So you want to come to Tokyo and you’re looking for places to go, things to do, sights to see, and if I had to guess, amazing food to eat — I mean, c’mon, Tokyo is truly the food capital of the world (sorry France).
Well, you’re in the right place.
Boy, are you in the right place!
After 22+ years of living in Tokyo, I’ve learned a few things to help you enjoy this remarkable city.
But first, do you know where you’re going within Tokyo?
- Downtown Tokyo: The Wards and Districts
- The downtown wards come together like this
- Bunkyo (文京区)
- Chiyoda (千代田区)
- Chuo (中央区)
- Meguro (目黒区)
- Minato (港区)
- Nakano (中野区)
- Ota (大田区)
- Shibuya (渋谷区)
- Shinagawa (品川区)
- Shinjuku (新宿区)
- Sumida (墨田区)
- Taito (台東区)
- Toshima (豊島区)
Downtown Tokyo: The Wards and Districts
Tokyo is a sprawling mega-city that really feels more like a whole bunch of cities came together to form Tokyo (they did).
Check out my Tokyo orientation for a quick look at where Tokyo is and how the various wards/districts relate to each other on the map.
In a nutshell, there are 23 special wards that form what I like to call “downtown Tokyo.” Then to the West of those are a bunch of small cities forming the “suburbs” of Tokyo.
That leads into a question you probably have but don’t know you have it yet.
What is the difference between Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolis and Greater Tokyo?
Great question! 🙂
It breaks down simply like this.
Tokyo is the the 23 special wards (what I call “downtown Tokyo”).
Tokyo Metropolis is the special wards plus the tama area to the west (which I call the suburbs of Tokyo).
Finally, the greater Tokyo area is referring to Tokyo Metropolis plus some areas stretching into Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama (prefectures surrounding Tokyo).
That also means there’s a lot to see — and a lot for me to show you.
But rather than cover every tiny thing there is right now (I will update this guide with more and more over time), let’s start with the popular areas where you’ll find some really interesting things to enjoy in Tokyo.
Oh wait, before I go through each of the wards and why they’re awesome, let me show you how these downtown wards group together nicely.
The downtown wards come together like this
An important thing to keep straight in your mind while I cover the different wards/districts/areas, they’re all inside Tokyo and many are bunched together into hubs.
That’s not the official word for it, I simply mean they are close together enough that you could visit them at the same time.
They group something like this:
- Akihabara, Kanda, and Jimbocho
- Chiyoda – Imperial Palace
- Ebisu, Daikanyama, and Meguro
- Harajuku and Aoyama
- Roppongi and Akasaka
- Shimbashi and Shinagawa
- Tokyo Station and Marunouchi
Think of it like this. If you’re in Harajuku looking for that hot new t-shirt, you’re close enough to the Nezu Museum in Aoyama to check it out same day without wasting a lot of time.
This is how I’ll focus the other content on TokyoSpark for you. But now it’s time to touch on each ward.
The Bunkyo ward, located smack in the middle of downtown Tokyo, is mostly a residential area.
It is home to many parks and temples, but the most famous is the Rikugien garden, which you may have heard of. It’s popular with tourists since it’s a national garden and place of scenic beauty.
You’ll also find the Tokyo Dome City amusement park here — a free park to enter and enjoy rides, street food, spas, and more (note: rides, etc. inside the park cost individually).
The Chiyoda ward is impressive. First, it’s where the imperial palace is located, which you can visit during certain times of the year. But it also contains Akihabara, the electronics capital of, some would say, the world.
Plus Chiyoda has some of the most beautiful parks in Tokyo, art museums, and historical shrines.
Akihabara has two personalities. On one hand you will find almost any electronics goods you want.
On the other, it’s every geek’s dream (a geek is called otaku in Japanese) — anime, maid cafes, manga, and more for as far as the eye can see.
Jinbocho is where you’ll find antique books. It’s often referred to as “Book Town.” It’s also where you’ll discover lots of little curios – those rare, trinkets that are awesome to bring back and showcase in your home.
So are the interesting old books you’ll find here among the nearly 200 bookstores.
The Kanda area is home to the aptly named Kanda Shrine or Kanda-myojin. This shrine is over 1,200 years old and is close to Akihabara so you can take in some history after geeking out all day.
Also, some of the greatest festivals are held here, so plan for those — there’s nothing quite like festivals in Japan.
Even after 22+ years here I look forward to the festival season.
