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Tokyo: the home of neon lights, mind-bending maze-like subway stations, boundary-pushing fashion and general sensory overload. Every visitor to the Japanese metropolis returns home with myriad stories of sights, sounds and experiences like no other. So where do you even begin? Right this way...
Shibuya Crossing (davidf/istockphoto)
To fully appreciate the scale and density and all the twinkling lights, a trip up a skyline icon is essential. But forget the Tokyo Skytree—make a beeline for the free lookouts at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. While the Skytree's highest observation deck gets you 1470 feet up, you'll get a better view of Tokyo from the TMGB in the city center. It's a bit of a confusing maze to get to the entrance, but once you make it and have your bags scanned, it's worth it for the view from the Kenzo Tange-designed complex.
Both the north and south towers have observation decks, with the south offering a cafe and the north home to a bar to suit its later opening hours. If you're looking for other places to get your vertigo on, hop over to the other side of the city to Bunkyo Civic Center (a.k.a. the giant Pez dispenser), which has another free observation deck. While not as high as the TMGB's, you'll enjoy quality views of Mount Fuji and the city.
A trip (or three) to Harajuku is a must while you're in town. Step off the subway with the inevitable tourist hordes and cool teens and soak up the sights. When you're ready to venture a little further than overstimulating Takeshita Street and flashy Meiji-jingumae, walk just another block over to reach Harajuku Street and beyond.
There's an array of niche fashion spots to pick up bargain one-off pieces (check out Kinsella), and you can get a decent caffeine hit from Streamer Coffee (the three story, skinny black building) and an A+ meal from Mominoki House while you're there. If you're in the mood for a birds-eye view of the area, get back onto Meiji-jingumae and up to the top of Tokyu Plaza. There's a rooftop beer garden and you can chill on the seats among the trees and look down over Tokyo's fashion capital.
Sundays are ideal for exploring—being a weekend, you'll see a noticeable change from the inescapable black and white uniforms of businesspeople, with more decked-out locals out and about, enjoying their time off. If you're lucky, you might spot the rockabilly dancers near the Harajuku entrance to Yoyogi Park on a Sunday afternoon—on weekdays they're just your average salarymen, on weekends they're slicked-back '50s dance heroes battling it out for fast footwork supremacy.
In Harajuku (ponsulak/istockphoto)
Don't hold out for the best-reviewed restaurants and five star eateries—eat all the things. Intriguing hole-in-the-wall places abound, and you'll have more luck hunting for your own treasure rather than chasing down an elusive Japanese address from Yelp. I asked my host if he had any specific recommendations for tracking down top-quality sushi. "Everywhere," he told me. "If a restaurant is not good in Tokyo, it will disappear fast. People will not go there."
He wasn't kidding. Every random joint I set foot in was spectacular, and they'll serve up fresh sushi, ramen, tempura and okonomiyaki 'til you can't possibly stuff any more into your ravenous tourist food-hole. A lot of places will have Japanese and English menus on hand, and if you're really lost, plastic food examples you can point at (ichi o kudasai—I'll have that one).
A booth at Ichiran (Jessica Warriner/Gothamist)
Ichiran is a popular starting place for Tonkotsu ramen, where you'll order from the vending machine at its entrance, wait in a seemingly endless line for a booth to open, then slip your food and drink receipts under a half-rolled down bamboo curtain to the faceless chef on the other side. Sip from a bottle of their original oolong and dokudami blend tea ("for your health and beauty") while you wait in your private compartment. Solo diners never fear, Tokyo is practically designed for you.
Dust off your walking shoes and hit up one of Tokyo's beautiful parks for a dose of urban nature at Yoyogi and Shinjuku Gyoen. They're perfectly manicured and full of sweeping canopies and walkways to roam to your heart's content. Yoyogi borders on Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya, and you'll see a mix of businesspeople, families and tourists alike strolling past sake drums and streams. Within the park is the Meiji-ji Shrine, home to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. You can buy a wooden tablet to scrawl a wish onto and hang around the tree, otherwise just soak up the peaceful atmosphere.
Shinjuku Gyoen (Jessica Warriner/Gothamist)
Across town, Shinjuku Gyoen was originally the site of Lord Naito's private mansion. The feudal lord's grounds reopened post-WWII as a national garden. Shinjuku Gyoen is open to the public for a 200 yen donation (around $2 USD), and you can take a peek at the beautiful Japanese, English and French gardens maintained by the park, along with a two-story greenhouse. As you enjoy the greenery, you'll spy Shinjuku's skyscrapers just outside the park, rising above the expanses of grass—it's got a quieter Central Park kind of vibe.
Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world, and you feel it as soon as you set foot onto their streets. Bicycles lean against their owners' houses unchained, the roads and alleys are eerily litter free, and friendly locals are happy to help you out if you try your hand at speaking some Japanese. It's well worth delving into the back streets and seeing where you wander in a day (with a backup map). Japanese convenience stores are well-known for their seriously good quality snacks, so stocking up for the journey is a thoroughly enjoyable task. Explore rows of colorful houses near Yoyogi Park, grab a drink from one of the tiny bars in Golden Gai in East Shinjuku, and get to know the vibe of the city's neighborhoods (then lament how you will never be as cool as Tokyo's residents).
A Golden Gai alley (via Yelp)
At some point on your travels, it's inevitable you'll come across the infamous scramble crossing in Shibuya. Go at night for the best photos as the streets buzz with people and lights flicker down the lanes.
Haven't had your fill of cat cafes in NYC? Check out what's on offer in the city where it all started. The Calico Cat Cafe in Shinjuku is one of the most popular animal cafes in town, and once you climb their perilous back staircase, you'll be rewarded with furry friends galore.
Tech-heads should set their sights on Akihabara, the technology and anime hub of Tokyo. Should you seek a break from the frenetic pace, check out some more temples—Senso-ji in Asakusa is a beautiful Buddhist temple, and the oldest in the city (you'll face hordes of fellow tourists, but it's worth it). Foodies will love a trip to the famous Tsukiji fish markets just before dawn. And if you're there in the right season, a day trip to Mount Fuji, over on Honshu Island, is totally feasible—but check the forecast so you don't end up gazing out to haze and mist (it's best to head out there in the colder months).