I could people watch in Tokyo all day. Just sit in one of the busy subway stations and watch millions of people go by. As tempting as it was to simply write about Tokyo’s underground culture, I also knew I wanted to get out and see some of the sites. However, this was my second trip to Tokyo and I wanted to go beyond the typical sights and discover Tokyo off the beaten path.
Tokyo is the largest city in the world with 37 million people roaming its streets. It’s full of culture, food, art, shopping, and entertainment everywhere you look. If you are a tourist there, it’s hard to know where to start.
If you are anything like me, then you have the added challenge of wanting to find the more unique places in Tokyo. I wanted to go beyond the typical sites that everyone goes to and find the quirky, underbelly, and unique things to do in Tokyo. And trust me – there’s plenty of unique in Tokyo!
However, I’m not going to tell you to go to the cat cafes, maid cafes, penguin cafes, KitKat cafes, or the Robot shows (which are all very unique). I simply want to give you some ideas of how and where to get off the beaten path in Tokyo.
8 Ways to Get Off the Beaten Path in Tokyo
These are all places I visited and loved, so consider them Ottsworld approved!
1. Take a Food Tour in Yanaka
One of my top travel tips is to take a food tour when you first arrive to a new city/country. After all, you eat 2 to 3 times a day every day and it will introduce you to the food and food culture of the region so that you can use that knowledge every day of your trip!
There are 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo and that number is constantly growing. By taking a food tour, you can start to narrow down that 160,000 and learn what food is unique to a culture or region.
Arigato Food Tours had many food tours to choose from, however I decided to do my tour in a less visited part of Tokyo – Yanaka. Yanaka is one of the few remaining districts in Tokyo where the shitamachi (downtown) atmosphere– a feeling of Tokyo from past decades, still survives. It survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire of 1923 and was spared the Allied fire bombings during the WWII. It’s a special place.
We arrived hungry (we would be eating 10 to 12 dishes/drinks) and met our guide Ryan at the top of Yanaka Ginza Street. One of the first things we learned is that Ginza Street is also known as Cat Street – I obviously had chosen my food tour well.
Not only were cats roaming the streets, but there were cat statues in front of many of the stores. In fact, there was a little scavenger hunt you could do to find all of the cat statues along the street to keep you entertained.
However, no entertainment was needed as Ryan kept us busy and eating the entire tour!
Japanese Food Etiquette
Not only do you eat and drink to your hearts content, a tour like this also teaches you about restaurant culture and etiquette tips. Here were some of my favorites:
- You’ll find Noren, traditional fabric dividers hung in doorways. They usually have one or more vertical slits cut from the bottom to nearly the top of the fabric, allowing for easier passage or viewing. They are normally found above the doors of all of the stores in Japan. First, the Noren in the doorway indicates that the building is a shop. Sometimes that alone is really hard to decipher! When the Noren is out, then you also know that it’s open and you are welcome to go inside.
- Waygu means Japanese beef in general. ‘Wa’ means Japan and ‘gu’ means cow. We also learned that real Kobe beef has to be certified and only 10 restaurants in the US are allowed to sell it. So if you order Wagu – it simply means Japanese beef, it is not synonymous with Kobe beef!
- Otoshi is small appetizer. It’s like a seating charge.
- Don’t confuse Otoshi with Oshibori which is wet napkin. You should use your Oshibori when you arrive at the table and save it as napkin for the meal!
- Izakaya is the term for a local Japanese bar; this local bar concept is somewhat new. Before that, liquor stores were places you could sit and drink. Plus, you could bring food to the liquor store! We even sat outside or the liquor store on Ginza street on milk crates and ate our menchi katsu (pork and onion fried bread!) while having a drink from the liquor store!
2. Attend a Japanese Tea Ceremony in Yanaka
I thought tea was simply about warming up some water and choosing a tea bag, but in Japan it’s much more than that. We watched a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony as part of our Arigato Japan Food Tours. It was sort of like watching life in slow motion; every movement was so precise and thoughtful. It makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
Our hostess even served our tea in antique tea bowls that we each got to pick. I chose a Vietnamese bowl that was 270 years old – another step back in time. It was a special experience to end the tour in this way and see this tradition performed!
