Karen’s Tokyo To Do List

Welcome to my brief overview of the best Tokyo attractions when you don’t have forever to stay in Japan and you need to aim and shoot.  I’m sure by this time you have read the blogs, the guidebooks, etc. and this should help you nail down a few not to miss attractions.

Year-round favorites:

Antique market: Kawagoe, Saitama – 28th of every month

Onsen: Tokyo Dome’s LaQua onsen or Oedo Onsen (the Shin-Urayasu location is bathing suit friendly)

Amusement Park: Disney or Tokyo Dome

Garden: Happo-en or Korakuen

Yakitori: Joumon Roppongi, Fuku Roppongi

ShabuShabu: Nabezo is a chain, and I love the Shibuya location, Beams 6th Floor

Okonomiyaki: Sakuratei Omotessando (vegetarian friendly) or Daikonman Shimokitazawa

Ramen: Ramen Jiro or Junk Garage Omiya (Afuri Roppongi Hills has a vegan option!)

Sushi: Tokyo Plaza Ginza (Same restaurant exists on the 10th floor rotating sushi bar and B1F standing sushi bar)

Korean: K-town, Shin-Okubo, is located off the Yamanote Line- have a stop here for cheap masks and the ever tasty, dak-galbi– it’s amazing.

When it comes to seeing the city I swear by the trains. It is important to note there are three branches of metro, and I recommend sticking to one as best you can and buying a day pass. The JR is a popular one for tourists, but I typically find myself riding the Tokyo Metro with my 600 yen day pass the most.

In terms of touring, my favorite train line to ride is the JR Yamanote Line (it’s green). Making your way to the west side of the Yamanote Line, you will find Harajuku.  Harajuku is best viewed from the top of the street.  After you snap a pic and walk down the busy Takeshita Street, you will see a small set of stairs on the right that leads into a basement. Click here for the exact location found on JW Web Magazine.

This basement is full of photobooths called Purikura, or sticky pix.  They will exaggerate features on your face and make you and your friends look somewhat alien-esque.  It’s a blast and there are plenty of mirrors if you need time to primp.  If you’re not wanting to tackle the chaos of the street, turn around and go back to the heavily wooded and somewhat cool Meiji Jingu Shrine.  If you’re feeling adventurous keep going across the next main busy intersection; there’s a great latte cafe called Reissue and excellent okonomiyaki called Sakuratei down and to the left.

Not to be underestimated is the Oriental Bazaar in Omotessando… It’s closed on odd days, so be careful, and there are some amazing souvenir finds in there like the Kokeshi doll scroll paper set.  Amazing.  If you have energy, as you approach the evening hours, Shibuya is a great stop for the Scramble, best viewed from Starbucks on the second floor of Tsutaya and then perhaps a sunset cocktail at the Cerulean Hotel… If you’re looking for a more budget friendly happy hour, head to my favorite bar, So-ra-sio, on the 46th floor of the Caretta building in Shiodome.  Tricky to find, it has its own elevator entrance and happy hour is every day from 5-7PM.   Enjoy a dirty martini for me!

Your Tokyo guidebooks are all spot on, so have a flip through and choose your favorite highlights.  I love the shopping around Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple, and the vintage style spray paint metal store coverings you can see early mornings and late evenings as they close shop.  There is a very funny bar underground at one of the subway entrances called Ninja Bar…. this is worth a stop on your way out of town!

Yanaka Ginza is where you will have the best luck finding a vending machine full of beer.  This town used to remind me of The Land Before Time, but lately it has become quite bustling.  While it still has a unique charm, it is a bit busier than it was back in the day.  Nearby to Yanaka Ginza is Yanaka proper, full of temples and statues that weren’t destroyed during the war, Yanaka oozes vintage Japan.  If you’re lucky, you will have chosen a route that winds you down toward Nezu Shrine for the long line of torii gates (that’s right… you don’t need to go to Kyoto for that) or Nippori Station, where you can find many different kinds fabrics and textiles.

Tokyo Station is ever so photogenic, and you cannot miss the underground “1st Avenue” section which is accessible from the Yaesu Central Exit side of the station.  It has the most epic collection of shopping and fun.

From Tokyo Station, you can easily access the Disney Parks.  If you opt to spend the day at the park, DisneySea is the park I would choose.  I have an entire other blog entry about both parks, so please feel free to check those out here and here.  If you are not a Disney die hard and you don’t care about the super Tokyo Disney only merchandise they have there, there is always the after 6PM pass for weekdays (after 3PM weekends) pass so you can get a feel for the place without wasting an entire day.  After Disney, unwind with drinks in Ikspiari, the shopping plaza on the way to the JR trains, or just make your way back to your hotel and get a good night’s sleep.

