Tokyo is a destination that is not to be missed. The Japanese capital since 1868, and the centrepiece of most people’s visits to the country, Tokyo has a wealth of attractions and experiences that help get under the skin of this incredible nation. While one of the largest cities on Earth, with modern tower blocks that rise high over the surrounding streets, it is also welcoming, easy to get around, and bathed in ancient history and traditions. Unsure where to start exploring Tokyo? Check out our picks for the top things to do in Tokyo for first timers to the city!
Relax in Yoyogi Park
Tokyo is more than its shimmering skyscrapers, as any visit to Yoyogi Park in Shibuya will testify. At its most alluring over the weekend, this is the time when residents make use of this much-loved green space to exercise, practice yoga, or picnic with family. Its naturalistic landscapes are home to thousands of trees, lakes, and several beautifully-manicured zen-style gardens. Within its grounds you’ll also find the important Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu, a religious site popular for weddings, and certainly worthy of being on top of our list of things to do in Tokyo for first timers!
Learn how to prepare sushi
Eating sushi is all well and good, and an incredibly easy thing to do in Tokyo for first timers, with even the chain restaurants in railway stations having dedicated sushi chefs on the premises! But to go one step further and learn a new skill at the same time why not discover how to prepare sushi for yourself? Various companies offer group and one-to-one English-language cookery classes, where you can delve into the art of sushi and sashimi – before sampling what results from all your hard work.
Take in the atmosphere at Toyosu Market
One of the largest dedicated fish markets in the world, Toyosu Market in the Koto City area of Tokyo is the place to head to try and understand Japan’s obsession with seafood. You’re free to wander through the two giant buildings that house the market, as traders rush around and about you, shovelling crushed ice or bringing in the latest catch. Home to a number of highly-respected fish restaurants too, the market is perhaps best known for its tuna auctions. Visitors can also head on a two-hour tour, which includes time watching the auction progress from the viewing platform above.
Bathe in a hot spring
Communal bathing is still an important part of Japanese culture, and Tokyo has no shortage of bathing spots, or onsen, which are traditionally built around natural hot springs. A popular thing to do in Tokyo for first timers, the best are outdoors. As a ritualised experience, there is a certain (very Japanese) etiquette involved, including showering before you enter the onsen waters, though the most important point to note is that no swim suits are allowed. If you’re a little shy, you don’t have miss out, as many ryokan guest houses come with rooms with private baths.
Hit the shops in Takeshita Street
Located in Harajuka district, Takeshita Street is where Tokyo’s youth come to hang out. It blends cool but inoffensive street art with unique independent and vintage stores. The area also caters to the demand that Japanese girls look ‘cute’ – there’s lots of pink and child-like outfits – while you’ll find more upmarket stores in nearby Omotesando Avenue. Various bars and dessert shops are located in the surrounding alleys.
Explore the galleries of Ueno Park Museums
The fabulous surrounds of Ueno Park are the perfect location for a cluster of important Tokyo museums and attractions, which are absolute must things to do in Tokyo for first timers. Two art galleries (the Metropolitan Art Museum and National Museum of Western Art) rub shoulders with the Science Museum, and Royal Museum. The collections of the National Museum are just a stroll away, as is Ueno Zoo. However, the park is well worth exploring itself, with several historic shrines hidden among the greenery, together with small eateries. And it’s certainly not to be missed during the cherry blossom season either.
Take in the city views
To take in the full scope of Tokyo, you’ll need to jump into an elevator and head for the heights. The second-tallest structure in Japan, the red-and-white Eiffel Tower-like structure of Tokyo Tower was primarily built as a TV tower (13 meters taller than the original at 333m). However, it has two observation decks, at 150m and 250m up. Alternatively, head to the 45th floor observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (known as Tocho) in Shinjuku. It’s free to visit.
Once you’re done admiring the area from above, make sure you hang around the Shinjuku district, one of Tokyo’s liveliest. It takes much of its colour from the huge neon advertising hoardings that adorn many of the tower blocks, and is an area that buzzes as much after office hours as it does during them. If you’ve not checked out a Japanese market yet, there’s a fantastic one here, alongside a huge number of street food stalls. Sit-down bars and restaurants stretch down the narrow alleys of Golden Gai.
Check out the merch in Ahikabara
Tokyo’s Ahikabara is renowned throughout Japan as ‘electric town’, the location of choice for the city’s large electronics department stores. Here you’ll also find Japan’s slightly strange maid cafés, where the staff treat guests as princes and princesses as a way of getting stressed-out residents to relax. The area is also something of a growing tourist hotspot because of its number of manga stores, which is pushing some local Japanese anime fans to set up shop in Nakano instead.
Join the crowds at a sumo match
Sumo wrestling is a big deal in Tokyo. This ancient sport can make millionaires and household names of its proponents, with fights attracting crowds of thousands in the sumo halls and hundreds of thousands on television broadcasts. There are six major tournaments every year, lasting around two weeks each, with the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium being the epicentre of the action.
Things to do in Tokyo for first timers
Tokyo is a city where there is always something going on, whatever your interests, as you’ve hopefully discovered from our diverse list of the top things to do in Tokyo for first timers!