As more people see travel as an "experience" and not just a "site-seeing destination," the desire for visiting the areas of a city that are unknown, obscure and more about the people and culture than about the famous sites is growing every year.
But still - many tours or guidebooks that claim to be a "private tour that takes you off the beaten path" are not truly as unique as you may think. As touring "off the beaten path" has become a much more appealing goal for many travelers, some of the "off the beaten path" places aren't as off the path as they used to be. This is why hiring a local private tour guide is going to give you some experiences that are still truly unique!
Having lived in Tokyo now for half a dozen years, I've had a chance to explore the real Tokyo and capture the real essence of this city. Every day I find more little treasures that lurk in its quiet neighborhoods, spectacular side streets, and odd-little cafes and bars that are not usually frequented by tourists.
Do I love the must-see sites like the Imperial Palace, the Tokyo Tower, the Meiji Shrine, and Shibuya Crossing? Absolutely!
Tokyo would not be the city it is without some of these historic hot spots. But often what waits for us in the lesser-known and not-often-seen areas that can be just as memorable...and sometimes even more magical.
Let me give you a sneak peek of what I mean...
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- Beyond the Path: 10 Gems that You May Need a Local Private Tour Guide to Uncover
- Are You Ready to Experience Tokyo in an Offbeat Way?
Beyond the Path: 10 Gems that You May Need a Local Private Tour Guide to Uncover
From tucked-away neighborhoods brimming with local charm to the various specialty restaurants and cafes that can help you truly appreciate the Japanese food culture, Tokyo tours that are led by a local guide can hold the key to unveiling all these hidden treasures and more.
Tour groups and commercial tour operators serve a purpose for sure, but if you want to experience someone's true passion for the city and deep understanding of its nuances, then entrusting yourself to a local guide is going to give you the depth and discovery that you've been looking for during your stay in Tokyo. Chat to your guide about arranging Tokyo bicycle tours, if you fancy seeing the city on two wheels
Here are 10 things that a local guide can introduce you to that a large tour company or dogged-eared guidebook simply can't.
1. Explore Hidden Foodie Spots
First and foremost, anyone who wants to "know" Tokyo has to get to know the food scene in this eclectic city. Though Tokyo food tours are all the rage, a local guide is going to be able to give you a Tokyo food tour that's different than most.
For myself, I like to take people to some of my favorite food spots that are well away from the tourist trail. From visiting the hidden izakayas (drinking bars), to tiny sushi bars, and local-only street food stands, I can teach you more about Japanese culture while we eat than you may ever learn from a guidebook. Food is not just nourishment to the Japanese, and this is never more obvious than when you snake your way down tiny alley streets, experiencing the hum of voices and smells of food cooking and being enjoyed all around you.
An all-time favorite of mine is Akaoni, a terrific sake spot that's located just a five-minute walk from Sangenjaya Station. Akaoni stocks over 100 varieties and puts a unique focus on seasonal namazake (raw, unpasteurized sake). The food menu here is also extensive for such a small, sweet spot. Inside is an L-shaped counter which seats twelve guests and four tables which seat four each. There is also a koagari (raised tatami mat area) with a table that can accommodate ten.
On the other hand, if you're in the mood to visit a standing sushi bar, then Uogashi Nihon-ichi Shibuya Dogenzaka is going to be a must on our list. We can find this chain eatery in a few areas around Tokyo, and it's well worth adding to our Tokyo food tour list.
Watching the sushi chefs up close as they whip up our order at lightning speed is almost as fun as the food itself is delicious!
Though I can take you to many more special spots to experience the Japanese food scene, any Tokyo food tour that involves one of these two places turns our time together into an insightful and "fun tour" as well.
2. Visit Yanaka
In my opinion, this is one of the most precious neighborhood places and one of the most overlooked ones as well in all of Tokyo. In Yanaka, we will get a feel for the old Tokyo atmosphere in this neighborhood that is famously one of the most quaint and aged parts of the city.
