Any self-respecting cheapo knows that walking is a tried and tested method of cutting down costs. You know the drill: shoes on, earphones in, head down and trudge to your destination—yen happily jingling in your pocket as you go. Tokyo is vast, yes, but that doesn’t mean everything worth seeing is separated by miles and miles of wasteland. In fact, it’s often the in-between bits, the city’s connective tissue, that can be most enlivening, and, it’s only by walking that you get to see them. Below, we’ve put together our six favorite Tokyo walks – the first three short, the rest a bit longer – together constituting a great introduction to the glories of Tokyo on foot.
The Shopping/Fashion/Glamour Walk
Length: 3.2 km
Time Necessary: 1-5 hours
First up we’ve got a glitter-doused romp through Harajuku, Omotesando and Shibuya—three of Tokyo’s most fashionable districts. Put your head down and you could easily complete this route in under an hour, though that would be to miss the point a little. Take your time and check out everything there is to see (and buy) along the way to really make the most of this urban walk.
Head to Harajuku Station and take the Takeshita Exit. You’ll emerge directly opposite Takeshita-dori, Harajuku’s main drag and the shiny neon heart of Japanese kawaii culture. Wander up the street and simply take it all in: the crepe sellers, Calbee Plus (purveyor of fresh from the fryer potato chips and tons of ingenious toppings), Daiso (a huge 100 yen store), cheap clothes and accessories sellers, and much, much more. It’s also a good idea to get off the main street a little and explore the various side-streets, where, again, there’s a lot of distinctly Harajuku sights to be seen.
When you’re done, negotiate your way to the end of Takeshita-dori and you’ll wind up on Meiji-dori. Turn right and you’ll soon spot Laforet Harajuku, a shopping complex famed as the spiritual home of Harajuku fashion. Even if a little outlandish for your own taste, it’s still a great place to browse. Opposite Laforet, on the corner of Meiji-dori and Omotesando, is Tokyu Plaza, a more conventional shopping complex that is also well worth a look in for Japanese and international brands alike. The mirrored, portal-like entrance will assure you you’re in the right place.
Now we’re on Omotesando, the closest Tokyo gets to a Haussmannian Boulevard. Omotesando is best known for its upmarket stores and the outlandish buildings they’re housed in. If you’re more interested in the buildings than what’s inside them, our guide to Omotesando’s modern architecture may be of use. If not, hit the shops and perhaps one of the area’s many independent cafes for a well-earned breather. Kiddy Land, a multi-floor toy shop, comes particularly recommended (whether you’re with kids or not) and Oriental Bizarre, a large high-quality souvenir store, is also not to be missed.
Reach the end of Omotesando and you’ll see Omotesando Station. From here, turn right and you’ll be on Aoyama-dori, a long stretch of road that leads to Shibuya. Flanking the road is an excellent array of sophisticated stores, perfect for window shopping if you’re on a budget. As you reach the road’s end, you’ll pass the United Nations University on your right, before the road begins to slope and descend into the maelstrom of Shibuya. Approaching from the rear of the station, head under the bridge and you’re in the heart of the action: Shibuya Crossing. From here, arterial roads spring out in all directions, with plenty of shopping options on each. There are no rules for shopping in Shibuya, but checking out some of the prodigious department stores (Shibuya 109 and Shibuya Hikarie particularly) as well as some of the hip vintage stores and record stores on the side streets is recommended.
For a similar more extended itinerary, check out our Shibuya to Harajuku and Meiji Jingu Shrine itinerary.
The Laid-Back History and Culture Walk
Length: 4.3 km
Time Necessary: 2-5 hours
We’ll next be exploring a part of Tokyo that, despite its close proximity to the city centre, is perhaps neglected a little. Starting in Jimbocho, we’ll be heading into the northern reaches of the Imperial Palace gardens and then up through Iidabashi and Kagurazaka, two great little neighbourhoods. It’s a relaxed walk, one for those wanting a hit of traditional, low-key Tokyo as well as a spot of history and culture along the way.
To begin, take a train to Jimbocho, otherwise known as Tokyo Book Town. When you get there, the reason for the title should be self-evident. The district is littered with bookstores of all stripes, from large chains to tiny independent joints. Handily, many of the stores in Jimbocho sell English books, typically at very reasonable prices. Have a browse and pick something up; there will be plenty of opportunities to sit and have a read later on.
