The 3 best neighborhoods in Tokyo
Tokyo is a unique megalopolis that does not fail to charm. This sprawling city-province is so heterogeneous and vast that it makes it impossible for anyone to define it precisely. The urban metro map alone is enough to make one dizzy! Indeed, it’s sheer size and subtle codes can make it difficult to navigate. What are the best neighborhoods in Tokyo and where should you start? Those are valid questions to ask!
My tip? Break it down in palatable bites. District by district! Prioritise discoveries on a local, walkable scale to ensure a slighly less overwhelming experience.
This area is known for being the host of the so-called “world’s busiest intersection” where thousands of onlookers, students and salarymen cross the street in a disorderly yet extremely fluid dance that only Japan seems to be capable of. Shibuya is dotted with skyscrapers, big neon signs, shopping malls and mainstream Japanese culture icons.
This is also where you find the famous harajuku alley, Takeshita-dōri, where all kinds of excesses in clothing and food are allowed. I was able to taste rainbow cotton candy twice the diameter of my head in the company of young Japanese girls all dressed in purple, hair included. An anthropological experience that has no equal! This is definitely one of the best neighborhoods in Tokyo for the hi-fi, futuristic Japan we see in the movies.
Think blinding neon lights, restaurants served by robots, deafening j-pop, animated arcades at all hours of the day and night!
Things to do in Shibuya:
- People watch at Shibuya Crossing
- Shop for Japan-made stationary at Hands
- Enjoy the free view of Tokyo on the 17th floor of Tokyu Plaza
- Experience conveyor belt sushi at Uobei Shibuya Dougenzaka
- Pay your respects at the Hachikō Memorial Statue
- Get coffee at About Life
- Have a beer in Shōwa-era style alley Nonbei Yokochō
- Shop for Japan-made home goods at Provenance
- Shop for traditional Japanese handicraft at pivoine (ピボワンヌ)
Dominated by its vertiginous five-story pagoda, this district is one of the best neighborhoods in Tokyo for visiting zen temples. A far cry from the hallucinogenic facades of Shibuya!
First stop is scarlet-colored Senso-Ji, the oldest in the capital. Its origins date back to the year 628! The main attraction here is the massive 12-metre high kaminarimon lantern, dedicated to the god of thunder. The gardens behind the pagoda are surprisingly bucolic.
In the shadow of the temple is another part of the secular Japanese heritage: the hanamachi of Asakusa. It is while wandering in the narrow streets surrounded by wooden houses belonging to an outdated era that I glimpsed real geishas, dressed in their most beautiful attire. What grace! What refinement! And above all, what a privilege to have met these women highly esteemed by the Japanese society.
Good to know: the temple is preceded by a long alley lined with small craft shops, Nakamise-dōri, where high quality knives, ceramics, chopsticks, tea sets and other Japanese tableware are sold. This is definitely a highlight of what is often described as the best neighborhoods in Tokyo!
Things to do in Asakusa:
- Eat ramen at Fuji Ramen
- Get coffee at zen café Sukemasa
- Admire the great paper lantern of Kaminarimon
- Explore Denboin Garden
- Taste matcha gelato at Suzukien
- Go on a cruise on Sumida River
- Eat at Michelin-starred Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku
- Shop for the famous Japanese food replicas at Ganso Sample
- Go atop Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center for a free panoramic view of the city
- Get coffee at Norwegian-inspired Fuglen Tokyo
- Taste the sweet ningyo-yaki at 150-year old Kimura Ningyōyaki
Ueno and Yanaka are infinitely more quiet than the previous two, making them the best neighborhoods in Tokyo to visit for a brush with locals and their traditions. A day of gourmet and zen discoveries on a human scale, punctuated by encounters which, despite the sometimes funny language barriers, made me discover a friendly and sincerely endearing Tokyo.
The little green lung is vast and welcoming; one should not miss to stop at the Ueno Toshogu and Shinobazunoike Bentend temples, peacefully flanked by a beautiful and peaceful pond.
Things to do in Ueno-Yanaka:
- Explore Ueno Park, especially during sakura season
- Have Udon noodles at Kamachiku
- Eat traditional taiyaki (fish-shaped sweet pastry) at Nezu Taiyaki
- Sit down for traditional sweets and tea at Torindo
- Shop for green tea at Kanekichi
- See classic Japanese masterpieces at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
- Shop for manekineko (good-fortune cat statues) at Nekoemon
- Visit the Ueno Toshogu shrine
- Taste dorayaki at Usagiya
- Ride a swan paddle boat at Shinobazu Pond
- Buy a Japanese knife in nearby Kappabashi
- Admire the torii gates at Nezu Shrine
- Get coffee at local Yanaka Coffee
- Explore the 800 year-old Tennōji temple
- Design your own hanko stamp at Shinimonogurui
- Explore the Edo-era streets in Yanesen