What You Should Skip Doing in Tokyo (and what to do instead)
There is so much to see and do in Tokyo, and unless you're armed with a month or two to explore it, chances are you might have to be more careful with how you spend your time to ensure you see and do everything on your bucket list! While Tokyo is devoid of "scams" which plague some other cities in Asia, there are some overrated attractions which aren't worth your time or money. Hopefully, this list will help you make the most of this magical city!
Don't go up Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree
A view from atop the city, especially somewhere as large and spread out as Tokyo, is always a valuable experience. But the lines and cost for Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree far exceed the enjoyment you'll get once you get to the top. If you're only in Tokyo for a week, chances are you don't want to spend some of that time, lined up for a trip up an elevator.
Instead, travel over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and take the elevator up to the rooftop where you get an unbelievable view of the city, PLUS a view of the Skytree itself. If you're looking for a view that comes with a stylish rooftop garden then header over to the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando in Harajuku where the 7th floor provides a stunning green space with ample room for relaxing. Despite the fact that there is a Starbucks which the gardens back out on, you can grab your own food and drinks up to the top. It really is the perfect place for a conbini picnic ("conbini" is a short term word for Japanese convenience stores).
Don't get caught up looking up restaurants on Yelp or Tabelog
Often when travelling, you want to make the most out of your experiences and don't want to waste your money on a touristy or subpar restaurant. For this reason, even I find myself obsessively looking up reviews of where I want to eat whenever I'm travelling. Sometimes this is done in advance but when I'm stuck reading review after review in the middle of my adventure I can't but help feel like I'm wasting precious travel time. In Japan, this is just not necessary. You can close your eyes and twirl around to walk straight into a restaurant with the best food you've ever eaten!
Instead, walk in anywhere with a line or with a gaggle of locals happily chowing down inside. Don't waste your time trying to find the perfect place to eat, instead, wander until something calls your name and draws you in. If there is one particular restaurant, you ABSOLUTELY have to find, then make sure to make reservations because popular joints in Tokyo often fill up in advance very quickly.
Don't go out of your way to visit only the popular shrines
Meiji Shrine is often at the top of every traveller's list, but honestly, there are so many other shrines just as impressive all over Tokyo that you will just happen upon. Although it is perhaps the biggest and most notable, there are so many other I would rate much higher. Don't stress and go far out of your way or wait in long, long line for these so-called "must-see" shrines.
Instead, skips the lines and find a hidden neighbourhood shrine with a far more peaceful atmosphere. The best part of the Meiji Shrine are the sake barrels in front which can be visited before entering the shrine without waiting in a long line. The most beautiful shrine I found in Tokyo was one I had never heard of before all the way in Akasaka. I won't tell you where (although I do talk about it in some of my other blogs) since I want you to go out and find your own unique place! If you do - let me know in the comments!
Don't have your daily coffee in a coffee shop
While there are some incredibly cool coffee shops in Tokyo, they are generally pretty expensive since coffee-shop coffee is considered a luxury. A Starbucks frappucino will run you about 9$ USD for a tall!
Instead, head to your local conbini and have fun trying out all different kinds of coffee inside. There are dozens upon dozens of flavours and strengths inside hot and cold cans as well as gourmet brewed fresh coffee which you can buy at the front of the store. If you add milk to your coffee, it even comes out frothed and foamed! I think I prefer the coffee at 7-Eleven to Lawsons or Family Mart but they'll all really good. There are even cold Starbucks coffees and blended drinks available in regular and specialty flavours at a fourth of the price you'd pay in a Starbucks shops - so skip the lines and buy them here!
Don't buy your souvenirs at souvenir shops
I'm not talking about something unique like a handmade Kimono from Kyoto; I'm talking about the little knick-knacks you might find in those cheezy tourist shops purposefully placed right in front of popular attractions. They will always be priced for convenience, not value.
Instead, head to the nearest 100 yen shop! 100 yen shops are the coolest place to find all sorts of things to use both on your trip and when you get home. If you are a crafty person, you'll find some adorable and CHEAP items here like notebooks, stickers, washi tape and more! It was honestly hard for me to hold back from buying up the entire section. But best of all are the things for sale here for our purposes are the souvenirs. You can find delightful Japanese themed magnetics, ceramic bowls with cherry blossoms, bamboo chopstick sets and more - all for only 100 yen (plus tax).
