10 Cool and Unique Things To Do In Tokyo - Recommended by a Local

By Martina Lucchini, the Milanese translator who came to Japan to study, and never left!

Edited by Kathryn Foley


To me, Tokyo is a city of contradictions, but they all work well together. In a city so huge, there’s no shortage of cool things to do, but deciding which of these cool places in Tokyo you want to visit can sometimes be a challenge. It’s easy to get swept up in the crazy chaos of famous districts like Shibuya and Shinjuku, but branch out a little and you’ll see there are so many cool neighbourhoods in Tokyo where you can feel a real local vibe and experience what life is like away from the bright lights and technology. I live separated from the chaos of the city but can get there in twenty minutes, so I have the best of both worlds. So from cool Tokyo restaurants to a museum that will blow your mind, here are my recommendations for some unique and cool things to do in Tokyo!

 

Digital Art Museum

The teamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum will blow your mind. I’d say it’s not only one of the most unique, cool museums in Tokyo, but in the whole world. If you’re not especially into the digital world or technology, you’ll be amazed that such an incredible, beautiful experience can be created artistically with only computer data. It’s a huge museum which is divided into differently themed rooms, but there’s no premeditated path so you can just wander wherever you feel inspired to go. Each room is completely dark apart from the images being projected onto the walls, which actually interact with you. For example, one room has animals made of flowers beamed onto the walls, and if you touch them the animal might turn to look at you or blink their eyes. One of the most amazing is the waterfall room. It’s ethereal and completely mesmerising; there’s a kind of rock structure in the middle of the room which you can climb on and the water cascades down from the ceiling, pouring down the walls and across the rock and floor, but it’s not water how you would imagine, it’s mixed with the petals of cherry blossoms. Book tickets in advance, as there are a limited amount each day and they always sell out.

Restaurant at digital art museum

This is definitely not one if you’re looking for cheap things to do in Tokyo, but if you have the opportunity it’s one of the most incredible dining experiences you’ll ever have. TeamLab, the art collective who are behind the digital art museum have joined up with an upmarket restaurant in Ginza to create a multi-sensory dining experience. It’s very expensive, 30,000 yen for 12 dishes but it’s an almost unbelievable experience. You’re seated at a table with the other guests, and they only take eight people per dinner. Each dinner has a theme which relates to Japan’s natural beauty, and your surroundings change with each dish. When you eat expertly sliced pieces of sashimi, fish will swim across the walls and you’ll be bathed in blue and green light, or some dishes have butterflies or birds painted on them which as soon as the plate is set down will flutter away and onto the walls. The food is really high quality, which is to be expected with such a high price tag and it’s such a cool experience. It’s a truly unique thing to do which you really won’t find anywhere else, and I think combining traditional Japanese cuisine with the digital arts world is something so uniquely Japanese.

Pet cafes

There are so many cool cafes in Tokyo, which I think is mainly down to the fact that their cafe culture is so rooted in society. Everyone goes to cafes to work or do their homework, a trend which has evolved, or been exploited, to create themed cafes in Tokyo. I think of all the cool cafes in Tokyo, pet cafes are the most fun. You can find cat cafes or even dog cafes in cities all over the world now, but in Tokyo there’s also owl cafes, snake cafes, and hedgehog cafes! For people here, going to a pet cafe is a way to relax, since lots of people can’t have their own pets in their rented apartments or their work schedule is too much. But if you’re visiting Tokyo, I’d say experiencing a pet cafe is one of the cool things in Tokyo that you should try at least once. I think the hedgehog cafes are some of the most unique; they’re much smaller and lighter in colour than in Europe, and in Japan are considered to be pets. Cuddling a hedgehog probably isn’t something you’ve done before!

 

Maid Cafe

Of all of the cool cafes in Tokyo, maid cafes are one of the most uniquely ‘Tokyo’ experiences you can have. They’re all about kawaii culture, which plays up being adorable and cute. The waitresses are all dressed up in maid outfits and even call you ‘sir’ or ‘mistress’; they’re playing on the stereotype of being as cute as possible, and treat you as if you’re the master or mistress of the house. The lolita-esque outfits and kawaii theme might not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a unique part of the local culture which is interesting to check out. The menu is also usually themed, so it’s all about the experience. Maid cafes exploded as a phenomenon about fifteen years ago in the Akihabara neighbourhood, which is definitely one of the cool areas of Tokyo you should visit, but nowadays they’re more geared towards tourists. But check one out if you’re looking for unique things to do in Tokyo!

Sanja Matsuri

Matsuri is the Japanese word for festival, and if you’re planning to be in Tokyo in May, try and stick around for Sanja Matsuri. The name means ‘The Three Shrine Festival’, and it’s one of the biggest festivals in the whole country. It’s such a unique event and if you’re lucky enough to see it you’ll get a look at another of Tokyo’s many, contrasting personalities. The festival celebrates the three men who founded the Senso-ji Temple and takes place at the Asakusa Shrine, but the parade itself is huge and known to be pretty wild! The streets in this cool area of Tokyo become an absolute ocean of people, and the atmosphere is so celebratory with the sounds of traditional drums and chanting constantly filling the air. There are hundreds of small, portable shrines called mikoshi which are paraded through the streets and are seen as miniature versions of the real shrines and are believed to bring good fortune to the businesses and people who live in the area. But as well as the parading mikoshi, there are parades featuring hundreds of geisha or people wearing traditional Edo period costumes which are followed by ceremonies, praying and dancing. It’s an incredible experience to be swept up in.