It was spared the Allied fire bombings during WWII and survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire of 1923. In the past, the area was always a thriving artisan town housing some of the country’s most famous writers and visual artists.
Today, Yanaka retains this similar spirit and an afternoon stroll down any of the several side streets that dissect the area south of Nippori Station will attest to the abundance and diversity of craft still being produced in the area: textiles, ink prints, wood carvings, traditional cuisines, stationery, pottery, jewelry, and much more. For a true sense of some of the best-hidden gems in this city, there are few other parts of Tokyo with as much to offer as Yanaka for a glimpse into bygone eras.
3. Discover Koenji
Like Yanaka, Koenji is another neighborhood I like to wander with my guests who really are looking for the original Tokyo. That said, these two neighborhoods - though iconic - each have their own pulse that makes them as different as two siblings can be...and both worth getting to know for their own unique characteristics and charms.
Koenji is the birthplace of Tokyo's punk movement and today still beat at its own pace.
Known for its vintage clothing shops and indie music scene, Koenji is the place to be when you want a true taste of the bohemian lifestyle. The neighborhood is still a haven for artists, musicians, and free spirits, resulting in a lively and creative energy that permeates the air. Numerous small live music houses and underground venues showcase a variety of musical genres, from indie rock to jazz and everything in between. As we wander, I will point out to you some of the hippest joint where we can catch a local bands and embrace the raw authenticity of the performances.
What truly sets Koenji apart is its sense of community. The locals take pride in preserving the neighborhood's unique character, and you'll often find community events, flea markets, and festivals taking place throughout the year. There's a warm and welcoming spirit that permeates Koenji, making it a perfect place to connect with like-minded individuals and create lasting memories.
4. Experience a Rakugo Performance
Though Tokyo's hidden neighborhoods are a true testament to the diverse vibe this city creates, there are also some cultural events that can't be missed, if you want to know the real city.
One such culture event will be to take you to watch a Rakugo performance!
A 400-year-old tradition of comic storytelling, a Rakugo performance is best experienced with a local private guide who can give you context and an introduction into this amazing artform. Rakugo involves a solo performer, known as a rakugo-ka, sitting on a small cushion on a stage and using only a fan and a small cloth as props.
The rakugo-ka skillfully narrates a comedic story, often a traditional tale or a humorous anecdote, using different voices, facial expressions, and gestures to portray multiple characters. The stories are filled with witty wordplay, clever punchlines, and humorous situations that aim to entertain the audience.
Even if you don't understand the language, you'll be able to appreciate the talent and creativity that goes into a Rakugo performance. And, with a local private tour guide, you'll have someone by your side who can interpret when it's needed.
5. Themed Exploration with a Local Expert
Yet another of my favorite types of tours to engage in are those where my guest is part of the planning!
If you have a specific interest that you'd like to participate in while you're in Tokyo we can create a day around that particular desire.
This city is so full of diversity and cultures and optional activities that it's nearly impossible to come here and not find a way to have your interest met. Are you a history buff and want to know as much as possible about the Edo period or the Meiji era? Do you love food so much that finding the best Tokyo food tours is where you want to keep your focus?
Maybe you love art and want a custom tour that takes you through the art galleries of Roppongi and a behind-the-scenes look at the Mori Art Museum? Or you may have a deep interest in trains and transportation and want to dive into the history of the railway and the modern bullet train?
Whatever your enthusiasm or interest, there is no doubt that this vast and varied city can offer you a chance to explore it while you're here. And a local guide who is well versed in the opportunities available can be the best person to do it with you.
6. Bathe in a Sento
This is an experience no one should miss! Japanese bathhouses, known as "sento" or "onsen," have a rich history deeply intertwined with Japanese culture and traditions.
The practice of communal bathing dates back centuries and holds significant cultural importance. Bathing in Japan is not merely about cleansing the body but also about purifying the mind and spirit, and the opportunity to visit a traditional one for a unique look into Japanese culture should not be missed. A local private guide can help you navigate the etiquette and rules in a way you may not be comfortable with on your own, and they'll know certain specifics, like if one doesn't admit guests with tattoos or piercings.
