Roppongi—the heart of boutiques, brands and top designers. It may not seem like it has much to offer the cheapo in us, but deep in the depths there are some delights that won’t cost you a penny, and make for far more interesting stories than what’s in your shopping bag…
Without further adieu, here are the top 10 free things to do in Roppongi:
1) Look at life through a lens at Fujifilm Square
Fujifilm Square is a showcase for all things Fuji—with the history of photography, a hands-on showroom and weekly exhibitions all open to the public for free. With many companies keen to tempt visitors with all-in-one spaces, this is a decent effort, with a good combination of activities. The FujiFilm Photo Salon has weekly exhibits ranging from National Geographic to Pictorialism to Animal Locomotion, and the schedule is available well in advance so you can check what’s on. Touch Fujifilm lets you try out all the newest gadgets and cameras from 12pm – 7pm on weekdays and 10am – 7pm on weekends. Last but maybe not least (depending on your love of historical photography) is the Photo History Museum which has interactive replicas as well as an extensive history of photography and the development of the camera.
2) Learn about drastic dedication at Nogi Shrine
For those with a taste for the macabre, Nogi Shrine is the one to visit. Dedicated to General Nogi Maresuke and his wife, the shrine and adjacent house are home to some dark history and chilling artifacts. When Emperor Meiji died on December 13th 1912, the couple decided to prove their honor in the most dedicated of ways: joining him in death. The General performed seppuku (disembowelment) whilst his wife slit her throat with a knife. The house in which they took their lives is next to the shrine, and is only open to visitors for two days a year: the eve and anniversary of their death. You can, however, glimpse a bloodstained shirt from a raised walkway, if you so please. If you like to combine your dark-tourism with some bargain-hunting (and who-doesn’t?), there is a popular flea market on the 4th Sunday of every month.
3) Face your fear with Maman
A must-see in Roppongi—especially for the arachnophobes among us—is Louise Bourgeois’ Maman. At a terrifying 30 ft tall and 33 ft wide, the stainless steel and bronze statue is the stuff of nightmares, but thankfully won’t be chasing you anywhere. A popular meeting place and great for pictures, Maman is iconic in Roppongi and is located at Roku Roku Plaza. If you stand beneath this mammoth creation, you can see the 26 marble eggs and consider the artists ode to her mother, a weaver in Paris, with her encapsulation of weaving, spinning, nature and protection.
4) Reach nirvana at Zojoji Temple
Built in 1393 and moved to its current location in 1598, the Zojoji Shrine is home to the oldest wooden structure in Tokyo and can help you reach a state of zen with a few short steps. The wooden structure in question is the Sangedatsumon Gate and this is the key to your inner peace. The name translates to san—three, and gedatsu—moksha, the Indian philosophy of freedom and release. Step through this gate and you will be released from the three passions which prevent inner peace: greed, hatred and foolishness. Since that only takes a few seconds, once you have reveled in your new found state, you can enjoy the 15-ton bell rung twice a day, admire the Himalayan cedar planted by Ulyssess S.S. Grant, (18th president of the United States) and take some opportune photos with Tokyo Tower in the background. There is also a garden for unborn children with dozens of carefully decorated jizo statues, each representing a child who passed away before their parents—so be sure to keep it respectful in this section of the temple.
5) Hang out with spacefish at Mohri Garden
A 400-year-old resting spot that’s perfect for lunch, with beautiful views and even cherry blossom. There’s no denying Mohri pond is a great spot. There is one thing that makes this pond unusual though, and that’s spacefish. In 2003, 10,000 medaka fish were welcomed to the central pond by Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri. These little silvery fish were once common in flooded rice paddies but have suffered from a susceptibility to pesticides and fertilizer run-off. These ones, however, are the much-studied descendants of those that orbited the earth on the Space Shuttle Columbia as part of research into extra-terrestrial reproduction in 1994. The release of these tiddlers into the pond was an effort to reflect Roppongi Hill’s unique blend of Japanese traditions with 21st-century urban lifestyles—basically spacefish in a beautiful pond—what’s not to like?
