Travel Guide: Top 10 Things To Do In Tokyo

Travel guide to planning a visit or trip to Tokyo, Japan, including top tourist attractions and things to do.

For the first time visitor to Japan's capital city or the business traveler whose leisure time is limited, the following list of top ten must-sees will deliver a trip that is memorable, culturally enriching and fun!

EXPERIENCE THE GINZA

Tokyo is one of the largest and busiest cities in the world, and most of its population seems to spill into the streets during lunchtime and after hours. The word "ginza" translates to mean "silver mint," which was built in the early 17th century by the Shogun. By the time Japan opened its doors to foreign trading in the middle of the 1800's, the area rapidly evolved into what it is today""a bustling hot spot that now has as many commercial office complexes as it does shops, restaurants, bars, dance clubs and art galleries. Like New York, Tokyo is a very vertical venue that not only has teeming skyscrapers but also entire shopping malls and eateries located underground to maximize the use of a relatively small land mass. Speaking of food, there are over 4,000 restaurants in the Ginza; you definitely won't starve! Even better, you don't even have to know the language in order to pick out what you'd like to eat. Like many establishments in the Far East, the entrees are meticulously replicated as wax models in the restaurant windows.

While you're here, introduce your taste buds to sake (rice wine) tastings at Nihonshu, enjoy high-tech animation shows and try out new products at the Sony Center, or get inspired to hone your photography skills after a look at what's on display in the Nikon gallery. Pedestrians be warned, though; getting across the street in this district is as daunting as New York, too, given the number of cars that pass through.

KABUKI-ZA THEATER

Kabuki Theater had its origins in feudal Japan and has long enjoyed the same level of spontaneous audience participation as Shakespeare's offerings at The Globe. The plays are at least twice as long as Westerners are accustomed to and are a heavily costumed and bewigged spectacle that has to be seen to be believed. Although even with English translations via headsets a Kabuki plot is challenging to follow, those who love the theater will be torn between watching the actors and appreciating the complexity of the elaborate sets which form their backdrop.

THE IMPERIAL PALACE

Before it became known as Tokyo, the city was called Edo and had as its center an impenetrable fortress from which the Tokugawa Shoguns ruled successfully for over 250 years. Today, Japan's royal family occupies residence in the Imperial Palace, a showpiece of gardens, bridges, and courtyards which were built on the site of the original structure. Although only the East Gardens of the palace are open to the public, their beauty and tranquility make this site worth a visit. Guided tours that describe the feudal system and history of Japan are available and reservations are a must. If your travels happen to fall on December 23rd or January 2nd, you may even get a chance to wave at the presiding royal family; these are the only dates the inner grounds are open for viewing.

ASAKUSA

It's a well known fact that the Japanese have always been on the cutting edge of the latest technology. But did you also know that Japan's first public cinema and photography studio can be found in Asakusa, one of the oldest parts of town? The cornerstone of this district is The Sensoji Temple which is steeped in legend dating from the 7th century. In addition to street fairs and performances, arts festivals and parades, Asakusa also has its own ferry service.



THE NATIONAL GARDENS AT SHINJUKU-KU

The expansive grounds of this park have only been open to the general public for the past 60 years but date back to the time of feudal lords. Thousands of varieties of trees and plants adorn 150 acres of delicate bridges, koi ponds, jogging paths and sculpture gardens. If you want to see the entire setting in pink cotton-candy bloom, plan your visit for April when the cherry blossoms are out. Next best time is October, the season of chrysanthemums. Horticulturists will also enjoy the year-round greenhouse on the grounds, which has a variety of tropical flora to dizzy the senses.

KOKUGIKAN

With all the new dishes you've been trying on your vacation, you're probably dubious about stepping on the bathroom scale when you get back home. Not to worry. A visit to a Sumo wrestling match at the Kokugikan arena will make you feel absolutely svelte. This is one sport where packing on pounds is an acceptable conditioning treatment in preparation for beating one's opponent. Its popularity has it roots in the era of the Edo shoguns. This ancient hand to hand combat that involves grunting, pouncing, tripping, slapping and menacing posture is also the only one that didn't require its participants to fight to the death in order to be considered victorious.

MURDER (NOT) ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

What's faster than a speeding bullet? The answer is a Japanese train. They even named one of them after a bullet, which is consistent with the country's mindset of doing everything as quickly and efficiently as possible. Tokyo's Post Town is the intersection of the city's subway and rail lines, shuttling several million passengers a day through its turnstiles. As long as you don't attempt a ride during morning and afternoon rush hours, this mode of transportation not only delivers you with lightning speed to your destinations but affords you the chance to do some serious people-watching as well.

EDO-TOKYO MUSEUM

Back when I was a kid, one of my favorite projects in history class was to make elaborate dioramas and people them with clay figures occupying tiny furniture and holding tiny props. Certainly if I had ever felt the calling to go to work in Tokyo, such talents would have found a calling at the Edo-Toyko Museum. It's here that visitors can experience several centuries of ancient Tokyo through the enjoyment of realistic models that make my Lilliputian colonies look like a bunch of pinheads. The interpretive center and guides will not only add to your knowledge of what Japan was in the past but where it is going in the future as well in terms of education, transportation, science, and politics.

TSUKIJI MARKET

Seafood and sushi lovers, unite! It doesn't get any better than the fish stalls at Tsukiji where lunch practically swims onto your plate while you wait for it. Having grown up in Seattle, another seafood capital of the world, I was immediately reminded of the ambiance and frenetic pace of Pike's Place Market. Like its Washington counterpart, early mornings are always the best time to get there. Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the country, is also the place to indulge any fondness you harbor for sushi. This dish was first introduced here and is featured prominently at the many area restaurants. Be warned, though: some of it may be offered to you still squirming and alive! Tsukiji is more than just a fish place, though. Its vendor stalls and closely packed shops are just the place to find all those funky souvenirs you promised your coworkers back at the office.

THE WAX MUSEUM AT TOKYO TOWER

Okay, so this sounds like a hokey last addition to the list but its one that kids will enjoy if they're traveling with you. In addition to the usual line-up of dead celebrities and historical figures, this one has its own collection of rock stars. Pretty cool.

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