Saturday night in Shibuya against a backdrop of flashing neon ads and music from up above, walls of Japanese pedestrians stand ten people thick at each corner waiting to cross forward, back and diagonally once the light turns. When it does, a moving mosaic of people mingles in a remarkably orderly fashion through the intersection, and you find yourself wondering—like so many other weirdly wonderful moments in Japan—is this for real? In Tokyo there are a lot of people. Like 13,000,000 or so. It’s the world’s most populous city ahead, even, of Delhi and Shanghai. And as far as global cities go, Tokyo is uber hip. It’s uber everything, really. So shake off your jet lag and get ready to take a juicy bite out of the Big Mikan*. Here are 10 super cool and totally affordable things to see and do in Tokyo:
1Behold the youthful dazzle on Takeshita-dori.
If you want to feel the pulse of Tokyo, go where the young people go. This narrow shopping street in Harajuku teems with young, trendsetting Tokyoites browsing the fashion boutiques and chattering away in the cafes and restaurants lining both sides of the street. On Takeshita-dori, teenagers dress up in cosplay (costume play), parading around as their favorite Japanese anime characters or going Goth with outlandish looks of leather, lace, dyed hair, painted faces and thick black eye liner. Giggling girls twirling frilly parasols go by in baby doll dresses and fancy pinafores, legs peeking out with kooky patterned socks pulled up over their knees. Giant bows adorn their girlie ponytails. It’s like stepping into your very own Japanese cartoon land.
2Be a part of manga culture in Akihabara.
Akihabara district has been called Otaku Paradise, an oasis for Japanese pop culture nerds who come here to shop for everything anime, as well as games, manga (comic books), and the latest gadgets and electronics. Anime refers to the the Japanese animated cartoons loved by children and adults alike, and increasingly popular and influential outside Japan. Easily recognized by their characteristic wide-eyed people and animals (think Kimba the White Lion or Speed Racer), anime can be thought-provoking and imbued with life lessons.
Akihabara is also where “maid cafes” have sprung up, a cosplay phenomenon featuring young girls in French maid-inspired uniforms serving up tea, coffee and refreshments. Your maid will role play, never breaking out of character, as your very own servant.
3Get assimilated at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku.
Mr. Roboto is alive and well in Shinjuku. You’ve never seen such a display of lights, sequins, girls on motorbikes, feathered headdresses and tiaras—a dancing, drumming robotic carnival involving people dressed up in bizarre animal costumes and performing nonsensical skits that nobody understands but will leave you enthralled, nonetheless. All for about US$70 plus another $9 for a meal. Reservations required, of course.
4Show some respect at Meiji Jingu.
The Meiji Shrine and public park is a spiritual tribute to the Emperor Meiji, perhaps the country’s most beloved leader who opened the doors of Japan to Western influence in 1868 after several hundred years of relative seclusion from the outside world. Meiji brought technological change as well as world literature and new ways of thinking to Japan. Here he is enshrined as a deity in Japan’s ancient Shinto religion, an animistic view of life in which there are spirits in everything. (Remember: Shrines are Shinto, temples are Buddhist.) Read up on shrine etiquette beforehand.
5Take the cable car up Mt. Takao (Takao-zan).
Just an hour outside of Tokyo, take the cable car or lift halfway up Mt. Takao, then climb the remaining 40 minutes to the top for a most exquisite view of Mt. Fuji. Visit the temples on the way back down the mountain, making offerings to Buddha and uttering prayers of thanks you didn’t fall out of the lift on the way down (no safety bar!). Round trip cable car or lift is less than US$10. Takao is also home to the Takao Monkey Park where a community of 50 monkeys frolic and perform for tourists.
6Take a bath, Japanese style.