6) Enjoy the view at Keyakizaka Dori (with added illuminations in winter)
It may be best when partnered with the winter illuminations, but it’s a great vantage point without, offering great views of busy streets and Tokyo Tower. Although only on for a month and finishing at Christmas, the illuminations are just too good not to mention. Over 1.2 million LEDs light up the trees lining Keyakizaki Dori in a breathtaking sight, with Tokyo Tower glowing in the distance to create a stunning view. In 2015, there were two color-themes: ‘Snow & Blue’ and a Candle & Red’, both of which looked amazing, with the street fading between the two. Secret hearts were hidden around the street and only illuminated once an hour—making it a great date spot in the most romantic month of the year (for Japan that is).
Roppongi 6, Minato, Tokyo | Access: Roppongi Station (Hibiya, Oedo lines)
7) Stroll among the cherry trees and meet Hachiko’s owner at Aoyama-reien
Japan’s first public cemetery might not have been top of your list—but it has a lot to offer. The winding path is filled with cherry blossoms during hanami season and are a great place for a walk or a picnic. Locals use the paths to cut between Roppongi and Aoyama and its a really nice area to while away the afternoon. The cemetery is also home to some famous figures and beautiful gravestones. John Manjiro, a shipwrecked fisherman who was also the first Japanese person to go to America is interned here. Another famous resident is Professor Ueno, the owner awaited by Hachiko at Shibuya Station for 9 years following his sudden death in 1925.
8) Achieve success in life at Atago Shrine
Another shrine, another promise, another entertaining story. Atago Shrine was built in 1603 and is a Shinto shrine originally built to protect the local residents from fire as it was an unusually high vantage point. This elevation requires a set of particularly challenging stairs—steep, numerous and ancient—they are a sight to behold, and the site of a nice shogun-era story. A long, long time ago, in a place not so far away (right here in fact), a young samurai climbed the steps on horseback to hand-deliver plum blossoms to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu—a feat indeed. More of a feat, however, was getting his poor horse down the steps (a hilarious image which could easily have ended disastrously) which, legend has it, took 45 minutes. The shogun was impressed and the samurai advanced up the ranks—creating the superstition that conquering the steps will bring success (no need for horses though, don’t worry). So much so in fact, they are known as Shussei no Ishiden—the stone staircase of success. So if hard work and networking don’t seem to be getting you where you need to be, why not give this pretty shrine a visit? Just be sure to watch your step.
Recommended Tokyo Accommodation
9) Challenge yourself with art
Although home to numerous art galleries (unfortunately not so free) like the National Art Center and Mori Art Museum which form the Roppongi Art Triangle, Roppongi is also home to numerous independent galleries and the 21 21 Design Sight. These can be a great way to find unusual and backstreet art in the center of the city. Two popular spots are Gallery Side 2 and Hiromiyoshii which both have busy schedules and good exhibition spaces. Don’t limit it to these two though, a wander around this area will lead you past numerous galleries all with something unique and different to offer.
Hiromiyoshii Roppongi: https://tokyocheapo.com/place/hiromiyoshii-roppongi
Gallery Side 2 Roppongi: https://tokyocheapo.com/place/gallery-side-2
10) Follow your sweettooth and learn about wagashi at Toraya
If you’re going to learn about traditional sweets, you may as well do so at the best known-name in Japanese confectionery. Originally started in Kyoto, Toraya has over 500 years of experience in creating fresh wagashi (small sweets) for beautiful gifts or indulgent treats. This branch houses not only a shop and cafe, but a gallery where you can learn about the history of wagashi including the original moulds and tools used in the process. And although this doesn’t fall under the free section—it is a brilliant place to try seasonal and traditional sweets… you might as well put your new-found knowledge to use as you enjoy the delights of the cafe.
Pro tip: You can get to Roppongi any way at all—on foot, by train or by city bus—but for those who might want to double up on the sightseeing, there’s also a Hop on, Hop Off Tokyo Sky Bus that takes in most of Tokyo’s major sightseeing spots, including Roppongi.