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.

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