The Best Things to Do in Tokyo According to a Local

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Tokyo is meant to be confusing. More than 400 years ago, it was a castle town surrounding what is now the Imperial Palace, its alleyways designed to confound potential invaders. The alleyways remain but today they’re lined with restaurants, bars and shrines, forming a streetscape that defies planning and confounds visitors (take heart, even locals get lost). We asked Kirsty Munro to share her top tips on the best things to do in Tokyo.

Omo5 Tokyo Otsuka by Hosino Resorts

When friends visit, I recommend boutique stay OMO5, where the rooms combine modern and traditional Japanese design. It’s in the lively Otsuka neighbourhood, on the Yamanote train line that loops around the city; a prepaid IC card available from ticket machines at stations lets you tap to hop on and off trains and buses.

About 10 minutes walk away, Michelin-starred Sosakumenkobo Nakiryu is excellent. While there are 200 Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo, they’re not all expensive. At Nakiryu the specialty is Dan Dan noodles (tantanmen) but I usually get the Tokyo classic shoyu soy sauce ramen – chicken broth with noodles, bamboo shoots and thick slices of chashu pork. It opens at 11.30am for lunch but people start lining up at least 30 minutes before. Like everything in Tokyo, the line moves quickly.

Trunk (Kushi)

About 20 minutes on the Yamanote line takes you to Shibuya, the centre of neon lights and new trends. At Trunk(Kushi), a few minutes walk from Shibuya Crossing, enjoy authentic yakitori without the chain-smokers and scrawled hiragana menus of other local spots.

In fact, you’ll find hot yakitori and ice-cold beer near most train stations. I often meet friends for drinks around Dogenzaka, a street that runs west from Shibuya Station. At Mikkeller Tokyo you can sit outside with a craft beer but if it’s a celebration, we go to The SG Club near Shibuya Kitaya Park. The ground floor is Guzzle, a fun bar with a great selection of cocktails. I love the Lemons Sour, which is hard lemonade with Bombay gin, lemongrass and lemon verbena. Speakeasy Sip in the basement has even more adventurous drinks.

After moving to Tokyo, I lived north of Ueno Station, where the streets retain the atmosphere of the Edo period. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I walk from Ueno Park to Nezu Shrine and along the way, I drop by Kayaba Coffee (6-1-29 Yanaka, Taitō; +81 3 5832 9896), which opened in 1938. A local non-profit group recently renovated the space, keeping the exterior intact but adding modern conveniences such as a La Marzocco espresso machine. I go upstairs to sit on the tatami mats and have its very good take on the classic egg sando.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Growing up in Sydney didn’t prepare me for Tokyo’s humidity. In high summer I try to escape it by heading to Todoroki Valley, a few train stops south-west of Shibuya. Wooden boardwalks skirt the narrow Yazawa River, which is shaded by a thick canopy of trees that keep the valley several degrees cooler than the rest of the city. The walk takes you past a waterfall, several temples and a traditional tea shop where you can grab a cold drink.

On Tokyo’s eastern side, about 30 minutes by train from Otsuka, Kiyosumi Shirakawa was once an unfashionable, industrial part of the city. Now it’s buzzing with cafés and craft breweries, bookshops and galleries, along with traditional sumo stables and artisan workshops. Drop in at Tokyobike Tokyo to rent wheels and explore; it’s a 10-minute cycle to the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in Kiba Park. 

High above the city streets, Tokyo’s rooftops are another world. On top of the Seibu department store in Ikebukuro, one stop from Otsuka Station, there’s a reproduction of Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny – complete with picturesque bridge and a pond full of waterlilies. In summer, the city’s rooftop beer gardens make the most of the long days. My favourite is at Lumine, a department store in Shinjuku, that goes all-out with a cinema under the stars, DIY barbecue and fairy lights. Sipping a cocktail served in a whole pineapple while Japanese indie films play and couples pose next to a fairground carousel is a bit confusing – but that’s Tokyo.

Explore a playground for grown-ups

Tokyu Kabukichō Tower food hall, Japan

Shinjuku’s Kabukichō entertainment district hasn’t always enjoyed a glowing reputation. But that began to change when the Shinjuku Toho Building cinema and hotel complex opened in 2015, marked by a giant Godzilla figure that watches over the labyrinthine streets below. Last year, Tokyu Kabukichō Tower debuted nearby with two hotels, restaurants, live-music venues, public artworks and amusement arcades, cementing the area as a top destination for shopping and nightlife. The food hall on the second floor – all retro neon signs, colourful paper lanterns, authentic street food and DJ events – is straight out of an anime. Head upstairs to Namco Tokyo to play family-friendly interactive arcade games.