You can easily spend 4 hours inside of TeamLab Borderless (don’t miss the second floor).  Getting tickets in advance is your best bet.  While you’re over there, there is plenty to see and do in Odaiba.   Tons of blogs exist about that, so I’ll spare you the details and tell you that my favorite thing is Sega Joypolis (they have an indoor roller coaster) and the shopping at Venus Fort because I love the All Saints outlet.  There is also a delicious all you can eat sushi buffet on the fifth floor of the Joypolis building which is always fun!

TeamLab Planets is another one of DMM’s installations… This one is a bit smaller, you can expect to finish in 45 minutes if you need to, and it also requires you are barefoot with clothes around knee length and not below.   This is a good museum to combine with the new fish market if you were interested in that, although I find the Tsukiji market to be foreigner friendly and quite charming in terms of photogenic spots. This museum has had a slight smell issue lately so if your gag reflex is strong, give this one a pass!

Summer:  If you make it to Tokyo in July… Well, congratulations!  It is often stifling hot, or getting there, and you will need to prepare by wearing tons of light clothing and drinking loads of water.  My summertime suggestions include a little less onsen action, and a little more indoors action to save your energy and your body.

Let’s start with Disney: oftentimes DisneySea will host a summertime splash event around the lagoon.  This consists of fire hoses and buckets full of water coming down on your head, so you are in the best shape armed with poncho, change of shoes or flip flops and a back up of sunscreen.

In summer months, Nikko may be a nice side trip since it is a bit more wooded, or perhaps Nagano and Karuizawa looking towards the other directions.  If you are looking for something more off the beaten path, you can train to Utsunomiya Station or just rent a car and drive out there.  There are amazing limestone caves and temples around the town of Oya.  Their underground location leaves them feeling twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the planet.

Fall: Fall foliage, period.  It is exceptional here.  There are trains created solely for the purpose of enjoying it (i.e. Kurube Gorge Railway) and it is not to be missed.  Hitachi Seaside Park also has some stunning blossoms this time of year. 

Those who like to hike may enjoy the large stone Buddha of Nokogiriyama or a day at Kamakura with the other, more popular, Buddha.  There is a lot more to do in Kamakura, but Nokogiriyama’s Buddha is bigger and more off the beaten path.  A great way to get to Nokoiriyama in Chiba is via the ferry leaving from Yokohama, heck, might as well stop in Yokohama for some Chinese food on the way home!  This is also enjoyable in the springtime.  Summer gets a bit hot!

Winter: In the winter months, the illuminations begin and WOW! they are spectacular.  Sagamiko Pleasure Forest is among my favorite, and although this is a schlep from the city, you can combine it with a visit to the often empty Sagamiko Onsen just outside the park. Yomiuri Land is another classic illumination experience, with it’s own fair share of truly bizarre, vintage style rides.  If you have the Japan Rail Pass then Nabana No Sato outside of Nagoya is definitely a wise decision.

Tokyo’s Christmas Markets aren’t much to write home about in my opinion… I’ve also bought a beautiful piece of woodwork there and had it crack horribly upon returning home to our warm apartment.  Disney is where you want to be to truly feel Christmas magic if that is what you’re missing!

If you want Disney in Tokyo, Caretta building in Shiodome has an incredible Disney themed tree display… it’s a huge sea of lights and it does not disappoint.

The Jigokudani snow monkey park outside of Shibu-Onsen is also a wise decision this time of year.  Be prepared for the long hike over somewhat slippery conditions!  We loved our overnight in Shibu-Onsen.  It is one of those cute towns where they give you a key and you go tub to tub outdoors in the freezing cold.

Spring: Some of my hobbies in the springtime include riding trains.   I was once featured on the popular program Hirunandesu! while riding the famed Izumi Railway/Kominato Railway lines across the Boso Peninsula of Chiba.  There are a series of amazing trains called the JR Joyful trains, which include my personal favorite: Resort Shirakami, which takes you up to the famed Juniko Twelve Lakes region of Aomori.  In the small town of Oji, here in Tokyo, there is another Sakura train that is also a total hoot to ride on all day long.  There are so many amazing stops along that train and it is stunningly beautiful when you catch the tracks in bloom.

At any given time, springtime into summer, Japan delivers massive flower fields which are extensive in terms of space and color.  Things to look into and see if your vacation coincides with blossoms include: Tambara Lavender, Hitachi Seaside Park, Ashikaga Flower Park, Showakinen Park, and Tobu Treasure Garden.

While Nakameguro is wildly popular during sakura season, you can find them all over the city.  At the small Tokyo Metro stop, Tameike-Sanno, there are a ton of trees that blanket the streets around the area, winding their way all the up towards the esteemed old Hotel Okura.

You are never out of luck in Japan (with the exception of New Years… this can be a little quiet).  There is always something to do or something to see… reach out to me via Instagram if you need some more suggestions.

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