Did you know that Tokyo is the most populous metropolitan area in the world? It's true! But walking around the streets of Tokyo a few summers ago, I don't think I ever felt overwhelmed. If an endless list of things to do is your thing, like it is mine, then Tokyo, Japan is the place for you. Full disclosure, a lot of these attractions are indefinitely closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but if I could dream, if the world could just be normal again, here's what I would do for an unforgettable Tokyo summer.
It feels weird complaining about not traveling when so much of the world is still in turmoil. I just got my second dose of the vaccine dose last week though, so please don't hate me for dreaming! For when the world opens up again, here are nine quintessential activities to have the best summer in Tokyo ever!
1. Ride a Rickshaw in Asakusa
Asakusa is a rightful first stop for travelers in Tokyo. It's famous for Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple. Featured above, Kaminarimon is the first of two large entrance gates to the temple. It's over a thousand years old and a symbol of Asakusa. After passing through the Kaminari Gate, walk the fabulous shopping street leading up to the temple known as Nakamise. Nakamise is stocked with all of the souvenirs and traditional snacks a tourist could need. The neighborhood used to be Tokyo's main entertainment district and serves as a vision of an older Tokyo, one that almost feels like a window into the Edo period.
A popular means of transport or tourism around Asakusa also has a similar vibe--the rickshaw. Fun fact: rickshaw is an anglicization of jinrikisha, a Japanese word meaning human-powered carriage. Booking in advance is not required. You can walk up to a rickshaw driver and ask! As of today, it should cost about 9000 yen for a thirty-minute tour.
One of my favorite things about Asakusa was seeing so many people dress up in yukata or summer kimonos. I even saw a young married couple dressed up in wedding attire riding a rickshaw when I was in Asakusa. They looked so happy! It was a wonderful sight.
Another reason why I put Asakusa at the top of this list is because of the volume of reasonable accommodation in the area. When I visited Tokyo a few summers ago, this was the place where I stayed. There is an abundance of Japanese inns, hostels, and hotels that are much cheaper than accommodations in the western parts of Tokyo like Shibuya. Granted, you'll have to take a 45-minute subway to get to some of the other hotspots in Tokyo, but I didn't mind at all. Bring a book, people-watch on the subway, and try no to stick out too much.
One more thing! There is some AMAZING ramen in the Asakusa neighborhood. I recommend checking out the big names, Ippudo and Ichiran, in this area since they're likely to be less crowded than other locations like Shibuya, for example. I also really like Fuji Ramen and Genraku (try the shoyu). While you're there you should also visit Sometaro, an old-school okonomiyaki shack.
2. Cross Shibuya
Is Shibuya Crossing the most famous crosswalk in the world? I think so. It's definitely the world's most popular crossing, home to over 3000 pedestrians at a single time. FYI, the crossing happens every two minutes, so you can't miss it.
This scramble crossing hosts iconic Tokyo landmarks such as the 109 building (fashion central, outside of Harajuku of course!) and the bronze statue commemorating the Akita Hachiko, the most loyal dog in the history of Japan and maybe anywhere. The statue serves as a popular meeting spot. You also have a chance to visit one of the world's busiest Starbucks (and an awesome photo op location) as well as nearby Tower Records, one of the biggest music retail outlets on Earth.
That's not all! This trend-setting neighborhood is also a financial, creative, and cultural hub within Tokyo, particularly for the city's youth. There is an endless list of activities to do in this hip area: stay in a capsule or love hotel, visit a manga cafe, explore Shibuya's bustling nightlife scene, see the historic Meiji Jingu, and the list goes on. Honestly, you could stay in the neighborhood of Shibuya all summer--Tokyo's "Time Square" so to speak, or at least a much cooler version of it, and never get bored.
Food tips! Head to Sushi no Midori in the shopping center right next to Shibuya crossing for some of the best sushi in all Tokyo! Expect a long line and go for the lunch boxes. Another sushi treat in the area is Uobei Shibuya Dogenzaka, a really fun "shinkansen" conveyor belt sushi place that's gentle on the wallet.
3. Rent a Boat
There are a ton of awesome places to get out on the water in Tokyo like Ueno Park and Chidorigafuchi, the moat around the Imperial Palace. Cruising along the Meguro River is also a popular activity to view the cherry blossoms in spring. But this is summer! There are no cherry blossoms! So I think everyone should get a boat wherever is nicest, regardless of the cherry blossoms. My favorite spot, blossoms or no, for renting a boat is definitely Kichijoji's Inokashira Park.
I wanted to visit this park ever since it was featured in the Tokyo-based game Persona 5. I HAD to visit this park when I learned that it's the home of the Studio Ghibli Museum. I didn't make it to the museum, since I didn't realize that I'd need to buy tickets months in advance, but I loved Inokashira Koen and I'm glad I went regardless. There's plenty of nature, shade, and quiet here, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Did I mention they have swan boats? They have swan boats. It's gorgeous, it's cheap to get a boat, and it's positively idyllic there.
