Japan is famous for robots, Godzilla and lots of neon, so embrace the clichés, hop on the bandwagon and get that only in Japan experience.
Visiting Japan is a tale of two cities: a modern, anime-filled, neon-lit one and an ancient temple–filled one, to be specific. If you’re looking to embrace the kitsch side of Japan, we suggest you leave the temples to Kyoto (or Kamakura) and take on Tokyo in all of its brightly colored glory. Flashy street signs, robot battles, bullet trains and cute kawaii clothing—it’s basically all of the colors, all of the time in this place. Contemporary Japanese culture has a thousand strands, and exploring them can take you down a few rabbit holes to say the least. While some things are written off as tourist traps, you’ll be surprised at how many locals try them out too, so forget the haters and embrace the OTT side of Tokyo with this only in Japan itinerary—you certainly won’t forget it.
Mario Kart | Maid cafe | Akihabara | Revolving sushi | Oedo Onsen Monogatari
Spend the day exploring Akihabara, Tokyo’s gamer paradise, home to retro shops, arcades, cafes and more. If you want to get your geek on, this is the place to go.
Go real-life street karting for a Tokyo tour
Having appeared out of nowhere and quickly become one of the most popular activities in the city, these copyright-troubled karts are a great introduction to Tokyo. As long as you have the right paperwork and a sensible head on your costumed-shoulders, you can tour the city as a character of your choosing, seeing the sights and living out your very own Mario dreams. The most common tour from Akihabara includes Tokyo Station, Ueno, Asakusa and Tokyo Sky Tree, so you’ll be getting some good sightseeing spots ticked off. See our guide for full go-karting details.
Try a maid cafe (or a Gundam one)
One of those Japan institutions, maid cafes have created quite a name for themselves as a “weird Japan” experience. While some people find the whole thing creepy, some love the novel experience of being served, fed or photographed with a cute maid—they’ll even clean your ears for you (if that’s what you’re into).
If you prefer your themes to be more robotic (and we don’t mean their smiles) then head over to the Gundam Cafe instead. Right next to Akihabara Station, it offers themed food, plenty of unique souvenirs and an unusual bathroom. Food is reasonably priced for a themed restaurant and has new limited edition and seasonal treats introduced throughout the year.
Explore Akihabara: Otaku heaven
Spend some time with your feet back on the ground and explore the arcade games of your childhood (or adulthood). Spots like Super Potato and the Sega arcade will have all your purchasing and playing needs covered, with countless other manga and anime shops to visit nearby. There’s a seven-floor sex shop to visit, anime cars to spot and lots of unusual characters wandering the streets (including you)—just take your pick of the fun, free things to do all around you.
If you find you have time to kill, head on over to the nearby Kappabashi Street, the home of plastic food in Tokyo.
Fill up on conveyor-belt sushi
The stuff of Tokyo legend, conveyor-belt sushi (or kaitenzushi) is actually pretty common, and while it won’t be Michelin-starred, it can be delicious as well as novel. There are a few chains to choose from in Akihabara, with the closest being Ganso Sushi—a popular and affordable option with plates starting at 108 yen. If you’ve found yourself walking a little further afield (in the direction of Ueno) Sushiro is another colorful chain with good-quality fish. Both have English menus (be they paper or electronic) and are a good way to discover what fish you do and don’t like before trying a higher-end spot.
Soak it off at Oedo Onsen Mongatari (and say hello to Gundam)
Getting naked is a quintessential Japanese pastime, and at this themed onsen complex you can do it in style (here are some beginner tips). The Edo-style Oedo Onsen Mongatari includes traditional clothing and has gender-separated indoor baths as well as a mixed outdoor footbath/stream situation. There’s a food hall with festival games and it turns the evening into a bit of an adventure—perfect if you want to relax and take your time (quite literally) testing the waters. If you want a more traditional experience, here are some great standard onsen in Tokyo.
Either on your way or before heading home you can stop off at Odaiba city (a 15-minute walk) and admire the giant Unicorn Gundam statue. In the evenings there are light shows every half hour between 5:30 pm and 9:30 pm, so try and aim for one of those.
Harajuku | Purikura | Shibuya Crossing | Blue ramen | Karaoke
Fashion and food are the highlights of Day 2, with some truly Tokyo twists. Think rainbows, quirky styles and colorful ramen—not to mention your chance to try karaoke.
Style it out in Harajuku
The home of fashion, Harajuku is a shopping haven for those into all the most unusual styles. As well as being the go-to for more extreme styles (think steampunk and lolita) it’s got plenty of shops selling more high-street styles too. In fact, plenty of brands use this area to trial new styles, so you might see some unusual stuff here before it hits the regular streets. Stroll through the sock shops, admire all things kawaii and be sure to try out some of the outrageous food. From the famous crepes to rainbow cotton candy, Harajuku food is as eye-catching as the clothing.
Pose for purikura
Once you’ve bagged all your new outfits, head to the basement opposite McDonald’s (way less creepy than it sounds, we promise) and preserve your memories in the photobooths. While you may remember the photobooths of the rest of the world—four shots, maybe black and white—nothing will prepare you for these. Put simply, the best rule for purikura is to go all out: be ridiculous, copy the poses, strike your own and then go crazy with the decorating. Try to have an easy-to-type email so you can send yourself a free digital (at most booths, but often timed and weirdly stressful) as well as the printed versions. They’re actually stickers, so divide them accordingly using the scissors provided and decide where to put them – after you’ve marvelled at your terrifying ‘beauty’ face, that is.