Test your sake skills

Eureka! sake bar

Aficionados and novices alike should head to Eureka! sake bar in Nishiazabu, about 15 minutes by taxi from Shibuya. The seasonal menu of small plates has been designed by owner and sake sommelier Marie Chiba to showcase her collection of rare and small-batch sakes. Pick a few dishes, such as karaage fried chicken, yellowtail tartare or signature curry, and let Chiba pair them with the ideal drop. With only 12 seats, it's best to book ahead but there's also a small standing area for drop-ins.

Rediscover Shibuya

Hotel Indigo Tokyo Shibuya, Japan

Tokyo’s centre of street fashion, music and skate culture continues to offer reasons to visit. Base yourself at Hotel Indigo Tokyo Shibuya, a boutique property with rooms that overlook the famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing and a rooftop bar to take it all in. No time to climb Mount Fuji? You can eat it instead at Shorakuen Tea Salon & Boutique. This tiny tea shop has a Wes Anderson vibe, with plush pink velvet banquettes and staff dressed as 1930s maids, but it’s the extraordinary cakes that steal the show. Try a topographically accurate, scale model of Mount Fuji or a number of other famous mountains in Japan, filled with sponge, fruit and ganache. Online reservations are essential.

Shorakuen Tea Salon & Boutique, Japan

Japan may be the land of therapeutic hot springs (onsen) but the capital is currently in the throes of a sauna obsession. One of the most stylish and user-friendly is Saunas in Shibuya. With nine sauna rooms, four cold baths and a private garden, it’s a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle. Dine on vegetarian dishes at the on-site restaurant, overseen by chef Yusuke Nomura of the Michelin-starred Shojin Ryori Daigo.

… and its surroundings

Fuglen Tokyo Tomigaya

A few steps from the frenetic pace of Shibuya, the Tomigaya neighbourhood has a laid-back atmosphere with boutiques selling retro furniture, vintage clothing and art books, plus some of the best coffee in the capital. Browse Fuglen Tokyo Tomigaya, an outpost of Oslo’s Fuglen café that serves coffee and cocktails in a cosy, woodpanelled space. Nearby, Coffee Supreme Tokyo offers strong flat whites with a side of local artworks and a soundtrack of ‘90s indie music (co-owner Hiroki Matsumoto is a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan). After refuelling, bibliophiles should check out Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers for new and used books and magazines.

On the other side of Shibuya, Nakameguro has a hip collection of indie fashion shops, galleries and restaurants lining the Meguro River. Head for 3110NZ by LDH Kitchen, a small gallery behind a mysterious, organically shaped door. Designed by New York collective Snarkitecture, the venue hosts free exhibitions during the day. At night, it turns into an exclusive eight-seat sushi counter by renowned restaurant Sushi Saito.

Immerse yourself in art and design

Borderless digital art museum, Japan

Taking up several city blocks, the Azabudai Hills complex near Roppongi opened in late 2023 as a “modern urban village”. Here, you’ll find the latest iteration of the renowned Borderless digital art museum by Japanese art collective teamLab, featuring more than 50 immersive works that combine interactive LEDs, projections and soundscapes to create a world of artistic expression. Seek out Microcosmoses, Beyond Borders, in which reflective spheres move along a winding path in a mirrored infinity room, then take a break at the on-site En Tea House, where projected flowers bloom and dance in your bowl of matcha tea. Buy timed-entry tickets to the museum online up to two months in advance and select the earliest entry to beat the crowds. Once inside, you can stay as long as you like.

Azabudai Hills complex, Japan

Nearby, you’ll find a food market, the Janu Tokyo hotel (part of the Aman Group) and some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, including relocated Michelin-starred Florilège and a branch of café % Arabica. But the architecture alone makes the trip worthwhile: London-based Heatherwick Studio designed Garden Plaza, a series of undulating concrete forms that appear to grow out of the streetscape. The complex is connected directly to Kamiyachō Station.

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Image credit: Akshay Nanavati. Shinichi Segi, Sergio Delle Vedove

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