One bathhouse I often recommend we visit is Mikokuyu Bathhouse, a brisk ten-minute walk from Kinshicho Station. This Japanese public bathhouse was founded in 1947, and since then, it’s been serving the local community and foreign customers. Renovated in 2015 with a double ceiling so that sunlight could enter inside, this compact little bathhouse will be a delight, once you get past some of the obvious awkwardness of being naked and bathing in front of others!
As guests, we will be greeted by the soothing ambiance of a tranquil and serene environment from the moment we step inside. This bathhouse features different types of baths, including hot and cold baths, as well as a sauna. The soothing mineral-rich waters are believed to have therapeutic properties, providing relaxation and rejuvenation to both body and mind.
7. Visit Tsukiji Outer Market
Although a true Tsukiji fish market tour is no longer possible (since the inner fish market has now moved to Toyosu), the outer market still has many interesting food stalls and restaurants for us to explore. The roughly 492-by-820 feet region comprises lots of small little lanes and dozens of tiny stores, all holding their own treasure trove of goods inside.
Over 300 businesses and eateries in Tsukiji’s Outer Market have remained open and continue to serve customers and this is another great spot for those of you who can't get enough of the Tokyo food tour scene to enjoy some more time, wandering and tasting and wandering some more.
8. A Personalized Shopping Tour
Tokyo is a shopper's paradise! Tokyo offers a truly unparalleled shopping experience that caters to every taste and style. From trendy fashion boutiques and upscale department stores to bustling markets and quirky vintage shops, Tokyo is a shopper's dream with something to suit every budget and preference.
One of the highlights of Tokyo's shopping scene is the vibrant district of Ginza, known as Japan's premier luxury shopping destination. Here, you'll find an array of high-end international brands, luxury department stores, and designer boutiques showcasing the latest fashion trends. The streets are lined with glamorous storefronts and beautifully illuminated buildings, creating a sophisticated ambiance that exudes the style and elegance that a true fashionista is looking for.
A must-see store in Ginza is Japan’s most famous stationery specialty store known as Itoya. Stationery stores are quite popular in Japan and Itoya offers a vast, wonderful selection of all sorts of Japanese and international brands, with dozens of original stationery items. Whether you’re a die-hard stationery fan and seek to enrich your arsenal of pens and paper or you’re simply looking for a fun and funky souvenir to remind you of your time here, Itoya is a must-visit in any case. We could spend hours wandering through each of the 12 themed floors and I'll take my time showcasing what I see are some of the highlights and must-haves.
If you're looking for a more eclectic and alternative shopping experience, Harajuku is going to be the place I will take you. This neighborhood is renowned for its avant-garde fashion, pop culture, street style, and unique boutiques.Harajuku also hosts a variety of pop-up stores and limited-edition collaborations, making it a haven for fashion-forward individuals seeking one-of-a-kind pieces.
Tokyo is also famous for its electronic and gadget shopping. Akihabara, known as Electric Town, is a haven for tech enthusiasts. Here, you will be able to find multi-story electronics stores offering the latest gadgets, video games, anime merchandise, and all things geeky. It's a fascinating district where you can explore countless shops dedicated to electronics, manga, and anime, creating a unique and vibrant atmosphere that will once again provide you with a side of Tokyo you simply cannot see when you only experience it on your own or with a large group tour.
9. Local Festivals and Events
Festivals (also known as matsuri) are a much-loved way for the Japanese to celebrate a whole host of various important dates and/or events. The opportunity to be a part of a Japanese festival is one experience I don't want you to miss. Depending on when you visit, here are a few of some of my favorite festivals and are bound to give you a true taste of some authentic Japanese culture.
Sanja Matsuri: is an annual festival in the Asakusa district that usually takes place over the third full weekend in May. It is held in celebration of the three founders of Sensoji Temple, who are enshrined in the Asakusa Shrine next door to the temple. Nearly two million people visit Asakusa over the three days of the festival, making it one of Tokyo's most popular festivals. The Sanja Matsuri features about one hundred portable shrines (also known as mikoshi) in which Shinto deities (kami) are symbolically placed into and paraded about the streets to bring good fortune to the local businesses and residents. For the entirety of the festival, Asakusa is packed with food stalls, festival games, and enthusiastic revelers amid a lively atmosphere of Japanese music to set the scene.