3. Go to Great Heights in the Skytree Tower
Another good way to get an overall view of the metropolis is to visit the Skytree Tower. The tower is Japan’s pride and joy, standing at 2080 ft. high – the largest structure in Japan and the 2nd largest tower in the world.
The views from the top are epic, when you have a clear day…which I didn’t.
I had sadly left this visit until the last day of my stay, which was the wrong thing to do. I suggest you put the Skytree Tower on your ‘places to visit in Tokyo’ early on so that if you do have a foggy day, you can easily switch it to another day!
The whole tower was fogged in all morning. I was leaving for the airport that day and didn’t really have a choice – so I went anyway. We took pictures of the fog, and enjoyed the Hello Kitty 45th anniversary exhibition on the top observation deck! We did have about and 30 seconds where is started to clear up and you could see the ground below. It was completely disorienting as the fog provided this curtain, and when it was opened up you saw just how high up you were!
On a regular sunny day, you get spectacular views out over Tokyo from the two enclosed decks located at heights of 1,150 ft and 1,500 ft respectively.
The top floor features tall, broad windows that offer some of the best 360-degree panoramic views of the city. There is also a restaurant, which serves French-Japanese fusion cuisine – a fun way to splurge on a unique dinner.
4. Immerse Yourself in Art at Team Lab Exhibitions Planets
I sat in the museum locker room taking my shoes and socks off. Most museums you simply put your backpack in a locker, but at Team Lab Planets, you leave your shoes in the locker.
This new immersive museum moves you through 4 vast exhibition/installation spaces in which the entire body becomes immersed in the art, and the boundaries between the viewer and the work become ambiguous. AKA…it will blow your mind.
It’s a Fun house meets Instagram Experience
I LOVED this experience – pictures don’t really do it justice at all…but it will absolutely wake up all of your senses as you traverse through these rooms of water, light, and balls. Every time I turned a corner and walked into a new room I was in awe. It really did feel like you were on another planet.
When they say it’s immersive, it’s no joke. At one point I was walking through calf-deep milky water with digital koi swimming around me.
You can stay as long as you want…take as many pictures as you want…play as long as you want. This is my kind of museum.
Team Lab has a number of unique immersive art exhibitions around Asia. They actually have two in Tokyo. I was only able to go to the Planets exhibition, but there’s also another one called Borderless that is a bit more family oriented and better for kids.
5. D47 Design Museum
You may just be in Tokyo, but you can get a view of all 47 prefectures of Japan in this unique and free museum. This ambitious design museum has the mission of showcasing commercial, industrial and product design from all 47 Japanese prefectures.
Located in a really unusual (and a bit hard to find) space, D47 is located on the 8th floor of the Hikarie department store in Shibuya. This is definitely Tokyo off the beaten path!
The museum opened in 2012 and put on exhibitions with various themes such as “Travel”, “Good Design Award”, “Craft Writer”, or “Children Toys”. When we went, they were presenting fermented foods from each of the prefectures – and yes, it was fascinating! They even had a few you could taste or smell.
Many of the products you’ll see in the museum are also for sale in the museum store.
It’s managed by by D&DEPARTMENT and is OPEN 11:00 – 20:00 (Last Entry: 19:30)
6. Experience Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo
Ever since I went to Tokyo the first time, I’ve wanted to come back and learn more about the Sumo culture. Now here I was walking in the big stadium for the Grand Sumo Tournament – the super bowl of Sumo.
There was definitely an excitement in the air as I entered the stadium. There were people posing in cardboard cutouts of their favorite wrestlers, vendors selling programs, and there was even beer.
I went in knowing very little about the sport, so I brought my InsideJapan guide, Ren, with me so he could explain what was going on! InsideJapan Tours helped me get the tickets and suggested the guide go with me which was a super tip.
I had so many questions…and Ren answered them all.
I loved all of the ceremony behind the tournament, but the most surprising thing to me was the match itself. The actual ‘action’ is about 10 seconds. But the whole match is about 5 minutes of strategic posturing (getting inside your opponent’s head), and 10 seconds of actual match!
I was also surprised to find out that most of the big champions (and I mean big), were from Mongolia. Then again, I have seen the Mongolians wrestle before ; it is their national pastime after all.
Prior to this video the two kept ‘getting ready’ and then backing away for about 5 minutes.
At the end you’ll see the winner is handed a fat envelope with quite a big cash prize in it!