The Marunouchi area is tucked between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. It’s mostly a business area, but don’t let that deter you — there’s still a lot to see here, especially if you enjoy art, a good bowl of ramen, incredible skyscraper architecture, and shopping.
The Chuo ward is home to a couple of the most well-known areas in Tokyo: Ginza and Tsukiji. It also has the Yaesu area on the east side of Tokyo Station, where the Shinkansen “bullet train” terminal is located.
Ginza is literally the most expensive area to shop in Tokyo. It’s the Beverly Hills of Japan, packed with all the top brand names like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and more. Plus the up and comer boutique brands sprinkled throughout.
Tsukiji is so popular you probably already know about it if you’ve done even a little research into Tokyo. It’s home of the Tsukiji Fish Market — which, unfortunately, has changed quite a lot since the inner market was moved to the Toyosu Fish Market.
But Tsukiji is still where you will find the most incredible sushi and street food in Tokyo so don’t scratch it off your list.
The Meguro ward is typically a relaxed residential area nestled in the middle of downtown Tokyo with one massively remarkable appeal: the annual cherry blossom festival in Nakameguro.
Huge numbers of large, ancient cherry blossom trees line the Meguro River and when they blossom — OMG it’s beautiful, especially in the evening when paper lanterns light up the blossoms over the glistening river.
Jiyugaoka is a lesser-known area of Tokyo that is strikingly worthy of your time. It’s relaxed, attractive, and worldly — loaded with contemporary cafes and stylish craft shops.
The whole area looks nice because of the old-Europe style architecture and brick walkways.
The Minato ward is incredibly popular — probably one of the busiest tourist destinations in Tokyo.
The areas within the Minato ward are some of the most visited by locals too. Big name areas like Akasaka, Odaiba, and Roppongi all fall within Minato.
Akasaka is where the crown prince of Japan lives so it can’t be too bad, can it? While not as big-name as other areas, it is famous for the unique Ninja Akasaka restaurant, where you enter a hidden ninja lair for dinner.
Aoyama is an upscale, wealthy neighborhood. There are lots of international fashion shops and really good restaurants, especially some delicious tiny mom and pop shops down the small alleys.
Odaiba is actually an artificial island in Tokyo Bay! It’s a sightseers paradise. Malls with beautiful views of the Tokyo Bay, amusement game centers, Rainbow Bridge, Fuji TV headquarters, and even a giant Gundam. There is a ton to see here.
Omotesando isn’t really an “area” in Minato, it’s a road. A road lined with remarkable dining experiences, art, nature, fashion, crafts, and so much more.
It stretches from the Meiji Shrine all the way to Omotesando train station.
Roppongi is both a high-end, glamorous area and also the seedy underbelly of Tokyo nightlife. Where in one part you’re met with spectacular architecture, art, and beauty.
And on the other, it’s small disjointed roads packed with partygoers. It’s an eclectic mix that somehow works.
Shinbashi, or Shimbashi, isn’t as well know but it does have some perks. The massive skyscraper, Shiodome, has amazing restaurants with a magnificent view of the bay. In the winter there are spectacular illuminations too.
The Nakano ward is a nerd mecca much like Akihabara. It’s home to the Nakano Broadway Mall, which hosts the Mandrake shop — selling collectibles such as figures, cards, posters, and more — of famous actors/manga characters.
The Ota ward isn’t really on many people’s bucket list when in Japan, but it’s home to the Haneda airport — which is now an international airport.
So you may end up being here for a bit. Might as well discover what Ota has to offer right?
It really is incredible the sheer number of things there are to see and do in Shibuya. Down every tiny alley, there’s something interesting to discover. Like that perfect izakaya with the best food paired with unique drinks.
Center Gai (センター街)
Center Gai in Shibuya is just this tiny little section, but wow is it packed with boutique fashion, sub-culture, cool craft stores, and of course, amazing food and nightlife.
As you would guess, it’s smack in the middle of Shibuya, and it’s where the famous Shibuya “Scramble” crosswalk is located.
Dogenzaka is sort of the seedy nightlife area — a bit of a red-light district. However, during the day you’ll find its similar to many other areas, loaded with small shops and great food.
But it’s primarly where you’ll find quite a variety of night clubs and the famous love hotels of Japan.
Ebisu is nice. While it inside the bustle of downtown Tokyo, it feels more relaxed. The sidewalks are clean, brick, and trees add a lot to the atmosphere.
