What’s your take on Tokyo? We’re sorry to tell you that there aren’t any robots, samurais, or ninjas walking through the streets, locals don’t eat sushi every day, and not everyone dresses up like anime characters. People tend to make a lot of assumptions, so we’d like to give you a more realistic picture of this buzzing metropolis.
Kazue, one of our Tokyo locals, shares seven things only tourists do in her city. She hopes to help you avoid the touristy stuff and instead enjoy authentic experiences. She also arranges cool local tours to aid you in your quest of discovering Tokyo like a local.
1. See the tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market
While this is one of the top tourist attractions in Tokyo, it’s something locals scarcely do. The Tsukiji Fish Market consists of an inner wholesale market for professionals, and an outer market that’s open to everyone. The outer market is popular among locals, but recently it has become quite touristic.
The famous tuna auction takes place in the inner market from around 5 am to 6 am. These days some visitors start queuing at around 2 am because it gets so crowded. They wait quite a long time and the auction itself finishes very quickly. Most locals don’t go there simply because it’s not a place for amateurs.
Many travel guidebooks rave about this market, giving the impression that it’s the only wholesale fish market in Tokyo when in fact there are 11.
If you don’t want to wait a long time but still want to see a fish auction, consider visiting Ota Market – Japan’s biggest wholesale market. It has an observation room and a dedicated path for visitors. Auction times are as follows: fish market from 5:40 am, vegetable market from 6:50 am, fruit market from 7 am, and flower market from 7 am.
Photo credit: Alex Pierre
2. Visit the Robot Restaurant
Despite its name, Robot Restaurant is not a restaurant where AI robots serve food and drinks. It’s actually a unique cabaret show in Kabukicho – an entertainment and red light district in Shinjuku.
Guests pay approximately EUR 65/USD 75 to watch a show featuring huge “robots” and girls in sexy outfits dancing to loud Japanese-like music in a dazzlingly lit basement. Food and drinks aren’t included in the price.
While it’s extremely popular among tourists, very few locals go there. If you’re looking to visit someplace futuristic, Odaiba is a good option. This manmade island is popular among tourists as well as local families and couples.
You’ll find a gigantic Gundam statue, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, an artificial beach, and many other facilities that you can enjoy for free or very little money, for example Miraikan – the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and Megaweb – Toyota’s free theme park. The whole island looks like a huge amusement park, and at night you can enjoy fantastic views of Tokyo.
If you’d prefer some live entertainment, you can see authentic kabuki acts at the Kabuki Theatre in Ginza. The cheapest seats start at around EUR 9/USD 10 per single act, and there are English guide services available.
Photo credit: Richard Schneider
3. Take ninja lessons
Although popular among tourists, ninja training is something most locals have never even heard of. Participants wear ninja costumes and spend several hours learning about meditation, fighting techniques, and the history of the ninja.
I must say that it is interesting to learn about the ninja. They used to be professionally employed by feudal lords as assassins and spies. Their descendants live mainly in Koka City, Shiga, and Iga City, Mie in western Japan. Some of these areas have truly interesting facilities, for example Ninjutsu Yashiki in Shiga, which is an authentic house of a ninja clan.
If you’re staying in Tokyo, however, it’s good to know that there are other much more typical ways to explore Japanese mysticism. One option is to visit a Zen temple where you can practice meditation. The great thing is that you can participate for very little money, if not for free.
If you’re more enthusiastic about physical training, it’s worth contacting a dojo – a facility dedicated to a particular style of martial arts, for example judo, kendo, aikido, karate or shorinji-kenpo. All of these take a long time to master, but some dojo offer trial lessons.
For those seeking a more hard-core experience, there’s a famous temple called Yakuo-in in the city of Mount Takao where you can train in shugendo – a form of religious asceticism once practiced by ninja.
Photo credit: Danny Choo
4. Buy kimono/yukata-like robes
Some shops in touristic places such as Asakusa and the international airports sell kimono/yukata-like robes designed only for tourists. Being light and cheap, they are convenient souvenirs, but if you’re looking for something truly local, how about checking out real kimono/yukata?
In the past they were quite expensive, but these days there are many second-hand kimono and casual yukata available at reasonable prices. You can find them in local boutiques and department stores.
If you feel like buying traditional clothing is too much, then there are places where you can simply wear the kimono and have your photo taken by a professional photographer.
Photo credit: Robert Staudhammer
5. Take selfies at the Shibuya Crossing
The Shibuya Crossing, which is nothing more than a crowded crossing for locals, has become a touristic place where many visitors shoot videos and take photos. Some even stand right in the middle and take selfies. Besides mentioning that selfie-ing on a crowded crossing can be dangerous, it’s a pity that many people leave as soon as they’ve got a few good shots.
If you come to Shibuya, one of the most popular parts of Tokyo, you should definitely allow yourself some extra time to explore. Apart from famous attractions around Shibuya Station such as Shibuya 109, Center Gai, and Shibuya Hikarie, there’s a calmer, less-crowded district that some people call Oku-Shibuya (‘oku’ means ‘inner’ or ‘back’), which includes Kamiyamacho and Tomigaya.
You’ll find it behind the Tokyu Department Store Shibuya Honten, about a 10-minute walk from the station. This area is currently grabbing the attention of trend-conscious people with its sophisticated cafés, galleries, and charming old shops.
Photo credit: Candida.Performa
6. Wonder why the locals are wearing surgical masks
You’ll probably see many locals wearing surgical masks, especially in spring and winter. It looks really weird to tourists. Is there a contagious disease going around, or is the air seriously polluted? You shouldn’t be worried.
In spring, locals wear surgical masks to avoid inhaling the pollen of certain plants – around 25% of the population suffers from hay fever. In winter, the air is extremely dry, especially in eastern Japan, including Tokyo. People wear masks, which keep the mouth, nose and throat moist, to prevent colds and flus. Some young girls also wear masks to hide their faces or just for fashion.
So, don’t be afraid to talk to locals wearing surgical masks! You don’t have to hesitate to ask them for directions.
Photo credit: Matthew Kenwrick
7. Leave Tokyo before visiting its mountains and islands
Many guidebooks introduce Tokyo as completely urban, but around 40% of it is actually mountains and forests, and there are 300 islands! Before you get bored with the city’s jam-packed neighbourhoods and head elsewhere, how about exploring the hidden places?
For example, in Mount Mitake there are temple lodgings where you can experience Japanese spirituality first-hand. The Izu Islands and Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands are the best places for enjoying the nature, with activities such as bird watching, trekking and diving.
Photo credit: Quasimime