Tokyo’s Points of Interest: 9 Places to See in Japan’s Greatest City
Planning a vacation in the Land of the Rising Sun? Japan has a lot more to offer than its vast selection of video games and affordable cars — there’s a rich and awe-inspiring cultural heritage that dates back millennia. And there’s few better places to experience this history and culture than in Japan’s capital, Tokyo.
Tokyo competes on a global scale with cities like London, New York City, and Paris. When it comes to its commerce, art, and tourism, this fast-paced city doesn’t just stand out in Japan but in the entire world. No bucket list is complete without a trip to this one-of-a-kind metropolis. Here are nine areas worth checking out while you’re there.
1. Imperial Palace
Clearly, the first place you should start your trip is at the Imperial Palace. Why is that, you ask? For starters, the palace complex features a breathtaking park, museums, archives, and the palace itself. The entire compound is so luxurious, it’s fit for a king (or an emperor, as the case may be). The current emperor of Japan, Akihito, still resides in the palace, with the rest of the imperial family living in the surrounding residences.
Additionally, architecture from Japan’s medieval period still survives on the grounds, including the famous Edo Castle (Chiyoda Castle), a leftover fortress built in 1457 by Ōta Dōkan. Another famous landmark on the grounds is the Nijubashi Bridge, which earned its nickname “double bridge” from a second structure that stands directly behind it.
2. Meiji Shrine
Even today, the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū) is one of the most important religious sites in all of Japan. The original was built between 1915 and 1926 (including the grounds) to commemorate Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shōken. While this version was, unfortunately, destroyed during the Tokyo air raids of World War II, its replica was rebuilt in 1958.
Surrounding the shrine is a forest of trees found all across Japan — a total of 120,000 trees from 365 different species. The inner sanctum of the shrine is a museum of royal treasures, while outside is a gallery of murals related to the emperors of the past.
3. Tokyo Skytree
Every major city has one — a building or structure that towers over the city and provides an incredible view of its skyline. Tokyo is no exception, with its aptly named Tokyo Skytree. At 634 meters (2,080 feet), it’s the tallest structure in Japan.
While its primary purpose is as a broadcasting tower for the Kanto region, the Tokyo Skytree is also open to tourists. Tourists can take advantage of its restaurants and observation decks that are available near the top. For the fearless thrill-seeker, there is also a special observation deck with a see-through floor at the 450 meter mark.
Comparable to New York’s Times Square, Ginza is the biggest and flashiest shopping area of Tokyo with its boutiques and department stores (and yes, it has plenty of neon lights, too!). Want the trendiest items in fashion or technology? Ginza has what you’re looking for when it comes to Japanese goods you can’t find at home. In fact, Tokyo is known for being a powerhouse when it comes to men’s commercial goods — especially men’s fashion — so Ginza is worth exploring even if shopping is not one of your favorite activities. Plus, peppered throughout are world-class bistros, restaurants, and coffee shops for when you need to take a break from an entire day’s worth of shopping.
5. Kabukiza Theater
The historic Kabuki style of theater (a revered style of Japanese drama), originating as far back as medieval Japan, is alive and well today in Tokyo at the Kabukiza Theater. This impressive theater can house up to 2,500 guests at a time. Viewers are free to come and go as they please, and no one seems to object to cheering or booing during the performance. Nor do they mind if you bring your own food — a concept that Westerners might find to be foreign.
The Kabuki style of theater is characterized by its lavish visuals and exaggerated motions, so following the plot in another language may not be as difficult as you think. The performances originated as theatrical song and dance numbers, sometimes leaning close toward burlesque.
6. Tokyo National Museum
With over 100,000 works of art from Japan, China, and India, the Tokyo National Museum is easily one of the most important points of interest in Tokyo. The oldest and most expensive museum in Japan was established in 1872, and continues to be one of the largest art museums in the world.
Inside its corridors, you’ll find one of the biggest collections of Asian artifacts: classic Buddhist sculptures from the sixth century, historical weaponry, historic Japanese clothing, ceramics, pottery, and medieval-era Japanese paintings.
7. Sensoji Temple
If you’re in the mood for some traditional sightseeing, you won’t be disappointed with the Sensoji Temple. Dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion, Kannon-sama, this landmark temple has impressively retained its design since 645 AD, despite it being rebuilt several times in the last thousand or so years due to fires.
The Asakusa district in which the temple resides is a point of interest in and of itself. The street of the temple still holds shops with traditional goods like masks, carvings, ornamental combs, kimonos, classic toys, and other items from Japan’s past.
8. Ueno Park and Zoo
Given its spacious acreage, Ueno Park is naturally one of Tokyo’s major points of interest. The park was established in 1873, as part of the Japanese policy of adopting Western customs that characterized the early Meiji Period. While splendid all year round, it truly becomes a natural wonder during the Cherry Blossom festival (hanami) in early spring, attracting over two million visitors.
Within the park is the Ueno Zoo, Japan’s oldest existing zoo with more than 3,000 resident animals from over 400 species. Aside from the zoo, the park holds museums, amusement parks, and attractions, making it a worthwhile destination any time of the year.
If you’re looking for a fine dining experience with traditional Japanese charm, Tsuta in the Toshima district is the perfect place for you. This ramen restaurant is one-of-a-kind, and despite its humble appearance, it’s able to compete on an international scale. To date, it’s both the first and only ramen shop to win a coveted Michelin star.
But its strength in upholding Japanese traditions is also its weakness: this shop remains true to its grass roots by only serving nine customers at a time. That’s why people line up as early as 6 a.m. in hopes of tasting a bite of Japanese cuisine at its finest.
Other points of interest in Tokyo
For a city so full of life, culture, and history, it’s not easy to list all of Tokyo’s points of interest that are worth seeing. Here are a few extra attractions for your consideration:
- Cat Café: You may have heard of the Cat Café, one where diners are surrounded by feline guests. If you’re an animal lover, you will adore this novelty dining experience at Nekorobi in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, provided you don’t mind a little cat hair in your food.
- Ghibli Museum: The head of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki Hayao, has been called Japan’s Walt Disney, with his proud collection of acclaimed animated children’s films, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. The Ghibli Museum is located in Inokashira Park in Mitaka and is akin to a smaller Disneyland.
- Akihabara: While the neighborhood gets a reputation as being “nerdy” by catering to anime, manga, and video game fanatics, it’s still the best place for electronics in a city known for its electronic goods.