Next, head eastwards along the main road that runs through the centre of Jimbocho. After about five minutes you’ll reach Kudanshita Station and slightly further on the moat of the Imperial Palace and the entrance gate to Kitanomaru Park. The park, actually the northern section of the Imperial Palace gardens, has a very open feeling to it, with plenty of space to roam, sit and relax. For a park of this caliber, it’s always surprisingly quiet, even on weekends. Now’s your chance to get out that book. If more stimulation is needed, the park is also home to the Science Museum and Nippon Budokan Hall, a legendary venue where the Beatles played their first and last gigs in Japan.
Exit the park the way you entered, cross the road and you’ll immediately be upon Yasukuni Shrine—the most controversial site in Japan. Enshrined at Yasukuni are all Japan’s war dead from the Meiji Restoration onward, including, crucially, those deemed war criminals. For the country’s nationalist right, the shrine is a point of pride and a symbol of Japanese greatness, for others, it is an unhappy reminder of a brutal past. Perhaps not the cheeriest of spots, but Yasukuni is great for a window into contemporary Japan and its relationship to its past.
From the shrine, head directly north and you’ll hit the river and Iidabashi Station. From the station, walk slightly eastwards into the Kagurazaka area—our final stop. Kagurazaka is a wonderfully quaint area, notable for its cobbled streets, relaxed vibe and the slightly unexpected but very welcome French influence. Stroll around and take it all in, stopping off at some of the artisanal shops and cozy cafes as you go. At once traditional and modern, Japanese and French, Kagurazaka has it all. Though not as flashy as other Tokyo locales, it’s the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon, as well as the ideal spot to conclude our walk.
The Rainbow Bridge Walk
Length: 4.3 km
Time Necessary: 1-3 hours
When you spend all of your time in the centre of the metropolis, it’s easy to forget that Tokyo is a port city (all that sushi has to come from somewhere, y’know) and that the water is but a train ride (or walk) away. Our next urban walking route—from Tamachi in the south of the city, over the water via the inimitable Rainbow Bridge and into Odaiba—brings the ocean clearly into focus. The views back over the city also make this a good route for a bit of perspective on the city itself—just try not to get too starry-eyed out there in the sea air. It’s a fairly short walk, making it a good one for late in the day, especially as the views at dusk are unbeatable.
First off, take a train to Tamachi Station (Yamanote Line, Keihin-Tōhoku Line) and leave through the main exit. From here, walk straight, passing over two canals as you go and after roughly five minutes you’ll be confronted by the looming bridge. This concrete and cars-heavy area isn’t going to make it onto any Tokyo postcards or tourist board propaganda in a hurry, but bear with us, it gets a whole lot more picturesque when you get up onto the bridge. To do so, enter the sort of lobby area at the base of the bridge tower, here there’s a choice of two elevators: one for the south side of the bridge, one for the north side. The north side looks towards the city, with a stellar view of Tokyo Tower and the Skytree, while the south side looks onto Odaiba and the curling expressway that juts out over the water. If you can’t decide—flip a coin.
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid crowds, the pedestrian route over the bridge—officially called the Rainbow Bridge Promenade—isn’t publicized too widely and so it’s rarely very busy. Still, the path can hardly be described a peaceful. The sound of roaring trains above you and speeding traffic to your side can be initially cacophonic, but you’ll soon get used to it. Indeed, for this writer, the excitement of the dissonant, urban surroundings paired with the views made the experience all the more memorable. And what great views they are. From either side, the sweeping vistas are spectacular and unmistakably “Tokyo”. Though the metal grating does impede photo taking a little, two viewing platforms make life a little easier.
The length of the bridge should take you no more than half an hour, unless you’re a particularly sluggish walker or keen photographer. As you approach Odaiba, the path will begin to slope downwards towards terra firma. It is possible to loop back under the bridge and head directly back to Tokyo on the opposite side of the bridge. A better idea, however, is to follow the ramp down to the head of Odaiba Marine Park. The park skirts the shore for 5 km, with great views back towards the bridge and the city beyond.
