With its sushi and sumo, pop culture and age-old tradition, serene gardens and traffic hell, Tokyo bombards the senses like no other city. Ordered yet bewildering, Japan’s pulsating capital will lead you a merry dance – but being lost has never been so much fun. The planet’s largest metropolis is Asia at its weirdest, straightest, prettiest, sleaziest and coolest, all at the same time.
If you want to sample the city’s more intriguing facets, here's a peek inside the new Rough Guide to Tokyo: these are the top ten quirkiest things to do to in Tokyo.
Seeing is believing at Tokyo’s newest and zaniest attraction, Robot Restaurant. It all starts at the entrance foyer, where there’s nary an inch of regular, boring space – everything glistens, shines, flashes or reflects. There’s far more of the same heading down the stairs to the trippy, video-screen-lined hall where you’ll be sat with other excited tourists and locals, and given a bentō set to scoff before the carnage commences.
YouTube clips will give you a great idea of what to expect, but the performances are far more fun if you have no idea what’s coming – for now, suffice it to say that dozens of robots, scantily dressed girls, more LEDs than anyone could ever count, and a wall of roaring music are on the cards.
Catering mainly to drunken salarymen who have missed their trains home, capsule hotels are made up of floors lined with two levels of tiny rooms, each containing a thin mattress, a comfy blanket, and (in most) a TV and radio built into the plastic surrounds.
A metre wide, a metre high and two metres long, the rooms are just about big enough to stand in, but not much else. However, the clichéd description of them as being “coffin-like” is rather wide of the mark: while claustrophobics and anyone over 2m tall should give them a miss, most actually find these minuscule rooms surprisingly comfortable – and there’s no more characteristic Japanese sleeping experience.
The latest hit formula in Tokyo’s polymorphous kissaten culture is the cat café. Offering quality time with purring felines, it’s easy to understand the appeal: they are relaxing places, offering the pleasures of pet ownership without the commitment.
Ranging from tiny converted apartments to spacious multi-level facilities, cat cafés all have similar rules. There’s a cover charge based on the amount of time you spend in the café and perhaps a small amount extra for your drinks. You have to take your shoes off on entering and sanitize your hands and note that feeding and taking photos of the cats is OK, but you’re not allowed to manhandle or disturb them if they’re sleeping.
As a mind-blowing introduction to contemporary Tokyo, it’s hard to beat Shibuya, birthplace of a million-and-one consumer crazes, and best visited at night when the neon signs of restaurants, bars and cinemas battle it out with five-storey TV screens for the attention of passers-by.
This blaze of lights doesn’t get much brighter than around the plaza on the west side of Shibuya Station, where you’ll find one of the most famous pedestrian crossings in the world – its stock only rose further following its depiction in the film Lost in Translation. It’s amazing to see just how many people can cross a road at the same time.
If you're after Tokyo drinking at its most atmospheric, head to this is a warren of minuscule bars in neon-drenched Shinjuku. For decades these 150 drinking dens have teetered on the brink of oblivion, the cinderblock buildings under threat from both property developers and from their own shoddy construction.
Recently, though, Golden Gai seems to be undergoing a mini-renaissance as a younger generation of bar masters and mistresses take over some of the shoebox establishments. Most bars continue to welcome regulars only, but no longer need gaijin visitors risk being fleeced rotten as several places now post their table and drink charges outside the door.
If you want to see “crazy” Tokyo, Leisure Land is a pretty good place to start. Attractions include a bowling alley, a baseball-batting centre and karaoke rooms, but best of all is the Game Corner on the first floor where you can bash the hell out of the world’s weirdest arcade machines.
In this extremely noisy area you’ll see Tokyoites – and not just the young ones – perfecting their moves on the dance machines, thrashing computerized drum kits, playing all sorts of screen-whacking games, and using grabbing cranes to pluck teddies for their dates.
Japan’s national sport, sumo, has declined substantially in popularity since the turn of the millennium, but if you’re in Tokyo at tournament (basho) time, it’s certainly worth popping along to witness the titanic clashes of wrestling giants at the National Sumo Stadium in Ryōgoku.
Relatively devoid of the commercialism entwined with Western sports, and dripping with mesmerizing ritual, this is Japanese sporting culture at its finest.
With the arrival of spring in late March or early April, a pink tide of cherry blossom washes north over Tokyo, lasting little more than a week.
The finest displays are along the moat around the Imperial Palace (particularly the section close by Yasukuni-jinja), in Ueno-kōen, Aoyama Cemetery, Shinjuku Gyoen, the riverside Sumida-kōen and on the banks of the Meguro-gawa west of Meguro station, where every tree shelters a blossom viewing (hanami) party.
Until a few decades ago life in Tokyo’s residential neighbourhoods focused round the sentō, the public bath. A surprising number of sentō survive, many fed by natural onsen waters. Then there are the larger hot-spring resorts – good fun, though not a patch on the smaller onsen facilities found elsewhere in the city.
Our top picks for a soak are the old Jakotsu-yu neighbourhood bathhouse and the resort-like spa complex of Ōedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba.
Get behind the scenes of Studio Ghibli anime at this imaginative museum. Beautifully designed throughout, it celebrates the work of the Ghibli animation studio, responsible for blockbuster movies including My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. Visitors gain an insight not only into Ghibli’s films but also the animator’s art in general. There’s also a small movie theatre where original short animated features, exclusive to the museum, are screened.
Explore more of Tokyo with the Rough Guide to Tokyo.