A brief guide to the districts of Tokyo

The metropolitan area of Tokyo is massive – it’s the most populous metropolitan area in the world and spans over 2,000 square kilometres. It’s no wonder then that planning your time in Tokyo can often feel overwhelming – so much to see and do and never enough time! There are such a varied and vast areas of Tokyo that it can be difficult to know where to go. I had previously posted a guide of things to do while you’re in Tokyo, but if you need a more broad overview of the main neighbourhoods of Tokyo, look no further!

Akihabara – best for nerds and gamers

This is one of my favourite districts of Tokyo and I dedicated an entire blog post to it earlier this year. If you enjoy gaming, anime, manga and the slightly weird and wonderful aspect of Japanese nerd culture, you really should explore Akiba (the alternative name for Akihabara). You’ll need an entire day if you want to really see this neighborhood – it has hundreds of shops, hidden shrines and plethora of dining options. If you want official merchandise, Kotobukiya is a great place to go. They have a particularly good offering of Marvel, Persona, Square Enix, Monster Hunter World, Totoro and Pokemon products. If you’re into video games, you must visit the 9th floor of Yodobashi Camera above the Square Enix Cafe (here’s an in depth guide to Yodobashi Camera Akiba). Figurines more your thing? I suggest checking out Desudesu’s blog post all about the top destinations in Akihabara for anime figurines. I completely agree with their recommendations and would reiterate their advice about shopping around because the prices really do vary wildly from store to store. Finally, Akihabara is blessed with several themed cafes. The Eorzea Cafe, Square Enix cafe, and Gundam Cafe are within minutes of the station, as well as cafes featuring rabbits, owls, cats and hedgehogs, and even cafes featuring maids and other costumed waitresses! There are a variety of options if you’re considering a themed dining experience so be sure to try a few out.

Ikebukuro – best for exploring Tokyo

My home neighbourhood! We hadn’t visited Ikebukuro before deciding to rent an apartment there so I only knew about it from my extensive research into where to live in Tokyo. I’m so pleased we found something here – it’s a really buzzing area with an abundance of places to eat, drink, and shop. I feel that Ikebukuro has something to offer everyone – vast department stores, a Pokemon Centre, an otaku shopping street, an aquarium, cat cafes and an entertainment district that could rival some of the more famous districts of Tokyo. Crucially for us were the 8(!) train lines that run through Ikebukuro station. Two of them can take me to the school I teach in and one is the awesome Yamanote line, which links Ikebukuro to most of urban Tokyo. This makes it an awesome base from which you can explore the city (and beyond – there’s a direct train to Yokohama from Ikebukuro!) so I’d definitely recommend visiting, and maybe even staying in, this area.

Shinjuku – best for first time visitors and tourists

If you managed to navigate Shinjuku station, congratulations! It is the busiest train station in the world, is served by several Tokyo metro and JR lines, and for many people presents a significant source of anxiety. It also boasts a number of long-distance bus services which leave Busta Shinjuku everyday – these can take you to Mt Fuji, Osaka, Kyoto and beyond. It’s no wonder then that the area is so busy. To the west of the station you can find the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (perhaps the best place for free views of Tokyo) amongst some of the tallest buildings in Tokyo. To the east of the station is Kabukicho, one of Japan’s largest entertainment districts, which is made up of several department stores, subterranean malls and bustling narrow streets lined with restaurants and izakaya. All this and more truly make Shinjuku the entertainment capital of Japan.

Shimbashi – best for karaoke

Shimbashi is a classically ‘salaryman’ and ‘OL’ (office lady) area of downtown Tokyo. It is only two stops away from Tokyo station but maintains a distinctly shitamachi atmosphere – this is a way of describing ‘old downtown’ and refers to the common people’s culture before World War 2. Shimbashi is home to a dizzying array of karaoke bars and pubs, and is also home to many of Tokyo’s gay bars. It is also characterised by the many street food vendors situated beneath the train tracks of the station, particularly just outside of the West exit to the south. If you’re in need of a hotel in the downtown area, perhaps consider one near Shimbashi station – it benefits from direct train lines to some key parts of Tokyo (such as Ginza, Asakusa and Ueno) but also further afield, such as Yokohama.

Shibuya – best for classic Tokyo vibes

Shinjuku is busy, loud and neon lights illuminate every street. Perhaps most famous for its bustling intersection and statue of the loyal dog Hachiko right outside the train station, Shibuya encompasses all that is ‘Tokyo’ in most people’s minds. There are many places to eat and drink and there are also lots of tourists! Within a 15 minute walk of the station you can find famously fashion-orientated Harajuku, Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine, all of which makes Shibuya a great base from which you can explore some significant sights of west Tokyo. Shibuya also has a huge art scene and you can find a plethora of lifestyle megastores and fashion outlets and Oku-Shibuya is where you’ll find hip bars, restaurants, and booksellers.