See the famous Shibuya Scramble and shop at 109
Only a short train ride or a pleasant walk from Harajuku, Shibuya is the heart of the city (well, one of its many hearts anyway). Most famous for its busy intersection, evening is the best time to see it—with glowing neon signs, the first wave of office workers heading home and the promise of a drink nearby. View it from the train station bridge (head towards the Inokashira Line), the heavily guarded Starbucks window or the top of Shibuya 109, or try these spots. Standing at the edge of the station-side crossing with Shibuya 109 behind you is prime selfie position—just try not to get in people’s way. If you want another fashion hit, try Shibuya 109 – it has a high store turnover so only the most fashionable remain and check out some bonus things to do nearby.
Slurp on some blue ramen
Ramen is the go-to Japanese dish, but turn it up a notch with a blue tint for an unusual dinner. Previously located in Oshiage, Kipposhi has moved their unusual dish to Shibuya, and it’s worth a try. Using natural colourants the owner (with rather unnatural pink hair) was inspired by the Hawaiian sea. The ramen is light with a chicken broth and surprisingly tasty. If you want a regular bowl instead, we suggest heading to Kugatsudo for a cafe feel, or Ichiran for the individual-booth, custom-order system.
Kill it at karaoke (the one from the movie)
So karaoke is a hit-list item to start with, but why not up the Japan points and do it in the very joint where they filmed the Lost in Translation scene? Karaoke Kan is a popular chain across Tokyo, but this one in Shibuya tops them all. Ok, to be fair, it looks like most other places, but you’ll know it’s special, and that’s what counts. If you want the specific rooms, then legend has it that 601 and 602 are the ones to ask for—and why not include the all-you-can-drink option while you’re at it? Of course, there are countless other karaoke spots to try if this is too busy.
And if you want indulge in more real-life movie trivia, try the Gonpachi restaurant from Kill Bill.
Bullet train | Cup Noodle Museum | Kabukicho | Robot Restaurant | Izakaya | Golden Gai
Day 3 takes you on a mini trip out of Tokyo but back in time for tea. It’s a day of technology—from world-changing ramen to the fastest trains (and some robot battles too).
Shell out for the Shinkansen
If you’re craving a chance to try the famous Shinkansen (bullet trains) but aren’t leaving Tokyo and its surrounds, this is the way to do it. From Tokyo or Shinagawa Station you can travel to Shin-Yokohama for around ¥3,000 (book an unreserved seat). The journey only lasts 18 or 11 minutes, but it’s a taste of the high-life, nonetheless.
Here are some other shorter Shinkansen trips to try if you’re keen for more than 20 minutes.
Create your own Cup Noodle
If you want to add your own stamp to a staple of Japanese culture, then designing your own Cup Noodle is a treat. At the dedicated museum in Yokohama, you can try all things noodle related: learn about the history, make your own from scratch, eat at the noodle bazaar and, best of all, make a personalised cup. While the less creatively gifted of us may find it a tad disheartening when small children create works of art beside our own not quite right characters, it’s fun nonetheless. You can take your decorated cup through the filling and packaging process and even carry it home in an inflated pouch.
If you have time for both, or prefer your ramen without the cup, you can visit to Shin-Yokohama’s other ramen museum whose Showa-style theme is pretty impressive.
Keep cool in Kabukicho’s neon streets
Once you’re back into Tokyo (by regular train or the bullet kind), head straight to Shinjuku, specifically the seedy area of Kabukicho. An aged entertainment district, it is now the go-to area for all things sketch. Sex shops, escort services and hostess bars sit alongside coffee shops and restaurants, all watched over by the area’s resident monster. Head towards Toho Cinema for a sight of Godzilla himself. If you’re lucky you’ll hear him roar. Read up on Kabukicho before you go, there are things to avoid, but in general just enjoy the neon. Lastly, head up the Toho escalators for a good view of the street below.
Rock up to the Robot Restaurant
Probably the most famous crazy Tokyo thing there is: the Robot Restaurant show is on many a bucket list thanks to the pure insanity of it all. Watch robot spiders and sharks battle it out, have your eyes burned by the pure brightness of it all and get so bewildered you can barely hold it together to clap at the right time—all in the name of fun. Tickets can be bought at the door, but reserve ahead and save some yen – we have a full guide to getting Robot Restaurant tickets here. The show is kitsch, touristy and completely over the top, but it is one hell of an experience.
Dinner: Choose from scary, Showa or school days
A night in an izakaya is the quintessential experience—part bar, part restaurant—you can eat and drink for hours while you meet your (probably drunk) table mates. Check out the all-you-can-drink (or eat) deals and settle in for a night of fun. The perk of Hanbey, a popular izakaya chain, is the Showa theme, which means old-timey posters, retro toys and a great atmosphere. Food is reasonable and you can try all sorts of izakaya fare from yakitori to edamame, perfect for soaking up the beer.
Alternatively, if you like to be a little bit terrified while you eat, head to the Lock Up—one of Tokyo’s most well-known themed restaurants. Here you can enjoy dinner in a prison set-up, complete with monsters, experiment-themed food and plenty of creepy happenings throughout the evening. If you’re after something a bit more tame, try the elementary-school themed Rokunen Yonkumi—it’s got all-you-can-eat sweets and a school test to try your luck on.
Round off the night at Golden Gai
The poorly kept secret of Shinjuku, Golden Gai may not be OTT Tokyo (more classic Showa), but some of the bars are pretty intense. Whether you’re into rock music, a hospital theme or some furry green walls, you never know what you’ll find in the alleys of Golden Gai. There are over 100 bars to choose from, so enjoy exploring. Just be aware that not all spots accept foreigners and some have cover charges (but both things are usually clearly shown on doors).
If this version of Tokyo sounds like your worst nightmare, or if you’re a bit too #traveller for the neon sights, why not try our alternative itinerary to Tokyo? Foodies can also check out the culinary guide, which tours the city by taste buds alone (well, almost).
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