TIP: most 100 yen shops only take cash. If you don't want to spend all your cash here, try the DAISO in Harajuku. Since they deal with such large purchases due to being in a tourist-traffic area, they are currently accepting credit cards.
Don't drink in the Golden Gai
Golden Gai is one of those long talked about tourist attractions that is the only real "scammy" areas in Japan. Golden Gai is located in Shinjuku and is known for its narrow, winding alleys and teeny-tiny bars. They charge outrageous prices just to get in the door of some of these establishments. Each one has a different theme and fits about 6-8 people. Some of the bars roundly object to foreigners, so much so that they have signs outside saying "no nonnatives" or "For Japanese speakers only". The ones that do let tourists inside have overpriced drinks, and any sense of authenticity has long since been lost.
Instead head down to Shinjuku's Omoide Yokocho. Omoide Yokocho or Memory Lane is a gritty little district also in Shinjuku, and has the funny English nickname "Piss Alley". Despite the name, this place is happening! It is full of locals and tourists alike, making new friends and drinking delicious cups of sake and Japanese craft beer at reasonable prices! This is a great area to meet new Japanese friends who can introduce you to all sorts of hidden gems.
If you're looking for other great nighttime activities be sure to check out alltherooms’s blog! Valentina does a fantastic job at listing all the best Tokyo experiences from fine-dining to miniature-sized pubs to robot dinosaur battles!
Don't get lured into going to a Maid Cafe
Maid Cafes are all over the place in neighbourhoods like Akihabara. You'll see cute, young girls dressed in maid uniforms on the street handing out flyers, inviting you into their cafes. If this sounds a bit, well, sketchy then you might be right. Inside these maid cafes, you'll find cutesy interiors where the maids putter about serving overpriced food and drinks. Some of the meals are decorated or moulded to look like adorable animals, but the food itself is rather bland and unimpressive. Pictures with the maids are often an additional charge, and you can even pay them to sing you a song at your table. While they've fallen out of favour with locals, they are still gaining popularity with tourists for the weirdness of the experience. And while it's not a total scam and is indeed a bizarre experience, there are plenty of other fantastically themed restaurants where you can find the same impressive theming without forcing women to dress in degrading uniforms.
Instead, try visiting any of the Alices in Wonderland restaurants! There are three different versions of these restaurants in Tokyo, and each one is slightly different but just as magical. The Zauo Fishing Restaurant is another unusual kind of eatery. Here you have to catch your own dinner. You get a rod and some bait and attempt to catch the exact fish you want to eat. If you manage to catch something, they'll cook it up any way you like. If you don't manage to catch anything, not to worry, there are still lots of menu items you can order as well! The LockUp is a haunting restaurant where you'll be chased by monsters, drink spooky cocktails and dine on wild dishes - an experience you won't soon forget.
Don't visit Takeshita Dori if you're looking for Tokyo's Underground Fashion Scene
Harajuku is still a wildly exciting place to shop, but the more avant-garde dressers and shops have been replaced with big brands and hoards of tourists. While I still have fun visiting Harajuku, don't come here expecting to see Lolitas, goths and punks roaming the streets.
Instead, head over to Shimokitazawa. Shimokitazawa is where you'll find some of the best-curated vintage shops in all of Tokyo. The fashionable kids who have fled Harajuku, away from the tourists, are now all set up in Shimokitazawa. There are dozens of eclectic restaurants, cafes and best of all - clothing shops, open up and down the hilly alleyways of this delightful district.
And finally...don't spend all your time in Tokyo!
Even if you only have a week in this great city and can't make it out to other cities like Kyoto, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (although if you can swing it, I highly recommend you do!), there are dozens of small towns only a few hours train ride away from Tokyo. These places which will transport you away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and into the peaceful countryside. Nikko, Enoshima, Hakone and Kamakura are just some of the beautiful cities which will give you a glimpse into another side of Japan. Perhaps something which will give you a taste of the other side of this magical island and force you to find time to return!
And if you're anything like me, it will be again, and again, and again, and again...