10 Hidden Gems In Tokyo

By Blanka Kaboyashi, who has been exploring Tokyo’s hidden gems through the eyes of a foreigner for almost 20 years.

Edited by Elodi Troskie

I moved to Japan from Europe and even though I temporarily moved back to my home country, I returned to Tokyo because there’s no other place I’d want to live! What makes Tokyo such a unique city is its ability to keep traditions alive while immersing in modern life. You’ll see contradictions like ancient temples right next to newly built modern infrastructure. It’s amazing how Tokyo embraces its ancient culture but still moves forward. If you’re planning a visit to this one of a kind Asian city, here are my recommendations for 10 hidden gems in Tokyo!

Golden Ball Cafe

The Roppongi area is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Tokyo. It may seem a little chaotic at first, but this is one of the coolest areas in the city, especially if you’re looking for fun things to do in Tokyo at night. Golden Ball Cafe is one of Tokyo’s best hidden gems when it comes to cool bars to visit for a laid-back night out. You can relax with a game of darts, a round of pool or a singing session in the karaoke room. Drinks and food won’t break the bank and there is always a pleasant vibe going on! Like many bars in Tokyo, Golden Ball stays open until the early morning hours, so even though this is a pretty laid-back hangout spot, it doesn’t mean you’ll be going home early!

Inakaya

Another one of Tokyo’s secret places hidden away in Roppongi, Inakaya is the best place to eat robatayaki in the city. Robatayaki is a traditional Japanese style of cooking where food is prepared over hot charcoal, similar to barbeque. Inakaya is a fine dining restaurant and will cost you more than a simple street food meal, but it’s definitely worth the price if you want to feel like a 5-star guest for one night! What makes this restaurant so unique is the intimate dining experience it offers. With limited seating, only 20 guests are accommodated at a time. There is always some form of live entertainment and if you get a seat at the counter, you can watch the chefs prepare your food in the open kitchen. Inakaya also has an amazing selection of Japan’s famous sake not to be missed out on.

Underground farmer’s markets

Apart from the massive street food culture in Tokyo, there are also a lot of farmer’s markets all over the city. If you want to shop for fresh produce, your best bet would be going to a farmer’s market early in the morning – when everything is at its freshest. Many people don’t know this but big department stores in Tokyo actually have food markets in their basements! This is a great way to experience non-touristy Tokyo to the fullest since you’ll mostly find locals shopping at these food halls. The best part about it is that you can taste a lot of the food before you buy it. An underground fresh goods shopping spree is one of the best hidden things to do in Tokyo!

Iron Fairies

Iron Fairies is a basement bar located in Ginza, Tokyo’s poshest neighbourhood. If you’re looking for unusual things to do in Tokyo, Iron Fairies is a must visit. Decorated with fairy dust bottles, iron keys, locks and butterflies hanging from the walls and ceilings, you’ll feel as though you’ve walked into a blacksmith’s working space. Which makes sense since the bar was designed by the Australian artist and blacksmith, Ash Sutton, who also designed a few other bars in Bangkok. This is one of the best non-touristy places to go in Tokyo at night – only locals know about this place! The service is good, the music is great and the cocktails will surprise you with their interesting recipes. The cafe is open daily from 11:00 until 19:00 and the bar from 19:00 until 04:00. You can reach Iron Fairies by foot from Ginza Station.

Toyosu Market

Toyosu Market used to be part of the Tsukiji Fish Market, the biggest and most popular fish market in Tokyo. Tsukiji has been around for about a century, playing an important part in Tokyo’s local fishing industry. The inner market closed in 2018 and moved to a new location in Toyosu, but the outer market is still in its original location close by the Tsukiji Shijo Station. A lot of people miss out on the new market because they don’t know about the relocation – a pity since you’ll search long and far to find better fresh foods in Tokyo. There are two buildings with seafood stalls and one with fruits and vegetables vendors. You can reach Toyosu Market by taking the Yurakucho Subway Line to Toyosu Station, from where you can take the Yurikamome to Shijo-mae Station, dropping you off in the centre of the market. Opening hours are from 05:00 until 17:00 but I’d advise you to go as early as possible to get your food at its freshest.

 

Yanaka Ginza

Yanaka Ginza is an old-town shopping street in the area surrounding the Yanaka Temple, situated a short distance from Tokyo’s famous Ueno Park. Yanaka is one of the oldest parts of the city. It has survived severe trauma like bombing during World War ll and the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire in 1932. It used to be the home to Tokyo’s most famous writers and artists and the artistic, old-worldly feel remains. Walking through these streets will feel like a trip into history. This is one of the best places to go in Tokyo if you want to escape tourists and experience local living. A lot of locals live around here and it’s not really been discovered by foreigners yet. You’ll find small shops selling clothing, souvenirs and vintage items in abundance, as well as food stalls selling all the favourite local street food dishes. Yanaka Ginza is just a few minutes’ walk from Nippori Station or Sendagi Station.

Shibamata

Shibamata is another neighbourhood whose historical charm is still very well preserved. Located on the Edogawa Riverside on the eastern side of the city, Shibamata forms a natural border between Tokyo and Chiba. Shibamata is a beautiful area to visit if you want to explore Tokyo off the beaten path. Locals love to visit this neighbourhood, strolling through the picturesque old streets with their small shops and cafes. Because it’s out of the city centre, most tourists either don’t know about it or don’t want to travel so far. It’s definitely worth a day trip! You can visit the Yamada Yoji Museum, the Taishakuten Sando shopping street and the multitude of temples like Manpukuji, Shinsho-in and Kanzoji.

Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park, formerly used as a military parade ground, is now one of Tokyo’s biggest parks. The park is mainly divided into two parts: one forest-like area and the other featuring an outdoor stage and stadium. Yoyogi Park itself may be fairly well-known among tourists since it’s such a perfect spot for relaxing in between sightseeing, but the secret here is the live music in the other, lesser-known part of the park. The stage is often used for events and festivals, but during the day you’ll find local musicians setting up camp here to practise, much to the entertainment and relaxation of visitors passing by. Is there any better way to enjoy a lunch-time picnic?

 

Yayoi Kusama Museum

The Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in 2017, showcasing the avant-garde works of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Kusama famously spent more than four decades voluntarily living in a psychiatric hospital. This 5-storey art gallery in Tokyo may not be a secret, but the artist’s unusual background might be news for some! Kusama experienced visual and auditory hallucinations since her early childhood years, from which her characteristic repetitive use of polka-dot patterns evolved. Art lovers will be in their element in the Yayoi Kusama Museum – a weird and wonderful Tokyo experience. Apart from the art exhibitions, the gallery also hosts regular lectures and gallery talks with the aim of accustoming people to contemporary art. The gallery is open Thursdays to Sundays from 11:00 until 17:00.  

Digital Art Museum

Established in 2018, the digital art collective teamLab Borderless rapidly gained popularity, so chances are slim you haven’t heard of it yet. That doesn’t mean you should look it over – despite currently being in the city’s artistic limelight, it remains one of the coolest things to do in Tokyo. If you only visit one museum or gallery in Tokyo, it should be this one. Interactive motion art is displayed against the walls using the computers and projectors. The scenery constantly changes and there is no set starting or finishing point to make your way throughout the museum, so no two visitors will have the same experience.

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