Tokyo is the most populated metropolis on the planet. Over 9 million people live in this sprawling collection of city wards, each with their own distinct and colorful histories. The thing is, Tokyo is huge: navigating the city’s 278 train stations and 13+ subway lines — not to mention finding a place to stay — can be an exhausting task. To help you navigate Tokyo, we’ve compiled a guide to every neighborhood that you should know, making it easy to plan your trip and avoid getting hopelessly lost in translation.
Shibuya is the neighborhood known for Shibuya crossing, or the “scramble crossing” — very likely the busiest intersection in the world. To get here, exit Shibuya station via the Hachiko Exit (Exit 8), passing the Hachiko Memorial Statue as you walk toward the teeming swarms of pedestrians. Shibuya is mainly a shopping district, home to big, brand name stores and giant pharmacy chains. But there are also some great hidden gems here: the incredible izakaya Narukiyo, and the quirky movie bar Whales of August. If you’ve come to Tokyo to browse vinyl and rub shoulders with cool youths, visit record stores Disk Union, Face Records and RecoFan.
Shinjuku is the raunchy, racy, insomniac heart of the city. One of the main drags here is Kabuki-cho (the red light district), the site of host clubs, love hotels, massage parlors, and dance clubs. This is also where you can find the hyper-sparkly, undeniably kitschy Robot Restaurant, an absolute must-do for first-time Tokyo visitors. Nearby is Shinjuku’s Golden Gai: sip strong drinks in this dusky area of tiny, dilapidated hole-in-the-wall bars, each with only half a dozen seats or less. Similar is the mysterious Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho), fondly nicknamed “Piss Alley” by old-school Tokyoites. Munch on charred bits of chicken and down generous mugs of beer in one of the many dingy establishments that line these dark alleyways. Drift over to Ni-chome, Japan’s foremost gay neighborhood, and stop by club Arty Farty, where everyone’s welcome and the dancing continues late into the night. If none of the above appeals to you, opt for a tamer version of fun at the main outpost of Japan’s famous Kinokuniya bookstore.
Ginza is Tokyo’s most luxe destination for shopping. The department stores here are world-famous, and some have histories dating back centuries. The best time to visit here is on Sundays, when the main street is closed to car traffic, and pedestrians can roam freely. Gin-bura, literally “Ginza wandering,” is the Japanese term for strolling Ginza’s immaculate promenades. If you’re not feeling like shelling out yen on designer brands, head to Japan’s largest Uniqlo, where basics remain both high-quality and highly affordable. Here also is the renowned restaurant Sushi Jiro, and the coffee paradise of Cafe de L’ambre. Nearby is the old Tsukiji Market area, which still contains some incredible sushi restaurants serving the freshest fish in all of Japan.
Don’t come here with the high hopes of seeing groups of gothic lolitas or fashion freaks in neon parachute pants. While Harajuku is still the style capital of Japan, things have demurred a bit since “Harajuku Girls” was released in 2004. Takeshita-dori is Harajuku’s main drag, a street of sweet crepe stands, accessory shops, and fast fashion stores. Around here is where you can rent cosplay clothes or a gothic lolita outfit of your own if you so desire. You can also watch tourists speed by on their own personal Mario Karts. Vintage shops and second hand boutiques are mostly clustered around Design Festa Gallery, where local artists sell their creations. Also in Harajuku is Owl Village, a real “owl cafe” that makes standard cat cafes seem like yesterday’s news.
Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood is famous for Ueno Park, where Tokyoites throng together to picnic under cherry blossoms every spring. It’s also the site of the Tokyo National Museum, which is Japan’s premier museum of Japanese art and cultural treasures. Marvel at stunning lacquerware, beautiful painting scrolls, and intricately detailed sets of samurai armor. Exhibits are typically divided up by historical period, so visitors can clearly see the evolution of Japanese art and handicrafts from 1000 B.C. up through the 21st century. Also worth visiting in Ueno is the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science, and the National Museum of Western Art. If you’re traveling with kids, don’t skip Ueno Zoo, home to a few fiercely beloved giant pandas. Check out Ameyoko Market for a quick lunch of ramen or soba. If you’re hankering to buy some cheap ceramics or quality knives, head to Kappabashi, the kitchen district where expert chefs from all over the world get their wares.
The ever-bustling neighborhood of Asakusa is where you can experience Japan’s traditional side. It’s a downright essential place to visit, especially if the temples of Kyoto or Kamakura aren’t part of your itinerary. To get your bearings, it’s a good idea to hop on a free walking tour. The local guide will take you around Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, including the charming shopping streets of Nakamise-dori. Be sure to snap some photos under the giant lantern at the Kaminari-mon gate. If you’re hankering for some breathtaking views of the city and Mount Fuji, make sure to allow time for Tokyo Sky Tree, which is incidentally the world’s tallest tower.
Just a few stops from Shinjuku on the Chuo subway line, Koenji is Tokyo’s unspoiled center of cool. Hip vintage shops and a handful of healthy cafes dot the neighborhood’s main shopping arcade. There are some excellent izakaya here as well, although English menus are sometimes limited. For a sashimi dinner that doesn’t break the bank, try Sakana no Shimonya. Koenji really comes alive at night, when eager musicians take over some of the many music venues. It’s worth seeing what’s playing at local spots Penguin House or Club Roots.
Akihabara was once the electronics capital of the world, where people flocked to buy the latest cameras and VCRs. Now, it’s a world ruled by diehard otaku: anime and manga fans. There are manga cafes here, as well as many maid cafes, which are basically places where staff with high-pitched voices dress up in French maid costumes and serve you omelet rice with a ketchup smiley face on it. Yodobashi Camera is where you can buy a diverse array of electronics and cutesy phone cases. For a hearty meal of cheap (and delicious) sushi, go to Ganso Zushi.
Kitchijoji is slightly off the beaten track of Tokyo itineraries. Here you’ll find the charming Ghibli museum. Part-interactive exhibit, part-playroom, part-movie theater, the museum showcases the work of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio behind movies like "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki’s Delivery Service," and "Spirited Away." Tickets can be reserved in advance online. Kitchijoji is also home to the gorgeous Inokashira Park, a wonderful escape from the overwhelming aspects of Tokyo city, and where you can find some of Japan’s most stunning cherry blossom trees in spring. If you’re hungry, refuel on fresh, organic fare at restaurants Public Kitchen or Shiva Cafe.
Daikanyama is sometimes called the “Brooklyn of the Japanese capital,” but this tiny Tokyo neighborhood has a character all its own. Glance into Japan’s past at the Kyu Asakura House, a well-preserved private residence. Tokyo’s best kept secret is Daikanyama T-Site, the giant flagship store of Tsutaya Books. Designated one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, T-Site is a lovely respite from the frenetic pace of the big city. Relax and browse their massive collection of excellent books on Japanese design, or sample a listen of over 120,000 albums in the music section. Enjoy a leisurely drink surrounded by vintage magazines and international titles at the lovely Anjin Library & Lounge on the second floor. As you settle into a good book, congratulate yourself on a day well-spent in the most exciting city in the world.