Robot Restaurant

The Robot Restaurant is famous around the world, and with good reason! It’s a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of robots, lasers and dancers in sequinned costumes controlling fighting robots. If it sounds completely crazy, it’s because it is. It plays on the idea that Japan is a really advanced in technology, but they take it so far with all of these technology stereotypes in the same show. It’s wacky, and you’ll wonder what on earth you’re watching as dancers riding giant robot horses parade on the stage, lasers beam from every direction, a robot band plays and robots controlled by the dancers fight each other. You pay to enter and see the show, and if you want to eat too (the menu is basic, you can order a bento box or sushi) then you pay extra. One tip - book ahead. I’m not sure it would make it onto the list of cool Tokyo restaurants, but it’s definitely the most unique!

Yanaka Ginza

Yanaka Ginza is a unique street in a sleepy residential district which you should explore to get a feel for the shitamachi vibe of Tokyo - it’s one of the cool neighbourhoods in Tokyo which a lot of people would never go to. Shitamachi is the traditional name used to describe Tokyo’s old downtown neighbourhood, so Yanaka is a great place to come if you’d like to experience a little of what ‘old’ Tokyo was like. When you enter Yanaka Ginza, try and take the staircase which is called Yuyake Dandan - the view from the top looks down across the whole street, and so you’ll see why this is known as the city’s most atmospheric shitamachi. The street itself has lots of small shops and eateries to stop by, it’s a lot cheaper than the crazy, modern parts of the city like Shibuya but is equally cool if you want to do some shopping. It’s one of those neighbourhoods which creates the contrasts which is what I love so much about Tokyo; you might not think it when you’re in Shibuya, but there are still old parts of town which you can soak up the atmosphere of what Tokyo was like before it exploded into this crazy, modern, technology obsessed metropolis. This is one of the cool areas of Tokyo which I love to escape to!

Cosplay in Akihabara

The Akihabara neighbourhood is famous for its electronic shops, and for being the epicentre of otaku culture. Diehard fans of anime, manga and cosplay all come here, and along with Harajuku it’s one of the cool neighbourhoods in Tokyo where you should visit if you want to see some of the crazy, out of this world cosplay costumes that people wear. But in Akihabara you can take it one step further; since it’s the central electronics hub of the city, and home to unbelievably huge photography stores as well as shops selling all things anime and manga, you can have an experience which combines the two. There are photography studios where you can dress up like a cosplayer, even down to choosing your wig and having your make-up done, then have a crazy photoshoot! This experience is a reason to visit Tokyo in itself!

Piss Alley

It probably doesn’t sound like somewhere you want to visit, but if you’re looking for cool bars in Tokyo then you have to pay a visit to Piss Alley! Its real name is Omoide Yokocho, which means ‘Memory Lane’ - hopefully this gives you a better indicator of what to expect! Yokocho are tiny alleyways which are packed to bursting with tiny izakaya pubs where you’ll sit shoulder to shoulder with locals, enjoy a few drinks like local beer or sake and nibble on small plates of things like gyoza or yakitori, which are the go-to izakaya snacks everyone enjoys with their drinks. The original Omoide Yokocho was unfortunately destroyed by a fire, but was painstakingly recreated to capture the same old shitamachi vibe that it once had. It’s almost a neighbourhood in itself, a tiny, self sustaining microcosm of eating, drinking and even shopping that comes alive at night - this is one of the cool areas of Tokyo I would always recommend visitors check out when they’re looking for unusual things to do in Tokyo. But amongst the izakaya and tachinomiya (bars so small they only have standing room) are some of the most quirky hole-in-the-wall eateries in the whole city. Stop by Asadachi if you’re feeling brave - here you can try unusual dishes like frog sashimi, horse penis, pig testicles and grilled salamander!

Kichijōji

If you’re looking for cool neighbourhoods in Tokyo to explore, look no further than Kichijōji. It’s a little outside of Tokyo, and actually feels like you’re somewhere completely different but it only takes twenty minutes on the train from Shinjuku. For locals, this is one of the most sought after, cool areas of Tokyo that most people would say they want to live in and hang out. It’s a really cool area for shopping; there are so many unusual and unique boutiques and tiny stores, and so many things from other Asian countries which makes it one of the most multi-cultural neighbourhoods in Tokyo. 

But my favourite thing about this neighbourhood is the food! Head to the tiny Hamonica Yokocho which is just next to Kichijoji Station (if you take the north exit you’ll be right at its entrance). This is another yokocho which has a really nostalgic, shitamachi vibe. There are possibly hundreds of tiny shops, izakaya and hole-in-the-wall eateries where you can eat like a local, and it feels like time has stood still since the almost ramshackle, homey alleyway came into being during the Showa era. For the best yakitori in the whole city (it’s really my all time favourite), head to Iseya and indulge - it’s super cheap and cooked the traditional way, and you can even pick up your order from the cute takeaway hatch and go to the nearby Inokashira Park to enjoy it!v

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