One of my favorite ways to explore is finding a place to start and just walking. Anywhere. For me, this beats all other types of tourism. It’s like trying to find hidden gems when you’re in sensory overload with new sounds, smells and sights. Here, I’ll share some of my favorite walks in Tokyo so far through photo stories and brief descriptions*.
*To be sensitive of privacy, I’ve either cropped or only used photos of people without their faces turned to me.
Walk One: Soshigaya-Setagaya-ku, Tōkyō
We take nearly daily walks around our little, lovely neighborhood, filled with all the things any person needs. The photo story below is just one example of a typical walk.
Walk Two: Shimo-kitazawa-Setagaya-ku, Tōkyō
I found Shimo-kitazawa on the map by accident when looking for Tokyo’s most delicious curry options. This place was filled with them. When we arrived, we noticed a distinct smell of coffee roasting, over-priced shaved ice desserts, and an eery number of consignment clothing shops with some mysteriously hefty prices. It took us all of 30 seconds before we realized we were in the hipster district of Tokyo. We had, after all, lived in San Francisco. While Harajuku is the tourist version of hip, Shimo-kitazawa with its four coffee shops on each block and fusion curry-Japanese food, is the new cool kids’ place to roam.
Walk Three: The Tama River, Tōkyō
Due south of us is a river that separates the Tokyo suburbs from the mountain ranges. On a clear day, you can see the bluish mountains against the river. It was our first weekend in Japan and we had spent the day before walking all over downtown Tokyo. So we decided to explore some less traveled routes and wanted to see the river. I’m so glad we did this because the number of parks and small museums we passed on the way was well-worth it and unlike anything we saw in Central Tokyo. We also knew we were doing something right when the only other visitors were Japanese.
After we walked out of the farm, we thought we had struck our luck of the day. Then, we found this random bamboo park.
We finished our walk by spotting the friendliest firetrucks I’ve ever seen.
Walk Four: Central Tokyo with a highlight on Harajuku
When our first weekend in Tokyo arrived we left our apartment early and walked around all of the major central neighborhoods of Tokyo. We started in Shinjuku and quickly walked to:
- Shibuya, a huge shopping district famous for the Shibuya crossing. Quite frankly, I was not a fan because of the crowds, and my Company made me do the crossing. Twice. I’m not sure I’ll make it back there before the end of our trip.
- Yoyogi Park, a large park in Central Tokyo with the Meiji shrine where we saw a wedding (this is very common) and took some reprieve from the city on a hot day.
- Harajuku, where the cool kids go (sometimes in costume on Sundays) and where I got a little taste of some weirdness, an undercurrent I’ll be spending an entire blog piece about.
- Omote-sando, where there’s some pretty tasty food to go with your shopping (hint: Patagonia is here).
- Roppongi, where my Company tried hard to convince me that this neighborhood”was the sketchiest area of Tokyo (FYI, this is where Google and many other US tech companies have their offices), and
- Finally had dinner with friends in Azabujan, one of Tokyo’s posher, old money neighborhoods.
Shinjuku: Games for everyone!
Shibuya: people, people, people.
Harajuku: A place of magical things and weird art
Yoyogi Park: Peace in a busy city
At about this point in the day, we had been out for a while and retreated back out to Harajuku to a cafe for some afternoon coffee and snack before we began our night tour into Roppongi and Azajuban. We walked hours that day, looking at the various hedge hog and owl cafes, debating which ramen bar to check out, and marking every single place we had to pass up for a visit another day.
Walk Five: Shinjuku-Kabukicho
One of my favorite activities is to go out at dark and observe the Tokyo nightlife, which is really unlike anything I’ve seen before. People work very hard and go out just as hard. On a Friday or Saturday night, downtown is filled with suited men, sleeping in bushes or straight up on the sidewalk after a night out drinking. Between that and the various “cafes” (ahem, maid and butler cafes), it was as if a different side of the country comes out once the sun goes down. I’ll be dedicating an entire blog piece to this, but here’s a quick walking photo tour. Note*: many places like Golden Gai (the drinking block of Shinjuku) do not allow photos inside, so these photos are from a distance.
Start the evening with some arcades.
Picking a place to eat can be really hard here.
Picking a drinking hole is not much easier. Golden Gai has become quite famous recently as one of the most interesting places to grab a drink. It’s essentially a few blocks completely filled with 6-12 seater bars, the size of large shipping containers, each with their own style, drink menu and customs. Luckily, Golden Gai is exclusive enough that many bars will explicitly say on the sign outside whether they welcome tourists or not. Many places save seats for their regular customers, which I always found really interesting. It’s as if some dude opened a bar just to serve his friends. We ended up going to the tourist friendly Albatross, which is an unusual three floors high, for some fancy cocktails. Also, get used to the $5-10/per-person cover charge here when you go to a place to drink.
Save some room for a late night snack after all this exploration! There’s a lot of places open with yakitori (meat skewers) or ramen, but just be aware that the subway stops running around midnight. So if it’s a big night out, finding a cab is – thankfully – pretty easy in Tokyo (though expensive).