Note: Japan is opening up, and will be accepting travelers with Japanese tour groups beginning June 10, 2022.
Friends traveling to Japan for the first time often ask for suggestions where to go and what to see. There are plenty of places in Tokyo, so I don’t recommend venturing out to other parts of Japan, unless you’ll be there for longer than a week. This article includes my must-do list that I've shared with friends over the years, organized by geographic area. I’ll also link to my favorite website with detailed and reliable information in English about traveling in Japan, https://www.japan-guide.com/ for further reference.
1. Toyosu Fish Market. This is the new fish market that replaced the aging, and slightly dangerous Tsukiji Fish Market. Dangerous because of all of the market vehicles you used to dodge, an exciting but precarious feat. This new, safer one is built on a man-made island, also named Toyosu, and it separates the wholesale markets from the public by observation windows. Here you can still view early morning (5:30 to 6:30 AM) tuna auctions, view the wholesale markets, shop at a market open to the public, dine in the restaurant area, and enjoy the rooftop garden.
2. Akihabara. Also called electronic city, it’s a major draw for all you electronics and pop culture nerds because it’s the home of hundreds of electronics, camera, game, manga, and anime stores, including the largest in the world. Duty free shops sell computers and other electronic devices at competitive prices for overseas use.
3. Tokyo Sky Tree. The tallest tower in the world, it stands at 634 meters (2080 feet, or nearly 200 stories), with two observation decks. On a clear day you get a great view of Tokyo, and can even see Mount Fuji to the west. The shopping complex at the base includes a Ghibli Store.
4. Asakusa. If you want to get a feel for old, traditional Tokyo in a bustling downtown area, this is the place. There are souvenir and food lined streets, gates complete with monstrous lanterns, and the beautiful Sensoji temple complex. You can hire a jinrikisha (man powered vehicle) and take a tour.
5. Tokyo National Museum. This is the largest and oldest of Japan’s national museums, comprising six buildings, and is just a 5 minute walk from Ueno Park. The museum displays thousands of pieces of art and archeological artifacts, many considered national treasures. Especially if you don’t have time to travel to Kyoto or Nara, this collection is worth seeing.
6. Sumo Practice. Perhaps the best way to enjoy watching Sumo wrestling is attending a practice session at one of the Sumo stables that allow guests. These practices are free, but require a appointment, and the guests should be accompanied by a tour guide, or at least someone who is fluent in Japanese and familiar with the Sumo culture. Companies like Klook and Rakuten organize such tours (not free).
7. Harajuku. For a taste of the Japanese teenage scene, nowhere is better than Harajuku, particularly Takeshita-dori Street, with its dozens of special shops selling clothing, accessories, snacks, and pop culture collectibles. Walking around Harajuku station you’ll inevitably run into youth sporting the latest in extreme fashion, and if you time it right you can also take in “Lives” or live performances by up-and-coming talent groups.
8. Tokyo Metro Building Observatory. Located west of Shinjuku Station, the skyscraper district is home to some of Tokyo’s tallest buildings, including the twin tower Tokyo Metro building, which houses a popular observation platform. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji from here.
9. Ghibli Museum. For many, a trip to Japan would not be complete without a trip to this museum, beloved for the many animated classics such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle. Located in Western Tokyo about 30 minutes from Shinjuku Station on the Chuo line, it requires advanced planning, because tickets sell out weeks, sometimes months, in advance.
10. Mount Takao Hike. Located about 50 minutes from Shinjuku Station on the Chuo Line, Mount Takao is Tokyo’s nearest and most accessible nature getaway. Particularly in the fall when autumn leaves are changing colors, but really anytime, the views along the trail and at the top are breathtaking. The main trail takes about 90 minutes, but if you’re in a hurry, there’s also a cable car or chairlift option.