A local's guide to Tokyo

This enticing city is a whirlwind mash-up of the hyper-new and traditional culture. Experience it all with an insider's tips for the best things to do on a weekend getaway.

The Shibuya Crossing is a must-see in Tokyo
  • Selena Hoy
  • February 2019

There's a reason this city has a magnetic attraction for travellers. From the soaring heights of Tokyo opens in new window Tower to the depths of an edgy basement bar in the Shimokitazawa neighbourhood, there is something special on offer, no matter what your perspective. And you can experience Tokyo's highlights even on a short trip - you just need to know where to go.

Shibuya Crossing

They may look like disordered ants from above; everyone dodging and weaving through the famous Shibuya Crossing surrounded by big, blaring screens but the crowd quickly clears as the light changes. After snapping the obligatory pics from the Starbucks overlooking the crossing, join the fray and hit up an izakaya (casual pub) such as Shunju opens in new window, which features dishes like made-to-order steamed pot rice with mushrooms. Then, duck into one of the many karaoke venues that pepper the streets to belt out your best J-pop renditions.

Shibamata Taishakuten temple

For a glimpse into old-fashioned Tokyo, head to “Temple Street” in Shibamata. The shopping strip opens in new window ends at Shibamata Taishakuten, a Buddhist temple covered in intricate wooden carvings that dates back to the 1600s. Handsome old shops with authentic wooden signboards line the street and vendors hawk freshly made rice crackers, traditional children’s toys like wooden spinning tops and kaleidoscopes, sweets such as mochi and dango and religious items like incense and prayer beads. Get a snack, pick up souvenirs and marinate in the nostalgic charm.

You can find authentic local food to go on Temple Street
You can find authentic local food to go on Temple Street.

Nezu Museum

As you step off the upscale Omotesando avenue, a bamboo-lined walkway ushers you into the oasis that is Nezu Museum opens in new window. The museum has a collection of more than 7000 pre-modern Japanese and East-Asian artworks, including many Buddhist pieces. The sleek building, designed by architect Kengo Kuma, is a modern foil to the ancient works, while the garden outside lets you amble along winding paths, over tinkling brooks and past tiny tea rooms shaded by Japanese maples.

See historic Japanese artworks at the tranquil Nezu Museum
See historic Japanese artworks at the tranquil Nezu Museum.

Neco Republic

With the growing popularity of animal cafés where you can coo over creatures such as owls, hedgehogs and, of course, cats (where it all began), a dark side has emerged – there is concern over animal welfare and some establishments have been shut down. However, there are some that are doing it right – Neco Republic’s opens in new window mission is to stop the culling of stray cats in Japan and the cats at the café are adoptable. All the snuggles and helping cats too – it’s a win!

Cuddle up at the Neco Republic cat cafe
Cuddle up at the Neco Republic cat cafe.

Tokyo Tower

With a population of 13 million (and nearly 38 million in the greater metropolitan area), the magnitude of Tokyo can be hard to wrap your head around. Put the busy city in perspective from the beloved 333-metre Tokyo Tower opens in new window, where you can see across the vast metropolis and beyond – all the way to Mount Fuji, 135 kilometres to the south-west. At the foot of the tower, Tofuya Ukai restaurant opens in new window offers exquisite multi-course meals in a classic garden setting with dishes such as deep-fried tofu with miso and char-grilled wagyu beef.

Witness the busy streets below from Tokyo Tower
Witness the busy streets below from Tokyo Tower.

Café Trois Chambres

If you love pour-over coffee, head to classic kissaten Café Trois Chambres opens in new window, near Shimokitazawa Station (a few stops from Shinjuku). The coffee house has been around since 1980 and locals like to linger here over a book, listening to jazz. Their specialty is individually prepared hand-drip coffee. The hip Shimokitazawa neighborhood in western Tokyo is known for its alternative lifestyle, with plenty of thrift stores, ethnic restaurants and live music clubs. Trois Chambers is open until 11pm, so if you’re in the area after dark, pop in to a club like Basement Bar opens in new window to catch indie and punk live performances.