European travel guru Rick Steves says if you’ve packed your travel schedule too full, there will come a time when you won’t cross the street to visit another cathedral, no matter how old or how beautiful it is. The same could be said of touring shrines and temples in Japan. They are exquisite and not to be missed, but to avoid “it’s just another old building” syndrome, it’s important to build in some different kind of sightseeing days, including ones where you simply slow down.
Set history aside, and soak up the local culture, find a good spot to observe the passing scene, or see something else unique. Here are seven places in Tokyo that meet one or more of these criteria. They might not be on your must-see list, but a couple probably are. I’m including them for the amazing people-watching opportunities they offer on a more relaxed day of sightseeing.
Featured in the Japan section of Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, which my daughter gave me for Christmas, I was intrigued when they wrote that this odd little museum was becoming a “date destination” for young people. Because it was within walking distance of our Tokyo hotel, we decided to check it out.
For its size, it packs a powerful punch in the gut — I hope not the parasite-infected gut. Ew. Filled with specimens that feed off humans and animals, it definitely left an lasting impact on us. Whether that’s good or not, I don’t know.
I will still eat sushi, but never again so freely.
I was hesitant to go to one of Tokyo’s popular animal cafes, unsure if it was good for the star attractions, but the Japanese seem to love them so we decided to see what all the hubbub was about. Our choices were plentiful: cats, dogs, owls, rabbits, and hedgehogs. While it was tempting to visit an owl cafe, because that seemed the most exotic, it seemed like the worst choice for animal welfare. We’d seen a few owls on the street, perched on arms or shoulders of young girls, as marketing for these cafes. That was close enough for us.
We chose Harry Hedgehog Cafe in Roppongi. We arrived when it opened and paid about $12 each for a 30-minute visit. Staff showed us how to gently scoop them up with both hands, and instructed us to hold them over the tank.
The novelty, for us, wore off within 10-minutes. The novelty for the hedgehogs wore off before we arrived, I think. They did not want to be held, by either of us. We left them alone before long and just peered at them in their tank, where they slept, curled up and shoved as far into a corner as they could manage.
Signage in the cafe explained that most hedgehogs don’t crave human interaction. Staff rotate them throughout the day so they don’t get too much. I wondered if any interaction was too much. Another sign instructed us not to “eat” the hedgehogs, no matter how cute they were. I think they must have meant “kiss” or put them too close to your face.
Also note: While they had a drink machine in the corner, that was it for the “cafe.” There was no food, other than for the hedgehogs.
Within walking distance of the hedgehog cafe is the Mori Art Museum, also in Roppongi. If the temporary exhibits that were there in January are any indication of the types this museum draws regularly, then go. It’s at least worth checking to see what’s on view when you’re in town.
We were wowed.
We caught the first day of a Space Invaders exhibit. Yes, the 80s video game. There was Space Invaders, the rocking climbing game. Space Invaders, the giant floor game. Space Invaders, the giant video screen game, and we almost (or maybe we did) get on the local news. There was a reporter and photographer there covering the exhibit opening.
After we had our fill of retro, we stumbled into the stunning Leandro Erlich Seeing and Believing exhibit. Erlich is an Argentinian artist who is a master of illusion. We’ve never had so much interactive fun in an art museum.
And of course, the Tokyo view from the top floor of the Mori is worth the visit, all on its own.
Would I go again to Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant? No.
Am I glad I went once? Absolutely. It was the cheesiest, most over-the-top, sensory- assaulting, blatant marketing suck I’ve ever seen. If you can leave the critic at home and enjoy it for what it is, it can be good fun. If you can leave your claustrophobia, and knowledge of the U.S. fire code, at home, it can be great fun.
We had some trouble with the latter. We were crammed into a theater too small for the size of the audience and the size of the cast, not to mention the massive props. Worse, fire was part of the show. My uncle, a former fire marshall, would have had this place shut down and demolished.
We came out happy to be alive, and glad we experienced it — once.
Golden Gai, several narrow lanes worth of tiny, hole-in-the-wall bars, is worth the wander after the Robot Show, even if you aren’t drinking. And we weren’t.
Apparently, this area is how much of Tokyo looked before skyscrapers and wide city streets took over. The lanes are narrow, the shops are no more than two stories, and each building is packed with individually owned bars. I’ve read that many of them are for regular patrons only, but we saw plenty that welcomed tourists. It was a fun place to explore.
Tokyo is the largest city, by population, in the world. More than 37 million people live in this giant metropolis made up of 47 prefectures. There’s no better way to get a feel for how massive this number is than by spending some time people-watching in one of the city’s massive train stations.
No doubt you’ll be passing through manystations when you’re in Tokyo. If you’re smart, it won’t be during commuter hours when the trains are so that packed white-gloved workers push people in through the train doors to make room for more.
However, morning and evening commute is a great time to people watch.
We took this video from a Starbucks perched above the morning commuters at Shinagawa station. It was mesmerizing, like a fully choreographed dance to which we had front row seats. The size of the crowd, and their low-rumble sound, is constant, and it goes on for hours.
Hachiko and the Shibuya Scramble
I met my husband at the Hachiko statue outside Shibuya station (follow the signs to the Hachiko exit) after his business meetings. When I suggested the spot, I had no idea this was one of “the” meet-up spots in Tokyo. I waited for a good 45-minutes or so, and enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere here. There’s a lot to take in.
First, Hachiko. Hachiko is a dog who accompanied his owner, a professor, to this train station every day, morning and evening, for many years in the 1920s. One evening, however, the professor did not return to his canine companion. He had died at work. But Hachiko waited, and continued to wait, every day at the same time, for more than nine years.
Hachiko still waits, in statue form. And people come from all over to see him.
When I wasn’t watching the selfie-snaps of Hachiko, I watched the fascinating display of video billboards above the Shibuya Scramble, the world’s busiest intersection. It’s the Times Square of Tokyo (or Times Square is the Shibuya of NYC) and the videos get quite creative, utilizing multiple screens.
And of course, there’s the scramble-watching itself. There’s a conveniently placed Starbucks perched above it, if you can find a seat. Or, you can also see it from the large train station windows. More than 2,500 people at a time can traverse the ten lanes of traffic here, using a crisscross of crosswalks and well-timed lights. It’s quite a sight to see.
Takeshita Street in Harajuku
Takeshita is a hub of teen life in Tokyo and while I didn’t want to spend a lot of time here myself, it’s a must for the people watching. Colorful teen fashions, and equally colorful sweet treats, line both sides of the street.
Lastly, I highly recommend visiting a cemetery. Among the largest in Tokyo is Aoyama Cemetery. A visit here is a remarkably peaceful respite from the busyness of the city. It’s quiet, the smell of incense hangs in the air, and I saw only one other person in the whole time I walked among the former residents of this city.