Kanda Matsuri: Held once every two years (only in odd-numbered years) this festival showcases elaborate processions, traditional music performances, and religious rituals in the Kanda area. It is one of Tokyo's largest and most vibrant festivals and events are held over an entire week. The main action usually happens over the weekend closest to May 15 and the highlights are a day-long procession through central Tokyo on Saturday, and parades of portable shrines (mikoshi) by the various neighborhoods on Sunday.
Sumida River Fireworks Festival: One of Tokyo's most fun and famous summer events, this festival features a spectacular display of fireworks over the Sumida River, attracting millions of visitors each year. What sets this festival apart in my mind is the unique choreography of the fireworks. The bursts are meticulously synchronized to a musical score, creating a mesmerizing symphony of light and sound. The display tells a story, with each sequence building upon the next, evoking a range of emotions from wonder to excitement that you will not soon forget. Though plenty of travelers go to the fireworks festival every year, doing so with a local is going to give you an advantage over the crowds. Having been to this festival many times, I've found the best viewing spots and the ways to weave ourselves through the crowds and can share these insider tips and insights with guests that will add an extra layer of joy and satisfaction to the experience.
Asakusa Samba Carnival: Yet another one of my yearly highlights is the Asakusa Samba Carnival, a lively and colorful event that brings together samba dance groups from all over Japan who perform in vibrant costumes, creating a festive and energetic atmosphere. The carnival is held at the end of August and the parade is the highlight of the event, featuring dazzling costumes that the dancers have adorned with feathers, sequins, and vibrant colors. Samba groups from all over Japan, as well as international performers, showcase their dance moves, accompanied by lively Brazilian beats. The streets are lined with enthusiastic spectators, cheering and clapping to the infectious rhythm, creating a lively and festive ambiance.
These are just a smattering of the many festivals and special events that Tokyo hosts throughout the year. Experiencing one through the eyes of a local will give you a different take on it than any other experience you will have while here.
10. Nightlife in Golden Gai
As you can probably imagine, Tokyo nightlife is truly like no other. Tokyo nightlife captivates and energizes all who venture into its vibrant streets. From the neon-lit avenues of Shinjuku to the trendy clubs of Shibuya and the cozy izakayas of Golden Gai, Tokyo offers a diverse and exhilarating nightlife scene. This city comes alive after dark, pulsating with a unique energy as locals and visitors alike immerse themselves in a kaleidoscope of entertainment options.
Whether you want to dance the night away at a bustling nightclub, savor delectable street food in bustling alleyways, or just want to enjoy relaxing with a drink at a hidden jazz bar, Tokyo's nightlife never fails to leave a lasting impression. One area that I feel is best visited by a local is Golden Gai. Golden Gai is a small area comprising six narrow alleys, but lined with over 200 tiny bars, restaurants, and shops. Each bar (known as izakayas) will mesmerize you with its own unique atmosphere.
That said, this area can be quite intimidating to visit alone. Most of the bars have a cover charge, though a small number are free to enter. Some are only open to their "regulars." But visiting Golden Gai with a local can be a true treat and a great way to wrap up a day. The narrow lanes, the vintage signage, and the intimate spaces create an intimate and cozy ambiance that is unlike any other.
Are You Ready to Experience Tokyo in an Offbeat Way?
If you're ready to see this city through the eyes of someone who lives it every day, then check out all the various tours in Tokyo that are available through City Unscripted!
All of our tours are held by locals who love this city as much as I do and can't wait for you to experience it as well. Whether you are looking for the city's best food tours or are a fashionista in search for the perfect vintage 1920s cocktail dress, we have someone who has "been there, done that."
Make your next vacation one that even your photos won't be able to do justice. Make your next tour with City Unscripted.
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