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. But did you know walking can also be—and I don’t mean to alarm anyone here—pleasurable?
A radical notion, we know, but go with us here. 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 three of our favorite short (under 5 km) Tokyo walking routes, 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.
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.