Been there, done that. Maybe you’ve already been the starry-eyed Tokyo first-time visitor, you might be there for a month, or you’re perhaps lucky (and cool, and awesome) enough to be living there on a working holiday visa. You’ve figured out how to use the vending machines, visited all of the tourist landmarks and eaten aallll the matcha sweets.
But now you want something more than ‘Hello Kitty’ merch and conveyor belt sushi. So say ‘Konnichiwa’ to new and better experiences, as we help your Tokyo adventures get deeper… with a ‘to do’ list from local’s perspectives…
Hang out in Shibuya and Tomigaya
Take the Metro to Shibuya Crossing, make sure you leave at Exit 8… and prepare to be amazed.
But when you’ve had your fill of Instagramming, blinding lights and crowds, head to hipster neighbourhood round the back of Shibuya, Tomigaya, and spend the majority of your time here instead.
It’s a hidden tourist-free zone, with a trail of buzzing bars and eateries – the famous Drunkard’s Alley is not to be missed. Rock up here post dinner, fight for a spot in the tightly packed bars and sip on sake with the locals.
Similarly, Golden Gai in Shinjuku is a hotch-potch, cosy little pocket full of hundreds of tiny bars, piled with any number of locals, great cocktails, eccentric owners, karaoke and other wonderfully random things.
Feeling you need to come a little more back down to earth? Check out the awesome Fuglen, which is a café by day and a bar by night. You’ll even make some new pals as there are usually plenty of English-speakers knocking about.
Another recommendation is Grandfather’s – strictly for the music freaks, old souls and total hipsters. This endearing little spot is hard to find, deep in a basement. Think jazz, obscure funk and soul, whiskey cocktails and walls upon walls of records, constantly being spun by the old dude who runs it.
Follow the uber-cool gallery openings
When it comes to museums, locals in the know aren’t lining up around Ueno Park or the Edo Tokyo Museum.
Although it’s important to immerse yourself in the art and culture formed by arguably one of the most fascinating ancient civilisations in the world, Chris Belmont, art expert at Kumi Contemporary Art Gallery says it’s all about the Japanese contemporary art masters. “Yayoi Kusama is the hottest ticket in town at the moment. She has an amazing gallery in Shinjuku.” Yes, she’s the creator of those giant, glowing spotty pumpkins you’ve no doubt seen everywhere on your Instagram feeds for the last few years.
And if you want the real deal, blindingly breath-taking ‘we’ve died and entered THE. FUTURE’ Tokyo experience, head to the brand new Digital Art Museum on Odaiba Island on Tokyo Bay, created by the 400-strong ‘ultra-technologist’ art collective, TeamLab. This bunch of designers, scientists, programmers and developers have created entire rooms filled with mind-bending installations, seemingly endless projections and digital butterflies which move as you do.
Get your geek on
Akihabara, it’s huge Sega Games Centre and endless arcades is the first stop for anyone looking to geek out in Tokyo, but you should check out the equally nerd-tastic Nakano. It’s not as big and bright as Akinhabara, but it has plenty of manga, cosplay restaurants, anime photobooths, electronic shops and gaming zones to keep you occupied for hours.
Tokyo-based photographer Tim Kershaw says, “I recommend going to Nakano Broadway, which is home to the arcades. The locals aren’t big on Akihabara anymore because it’s so packed with tourists, so this is the go-to for Japanese lads to geek out and let loose”.
Eat and drink the very best
When you’ve done the Golden Gai and the surrounding bars, and the hangover has well and truly set in, then it’s time to step up your culinary game and swallow the good stuff.
Ginza is where all the city folk head out after work, and the Ginza Music Bar is a favourite with local exec Eduardo Tachibana.
“It’s cool there as the DJ’s play vinyl – there’s rock, disco, jazz and even movie soundtracks. Also if it’s your last night then I recommend Kyubey Sushi at the Keio Plaza (which serves the best sushi in Tokyo.”
Retreat for a day
If you need to get out of the chaos of city, pop up to Nikko for a few hours.
It’s in the hills and one of the most peaceful spots for Tokyoites to rest and rejuvenate. There are plenty of onsens (hot springs), one of Japan’s three most beautiful waterfalls, and a scenic lake called Lake Chuzenji.
Noodle Chef Colin Tu says, “I travelled up and down from Tokyo by Bullet train whenever I felt like escaping the city. I went to Nikko, Sendai and Yokohama when I was in Tokyo for two weeks and it’s super quick and easy.”
Need more Japan travel inspiration? Don’t we all. *sigh* Head to our Japan & Tokyo travel guides to explore further, find tours or book return flights there from £449!
This was written by James Wong, a travel writer based between London and Tokyo. Check out more of his work here, or go stalk his Instagram, @boxojames.