You’ll want to visit Ebisu for the incredible dining experiences here. It’s absolutely loaded with izakaya, restaurants, cafes, and more — including a few Michelin-starred restaurants.
Harajuku is renowned for street fashion, youth sub-culture, and inviting cafes and restaurants. If you stroll the streets here the plethora of independent specialty shops have so much to see.
Plus you’ll see stylish models in impromptu photo shoots on the streets.
It’s where the popular Takeshita street is located too. It is just this little pedestrian-only street lined with independent boutique fashion shops selling their own creations.
Hiroo is loaded with upscale shopping, unique craft souvenir stores, and a fantastic mixture of izakaya and restaurants.
The izakaya here tends to be a more stylish, modern and less “dark bar” experience. A place to meet friends, co-workers… similar to a cafe feel.
Yoyogi is where the ever-popular Yoyogi park is located — which is one of the largest parks in Tokyo. It’s where you will find relaxing green space in the urban jungle of the city.
Yoyogi park hosts events all year round and is also a place where many sub-culture groups meetup (like “car guy” or cosplay meetups).
The Shinagawa ward is not the most famous of wards, you may not have heard of it during your research. But it has quite a lot to see too, from historical sites, shrines, temples, parks, to things like art museums and even an aquarium.
Gotanda is a small area within Shinagawa where you’ll find an array of compact nightlife pubs, clubs, and izakaya.
The Shinjuku ward is world famous for the busiest train station in the world and basically having pretty much anything cool you want to see in Tokyo.
From the crazy labyrinth of a train station to the absolutely insane amount of eats, and everything in between, you could spend days just in Shinjuku and not waste your time.
Shinjuku is home to the world-renowned Kabukicho and Golden Gai areas.
Kabukicho is the largest red-light district in Tokyo. A compact area packed with not only host and hostess bars, nightclubs, and izakaya — but also amazing dining experiences too.
Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街)
Golden Gai is a maze of tiny alleys that transform into stand-up bars, izakaya, cafes, live music, and the awesome bustle of people shuffling through the tiny corridors.
The Sumida ward, in northeastern Tokyo, is probably one of the most famous wards that isn’t famous in name. What I mean is, the landmarks here are beyond famous — sights such as Tokyo Skytree, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and the striking Asahi Breweries headquarters.
Not to mention Sumida is home to the Ryogoku Kokugikan (the national sumo stadium).
And of course, surrounding these monumental sights are a plethora of amazing dining opportunities and other sites to see (such as the Sumida Aquarium).
The Taito ward is another you may not have heard of. Heck, I hardly hear that name used. But Taito is home to the famous Asakusa area with the Senso-Ji Temple and Ueno with the Ueno Zoo.
Taito is absolutely loaded with a ton to see and do like parks, temples, street food, cafes, upscale and downscale restaurants, and more.
Asakusa is a tourist mecca. The powerful and ancient Senso-Ji Temple is here with its high walls, giant lantern gated entrance, and dozens of street vendors selling interesting Japanese trinkets and delicious street food.
Ueno is home to beautiful parks, arts and entertainment, events, and of course, the Ueno Park — which contains the Ueno Zoo, insane cherry blossom festivals, incredible winter illuminations, and spacious green area to relax.
The Toshima ward is actually one of the big central wards in downtown Tokyo, but I don’t hear people talk about it much. At least, not directly.
The most popular areas inside Toshima are Ikebukuro and Sugamo. Those are what you’ll hear about.
Ikebukuro is this crazy area where the highway system fuses all together into an area packed with a ton to see and do like a planetarium, aquarium, giant shopping malls, themed kids game centers, event spaces for live music, ruddy izakaya, and nightlife… pretty much everything.
Sugamo is really interesting. It’s nicknamed the “Harajuku for old ladies.” I guess that’s because it has shops specializing in older style fashion and kimonos. But that’s not the interesting thing.
Sugamo has this weird tradition. When you visit the main temple here there is a white, padded, tuft of fur in a box. It is said to mimic a duck’s butt — and patting it brings health and good luck.
I told you it was weird, but it’s interesting at the same time, right?
Okay, phew… that was a high-level overview of the districts and areas in Tokyo. It’s probably not all going to make a lot of sense to you right now.
Once you’re in the middle of planning your time in Tokyo it will all begin to make sense. And, if you are a bit of a nomad, I believe the best Tokyo adventures are planned accidents.