The (Modernist) Architecture Walk
Length: 10 km
Time Necessary: 3–6 hours
We’re throwing you in at the deep end with the first of our longer Tokyo walks, a trek through east Tokyo on the hunt for some of the city’s finest architecture. We’ll be starting in Ueno Park, before heading eastwards over the river into Ryogoku, then onto Tokyo Station and down into Ginza. Eschewing what might be expected from a tour of Tokyo architecture—shrines, temples, etc.—we’ll instead be focusing on some spectacular works of modernism (with one notable exception), from a time when Tokyo was at the forefront of inventing the future.
Our walk begins with The National Museum of Western Art, French archmodernist Le Corbusier’s only East Asian building. The quasi-Brutalist facade of speckled concrete is brilliant in its graceful simplicity and the interior is just as impressive: a free-flowing, sun-drenched lesson in how to build a museum.
From here, we’re heading south-east through Kuramae, a neighborhood which effortlessly balances old-school charm and a creative, contemporary vibe, over the Sumida River and into Ryogoku. The area is sumo ground-zero, though that’s not why we’re here.
Looming over Ryogoku is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, a building that looks like it’s been abandoned by some far more advanced alien race. Built by Kiyonori Kikutake, it is perhaps the apex of Metabolism, a highly influential Japanese architectural movement that reveled in new forms and invented a whole architectural language of its own. Ironically, this hulk of unabashed futurism plays host to a museum glorifying Tokyo’s Edo past.
Now you’ve got a taste for Metabolism, you’re going to need more. Luckily, that’s where we’re heading, but not before a stop-off at Tokyo Station. The walk from Ryogoku takes you through Nihonbashi, a commercial district with plenty of imposing Western-style banks and hotels, all, however, dwarfed by Tokyo Station itself. The station’s early 20th-century design comes in stark contrast to the other buildings on our walk, though is no less worthy of inclusion.
From here, we’re heading south into upmarket Ginza, back on the trail of modernism. There are two notable buildings in Ginza that can’t be ignored: the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Building and the Nakagin Capsule Tower—two extraordinary examples of the audacity of the Metabolists. Each building has a very different look, but both share the same core principle; that of being able to grow, like nature, almost indefinitely. Great buildings to finish up our walking tour of Tokyo architecture.
The Old-Meets-New Walk
Length: 7 km
Time Necessary: 2–5 hours
Up next, a Tokyo walk showcasing Tokyo’s past and present, one taking in temples, shrines, history, culture and art. Beginning at tourist-heavy Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, we’ll then be heading through Ueno on the hunt for two excellent galleries, before rolling through Yanaka Cemetery to the north and finally onto the beautiful Nezu Shrine. As ever, keep in mind that the stretches between our points of special interest—the modest streets and alleys that make up the majority of the city—can be just as insightful as anything else.
So, to Asakusa. From the station, follow the perennial crowds to locate Sensoji Temple—a temple among the oldest and most popular in the city. Crucially, in spite of the crowds (or perhaps because of them?), Sensoji is a lot of fun. As you approach from the outer Kaminarimon Gate, down the souvenir-stall-flanked avenue and onto the temple itself, you’re surrounded by the colors, smells and sights of traditional Japan. Even the most cynical among us can’t help but be taken in by it all. We can’t linger too long, however. There’s walking to be done.
From Asakusa, it’s on to Ueno, a walk of roughly 30 minutes. To do so, locate the Asakusa View Hotel, the only real high-rise in the area. From here, head directly west, along narrow back roads home to little more than apartments and local stores, but quaint all the same and typical of Tokyo. You’ll eventually emerge at a jumble of entangled roads and expressways, with Ueno Station and Ueno Park on the other side. It’s not particularly important where you enter the park from, though after the requisite strolling, find your way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
Although not mandatory, a quick look around is recommended, especially as it’s free (except special exhibitions). Throughout the year, the museum plays host to exhibitions from past luminaries and present innovators, from Japan and abroad both. Be careful not to overdo it, however, as our next stop is another excellent gallery, SCAI the Bathhouse.