You’ll be able to say you really “did” Japan if you visit a local sento (public bath house) or venture to an onsen (spa-esque bathing in volcanic spring water). Bathing in Japan is a ritualistic experience that often includes a sauna, outdoor spring, whirlpool baths and massage options. Men and women bathe separately, but be prepared to get naked in front of the same sex, and quite possibly be ogled. Be mindful of shoe and slipper etiquette as well (you’ll wear different slippers for the bath than you wear for walking around the facility) and be sure to take a shower first. Plenty of shampoo and liquid soap is provided in the showers and you’ll be given a towel that’s about the size of a kitchen dish towel. There’s nowhere to hide! But once you slip into the bath, a wide-open steaming pool you’ll share with other bathers, close your eyes and luxuriate in one of the most blissful cultural experiences you can imagine—especially in winter! You can visit a Tokyo bath house for US$4–$22. Going to an onsen is a more luxe experience that usually involves an overnight stay in a traditional Japanese inn.
7Eat with the season.
In the winter months, especially, it’s customary to eat nabe, a Japanese stew that may consist of meat or seafood and a bounty of vegetables like daikon (Japanese radish), enoki mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and udon noodles. Every region of the country has its own variation on nabe and families often have their own renditions as well. Not to be confused with “noodle soup” found in ramen shops, nabe can only be had if you’re invited to someone’s home or you go to a place that serves it up, like Nabezo in Shinjuku and other Tokyo locations. For about US$17 you’ll feast like a local. A tasty bowl of ramen is good any time of year and you can easily spot a ramen shop marked with a short curtain over the door and patrons often standing at a tiny bar within. A hearty bowl of ramen is quick, cheap and tasty, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with Japanese so you can watch them slurping the noodles and drinking broth from the bowl—all the etiquette lessons you’ll need to fit right in.
8Experience Tokyo through the ages at Edo-Tokyo Museum.
Step back in time to the Edo period (1603–1868) and wander through a fascinating, life-size exhibit featuring different “corners,” such as Aesthetics of Edo, Edo’s Four Seasons and Entertainment Districts, Commerce of Edo, and Theatres and Pleasure Districts. You’ll feel like you’re a part of the elaborate scenery complete with full-scale buildings, shops and home interiors, as well as models of festivals and bustling street life. You’ll then cross a wooden bridge into “Tokyo” and experience life and culture from the Meiji Restoration to modern day. At the Edo-Tokyo Museum, you’ll easily absorb 400 years of history in an afternoon for about US$5.
9Get lost at Tokyo DisneySea.
While you might not think to go halfway around the world to an American-inspired amusement park, Tokyo Disney Resort does have a few surprises you won’t find anywhere else on the globe. Adjacent to the main amusement park (Cinderella’s castle and so forth) is Tokyo DisneySea, a nautical extravaganza catering more to adults. You can glide along in a Venetian gondola in the Mediterranean Harbor. On the American Waterfront, subject yourself to the Tower of Terror, a haunting ride that takes you to the top floor of a mysterious 1912 New York Hotel. Or spin and twirl in giant bumper boats in Aquatopia. It’s about US$60 for a day-pass at Tokyo Disney Resort.
10Tap into your soul at a live jazz house.
An unexpected find in Tokyo is jazz culture, often in minuscule spaces where people go to simply hear recorded jazz or see a favorite performer on screen. For live jazz performances, the jazz houses host a bevvy of internationally known musicians and groups, as well as local performers. When the music starts to play, a reverence sets in and Japanese audiences tend to be immensely present to the music. To take in some stellar entertainment try B Flat, a jazz live house venue in Akasaka where you can enjoy two evening sets for about US$22. At Chigusa, a jazz café in Yokohama that’s been around since 1933, they play vinyl recordings, and you can put in requests. The venue has some live shows as well.
At the end of the day you’ll likely be shindoi (completely exhausted) and looking to kick back with a can of Kirin or a cup of hot green tea. So drink up, drink in, and get ready to do it all again tomorrow. This is Tokyo, man—and it’s for real.
* Mikan = clementine orange. The Big Mikan, as Tokyo is affectionately called, is Japan’s variation on the Big Apple.