4. Cool Off with Cold Soba
I never thought, before visiting Japan, that I would love cold noodles so much but wow, cold soba is so refreshing! These cold and chewy buckwheat noodles are served with a dipping sauce commonly made with bonito flakes, mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and kombu (dried kelp). Cold soba is the perfect snack to cool off in the summer heat! One of my favorites is Kyorakutei, an old-school Michelin star awarded soba restaurant with affordable lunch specials. It's located in the ultra-lovely French-Japanese neighborhood of Kagurazaka.
5. Party in Shinjuku
Oh, Shinjuku. What a wild place. Karaoke bars, robot restaurants, pachinko parlors, nightclubs, an awesome LGBTQ+ scene, and more. The action never stops in this neon city. But wait! There are amazing things to do in the daytime as well. For example, you could take a stroll in the gorgeous Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, featuring late-blooming cherry blossoms, Japanese gardens, and a bunch of paths perfect for a run or a leisurely walk. You can also take in some free views at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Go during the day and see Mt. Fuji, or go at night and see the never-ending lights!
There's also a wonderfully campy giant Godzilla head towering above the Toho Building that's the perfect photo op, day or night.
This brings me to my favorite part of Shinjuku, one that's only reserved for nighttime: Golden Gai, a tiny network of small bars, most of which only seat a handful of people. Many of the bars have cover charges and don't allow foreigners (you can tell by the signage), but don't worry! There are several that are welcoming to all. I recommend Deathmatch in Hell, a metal bar featuring a constant stream of horror movies, and a selection of drinks that all cost 666 yen.
Though Golden Gai may seem a little intimidating, don't be afraid. These intimate, close-quartered bars have some of the coolest, most entertaining bartenders in the world. Keep shopping around and I promise you'll find a bar that's right for you! Also worth checking out: a street with a very similar vibe to Golden Gai known as Memory Lane or Piss Alley, depending on who you ask.
6. Picnic Under Tokyo Tower
This highly recognizable tower is possibly the most iconic structure in all of Tokyo. And guess what? You can have a picnic right next to it in Shiba Park! It's majestic any time of the day, so maybe go at night in the summer to avoid the high temps. Shiba Koen is a spacious, quiet park--perfect for a nice meal on a blanket!
My recommendation? Skip the Tokyo Tower admission fee and check out the free views mentioned in the last section of this article. Instead, spend the money on some tasty snacks from 7-Eleven. By the way, 7-Eleven is God-tier in Japan. Fun fact: Japan has more 7-Elevens than anywhere else in the world! The food is restaurant quality by US standards, seriously.
7. Explore Akiba
Akihabara, aka Akiba after a former local shrine, is known for its electronics stores and anime-friendly atmosphere. By that I mean, venues are specializing in manga, anime, and video games like Tokyo Anime Center and Radio Kaikan (with 10 whole floors of toys, trading cards, and collectibles). Also seen in Akiba: maid and butler cafes where staff dressed in costumes serve tea and desserts (and call customers master or mistress, which is either creepy or hilarious or both, I can't tell). It's gorgeous at night, but go during the day and you won't have any shortage of indoor activities, I promise.
One more thing! The best omu-rice I've ever had in my life was in Akihabara at a place called Kanda Tamagoken. Do it. You won't regret it.
8. Drink in an Izakaya
Okay, so this isn't summer-specific, but visiting an izakaya should be on anyone's docket when in Japan.
I have a funny story about a Japanese izakaya. I met with a Japanese woman and an Australian man at an izakaya in Akiba. The entire menu was in Japanese and none of the waitstaff spoke English, which is cool. I don't expect everyone to speak my language. But here's the funny part: I asked the Japanese woman about a menu item, and she informed me that it was FRIED WHALE. But wait, you're thinking, isn't eating whale bad?
"They don't put it on English menus, but it's everywhere," the woman told me. The Aussie was delighted and insisted we order it. I may or may not have tried it. I may or may not feel a little bad. I also tried natto for the first time there and puked, so that was fun.
9. Take the Train to Odaiba
Odaiba is an artificial island in Tokyo Bay usually accessed via the Rainbow Bridge. There's a giant unicorn Gundam perfect for selfies, a mock statue of liberty, a ferris wheel, a ton of futuristic architecture including the Fuji Television Main Building, museums like the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and more. There's also a Venetian-themed mall and another shopping complex called Aqua City on the waterfront.
Honestly, I don't know how anyone could fit all the activities on Odaiba into one day! That shouldn't stop you from trying, however.
My favorite place on Odaiba is the Team Lab Borderless Digital Art Museum. It's a digital art museum unlike anywhere I've been to. See magical, seemingly floating lanterns in a room that feels infinite, rooms full of crystals, endless sensory overload projections on the walls, everywhere. You have to see it to believe it. Like most of these other activities in Tokyo, the city of all cities, it's unreal.
Did we miss any activities? Do you miss Tokyo as much as I do? Let us know!
Thanks for reading!