To get there, find the small road that runs through the park and follow it northwards through a pleasantly salubrious neighborhood, which will eventually lead you to SCAI. Since opening in 1993, the gallery has acted as a conduit for big-name and rising talent alike, making it one of Tokyo’s most well-respected contemporary art institutions. Fitting nicely with the theme of our walk, this hub for cutting edge art, as the name suggests, is housed inside an old bathhouse; a contrast between past and present that never feels incongruous. From SCAI, it’s a five-minute walk northwards to our next destination: Yanaka Cemetery.
You’ll be relieved to note that Yanaka Cemetery is in no way morbid and spookiness is to a minimum. In fact, the vast cemetery exudes serenity and calm, especially in the spring as the cherry trees bloom into life. Get off the main road and wander the paths that crisscross the grounds, just be careful not to get lost amidst the 7,000 graves. When you’ve had your fill, exit the park the way you entered and walk south-west towards Nezu Shrine; a route that will again take you through a neighborhood typical of the city.
Though not as large or lively as Sensoji, Nezu must rank among Tokyo’s most beautiful. Colored by deep reds and glittering golds as lavish as you’ll find anywhere, the shrine is opulent but not gaudy and an incredibly peaceful location to spend some time, as well as the perfect final stop for our walk.
If you like the area or are staying nearby, we have more walks for you – check out our other Ueno walking guide.
Tokyo Greenways – The Forgotten River Walk(s)
Time Necessary: ?
To cap us off, we’re going a little left-field. This isn’t one specific walk (although we’ll offer a few recommendations), but a collection of many, all crisscrossing Tokyo and largely unheard of. What we’re alluding to here are the miles upon miles of subterranean rivers and streams that flow under the city, all largely forgotten or ignored. As Tokyo bulldozed its way into the latter half of the twentieth century, Faustian developers had no qualms with burying waterways under concrete to make room for roads, train tracks and buildings, leaving them to gradually fade from public memory. This wasn’t an isolated affair by any means, it happened all over the city, something very apparent when you compare a contemporary map of Tokyo with one from the Edo era—the blue lines simply vanish.
While knowledge of these secret waterways is limited, it’s not extinct. In fact, some are obsessed with them, including, evidently, the author of Culvert Maniac!—a book released in 2015. But why are we including them in a list of Tokyo walks you ask? Well, because, many of these underground streams and rivers are marked on the surface by (often very beautiful) paths and walking routes. Finding and walking these routes is a topographical adventure like no other and a brilliant way to see parts of the city that you’d otherwise never think to explore. The majority of the paths slice through suburban Tokyo, allowing the intrepid walker a peek into a side of Tokyo that tourists rarely see.
As said, there are thousands of these paths across the city. You could easily spend an entire day (or lifetime) finding and walking the paths, though a nice idea would be to select one (preferably in an area you’ve never been to before) and let that act as a jump off for exploring the surrounding area while you’re there. Once you’re done, look up a new one and do the same all over again. A great resource for finding these paths can be found here, where there’s a good list of recommended examples and tips on how to find a path using Google Maps. A couple of our favorites include the so-called Jiyugaoka Green Road—a brilliantly verdant path in Setagaya—and the similarly beautiful Tachiaigawa Green Road in Meguro.
More Tokyo Walks, by Neighborhood
To finish up, we’ll leave you with some walking tours and some more location based ideas:
- Ikebukuro walking guide – one of Tokyo’s main and busiest central neighbourhoods
- Mejiro walking guide – a calmer but fairly central area, a stones throw from Ikebukuro
- Takadanobaba Walking Guide – a lively and cheapo friendly student town, close to Waseda international university and Shinjuku.
- A Half-Day Walking Tour of Daikanyama and Nakameguro – close to the glare and glitz of Shibuya, but infinitely more cool and away from the tourists! Explore where the real Tokyoites often head at weekends.
- 1-Day Tour : Tsukiji–Asakusa–Akihabara – check three of Tokyo’s most popular tourist areas off your list in one day.
- 1-Day Tour: Asakusa–Ginza–Tokyo Station Area – an alternative to the “old meets new” walk above, covering some of the same ground and ending up Tokyo’s high-end shopping area, Ginza.
- Rainbow Bridge – for One of the Best Views of Tokyo
- 12 Tokyo Walking Tours to Join