart of Tokyo and its a sprawling park with shrines, a huge lily pond and a large zoo. Its 5 minutes away from a metro stop and hard to miss. The Ueno Zoo is Japan’s oldest zoo and you kind of get that feeling when you look at some of the enclosures that definitely need some updating. But it is home to two giant pandas and a wee group of aye aye (these animals have some of the better enclosures). Its also only 600 yen for admission and there is a cute little metro than you can take from one part of the zoo to the other which gives you great views of Tokyo.
Tokyo National Museum is located on the edge of the park. Its massive and it would be hard to take all of it in in one day and we failed to see less than half in one afternoon. But if you are going to visit one museum in Tokyo this should be it. It holds the world’s largest collection of Japanese art and has an excellent gift shop. If you only have an afternoon like we did, stick to the main gallery, as it gives you a pretty good overview.
We also checked out the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art which was great and had a really wonderful touring Van Gogh exhibition on when we visited. If we had had more time I would have aslo loved to explore the National Science Museum which is also located on the edge of the Park. It explores all the wildlife of the Japanese acrhipelago and apparently has great English signage.
You should definitely check out the Harry Hedgehog Cafe for the cutest experience of your life. You don’t need to make a reservation just show up.
#Hottips for you time in Tokyo
– Most shops and cafes all open later than you might expect, around 10am or 11am, and they stay open later too, closing around 10pm. So sleep in and make the most of that late night shopping!
– If you are thinking about getting an airbnb in Japan is to find one that has a portable wi-fi device. We used the portable wi-fi device from our air bnb everyday. It literally came everywhere we did. They are reliable, hold a good charge and give you access to the internet and most importantly google maps – as most streets in Japan don’t have names, google maps will be you best friend during your trip.
– You should definitely download the free Tokyo metro app for tourists. I wouldn’t have made it around Tokyo without it. It’s super easy to use and doesn’t need wi-fi to work.
– Make sure to take your passport with you while you are shopping as you can use it to shop tax free at certain stores if you spend over a certain amount.