Sumo is the most important sport to the Japanese and you can also do this sumo experience with InsideJapan Tours depending on the time of year. If there aren’t matches going on, then you could also attend a training session at a sumo stable!
If you do contact InsideJapan Tours – please tell them Ottsworld sent you!
7. Get Your Drink On At Golden Gai
Where do 3 women who enjoy a cocktail go in Tokyo? To the Shinjuku Golden Gai neighborhood!
In 4 tiny alleyways is where you’ll find over 200 tiny, shanty-like bars. Each bar has only about 10 seats and a pretty unique personality!
Surrounded by glitz and urban high rises, this 4-block area has remained unchanged since the 1950’s. That’s what makes the area of Golden Gai truly unique. This was the black-market area until 1950 when a number of eating and drinking establishments set up shop – and it hasn’t changed since then. It’s like a little time capsule in this modern metropolis.
In addition to falling in love with all of the little doors in the alleys, we went to 4 different bars. Most bars are only about 142 square feet…that’s enough to hold about 10 people at a time. There’s really no other seating other than stools lined up at a bar. Often there are cover charges to get into each small space.
When you do go into the narrow bar and sit down – you honestly feel like you have sat down at a table and are sharing a drink with the bartender…it’s intimate. The bartenders are often very talkative…after all, they only have a few people to attend to at one time, so you are the center of attention.
As you walk around you will notice that some of the bars say ‘no foreigners’ of ‘private’…that’s right…these bars are just for locals and they aren’t accepting any new patrons – especially tourists. Of course, this made me want to go in them even more…but I had to respect the culture.
8. Get Hoppy! The Drink of Tokyo
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to HOPPY street
Thanks to the some of my friends from Telecom Square, I was introduced to Hoppy Street!
Considered the drink of Tokyo, Hoppy is a beer-flavored almost non-alcoholic drink (0.8% alcohol) that Kokuka Beverage Company began producing and selling in Japan in 1948. At the time of its launch, Hoppy mixed with shōchū (a rice alcohol) was considered a substitute for beer, which was beyond the reach of ordinary people.
When you order Hoppy, you have to order the shochu also and then mix them yourself. I also suggest you get the yakitori to snack on; Hoppy and yakitori is a great combination.
You’ll find this unique, local drink on Hoppy Street in Asakusa. The street has a lively atmosphere and not many tourists. The izakaya (local bars) and yakitori restaurants on either side of the road extend themselves in the evening with plastic tables and chairs. This is Asakusa’s most famous location for eating, drinking and experiencing Tokyo’s downtown nightlife on the cheap.
Looking for Peace and Quiet in Tokyo?
As you can tell, I like the nightlife and hustle bustle of Tokyo, but if you aren’t into unique things to do in Tokyo, then check out Sarah Wilson’s guide to Peaceful Tokyo. I met Sarah while hiking the Kumano Kodo and absolutely love her work and philosophy.
A Great Location to Stay in Tokyo for your Off the Beaten Path Adventures
When it comes to lodging in Tokyo – it’s all about location, location, location. The city is so big it’s hard to figure out where to stay. We chose the Tobu Hotel Levant as a good place that is near everything as well as the subway.
It also has the best view of Tokyo Skytree. I highly recommend checking out the bar on the top floor at night – have a Japanese whiskey and enjoy the view of Skytree and the twinkling lights of the city below.
Staying Connected in Tokyo
In most places you can get free wifi. However, that free wifi comes at a price. If you don’t want to constantly sign in or out of wifi – or worse yet – hand over your email to a bunch of different wifi providers, then rent a TelecomSquare device for your stay.
It’s really easy because you can pick it up and drop it off at the airport and use it all over Japan. I even had a connection when I was hiking in the forest! It worked everywhere.
Now you can get off the beaten path with some of these unusual places to visit while in Tokyo!
How you can find more unique things to do in Tokyo
Go Beyond the normal Tokyo with InsideJapan Tours – they were super about helping me arrange a unique tour and ideas. In addition to them helping me with the Sumo tournament, they also told me about the Team Lab Museum, and provided me with a guide who also taught me how to use the public transportation the first day! They can arrange lodging, and all kinds of local experiences for your stay InsideJapan Tours Website
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I was a guest of some of these companies during my stay in Japan. However all opinions expressed here are my own.
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