It's tempting to write Tokyo's Roppongi neighborhood off, particularly if you've spent a lot of time in the Japanese capital. After all, there's nothing in Roppongi besides bars and the luxurious Roppongi Hills residential area, right? In fact, Roppongi is a diverse and interesting district, with a breadth of activities and attractions as interesting as the origin story of its name, which translates to "Six Trees" in English.
Get Lost in the Mori Art Museum
Start your exploration of Roppongi with the most shining counter-example to its somewhat sleazy reputation. Located at the top of the Mori Tower in the heart of the Roppongi Hills complex, Mori Art Museum houses one of the largest contemporary art collections in Tokyo. Opened in 2003 (and founded by a wealthy real estate developer), Mori Art Museum will instantly dispel any preconceived notions you have about Roppongi.
Sample Tokyo's Best Restaurants
Roppongi's drinking scene tends to get all the accolades, but the district is also home to some of Tokyo's best restaurants. Among these, Sukiyabashi Jiro is probably the most famous, run by a son of the famous sushi chef from the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
Which is not to say that all Roppongi's mouth-watering fare is of the high-end sort. Sink your teeth into tonkatsu (deep-fried and breaded pork cutlets) at Bugatumi, or sample dozens of takes on traditional Japanese udon noodles at Tsurutontan. Unsurprisingly, cosmopolitan Roppongi is also home to a variety of excellent foreign restaurants, from Brazilian (Barbacoa) to Vietnamese (Pho Dragon) and everything in-between.
Go Glam in Roppongi Hills
Some people (especially foreigners) mistakenly ascribe the name "Roppongi Hills" to the entire Roppongi district, when in fact it only applies to the residential and shopping complex at the base of the Roppongi Hills Tower (where the aforementioned Mori Art Museum is located).
While it's unlikely that you'll have a reason to enter any of the high-end condominiums that occupy most of these buildings' real estate on a tourism visit to Tokyo, you can definitely get your shop on at the boutiques within the Roppongi Hills mall. This is a particularly alluring option during the summer, when Japan's tsuyu monsoon soaks Tokyo with rain, as well as the chilly winter months.
Appreciate the Breadth of Tokyo's Coffee Scene
Unlike many other countries in the Far East, Japan has long since embraced the Western tradition of drinking coffee. However, Roppongi hosts a broad cross section of Tokyo coffee experiences, so if you're searching for a caffeine fix that's not matcha, you'll want to check it out.
For lovingly crafted cups of artisanal coffee, head to Blue Bottle, which is also home to a vegetarian sandwich named after Roppongi itself. On the other end of the spectrum, Dumbo Doughnuts and Coffee's dark roast can compete with the coffee of any American doughnut joint (including Dunkin', which operates shops throughout Japan).
Stroll Through a Samurai Shrine
When you think of Samurai in Japan, you usually think of Kakunodate (a former Samurai settlement in Japan's Tohoku region, which is largely famous for its cherry blossoms these days) or Nagamachi, which occupies the southwestern quadrant of Kanazawa city in Ishikawa prefecture.
You probably don't think of Roppongi, which will change the moment you walk into Nogi Shrine. Although the story of this shrine is somewhat gruesome (it's named for a couple who honored the emperor by disemboweling themselves with Samurai swords during the Meiji period), the several acres it occupies provide an excellent opportunity for meditation and reflection.
Enjoy Sake in All its Forms
Speaking of Kanazawa, it's where many of the products at Roppongi sake boutique Fukumitsuya originate from. Products which not only include Japan's most famous spirit itself, but items made with sake. Some of these are non-consumable (don't try to drink the facial lotion or eat the soap), while others are actually food stuffs that you can very much eat, even if you're unlikely to get a buzz from them. Aren't looking for a retail experience? Plenty of bars in Roppongi sell nihonshu (as sake is known in Japanese) that's ready to drink.
Learn the Origin of Roppongi's Name
Roppongi literally means "six trees," and is named as such because six massive trees (of the Zeklova species) once stood in the place that became this district. There's bad news and there's good news on this front. The bad news is that not a single one of these trees still stands—three of them were purposely demolished, while the other three fell victim to bombing during World War II.
The good news is that in Hinokicho Park (and other green spaces throughout Roppongi), you can see various example of Zeklova, not to mention other popular Japanese tree species. This is a particularly delightful place to visit during the autumn (which peaks in Tokyo during the last week of November and the first week of December) and spring, when sakura cherry blossoms are visible everywhere you look.
Enjoy a Winter Illumination
Another great place to enjoy hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in Roppongi is along Keyakizaka Dori, one of the main roads of Roppongi, whose two flanks perfectly frame the Tokyo Tower. Can't make it to Roppongi around the first weekend of April, when the sakura are reaching mankai (full bloom)? Not to worry!
Winter is also a great time to walk along Keyakizaka Dori, as it's home to one of Tokyo's famous winter season "illuminations," which sees the (barren) cherry trees strung with what can only be described as Christmas lights. (Note: There's also an "illumination" or sorts during the spring, when the blossoms on the cherry trees are lit up by flood lights at the base of each trunk.)
Buy Yourself a Kimono (or Just Shop for One)
Roppongi is far from the most traditional part of Tokyo, even if (as you've seen) there are a few temples and other vestiges of the past here. However, one olden activity that's relatively easy to partake in as you explore in Roppongi is Kimono shopping.
Kimono Arts Sunaga takes a decidedly 21st-century approach to its craft, with both its ready-to-wear and custom garments largely made from recycled material. Jotaro Saito is also contemporary in its approach, but more in terms of style than substance. Rather than latching onto the trend of all things green, its tailors construct kimonos using the materials of today's fashion, including (most controversially) denim.
Zen Out in the Middle of it All
One of the things that's reassuring about Tokyo, no matter how busy the city seems and what district you find yourself in, is that you're never too far from a temple — Roppongi is no exception, with Myozenji Temple located right in the middle of it all.
Although you shouldn't expect to be blown away by this temple's design (it's a simple Zen construction, notable mostly for its peace and quiet, as oppose to its size or splendor), it's nonetheless a nice opportunity to escape from Roppongi's hustle-bustle, day or night. Not many people visit this temple at any time of day, but it's particularly deserted in the early morning, when many in Roppongi are still sound asleep from the previous night's festivities!
Take in a View of the Tokyo Skyline
If you visited Mori Art Museum, which is located on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Tower, it was probably impossible for you not to notice the amazing view you get through the windows. As a result, you should definitely make a point of coming back here, ideally around sunset — but make sure to stay until nightfall!
Whether you marvel at the Tokyo Tower as it lights up for the evening or, on a clear night, gaze out at the silhouette of Mount Fuji, this is one of Tokyo's very best panoramas. If you're a professional photographer (or an amateur trying to get a professional shot), you should keep in mind that tripods are only permitted within the enclosed portion of the observation deck, and that since bags aren't allowed, you'll need to hand-carry any additional lenses.
Have Yourself a Highball
You can't come all the way to Roppongi and not have a cocktail, right? One reason it's best to leave this until the end, however, is that there are too many choices. Do you duck into a traditional Japanese Izakaya pub and enjoy a highball made with local whisky, or stay up past midnight and dance your way through one of Roppongi's countless nightclubs?
The options are as limitless as all the other things to do in Roppongi, but one thing's clear: This is a part of Tokyo that definitely deserves a Kan-pai (that's Japanese for "cheers").