Odaiba – best for families

If pleasure cruises, sunbathing, shopping and amusements are more your thing, you’ll love Odaiba. On a sunny day you might think you’re on holiday in LA or the Canary Islands – large, glass buildings and the small beach cove make for fascinating scenery. There’s a lot of things to see and do in Odaiba and there’s bound to be something to suit everyone’s interests, but this part of Tokyo is particularly popular with families. For a spot of relaxation, head over to Oedo Onsen Monogatari (I hope to check it out sometime soon) and enjoy the natural hot springs and spa treatments on offer. For shopping, there are a few malls with hundreds of stores inside – I recommend Aqua City and Diver City. Famous sights on this man made island include the Tokyo Statue of Liberty, the Giant Sky Wheel and the unicorn Gundam statue. There’s even an indoor amusement park called Tokyo Joypolis and Odaiba is also home to the famous teamLab Borderless art installation. In terms of restaurants, there is a lot of choice and we usually opt for food in the malls on the edge of the island because they tend to have great views of Tokyo and the Rainbow Bridge.

Asakusa – best for culture

In old downtown Tokyo, Asakusa was at the centre. It is home to one of the most famous Buddhist temples – Senso-ji – as well as several famous landmarks. Tokyo SkyTree is the second tallest building in the world and a must-see while you’re in the Asakusa area. In nearby Ryogoku, you can observe sumo wrestlers practicing in their stables or, if you’re lucky, watch a tournament in Ryoguku Kokugikan (pictured below). If shopping for souvenirs is more your thing, the long, bustling street of Nakamise leading up to Senso-ji temple is lined with over 50 shops. Asakusa is a neighbourhood best explored on foot or via rickshaw!

Ginza – best for luxury shopping

If you enjoy shopping (and designer brands) then be sure to head over to Ginza. There are a myriad of department stores and famous high end brands such as Chanel, Bulgari and Tiffanys, as well as expensive coffee shops and fine dining restaurants. You can also find the Kabuki Theatre here – if you want to see a show (note it’s all in Japanese!), be sure to secure tickets in advance as they can sell out quickly. Ginza is a really fancy part of town where the wealthy and those seeking a day of luxury and shopping can spend hours wandering the streets. Top tip – at the weekend Chuo Dori (the main street) is closed off to traffic between 12pm and 5pm which can make navigating the area a bit easier. Also, Tokyo station is also incredibly close to Ginza and you could do both areas in a day.

Roppongi – best for nightlife and art

Roppongi is home to one of Tokyo’s busiest nightlife scenes, the Tokyo Midtown complex, and the Mori Art Museum and National Art Center, as well as hundreds of places to eat and drink (with a particularly good offering of Michelin star and international restaurants). It’s also the home of famous Tokyo Tower! If you’re a foodie, you should consider stopping by – according to Tokyo Cheapo, “Roppongi is famous for its vast range of food choices, from sushi to takoyaki to kebabs or even pizza“. I have only ever spent about an hour in Roppongi so it’s definitely on my list of places to go in Tokyo! I plan on using this awesome list of 101 things to do in Roppongi to plan my time!

Ueno – best for museums and parks

The area around Ueno Station is a cultural hub like no other in Japan. Within walking distance of the station are many museums, a huge park, a boating pond, a shrine with a pagoda and Japan’s oldest zoo – home to a family of panda. If you are visiting Tokyo during hanami (late March, early April) then you must ensure a trip to Ueno Park is on your itinerary – it is a notoriously good place for picnics amongst the cherry blossoms (be sure to tidy up your area after lunch!). The bustling open air market in Ameya-Yokochō is a must-visit for bargain hunters, especially if you want sporting gear and genuine branded products at a massive discount. I hope to visit often (on the very convenient JR Yamanote line I mentioned!) for groceries and homewares.

Harajuku – best for lovers of kawaii culture

Harajuku, an area of town between Shinjuku and Shibuya and next door to Yoyogi Park, is perhaps one of Tokyo’s most famous locales. In the centre of Harajuku is Takeshita Dori, a long street lined with clothes shops, crêpe stands and places to buy all things “kawaii”. It is a hub of youth culture and fashion in Tokyo. Just south of Takeshita Dori and over twice its length is Omotesando – this is commonly referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees. Here you can find famous brand name shops, cafes and restaurants targeting adults, particularly over 30s. If you enjoy fashion, accessories and shopping, be sure to pay a visit to both of these neighbourhoods (and don’t forget to check out the famous Meiji shrine nearby!).

There are many other neighbourhoods and districts of Tokyo and even more things to see and do in the surrounding areas (such as Yokohama or Kawagoe). This would be an extremely long post if I were to list them all, but I hope this brief guide can help you decide which areas to prioritise during your time here! If you’ve got any top tips or recommendations for other travellers, be sure to leave them in the comments.

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